The Great Sea - Musings on the Element of Water
I’ve spent the last few weeks immersed in the element of water in my yoga teaching. Kind of an usual spot to land in the middle of winter in Wisconsin. We tend to view water as a summer thing here – when it’s warm enough to actually go IN the water and come out without freezing.
But the element of water is more than refreshment on a sizzling hot day. It’s nurturing and nourishment on all levels of being. The majority of our tissues are composed of water – so we are mostly water on a physical level. It pervades every cell of our body. According to the Journal of Biological Chemistry up to 60% of the human adult body is water. The brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are79%, and even the bones are watery: 31%.
Hydration is the most necessary of all human survival needs because of our watery nature. Without it – we cannot survive. And when we consume too little, all our systems suffer.
But water also nourishes us psycho-emotionally. The element of water is associated with emotion – and often expressed in tears of joy and sorrow. Yoga philosophy places the water element in the second chakra – the pelvic bowl, hips, low back, and belly. The sea of the second chakra energetically represents our relationships. The give and take of love and care, of love and sex, of love and life. Culturally, this area is often shut down in the Western world, a side effect of sitting in chairs that keep our hips tight, our low backs stiff, and our emotions stuck. In the train station in Kolkata, India, I was amazed by the grandmothers dangling in full squat in the waiting area. The chairs were filled with foreigners which the Indian elders didn’t even consider. Thankfully the West has adopted yoga from their culture, and many stiff Americans open their hips daily with Pigeon Poses and low Lunges, they breathe into soft bellies in Butterfly Pose and undulate through cat/cow daily to reopen and revitalize this area of the body so closely linked to the heart and associated with the element of Water.
Shortly after my mother died I was in a hip opening yoga class taught by Seane Corn in Chicago. It was packed – mat to mat – and as we dropped into Sleeping Pigeon I felt a surge of opening in my second chakra. I smelled Chanel #5 (my mom’s favorite perfume) and felt her hands around my hands, holding tight. A river of tears poured out of me that I could not control, cascading through my heart and out my eyes – a deluge I had been holding since her abrupt departure a few months earlier. Seane stopped by my mat and placed her hand on the back of my heart. “Stay as long as you need to, my friend”. The class ended and eventually I rolled onto my back for a much needed savasana. Those tears were a gift. My chance to say good bye to my mom and tell her how much I would miss calling her on the phone and rubbing her feet while we shared a glass of wine. This type of emotional release happens often to students in my classes – and I tell them that it’s a gift. The gift of water, effortlessly releasing the flood of emotion that we keep stored in our tissues. Until we give our body permission to let it go. No need to process it or tell a story about it. An opportunity to surrender into the flow of life and death and
love and loss. Moving through it, with grace and wisdom into the next breath. Perhaps just a little lighter.
I’ve long been fascinated by water imagery. A few years ago I sat on the shores of Lava Lake near Bozeman Montana and wrote the following poem on the back of a cliff bar wrapper:
WATER by Tina Langdok Romenenesko
Water. Fluid. Amorphous.
When poured, water takes the shape of its container.
Water has density, but moves freely.
Waves ripple through it.
We can dive into water or float on top of it.
Drop a stone into water and it forms
rings of waves, around a center.
Water trickles, but can also roar.
We drink it. Bathe in it.
Are christened by it.
We are drawn to bodies of water for their wisdom.
The great sense of peace they hold.
Water can shimmer. Swell. Ebb and flow.
Water falls from the sky.
Water rises from deep within the earth.
The receptivity and diversity of water holds great teachings for us. The blessing of water is a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace. It’s no mistake that we are mostly made of it. It flows through us and within us. We drink it. Bathe in it. Are christened by it, and are held in its wisdom. Buoyant and at peace.
One of my favorite water poems was translated by the great poet Jane Hirshfield and comes from the heart of female Inuit shaman Uvavnuk. The poem speaks directly to the great sea that moves us from within. Wind or sea, this inner movement is connected to spirit, and grounded in joy.
"The great sea
frees me, moves me,
as a strong river carries a weed.
Earth and her strong winds
move me, take me away,
and my soul is swept up in joy.”
Hilda Conkling was 10 years old when she wrote her first poem about water. Hilda's poems came out in the course of conversation with her mother, Grace – Hilda’s personal scribe. Hilda rarely hesitated for a word and as she spoke her mother wrote them down. We are grateful that her mother could record them, unaltered and as Hilda spoke them.
Hilda's first book of poems Poems of a Little Girl, introduced by the poetess Amy Lowell was published when Hilda was just ten. She was a modern Rumi, a whirling dervish of divine inspiration. The following poem’s imagery reflects the giving and receiving nature of water that can hold and be held.
The world turns softly
not to spill its lakes and river.
The water is held in its arms
and the sky is held in the water.
What is water,
that pours silver,
and can hold the sky?
Which leads me to the next water poem by the great poet David Whyte. If you haven’t read his poetry, you need to. Out loud, with a friend. His imagery is amazing and deep and complicated. It’s not a quick read, but worth the time and energy it takes to bring the metaphors of life into your own heart. I first read his poem The Sea in Costa Rica. I was teaching meditation and conversational Spanish at a yoga retreat and had been asked to lead a meditation on the shores of Punta Uva on the Caribbean coast. The protected cove was idyllic and serene and didn’t need me to do anything but encourage deep listening to the waves and the wind to lead a water centered meditation, but I tend to be an over planner, and spent hours searching for just the “right poem” to share with the group. I usually travel with a couple paperbacks of poetry in my backpack which end up without a cover, ear marked and scribbled on. Well used and well loved little gems of metaphor and image that I turn to often.
About 15 years ago, I flew to Cleveland on a whim, to hear David Whyte read his work at a small convent. The first night David’s reading moved my heart in ways I had only hoped I could remember and feel.
Yes. Read his poems. Often. Out loud, with a friend.
After the reading, he signed books and talked easily with the small and intimate group of participants. Toward the end of the signing, I finally got the courage to walk up to him with my tattered copy of The House of Belonging. The cover was off. I had marked all over it – with exclamations like “ yes!” and scribbled notes in the margin referring to when and where and how this line or that image had moved me - like the great sea Uvavnuk had described. Coffee stains. Tears. The book was a mess. I handed it to him and said, “ I love this book of poetry. I know most people have you sign brand new copies, but it would mean a lot to me if you would sign this one.” He laughed his hearty David Whyte laugh – loud and long – and with a smile and a wink, signed my book. He told me how happy this tattered book made him feel and thanked ME for sharing it with HIM. I met David two more times. And each time something amazing was shared. His poetry is a must.
So… back to water. The Sea by David Whyte. It worked well in Costa Rica so long ago, but I hadn’t read it since studying to become a Mindfulness Teacher. The wisdom of my Mindfulness training completely changed my relationship with this lovely poem. I knew I loved the images – especially the last stanza – for its meter and the way it rolled fluidly off my tongue. But now as I read it, I see its true wisdom is the way it speaks to the trance of unworthiness that makes us feel alone – how we don’t believe the tide is meant for us – but for others. Contentment can feel far away – we may feel alone, or numb, or old, or just simply tired. Easy to forget to allow ourselves to receive and remember that all we need will flow to us, if we allow it. If we don’t push it away with busy-ness, or desire that is focused on tomorrow instead of the now. So easy to miss the the great receiving depth – untamed that lies within us.
Tomorrow seen today for itself.
Each moment holds the promise of tomorrow and the wisdom of yesterday in its fullness if we are here and present in the sea where all the rivers meet.
To find ourselves adrift. Safe in our Unknowing Our very own.
And okay with simply knowing and feeling and being with what it here for us now.
Our great tide, our great receiving, our wordless, fiery, unspoken,
hardly remembered, gift of true longing.
It isn’t the longing that causes us to suffer – it moves us like a strong river carries a weed. It’s the resistance to what’s here that takes the moment and makes it less than.
The sea where all the rivers meet – unbound, unbroken for a thousand miles.
The surface of a great silence, the movement of a moment
left completely to itself
THE SEA BY DAVID WHYTE
The pull is so strong we will not believe
the drawing tide is meant for us,
I mean the gift, the sea,
the place where all the rivers meet.
Easy to forget,
how the great receiving depth
untamed by what we need
needs only what will flow its way.
Easy to feel so far away
and the body so old
it might not even stand the touch.
But what would that be like
feeling the tide rise
out of the numbness inside
toward the place to which we go
washing over our worries of money,
the illusion of being ahead,
the grief of being behind,
our limbs young
rising from such a depth?
What would that be like
even in this century
driving toward work with the others,
moving down the roads
among the thousands swimming upstream,
as if growing toward arrival,
feeling the currents of the great desire,
carrying time toward tomorrow?
Tomorrow seen today, for itself,
the sea where all the rivers meet, unbound,
unbroken for a thousand miles, the surface
of a great silence, the movement of a moment
left completely to itself, to find ourselves adrift,
safe in our unknowing, our very own,
our great tide, our great receiving, our
wordless, fiery, unspoken,
hardly remembered, gift of true longing.
I’m moving on to the element of FIRE in my yoga classes this week, but water will be coming along to balance the flames. The refreshment of water is what keeps life moving. It’s the magic of mermaids and the unchartered depth of the sea. My relationship with water began in swimming lessons at the YMCA and local pool, and transformed into becoming the president of the water ballet club at my high school, life guarding my way through college for some extra cash, and learning to scuba dive at age 38 – to fulfill a lifelong dream of exploring the sea – close up and personal. I recently started swimming again at the local health club and it’s been wonderful to float and kick and soak for an hour every week. I have an appointment next week at FLOAT Milwaukee – another exploration along the path.
My 3 year old granddaughter Emma spent a week with me this February and her latest passion is Disney Songs. She’s not particularly discerning, but Ariel - the Little Mermaid, is definitely a favorite. I limited Emma's viewing, as a good grandma should, and I must admit I enjoyed the videos – the first 5 times at least. It seems appropriate to end this blog with the wisdom of Sebastian, Ariel's protector and advisor.
“ Darling its better. Down where its wetter. Take it from me!”
Honoring the unique presentation and wisdom of water.
On all levels of being.