In my last post, I introduced the concept about rivers being viewed by spiritual and religious traditions as metaphors and symbols for the spiritual life. I described the basic journey of the river, beginning in the mountains and ultimately emptying into the sea.
Rivers and Spiritual Growth
So what does the river’s journey tell us about spiritual growth? Let me suggest four secrets.
First, The Source of life is Sacred, which makes all of life Sacred. The flow of life is Sacred. There is a holy purpose to our lives, to our journey. Everything we have done and do has a Sacred dimension to it.
That’s why for so many spiritual traditions the process of spirituality is awakening, paying attention to life as Sacred, learning how to encounter and embrace the Divine in every experience of life. St. Augustine once wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Life is about connecting, reconnecting with—acknowledging, honoring—our Sacred Source.
Second, All individuals are from the same Source, which makes everyone Sacred. A River is a combining of individual streams into one flow. So if the Source is Sacred, then every individual is Sacred, too. Which means that healthy spirituality is about recognizing the Sacredness of every person we encounter.
That’s what giving the Blessing is all about—remember we’ve talked about that spiritual practice before? Giving the Blessing to another is acknowledging the divine goodness in that person, no matter who he or she is, and calling it out of that person by affirming it and honoring it. That’s what the Hindu greeting “Namaste” means—“The divine goodness in me honors and greets the divine goodness in you.”
Spirituality cannot be healthy and grow without this significant recognition and embrace. That’s why healthy spirituality must involve an outward focus, not just an inward one. We have the divine joy of looking at others and calling out, honoring their Sacredness. Life is about helping others embrace their own divine goodness. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone looked at others in this light, instead of constantly judging or criticizing or labeling or condemning.
That’s why the Bible ends with the beautiful picture of one God, one City, one River that nourishes one People—everyone being vitalized and revitalized by the same Source forever!
Third, Spirituality is not a straight line, it has twists and turns. It’s amazing how often we label the twists and turns of our lives as bad, harmful, negative, detours, even “not God’s will.” Right?
The reality is that no river runs straight. Every river has twists and turns. And here’s what really impresses me: according to the experts, “The twists and turns are Nature's way of keeping Her life-giving Waters healthy: they create the eddies that aerate the Water which is so vital to the nourishment and preservation of all the people, animals and vegetation which rely on the River for sustenance.”
The very things that we think damage us and therefore should be avoided at all costs in fact can keep us healthy—they aerate our lives—bring more oxygen into our system which actually revitalizes us.
What would it be like to approach what you consider to be a “twist and turn” in your life and ask yourself, “How can this experience aerate—that is, bring more life into—my spirituality? What can I learn about myself through this? How will I allow this to expand my life rather than diminish it?”
It’s interesting when it comes to rivers—there are those enthusiasts, like kayakers and rafters, who live for the mad and bellowing, raging rapids. I took a trip years ago, a rafting trip, right through the famed Hells Canyon on the Snake River. Wow, I gotta tell you—I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself anywhere close to a hard-core rafter—but that trip was high adrenaline and amazingly enlivening, to put it mildly. We went through one chute, our guide manning the rudder or back end of our raft, all of us paddling for our lives, and slammed head on into a huge boulder. One of the guys in the raft got thrown out. I about had a heart attack! But we finally got through and ultimately to quieter water. The guy who had been spit out of the dragon’s mouth beat us to the finish line, fortunately unhurt but emerging from the water shaking from head to toe.
There are people who love that stuff and go for class 6 whitewater rapids all the time! The twists and turns and rapids have a way of focusing you pretty quickly. You emerge on an adrenaline high from sheer gratitude that you made it! Colors look a lot deeper.
I read this statement recently from Gregg Levoy’s book Callings. He’s quoting philosopher and psychotherapist Karlfried Graf Durkheim. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible arise within us. In this lies the dignity of daring. We must have the courage to face life, to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.” (p. 258)
Every myth or legend has a hero or heroine who ends up facing some kind of a dragon or monster that represents what they deeply fear. They have to face it and fight it before they can fulfill their destiny. The fight is always brutal and fierce. They don’t know if they’ll come out victorious but they fight on. We wouldn’t watch movies or read books if the stories didn’t have these twists and plots, right?
The author is referring to the importance of facing our fears and risks associated with following our purpose in life. When you are able to face your fear, which often involves a fear of failing or, as the philosopher put it, the feeling like you’re going to be “annihilated"--the fear of losing yourself and being forgotten--you allow the courage inside you to emerge. You find out that you are in fact bold. You can face life and encounter what you didn’t think you had it in you to survive. That’s not only focusing, it’s empowering! Not only does facing this fear cause you to not lose yourself, you actually end up finding your true self.
Levoy says that “Fear is a signal that you’re close to something vital and that your calling is worthy of you.” (p. 257)
The twists and turns and rapids of life produce fear which informs us of what’s truly important to us. And they give us opportunity to do something about what’s important to us—to act on what is vital to us.
Healthy spirituality is about being willing to embrace every stage of and section of our Life River—to learn more deeply about ourselves and the nature of life from the quiet times, from the broad, open expanses like lakes, as well as from the twists and turns and swirling eddies. Spirituality involves all of those sections and times and stages. Just like with rivers, life without all these diverse experiences keep our spirituality from stagnating (as opposed to the river ending in a pond with no outlet). Our health demands all this diversity for growth.
And four, Spirituality is learning the art of effective change management. Have you ever stood on a bridge over a river and looked down at the flowing water? It’s almost mesmerizing, isn’t it. Has a kind of hypnotic effect. One thing you can’t help but notice is that you never see the same water twice. That’s where we get the euphemism from: “It’s all water under the bridge.” In other words, everything changes so let it go.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, the 5th century BC Greek philosopher, famous for his doctrine of change being central to the Universe, wrote: "You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you."
Change is inherent in life and spirituality. Healthy spirituality is about learning how to steward change effectively. It involves two vital choices. One, letting the old go. And two, embracing the new. Just like we do when we watch a river—we see water go, and we see new water come. We really don’t have any control over that flow. We simply accept what it is and choose our response to it.
This is why many of the effective spiritual practitioners tell their adherents to do their spiritual practices by the river—so they can observe this flow and learn the art of acceptance. Like we have to do with our thoughts during meditation—we observe them and then let them go, without paying undue attention by focusing on them and obsessing on them. Letting them go peacefully and respectfully. It’s all water under the bridge; nothing you can do about it; let it go.
Isn't this what the Serenity Prayer is all about? Those in recovery have learned to repeat this prayer regularly, sometimes even hourly and even minute by minute to stay focused: "God grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change; COURAGE to change the things I can; and WISDOM to know the difference.”
So to build a healthy, vital, growing spirituality, we learn to ask ourselves some very important questions:
- What do I learn about myself through my responses to the different ups and downs of my life?
- What are the stories I tell myself about loss and grief and pain that end up shaping my responses to them?
- What does my fear tell me about what in that situation is important to me?
- How can I allow these “whitewater rapids” to produce greater spiritual health in me, to aerate my life?
I would invite you to spend some alone time, reflecting on these questions. Perhaps even journal your responses. It helps to bring thoughtful intentionality to your spiritual path.
I love the story in the Hebrew Bible of Namaan, the commander of the Syrian army. Israel and Syria are bitter enemies, both fighting to exterminate the threat of the other. Both fighting to prove their God is the stronger god. Life in those days is all about the battle of the Gods.
Namaan ends up getting leprosy, a horrible skin disease with no cure. He’s horrified and ashamed and fearful. The little servant girl in his home is and Israelite girl who sees his condition and tells her mistress that Namaan should go see her prophet Elisha who could heal him.
So he swallows his pride and ends up going. The Hebrew prophet tells him to go to the Jordan River and wash himself seven times and he would be healed. Namaan is infuriated! “What?? Who does this Jew think he is, asking me to go to the Jew’s sacred river, a dirty river at that, when we have our own more beautiful, more sacred rivers than theirs!!! “I don’t care if he is a holy man! Forget this business! I’m going home!”
But his officers reason with him, saying, “Come on, sir, how hard can it be to do this simple thing? If the prophet had asked you do a great thing, you’d have happily done it. You should go to the Jordan River!”
So Namaan again swallows his pride and goes. He stands there watching the dirty water flow by. He’s angry inside. His ego is strong. He says, “This is not the water I want! But it’s what I have. Here I am. So I will step into the flow of this river, trusting in the Sacred Invitation, this Sacred moment right here, right now, and immerse myself in it, and then I’ll leave.”
“So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as the man of God has instructed him. And his flesh became as healthy as a young child’s, and he was healed!” (2 Kings 5:14)
The very thing that Namaan was repulsed by, the very thing that represented something he didn’t want any part of, something he thought would humiliate him, that which seemed the most humbling thing for him to do, was the instrument of healing and transformation for him. The Sacred River of life.
The River of Spirituality is about laying down our egos, embracing that which often we cannot understand or have a difficulty accepting, and with courage choosing to step into Its flow and immerse ourselves in that Water. Who knows what kind of healing and transformation might result? Acknowledge the Sacredness of life, honor the Sacred in all others, accept the twists and turns as tools for growth, and choose to step into the flow of Now with peace, courage, wisdom, and hope.
What do you think?