Being Water

The text of my sermon from The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bozeman yesterday:

Being Water: Flexibility, Change and Following our True Nature


River (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. 

Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. 
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. 
The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. 
On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. 

Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. 

I am haunted by waters.”

~Norman McLean, A River Runs Through It.

Those words by Norman McLean are famous all around the world. Mostly because they are words that resonate with everyone- on a primal level.

I too, am haunted by water.

Water- perhaps like every other spirit- looms wide in our world- open to the eyes that wish to see it. Or to the mind that wishes to know.

Water holds the vital components of life- we cannot go long without it. But too much and we die.

It is a tremendous force of creation AND destruction, a source of delight and dread.

How many people here do not know how to swim? How many would be thrilled to be adrift on a boat in the middle of the ocean? How many terrified? (Life of Pi)

And yet, do you know the delight of a cold glass of water on a hot day, or a warm bath after a long day of hard labor- or a hot tub after skiing?

Have you considered the water involved in your day- so far?

How much water have you used today?

Is it possible to even calculate?

Water is everywhere. It exists in a variety of states of purity. It is one of a very few elements that transition easily from solid to liquid to gas. It defines places and things on our planet by it’s presence: ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, oceans, glaciers, icebergs, clouds. It defines places on our planet by it’s absence: deserts, salt flats, stalagmites, etc.

Baking doesn’t work without adding and removing water. Neither does fermentation and distillation. And do you have any idea how many gallons of water it takes to make one automobile?

It is an amazing substance, plentiful, misused, often taken for granted, but remarkably resilient- and I believe it can be our teacher.

First, Some Statistics

  • 780 million people lack access to an improved water source; approximately one in nine people.
  • Half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people suffering from a water-related disease.
  • An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing country slum uses for an entire day.
  • Over 2 1/2X the United States population do not have access to clean water.
  • More people in the world have a mobile phone than access to a toilet.
  • There is more fresh water in the atmosphere than in all of the rivers on the planet combined- but, If all of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere fell at once, distributed evenly, it would only cover the earth with about an inch of water.
  • It takes more water to manufacture a new car (39,090 gallons) than to fill an above ground swimming pool.
  • It takes more than ten gallons of water to produce one slice of bread.
  • Over 713 gallons of water go into the production of one cotton T-shirt.
  • 1,000 gallons of water are required to produce 1 gallon of milk.
  • Roughly 634 gallons of water go into the production of one hamburger
  • The average faucet flows at a rate of 2 gallons per minute.  You can save up to 4 gallons of water every morning by turning off the faucet while you brush your teeth.

When I start looking things up, sometimes I can’t stop. 🙂

So now, let’s think about water and what it does.

What do we use water for? Shout out an answer-

All good things. So we know it’s good for washing, drinking, irrigation, skiiing, snowboarding, fishing. So many things.

What I love about water is its flexibility.

In more ways than one, water adapts to our needs. It also is amazing in its ability to adapt to the environment it finds itself in….

How much better off would we be, if we could naturally take the temperature of the room around us, and, if it got to be uncomfortable, we could just change shape to suit us better? That’s what water does.

In fact, I think it’s what we do, too- if we don’t second guess ourselves- but more about that later.

Water is flexible. It moves over, around, under, through whatever gets in the way. It allows itself to be moved by the things it encounters- making music as it flows over rocks and boulders, whispering gently as it is stirred by the wind. Water, I imagine, is delighted by obstacles, because then it gets to find another way. That’s the first lesson I try to remember form water.

I have a small fountain in my therapy office. I use it to remind myself and my clients that we are mostly water-66-70% -depending on the person and the time of day. As such, we have a right to claim its flexibility. We have the possibility and responsibility to be moved by the obstacles we see in our path- and to respond with our true nature. Gracefully, and honestly and purposeful. Just like the water from the hose does when it’s thrown onto the lawn- it goes where it goes- according to its nature.

We sometimes have difficulty trusting our nature. We’ve sometimes come from spiritual or cultural traditions that have told us that our natures are to be overcome- that human nature is not godly or holy or noble or right. As such, sometimes, I believe we’ve lost something of the power of the voice of our true nature- the voice that knows what to do, where to go when we let go, when we just trust our nature to carry us forward.

How does water know where to go?

As a kid in a farming family, I remember being fascinated out with my grandfather as he flood irrigated the pastures. We used canvas dams and irrigation ditches….

I got pretty good at being able to tell where to place the dams so that it would water the pastures effectively. But there also was a lot of waiting. So I played in the water- I swam in the small creeks and noticed the plants that lived in the still waters, like cattails and arrowroot- and the water birch and cottonwoods that grew nearby. The red wing blackbird nests in the cattails, the fish and crayfish and insects and animals- and me. All brought together- all linked by water in some way or another. All following our nature- more or less.

One of the most amazing things about water, is that it changes according to its environment. If the temperature drops, it freezes, if it raises to a higher level it melts. Higher still, it evaporates. It knows how to adapt. I’m not suggesting that this is conscious process, but I think the lesson is clear.

Most of human suffering, I believe, is about not changing with the temperature of the environment. Much of the suffering I’ve encountered in others -and noticed in myself is about not recognizing that I’m not suited to the environment in my present form- and believing that I can’t change.

That I shouldn’t have to change.

Let THEM change. 🙂

Does it sound at all familiar?

It does to me- almost painfully.

But the lesson of water is about the infinite ability to change. To live in one form or another according to the temperature it finds itself in.

We can do that, too.

And we won’t lose anything by doing it- except maybe our suffering. And I want to distinguish between suffering and pain.

Pain is real. Pain is important. Pain tells us when something needs attention. Could you imagine life without pain? I wouldn’t want to. It’s a valuable tool.

But suffering is something else entirely. Suppose I kick you in the leg- would you feel pain? Hopefully. But when does the suffering begin?

Suffering begins when you start to think “Greg shouldn’t kick me like that- what a jerk! Wow- that really hurt, I can feel it throbbing now and I ought to just get up and kick him right back because I wasn’t doing anything and he just kicked me and…” you get the idea.

Suffering is about embellishing the present with past pain. 

It’s about losing the present moment in the “should’s”. My Dad always said “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself- it’s a waste. It’s better to say ‘Next time that happens, I’ll pay closer attention.’”

Smart man, my Dad.

If we let go of suffering, and just allow the pain to inform our true nature- then what happens? We may stop interpreting, may stop judging the truth or the justice of the pain and simply allow the experience to inform us.

Especially if we remember we are water. Verse 8 from the Tao Te Ching is one of my favorites:

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.

Just like water, we encounter resistance and move around it, over it, under it, through it- whatever is patiently allowed.

Pain is simply information- an obstacle, a barrier maybe. An opportunity to adjust our perceptions, change course and keep going.

Water always knows where it is going, because it trusts its nature. It is a reminder to me to trust my goodness and the goodness of all those around me.

Do you think you have a good sense about the importance of water to you now?

In the time it’s taken me to speak to you today, we have all exchanged water vapor in this room through the inhalation and exhalation of our breath. It’s inescapable. We’re all part of each other through water.

And I love that. When you gather next in this room, try and remember that.

When you have difficulty with the person across from you, remember that you are filled with them, and vice versa, simply by breathing.

Isn’t that wonderful? It’s hard to be angry in the face of wonder. Or sad, or ashamed or afraid for that matter.

I believe that the greatest lesson water gives us is wonder. It is the gift of seeing ourselves in the breath of another.

It is about being haunted- by an inspiring spirit that teaches us to be flexible, to trust that we know where we’re going and that we can change if need be.

So for a moment, I’d like to just offer you a brief meditation….

We are water. We are fluid.

We are mighty, we are rough;

we are gentle, we give life;

We are vapor, we are ice, we are snow.

We are the glaciers carve mountains, the springs that provide cool relief.

We make thunder and lightning

and rainbows and oceans.

We are perfectly adaptable, infinitely flexible and amazingly resilient.

We are grace.

(Audio is here: )