I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time near the ocean lately, in a small Balinese village which, like many seaside settlements around the world, relies on fishing to survive.
At 4AM every day, we were woken up by the sounds of boats scraping against rocks as they were lowered into the sea. By the time breakfast time rolled around, the sun was high and hot and the morning catch was already coming in. For a solid 30 minutes, a constant procession of boats passed by, returning to shore. How funny it would be if this were your rush hour commute!
Many of the staff where we stayed had relatives out on the water. They awaited patiently to see the size of the day’s catch, and taught us how to spot the lucky boats: if we couldn’t see the nets, that meant they were inside the boat, full of fish.
As I watched the daily maritime parade, I thought about how many fishing metaphors are incorporated into everyday English: that sounds fishy, a big fish in a small pond, a fish out of water, fishing for compliments, casting a wide net, many fish in the sea, reeled in the sale, etc. These are fairly mundane usages of fishing imagery, but if we dive beneath the surface, fishing can reveal much universal, practical wisdom.
Every morning, fisherfolk leave the safety of the shore, not knowing if they will return with anything. I feel something similar any time before I set out on voyage, start developing an idea for writing, or arrive at a meditation retreat. There’s always a part of me who would rather stick with familiar surroundings and routine, but I know that in order to taste the amazing sustenance found in dark, mysterious waters, I have to set aside my reservations and go out there.
Finding the abundance lurking in the depths, however, is not a simple question of will. In fishing as in life, you have to be skilled, dedicated, and (at times) just plain lucky to profit from the waters.
Every fisherman knows that he is, to a large extent, at the mercy of the elements. Tides, currents, and weather all factor into whether an outing will be successful or not. A skilled fisherman knows how to work with the conditions, when sometimes it’s necessary to go out and hunt the fish and when it’s better to sit back and let the fish come to you. Like sleep, fishing seems to be about finding the right combination between activity and passivity.
But if you are attached to achieving certain results- if you must have a certain fish right now- you may get discouraged after one or two unsuccessful attempts. To be out there on the day a big catch is waiting, you have to be both patient and persistent.
Similarly, it seems that many, if not most, successful artists, politicians, and innovators have had periods of difficulty and struggle before they broke through. I’m fascinated with the background stories of what happened before people achieve mastery and fame. These stories show how, like fisherman finding the perfect spot, you often have to work very hard to be in the right place at the right time.
Tim Ward wrote, “A published writer is an unpublished writer who didn’t give up.” Could we not also say that a successful fisherman (or artist, or politician, or businessman) is an unsuccessful fisherman who didn’t give up? The Beatles spent years playing in smoky Hamburg nightclubs; imagine what the world of music would be like had they called it quits when it seemed like things weren’t going anywhere. Steve Jobs was fired from the company he built (Apple); imagine what the world of computers would be like if he would have resigned himself to failure.
Anyone who feels deeply called to achieve a dream can’t be attached to a timetable or specific results. As Krishna instructs in the Bhagavad Gita, you just have to go out there, keep trying, and accept that whatever is in your boat is what you’re meant to catch today.
No discussion of fishing as metaphor would be complete without remaking on the fact that Jesus used many fishing-related metaphors. In terms of metaphors, fishing is second only to shepherding in the Christian scriptures. The reason Jesus did this is, of course, because most people in Galilee were fishermen (or shepherds) and he had to use images they could relate to.
In the gospels, there are two instances of a “miraculous catch of fish,” one of which is the last resurrection appearance. There, after his disciples return empty handed from a nighttime expedition, Jesus tells them to try one more cast of the net, and they end up with 153 fish (in the other story, they wind up with so many fish the boat nearly sinks).
A few years back, I was in Israel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee discussing this story with my father. I interpreted it to mean that the abundance was there all along, but that the disciples needed to open their eyes to it.
There are plenty of fish/opportunities/lovers all around us all the time, but we can’t access them if we believe (however justifiably) they’re not there.
Seeing the world with openness is not always easy. It requires diligent inner work to stop looking through eyes of scarcity and fear- to stop thinking that there can’t possibly be any fish because we’ve already tried fishing there. Fortunately, we can follow the lead of other people who have gone out there and returned to tell us that yes, there’s fish out here if you’re patient and open enough! Follow your bliss, recognize and overcome the demons of fear, greed, and jealousy, never give up, and you will be nourished beyond belief!
Fishermen know they can’t choose what types of fish will bite, or whether they will be blown off course. When it seems like the boat is being diverted, it actually leads to something far better than what we’d expected. But we can only find this abundance if we are alert, flexible, unafraid, and cultivate the trust to let our boat be guided where it needs to go.