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The self as a river

Extract from Chapter 9: The Water Element

The most striking thing about the Water Element is its quality of flowing. It’s because of this characteristic that I too think of Water as being the archetype of all the other elements. The Earth element does flow, to be sure. It flows in a literal sense, as with landslides or the movement of tectonic plates—but these movements are either rare enough that they spring to mind infrequently, or happen on timescales that are remote from our day-to-day experience. We generally expect mountains to remain where they are, and the ground beneath our feet to provide a reliable support. Fire (energy) and Air also flow, but these aren’t directly visible in the way that the flow of water is. On the other hand it’s part of my everyday experience to perceive water flowing. I see water flowing from the sky, flowing along the river that passes by my house, flowing from faucets, and flowing down drains. I hear the trickle of urine on my periodic trips to the bathroom. I can feel the blood pumping in my arteries and the saliva sloshing in my mouth. This ready familiarity means that the flow of water becomes a metaphor for the other elements that compose our bodies. As the Buddha once said: “Just as a mountain stream, coming from afar, swiftly flowing, carrying along much flotsam, will not stand still for a moment, an instant, a second, but will rush on, swirl and flow forward; even so … is human life like a mountain stream.”

Woman in waterfall

When I meditate upon the various elements entering this human form, swirling around, and passing out again, it is in fact the image of a river that most often comes to mind. Sometimes I imagine that I’m sitting next to a six-foot-long stretch of river that represents my self—my body, feelings, thoughts, and memories. I sit on the bank, watching the waters flow by in this length of river that represents what is myself, me, and mine. As I watch the waters roll by I’m forced to recognize that what constitutes this me is forever changing. What I’ve just identified as “me” is now gone, and has been replaced. This is disconcerting, and I begin to realize more and more that I constantly grasp after a kind of self-definition and try to delimit of the self, as if I fear that I will be lost in the flow of the elements. The grasping becomes more conscious, the identification obvious. Yet as I continue to reflect on the transitory nature of the elements as they pass through my form, I realize that grasping is futile. One may as well try to hold on to flowing water as to claim the elements as one’s own, or as oneself. The moment of identification is followed so closely by the moment of dis-identification that they are essentially the same moment, and the moment of grasping becomes the moment of letting go. I find myself experiencing a sense of ease, less compelled to try to grasp the ungraspable. I begin to feel liberated.

Sometimes the image is different. I imagine that I sit before a waterfall. The sheet of water is like a cinema screen, and on it is projected a photograph or movie of my body. I can see myself, and yet there is nothing static within the image. What makes up the representation of myself, what constitutes the substance, what is apparently “contained” within the image I see of myself, is not a thing but a flow, an endlessly changing current, an ever-moving wall of water. In no two moments am I the same person, because the waterfall is not the same waterfall. As with the image of the river, the contents of the form are forever being replaced. There is an appearance of substantiality—of something static—but there is no essence. And again, sitting with this image, as I continue to observe the transitoriness of my self, I have a sense that there’s nothing to grasp. Indeed I begin to sense there’s no one to do any grasping, since it’s my self that is empty of substance.

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