There’s an old joke that goes like this:
An aged guru lay on his deathbed, with dozens of faithful disciples clustered around him, eager to hear his final words. “O teacher,” says the head disciple, who is standing closest to the dying man. “Please share with us a last nugget of wisdom!”
In a faint but stirring voice, the guru declares: “Life is like a river.”
Immediately, the word spreads through the ranks. From disciple to disciple goes the cryptic message: “Life is like a river… Life is like a river…”
But one young disciple in the back row has a question. “How is life like a river?”
The question makes its way back up the ranks, passed in whispers from man to man. Finally, it finally reached the head disciple, who hastens to bring this important question to their spiritual master.
“O teacher,” the disciple says, bending low to catch the dying man’s every syllable. “Enlighten us! How is life like a river?”
The guru thinks for a moment, and then shrugs. “Okay, so it’s not like a river…”
So much for kitsch philosophy. The joke may be silly, but the concept is not. In many ways, life really is like a river.
The flow of Time is one obvious symbolism. The minutes, hours, and years of our lives drift past us constantly, like water, carrying on its current the events of our lives, large and small. And just as the unending flow of water washes things clean as it goes, and erodes their sharp edges… so, too, does Time gradually blur the memory, gentle the emotions, and mute the sting of past heartache.
Now and then, an object drifting downriver can become snagged on a branch or some other piece of debris. When that happens, all movement stops. The object is trapped, stuck, condemned to bob fruitlessly in place. Buffeted by the current, but unable to avail itself of it.
Have you ever met a person who is stuck? Perhaps you’ve even experienced a little of that sensation yourself now and then. It happens when something comes along that locks you emotionally in place. You’d like to move on. You need to move on. But something has snagged your thoughts and taken your mind captive. It’s effectively holding you hostage.
That “something” can be a mental quirk, a bad habit or a learned behavior. For example, a hoarder can be described as a person who is stuck in his inability to throw things away. Whether the hoarding tendency arose from his upbringing, or a faulty circuit in his brain, or both, there’s no question that he’s trapped by the habit. Surrounding himself with things in perpetuity may feed a deep need for security. The piles of stuff rising in ever higher walls around him are a perfect analogy for the emotional prison walls he’s erected around himself.
A traumatic occurrence can trap us, too. Soldiers who’ve experienced the horrors of war can suffer from PTSD afterward, where the trauma they’ve undergone carries over into the post-war period and holds them fast with steely emotional handcuffs. We non-soldiers can suffer post-traumatic reactions in our civilian lives, too. If something shakes us deeply enough, we may find it hard to move on. The river of life seems to flow right past us, taking everyone else along while we remain locked in place, forever reliving the trauma and experiencing its pain all over again.
These kinds of traps happen to us without our permission. We don’t ask for obsessive behavior or painful trauma. We don’t invite PTSD into our lives. But sometimes they come anyway. Often, professional help is required to free us from the toils of a force that feels too strong for us to tackle alone. We need a helper outside of ourselves to spring us from the prison of our own minds.
Walk Right In
And then there’s a whole different kind of trap. I’m talking about the choice that we make, at times, to voluntarily walk into a prison cell and hunker down. The precipitating event for our “arrest” is a hurtful interaction. The sentence is endless brooding. And the jailkeeper is our ego.
Anyone who’s ever been unable to shake off a sense of hurt or grievance against another person knows what I’m talking about. You come home from the precipitating event and can’t seem to get it out of your mind. “How could he do that to me?” “How dared she say that to me?” You feel wounded to the core.
After a while, the hurt turns to anger, burning fierce and relentless like fire sweeping through dry sagebrush. Everything goes up in smoke: your composure, your peace of mind, and your ability to think about anything else. You simply can’t see a way to put this thing behind you. You are as trapped as that hapless object we spoke about, caught by the river and condemned to bob forever in place.
The same thing can happen if you’re the guilty party. A sense of shame can lock you up as surely as a pair of manacles attached to the stone wall of a dungeon. The dungeon is your own state of mind, when you find it impossible to believe that the injured party will ever forgive you because you find it impossible to forgive yourself.
Our emotional selves don’t do well with negative “forever” feelings. We’re meant to adapt to circumstances. We’re meant to grow from experience. Most of all, we’re supposed to introspect, forgive or repent as necessary, and put things behind us.
Allowing a single, overwhelming emotion to lock us in place is seriously contra-indicated for anyone with an ambition to elevate himself. Allowing a whirlpool of feeling to carry us around and around in the same, never-ending circle is tantamount to voluntarily putting on the cruelest of handcuffs and throwing away the key.
Mental whirlpools are the enemy of forward movement. Brooding over perceived slights or imperfections in either others or ourselves is a non-starter. Instead, we need to find the key and slip free of those handcuffs. We need to firmly un-snag ourselves from the debris that has cluttered the river of our emotional life. We may have to ask for help in doing this. We can learn different ways of thinking, better techniques for coping with our ego’s demands. Ways which will eventually allow the cell door in our mind to spring open and set us free.
The secret is letting go. Learning to let that hurtful comment or blatant injustice drift from our minds like the proverbial water flowing under a bridge. Understanding that our personal egos are not the only factor at play, and that the less we focus on the hurt, the less hurtful it will feel.
We choose to let go because we want the unhampered forward movement that only a free mind gives us.
We choose to forgive and forget rather than wallow in our resentment, because we’d rather flow on than stay locked in place. The scenery is much more interesting when you’re on the move. And it’s really the only way to get anywhere.
We let go to free our precious minds from the debris that threatens to throw our thoughts into whirlpool mode and lock them into stagnation. Because life is too short, and far too precious, to let ourselves stagnate for even a moment!