Wednesday, February 15, 2006

On Emotions and Water and Loving-Kindness

[Image source]

It seldom rains in the desert--a dryness that leaves me craving water, walking through sprinklers, lingering in the shower. Somehow life here has adapted--plants flourish, an amazing assortment of creatures thrive in the parched heat. These plants and creatures have learned some secret about water I am still struggling to comprehend. It is as though years in a wet climate have reduced my body's, and my soul's, ability to hold water.

I am being overly literal, to a degree, but what I really want to understand is the figurative meaning of water, its symbolic association with emotions, with the unconscious mind, the soul. Our bodies are about 60 percent water, which is striking when you think about it. We feel so solid, so stable, but we are mostly liquid, very fluid. We feel the body as earth, make that symbolic connection, yet the body is of the ocean much more than of the land.

In our dreams and mythologies, bodies of water such as the ocean are associated with the unconscious mind: Jonah, Ahab and Moby Dick, Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck." What we find in those depths is the source of our wounding and our healing. The unconscious mind is fluid with raw emotion.

I live mostly inside my mind, so the rawness of pure emotion is uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable. Emotions are not easily defined, do not conform to the rules of logic, and are simply quite messy. They cannot be controlled, reasoned with, or eliminated.

I have a pretty clear sense that this aversion to raw emotion began when my father died (I was thirteen). Something in me ruptured. For 30 to 45 minutes I was a flood of raw emotion, violent, angry, excruciatingly pained. Totally undone. Then it stopped, and with that stoppage access to my emotions became limited and difficult. The watery part of myself became untouchable, encased in stone.

Yet even earlier than that I was taught that I could not cry, could not feel vulnerable, could not admit fear. A whole realm of emotion was made off-limits. As I grew older, more and more forms of emotional expression became closed or buried. The dry sand of reason smothered that fluid, emotional part of my psyche.

Which brings me back to the desert. For years I lived in Seattle, where rain was much more common than sun. I never craved water. I never prayed for rain. And I felt no need to break through the walls holding my liquid self beyond my reach. After only a few months in the desert, however, I became thirsty. I was bone dry. I would do whatever it took to experience the psycho-spiritual water within me. It's been four years, and still I crave water--but it's getting better.

After more than 25 years without easy access to that part of myself, it's no more easy to find that place within me than to will rain clouds over the Sonoran Desert. So I write almost every day, I pray, I meditate. I try to listen for the watery music beneath the rhythm of heartbeat. And I love.

Practicing love (as though it can ever be perfected)--unconditional, unqualified, boundless love--is the purest way I know to access the part of myself that is hidden. I would like to say I love the world with that same purity, but that is beyond my abilities at this point. I try to practice loving-kindness, to extend my love to friends, enemies, all sentient beings. Some days I feel that openness, most days I do not.

So I love one woman, with everything I am, and through that love I move closer and closer to the water within me that will quench my thirst.

Here is the irony: she is watery to the core. Her emotions come and go like waves, seldom buried or repressed. She has worked her entire life to experience that fluidity within herself. In every way, emotionally, she is my opposite.

If I stand back in the distance and look at our relationship as a stranger might, I see how wise Psyche is in bringing me to this woman. I need her fluidity to soften the edges of my harsh rationality. She flows through me as a river flows through bedrock, carving a deep groove that can hold water, accept its gift.

In the nearly five years we have been together, we have often clashed as waves against coastal cliffs. Each time we clash, she takes a little of my solidity and I absorb some of her fluidity. Together, we balance each other.

Through this process, I am learning more about that liquid core within me, learning to swim in its depths. This may sound like so much hyperbole, but I feel the truth of this process each day. And each day that I can draw closer to the rain, rivers, and oceans within me, I become more able to extend love and compassion into the world.
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