They say that our thoughts naturally turn to contemplation of the future when we watch water in motion.
When I was about to turn 60, my brother, Guillaume, died of a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumour and I came across ‘The Waterfall’ by Zen philosopher Shunryu Suzuki. It is his reflection on life, upon a visit to Yosemite National Park where he observed the cascading waterfalls. He describes the water coming down ‘like a curtain thrown from the top of the mountain’.
He says ‘…and the water does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams….And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain. It takes time, you know, a long time, for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall. And it seems to me that our human life may be like this. We have many difficult experiences in our life. But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river. Only when it is separated does it have some difficulty in falling…Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling….’
The water in the river is an analogy for ongoing and perpetual life.
Before we are born we are as water in the river: one with it all. After we are born we are like the droplets of water that get separated from the river as it cascades down the waterfall. We are still water – we are still part of the river of life but we have consciousness about our individual life and persona and we each follow our own path down. Then there’s that uncanny drive we all have, to be in community with others: We go down the waterfall, each one alone, occasionally combining with others in puddles and trickles, before separating again, sparkling, creating rainbows, adding our voice to the thunder, as we reunite and form the river below the falls, after this life.
‘When you do not realise that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realise this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life. When the water returns to its original oneness with the river, it no longer has any individual feeling to it; it resumes its own nature and finds composure. How very glad the water must be to come back to the original river!’
I’m not a religious person, but I’ve come to understand why it remains important in so many lives. I am fascinated by the conversations about ‘what’s my life’s purpose?’ that is the foundation piece in life coaching. Is the coaching conversation the new confessional? (Except that the coach moves from the premise that you already have the answer within you, rather than that it was written a long time ago by a prophet or a disciple.)
I know, because he told me, that Guillaume approached death, not as the completion of a journey, but as taking an exit off the highway, heading into a new direction that he could anticipate, but towards a destination one cannot imagine. For me, his exit was that final glittering cascade into the main river at the bottom of the falls: A river that will travel who knows where, but which represents a perpetual continuity of life. My brother would’ve turned 72 on August 5th. He escaped this world of escalating global warming when he was 63. It was painful to see him suffer and painful to let go.
Typically I don’t think about this stuff when I’m at my desk – I think of office and work stuff. But just let me get out on the water and my mind naturally moves into a state of connectedness – of peace and pleasure and comfort with myself and everything that touches me in the present; and about the future.
The thing about water is that it FEELS alive.
I love swimming and kayaking on and on and on, ever further into the lake where I live. It has always felt like my natural medium. My mind stills and I remember those who have gone down that waterfall before me and have rejoined the river. It is not a sad reflection. There’s nostalgia and there is a deep inner joy that they had been in my life. Yet often I’m travelling a route on the lake with the people who are in my life right now, in their own kayaks too. The lake to me is a sort of holding pattern – it’s where I hang out with my friends and family and where I go meditating by myself, reflecting on those who have rejoined the river at the bottom of the falls.
I’m not frightened of drowning, so I just keep going even though I know I don’t have the stamina of a 40-year old. Sometimes it is hard because the wind blows directly against you, but it fills me with a sense of adventure and it is deeply gratifying to feel the strength in my arms and shoulders as I plough my way through and get home safely. Your sixties is a great physical and mental space to occupy – full of experience and solutions that work, full of memories of people and adventures, and also still full of creative possibilities. You can still dream although your dreams have lost the naïvete of youth.
This, the summer of 2016 is a dry one. The lake is lower than it’s been in years. Places that were safe to kayak a mere 14 days ago are now populated with huge boulders rising up like angry hippos or lurking just under the surface of the water, ready to bring the lovely flowing motion of the kayak to a jarring halt.
Beautiful vast beds of lily pads lie shriveled up in crust-curling drying mud. The water level in the lake has dropped by 5 feet by now. Today I saw the first posting on Facebook, from someone in my own neighborhood, asking for advice about how to get a dry well replenished. You can call the fire department, I believe, and they go and suck some water out of a nearby lake which they then release into the well that feeds your domestic needs.
It is a very different kind of drought from the ones of my childhood in South Africa. There, when the well is dry, there IS no ‘other lake’ to replenish supplies from.
So, as I paddle I ponder Shunryu Suzuki’s waterfall and river and I continue to miss my brother, while seeing the evidence of global warming all around me. I wonder and worry that one day the river will dry up and there will no longer be a waterfall because the infrastructure that supports it has died. And somewhere in a galaxy far, far away there will be a star ship, its mission to go where they believe no man has gone before, and they will find this dead planet and wonder at the way in which evolution burnt itself out in what looked like it could have been paradise.
©Delphine du Toit 2016