How do you cross the flood? You cross calmly one step at a time, feeling for stones.
—from The First Free Women: Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns
This is a fragment of a poem written in the time of the Buddha by one of the first Buddhist nuns. It is a beautiful pith instruction for navigating any challenging situation.
The flood. You think the flood you are crossing is the river-out-there? For a practitioner, it’s not. It’s the flood of kleshas, the afflictive emotions that cloud and block the natural clarity of mind; that contract the naturally open heart and close off possibilities. The flood of reactivity that separates you from your usual intelligence and skill.
When you find yourself stuck in a whirlpool of emotion, pause and look. Look inside, the leverage point for liberation from the fetters of anger, greed, jealousy and pride. We think our difficulties come from circumstances around us—and in some ways, they do. But the more profound view is that the root cause of difficulties is in the mind.
To begin to cross calmly, you pacify the whirlpool of emotion by looking. There is nothing more to do. Without judgement or commentary, look. In resting awareness on an afflictive emotion, you disrupt the pattern of conflict-energy. If it doesn’t dissolve the pattern, it will at least soften it.
To cross the flood, you calm the waters. Don’t mistake this for an effort. It is more likely a letting go of effort—of fixing, judging, resisting, clinging or even ignoring. You drop the distractions of emotional resistance and focus instead on what is. You exit the story and enter the moment.
Now, slightly more centered, seeing what’s happening, you take a step. Perhaps you breathe. Now you ‘feel for stones’. Stones are visceral experience of the immediate ‘next’. In the same way the body moves and gathers information as it takes a step—you move forward in your immediate situation, attending to what’s actually there, free of the influence of your thoughts and ideas about it.
Taking this instruction you center yourself in the experience of the body, as you would if crossing a river whose bed was lined with slippery stones. Don’t rush. Feel what’s beneath your feet. Your foot feels the top and edge of the stone. Maybe you feel the stones next to it so you can tell if you are moving towards stability or wobbliness. Both are OK, but it helps to know. A confidence forms from the direct knowing of where you are and what’s happening right here, right now.
At the same time, feel the water, swirling around your legs. Glance at the bank on the other side and make an estimation of how far you have to go and whether you can make it. Your body experience is guiding you.
Making the step, you have a useful amount of uncertainty. You are alert and ready to be possibly off balance, so you move gingerly, paying close attention. You breathe and focus. Then you feel the next stone and the next, each time using your immediate experience as a guide for how to walk right here, right now, in this exact situation. So your actions are right. They make sense in this exact context.
You can’t necessarily control the situation, but you can control how you understand it, how you interact with it, how accurately you read it. And you can refrain from making the situation worse by reactivity.
You can cross, stone by stone, a flood. You can step on the dry ground of the other side and appreciate the feeling of having been skillful and present. You can continue.
Lekshe - April 2020 - photo by Lucas Mendes, Unsplash