Why Humans Need Islands
I’ve had islands on the brain for nearly three decades. At a workshop held in Boston in the wintertime, friends and I were told to play around with Legos during a design exercise, making up metaphors for what we constructed. What I pieced together looked like an island. With a pirate on it. And a palm tree. Is the metaphor so deep here? Many of us might wish to transport ourselves to an island at different points in our lives. I interpreted my island as something both comforting and challenging — a duality that encompasses feeling as if we exist separately on our own islands, and also needing islands for refuge and connection in meaningful community.
From entrepreneurship to education, many of us can feel like we are in lonely professions. Why does it feel this way? Surrounded by action and activity, we can still feel very much alone and cut off in our pursuit of something that might feel elusive or even impossible. What are our true measures for success? What values do we stand by? What stakes have been raised, and by whom? Do we ever feel as if we’re challenged to define our own sense of meaning, even and especially in midst of externally-defined demands and metrics that don’t necessarily ring as authentic? We might find our own islands of meditation and peace, in these cases, inviting the internal truth to emerge in the quiet of solitude. Nature, in all her brilliance and beauty, invites these moments, opportunities to deepen awareness that what we most need might be right here with us, waiting for its time to emerge.
From Brave New World to Moreau, the island is a theme that surfaces in all tropes of literature, from canonical classics to pulp and camp. One of the first books I loved, Island of the Blue Dolphins, featured a female castaway, a shipwreck survivor who makes her way in a new home. Later, The Invention of Morel also gripped me, for the beautiful words and their mystery, the symbolism of a story that combines romance, fantasy and surrealism in phantasmic proportion. Islands let us imagine that anything is possible. We already abandon expectations for whatever might be deemed “normalcy.” We allow islands to create their own magic. We also understand their boundaries and limitations — a pure device for creative constraint.
Brave New World
“He’s being sent to an island. That’s to say, he’s being sent to a place where he’ll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world.” — Brave New World
In this way, islands can be a mindfulness visual metaphor. They are a place for focus, relative isolation, expansive connections, and unbounded creativity. One has to imagine a similar routine, day after day, on an island, and yet, within that limited scope, there’s nuance, micro differences, and a certain freedom.
On certain islands, one might be fighting for survival, or hoping for rescue or escape (think of plot lines for innumerable serials and films), and, much like the old fan favorite Lost (forgiving that final season), the island can become a vehicle for characters confronting their own lives, backstories, psychologies. Ultimately, on the island, we face the self, over and over, and it’s our chance to both accept and embrace radical self-compassion and go beyond ourselves, too.
What do I mean by “go beyond ourselves”? Lose yourself to find yourself. On an island, you can lose yourself, over and over, in the practice of letting go and forming a deeper relationship. It’s an act of surrender. Luke goes to the island Ahch-To in the plot of Star Wars, on his own mission for re-centering and self-discovery. He goes in search of the first Jedi temple, and Rey comes to Ahch-To to find him and learn some Jedi truths of her own in the process. There is practice and discipline on the island. Their “training” in the arts of Jedi are not altogether different from a medley of practices associated with the ancient traditions of mindfulness. Even Yoda, appearing on the island, could very well be a stand-in for Thich Nhat Hanh on an island vacation from Plum Village (imagine it, can you?). The Last Jedi involves themes of frailty, failure, and acceptance of authentic truths: that everything is connected, and part of life is its impermanence, and its acknowledgment of suffering and loss. This is one of Luke’s ultimate lessons. While the island is a place of refuge, it also represents clarity. All the “knowledge” needed is beyond books; beyond physicality. Knowing is internal, ephemeral, timeless, passed down in ways that are deeper than books, which are translations of truth. Knowing truth, knowing self, becomes a form of love.
“It is possible to use our influence and power to create islands of sanity in the midst of a raging destructive sea.” — Meg Wheatley, Who Do We Choose to Be?
Is the “island” a figurative division, or rather a way to imagine centering, for better ability to reach a certain hidden wholeness, and to connect in a genuine way that feels as if it is pure, integrity-based, true-to us? We each know and seek that wholeness. Our islands of sanity are places that remind us of deep connection, and we can then bring that back to the larger world, with the integrity we gain from our island time, building resilience.
Island meditations incorporate mindfulness moments, this deepening of awareness that exists as we seek a truth resting in ourselves. Back to an even deeper loving relationship with the self we have always known, a self that waits for us, each day, to remember and dwell in that abiding love. A love that endures, for us and for those with whom we share life. After all, no human is an island, even if we need islands sometimes for peace, love, centering.
The poet Derek Walcott (also from an island, St. Lucia in the Caribbean) wrote a poem that is one of my favorites. It is called, most appropriately, Love After Love. It feels like an offering of island meditation, celebrating what will come, as we work to create islands of sanity for ourselves and for each other in community. Islands where we sit at tables, together, hold up mirrors for each other, and break bread.
LOVE AFTER LOVE
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
- Derek Walcott (1930–2017, St. Lucia)