In our local meditation center, we have a large calligraphy done by Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) that reminds us to: Go as a river, which is a common teaching in our tradition. These few simple words have a depth of wisdom instilled within them, and can be translated in a few different ways. To me, Go as a river speaks to two main key components of our practice tradition: impermanence and brotherhood/sisterhood.
In regards to impermanence, Go as a river speaks to the ever-changing flow of life. Suffering, in large part, develops when we’re fighting against what is unfolding in the present moment, as though we’re trying to walk upstream amid a fast-moving river. To Go as a river means to go with the flow of life, to learn how to accept its non-permanent state and not get stuck in our own preferences and thoughts about how things should be. Despite our best laid plans and ideas, life can oftentimes twist and turn in unexpected ways. To Go as a river means to cultivate resiliency, inclusiveness, solidity, and ease, with the deepening understanding that things/people/situations are of the nature to change.
In regards to brotherhood & sisterhood, Go as a river means to recognize the importance and cultivation of community and interconnection. On a more intimate level, it means: to root ourselves in a loving, supportive, healthy sangha. On a larger level, it means: to see all the ways in which we depend on one another as a global family. Brotherhood and sisterhood are about discovering ways to actively connect and engage with our friends, family, local community, and the world in such a way that compassion and understanding are generated.
I was thinking of this teaching in reference to impermanence this past Saturday, as a series of set plans were altered by other causes and conditions. My husband, stepson, and I had planned to go to some natural hot springs over in Idaho (the hike to which is pictured above) with my good friend Wendy, who’s visiting from Minnesota and staying with us. Come the morning, however, my husband decided his neck was too sore and painful to make the trip. Since he was opting not to go we decided to let our son sleep in and spend the day at home (at 17-years-old we figured he’d rather hang out with his dad then hike into the woods with Wendy and I). While I was proud of my husband for prioritizing self-care (which is something he’s really been working on), I was also sad that we weren’t all going off into the woods together as a family, especially since we try each year around this time to make it to the springs to help commemorate our wedding anniversary, which was just a few days ago (part of our wedding ceremony was held at these particular hot springs with a small group of our family and friends). With the practice of mindfulness I was able to recognize and embrace my sadness, and then, in a matter of moments, flow happily along into taking a day-trip with my good friend and having it be just the two of us.
Then, when we got to the parking area at the trail-head for the springs, there were a number of cars parked. With multiple pools to soak in, however, we weren’t worried at all about the amount of people already there. But when we hiked back we discovered the pools were super packed. Too packed to even attempt soaking in, which I’ve never experienced before. I’ve been going to that hot spring a few times a year for almost 20 years and had never seen it so busy! So we adjusted our plans yet again and took to hanging out alongside Warm Springs Creek, where we ate our lunch and chatted. It was lovely to sit by the water and hang out. While we were looking forward to soaking, we were able to quickly re-adjust and simply enjoy being in the woods and spending time together. We had a great time! (Side note: we must’ve seen an additional 20-30 people pass by while we were on the river and then hiking out – was it National Hot Springing Day?!)
One of the many fruits that develops as a result of having a mindfulness practice is being able to go as a river, to flow along with life as it unfolds, whether it adheres to our plans and preferences or not. This doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes experience challenging emotions in the process, of course. But we can learn how to take good care of those emotions when they arise and then become able to move forward with ease and acceptance. These skill-sets take time to hone in. Everything takes active, engaged practice: contentment, acceptance, happiness, joy, ease, and going as a river – and every moment is a fresh opportunity to start anew.