My closest brush with death occurred when I fell out of a raft in a Class V rapid on the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia (conveniently captured by the rafting company’s photographer). The pre-trip orientation had advised me to float with my feet pointed downstream should I find my self outside the raft. Unfortunately, once in the water, despite wearing a life jacket and buoyant wetsuit, I was unable to determine which way was up, let alone downstream. Eventually, the raging Gauley coughed me up only to quickly inhale me back under. Fortunately, the second time I arrived at the surface, I was immediately pulled into the raft, which provided me the welcomed opportunity to reunite my lungs with air. This experience demonstrated to me, a water lover, the menacing power of moving water.
I have a lifetime of experience playing in pools, creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes and the ocean. Much of this play has involved interacting with a current of moving water — whether body surfing or drift diving in the ocean, whitewater rafting, canoeing or swimming in rivers or just playing with sticks in a creek. The pleasure comes from moving with the current, whereas, the experience of moving against the current usually feels like work and definitely involves some technique. I have a scar on my right knee from a fall I took during a seventh grade canoe trip, while trying to walk back upstream to repeat the fun of floating through a relatively mild rapid.
The experience of moving downstream with the current or upstream against the current can vary dramatically depending on the amount and force of the flowing water. In some cases, a river’s current is barely detectable, and moving upstream is almost as effortless as moving downstream. But in others, as in my Upper Gauley experience, you are at the mercy of the river, and moving upstream is not an option.
In Who’s Driving Now?, I discussed the relationship between our limbic system and neocortex. I introduced the concept of emotionally organized “executive operating systems” (EOSs). Briefly, researchers have identified seven to nine EOSs that activate us to deal with the challenges and opportunities humans have faced throughout their evolutionary history. Each EOS can be seen as an encompassing brain state that involves feelings, thoughts and motivations which are experienced on a continuum of intensity. As an example, the feelings in the “RAGE” EOS might range from frustration to indignation; thoughts might be organized around blame, contempt or memories of past wrongs; and motivation might be oriented to the urge to punish or hurt. The theory behind EOSs suggests that our brains are principally organized by emotions, which can exert a powerful current impacting all aspects of our experience.
Just as rivers ramble or rumble according to the quantity of water, gravity and the terrain, the flow of our emotional current can be mellow or dramatic depending upon the “gravity” and “terrain” of the situation we are encountering. Our human form of consciousness allows for the experience of internal conflict between our intentions and our feelings. The ability to see the big picture and create long range plans and goals is a function of the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. The power of this executive brain region to guide our actions depends primarily on whether it is attempting to move with or against the emotional current of our “limbic river” and with the intensity of the current.
Like it or not, we are all river runners. We must negotiate whitewater, cross currents, tributaries and obstacles. Our feelings flow — gently or forcefully moving us downstream. At times, we must shift our position in the river or reorient ourselves to take a different line. This may involve bursts of moving upstream or some clever rudder work, either of which will depend on the current state of our “limbic river” and our past experience running our river.
We may be floating on Tao, but there is nothing wrong with steering. If Tao is like a river, it is certainly good to know where the rocks are. ― Deng Ming-Dao