I readily admit that I don’t take as many vacations as I should these days. I can count the number of days off I took last year on my two hands. Like many of us, I find it difficult to leave my work: what will the place do without me, after all, and how will it possibly survive? Taking a little time away now and then is crucial for me and my family, and the older I get, the more so it becomes. We love to travel, but more critically, there is something vitally important about getting gone for a while: I need a good dose of new perspective from time to time, a reminder of the reality that exists beyond the walls of my clinic. So my wife and I decided to bite the bullet and book a trip to one of our favorite relaxation sites, Hawaii. Our whole family needed a break, we reasoned, from hard work and this dreary Seattle weather, so off we went last week to Waikiki. During Hawaii’s rainy season, of course.
One of my favorite spots on Oahu is the acclaimed Hanauma Bay, not far from Waikiki and Diamond Head on the southeast corner of the island. A remnant of an ancient volcano, its crescent-shaped crater is fed sea water continuously from its distal outlet, but what makes the bay truly remarkable are the huge, bountiful, finger-like shallow coral reef complexes and the multitudes of colorful sea life that take up residence there, meandering and darting through the coral structures in a beautiful, primal dance. I’ve been to the bay several times in my younger years, and now taking my children to float above its reefs allowed me to relive that initial thrill of becoming one with thousands of bright butterfly fish, mammoth parrotfish, majestic honu (green sea turtles), delicate silver goatfish (traveling in huge schools), various surgeonfish, and countless other marine species. Unfortunately the place is not a secret, and even in the off-season the shore sands of Hanauma Bay fill with legions of international tourists because the snorkeling is so great, but if you go early enough in the morning the beach is quiet and desolate, and for a few precious hours you and your family feel like you are the very last people on earth.
Our first swim out was memorable for more than just the fish. The tide was high and the current unusually strong. It was difficult to progress despite my long fins and my experience in open-water diving; I could feel my muscles tensing as I strained to lead the boys to deeper water. Then I remembered what I constantly have to remind myself of each time I slip into the ocean: the water is bigger than me, and it’ll do what it’s going to do, whether I’m in it or not; better to accept it for what it is and go with its flow than to fight it and waste energy. My boys were experiencing the same and worse, splashing and fighting the water’s choppy shoreward push. So I made us stop and stand for a few minutes, waiting for the occasional brief calm in the water for our opportunity to go out further. In this way we eventually found ourselves swimming with thousands of fish in deeper water.
I encouraged my boys to observe the fish’s movements in relationship to the waves. We floated quietly at the surface, observing the creatures below us. The fish, of course, were just as subject to the slow rhythms of tidal surges as we were. We discerned a pattern as we watched. As the tide approached, they appeared to relax their bodies and become more bendable, like colorful oval pieces of soft rubber. A second later, an invisible plume of water sent them tumbling, rapidly but gracefully, sometimes in unison, sometimes in all different directions and angles, but never onto or against the abrasive surface of the coral. Then, the next moment, we felt ourselves pushed forcefully by that same invisible force. Our reactive inclination was to resist, to push back to stay in place. But the fish teeming beneath us taught us something. All that struggle against our surroundings, it was utterly futile. So we stopped struggling and forced ourselves to relax like the fish. Flowing along wherever the tide led us, we quickly found ourselves covering more ground, encountering more fish, and enjoying ourselves more, without consuming all our energy fighting the current.
You’re asking, what does this all have to do with sleep? Well, it often is wasted energy fighting what is natural, what is inevitable, what is bigger than you. This is an important recurring theme in my management of insomnia (as well as my blog entries), to reverse that conditioned inclination to resist, to fight, to try hard to achieve sleep, when sleep is a natural, required biological function that need not be pushed into being. Seeking ways of allowing it to come upon you naturally generally works better than trying to force it into you.
On a broader level, though, the perpetual lesson for me is that I am constantly surrounded by forces I’m unable to control. The changes that are happening in health care, for example–administratively, financially, and otherwise–and the even crazier changes yet to come, I am powerless to alter or prevent them. So again, to me vacations are great for gaining and regaining perspective. Better to relax and keep yourself limber and flexible in preparation for the inevitable next push of the tide; you may not end up in the place you originally intended, but you’re less likely to get hurt and you might even enjoy the ride.
Hmm . . . perhaps I need to start planning my next vacation soon. I could use all the perspective I can get.
I’m back on the mainland now, so there will be more writing to come shortly. To my readers, mahalo!