Meditating with Manta Rays

When my meditation group decided to meditate and swim with dolphins off the coast of the Big Island, Hawaii, I immediately signed up. What could be more exhilarating and divine?

On a warm spring day, amid sparkling blue and turquoise waters, we putted away on a small boat and, within several miles, located an amenable crowd of dolphins, leaping and spinning in the air. Astonishing. As we meditated onboard before we slipped into the water to join them, I felt shivers of excitement.

But once in the sea, my enthusiasm turned into unease. Our group leader had told us the dolphins, with their superior echo-location and kindness toward benign humans, weren’t likely to accidently hit or harm us. Regardless, no one had told me how fast these mammals traveled. To get enough velocity to leap and spin in the air, they dove very deep and lurched upwards at tremendous speeds – very close to me. This one on the left, then one on the right, in front and behind, sped by me.

All around, meditators shrieked with delight. I cringed. I could see exhuberance in all the swimmers, both human and water-born. But I have always hated being startled. Other people’s love of an adrenaline rush was a dismaying overload to my nervous system. The dolphins stirred up too much stimulation. Needing quiet and respite, I swam away.

After fifty yards or so, I turned on my back and relaxed. With blessed peace, my synapses began to repair themselves as I drifted in the current. Soon, I became aware of small waves of water wafting over me. I turned on my stomach, surprised to see three giant manta rays next to me, barely disturbing the water. Their “wings” softly pulsed; dark grey on top, white below, monochrome bliss.

I floated with them, breathing in rhythm with their movements, two breaths for every completion of one slow “arm” movement. Here was an animal that moved at my speed, drifting. Perfect for meditation. Focusing on my breath and their soft actions, I felt a kinship with them, deeply appreciating their quietude.

After twenty minutes or so, I realized I should check with the group who might have wondered where I had gone. I swam back toward the frolicking folks and the leader spotted me and waved. “Hey,” she called, “did you know those manta rays are following you? That is so cool! Good thing these guys don’t have stingers on their tails.”

I looked around. Sure enough, my three buddies stayed near me. “Wow!” I said, thrilled that they wanted to be with me enough to follow me. Compared to the other meditators, I was a failure with dolphins, but could make up for it by finding manta ray companions, a trivial thought at the time. But I hadn’t meditated myself into sainthood where I no longer cared what the group thought of me.

“They are an amazing present to you. Very rare. Go hang with them,” the leader said to me. “We’ll be out here another hour or so.”

Joyfully, I turned to my peaceful friends and we glided in the other direction, toward calmer waters. I continued my synchronized communion, my breath to their waving wings, about twenty feet wide. The Hawaiians called the manta ray, hahalua, meaning “two breaths.” Perhaps I was right to tune my two breaths to each complete slow flapping motion, to become in sync with them.

I later read these huge creatures can weigh up to three thousand pounds, truck-sized. But, at the time, we seemed like close comrades, not one of us trying to dominate the other by size or intellect. And they might have been smarter than me. Their brain was the largest of any fish, attuned to play, problem-solving and communication. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine I experienced true sharing beyond words with them: being safe together, enjoying calm and simple pleasures of water, sun and life rhythms.

After the agitated dolphin vigor, the manta rays were a huge gift, giving me their incredible beauty and sacred time in communion.