As I’ve gotten older in years, I’ve realised that the challenges of life don’t escape any of us. Life tests us to the core. It can thrash us around in a whirlwind of torrents. It can even feel like we have very little choice in the matter. Yet do we? We can’t control what is going on outside of us – change happens from within… so this is where we have to look – deep within ourselves, realising that this is where our true power is. So how do we walk the path of life and stay true to ourselves amidst turmoil? The following story, originally by Chuang Tzu, offers a profound metaphor for life and the true nature of what it means to ‘go with the flow’. Essential reading for all humans looking for peace on this journey…
Chuang Tzu’s story of the swimmer
Confucius and his students went on a hike out in the countryside. He was thinking of using the opportunity to engage the students in a discussion about the Tao when one of them approached and asked: “Master, have you ever been to Liu Liang? It is not far from here.”
Confucius said: “I have heard about it but never actually seen it with my own eyes. It is said to be a place of much natural beauty.”
“It is indeed,” the student said. “Liu Liang is known for its majestic waterfalls. It is only about two hours’ trek from here, and the day is still young. Master, if you would like to go there, I would be honored to serve as your guide.”
Confucius thought this was a splendid idea, so the group set off toward Liu Liang. As they were walking and chatting, another student said: “I grew up near a waterfall myself. In summertime, I would always go swimming with the other children from the village.”
The first student explained: “These waterfalls we will see aren’t quite like that. The water comes down from such a great height that it carries tremendous force when it hits the bottom. You definitely would not want to go swimming there.”
Confucius said: “When the water is sufficiently powerful, not even fish and turtles can get near it. This is interesting to ponder, because we are used to thinking of water as their native element.”
After a while, they could see the waterfall coming into view in the hazy distance. Although it was still far away, they could see that it was indeed as majestic as the first student described. Another hour of walking brought them even closer, and now they could clearly hear the deep, vibrating sound it made.
They topped a rise and were able to see the entire waterfall. Then they gasped collectively, because at the bottom of it, they saw a man in the ferociously churning water, being spun around and whipped this way and that by the terrifying currents.
“Quickly, to the waterfall!” Confucius commanded. “He must have fallen in by accident, or perhaps he is a suicide. Either way, we must save him if we can.”
They ran as fast as they could. “It’s useless, Master,” one the students said. “By the time we get down there, he’ll be too far gone for us to do him any good.”
“You may well be right,” Confucius replied. “Nevertheless, when a man’s life is at stake, we owe it to him to make every effort possible.”
They lost sight of the man as they descended the hillside. Moments later, they broke through the forest to arrive at the river, a short distance downstream from the waterfall. They expected to see the man’s lifeless body in the river. Instead, they saw him swimming casually away from the waterfall, spreading his long hair out and singing loudly, evidently having a great time. They were dumbfounded.
When he got out of the river, Confucius went to speak with him: “Sir, I thought you must be some sort of supernatural being, but on closer inspection I see you are an ordinary person, no different from us. We sought to save you, but now I see it is not necessary.”
The man bowed to Confucius: “I am sorry if I have caused you any grave concerns on my behalf. This is merely a trivial recreational activity I enjoy once in a while.”
Confucius bowed back: “You say it is trivial, but to me it is incredible. How can it be that you were not harmed by the waterfall? Are there some special skills that you possess?”
“No, I have no special skills whatsoever,” the man replied. “I simply follow the nature of the water. That’s how I started with it, developed a habit out of it, and derived lifelong enjoyment from it.”
“This ‘follow the nature of the water’ – can you describe it in greater detail? How exactly does one follow the nature of water?”
“Well… I don’t really think about it very much. If I had to describe it, I would say that when the powerful torrents twist around me, I turn with them. If a strong current drives me down, I dive alongside it. As I do so, I am fully aware that when we get to the riverbed, the current will reverse course and provide a strong lift upward. When this occurs, I am already anticipating it, so I rise together with it.”
“So you are working with the water and not just letting it have its way with you?”
“That’s right. Although the water is extremely forceful, it is also a friend that I have gotten to know over the years, so I can sense what it wants to do, and I leverage its flow without trying to manipulate it or impose my will on it.”
“How long did it take for you to make all this an integrated part of your life?”
“I really can’t say. I was born in this area, so the waterfalls have always been a familiar sight to me. I grew up playing with these powerful currents, so I have always felt comfortable with them. Whatever success I have with water is simply a natural result of my lifelong habit. To be quite frank, I have no idea why this approach works so well. To me, it’s just the way life is.”
Confucius thanked him and turned back to his students. He smiled, because he suddenly knew exactly what they could talk about on their trip home.
The metaphors of life
In this story, the mighty waterfall and the river symbolise the divine flow of the universe echoed in our daily lives. We are powerless to stop the flow. It may often seem unforgiving and harsh, yet these times are our greatest teachers in offering the opportunity to evolve beyond our self-imposed limitations.
We are inseparable from the flow. Confusion happens when we mistakenly believe that we are somehow separate from it. Chaos follows when we try to control or manipulate either the flow or our response to it. Attempting to fight the river of life or when we shout out our perceived injustices, we simply become exhausted from the struggle, getting nowhere.
The swimmer in the story offers us a profound message. Contrary to many spiritual misconceptions today, he is NOT blindly allowing the flow to take him. ‘Trusting the universe’ is not about letting the flow ‘take’ you without regard for what is going on. This would simply rip us to sheds.
The swimmer is purely present. He is aware of every instant, the nature of the water and the nature of the universe. Because of this awareness, he realises that once he approaches the bottom of the riverbed, the energy will propel him back to the surface. He is able to use the energy of the universe to simply flow through the river of life. Without such presence, he would either be in a state of fear or blind acceptance – either way would ensure that he would miss the opportunity to flow. Rather than blindly accepting ‘whatever goes’ (which in this case would tear him apart) he accepts that he is powerless to change the flow and uses it like a divine dance to carry him onwards and upwards unscathed.
It takes time to master the flow of the universe. The man in this story represents someone who has achieved an advanced state of evolution. However, he reflects the opportunity within each of us to become who we truly are. The story offers an important tenet to unleashing our true beingness, achieved through absolute commitment. At times we are going to make ‘mistakes’, but we all know that there are no such things as mistakes as long as we learn by them; becoming increasingly aware and eternal students of the divine flow.
Here’s our invitation to become at one with the divine flow, just like the swimmer in Chang Tzu’s story. Only then can we find true peace.
Soul to Soul
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