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Being ocean 2: music, film, poetry

What is it like to merge with the ocean, to be ocean? What is it like to merge with infinity, eternity, the all-encompassing, the source of it all

Screenshot of the Living Thinking Ocean in Lem´s "Solaris"

Art has forever tried to formulate answers. Here I talk about three creations that I love most, in music, film and poetry. The artists are John Luther Adams, Andrej Tarkovski / Steven Soderbergh, and Pablo Neruda.

This is a continuation of a post about - in Thomas Nagel's philosophical formulation - "what is it like to be an ocean?". I felt inspired by a meditation retreat with Daniel P Brown of the Pointing Out the Great Way organisation, where the ocean and wave metaphor played an important role.

These are the three invitations for the ocean imagination:

  • John Luther Adam's 45 minute orchestral piece "Become Ocean"

  • Tarkovski's / Soderbergh's movie "Solaris" , based on a novel by Stanislav Lem, which features an apparently conscious ocean, covering an entire planet

The ocean in Buddhist Mahamudra tradition

The first part of the post reflects on the ocean metaphor in the context of contemplative neuroscience. It looked in particular at the Mahamudra teaching metaphor "Ocean and Waves".

To recapitulate,: meditation instruction for the student to shift into a particular "self-less" view or basis of operation has the following aim:

...the practitioner refines one’s awareness so as to operate from a perspective of awareness beyond time and spatialization wherein phenomena of consciousness are experienced as an undulating timeless, ocean-like awareness within which events come and go like waves arising and passing in an ocean. (Quote see first part of the post).

Being ocean in music: John Adams´ "Become Ocean"

John Luther Adams has composed a 45 minute long orchestral piece called "Become Ocean". It is, in a way, a contemporary version of Debussy´s " La Mer".

I do not know, whether John Luther Adams knew the Buddhist ocean metaphor for a particular level of awareness. However, it is quite possible that he knew it, since in his earlier work "Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing" Adams references several of the world's contemplative traditions.

The author of the quoted review quite rightly says that "this ineffable music speaks of voluntary surrender and purposeful immersion in a presence far larger than ourselves" . Ineffability is the alleged impossibility to express mystic states in words. I have described my own such experiences here.

The entire orchestral piece is best heard uninterrupted with good headphones, or on good hi-fi equipment that can adequately render the full orchestral spectrum and dynamic.

I group it in the class of music that may support psychedelic experiences. It is unsuited for casual listening, and listening, like meditation, is supported by letting go of conceptual thought.

Become Ocean Soundtrack:

And, in the meantine, John Luther Adams has written an accompanying 40 Minute orchestral piece called "Become Desert". And to complete the cycle, a piece called "Become River!".

(Suggestion: To my knowledge, there is no "Become mountain", but it might be interesting to adopt the perceptual position of a mountain, guided by sound. Ken Wilber has shortly tried this in "One Taste", his meditation diary).


Being an ocean in film: Stanislav Lem's / Tarkovski's "Solaris"

The music video below is a track of the second version of the movie "Solaris". Both the original Russian version by Tarkovsky and the remake with George Clooney are remarkeable : atmospherically, visuallly and acoustically. The remake of 2003 , starring George Clooney and Natasha Elhorn, increases the level of emotionality over the original Tarkovski movie.

Both movies are based on the novel "Solaris" by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006).

Both movies have excellent film scores. The movie of 2003 is a composition by Hans Zimmer. The track below accompanies the scene when the main protagonist approaches the ocean planet.

The movie is best seen on a large screen or home cinema.

Solaris Soundtrack (First Sleep), and entire soundtrack

The movie, interestingly, has as its core two central teaching metaphors of early mahamudra meditation instructions:

  • Ocean and wave

  • Dream and dreamer

Both metaphors illustrate non-duality, or "mind-only": in the sane way that waves (arising, staying and ceasing events) are non other than mind (what stays), dream content is nothing other than the dreamer itself.

Short version of content: The ocean-planet Solaris is able to read the unconscious of the astronauts who circle it in their spaceship.

At nightfall, the ocean becomes active, color-shifting waves arise and fall. When the astronauts sleep, they begin to dream, and their dream content materialises as apparently real persons from their past.

These creatures are still "alive" and interacting, when the astronauts awake, and they cling to their owner/creator during the waking state. Their appearance creates everything from horror and suicide to love, depending on the astronauts' memories and unconscious.

These beings, once brought into existence, acquire a life of their own. It is impossible for the astronauts to rid themselves of these beings by wishing them away or by killing them. When the astronauts fall asleep the next night, the ocean will recreate them as vividly as before. Furthermore, these beings kerp their memories of their previous lifecycle or incarnation on the ship. They remember, for example, their experience of having been killed.

Eventually, the main protagonist dives with a capsule into the ocean where he recovers earliest memories of childhood and love.

The novel and the movies, among other topics, touch the philosophical and psychological question: how adequately do we represent reality in our mind, our memories, and our unsconscious?

The movie takes a constructionist view, just like Buddhism which is a constructionist mind-model. While the appearances seem real, they are projections of our minds, embodied by the living ocean that merges with our minds.

Seen from another perspective, the ocean, like a psychedelic substance, acts like an unspecific amplifier for whatever each astronaut brings into the trip. As on a psychedelic trip, the experience can be anything from hell to bliss. The ocean reveals the deepest levels of shame, guilt, responsibility and love for all to see. The vast ocean is a teacher of awareness, as expressed in Pablo Neruda's poem The Sea.

The movies also touch on the Buddhist topic of suffering. Daniel P Brown has explained, that the correct suffering of the original Sanskrit term dukkha should not be suffering, but reactivity.

All of the astronauts clearly suffer through reactivity: either they want to avoid the appearances, or they dont´want to let go of them, or even both. Either way, they cannot watch them neutrally as their own projections.

What does this mean for the starting question "What it it like to be the ocean?" The answer is not straightforward. After all, the astronauts - while being ocean and waves - are still operating from a base of Self - their individual histories and stories around guilt and love.


Becoming ocean in poetry

Pablo Neruda, The Sea

The experiencer in this poem has a life-changing transformative experience at the moment when the author's point of view changes as he "becomes ocean".

This is very much like a progression in the levels of awareness in Buddhism. Sorrow and oblivion (suffering) disappear. Negative mind states cease to exist, as the Self loses its reactivity by becoming the vast existence itself, the container in which everything appears as the ocean's own waves.


(From Pablo Neruda, On the Blue Shore of Silence)

I need the sea because it teaches me, I don’t know if I learn music or awareness, if it’s a single wave or its vast existence, or only its harsh voice or its shining suggestion of fishes and ships. The fact is that until I fall asleep, in some magnetic way I move in the university of the waves.

It’s not simply the shells crunched as if some shivering planet were giving signs of its gradual death; no, I reconstruct the day out of a fragment, the stalactite from a sliver of salt, and the great god out of a spoonful.

What it taught me before, I keep. It’s air ceaseless wind, water and sand.

It seems a small thing for a young man, to have come here to live with his own fire; nevertheless, the pulse that rose and fell in its abyss, the cracking of the blue cold, the gradual wearing away of the star, the soft unfolding of the wave squandering snow with its foam, the quiet power out there, sure as a stone shrine in the depths, replaced my world in which were growing stubborn sorrow, gathering oblivion, and my life changed suddenly: as I became part of its pure movement.



John Luther Adams

"Become Ocean" (music)

"Become Desert"(music)

"Become River" (music)

Hans Zimmer

Musical Score to Solaris (2003) (music)

Eduard Artemisia

Musical Score to Solaris (1972)

Ken Wilber

"One Taste"


"Original Perfection" (book)

"Original Perfection" (audio), Read by Samaneri Jaiyasara on Youtube

On Tarkovski

On Solaris and Buddhism

On the use of color in Tarkovski's "Solaris"

But if our memories are not as vivid, then can we create “accurate” representations of the people we know? Solaris suggests, through its use of color, that we can’t. Instead, we create facsimiles, just as Solaris seems to create facsimiles.


"The Power of the Waves"


A thought on...

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