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.


Mindfulness is about spending more time in the present moment. It is a concept that sounds simple and perhaps not very interesting, but in practice, the present moment turns out to be an elusive thing. It does not include the present day, hour, or minute. It is only right now. It is this moment, this experience, this feeling, this action. It is only THIS… right here and right now.

Why focus on THIS? First of all, the present moment is where we actually live our lives. THIS is where everything happens. To place our attention elsewhere is to miss out on life itself. Second, the present moment is usually pretty okay. This may not seem true, but consider how much of our moment-to-moment suffering is based on paying attention to the past or future rather than THIS. If you are involved in a car accident, the event itself lasts only a few seconds. The moments that follow, where you exchange insurance and contact information with the other driver, might be completely fine, even mundane, if it weren’t for your preoccupation and judgments about what just happened (the past) and your worries about what comes next (the future). If we can resist the urge to be elsewhere, if we can stop our minds from polluting the present moment, we often find that THIS is not nearly as a bad as we thought.

Unfortunately, THIS can be tricky to focus on. Here’s why…

Imagine sitting on the bank of a stream and trying to watch only a small patch of water directly in front of you. The water within this area is always moving and changing. Your eyes, which prefer to focus on specific things, have trouble staying on task. They want to watch the random leaf, twig, bug, or ripple. They want to follow it and see where it goes or what it does next. As soon as your eyes start tracking something, your attention wanders and you lose your focus.

Focusing on the present moment is much the same. The present moment is ever-changing, as the future becomes the present and recedes into the past. Meanwhile, our minds are quick to latch onto things and drag our attention away from THIS. We can’t help it, at least not at first. The mind sees THIS and starts working. It compares the present experience to our past, looking for patterns and similarities. It also extrapolates forward to create plans, expectations, fantasies, and worries for the future. Being truly focused on THIS means denying all of these mental impulses. It can be exceptionally hard to do, even if you really want to.

During the most intense moments of our lives, like the car accident, we generally cannot help but be present. We get irrevocably drawn into THIS. It requires no effort. However, most of our moments are not intense, as I suggested earlier. Most moments are rather mundane or ordinary. We might even call them boring. Even people who seem to have extraordinary, adventurous, or traumatic lives spend most of their time in ordinary moments. They sleep. They eat. They wait in lines or sit in traffic. They sit on the toilet. For most of us, the present moment is benign most of the time. These observations lead me to two conclusions: (1) being mindful is hard for just about everybody, and (2) just about everybody has access to a benign reality most of the time. I’m not saying that life isn’t scary and hard for lots of people. It is. I’m simply pointing out that our natural preoccupation with the past and future can obscure present moments that might otherwise feel okay.

Fortunately, we can train ourselves to focus more effectively on THIS. We can learn to set aside the unnecessary suffering that our minds create by obsessing over the past and future, and we can learn to exist more fully in the often-benign reality of the present moment. To move closer to this goal, we must practice. That’s it. That’s the trick to mindfulness. Sure, we can also read books, watch videos, listen to podcasts, and go to therapy; and all of these things will likely help. But there is no substitute for the practice of paying more attention to THIS, right here and right now.

As we progress, we will face challenges. The mind will rebel against THIS, because lounging around in THIS doesn’t feel safe to the mind. It wants to create safety by ruminating on the past and anticipating the future, but as I have said before, these efforts can also contaminate our reality and prevent us from experiencing THIS. Yes, we can and should learn from the past, but we can’t live there. And yes, we can and should have some plans and aspirations for the future, but we can’t live there either. And yet, most of us spend most of our time in those unreal places. We live in the sometimes dark and sometimes fanciful corners of our own minds, and we miss THIS. That doesn’t sound like safety to me.

Perhaps pursuing safety is part of the problem. Perhaps safety is not a reasonable or productive life goal. Instead of dedicating so many of our moments to figuring out how to avoid risk and danger, perhaps we should dedicate ourselves to exposing and understanding a different truth, that THIS is mostly okay most of the time. Imagine what it would be like, not being consumed with doubts, fears, insecurities, and judgments about the past and future. Imagine being free to experience life as it happens with the whole of your attention, and imagine doing so with openness, acceptance, trust, and vulnerability.

Some amount of learning and planning will always be important, of course. Pondering the past and future are unique and highly valuable human talents, but they should be used intentionally and not by default. That analytical part of our minds, no matter how amazing, is still only a tool, and a tool should never replace THIS as the center of our experiences. In other words, don’t get lost in your thoughts and forget to live. Regardless of whether your thoughts are a blessing or a curse, they are no substitute for lived moments. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Once again, I am not suggesting that life is easy or safe. It isn’t. Life can be soul-crushingly hard, and life is definitely not safe. But one of the most powerful and meaningful skills we can learn is to face THIS, even when it’s difficult, with our whole awareness and attention. To me, that’s living. To me, that’s a worthy and attainable life goal. We will never be able to do it perfectly, and that’s okay. The goal is simply to have the skill, to have the option of THIS, and not be forever stuck in ruminations and anxieties.

The Currency of Relationships

Every once in a while, a few of my clients will seem to become synchronized around a single theme or issue. This happened a couple weeks ago, and the theme was obligation. The quick version is this…

“Appreciation and apology, not obligation, are the currency of healthy relationships.”

When people in a relationship become focused on score-keeping and equity, the relationship dynamic can become adversarial or imbalanced. One person might do the dishes more and start feeling resentful. The other person might feel judged and unappreciated, leading to mutual resentment and indignation. In another relationship, one person might always feel indebted to the other, whether fairly or unfairly.

When people keep score in relationships, there is no way to do so fairly. How many points is walking the dog worth? How about having a cold or a stressful day at work? The accounting simply doesn’t work in any objective way, and as a result, people end up feeling guilty, obligated, judged, indignant, entitled, or simply misunderstood.

An alternative approach is to focus on small transactions and keeping the score card cleared. If a person does a good deed, appreciation is the currency that clears the debt. If a person makes a mistake, an appropriate apology or effort to make amends is the currency. Each exchange clears the score card, and no debts are carried longer than necessary.

Another approach is to get rid of the score card altogether. This might mean a shift toward seeing the relationship as a single team, not competing teams. When one person has a victory, everyone on the team celebrates. When one person makes an effort, everyone shows appreciation. When one person has a bad day, everyone rushes in to help. And when one person makes a mistake, everyone is willing to forgive. There is no score keeping within the team, as long as everyone believes that their teammates are doing their best.

This last part, giving each other the benefit of the doubt, may be the biggest challenge of all, but it also may be the simplest secret for restoring balance and health to a relationship.

Row Your Boat

Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream.

Having a two-year-old at home, I have been revisiting a vast array of children’s nursery rhymes, song, stories, and fairy tales. Most carry no real weight as vehicles of philosophy, but “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” caught me by surprise. As simple as the words may sound, each line could also be interpreted as a message about how to live life.

Here’s how I read it…

“Row, row, row your boat” = Participate and be active in your life (row). Don’t just sit there passively (row). Don’t let others call the shots (row). It’s your life (your boat).

“Gently down the stream” = But resist the urge to over-control, push, or force an agenda (row gently). Go with the flow of your life (down the stream), not against it. Be in the currents, but don’t spend all your energy fighting them.

“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily” = Remember that how you experience your life has everything to do with perception, perspective, and interpretation. We each have our own core values, beliefs, assumptions, biases, and expectations that shape how we see the world, other people, and ourselves. We may not always realize it, but in this way, reality itself is highly personal and subjective. And with some effort, reality can also become a matter of choice. It can be miserable, even if you have it all; or it can be joyful (merry), even if you have nothing.

“Life is but a dream” = We take things so seriously, and we suffer so much, because we are committed to our struggles. We would do well to meditate on subjective reality and realize just how many of our struggles are actually illusions with no substance or solidity. The life we see is largely a fabrication of our minds (but a dream), for better or worse. The sooner we can see through these dreams, the sooner we can unravel suffering.

The Reality of Self and No-Self

I belong to a book group focused on Buddhism and psychotherapy, and one of our recurring discussions is about whether or not there is a self. Buddhist teachings often focus on the idea that there is no such thing as the self, but clinical work in Psychology tends to deal directly with the self. It can be confusing. Is there a self? Do I exist? If I do exist, what am I?

After years of going round and round with this topic, my conclusion is that both points of view are correct. There is a self, and there is not a self. I exist, and I do not exist. Both statements are true at the same time, and there is no paradox. Allow me to explain…

When Buddhist teachings say “there is no self,” I believe that they are being clever but unclear. They jump ahead without showing their work, which makes it hard for anyone else to see how they got there. If I taught math this way, by showing problems and answers without any steps in between, I wouldn’t be a very effective teacher, and my students would be rightly frustrated. The same is true for teaching Buddhism. A good teacher needs to help students move along the path to understanding.

The statement “there is no self” is elegant in its simplicity, but I believe a less concise statement would be far more useful. Based on my own forays into Buddhism, I suggest the following alternative:


This statement is perhaps less elegant than “there is no self”, but it is also more clear. It means that, from the widest-possible perspective (i.e. ultimately), what we think of as the self has no existence that is concrete (i.e. fixed) or individually identifiable (i.e. separate).

Not being “fixed” means that we are dynamic and ever-changing, both physically and mentally. The person I am today is not the same as the person I was yesterday or will be tomorrow. My atoms are different, and my personality is different. Like a river, I have an identity, but that identity points to something that is never the same from one moment to the next. We can point at the self, just like we can point at the river, but we are never pointing at exactly the same thing twice. Both refer to a process more than a stable thing. The river is not static, and neither are we. When we really look at it, there is no fixed self.

Not being “separate” means that we are infinitely interconnected and interdependent with the rest of reality. Once again, this is true both physically and mentally. We may feel separate, but at a microscopic level, the physical boundary between my self and my surroundings is not so clear. Through the food we eat and the air we breathe, the cells of our bodies are renewed. Every atom comes from the world around us, and those atoms are constantly moving between us and the world.

At a mental level, we are equally permeable. Our senses take in information about the world, and that information changes us. Our personalities are built on our cumulative experiences with the world, and it is our personalities then determine how we respond to the world. The world shapes us, and we shape the world. We are infinitely interconnected, like drops of water in the ocean. When we really look at it, there is no separate self.

So, from this broadest of all perspectives, we have no individual identity called “self” that is fixed or separate. Rather, we are all one infinitely interconnected and interdependent process, and there is no distinction between any of us on this level. There is just the one event that is existence or reality. It is everything, and we are in it. We are it. There is no identifiable self. There are no things (plural) at all, only the one big thing that is everything. There is no individuality, no independence, no separateness, no choice, and no will. There is nothing apart from the one event.

I believe that this is what Buddhist teachings are trying to say, and I agree wholeheartedly. However, I also believe that this is not the end of truth. It is “merely” the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality, the biggest of all pictures. I sometimes compare this perspective to standing on a mountain, because it takes a lot of work to get there, but the view is amazing.

On a much smaller level, we do experience ourselves as individuals with bodies and minds that are relatively stable and separate. We experience ourselves as being independent and having the ability to make our own choices. This is reality as it appears, as it seems to be, and I would argue that it is not wrong. It is simply the “apparent reality” that we all live in most of the time. Building on our previous statement, I now suggest the following addition:

Ultimately, there is no fixed or separate self, BUT APPARENTLY, THERE IS A SELF.

This sounds contradictory, but it’s not. The critical point is in the distinction between ultimate and apparent reality. Ultimate reality is what is seen from that broadest of all perspectives, as described above. It is the highest truth, and it encompasses all other truths. Nevertheless, apparent reality seems more true in daily life, and sometimes, it may be more important and useful than ultimate reality. If ultimate reality is like standing on a mountain, then apparent reality is like living in a village far below.

Apparent reality is where we get to learn, grow up, make mistakes, fall in love, suffer loss, be afraid, and feel joy. The village can be horrible, but it can also be wonderful. Ultimate reality has almost none of that. Well, I should say that it has ALL of it, which is true, but ultimate reality lacks the same intensity. We can’t fully experience the horrors and wonders of village life while standing up on the mountain. We have to allow ourselves to settle back into apparent reality and become consumed by the experiences of the self.

If you are going to do something exciting or fun, you want to experience it as a self in apparent reality. It’s just better that way. Who wants to be emotionally detached from the intense thrill of falling in love or of watching your favorite team win the big game? I might even argue that the same is true for negative experiences. They hurt like hell, but nothing shapes us or teaches us more profoundly than suffering, and it would be unfortunate to deprive ourselves of those powerful experiences.

Ultimately, apparent reality may be an illusion, but it is also where we live. It is where consciousness exists. Ultimately, we may all be one infinitely interconnected and interdependent process, but perhaps that process can only experience itself fully through our consciousness down in the village. I’ve heard a very similar idea in the context of theology, with God creating humanity as a means to experience God. Regardless of which language you use, I think this idea can help us appreciate the value of apparent reality. Perhaps it is not our task in life to escape apparent reality and discover ultimate reality. Perhaps we exist to fully experience life in the village; to think, feel, learn, suffer, and grow. Perhaps we are built to be consciousness, not to escape it.

If awareness of ultimate reality limits our experience of life’s horrors and wonders, and perhaps even violates our basic purpose in living, then you might wonder why anyone would want to pursue it. Well, to answer this question, you only have to look at someone who is lost in the suffering of apparent reality.

We may be born into apparent reality. We may even be designed to live there. But life in the village is hard, precisely because we feel so fixed and separate. We can feel isolated, alone, small, powerless, insignificant, incomplete, and very mortal. We can feel like something is missing from our lives or from within ourselves. Nevertheless, most of us cling to the idea of a fixed and separate self. We want to believe that we are solid and autonomous. We fear the non-existence of the self just like we fear death, and through our fear and clinging, we suffer.

Awareness of ultimate reality removes the sharp edge from our suffering. It helps us to understand that there is nothing missing. We are not alone, because we are not separate. We are not powerless, because we are everything. We are exactly who we should be, and we are doing fine. There is nothing to be afraid of.

In the end, I believe it is good to seek ultimate reality, because it offers peace of mind, but you shouldn’t try to live there all the time. There’s just too much amazing stuff going on down in the village! If having one eye on the mountain allows you to be less afraid, then maybe that’s a good balance for getting the most out of life. Live in the village, but at some point, take the time to climb the mountain. Then, even when you’re back in the turmoil of the village, you can remember that mountain view and let go of fear.

Ultimately, there is no fixed or separate ANYTHING, but apparently, there is… And maybe it is good, even when it hurts.