Jump into the river

In this blog, I want to explore the difference between meditating on the river bank and jumping into the river of life.

Jonathan's Run Falls, by Hubert Stoffels from Pittsburgh, USA

Jonathan’s Run Falls, by Hubert Stoffels from Pittsburgh, USA

an old friend

I went for a walk with an old friend. Actually she has not been my friend for very long, but no one can deny she is an older woman. When we first met, the look in her eyes made quite an impression on me. I told myself she had perfected this inquisitive look because she was a doctor, but I have found there is more to it than that. Her eyes spoke of a perfect willingness to see what is there, however ugly it might be.

I told her about my experiences with Nietzsche. She was familiar with the concept of amor fati and she thought it was great news. “I can see you doing that,” she said. “I would urge you to go on with it.” But of herself, she said: “I think I can find the things you mention in zen.”


So we explored zen, together. She told me that she could easily relate to the Asian vocabulary that is used by zen practitioners. And to the Asian cultural outlook. (I will not specify what I mean by that. As many of you know Zen has Chinese and Japanese roots and if you compare it to Western philosophy, you will notice an all-pervading Asian flavour.)

By 松岡明芳 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

By 松岡明芳 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I have lived in Asia with an Asian partner and at the time I totally immersed myself in that. Ever since, there is this occasional Heimweh related to Asian foods and smells. I learned a lot about good manners, I became more dignified in a way, but I never managed to become anything like an Asian woman.


Looking back at my adventures, I would say my sanguine temperament was my main problem.

“You have a lot of feelings, don’t you?” my old friend asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I do.”

Ever since being very young, I have somehow felt there was too much of me. Too many feelings, too much energy and way too many questions.

I told my friend how I had struggled with my intense experiences. First by trying to wear myself out to reach a state of relaxation. I even stayed up nights just to feel the joys of being tired instead of being ravenously hungry for knowledge and sensations. Next, I tried to hide my feelings because I thought that was needed to become a stable person. I found they festered and soured me. I then looked for other people to provide the discipline I seemed to lack. Living with my army-sergeant partner sapped my energy so much that I started to feel positively meek. It was not a happy feeling.


In the end, meditation was helpful in finding a new way to deal with the turmoil in my head. For the first time, I realised I could experience feelings as bodily sensations. Nothing more.

I realised I still had a choice on whether I should act on them.

This was a very important insight for me. I still use it on a daily basis.

I went to live in a zen monastery to find out more. And I adapted. My being there was appreciated by the other women. They were genuinely surprised about me having all these thoughts and feelings. My experience of life was not at all familiar to them.

By SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

By SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

I picture the nuns sitting on a riverbank, in a half-lotus. They are forever practicing zen, sitting straight but still, letting their breath flow and the sensations go right through them. The gurgling and bubbling of the water, the gentle wind on their cheeks, the shriek of a passing bird. To sit there, not even being a sounding board. Patiently working to take the self out of the equation.

a memory

One of my schoolteachers has this fond memory of me. We were going on a school camp and we got lost. We were all on our bikes, riding on the beach, when the wind started blowing and the rain came gushing down. The combination of the leaden sky in a sulphur yellow light and the foaming sea waters got some children scared. Others complained they were cold and hungry. Some wanted their mothers. The teacher did his best to keep us all together and hurry us along because he knew things would get worse after dark. He finally reached the front of the group and there I was, pedalling away. Tangled wet hair blowing in all directions, leaning back on the saddle and throwing one arm into the air from sheer enthusiasm. I was completely in the moment. Never noticed him at all. Right before that, there had been a little voice in my head that said:

“I never knew you could do this! I am riding my bike on the beach in a thunderstorm. Wind is raging so much I could not shout if I tried. Getting completely soaked. It’s like flying!”

I can easily accept zen being the answer for my friend. In fact, I can see how it makes a difference for her. But I tried zen as a means to get to know reality. Zen promised me the moon, instead of fingers pointing at it. These days, I think the moon, as seen by me, from the earth, is really all that matters. So I have come to the end of my personal path in zen.

In answer to a question asked by bloggingisaspresponsibility.

Comments are invited and there is no need to agree with me on anything I said.

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
This entry was posted in atheism, sceptic, zen and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Jump into the river

  1. holly says:

    Oh lively!! You is beautiful! Thank you for sharing a little piece of you …that was delightful..(((hugs))))
    I think it is amazing you found a way to live with your overemotions…and still enjoy them!

  2. Bastet says:

    Each time I read one of your posts, I see a different person…it’s fascinating…once I thought I saw a very young woman…then someone much older…wonderful bits of wisdom and vitality. I think that there is no one way…reading your blog today, I could have been walking through my own life at different moments as memories coincided…then the path changed and again you were you and I was I…I discovered Zen 25 years ago while studying Shatsu but I’ve never gone to a Zendo…though the idea is attractive. In a way…my house is my Zendo…the people I meet and the things I write and see are my Koan and Sensei. And every once in awhile I experience Mu. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Bastet. It’s interesting that you are trying to picture me based on what I write. I have no idea what other people might think from reading me. 🙂
      But I am not very young, that is a fact.
      Seeing that our observations and memories can be linked is interesting. And I like your take on zen. Thanks, again.

      • Bastet says:

        I always get a mental imagine of how people might be when I read them…they just pop up by themselves…to eventually be modified…always by themselves.

        • How interesting! I never get an image. Not even when I read a novel. But I do find my brain deduces all kinds of things about people based on very small pieces of information. To have that modified by people themselves sounds like a good idea. 🙂

  3. makagutu says:

    Am not sure, but I think the say when one arrives at the state of awareness, one begin to act as he/she is part of nature. That you are aware your heart is beating, that there are sounds nearby but all these would be distractions do not in a way distract you.

    • Hi Mak, thank you for commenting! I agree with you that you can become aware of your heartbeat when meditating. I hesitate to say what those experienced nuns would have felt. I have not done this for a very long time. It is advised to listen to sounds without letting them distract you. And I am sure this can be done.
      As for being part of nature; I think we’re always part of nature, whatever we do. We just try to ignore it sometimes.

      • makagutu says:

        I meant not being aware of the things around us. We can’t be anything else other than being a part of nature.

        I tried sometime back when I was still Catholic following the teaching of Ignatius of Loyola to spend time at least once in the day to meditate to look for those moments when I heard god speak to me, how I responded and to make amends in areas where I didn’t respond as I should have. I can’t say I was successful since in many cases my restless mind always had other ideas.

        How are you doing?

        • I am fine, thank you. And you?
          I will probably start reading “The Birth of Tragedy” today or tomorrow.
          (I see what you mean about being aware, now. Thanks for clearing that up.)
          From talking to a Jesuit friend I think the Catholic meditation is a different approach from the buddhist one, but it is never a bad idea to see one’s restless mind. 🙂

  4. john zande says:

    Tranquil is the word that comes to mind.

  5. violetwisp says:

    I agree with a lot of what Bastet said – every time I read another one of your posts my image of your flickers and shifts. It’s quite unusual because most of other people stay constant in my mind’s eye. Really enjoyed that, glad I’ve popped back in just now … totally relate to the bike and thunderstorm and love how you wrote it!

  6. Thank you for posting this! I think I understand where you are coming from. I guess it comes down to whether you think Zen is meant to put you outside of life, or in it. Either way, meditation and mindfulness can be used for this task. In many ways, these things are tools, and how we use them is up to us. Nietzsche and mindfulness anyone? 🙂

    • Actually, I am not sure if I understood zen at all. I have certainly never seen this ‘absolute reality’. (I know, zen goes to great lengths in saying it doesn’t promise anything, but I think most zen practitioners would have to agree when I say it does promise the moon, albeit in a paradoxical way.) This post is just about my personal experience with it. 🙂 I still think David’s sincere question “How about it being an elaborate joke” really helped me.

      • David Yerle says:

        Seriously? That helped? I was just being funny! Oh well…
        So I guess you’re taking Nietzsche’s side in the “Buddhism promises nothing and delivers it.”
        I think I’m kind of the opposite. I have a lot of thoughts, but my feelings are scarcer. In fact, I remember four years of my life where I was struggling to just feel something, for which I used to blame meditation. Now I’m not so sure: maybe I was just unhappy and my body reacting by blocking all emotion.
        The one thing that makes me rebellious against Buddhism is this focus on acceptance. I don’t want to accept. I want to change things. I don’t want to accept the death of my loved ones: I want to avoid it. I rebel against nature and its cruel laws. I don’t accept it and I don’t agree with it. I think if I somehow made myself be content with the way things are, I wouldn’t give it all to change them. If I was OK with my parents dying, there would be no urge to create a world where death doesn’t exist, for example.
        In a similar way, I don’t want to deny my self, but affirm it. I guess it’s what Nietzsche said: I want to enforce my will on the world. One could actually see Buddhism as the quenching of the will to power. That may deliver peace, but what if life is about struggle?
        That said, I’m still floating between two waters and I’m not going to stop using mindfulness, which I find extremely effective for all kinds of things.

        • Yes, that helped. I think a sense of humour can hardly be overrated. 🙂
          As to taking Nietzsche’s side…I am currently investigating what this side might be.
          I can relate to what you say about buddhism and acceptance. I had trouble with that, too. The worst part for me was the emphasis on not taking the input of our thinking seriously. (This is a big thing in Japanese-influenced zen.) I like to think, meaning to ask questions and to play around with ideas. I don’t want to stop doing that.
          The will to power makes a lot of sense especially since reading Tongue Sandwich’ article. I see life as being about struggle. The idea reminds me of when Darwin cleared a small square in a meadow and painstakingly reported what happened when all kinds of different plants started to colonise it. Very interesting. In my view, symbolic of all nature.

      • I am suspicious of this claim to absolute reality. I always viewed it as seeing things in a less pain producing way.

  7. hbf says:

    Thank you for putting into words the same feeling I have struggled with: that there is somehow too much of me. Like you I’ve tried everything from draining my energy to training the mind. But to use the same water metaphor, maybe the answer isn’t to sit on the bank or to just jump in the river but to find a way to channel the force of the stream. That implies a goal of course…!

  8. I really enjoyed this post. I found your anecdotes and insights very enlightening. I can see why you have ended your path with zen. I think I too, if I embarked on that journey, would have ended it for similar reasons. Reading David Yerle’s comment resonated with me. While peace and acceptance are wonderful (and I believe that in many situations, these should be voraciously sought after), it is the struggle with reality that I perceive as the source of my growth. In not accepting, but fighting, we put ourselves into conflict with the environment and as a result, we become functions both of our own inward journeys and the external influences forced upon them. Where zen, in my understanding, can bring about a sense of harmony between the inner and the outer –it is the friction between the inner and the outer that true definition of character is born. For this reason, Zen is something best approached in the manner you have approached it –as a temporary path. You go and see and learn, and then you revisit the self which is most certainly changed because of it. From then on, zen will be a part of you no matter what you do, but it will not be an end, only a means among means.

    Beautiful post, beautifully written. Thank you!

    • Thank you for your comment, Johannes.
      “.. it is the struggle with reality that I perceive as the source of my growth. In not accepting, but fighting, we put ourselves into conflict with the environment and as a result, we become functions both of our own inward journeys and the external influences forced upon them.”
      Brilliant. I can think of nothing to add or to subtract from that. There must have been something in the air yesterday, between you, David and me. I really enjoyed looking at all three posts in conjunction. 🙂

      • I did too! It made me happy to think that for whatever reason, we were all on similar pages. Perhaps there was some hidden influences in all of our previous posts that lent themselves to thinking about all this.

        • I do think these things happen. I’ve seen it on other occasions, too. Where people suddenly posted the same thing (or almost the same thing) on the same day. It’s brilliant if it happens spontaneously.

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