I’m a little behind the curve, but the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher (2020) is really, really good.
The camerawork is mind-blowing, the music poignant. The story — a man documenting the shockingly short life of an octopus — is beautifully sad in a crying but smiling kind of way.
What really stuck with me was how the whole thing was shot in a 200-square-meter area of the Atlantic Ocean — about the size of the average U.S. home.
The filmmaker returns to the same spot every day, mapping every rock and stalk of kelp. This allows him to track the octopus and gain her trust.
Eventually, the octopus feels safe enough to allow him to film her going about her little octopus days.
I’ve been wondering: What’s my version of that 200-square-meter area?
It’s my morning meditation practice.
Most days, I wake up feeling the same: grumpy and somehow still tired after sleeping 8+ hours. My mind shouts: Get up, get moving, do something, anything.
It’s taken years of practice (and a mix of accountability and self-compassion when I want to skip a morning), but now I channel that anxiety into stretching my body and then meditating.
No more waking up and jumping on the emotional treadmill of email and social media. No more downing coffee to try to outrun the tension and push through what’s on my calendar for the day.
I sit in the same chair, set the Insight Timer app on my phone for 30 minutes, and close my eyes.
Boom! I’m swimming in an ocean of thoughts and feelings.
I could’ve cooked that curry chicken better last night…
I wonder what that actress looks like naked…
I’m soooooo not looking forward to that therapy client I’m seeing later…
I need to call my sister more often…
After a few minutes, I start to notice parts of myself that are familiar.
There’s the one that thinks I need to work harder because if I don’t, I’ll go broke. If capitalism could talk, that would be its voice.
There’s the one that thinks my flabby stomach is why I’m lonely sometimes, as if no one likes me because I don’t have a perfect body.
There’s the one that dreads meetings, phone calls, or any social engagement on my calendar. It just wants me to sit around all day reading and watching TV.
There are so many…
Because I’ve spent hours just hanging out with these parts of myself during meditations, like the man with the octopus, I’ve learned a ton about them.
Technically speaking, meditation allows our nervous system to become regulated.
During meditation, the winding nerve that runs down from our brain and throughout our body — called the vagus nerve — triggers relaxation. It tells our brain to stop releasing stress hormones. It shifts our body into being calmer, more compassionate, and more present.
…just like the octopus felt when she warmed up to the strange creature following her around with the camera.
See, these parts of us take over our mind when our nervous system is dysregulated. When our vagus nerve is activated into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode — as though we’re being chased through a forest by a predator 3,000 years ago.
These parts make us think things that aren’t necessarily true but feel real.
I’m not going to actually go broke if I take a day off of work to rest. But part of me thinks every day (every second) is do or die.
It’s only when we slow down, block out distractions, and get curious about our inner life can our nervous system calm down enough for our mind to calm down too.
What’s your version of that 200-square-meter area?
This post was previously published on Jeremy Mohler’s blog.
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