There was a report not long back of a man who had dived into a rocky pool of choppy sea water to save what he saw as a struggling child. He was not an especially good swimmer, was not related to the child in any way and the crashing waves might have been dangerous. Yet he had entered that fierce water regardless.

When asked later by the press what motivated him to jump in, he simply said: “I didn’t think about it. I did it because it was necessary.” (Both the man and the child were themselves rescued by a nearby lifeboat.) 

My story is less dramatic than this. But it also involves a boat and some untamed seawater and the question of what moves some of us to take action while in the same situation others freeze.

It happened on a hot beach at the Gorge du Loup, a stretch of Mediterranean between Antibes and Nice where, as a 14-year-old English girl, timid in the ways of communication, I first came face to face with my passivity.

Not a soul in either direction

It was late in the season, so the beach that was anyway difficult to access, was completely empty. We had left the car well behind us and had approached via clumpy dunes, to find ourselves on a long vacant stretch of friendly pebbles of the flat skimming kind, a dip where the sea jiggled about in shallow whispering waves, and nothing between us and the horizon but a group of revellers in their boat.

Seeing we were the only other people on an empty stretch, they had aimed their inboard motor straight for us – perhaps under the impression that if we had chosen that spot, there must be something good about it. Somehow they moored into that lapping tide and offloaded their gear and unfurled their picnic bundle – complete with bottles of wine – almost beneath our noses. We resented that, being the types that sought beaches for solitude, my Franglais hostess, our other companions and myself. And we voiced it in pub-crawlers’ English.

Celebrating but unaware

They were oblivious. They ate and drank, they laughed and argued, they jumped up and gesticulated to
demonstrate a point and then sat back down again. They lost themselves in exuberant eating and animated conversation as only the French know how. All the while, as I watched them and the tide, their boat slowly drifted away.

The lone observer

Perhaps I was the only one to notice. My companions were, meantime, bronzing in Ambre Solaire, leafing through magazines or immersed in each other’s life stories. But I saw the empty boat, not ten yards away, slip its invisible moorings and with gentle flip-flop motions, rock off into the blue Mediterranean sea.

There I was, watching with fascination: the boat drifting away, the owners so full of their self-importance that they were unaware of what was happening, and the big sea as a backdrop. I watched and I said nothing – not to anyone.

Boat slowly drifting out to sea

A timid schoolgirl

The truth of the matter was, I was shy. I may not have liked these rowdy picnickers, but I would not have been against telling them they were losing their boat. Quite simply, I was too timid to let them know what was going on, especially as I’d have to do it in my halting French.

But there was another thing that kept me quiet. It seemed inconceivable that this modest motor boat, with its shimmering paint job and wee flag at one side, could go on drifting off, first barely a foot or so, then a little more, further and further, with none of them noticing – not one of them, for a moment, glancing at their vessel to check how it was doing. What I mean is, I thought they knew.

The liberated boat

In my naiveté, both about boats and about people, I somehow assumed this was the normal way the French from the Midi, sophisticated enough to bring their own outboard motors to their beachside outings, treated their sole form of transport home. I really thought that it was standard practice for a private boat, somewhat like a pet dog, to run around of its own free will while its owners finished their lunch. At any moment one of them would get up and call it in. Or nonchalantly dive in only to fish it back and anchor it again as if it were an errant child. These were the possibilities processed by my sluggish sense of disbelief as that boat inched its way through the head-high waves.

Until it was too late. The boat was heading for the middle distance, and at last something in me broke out at the top of my voice, my heart beating fiercely: “Votre bateau!”

Pandemonium

And suddenly the calm raising of heads and polite dismissive gestures I’d expected, exploded. All mayhem broke loose. Every one of them jumped up. The bottles and picnic scraps scattered. There was a screaming and hollering. One woman ran into the water only to run right back out again. One man bellowed orders to another and sprinted off in the direction of further wide-open, utterly empty beach, seemingly in search of help. Another, pulling his cap off his head and rapping it against his thigh as if Monty Python had been directing him, alternately slapped himself, scanned the horizon, and jumped up and down in a furious rage. Till at last, in total frustration, he turned to me red in the face and bawled as familiarly as if I were his wife:

Why the hell didn’t you tell us before? Idiot!”

Then he stripped down and dived into the water, swimming fiercely after his vessel, till he too disappeared in the tiny heads of waves that were cresting ever so gently in the sea’s distance.

How was he aware, I wondered, that I’d known all along? And why didn’t I tell?

More people, less help

Research has shown that a person who has an accident in a public place is more likely to get help from a stranger the fewer the amount of people around to witness it. It’s called the bystander effect. This counter-intuitive result shows that the human psyche is reluctant to get involved when it thinks someone else will do the job for it. If it is the only one around, then it is clear where responsibility lies.

This might partly account for my assumption that so many people who had embarked from a boat they had moored nearby would have priority in taking responsibility for it. My responsibility, as a casual observer, came second – not a very enlightened or cooperative viewpoint, of course.

What is choiceless awareness?

Even today, practising the art of sitting silently, doing nothing, I am still discovering the difference between fear of putting my neck out – rationalised in this case as disbelief at others’ helplessness – and what J. Krishnamurti has called choiceless awareness.  How often is cowardice confused with wisdom, I wonder? Or uncaring indifference with non-reactive witnessing?

A scream in the night

A few years ago, a male friend and I were walking late at night in the empty back streets of a city suburb
when a loud, fierce scream broke from the gloom and my friend sprinted towards it without a moment’s hesitation. He re-emerged some minutes later, streaming with sweat and glowing with delight, and even though it was a false alarm, the expression on his face made it all worthwhile. Unlike me on my beach, he responded immediately, spontaneously, without a thought for anything, just as the man who had tried to save the child had.

Male vs female?

Was this a man versus woman thing? Was his youthful energetic body an insurance against any kind of physical confrontation a female might have been taught to fear? Was my meek-and-mild manner a result of an inhibited girlhood trained not to interfere in others’ business?

People who have risked huge dangers to rescue others and consequently get hailed as heroes are often baffled by the accolade. “I just did what needed to be done,” they are reported to say. “I did what came naturally. I didn’t think about it.”

The spirit of Tao

On what some of us call the Path, the spiritual journey, which is right and which is wrong? Which action flows with the Tao and which moves against it? After all, knowing deep inside where one is at any given moment is the subtle knack of awareness and sensitivity that rules the no-rules game. There are no printed agendas or online codes of ethics here.

So what does Krishnamurti mean by choiceless awareness? – something that Osho calls witnessing. Where are we driven to immediate action and where are we laid back in frozen fear of action?

What is witnessing?

Had the 14-year-old girl been in a state of witnessing, of choiceless awareness, she would not have been afraid to make a fool of herself. Her ego would not have been attached to the image of the kind of a person she would appear to be if she blurted out loud, “Your boat is floating away!” only to discover that it was not worthy of alarm at all, as she was afraid it might not be.

To have told the French party as soon as she saw the boat drift would not have harmed anyone. She’d have been true to whatever was topmost in her mind, and the fool she’d have made of herself in self-exposure would have simply become wiser. In fact, if she had had an unhesitating response to the situation, along the lines of my friend responding to his dead-of-night scream, the fool wouldn’t even have materialized. That’s because the idea of there being a fool in the first place can only exist in the ruminations of a dithering mind – that is to say, in thoughts about the future that freeze the body into a solid state of fear.

Enjoying the view

Nevertheless…having said all that, I do like the idea of a time when I am so enchanted with all of life (as I sit on my flat-pebbled beach) that an unmoored boat is no more cause for alarm than…than an unmoored boat – a time when my mind knows neither dithering nor alarm nor rumination, but merely sits enjoying the view.

A version of this story was originally published in the Osho Times International

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