“Life is water dancing to the tune of solids.”
~ Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
A river isn’t always wet. In the high desert of my childhood, most of our streams “ran dry” for a good part of the year. My brother and I loved them.
They were our superhighways, free of brush and full of stories: tracks and scat, pottery shards, and, most clearly, the stream’s own contours, for the bare river revealed every contour of the last spring runoff. We could see how deep the it ran by looking at bank heights, how fast it flowed by gauging the rock sizes in its bed, how wide it sprawled by tracing debris settled on the floodplain. The river divulged all this – without water.
For even without water, you recognize a river. You see this assembly – bed, banks, and floodplain – and know it as the body of a river. It’s hard to envision what a river could look like without those bones.
Water alone, as Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi proclaimed, is “the Hub of Life.. its mater and matrix, mother and medium.” Yet this essential ingredient can’t live as a river – moving earth, supporting elephants and mayflies, flowing to the sea – without a container. Even a Hub needs shape to engage with its power:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
~ Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching
translated by Stephen Mitchell
Your life assembles itself the same way a river does, with the same three elements.
The bed of your being may be a favorite hobby. Or it may be your loved ones, your spiritual practice, your vocation – there is no right or wrong foundation as long as your thinking is clear and clean. Streams are dominated variously by bedrock, cobbles, gravel, sand, silt, clay. In fact one waterway may ply each of these in different reaches of its singular journey.
But no matter what your life is made of, you must have banks to define your edges. Don’t worry, they’ll not completely or irrevocably limit you: a healthy river’s annual peak-flow overtops its banks in one out of every two or three years. Nor must you run clear out to your edges on a daily basis: much of the year, a river’s low flow occupies only a small sub-channel. What the stream banks define, and hence allow, is the channel’s full-on, working flow. Similarly, without edges, your own working energy can never achieve a depth sufficient to power your life.
So then, how do you create the stream banks of your being? River banks rise above the bed on each side. The river accomplishes this fortunate structure not by erecting little walls to separate it from the world, but rather by carving a place for itself, down into its very foundation. By keeping to its work – moving sediment – the river naturally finds itself sheltered in a channel of precisely the right shape for its needs. Your life’s work, your passionate calling, does the same favor for you.
The final physical component of your life as a river is your floodplain, that rich flat adjacent to the stream banks. When a river overflows those banks, the channel current continues raging onward, but the water that escapes immediately spreads out, losing depth and therefore velocity. Floodwater is not fast. This relatively slow, less powerful water can carry only smaller sediment onto the floodplain. As it spreads further and loses yet more speed, the floodwater drops its fine material, building the floodplain with increasingly level, increasingly nutrient-laden soil — perfect for sprouting and growing the seeds that each river bears and sows right along with its sediment.
A floodplain is the river’s most precious contribution to the natural world. For some river types, like the steep, straight mountain brook, a narrow shelf is sufficient floodplain. For others, like the gently sloping, meandering meadow stream, an entire valley is at its service. No matter the floodplain’s natural size, its abundance creates a singularly magical, diverse ecology.
You do this too. When you exceed your regular capacity, you are “spread thin.” Something has to give and it does, and in slowing down and dropping some of your load, you inundate and seed a lush, level haven that sustains not only you but those around you. Savor your place of ease in times of overflow.
What flows through every river, and what flows through each of us, is energy. Water energy. Soul energy. Its power manifests most fully when that energy constructs and inhabits its own unique presence: an exquisitely carved foundation, happily defined edges, and a waiting refuge for the inevitable overflow.
This reality you create is recognizable even when you’re running dry. It is your solace in the middle of an empty day or an empty life. For just as a river channel requires, and therefore proves, the existence of perennial flow, so too the very form of your life means your spirit will flow again… like water dancing to the tune of a grassy stream bank.