Joyce and I love rivers. We love sitting by them, swimming in them, camping near them, listening to their lullaby while we sleep. But I a little more than Joyce especially love floating down them.
So that’s how I find myself now sitting on a sandy beach on the lower John Day River in eastern Oregon, having traveled down the river some sixty miles in the past four days. It is June 13 and I have set up camp early to wait out a thunderstorm in my tent … a perfect time to write.
Joyce was gracious enough to send me off for a week, knowing how much this means to me. It’s not that she hasn’t put in her time. Two weeks ago we both floated fifty-five miles down the Eel River in northern California. That was enough for her in one spring.
Learning about Life from "Mother River"
What better place to reflect upon the river’s metaphors for life and relationships. So here’s what I’ve learned so far from “Mother River”:
Go with the flow!
Most times the main current will bring you through tricky areas without any struggle on your part. But how often do we fight against the flow, not trusting the divine current to keep us safe. One of my favorite Yiddush expressions: “Mann tracht und Gott lacht.” (Man plans and God laughs.) Trust the river of life.
Some rapids are scary. Some are fun.
You hear the distant roar. You can see white waves and sometimes mist in the distance. But, unless you have a guidebook describing the rapid in detail, with all the necessary moves, you may need to stop and scout. And even the guidebooks may not be accurate, since rapids have a way of changing after a winter flood. This trip, I’m in an open canoe which can swamp in even class II whitewater (mild to moderate rapids), so I often “line” the rapids, walking the canoe in the shallow water near the river bank.
Similarly, the guidebooks for the rapids of life (the challenges we simply can’t avoid) can only help somewhat. It’s going through real-life situations that teaches us the most. For example, anger used to be one of my scariest rapids. I’d try to walk around even class II anger, or maybe it would be more accurate to say “walk away.”
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I’ve been learning how to be more present with my anger, and then taking responsibility for my own part. Sometimes expressing my anger is like running the rapid. Sometimes taking responsibility for my part of an argument is like having the wisdom to walk around a rapid. I am learning to stop and scout the rapids of life, deciding which ones are runnable in my particular craft (state of mind), and which ones I need to walk around.
Enjoy the flatwater too.
I’m not an “adrenaline junkie”. I enjoy the calm pools between the rapids as much as the rapids themselves. Quietly floating allows time to take in the surroundings or to reflect. It was floating through a quiet pool this morning that allowed me to spot the herd of bighorn sheep on the hillside.
The “flatwater” of life need not be monotonous. These can be the times when you stop long enough to really be with yourself, the times of quiet reflection, the times to appreciate the beauty within and around you.
Learn from obstacles.
Rocks, trees, and branches give a river its character. Even small rocks form gravel or cobble bars over which the canoe seems to fly when the water is clear. Large rocks and boulders create the rapids. Guiding your boat through a rapid requires continuously “reading” the river. Dancing, moving waves are usually safe for passage. Fixed waves indicate a boulder just beneath the surface, sometimes followed by a hole that can cause problems if big enough. A wave train often follows a rapid through deeper water, creating a fun and bouncy ride in a raft. In my open canoe, a large wave train can swamp me so I steer to the side. It’s like dancing down the rapid. You can have lots of fun, but you have to pay careful attention at the same time.
The experienced boater learns to always look well ahead to allow time to set up for a maneuver. When I was first learning I made the common mistake of nearsighted rapid running, waiting too late and then furiously trying to correct my course. Besides wearing myself out with the over expenditure of energy, I was sometimes unsuccessful in avoiding obstacles (i.e. rocks or wood). A little move well in advance often does the trick.
Ah, the rocks of life! Yes, obstacles (and the way we handle them) are the very things that give our lives its character. Can we learn to “read” our lives too? Can we navigate life’s boulder slaloms in a mature farsighted way? Some we can’t. Some obstacles are well hidden until we are upon them, like a car accident or an illness. But some we can “read.”
Here’s an example. Joyce (as with most people) dislikes being interrupted when she’s speaking, especially about deeper personal things. I, on the other hand, having grown up in a family where everyone constantly interrupted each other, am sometimes not so sensitive about Joyce’s need. Joyce sometimes speaks slowly, and a pause between sentences seems to me to be an ending. If I assume this and butt in, especially when we’re teaching together, she can become flustered and lose her train of thought. This can be painful to her, and I will hear about it sooner or later.
This scenario is like reading the rapid too late and results in a large expenditure of energy (the hurt feelings and the need for apology). The little move well in advance, “reading” the obstacle well ahead, is patient love. I show love for Joyce when she is speaking by holding a sacred container of silence, enjoying her wisdom rather than needing to add my own two cents. She feels me loving her in this way, and often stops to ask if I have something to add. I have just successfully navigated a rapid through a careful move done well in advance with love.
The river never stops.
The river may slow so much that you don’t move unless you paddle. Dams only temporarily stop the river until the reservoir fills and overflows. Even when entering the sea, the water molecules change form but keep moving.
The energy of life, too, is unstoppable. Just because it appears nothing is happening, and your life seems stagnant, it is never so. Love and divine intelligence are constantly flowing through every part of you, just like blood bathes every cell of your body. It’s really a matter of paying close enough attention to this sometimes subtle flow.
And don’t forget to paddle to increase your momentum. In life this could involve taking action in self care, like spending quality time with yourself. Or it could involve doing something for another, or connecting with a loved one or even a stranger. When we help others, when we take action in service, it is like paddling through the still pool. Before long we can feel love’s flow filling our heart.
Risk to Be Healed: The Heart of Personal and Relationship Growth
by Joyce & Barry Vissell.
"In this book, Joyce & Barry offer the priceless gift of their own experience with relationship, commitment, vulnerability, and loss, along with the profound guide to healing that comes from the core of their being and blesses us with gentle wisdom."
- Gayle & Hugh Prather
About the Author
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA. They are widely regarded as among the world's top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom and Meant To Be. Call Toll-Free 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for free newsletter from Barry and Joyce, further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at www.sharedheart.org/ for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.