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  • Karl Thunemann

Lake upon Lake: Visited by Joy

These days I feel I owe it all to the Meditation of the Bubble. I no longer remember for sure, but it must have been the first approach I tried after I discovered Lawrence LeShan’s book, How to Meditate. What else could explain how my life changed so much?

Here’s how the bubble meditation works. You picture yourself sitting cross-legged at the bottom of a clear lake. As a thought presents itself, you picture it rising in a bubble. You watch your thoughts, without attachment. You observe, Oh, that’s what I’m thinking. The bubble rises for six, seven, eight seconds until it reaches the surface. The bubble bursts, you release that thought, and wait for the next. If a thought is entrenched, it may appear again and again. But if you let it go each time, it will have a successor.

Sometimes I picture my thoughts as scuba drivers – can more than one be in action at once?

This was so stunningly different from Transcendental Meditation, where, in effect, you suppress your thoughts by inundating them with your silently chanted mantra. Here, I had my thoughts, but the meditation was structured to send each along its way, structured to help me find out … to find out what?  To see how my brain could be so randomly prolific, persistent and downright peripheral in its perambulations.

In one dream I reacted so violently in hooking a tiny trout that I flung the fish over my head, causing it to disappear in a clump of willows.

At this point I was perfectly suited to sitting with the bubble, though at the beginning I could not see exactly how the bubble fit in. I pictured a lake, a real lake from my childhood. Rock Lake was—and remains, I hope—an extraordinarily clear tarn deep in the Northern Sierras. And I—even though terrified of water—virtually worshipped that lake and loved to visit. It was reward enough, after a challenging three-mile hike with my family, to sit on the shore and contemplate the great granite slabs that composed its bed. Though they lay far beneath a surface seemingly devoid of ripples, the clarity of the water made every crack, every jagged edge seem remarkably within reach.

My fear of water was visceral. As a teenager, preparing for a family wilderness hike that would begin by crossing a mountain lake in a small boat, I voided my bowels three times in the hour before we embarked. It didn’t occur to me to tell anyone. I had no idea of the origins of my fear, and so regarded it with profound shame.

I can’t recall step-by-step what happened—can’t say the Meditation of the Bubble caused the changes that began appearing in my life. Here in my mid-thirties, a host of visions began occurring. In my dreams I began having the experience of swimming. I also began to dream of catching fish. In one dream I reacted so violently in hooking a tiny trout that I flung the fish over my head, causing it to disappear in a clump of willows. (It’s often said that a fish in a dream evokes the soul: How like my dreaming collective to acknowledge the propinquity of the soul while issuing a sardonic comment on its diminutive state. Yes, you are making progress, the dream seemed to say, but it’s not as if you have been anointed.)

Sometimes I picture my soul as a fish out of water, striving to come ashore

And so for a time—was it a few months, as long as a year? —I regularly pictured myself immersed in Rock Lake, processing and disposing of thoughts. The meditation was marvelously restorative, even transporting.

The bubble also presented itself obliquely in my consultations with the I Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes. In those days I consulted the oracle several times a week, Not infrequently I was directed to Hexagram 58, rendered as “The Joyous, Lake” in the Wilhelm-Baynes translation of this venerable volume.

The reading seemed redemptive for one who could be so absorbed in sorrows seeming to lie beyond words. (Other translators come forth with “marsh” instead of “lake,” but why quibble?)

Now at that time—more than 30 years ago—I did not see all these emerging forces as a choreographed picture of life change. It’s only now, composing these memoirs, that I see this how these disparate events may have been interlaced.

Eventually, I undertook to learn how to swim. I took lessons. One summer my school-age children would join me several evenings a week to splash about in the municipal pool. We were all playing.  In particular, I was engaged in water confidence games.

I did learn to swim, well enough to log a mile in laps at the YMCA. But in time I injured my shoulder from over-use. Watching the elaborate regimen adopted by a friend who had suffered a similar injury, I decided to give up swimming.  But many benefits stuck with me. I was no longer terrified of the water or of boats (not a minor fear if you live in the Pacific Northwest). I had developed the capacity to maintain a meditative practice that I had established without a teacher’s direction. I regard all this with gratitude. Since those days, I have had many glimpses of my soul, even grappled with it, hand-to-hand. And still, a piece of my soul remains caught, far out of water. May I extricate my soul from the persistent grasp of those pesky willows.


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