Drinking Water as a Contemplative Practice: The Basic Elements of Prayer

Drinking Water as a Contemplative Practice: The Basic Elements of Prayer January 21, 2023

Pitching pouring water into glass on wooden table outside
Drinking water is critical for our physical and mental health, but can also be part of our spiritual practice. /image Canva

We are vessels of water. The make-up of our bodies, our brains, our beings is water. Studies from the NIH find that our intake of water goes far beyond supporting the functioning of our physical systems. Adequate hydration lowers our risk of developing chronic diseases. Beyond alleviating headaches, water intake mitigates depression and anxiety. All in balance, of course. Too much water and we mess with our sodium levels and can just as easily end up in the hospital for over-hydration as well as dehydration. Every day then is the practice of taking in what we need.

Water is necessary for our health and mental wellbeing. But is it not also a key component of our spiritual wellbeing? Explore the sacred texts of any tradition, and it is easy to find water as a basic element not just of life but of divine being. But perhaps these texts are also leading us to spiritual practice. Can I turn my daily intake of water for my physical and mental health into one of my daily contemplative practices?

Water, Not Just for Drinking

Since my earliest years, I have been fascinated with the idea of flowing water. I couldn’t pass a stream without begging my parents to stop the car and let me dip my hands in, even for a minute. In college I found Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher, and his philosophy of πάντα ῥεῖ (everything flows) and the notion that one can never step into the same river twice. The image of the river, never static, always new to each person who steps in it, became symbolic for me of the need to flow. Through difficult times of life-transitions, I have relied on the river for comfort, viewing life as the waters that must flow and not stand.
Be the water.
A note found on a friend’s Instagram post. Advice from her therapist as she approached the impending holidays feeling anxious about impending tensions.
Be the water.
The image of flowing water, the touch of flowing water, the sound, the symbolism.
Water is an essential element of our wellbeing.

hand dipped in the running water of a stream
A moment of prayer can be as simple as dipping our hands in running water. /image Canva

Beside the still waters

The beloved Psalm 23 of David in the Hebrew scriptures speaks of the Lord as a shepherd. He leads me besides the still waters. And what happens as I lie in pastures green, beside those waters? Are they flowing, though gently enough to seem still? More likely this is a poetic device called a transferred epithet. I am the one who is still, not the water. Here I find the place where my soul is restored (יְשׁוֹבֵ֑ב), literally returned to me. I come back to a place of wholeness. In right relationship with my being and my relationship with the divine. I find the source of all being in the water, as the water. 

The verdant image of this scene, however, poses another possibility for my contemplative practice. As the sheep led to water, I am invited to drink. My life literally returned to me through the intake of the water, stilled for me to sip. A reminder that the act of picking up my water bottle can become part of my daily spiritual practice.

Water in Sacred Ritual

From Christian baptism to Islamic wudu ablutions, from Jewish mikveh to the Indigenous Nahuatl ceremony, water is central to our sacred rituals, both in community and in individual prayer. As we learn in Hindu tradition, water is the source of all being, the essence of life, and that to which we must return in death. The Upanishads tell us that our prana, our vital energy, comes from water (VI.5.1). Similarly in Muslim and Daoist traditions, water is not just an element of sacred ritual but is commensurate with the divine itself.  In Quranic teaching, water is the epiphany of the divine qualities (al-asmā waṣ-ṣifāt). In Daoism water is the essence -spirit (jing 精) and its downward flow brings celestial consciousness to all beings.

We are vessels of water. And we are vessels of the divine. Flowing around us and through us. Swelling our beings with life. 

Sacred rituals of water

The Water That Restores My Soul

So as I consider my daily practices of prayer and meditation, whether that is daily reading of sacred texts, moments spent in prayer, unrolling my yoga mat, or taking a walk in nature – I intend to remember how vital the interaction with water is. Yes, the flowing river running through my fingertips in prayer. But the water bottle that tags along for adequate hydration could just become the central focus of my contemplative practice.
It is the water that flows within me that I am focusing on now. Hydrating me. Restoring my soul.
No need to gulp.
I mindfully let the water enter my body.
Feel it surround every organ that is working to sustain my living and my thinking.
Feel it reach to the very bottom of the souls of my feet, where I connect to the earth.
Where the water itself returns to the sky to rain its celestial consciousness on me.
Be the water.
A vessel for the divine life source.

“You are water, whirling water,
Yet still water trapped within,
Come, submerge yourself within us,
We who are the flowing stream.”

About Margaret Somerville
Rev. Dr. Margaret Somerville is a Quaker educator and a Presbyterian minister. The focus of her work in education is the way language shapes how we see ourselves in the world. The focus of her ministry is embracing the practices of a variety of traditions to deepen our connection to the divine. Director of Alignment: Interfaith Contemplative Practices, retreat leader, and associate member of the Iona Community. Find out more about Margaret's work at www.interfaithalignment.org. You can read more about the author here.
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