You’d think that you’d be the first to know that your stream was dammed.
Sometimes a peaceful water surface is hard to decipher: are you in the middle of a natural lake, a healthy lazy river, or a dammed up river? How can you tell?
What others see when we are dammed
We can see dams in OTHERS’ lives pretty clearly. And they can see ours. It’s like they’re looking out an airplane window at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.
But when YOU’RE the river or the canyon it runs through, or even if you’re a human floating in a canoe, you just can’t tell for sure. It can be frustrating not to know, especially if someone hints or you have a vague feeling.
And there are three further complications:
~ If you realize you are indeed dammed, it can be difficult to find the dam.
~ Once you do, you have to figure out how to get rid of the dam.
~ Unfortunately, it quickly becomes almost impossible to picture life without the dam, and so it’s hard to remember why you should go to all that trouble to deal with the it. Heck, you think, reservoirs are plenty nice.
Here’s the problem with a reservoir: it’s simply not a river.
You can have a perfectly nice tame reservoir.
The reservoir can store water for all sorts of “civilized” uses: certain water sports that need flat water, human and livestock drinking water, irrigation water for crops, and electrical power generating plants.
But it’s no longer a river at that location. Even upstream and downstream of the dam, the river is not its healthiest self. It’s no longer natural or, as hydrologists designate an untamed river, “wild and scenic.”
If you care about a river in any way, then first and foremost you have to be sure it remains a river.
Likewise, it’s best for you to be your actual real self and not be turned into something completely different in order to serve civilization’s needs to drink you up, recreate on you, or harness your energy for its own needs.
There are other ways those humans can have fun, stay hydrated, and power their refrigerators. Ways that don’t involve eliminating your stream’s very identity.
Here are the four most obvious questions I ask myself to figure out if I and/or my river have been dammed:
1. Do I feel myself holding still for a long time — for longer than I ever have before?
Dammed waters don’t flow much. Dammed people find themselves and, most notably, their attention stuck in one place.
As Mihaly Czichzentmihalyi said (when he visited our town!), our attention and how we direct it is the most valuable resource of our lives.
He elaborated that our health and our time are vital — they are “our life.” But then he recommended we ask ourselves why they are so important. It’s because we use them to direct our attention as we want. How we direct our attention is how we “spend our lives.” That’s the truly important resource.
2. Do I feel myself “dropping my load” albeit probably invisibly, far below the surface?
Without velocity, dammed waters have no carrying capacity and no choice but to drop their life’s work, i.e., the sediment (the bits and pieces of experience they have picked up along the way). This is why reservoirs eventually silt in.
3. Have the other life forms who thrive in and around my ecosystem changed?
Do I notice lake fish instead of river fish? Seagulls instead of dippers? Are the minks gone? Are there only very few typical native riparian grasses, shrubs, or trees on my edges?
(This change is part of the reason why reservoir shores are usually raw and not vegetated. Those old friends and support systems with their protective roots are gone.)
4. Do I find the motionless part of my life getting bigger and bigger?
Dammed rivers are much deeper than they were before they hit the dam. They’re also hugely wide. This is partly because the valley is wider as you go up.
But it’s also partly because flat water erodes the sidewalls of any river channel.
(It’s the only work that water can do; the only way it can increase entropy; and even dammed water must obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics).
Dammed rivers also cut their way upstream into their own natural channel bed, lengthening the flat-lake surface.
This lengthening happens because the river water picks up speed where it drops into the deeper lake. That quick increase in power is directed against the only thing it can access — the river’s foundation. This “head-cut” works its way upstream… pretty much forever.
The problem with these basic questions:
In order to know if your current flow, work capacity, ecosystem, and dimensions are appropriate, you must be able to remember life upstream or envision life downstream .
There is a more subtle and accurate way to know if you’re dammed. It’s also the same process you can use to LOCATE your dam, so let’s get into it. But first, we have to understand…
What a dam is:
A dam is made out of solid, physical stuff. Matter. Usually it’s sediment — concrete or compacted dirt — though sometimes it includes discarded manmade objects like old cars, mattress springs, and radiators.
As you remember, moving sediment is a river’s life’s work.
That’s why dams are confusing. And ironical. Dams are built with the river’s own most basic ingredients: dirt and rocks.
Dams, like the river itself, are made out of bit and pieces of the world that have been picked up, moved, and placed in a particular way — but in the case of a dam, the material’s artificially compacted, smoothed, and carefully shaped into a particular human design.
Humans are similar. We naturally build a healthy life out of bits of experiences we’ve picked up, carried, set down in a new way: thoughts. When we are dammed, it’s by artificial versions we’ve created of our experiences: untrue beliefs.
Don’t feel like a freak.
Almost all rivers have been dammed somewhere at some time.
Here’s a list of free rivers, but remember it all depends on how you define the river. Some/most/probably all of these rivers have tributaries that’ve been dammed.
Likewise, all people have been dammed up at one point. Even supposedly enlightened people rarely say they’ve been free since birth. Tibetan Buddhists may think the Dalai Lama has been always free, but I’ve never heard him say that. Indeed, I’ve heard him talk about thoughts he has difficulty with (e.g., how to handle his anger toward the Chinese government). By far most of us still have some little dams here and there. It’s part of life.
Ok, so now: here’s a detailed way to figure out if you’re currently in a dammed reach of your river + where the dam is:
Step 1: Is there an outlet — a place where your water flows downstream?
Start by finding your river’s edge or boundary.
What is a river’s boundary? Usually we want to consider a river’s bankfull flow and its floodplain when talking river boundaries, but when looking for a dam, we can be much more general:
~ A river boundary marks what is and is not river.
It sounds obvious, but we rarely consider it explicitly. Find a part of the world, a set of ideas or activities, where you do not go — a place where you can look and say: “I do not go over there, past this spot.” Specifically…
~ A river boundary is where water meets dry land.
The shoreline is where the fluid medium that carries your river’s energy (i.e., water) meets sediment that was set in place by someone else or maybe by your river’s previous flows. Now your water doesn’t go there.
If we extend the river-as-metaphor-for-our-lives, then here’s what we learn about our own human boundaries:
A boundary is a line between where your time and energy go and don’t go. It’s characterized by a solid belief that you don’t actively attend to — usually because you accept it as truth.
Sometimes you’ve investigated that area-of-no-attention clearly; sometimes you just happened never to have “gone there.” Either way, you currently don’t have to give that cluster of thoughts a second thought.
Trace around your edges, locating your boundaries. Eventually you will find a place where water comes in.
You’ll always find a place where your life’s energy — your attention — is replenished from upstream. Always. Maybe it’s sleep and night dreams. Or day dreams. Maybe it’s a topic where you like to entertain new ideas, person that refreshes you, or place you like to breathe. Maybe it’s just breathing itself. If you’re alive, you’re being fed.
Keep looking around your edges and see if you find a place where even a trickle of water goes out. A place where you spend your time and energy — your attention — moving on toward some often unknown but attracting feeling.
If you find an outlet: go here to find out if you’re looking at your natural channel or a dam’s spillway. Also go here to see if it’s a leak… let’s hope it IS.
If you can find no outlet: you know for sure you’ve been dammed. Go to the next step to locate the dam.
Step 2: Is there a place along your edge where you feel your attention drawn and held in one place repeatedly — as if your energy pushes against it in constant pressure? Most of the edges you find — the beliefs you hold to be true — don’t have a lot of energy or pull. As you identify them, you say “Oh yeah. There’s that.” But sometimes there’s a “fact of life” you just keep running into, turning over and over in your mind.
If yes, that’s most likely a dam you’re pushing up against.
You can block a river’s flow downstream, but the river still wants to go there. It’s pulled there. It can’t help but feel the attraction of the sea though it can’t see or describe what pulls it.
The same is true of you. Even if you’re stopped up, you will feel an undefinable longing. What’s in the way? Look for that thought you keep bumping up against — that solid place accumulating flotsam and jetsam.
To be sure, evaluate it using the next step.
If you can’t find such a spot but you’re pretty certain there’s a dam somewhere, that’s okay. Walk your boundaries again and examine each spot using the next step.
Step 3: Is there a place where your personal boundary feels significantly different than all your other boundaries? If you answer yes to any of the following when considering one of your boundary thoughts, then it is likely a dam:
–> Is this boundary/shoreline/thought more uniform in texture and slope than your other boundaries? Is it exactly tailored?
Most dam surfaces are only one material and they’re compacted and shaped into very specific, very even surfaces.
Sometimes the slope will be more gradual than your other boundaries (if your natural river was in a canyon with steep walls).
In other cases, the dams are obviously steeper than the sides of the original river valley.
Either way, natural river banks are pretty variable. They may have layers of different sediment laid on top of one another, or they may be bumpy and wavy; but they rarely stay even for long. Even smooth rock canyon walls vary more than a dam’s face.
False thoughts are the same way: they’re usually pervasive blanket rules (“everywhere”), absolute permanent conclusions (“always”), or exquisitely personal in application and implication (“because in my case…”).
~ Interesting Note: Testing a boundary’s strength doesn’t necessarily tell you if it’s a dam. Yes, engineers want dams to be strong, but sometimes, as in the rock canyon, a stream’s natural boundaries are equally strong. Sometimes, in the case of compacted earth dams or push-up dams (described below), the natural healthy boundaries (and, in a human, true thoughts) are even stronger than the dam.
~ Alert: There are a couple especially icky exceptions to using the uniformity dam-test:
Junk dams, as we discussed above, are where people have tossed any old inert, unusable, machined object into the river. These dams are way more irregular than your regular boundary and recognizable by their inorganic, jagged, character. Be careful with them, as they not only block you but can cut you or trap you in their disorganized jumble of parts.
Push-up dams are built by people who drive big front-end loaders into the river and bulldoze the river bottom up into a dam. Usually these dams wash out every year and have to be rebuilt. These dams are tricky to recognize because they are made of the exact same material as the river itself and are not particularly compacted or smooth. You have to use the other tests to differentiate it from a healthy boundary.
They are mostly recognizable because of the river’s width and depth at the site are unlike any natural river type: the river is abruptly and oddly deep across the entire width of the river, and the water surface drops sharply on the other side of the dam.
–> Is this boundary/shoreline/thought mostly devoid of plants and animals, i.e., are there almost no lively, growing beings with roots and social systems that thrive because of access to your water, your energy, your attention?
Dams don’t encourage much life. No trees or shrubs. Very few grasses. Occasional mosses. Without those places to browse, hide, or build forts, the deer, raccoons, and playful humans don’t hang out there either.
False beliefs you hold also aren’t full of growth, life, or nourishment. Friends and loved ones don’t usually hang out there.
~ Notable Exception
Stubborn folks do love a dam. If the only life forms you find inhabiting a particularly steep, hard thought of yours are goats, it’s probably most certainly a dam.
–> Is there an abrupt drop-off on the other side of the boundary? And when you look down there, do you see a different, attractive version — even just a trace — of your very own energy and attention?
Now go ahead and get rid of that dam.
There are three ways to do so.
~You can dismantle it from the outside with explosives or machinery. Click here for details on how to do that in a human.
~You can blow it apart from inside the river with longing. Click here and here to see what I mean.
~ Or you can just go around it and create something completely different. That link is coming soon.
The best method? It depends on your circumstances. I’m currently partial to the second way as it’s available to everyone and is the easiest, but try them all out for yourself.
Dam removal is the most important part of stream restoration in many ways, and I’m thrilled to be decoding its meanings for my own life. I sincerely hope you enjoy it and that it helps you with the stuck areas in your life. Please let me know how your experiments go!