The Spirituality of Rivers

Have you ever wondered why many of the great books of literature such as Siddhartha and Huck Finn are stories about rivers? Or why most of the great cities of the world are situated next to rivers? Have you noticed that the price of a house with a stream running through the property is always more expensive than a house without a stream? Why is that? Are rivers that mystical? Do they manifest a spiritual force that draws our souls to them? Some people think so.

I first became aware of the spiritual power of rivers while traveling through our western states. As I began to explore the wonders of the great State and National parks, the amazing vistas of the Rocky Mountain ranges, the beauty of the deserts, it wasn’t long before my awareness of rivers began to grow. I became aware of how much of the history of our country is oriented around rivers. For example, most of the great wagon trains started west from St. Louis on the Mississippi, the Oregon Trail meandered along the Virgin River, and most of the adventures and journals of Lewis and Clark were stories about rivers.

The more I traveled, the more I tended to orient myself relative to the rivers around me…such as the Colorado River, the Snake River, or the Virgin River. I began to pay attention to whether the near-by rivers were north or south or west of my current position. I searched the maps to see where they began and where they ended. I learned about the history and geology of rivers such as the Columbia and read about the great ice age floods that put walls of ice and water a thousand feet high through the Columbia River Gorge an estimated ten to twelve times. I was amazed to learn that the most recent giant flood happened only 10,000 years ago. They say the water was not only a thousand feet high, it traveled over 80 to 100 miles an hour through the Gorge! The magic and spirituality of rivers were slowly easing their way into my soul.

Traveling through Salt Lake City recently, I learned how, 15,000 years ago, Bonneville Lake, a deep prehistoric pluvial lake the size of Lake Michigan that covered much of North America’s Great Basin region, suddenly broke through its earthen dam draining it within a few days into the Snake River. Like the great floods of the ice age, the resulting flood of Bonneville Lake also ended up in the Columbia River Gorge. I couldn’t help but wonder how high those flood waters might have been as they too raced through the Gorge…what would it have been like to stand on the cliffs overlooking the Gorge as the thundering floods raced by below.

As a volunteer host for a summer at Oregon’s Rooster Rock State Park in the scenic Columbia River Gorge I recently had the opportunity to spend time each morning at dawn watching the sun come up over the river. Sunrise in the Gorge was spectacular. As I watched the sun burn the mist off the river each day I would reflect on the well known Buddhist story about the ancient spiritual master who meditated each day on the edge of such a river. One day he was approached by a student who asked him how meditating on the bank of a river could lead to enlightenment.

The master smiled and told the student that sitting on the bank of a river is the same as paying attention to one’s life. Like a river, life simply flows. It can bring us pleasure but if we try to grasp or hang onto the pleasure too hard we will cause ourselves suffering, because like a river, life will eventually take the pleasure away.

Sometimes life will bring things that cause us pain and suffering. If we try to deny them or try to push them away from us, we will only cause ourselves more suffering because we have virtually no power to control what rivers or life choose bring to us. But, just as it did with pleasure, life will eventually take pain and suffering away too.

Sitting with the master on the bank of a river taught the student that both grasping and aversion will ultimately lead to suffering. Life brings all things into our lives and it takes all things away. That is a reality that we cannot avoid. All we can do is sit with what the river of life brings us, and learn the lessons that we are meant to learn. After some time had passed, the student bowed to the teacher and continued on his journey toward enlightenment.

Each morning that summer, I watched things floating on the river…barges, leaves, logs, bugs, dead fish, row boats with determined fishermen. I watched them come toward me…I watched them float on by. It quietly reminded me not to grasp too tightly to those things that bring pleasure, or push too hard against those things that bring pain and suffering. Like the river, life will eventually take them all away. In the meantime, they all have lessons to teach me.

I don’t know if I left the river that summer any more enlightened than when I arrived, but I did find that sitting by the river for a few minutes each morning lightened my day. When it was time to move on, I was aware that my soul would miss watching a new day begin each morning on the river.