Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #18 - The sustaining sea and the need to take even strokes in these very uneven times - A thought for the day

February 03, 2024 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 18
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #18 - The sustaining sea and the need to take even strokes in these very uneven times - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation


Today’s short thought for the day aims, like last week, to offer a practical way by which we may navigate the increasingly discombobulating and unever nature of the world in 2024, both at home and abroad.

I’m going to try to do this by answering the question of why come to a service of Mindful Meditation, Music and Conversation on a Sunday morning, or engage with the Thursday Kiitsu Kyōkai meetings, both of which, in slightly different ways, centre upon a time of meditation and a time of thoughtful conversation.

And my answer to this question is that they teach us to swim.

Let me try to explain what I mean with the help of an insight found in Henry Bugbee’s (1915-1999) extraordinary and unique book called “The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form” that was published in 1958. In it Bugbee suggests that the help available to all sentient beings is something akin to “the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations” (see pp. 121-123). And I hope that regular attenders of this service will immediately realise that this is the same “sustaining sea” to which I allude at a key moment in our morning mindful meditation.

So how does Bugbee, the philosopher, teacher, writer, angler, rower and erstwhile captain of a minesweeper during the brutal Pacific War, envisage this sustaining sea that carries us all alike? Well, let me unfold for you something of his train of thought.

Firstly, Bugbee notes that we humans are great insisters; we are creatures who feel that the only way to get things done, and properly to be getting on with life, is always to be insisting we “see to it!” Now, obviously, there are many things we must genuinely be “seeing to” in our daily lives, but the general, extremely choppy and increasingly stormy background to our daily lives means that our “seeing to” this or that all too often quickly turns “into anxiety and effort” as we try “to take charge” of things. As Bugbee says, this anxious and exhausting way of “seeing to it” — of creating the feeling that we are assuredly in charge — although it is sometimes “learned” and even “profitable,” it is not graceful, and it is precisely this graceless, and I would add exhausting, way of proceeding which serves to hide something very important from our view. 

The image Bugbee chooses to explore this state of affairs is that of a swimmer who is “flailing the water to keep from going down.” As he notes, the flailing swimmer, in their desperate attempt not to “go down like lead,” mistakes any kind of relaxation for inaction, and they find themselves thinking that if they are not to drown they must really “see to” the business of swimming. The result of this way of going on is, inevitably, a frantic and exhausting flailing of the water. 

However, sometimes, whilst we are flailing away, we have all experienced “times when waves overtake us from behind, lifting us up and along” and from these moments, Bugbee says “we may take courage and be thankful.” But our new-found courage and thankfulness can all too easily and quickly morph into the delusional thought that, somehow, “in the exhilaration of swift swimming” we can now “claim as our own the power of the wave.” This is what Bugbee calls “demonic swimming”, a state in which we suffer the illusion that we have “not fallen into flailing” but have, instead, “become the masters of our element” and are now fully in control.

Naturally, however, after the crest of the wave comes the trough, and so there inevitably also come those moments when we begin to drop and this movement throws us into depression and despair and leads us to think that there’s nothing that can be done, except either to go down like lead or to start our frantic flailing once again.  

This foregrounding of the crest and the trough, the elation and despair and the associated feeling that we are either in control and powerful, or not in control and powerless is, inevitably, unsustainably exhausting and cuts against any possibility of experiencing any steadiness and steadfastness in our going on.

Given this, Bugbee is concerned to point out that any genuine sense of steadiness and steadfastness is only available to those who can see beyond the immediate passing crests and toughs of the waves to the constancy of our being sustained by the sea itself, and it is this sense of the sustaining sea that he thinks guards “against the illusions of elation and depression.”

When we are able to recognise this and are able to identify that demonic swimming or simply giving up and going down like lead are illusions then, suddenly, there can emerge for us the possibility of taking “the even stroke informed by the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations.” At this point, Bugbee comfortingly observes that, “Now and then we swim a few even strokes and know where we are.”

Now my experience in talking to people who seek me out in my role as a minister, strongly suggests that Bugbee is right in saying that, many, many people have been wholly seduced by the claim made by our dominant, neoliberal culture that “the undulations” in our lives — i.e. crests and troughs, the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows — should only be taken “at face value” and “that when we are up our position is good, and when we are down, our position is bad.” But Bugbee’s work strongly encourages us to resist this exhausting and destructive world-view by helping us to become swimmers who have learnt to take even strokes and who can now see clearly “that our position is not necessarily good when we are up and not necessarily bad when we are down.”

Now my strong claim today is that together, conversation and meditation — whether of the mindful kind we practise on a Sunday morning, or Seiza, the quiet sitting kind we practise on a Thursday — that together are truly life-saving and life-enhancing disciplines that have been proven to help us relax and take a few even strokes and so avoid engaging in either demonic swimming or in going down like lead. They are vital practices that continually help us more properly and realistically to evaluate our life beyond the measures provided by any “face value” understandings of passing undulations, and so come to know our “true position” in the world as creatures “bound up with the sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be.”

So, friends, please continue to practice the disciplines of meditation and good conversation, for they are the even strokes that will help us all come to know and truly to trust in the reality of the sustaining sea.