Mountain Stream

I am often struck by the countless forms and causes of unnecessary human suffering. It seems like we are constantly getting lost in ruminations about the past and anxieties about the future. We try in vain to predict events and control their outcomes, and as a result, we often do little more than flail around ineffectually. We waste energy, make a mess of even the most benign moments, and cause unintended harm to ourselves and others.

Almost 20 years ago, during one of my own such struggles, I escaped into nature and sat on the bank of a mountain stream near Bozeman, Montana. As I watched the water and sat with my suffering, I began to notice something. Like us, water also faces obstacles, but water does not react the way humans do.

The mountain stream does not anticipate or dwell upon the rocks, drops, and debris in its path. It remains perfectly smooth until the moment of conflict, and once the obstacle passes, it quickly returns to a state of calm. Water does not look ahead or back. It does not anticipate or cling to adversity. It simply remains in the present and moves forward. Water also does not fantasize about other paths or realities. It remains firmly grounded in the reality of what is, free of expectations about how things “should” be.

During the moment of conflict, water always seeks the path of least resistance. It can get stirred up, but it does not do any unnecessary work. It never flows uphill, and it never resists or becomes rigid. It flows around and through all barriers, exerting its own kind of dynamic power in the process. When the barrier has passed, water immediately settles back into a state of easy flow.

As humans, we can learn a lot from water. We can learn to stay more present, minimizing our time dwelling on the past and future. Certainly, the human mind has amazing talents for learning, through reflection on the past, and for planning, through imagining possible futures. However, we must remember that we cannot live in the past or future. We can only live here in the present moment. Of course, struggles and conflicts also occur in the present, but not so much as we might think, and it is a great tragedy to spoil perfectly ordinary and comfortable moments by paying too much attention to the fantastic dramas of the past and future.

We can also learn to trust, which allows us to let go of our desire for prediction and control. To be clear, I am not suggesting we trust that everything will be alright. It won’t be. Life is hard. Each and every one of us will face sickness, injury, danger, insecurity, heartbreak, and death. That is the truth, but it is not the whole truth. It is also true that beauty is happening all the time. Unfortunately, we are often too distracted by the real and potential hardships of life to pay full attention to the incredible beauty of it. This creates a negative bias in our perception and leads us to seek out prediction, control, and other defensive reactions.

I suggest that we actively challenge this negative bias. Specifically, I suggest that we learn to trust four simple truths:

  1. Life is a rich tapestry of experiences, including all forms of hardship and delight.
  2. These experiences can be meaningful, worthwhile, and satisfying.
  3. Hypervigilance, worry, and defensiveness rarely help and usually make things worse.
  4. We can handle these experiences.

This last point speaks to an extremely common crisis of confidence among humans, which once again leads to defensive reactions. To use another water image, we act as if life is a violent and dangerous rapids, failing to realize that we are actually the fish in this metaphor. We may never be entirely safe, but we are much better equipped for this life than we give ourselves credit for.

At this point, I must admit that my original mountain stream comparison is not quite fair. Water has it easy. Water cheats. Water has no mind to run amok with doubts, fears, and longings; and so it has no need for trust. It can behave with perfect and effortless elegance in the face of adversity. Meanwhile, humans have the most unruly minds imaginable, which lead us into endless struggles and suffering.

Nevertheless, we can aspire to let go of defensive reactions. For us, that means learning and practicing some degree of trust, in life and in ourselves. There is no real disadvantage to trust, since mistrust does little to minimize the impacts of adversity. Doubts, fears, and worries simply do not offer much protection. Instead, they mostly make us tired and anxious. Better to let go, to trust, and to meet whatever challenges arise in a state of well-rested calm.

Through these practices, we can learn to cultivate beauty in our lives, as much as may be possible. Life is hard enough without us making a mess of the precious and delightful moments. If we can be more present and trust, even just a little, we may begin to see the world differently. We may notice that our human reality is a rich tapestry of emotional experiences, including everything from overwhelming joy to the darkest suffering. We may also come to realize and accept that this tapestry, when cleared of our ruminations and expectations, can be a great source of meaning and satisfaction.

If all of this can be learned from a mountain stream passing over a few rocks, how many other lessons are out there for us, waiting to be realized? It boggles the mind, which is good, and it makes me smile.