Yes the River Knows
“... the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future.”
- Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
As the ebb and flow of growth and decay goes, I spent these last couple weeks collapsing in on myself. I had plunged head first into a strong current, and the force overcame me. It wasn't until today, high and dry and back in my element, that I remembered the picture my teacher often painted for us while guiding us through our daily qigong practice in the Crestone Healing Arts Center dojo.
The picture was one of a river. Maybe the same one Hermann Hesse talked about; ancient, yet constantly bounding anew. Carrying with it identities, memories, emotions, habits, beauties, beasts, different energies, and urges. He taught that if we (our egos) stepped back from the river, we could watch it pass by from a place of equanimity. Within all the movement, we could find a stillness in the unity of all the river's currents. But, if we allowed ourselves to get caught in the river, we were no longer autonomous. We were to begin to practice this with a literal river. We mimicked meditation practices I had practiced years before that went through similar motions the river of countless thoughts crashing through my mind in a day. In that practice, I was to imagine that each thought was a wave, coming forth from the ocean of my mind, naturally taking its course, and receding. In our qigong practice, we would focus on a stone at the bottom of a stream, as the water's currents coursed and moved around it. The river was like a siren for our attention, the rock was the mast we tied ourselves to so we would not go overboard to follow its singing.
These practices gave me many things, but most clearly they impressed upon me that our thoughts are all good and well, regardless of shape, size, or content, but as soon as we identify with one, we've been caught. Attached to a thought, we give it control. It moves us, instead of moving through us. The point is not that our thoughts are bad. They are not something that we can suppress. It is our relationship to them that gives them either a constructive, or destructive effect.
But, back to stepping back from the omnipotent River:
My question was, and still is: how does one step back from the stream of experience when it is all around us, and more confusingly, within us? Are we not our thoughts? Are we not our actions? It's tempting to feel that way, when we are animated by the forces of nature that send a roaring current down a mountainside, uncoil our DNA, and incite cascading physiological reactions within us. It is tempting to feel that way when I want control over my body, and others want to preserve the potential of a fetus. It is tempting to feel that way when I want to preserve the environment, but also want to eat and live a certain way and others' livelihood is contingent on efficient production of corn or canola oil.
I can't be sure, but, I think that an actual river has much to teach us in this respect. You can watch it pass by, each drop reflecting light into your eyes, gurgling into your ears. Of course we are not impenetrable, but watch one point at the bottom of the river, stay in touch with the breath, and you will experience the flow of the river while staying right where you are, in your center. This is an ancient practice: Water qi gong. Amongst other things, it has been used for centuries to teach students how to watch their thoughts like one watches a river.
When I practiced it daily, water qigong guided me to think that we are not our thoughts. Neither are we our actions. Both phenomenon are no longer within our control once they have come up and been expressed or repressed and left to persist somewhere in our bodies. We do have control, though, over our relationship to these thoughts and moments. Like any cycle in nature, there is a point in which it can be affected by outside forces, redirected, softened, or empowered. It seems to me like the relationship we cultivate to our experience may be the point of the cycle to give our energy to if we wish to change the flow of energy we exert in the world.
This theme came up with my somatic therapist as well. In times like these last couple weeks, I would feel like I was pushed by the flow of my life. Anxiety would well up in my chest because I could feel that though I was being pushed by life's flow, I wasn't actually IN flow myself, but taken by it, and taken from my center where my power comes from. There was a certain amount of removal from the continuous present moment.
She reflected what I already knew in my bones: that I could "just be". By that, she meant surrendering to the entire thing (my life, a day, a moment, etc…) at once. Another teacher had explained it as embodying the present. In doing so, I realizing that my body at any moment in time is the point at which all things that affected me in the past and were affecting me in the present, meet to produce everything that we would put forth from that moment on (inspired by Jihan McDonald's Allies for Life Workshop).
Ideally, I would use these philosophies to remain in my center, or my body, and not be led away from myself by the dynamism of experience that moves without and within me. Rather, I would find stillness in it. The simple state of just being would give me agency over how I moved in relation to my experience. I would act, instead of reacting. Like the river, I would not be swept away with a current. Rather, I would remain, as it moved through, and passed, and that experience, or moment, urge, craving, bliss, bitterness, or whatever, would be gone. Though myself, and the river, are constantly changing, the bodies themselves remain until nature takes its natural course. In time, both a river and myself may wane from existence as others spring forth.
“For some people, being a Zen monk is the perfect expression. For others, drinking beer and calling meditation hogwash is the perfect expression. Some teachers will tell you to sweep the floor mindfully, and others will tell you that your mindful sweeping is only a dream. Life is wonderfully playful and diverse.”
-- Joan Tollifson, Nothing to Grasp
Like many academic, philosophical, religious and lay thinkers before me, I've accepted the way described by the river as true to me. Like those other thinkers, that doesn't mean that I always, or even often, live it.
In this most recent epoch of my life, I was living far away from from it, in fact. I couldn't really step back to write a blog about it while I was in it, but I did not want to avoid it either and let the potential learning from my experience sit stagnant and become stale within me. So I began let it go through in a format less structured than a typical blog so I could begin to observe it outside of me. In times like this, creativity has served as a sort of lifeline to pull me back into my center where I have the best perspective on what I am feeling.
Here's how it went:
The river runs me
Feeds me, builds me
The river ruins me
I run the river that ruins me
Old seeds it sews in me
Freed by sheer strength of fluidity
Life comes on too strong
My body must senesce
a long deep breath of rest
a subterranean surrender
release the forms I've spent so much energy to render
it would have always been for the better
at peace for a moment
a piece of everything
in the ocean seething
trickling from ice
condensing on iron
coursing through my blood and spilling into my core
that heats and beats and carries my feet
The river runs me
rebuilds this pulsing body
crashing between the sky and stone
ground to sand
pressed together again
the flow of life like hands
I run the river
I am in and of the river
& the river runs me
teaches my body to surrender
As my armor melts
this becomes strength to me.
In this case, my writing was not an end, but a means to understand my own perspective. To avoid persistence, I am trying not to resist the movements within me that what to be expressed. I hope, that if anything, my expression will help you reflect on your own. This poem is also an example of flow. For me, flow comes through the empty spaces between the structure I build in my life.
I've found that to access flow for myself, it helps to build a strong structure to move within. This is true for housing, rules of photography, music. All sorts of forms of creation have rules that they are created within so something unpredictable can unfold within them. I don't think that in life, there are certain rules, but that their are categorical imperatives (a term coined by the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant). If I want to show up for my loved ones in a certain way, keep commitments, and provide for my lifestyle, while still leaving room for complete presence and creativity, I need to create a certain amount of structure to ensure I can consistently do all of the above. The structure can be broken, reformed, or skirted when life calls for it. It is meant to be more of a guiding force, than a set of constraints. This structure ideally keeps me healthy, helps me get what I want to done to reach my goals, and clears my mind along with a bit of my schedule so that I am willing and able to roll with life.
So, as an offering, I am sharing 8 practices I am currently to habituating, that help me build the structure in my schedule, mind, and body that set me up for flow. I think of my practices as creating a solid structure to catch and release my experiences in a way that is best for myself and those around me. In that way, I do these practices to build and maintain a sort of vessel. If you decide to think about the structure you build, I encourage you to think about your individual wants and needs first. These are the foundations from which the imperatives are defined that you build your structure around. Everyone's imperatives are different, so don't depend on anyone else (especially not me), to tell you what you do or don't need to do on any given day.
The rule with my consistent practices, is they have to be simple, easy enough to integrate into my day-to-day, and by doing them, I must feel liberated, rather than constricted or pressured. For me, that also means that the practice has to be relatively self-contained so I can do it anywhere I may end up on a given day. If a practice I'm trying to do every day breaks these rules, there's no way it's sustainable. There are certain practices that are meant to only be practiced periodically, no need to fool ourselves and try to do them every day (ex. fasting, deep cleansing, any sort of deprivation or excess, etc…). A practice doesn't even have to be a thing on it's own, it can be as simple as bringing your awareness to something you already do. Think breath, posture, speech, any form of expression, walking…
The next secret, is that it is good to make a habit out of anything you want to do every day. This way, you don't waste energy deciding when, how, and why to do it every day. You just do. Charles Duhigg wrote a whole book on this called The Power of Habit. The gist is habits have a cyclical nature. There is a cue, which triggers you to do a routine, which is followed by a reward. The easiest way to hack the habit cycle is to tie something you want to do with a cue that predictably happens every day (or close to it).
All that being said, I definitely take structure vacations as well, and let it all melt every once and a while. This keeps me fresh and reminds me why I should keep doing some things or lose others.
Today, I will just skim over the eight main practices I am currently habituating. In future blogs, I will dive deeper into what I've come to understand from my own and others' experiences about the significance of each one.
OFFERING: 8 Daily Practices to Create Structure for Flow
Breathing is possibly the most potent and ubiquitous way to consciously engage with the cycle of giving and taking with our environment. It stokes our metabolic fire, tonifies the endocrine system, regulates emotions, nourishes and detoxifies the tissues, and much more, especially if you know how to use it.
At any moment a couple deep breaths all the way from the base of my abdomen, up to my throat, and back down will do give me a calming and clarifying reset. I am constantly bringing my awareness to my breath to understand how I am reacting to my day, and use it to redirect my mind and body for the better. If nothing else, I am able to return to myself by doing something as simple as paying attention to how my breath tickles my nose on its way in and out of my body. This helps me put things in proportion, and know myself better by listening to my breath for insight on how I am reacting to my environment. Simple.
Meditation can look a thousand ways. It can be conscious relaxation, mantra, cooking, moving with the breath, playing music, painting… whatever. The point is that it is a time where you have no goals other than to be with yourself, let your inner world show itself to your conscious mind, and possibly even drop a specific pebble into the subconscious and observe the ripple with a guided practice.
The trick is to start small enough that you can see yourself doing it every day. Even three minutes of conscious breathing or walking will do. Commit.
I am currently trying to do 30 minutes of Kirtan Kriya every day. This is a mantra meditation with four syllables: Sa Ta Na Ma. It's thought of as a seed mantra. Each syllable drops into the consciousness, and blooms with a life of its own. This one specifically evokes the cycle of brith, life, death, and rebirth.
Just do it, yo. The body directly effects the mind and visa versa. If the body is not in motion, and in a diversity of motions, it can get stagnant and invite disease or unhealthy aging. This can be running, lifting, yoga, swimming, dancing, stretching, … anything!
I stretch and warm up with intuitive movement right after I get out of bed and drink water every morning. Regardless of the activity I get through out the day, I try to do a myofascial relaease technique called 'rebounding' every day. There isn't much to it. You just start standing, fit about hip-width apart, and then shake. I often start with my hands, and let it move through my body. I do it gently, and let the movement change as I continue. I listen to my body and let it unwind as it needs to without attachment to how it should look or feel (I'll share more on this soon :) ).
4. EAT WELL
Another practice with how we give and take with the world. My guidelines, as with anything else, are simple. Listen to your body, and practice moderation (including with moderation). Try to get the best stuff you have access to and can afford. Eat real foods, mostly plants, and all sorts of them. Give thanks and love it (this goes both for the preparation and the actual eating part). Show your love my savoring your food and chewing the eff out of it. This becomes a sort of meditation in itself and is something I am trying to work on by not double-tasking while I'm eating.
All of these things about food are often more easy and effective to do when we share it with other people. This is a chance to share good feels with our people, and build community by nourishing ourselves together.
5. REST WHEN IT'S TIME
These days it's easy to focus on going and producing. That's all good and well, but we need a balance to stay healthy, creative, and imbue whatever it is we do with quality. It's an ancient principle: what goes up must come down. Things live and die. The day is light, as the night is dark. Align yourself with nature, by surrendering to your body's restorative rhythms.
I struggle with this, so I am currently trying to get in the habit of a nightly routine that helps me relax into a deep slumber, and a morning routine that helps me wake up peacefully and set myself up for a good day. Because I have some catch up to do, and our circadian rhythm has been shown to spike in the early afternoon (WHY WE SLEEP), I have also been trying to incorporate naps in my day with the help of Aubrey Marcus's binaural beats (LINK), good headphones, and a jacket, scarf, or anything else I can find to cover my eyes. 30 minutes, and I'm golden to keep going for the rest of the day without disturbing my ability to go to sleep at a righteous hour.
We are mostly water. We all know we're supposed to. Just do it. Bubbly water, herbal tea, and infused water (think lemon, cucumber, or berries) help me keep truckin' on the water train if I'm ever not having it.
In the morning, I'll immediately drink warm water with salt and lemon to give my body a good start with tonifying vitamin C and electrolytes to make the most of the water I do drink.
I try to drink water that is at least room temperature. This helps with throat health, digestion, and general health. Ayurveda tells us to eat and drink only warm foods, unless it is the summer.
Almost every day, I try to keep myself on track with my short and long term goals by writing intentions, and prioritized task list. I separate my tasks into quadrants: things that are most important and should be done ASAP, things that aren't as important but should be done ASAP, things that are important but don't necessarily need to be done super soon, and things that neither have to be done soon, nor are the most important. This system helps me stay focused.
I have a similar ritual for longer term goals that I repeat every now and again, and write down to check-in with.
I try to conceptualize to-do lists, more as intention-setting. I make them more holistic, not always just accomplishment based. I also try not to get too attached to what gets done or, more importantly, how. I'm just doing my best, ya know.
Lastly, I use a couple extra seconds during the time I write these intentions to give gratitude for what I do have and the people, skills, and things I have to support me. I almost never look back at these, but I write them down so they feel more real. This helps give me perspective and balance and reminds me (probably not for the last time that day) that there's no need to sweat the small stuff.
Because I have so many moving parts within my self-driven work life, this piece of the puzzle is pretty important. Visualizing how it all comes together serves as a moment of consolidation.
SO IMPORTANT. Play has so many forms, but people have known that it is essential to health as long as they have had the awareness to mull over their own minds. Zen buddhists play with the folds of reality itself. The Tibetain Buddhist shit-starting saint, Milarepa was known to say:
“He who avoids misunderstandings, amused at the play of his own mind, is ever joyful.”
― Milarepa, The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa
When I forget to play, I forget how to appreciate myself wholly. I forget how to roll with a moment, and how to authentically raise myself up, and be open to what I, the people around me, and life has to offer.
So I invite y'all to take whatever practices you do decide to bring into your days with a grain of salt and as an act of self-love. The time and energy you poor into your wellness should not be another thing to stress you out (currently repeating this to myself on a daily basis). Play and experiment. See what works, and don't be hard on yourself if you fall off for a bit. Falling off might even be a gift in disguise. ;)