Why Living as a River Can Set Us Free: An Interview with Bodhipaksa

how to live like a riverToday it’s my pleasure to bring to you Bodhipaksa, a longtime meditation teacher, author of Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change. Bodhipaksa also started a wonderful site called Wildmind that has a number of self paced guided meditation courses and an ongoing blog to help us sew our seeds of mindfulness and compassion. As a short note, Bodhipaksa means “wings of enlightenment.”

Today Bodhipaksa shares with us what it means to live as a river, how we might gain freedom from seeing the ever changing nature of ourselves and what we can do when we’re suffering.

Elisha: What does it mean to live as a river?

Bodhipaksa: To me, living as a river means accepting the reality of impermanence and also recognizing the reality of anatta, or non-self. Our minds try to “fix” things and to see them as more permanent, static, and separate than they actually are. And one of the “things” that we treat in this way is ourselves.

The river is a a great analogy for how things are. We see a river, and we naturally make an assumption that there is a thing there that we call Thames, or Potomac, or Mississippi. But of course by the time we’ve named the river it’s already become something else ,as Heraclitus pointed out a long time ago. And our selves are like this as well.

We have an instinctual sense that we have this “thing” called a self, but in the moment it takes to have that thought — there I am, I am like this — what we labeled as the self has become something different. Both the matter and consciousness that we identify with as the basis of the self are continually changing — flowing, in fact, like a river.

Another way the river becomes a useful analogy for the self is to consider where the boundaries are. A river has to have banks. The bank, in a way, is the river, just as much as the water is. Try to imagine a river without banks. It just doesn’t work. And the banks merge seamlessly with the landscape, so there’s no end to the river. Similarly, our selves — our bodies and consciousness — end up being defined by things that we conventionally think of as being “not-self,” and there’s no defined “edge” to the self. We’re dependent upon matter, energy, and other consciousnesses outside of ourselves in order to have selves.

So our selves exist in an interdependent and “flowing” way. Nevertheless, we have a lot of emotional investment in thinking of ourselves as separate and static. In a way we’re involved in a constant struggle not to acknowledge the reality of change.

I think that ultimately comes back to a fear of extinction, and in fact there’s a growing body of evidence from psychological studies suggesting that fear of our mortality plays a major role in motivating us to create a sense of identity that we can then cling to. Rather than go into that now, however, I’d like to suggest that the energy we put into defining ourselves is like damming or even freezing the river of our selves.

When we’re least conscious of our sense of separateness — at times when we feel great love, or when we’re joyfully absorbed in something, or in meditation, or in mystical experiences — we’re at our most spontaneous and alive. When we’re caught up in constantly thinking about ourselves and our relation to others, and whether those other like us or not (to take just one example), we become stiff and clunky — like a dammed or frozen river. A lot of spiritual practice involves allowing our sense of separateness to “melt,” as it were.

Elisha: We often think of ourselves in the form of a noun. We say, “I am a man, a woman, a banker, a father, a daughter, etc…” You mention that the Self is a Verb, can you say more about this?

Bodhipaksa: To say that self is a verb is another way or recognizing what I’ve just talked about — that our selves are neither static nor separate. In fact, our selves are undefinable. Of course we put a lot of energy, as I’ve mentioned, into trying to define ourselves. All those labels defining our relationships and status are fine in themselves, but we tend to over-invest in them, and to see them as being central to who we are, rather than as things we do.

The reflective meditation practice that Living as a River is based on helps us to directly see that we can’t define ourselves even as our bodies or minds (both of which are continually changing), never mind in terms of jobs or external relationships. It’s not that any of those external things are unimportant. Part of the way my indefinable self finds expression at present is as a man, a father, and as a writer. But those things don’t define me. Often that happens with people: you’re a man, and so you behave the way you think a man ought to behave, for example.

It’s also not the case that you can somehow strip away everything you do, every relationship you have — even the body and mind — and somehow be left with some kind of “real self.” There wouldn’t in fact be anything left! But we’re also not just the sum total of all these things either, because they’re all changing. We can’t really define ourselves. We’re always looking for some “thing” that will define us — but here we are whether we try to define ourselves or not! We don’t need to be defined in order to exist.

Elisha: You have many quotes in your books to begin your chapters. Can you tell us one of your favorites and what it means to you?

Bodhipaksa: It’s a tough choice, and looking through the quotes I realize which one’s my favorite is going to depend on what I’ve been reflecting on. At the moment the one that resonates most is from Montaigne: “The beautiful souls are they that are universal, open, and ready for all things.”

To me this speaks of the freedom and spontaneity that emerge when we stop clinging to a sense of identity — when we stop trying to define our experience in terms of self and other, this and that. When we can do this, a sense of spaciousness emerges in which a genuine and deeper connection with ourselves and others is experienced, and in this we feel creative and alive.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was suffering right now, what advice could you give them to get them started on a path toward healing?

Bodhipaksa: I’d encourage anyone feeling pain to awaken to the truth that their pain is not them. Often we see our physical and emotional pain, and all the stories that surround these experiences, as being an intrinsic part of us. If we stand back from our pain, however, and observe it as “other,” then we have more freedom.

It’s a bit like looking at a cloud from an aircraft; you can either be inside or outside the cloud, and if you’re inside, all you can see is cloud. The cloud dominates your experience. Similarly, when we’re inside our pain looking out, the pain colors everything we see, because we’ve made it into a filter through which we experience everything else. The pain looks enormous: at least as big as we are, and maybe a lot bigger. But just as from the outside of a cloud you see that the cloud isn’t everything and that it’s surrounded by sky, so from outside our pain we recognize that our difficult experiences are just one part of us. They no longer dominate every perception, and so they seem smaller and more manageable, surrounded by the “sky” of mindful awareness.

The cloud hasn’t changed size, but we’ve changed our relationship to it and so it appears different, less all-consuming. And again, within this spacious awareness we can find joy, spontaneity, creativity, and love. And those experiences can coexist with our pain. Ultimately we can realize that our pain is not us. We’re much larger than our pain is, and we’re not defined by it. The pain is just passing through, and doesn’t “stick” to us. Realizing all this brings a sense of freedom and peace.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on Psychcentral.com

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