The wisdom of water
After these recent rains, Sonoma Creek has risen once again, and is rushing swiftly past my cabin. More of the earth beneath the foundation of this place has slipped into the stream, toward which it continues to lean. The high walls of the cabin, made of small panes of leaded glass, have begun to sag over time, and to lean as well.
Still, it's a good place to be. I suppose there are a few more years left for me here, although they are difficult to measure. Yet measurement only finds the size of things - not their meaning; how I choose to spend the remaining time will supply its meaning. To find the meaning of life is to explicate it, like a poem that otherwise would be simply a collection of words. Otherwise, it wouldn't matter that I am here, and I wouldn't care; but while I'm here I'll be present for a reason.
For more than 40 years - for more than half my life - there has been a sign on my wall quoting the Venerable Ajahn Chah Subato: “One day some people came to the master and asked: How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness, and death? The master held up a glass and said: Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably, and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.”
The flow of water through my life has been a constant reminder that life itself is evanescent. A few months ago I quoted the opening lines of the reclusive Japanese poet Kamo no Chomei's classic poem, Hojoki: “The river's flow is constant, and yet / the water always changes; / and where water falls cascading into pools / bubbles appear, only to burst. / So it is with people, and / the homes of the world in which they live.” A life lived well is to be cherished, caringly tended to, and deeply enjoyed - for the magnitude of this moment is all we really have.
Many years ago, while rafting down the American River, I found myself thrown into the water at the start of a series of serious drops, and was catapulted headlong past precipitous rocks and down roaring cataracts. When I awoke to find myself far beyond, below, resting on a sandbar uninjured but in shock, I thought how close my death had come, and how severely my life would have been interrupted by my death. I wondered how to make certain that life would not in fact be interrupted by death. Then - abruptly - I realized that as long as I live completely, every moment of my life, my life would already be complete whenever it is that I happen to die.
And yet, although our presence here is temporary, the consequences of our presence are infinite, and eternal. I discovered this when I was young, at the edge of the ocean. Standing there in reverie, I saw my footprints slowly disappear as the waves - one following another - gradually, gently moved across them, erasing them. Then my sense of life as only provisional was eased, when I saw how the waters themselves were changed as they attended to my footprint, and that my presence - temporary as it was and no matter how small - had changed the tides and the entire ocean, all the oceans of the world and beyond, and probably forever.
I believe the Cosmos that contains all universes - including those that have been and those that will be - has a palpable shape, the coherence of which lies beyond our comprehension. We can only recognize its coherence in the form of patterns that we are able to comprehend, and so have meaning for us. If we believe the Cosmos is incoherent and random, then we become the sort of atheist that is subject to chronic anomie, finding neither pattern nor meaning in life. Another sort of atheist may still be spiritual, finding a pattern without needing to anthropomorphize it in the way many religious people do, in their attempt to establish the comfort of a personal relationship to their god.
Some time ago, as we walked together in the woods, a person much wiser than I had said: “Rather than wonder about your previous lives, consider the wonder of every one of all your other lives, everything you ever have been and ever will be. Just as the elements of water that compose the springs and streams and mighty rivers that come finally to rest in the sea are drawn up in the resurrection of their elements to eventually reincarnate in the rain, so every element of yourself will be drawn into the Cosmos where it once was - and will be - held. There is no time there; time is simply a measure that we have imposed upon the Cosmos in an unavailing attempt to comprehend an ineffable Existence.
“While many of your other lives may lie in what we consider our past, many more can be found in what we consider our future. In fact, the elements of your life surround you here and now as well - in everyone that you meet, and in the billions that you will never know. You are me in another of your lives, and I am you; this is the seat of empathy, and compassion. Furthermore, the elements of your life that are drawn up in your death are returned within everything that you see - these birds in these trees and the trees themselves, and the animals and rocks along this path and this path itself - everything - in this great conversation some call the circle of life. More than a circle, it is The Way.”
This is the wisdom of the waters that, while slowly eroding the earth beneath this cabin in which I write these words, still give them a meaning that can reach far beyond their small and brief presence here - upon this page.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.