Tao of the Zentropist

September 12, 2013

Rivers, Lakes and What Lies Between

A fundamental rule is that life as we know it cannot exist where there is no water. Particularly human life. Perhaps as a result of having origins which lie in some primordial soup, as conventional science would have it, or the undeniable fact that the majority of our body is composed of water, there appears to be a natural craving for water which somehow transcends mere biological necessity and speaks to some impulse embedded in the human subconscious.

As important as fresh, potable water is to survival, even the presence of seas, oceans and other saline bodies of water invariably draw human settlement and exploration. We understand instinctively that water is a life-giving force, yet also has the potential to unleash terrible destruction, to inflict suffering, and to transform geography and topography given sufficient time and/or force.

And still we are drawn to water, and the very things at once concealed and revealed where it flows in abundance.

THE NATURE OF WATER

Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine by Winslow Homer

“Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine” by Winslow Homer. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Water is famously comprised of two hydrogen molecules bonded to an oxygen molecule. At a chemical composition level, a deceptively simple concept. Of course, water may contain far more particulate matter; depending on locale, various minerals, salt and sad to say, contamination in the form of man-made pollutants are all possible. When water is heated sufficiently, it transforms from a liquid to a gas, vaporizing as steam which can produce electrical power, be used for cleaning and sterilization, or even to remove wrinkles from clothing. If captured and cooled, the gas condenses once again and returns to the liquid state.

When chilled to the point of freezing, water transmutes to a solid that we know as ice, useful for refrigeration, or to reduce swelling, or to chill drinks on a hot day. The very versatility and adaptability of water is spoken of by sages, as is the flowing nature evidenced in its liquid and even gaseous form.

There’s much to be admired about water, and at times, some to be feared. Such is the nature of water.

RIVERINE DREAMS

Rivers often provide means of navigation and transit for animals of all kinds, humans included. They often provide sources of irrigation for agriculture, allowing not only human habitation but the development of cultures and civilization. The biblical Garden of Eden, whether a fanciful story, amalgamation of ancient memories, or very real place was said to lie at the confluence of four rivers. Many great civilizations and cultures have been able to materialize, at least in part, due to the presence of a significant river, particularly those of freshwater nature.

I often view rivers as being in partnership with the mountains, since so many carry rainfall and even snow melt from these lofty elevations which reach towards the infinite vault above us, and even connect these timeless titans of the land form to the mysterious seas and oceans. To travel a river is to be enmeshed in a rhythm which exists of its own accord, even if shaped or altered by deliberate or inadvertent human intercession. Ask any who have heard the siren’s call of a river, much less its cousin the sea, and you will come to better understand. Over time, rivers invariably alter the landscape, particularly the terrain upon which they flow, carving away features and smoothing and polishing the rock and banks which contain it. There’s a magic to rivers, if one is only willing to accept this, perhaps not in some metaphysical sense but at the very least in the sense of the wonder and even awe which may be invoked in those sensitive to such things.

Rivers provide a sense of direction, and even a sense of purpose to everyday life. A river has purpose, and that purpose is to flow, whether using brute force to overcome obstacles and obstructions through sheer volume, or more often than not, finding another path offering less resistance to bypass that which stands in the way. This naturally does not suggest sentience in a manner in which the word is used with living things; the river simply is. And in being so, that is enough.

THE HIDDEN LIFE OF LAKES

"Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)" by Winslow Homer. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

“Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)” by Winslow Homer. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

If rivers are to be viewed as dynamic forces, lakes might be described as repositories of potential, as many feed mighty rivers, are fed by them, or provide the necessary resources to enable life in many forms to make its living above, around, on the surface of, or submerged beneath the captive waters. There are lakes so large and mysterious as to provide the same kinds of challenges to mariners as the largest and most treacherous of oceans. Some exist at high elevation, lending beauty as well as life nurturing sustenance to alpine redoubts. Others may be found far closer to sea level or more modest elevation, collecting and dispensing waters which may have traveled significant distances before arrival. Lakes have many facets, not all of which are immediately obvious, and this warrants active exploration and quiet contemplation for those so inclined.

In the stillness of waters, there is something quite profound.

In the gentle flow of waters, there are many voices which speak, not in any tongue spoken by man, yet in a voice which the human heart and soul can interpret if given the opportunity.

In the raging torrent of waters, energy is most clearly manifested, indifferent to that which seeks to impede its progress, yet neither deterred nor readily swayed. It acts as it must, not with malicious or malevolent intent, but because this is the order of things and that order is ultimately inviolate.

COMING FULL CIRCLE

True understanding may only come upon acknowledgement that there is much that we do not know, and our acceptance of this reality. As surely as we are shaped by past actions, we are influenced by environment and our response to outside agencies. What we cannot control, we may seek to redirect and even release. The currents upon which we travel, seen and unseen, give shape to our journey and our understanding thereof. Rivers provide passage both inward and outward, and the very pulse of life in the world around us is mirrored in the ebb and flow of life within us, vis-à-vis our circulatory system.

What one finds is often predicated upon what one is looking for. Nothing is perhaps as blind as the person entranced by what is being sought and consequently unable to see that which otherwise may be revealed in stark relief when viewed through a different prism or unclouded eyes.

Rivers and lakes are worthy in their own right of our time and attention, but it is what lies between in the hidden confluence which ought to demand one’s focus and consideration.

January 24, 2010

Harnessing the Inner Demon: Taking Stock and Letting Go

Fundamentally, every human being is driven by an inner demon, and in some cases, more than one. Now I realize that certain literalists of a religious bent will interpret this statement as belief in actual demonic possession, which is not the contention that I’m making (I’ll leave that subject to others for now). Rather, based on my three plus decades of life, I’ve observed that people are complex yet imperfect organisms and in terms of actions, attitude and predilections, will behave in ways that reflect the internal struggle that exists within us all.

Finding a means to positively harness the darker or more negative sides of our emotions, which we must first acknowledge to begin with, is an important step in the individual’s psychological and personal evolution. Rather than live in denial as to the existence of these emotions, we must learn to channel and ultimately rise above them as we navigate our way through life.

THE TWO WOLVES DEFINED

There is an American Indian allegory, often credited to the Cherokee Nation, which directly addresses this struggle that I’m referring to. While there are some subtle variations among the retellings, the theme never changes as recounted here:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

THE SHADOW MAN – YIN AND YANG FROM ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE

Joseph M. Marshall III, a multi-talented Lakota writer, educator, historian and craftsman whose works I’ve come to admire, speaks of his people’s concept of the nagi wica, or the Shadow Man in his book, Walking with Grandfather. As he explains it:

“The shadow being lives within each of us. He or she is the one that pushes back when someone pushes us. It is, as the label implies, the dark side of each of us. Its strengths are anger, recklessness, and impulsiveness, and most of its existence (in most cases) is spent waiting to emerge. Adversity most often pulls the shadow being from its dormancy, where it is held in abeyance by the absence of conflict… When it does emerge, its only limitation is the character of our overall being and the values and morals that we live by.”

In other words, the nagi wica is but a reflection of the face that we present to the world, and what is contained within is simply the hidden aspect of our complete, integrated being. We may attempt to suppress it, but in times of stress, it will sure surely emerge and if we are not careful, overwhelm us.

ENERGY SEEKS THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE

In Buddhist traditions, we are taught that “good” and “bad” are value judgments fundamentally arising from desire, which is the cause of human suffering. Taoism acknowledges that in everything there is balance; as there is night, there must be day; for an object to be hard, another must be soft, and so on. The way in which energy manifests itself, or is utilized, is determined in part by intent, as within it can be found the aspects of light/dark, positive/negative, good/evil or any other dichotomy the human mind seeks to explain through language. Yet as the allegory of the Two Wolves illustrates, energy ultimately takes the path of least resistance. How we cultivate it, or generate it, in turn will influence how it is applied, consciously or subconsciously.

It is because of this natural law, as it were, that we must consciously make a choice as to how we conduct ourselves and put energy to productive use. We can look at a situation, assess it as unfavorable, and immediately fall into a pessimistic mindset, which tends to cloud judgment and further feed into the current morass, or we can acknowledge that “this too shall pass” and there is opportunity to find new solutions, or set another course to our intended destination.

What we cannot do is ignore it, for energy is unforgiving in this respect and does not dissipate simply because we wish it to do so.

MAKING THE INNER DEMON’S ACQUAINTANCE

So what to do when confronting our inner demon? First and foremost, we must seek to understand it. For some, it may be the insecurity of having grown up with little in the way of financial resources, which often motivates these individuals to seek out financial success utilizing what talents they have. For others, it may be wrestling with low self-esteem or being too self-critical and finding a larger purpose which bolsters confidence in one’s self. Still others are consumed by jealousy and envy, and rather than explore why these emotions might exist and how to let them go while using their energy for positive means, choose to wallow in a cycle which is ultimately self-destructive.

It is important to acknowledge that sometimes, these inner demons take the form of addiction (whether to substances or certain behavioral patterns), or are the result of chemical imbalances, physical ailments or deformities, or other serious psychological and medical conditions which require appropriate professional attention and care.

Rather than allow the inner demon to subsume the “angel of our better nature,” we must strive to accommodate this voice from the wilderness without yielding to it. We may not have full control of the card hand that we are dealt in life, but how we play these cards is completely within our purview and must never be forgotten.

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