Thursday, December 10, 2009

the river

Now for something a little different...

I once read somewhere that that if it were ever possible to be inside another person's head, we would instantly think we had gone insane because the other person's way of thinking would be so different than our own. [Imagine the movie Being John Malkovich and not just seeing what he sees but also being able to witness every thought that he thinks too.]

With that in mind... I'm continually amazed, even though I should not be, that most people have no idea what "the river" is and live, instead, entirely in the conventional world. I'm surprised because basically every decision I make -- about careers, relationships, what to write, what to read, my measure of all religious practice, my experience of nature, everything that I do that I consider important -- is made in reference to my experience of "the river." The river contains all the good stuff in the universe, all the stuff really worth doing, and you know you are in the river when you feel it. The physical experience of the river is the closest thing I have to any sort of spiritual/religious experience.

I'll explain.

Basically I'm a Platonist. But I don't believe in Plato's forms [Plato's argument is that the reason we are able to recognize a beautiful rose is because there exists a divine perfect "form" of the rose and we all carry that universal form around in our heads.] Instead of "forms" my experience of consciousness is that there is this river that we all have access to. (I know I should have written "a river we all have access to" but it isn't just any old river, it's the river, this river, there is only one in my experience, in the same way that there is onelove that people talk about.) When our actions are in tune with the universe, we know it because we can feel the sensation of getting closer to the river, or even being part of the river. The river does not produce the sensation of cold or wetness like a usual river. Rather, the river produces a sensation of harmony and attunement with one's deeper purpose and the deeper purpose of the universe (and it does have a sense of movement -- so in that way I guess it's like an earthly river). I definitely know when I've moved closer to the river because I can feel it -- it's an actual bodily sensation.

In some ways, my concept of the river is similar to
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's concept of "flow." But it's really more than that, because it's not just about being immersed in a task -- it's about being immersed in a task that is in harmony with the deeper purpose of the universe. So I can be in flow playing a video game, but never experience the river. But if I'm at a protest march and the protest march is making a difference and reducing suffering in the world, then I'm more likely to experience the river.

I should add that the river flows according to its own purposes. It shows up when it wants to show up, we can't call it to us. The best that we can hope to do is to work consistently day in and day out to do the right thing and, if we are lucky, occasionally the river will show up of its own accord. (As my favorite soccer coach used to say, "luck is the residue of careful planning" so doing the right thing helps but there is no direct cause and effect that one can count on). So in that way, sadly it creates an ethic somewhat akin to the protestant work ethic. But at the same time, it's not just a restatement of Protestantism because it also has lots of space for passion and desire and love. Furthermore, the hallmark of the river is an actual physical experience -- to which Calvinists are usually immune.

The concept of the river is so core to how I think and how I experience the world that for the longest time (most of my life) I just assumed that everyone else must know about the river too. But then when I actually describe the river to friends or lovers, it usually turns out that they have a completely different framework through which they make sense of the world and make decisions. So I guess this is just a helpful reminder that there is an extraordinary diversity of worldviews and interior experiences out there and that it's really helpful to inquire further about another person's interiors without making the assumption that we are all operating in the same way (which should go without saying but sometimes is worth repeating I suppose).

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