For many years, I have enjoyed whitewater canoe trips with women friends on the wild rivers of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah in the U.S. Being philosophical types, we named our outings “Journey to the Source,” using the river as a metaphor for life. On these trips, we take time to contemplate the meaning of pivotal events and to rest from the incessant rush of ordinary experience.
Water is a familiar symbol in this way--the “womb of the ocean,” the “stream of life” and so on. We are urged to “go with the flow.” Though these phrases have become trite, like most clichés, they are based in a deeper truth which has become popularly recognized.
My friends and I have learned a great deal from the river. The first is to work with it, never against it. Paddling upstream is extremely difficult, indeed impossible for any length of time. The harder we fight, the more depleted we become. Yet we try to do just that in our personal lives. We push ourselves mercilessly in wrong directions, exhausting body, mind, and spirit.
On the river, we have learned that keen observation of the obstacles--the rocks and rapids and bends in the channel—coupled with aware and subtle guidance with the blade of the paddle, allows us to move smoothly through potentially dangerous situations. If we battle the river, we always lose. If we’re inattentive, the canoe may turn sideways in an instant and tip over.
Mindfulness is our key protection in canoeing, just as it is in daily experience. Wayne Dyer said it well in Real Magic: “Whatever we’re for strengthens us; whatever we’re against weakens us.” On the river, we seek positive directions, guiding ourselves purposely toward the flow of the current, letting the power of the river move us. Staying present in each moment, we avoid the dangerous rocks and glide safely into calmer waters.
Another lesson from the river is that our trip is most successful when we are generous and compassionate toward others. We usually suffer “instant karma” if we act in selfish or hurtful ways. For example, a group of young men were canoeing the North Platte in Wyoming when we were there. They thought it humorous that all these old ladies had the nerve to tackle such a macho sport. With lunch stops and excursions, the two groups passed each other several times during the first day. Ethyl, our guide, knew the fellow who was leading their party. The two of them traded good-natured jokes and humorous insults as we all traveled downriver.
On the second day out, the men passed us very fast, paddling furiously to get ahead of us. Ethyl knew that they were rushing to beat us to the most beautiful camping spot on the river, which she had hoped to claim for our group that night. Sure enough, when we arrived at this special spot, the men were already setting up their camp, terribly smug about their victory. We had to paddle two more tiring hours to put into a decent site. That effort took extra discipline and fortitude, despite strong headwinds and weariness.
But the river took care of us. A heavy storm hit overnight, bringing high winds and torrents of cold rain. At 6:00 the next morning, a very bedraggled, motley group of familiar river rats rounded the bend as we were preparing our breakfast. We waved in silence as they paddled past. It seems that the river surged during the night and flooded their “perfect” campsite. They had to break camp and hastily retreat to their canoes well before daylight. River karma.
I have learned so much from the river: Gentleness, compassion, generous behavior, along with the importance of mindfulness and a positive direction. These are also important keys to emotional recovery. As time passes after our straight spouse crises, we are increasingly able to understand that we are not separate from the suffering and joy of others, including that of our gay mate. With growing realization that we are fundamentally connected to every living being, we can let the river carry us, burdens and all, to the next safe campsite. Optimistically paddling ahead, not back, it becomes possible to heal ourselves and move into a more peaceful future.