Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does. Margaret Atwood
This morning I woke up and wept. Afterwards I feel as if a storm has blown through me. That tension and anticipation, moments before the storm hits, the release of torrential winds and rain, and the subsequent freshness and sense of cleansing and calm that comes after really good downpour.
One of the greatest lessons I have learned in the last few years is the patience to allow my emotions to come and go. I’m not saying I stay ever-calm or enjoy these storms, but I do mentally buoy myself with the understanding that they are a force unto themselves, and they will pass.
For years I medicated uncomfortable emotions with all kinds of panaceas – from alcohol to love to food – and for years into addiction recovery, I would get on the phone and talk, talk, talk about my feelings to anyone who would listen. I never learned to just allow them, to just sit with myself without panicking or having to judge or create a big story out of the experience.
What I discovered over time is that feelings, like the weather are in constant flux. And if I can just be with my feelings, just be present while they ebb and flow – or dance and wail while they storm and rage – they will always pass away and shift into another state.
Heraclitus – the Greek philosopher – believed flux and change was the central theme to life. Like the ancient Chinese philosophers he understood the paradox of non-dual thinking epitomised so beautifully in the yin yang symbol. There’s no sense of fixed polarities between opposite states, just a constant shift in balance between different states of being. Movement, flux, change.
Unlike his predecessor Thales who believed water was the great unifying element, Heraclitus though it was fire. What’s interesting here is the shift between all creation being of the gods, to an understanding of a more earthly and nature-originated source. The Greeks like many ancients, saw the inherent wisdom within the very nature of things, and then applied this wisdom to human life.
The Greeks, like many ancient cultures, associated the four elements with different aspects or humours of the human body, particularly in relation to medicine, but also as a study of emotional temperaments. Water was generally associated with the feminine, the lungs and the brain.
In modern Western esoteric traditions, think here of the imagery in the tarot, water represents the emotions, the psyche, the flowing, unpredictable, sometimes hidden aspects of human nature.
In Hindu philosophy the element water is one of the five great elements, or Panchamabhuta, is associated with water devas or vasus, with Chandra (the moon) and Shukra (Venus) who represents feelings, sexuality, intuition and emotions.
The Mantrapushpam, a sacred text of the Rishis, explains that the moon and the waters support each other, and draws a parallel between the waxing and waning of the moon, the effect on the tides, and the mind vacillating between emotions of grief and happiness.
Emotions are like the tides, in constant flow and flux, and the connection between emotions and the element of water is archetypal. Water doesn’t move in a straight line from point A to point B, it meanders and goes around things – solid things like rocks and trees and land masses. A lot like the emotional nature, water ebbs and flows, it can rage and damage, or be calm and soothing.
Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong. Laoxi
And what about the connection between water and tears, that has always fascinated me. Why does salt water well in my eyes when I’m feeling emotional?
These past months have been, hmmm, let’s keep the language PG and say ‘challenging.’ I felt right back in the deep end of life again, frantically treading water.
My dad has been sick, again. Every time, it’s that emotional roller coaster of not knowing if we are going to lose him. Not even if, but when.
My son is struggling at school. I think I try to hold things together for his sake, it’s not ideal when your main parent has an emotional breakdown. So as soon as he left for a weeks holiday with his dad, the pressure of the past few months dammed-up emotions broke though.
So I wake up, alone, and it feels like there’s a race to see if my head or my heart is going to implode first. My thoughts eddy me from one overwhelming scenario to another, wave after wave of emotions crash, culminating in a massive cry.
At the extremities of human feeling, language becomes the language of tears. John O’Donohue
At the same time, I was reflecting on the sacral chakra, located around the lower belly. The sacral chakra is considered the energy centre of our senses, emotions, sexuality and creativity. The Sanskrit name svadisthana translates as ‘the dwelling place of the self’ and ‘sweetness,’ so it is our own sweet place.
This chakra is associated with the element of water. Like water our sacral chakra is in constant motion. Tap in for a moment to your feeling state, your emotional sense, you senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and sound. Notice the constant stream of ideas, of creativity that streams through your mind. It’s in a state of movement, of flux, isn’t it?
I’m always looking for synchronicities in my life, I think ideas and concepts come together at a particular time for a reason. These seemingly random ideas began to coalesce into a theme for me.
Maybe I navigate through life like water?
I often berate myself because my emotions seem to loom so large and dictate so much of my behaviour, but what if that’s just how I am? What if like a body of water I do swell with the rains, and get churned up by the wind? Only to be restored to calm again. What if I do tend to flow around or over obstacles instead of moving them? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that?
I know I have a great affinity with water. Particularly the ocean. I took my son away on a road trip, we crossed the bay on a ferry and drove along the Great Ocean Road which transverses the Southern coast of Australia. The next day we awoke outside of Lorne, a truly spectacular place where the bush land meets the ocean. Sleeping by the ocean had worked its magic and I felt that the crisp sea breeze had blown my mind clear, decluttering and clarifying. I walked down to the rocky shoreline and allowed the waves to crash over me.
Sitting on a rock with the ocean crashing over me, singing my soul song, I imagined myself a mermaid. Tapping into some primal aspect of myself that never feels completely happy on solid ground. Between worlds. In the liminal zone.
The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door. Clarissa Pinkola Estes
My dreams take place in a watery world. As a child I would dream that I awoke in my bedroom and that it had a door in the floor that opened to the sea. I would swim and swim from azure shallows to a dark, churning ocean. Then find myself at the shore, back amongst people. Sometimes I just swam away.
I have an old pattern of trying to be someone else. Somewhere along the line, I got the message that I was not okay as I was and I needed to change in order to be worthy of love and acceptance. What if it’s one of my gifts to be so emotional? Well, perhaps ‘gift’ is stretching things a little, but what if I just have to accept that aspect of myself.
Forty years after learning my wild nature was not acceptable, I am still beating my head against that wall of trying to be different, but what if I just be who I am? What if I accept that plenty of people won’t accept me that way, but that’s okay. If emotions drive me, then perhaps it’s time I learned to flow with that force. Or at least to not fight it.
I tell you, we are the people of the sea and restless, wind-tormented still have no will but the water’s will. Traditional Irish poem
Our culture tends to dismiss emotion, to see it as weak and unmanageable. We tell people to “pull yourself together” and “swallow a load of concrete and harden up.”
We all feel emotions, some of us more than others, and some of us are more expressive about our emotions that others. So what’s the big deal, why are we so afraid of feeling?
Emotion is energy in motion, it is the moving out of energy from the unconscious into the conscious mind so we can deal with it. An emotion is like a message from within, and we need to be receptive to the messages.
Understanding that emotions move like water, gives us a clue to how to experience them. If we are in a strong current of water we can expend a lot of energy swimming against it, or we can go with the flow, and save our energy for paddling once the power has dissipated from the current, or in this case the emotional charge.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters. Norman Maclean
It’s hard being watery in a world that loves hard edges and grid lines and efficacy of A to B without meandering. My life, the true life that inspires me, all happens on a meander. Even that word makes me deeply exhale.
At best in our society we are encouraged to talk about our emotions, “and how did that make you feel?” The favourite go-to line of therapists. While I think naming our emotions is valid to a point, what our body surely wants is for us to FEEL them. I find now that excessive talking only creates and embeds a story around my emotional state, which may even entrench rather than release these feelings.
So how do we release emotions? We feel them. We allow them, honour them, dance in their rain, fly with their winds, bask in their sun. We stop resisting, denying and suppressing them. We allow our watery natures to flow.
Water is so fundamental to life. Our bodies are mostly water, we live on a planet that is mostly water, where all forms of life evolved out of the waters. We all come from the waters of the womb.
The water element is at the heart of evolution. All of life has come out of the sea. The matrix of life began in the primal soup that stirred in the beginning. Life crawled out of this water onto land. In a strangely ironic parallel, this is also the way human life begins. John O’Donohue
Our modern lifestyles tend to be quite rigid. Most of us work in jobs where we are expected to be somewhere at a certain time for a certain time, often sitting still, working on a computer.
And yet this inner ocean needs to move, to ebb and flow. How do we create a safe space to be in this sacral chakra energy?
May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children. Rainer Maria Rilke
Dance is a wonderful way to reconnect with our own sweet place. In traditional cultures dance is used as an important part of their ritual practice, as well as for the emotional and spiritual release it provides. Dance literally puts our energy into motion, releasing emotion, awakening our senses, freeing up tension in our body and connecting us with the deep essence of our spirit.
In Chakradance, the element of water comes through the sacral chakra. This is the feminine centre, a centre that holds the key to our emotional life, to our sensuality. In the dance we visualise stepping into a stream and being washed clean of any stress or tension. Then we dance from the hips, our bodies undulating like water. Stimulating the natural ebb and flow of our being.
A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable. William Wordsworth
Dancing allows all parts of me to engage in a delicious whirl of sensory experience, all the conflicting feelings and emotions and demands of my life get to come up and play, express themselves, are rearranged, and often dissipate or transform into something completely new.
Instead of life feeling disastrous. It feel like a dance of delicious imperfection.
But that’s in the dance. Then the music stops and I have to live it. Some days I stay in the dance, I maintain this perspective. But others… My desire to flow comes crashing down amongst all the conflicting needs and desires of those around me.
Some days I swing from some makeshift peace and acceptance of my life to abject terror that I’m letting everything slide. That I’m a slack mother, a negligent daughter, a bad friend, a haphazard worker. As a business owner I feel I should be doing so much more. As a woman I feel I should be socialising, dating. But I’m tired and deflated. There’s an apt word. Deflated.
I once had so many ideals for life and this world. Now I often feel jaded. I still believe in love and peace as perfect principles, but I also accept, as someone who’s lived in this world for over four decades, that much of the time these principles are not what motivates us, even the best of us.
I try very hard to be loving and kind but some days I’m hanging on by a thread not to just scream and shout and hit people. Some days the thread snaps.
I think this world forces me to be rigid and strong, and I suppress my watery nature. I freeze up. A few months ago I had an experience that affected me so that my entire sexuality and confidence in myself literally froze. I kept functioning but I felt nothing. George Clooney himself could have walked up and kissed my hand without the merest flutter of recognition in my body.
I just let myself be. Chakradance has taught me that these blocks will shift when they are ready to. I could see it was a self-defence mechanism. There was too much hurt so my feelings froze.
Shamans dance with their spirit guides and power animals to be empowered with spiritual life force. And to release what is no longer needed. Chakaradance taps into this shamanic practice, as well as the energetic aspects of the chakras. As my class danced in the sacral chakra, I felt that energy stir. That divine feminine that had shut down began to awaken.
Anodea Judith says that when we awaken these ‘frozen’ parts of ourselves, there is a thawing out stage. And like the recovery from frostbite, going from numb to thawing can feel excruciatingly painful. There is a reason we freeze out our emotions, they sometimes hurt. A lot.
Alongside the thawing is a tingling, very much like that sensation of blood retuning to a numbed limb. It brings sustenance and life. It reminds that there is always healing. The challenge is to let go of fighting this process. To resist thawing because it hurts blocks the life force that wants to move through me.
Maybe life is in the struggle. In the struggle and the letting go. Flux, movement, change.
Always be like water. Float in the times of pain or dance like waves along the wind which touches its surface. Santosh Kalwar
It feels that life is truly seen in those fresh moments. It may feel crappy. I may be tired of always having to be strong and kind when I’m tired and sad and just want some strong arms around me. But I do it. And then suddenly there is a moment. When my teenage son who is driving me crazy walks past and I feel in my bones the miracle of his creation and his growth from a baby into this burgeoning young man. And I trust that he’s going to be okay, that his life will burst from him in its own unique way and I don’t have to control or manipulate that.
And I sit with my dad and he gets sicker and frailer and I remember the man who made rude jokes at the dinner table, and always had gravy in his beard, and made you smile for ten minutes with the sun in your eyes while he took a photo, only to find there wasn’t any film in the camera anyway. Who took me so much to heart when I begged him not to embarrass me by shaking my male friend’s hand, that when my friend stuck his hand out, it took dad several awkward attempts to untangle his own from behind his back.
It hurts this life. It hurts to love. Because inherent in love is loss. Inherent in every moment is loss, just look at nature. Constantly recycling life from leaves to worms to raindrops.
It’s perfect in its imperfection. Because a perfect world would have no pain, would it? And yet pain is part of it.
My greatest asset is the pain I have navigated in life. That pain allows me compassion for the pain of others. To try to spiritually bypass suffering is possibly missing the entire point of being on a spiritual path.
Using our emotional suffering can be an in to developing compassion. The Buddhist practice of tonglen, in its most simplified form, is to allow ourselves to mentally connect with all sentient beings that suffer in the same way we do. And then radiating loving kindness to all suffering beings, by definition, including ourselves.
Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognise our shared humanity. Pema Chodron
I suppose the point should be made, that in all this talk of letting my emotions flow, I don’t mean venting them at someone else’s expense. I have been accused of being insincere at times because I will hold back expressing the full force of my emotions. I will exercise restraint and wait until the storm clears before communicating. Otherwise, well, it’s not pretty. Obviously at work I deal with all kinds of people who have all kinds of emotional effects on me. But I have to keep that in check, that’s just being professional.
So when I talk of expression and release of emotions, I am referring to finding appropriate ways to do that, in the right environment. Releasing emotion at the expense of another person is more akin to abuse than healthy release.
After 17 years in recovery groups, I’ve heard a lot of platitudes. Some still irritate me, but others despite their somewhat cloying tone, are helpful. One such platitude is to ‘act better than you feel.’ I like this because if doesn’t discount my emotions, it just reminds me to check myself before acting on them.
Is this insincere? Yes and no. It’s perhaps inauthentic, in the sense of complete self-expression, but who does that? Who doesn’t filter their behaviour in some circumstances? Imagine the chaos if we all just acted how we felt all the time. “Sorry, I just can’t parent/work/show up today because I’m having a feeling.” Or just venting on the people around us all the time, imagine if we told our partners the depths of our feelings towards them at all times, or our mothers? That’s not helpful authenticity, that’s just careless self-absorption.
This is where the work of Russ Harris, author of the Happiness Trap, amongst others, comes in handy. Authenticity can be expressed at an emotional level sure, but is that really going to benefit us and the people around us? Most likely not.
Authenticity at the level of our values, and the behaviours associated with our values however, can be of benefit. When I know what my values are, and identify how to act them out in my life, say loving kindness and respect for others, I may not be able to unleash the true nature of my feelings at all times, I may have to take some time out to process and calm down before I can respectfully communicate with another person, but that’s not inauthentic, it’s just putting my value systems ahead of uncontained self-expression.
Do I manage this all the time? Hell, no! Have I told you how emotional I am?
No. I try. And often where I fail is with the people that matter most. I can be restrained at work, but at home, with those relationships closest to my heart, that’s where it gets harder. But I try, I practice. I meditate and try to own my stuff as best I can. Progress not perfection. Yes, another cloying platitude.
I think this balance between awareness of our authentic self and our connectness to others, to all of life, is the basis of all spiritual practice.
You used to think that it was so easy, but you’re trying, you’re trying now. Gerry Rafferty
The point, is I think, that if we can mindfully experience our own emotions, and find healthy forms of expression, like dance or creativity or a good brisk walk, then we have a better chance of first, developing self awareness and second not venting unto others. We can also begin to see how these passionate emotional charges can be channeled for creativity and self-expression in constructive rather than destructive ways.
Which is why I’ve discovered, and I don’t think I’m alone here, that I need clear boundaries in relationships. Like my river banks, boundaries allow me to flow easily, to see where I need to go, otherwise I just disperse my energies everywhere and dry out.
And in my own life, this is what I’m pouring my energy into. It’s contained, but flowing.
And then every now and again we can allow ourselves the leeway to not be perfect and to have ourselves explode all over the place with emotion and hope the people around us love us enough to forgive.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always our self we find in the sea. e e Cummings
As I reflect on my affinity with water, I remember the day I found my soul song as I waded in rock pools near the thrashing ocean. I was distraught with emotion, with the wretched, wrenching pain of lost love. I hummed a song that resonated in my mind at that time, and somewhere between that melody and the ocean’s roar and hiss, my soul song came. It is a sad song, the wail of a siren calling for redemption, but it has great power. It reminds me that my own strength and power has come from sadness too.
The danger for water is stagnation. Is becoming so contained as to be stuck without its essential life force which is flux and flow. I see that in my own life. Disheartened in love, deflated in my dreams for my life, I have been merely going through the daily motions of life.
I sleep a lot, my dreams being an escape or release from my stuckness.
It’s taken me months to write this post. I have allowed time to flow and I know feels like it’s time to get some momentum going again. I am stagnating. I realise that any change right now would be beneficial. I find a simple change to my routine, early rising meditation, regular exercise, very basic things can get me moving and flowing again.
I need movement, when I allow my body to sit or rest too much, I lose all momentum. The time for resting and recuperating is over, it’s time to get moving again, to move those waters and let them flow on.
The undiscovered vein within us is a living part of the psyche; classical Chinese philosophy names this interior way “Tao,” and likens it to a flow of water that moves irresistibly towards its goal. To rest in Tao means fulfilment, wholeness, one’s destination reached, one’s mission done; the beginning, end, and perfect realisation of the meaning of existence innate in all things. C.G. Jung
This post is long, I know, if you made it this far you’ve done well. I thought about editing it down, but the whole point was the process of emotional flow and it’s taken me three months to go through this process. At the beginning I felt flooded with emotion. Then, as those storms subsided and I sat with the feelings, I eventually became stagnant and stuck, through moving, both physically and energetically, the flow has begun again.
What I have learned is that I can’t force or fast-track this process, trying to control it only adds to the pressure. The best I can do is make peace with wherever I find myself, to understand that great things come from sadness and grief, these are our shadow times when we get to dig deep and tap into unknown reservoirs of strength and power.
And then to be grateful, ever so thankful, when I get to rise up out of the depths and sun begins to shine again.
And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person you walked in. Haruki Murakami
Art by Katherine Skaggs katherineskaggs.com