One day, several years ago, I took our dog Kai for a walk. Just outside our home in Mill Valley, California, next to our steep driveway, was a flume where water ran in the rainy season. Halfway down the driveway, Kai stopped, fascinated by a little waterfall in the flume. The water poured, steady, smooth, and shining, over a crack in the cement. Kai tried to grab it with his teeth and play with it. He could not accept that it was not a solid chew-toy. Every time he put his teeth around it, all he got was wet.
I was fascinated by Kai’s comical perception of the solidity of the flowing water. But my observation of Kai led me to reflect on my own perception. The little waterfall was not a solid object: neither Kai or myself could chew it. But what was it? What was I seeing? I didn’t see the individual water molecules pouring over the cement. All I could see was the slightly-wavering reflection of light from the surface of the otherwise invisible water. I saw the secondary effects of a flow, without fully perceiving what was flowing.
I lead a meditation group for students at the University of Southern California every Wednesday at noon. My meditation practice is simple but challenging. I try to watch my thoughts and feelings as they arise and fade, without judging or directing them. I try to observe carefully what I am experiencing, with love and acceptance. Today as we sat in our circle in silence, the memory of that moment with Kai (whose name means “water” in Hawaiian) came to me. I realized that my emotions and sensations are not isolated, discrete things. They are constantly changing and inter-relating. If I try to grasp any particular thought or feeling, it has already begun to move on or into something else. I can wrap neither my teeth nor my brain around these experiences as they move through my mind. At most, I can observe the shimmering signs of the flow.
Meditation is much like watching a stream tumble over rocks. It’s an awakening to the inter-related nature of all things, the lack of tidy boundaries between now and then, the fundamental lack of predictability in the cosmos. In contemplation, we see signs of reality more than we see reality itself. But being left with mere hints of what is, rather than certainties, points to the very nature of reality. Meditative practice gets us closer to the raw root of things, as it liberates us from our assumptions. It’s okay that we can’t get a handle on reality. Knowing that we can’t is as close as we can get to chewing on a waterfall.
Falling water is a beautiful mystery for humans and dogs alike. So the flow of the mind is an alluring mystery to appreciate in prayerful silence, whether or not we ever can apprehend its contents.