The documentary “My Octopus Teacher” shows that living close to nature helps us to develop antiracist behaviour

Sanne Breimer
5 min readApr 2, 2021

“She just ignited my curiosity in a way that I had not experienced before” — Craig Foster

Before I press the play button to watch the documentary “My Octopus Teacher’’ I read that filmmaker Craig Foster just recovered from burnout when he decided to go into the ocean every day for a year. At the beginning of the documentary, he tells about “The Great Dance: A Hunter’s Story” he’d filmed years earlier with his brother where they followed the lives of trackers in the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. The men had fully merged with nature and wildlife and it created an urge by Foster to do the same.

He grew up next to the ocean but he had lost touch with nature later in his life. It reminds me of the stories I hear from people who’ve experienced burnout before. As a journalist and coach I’ve guided and spoken to colleagues in the media industry, startup founders and burnout researchers and what I’ve learned from all their stories is the miscommunication between mind and body that often leads to the total standstill of one’s life. When we’re not in touch with our bodies, we neglect the signals it sends us way before the brain shuts down totally. People who experience burnout often can’t move anymore from one day to the other, can’t get out of bed, or off the couch, their level of energy is close to zero. The result can be that you need to reinvent yourself completely and build a new relationship between your mind and body.

Nature teaches us to observe and be patient

By bringing his body into the ocean every day, Craig Foster’s enthusiasm for filming grows back after his two years of burnout recovery. He builds a relationship with wildlife, with an octopus in this case who he meets daily on the exact same spot on the bottom of the ocean. The octopus is fearful in the beginning but gets touchy with him later on and the bond with her brings him to tears. It’s beautiful to witness that we as human beings can be that close to an animal. Especially to an octopus who is much more out of reach than a cat or a dog. It’s an unusual friendship but Foster filmed it so beautifully that you never doubt the realness of it all.

Nature teaches Foster to observe, to be patient, to develop tenderness and softness and the octopus, in particular, gives him the message to care for others. All important values in our lives and sometimes the ones we forget when we’re busy occupying our minds with other stuff.

The diversity of the underwater world is healing

“My Octopus Teacher” not only shows an incredible contact between a human being and a wild sea animal, but it also shows the amazing diversity in underwater life. Spectacular coloured fish and plants, some even regularly changing their skin colour and outside looks. Even though it’s sad to witness the sharks hunting the octopus, the situation never feels at war with the law of nature. The ocean flows undisturbed, moving the forest at the bottom and letting the animals hunt or play with each other, like paradise.

It is healing for us human beings to experience nature like that. Our societies are built upon rules of law where human rights are at the centre. Animal rights and taking care of nature has gotten more and more attention in recent decades, but it’s fair to say that in some aspects of our lives we’ve grown too far apart from a natural way of living. We’re getting more and more used to controlling everything which means we’re going more and more against nature. I’m not saying we should go back in time and live like hunters and gatherers, we just need to be careful to not lose our connection with things that evolve naturally. Burnouts and depressions are often a result of a feeling of resistance.

We get disconnected from nature

Being in Bali, in the countryside, close to nature, makes me realize that specifically. It feels unnatural to spend a lot of time on digital devices and once you start to connect to nature more often — by taking walks or enjoying the sounds of nature — it attracts you more often.

I’ve noticed through my spiritual practice of Vipassana meditation — where observing body sensations is the core of the method — and staying close to nature where I live now, my life has become slower, more intentional and softer. In Europe where I grew up, we’re so used to using our heads, we love to philosophize, rationalize, analyze. It’s wonderful to have the best education accessible to us. At the same time, the feeling and experience part of our lives is undervalued. I know enough people who grew up in the countryside like myself who had their fair bit of experience in nature, but like with filmmaker Craig, later in our lives we often get disconnected.

Nature teaches us to do good in the world

Now is the time to get that connection back. Because the law of nature doesn’t just apply to nature, it applies to human life as well. Our breathing is an example of that, we can influence it but we can’t really change it. By observing our breath like we’re observing ocean life the connection between our body and mind gets restored.

Once you start getting more in tune with the logic of nature, a lot of things that we worry about in daily life become completely irrational or obtuse. Like racism, a construct invented a few ages ago which doesn’t make sense at all when you notice the inclusive ocean life below the surface of the water. Besides that, the lessons Craig Foster gained by the friendship with his octopus are valuable lessons in antiracism as well:

  • Learn how to listen carefully without your own judgement
  • Observe instead of reacting
  • Don’t make it about you
  • Look at what we have in common, instead of what separates us from each other
  • Be curious in the other

As long as we live in our societies and not seclude ourselves from earthly things, we should do everything in our power to create equality and dismiss constructs that aren’t based on the law of nature. That’s a tough job if we’re unplugged ourselves. So go out of your home today, even if it’s for a few rounds in your garden, the park next door or a few moments of staring at the plants on your balcony. Connect with nature. Feel the logic of what it teaches us, the softness, the care for others. It will inspire you to do good in this world and fight for the right causes. Like Craig Foster who after finishing the movie founded the Sea Change Project where a group of scientists, storytellers, journalists and filmmakers work together to help people to engage meaningfully with nature and protect the oceans.

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Sanne Breimer

Exploring the solutions to the lack of inclusion in journalism, focusing on decolonising journalism and discussing whiteness, Eurocentrism and objectivity.