During his time in the US Navy, my brother Brian became adept at complex navigation and “rules of the road”— how large ships and tankers keep from running into each other at sea. When he retired, he went on to have a part-time career that included being an instructor in a ship navigation simulator. Once when I was visiting him in Norfolk, Virginia, he took me for a spin in the simulator. Imagine the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, except that it’s more like the actual bridge of a very large ship. Where the wrap-around windows would be are television screens, and when you punch into the simulator’s computer one of hundreds of ports, it’s as if you are looking out from the bridge to that port.
Brian punched in my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at his direction—he called out the commands…LEFT 20 DEGREES RUDDER…STEADY AS SHE GOES… and I repeated them out loud—I steered this very large ship through the Halifax harbor and brought it alongside the dock at the bottom of the street I live on. As we pitched on the waves, I could actually feel it in my stomach. Very cool. Though my brother and I were the only ones on “the bridge” that afternoon, a real bridge could be crowded. So, what I remember most is what he said when I asked him if people chat while they’re on the bridge.
“Good question,” he said. “Yes, some people do, but a feature that many officers greatly admire is what we call a quiet bridge.” He explained that a quiet bridge establishes an atmosphere of attentive calm that allows people to keep their eye on what they need to do more effectively. After all, the stakes are high. You do not want to run aground.
My brother has since passed away, but a quiet bridge is a legacy he has left with me. For me, it has become a metaphor both for a particular quality of mind and for a contemplative atmosphere that can be fostered. In mindfulness meditation, we hone our capability to navigate life, to move through its ups and downs—including many inevitable turbulent waves—by discovering an inherent steadiness and stillness that underlies the chatter, chaos, and confusion on the surface of our lives. We can share that with others through our presence.
When times are tough and anxiety wants to command all of our attention and invite us to chatter incessantly inside and out, we can return to simple attention to our body and breath, letting the extraneous commentary drift away. In the quiet bridge of our mind, we make our way forward. Steady as she goes.
Being grounded in our bodies and surroundings undercuts the storytelling that transports us in time and space.
I was once again reminded of this principle when I had the good fortune to travel to Oxford University recently. Oxford is home to one of the finest mindfulness centers in the world, and I was able to have powerful discussions with several of the people there. Interestingly, our conversations focused in part on the rapidly growing competition for our attentional resources, and how our ability to tangibly touch in with our world, both inner and outer— our interoception, proprioception, and situational awareness—are at the heart of genuine mindfulness. Being grounded in our bodies and surroundings undercuts the storytelling that transports us in time and space.
While I was at Oxford, I managed to obtain a reader’s card for the magnificent Bodleian Libraries, reading and writing in the spacious sanctuary that is the Upper Reading Room. “Silence please” signs appear throughout the Bodleian. And yet, no one needs to run around enforcing it. In that temple of quiet, filled with over a hundred people deeply absorbed in study, over the course of four hours, I heard not one word spoken. If your eyes met someone else’s, they merely nodded or smiled. In our noise-ridden age, we need as many oases of silence, as many quiet bridges, as we can find.
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