Taking the Waters

Taking the Waters

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang.  And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker.  Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

 

—Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

 

“Moisture girl.” My sister and I were playing the familiar game of “what superpower would you have?,” and my answer escaped my mouth without even thinking. I had just entered double-digits age-wise, but already I was addicted to moisturizing—more specifically, addicted to the lotions I hoarded from Bath and Body Works. My obsession might have partly been a product of the time—in case anyone reading this has forgotten, BBW was a cultural icon of the early 2000s, the O.G. “wellness” brand—but there’s no denying that lotion would have been part of my life in some way or another. I don’t remember having particularly dry skin, but the feeling of applying this product was undeniably satisfying. Every morning and evening, without fail, I saturated myself with the comforting aromas of these skin care confections—Warm Vanilla Sugar, Sensual Amber, and Sweet Pea were among my favorites (no Cucumber Melon for me, thank you very much). As much as I loved this ritual, it was my dream to be perfectly moisturized all the time; a dream that felt as impossible as attaining super-hero status. How this “power” would help other people in any capacity was not my first concern, but like other, cliche superpowers (invisibility, ability to scale walls), I trusted that would become apparent in some dramatic way. 

I was born a water-baby—a Pisces sun and Cancer rising (according to Western astrology), with parents who made sure we had an in-ground swimming pool up and running in time for me to be born; as a little girl, I used to believe it’d be warm enough to have a pool party for my March birthday. Come actual summer, my sister and I could be found swimming most of the day; as we got older, alternating underwater handstand contests with sunbathing, comparing tan lines when we reluctantly came inside for dinner. The water was a friend and companion, and even when the chlorine or inadvertent nap left my skin parched and peeling, I always had lotion as a back up. (I learned later that water is actually drying, but that’s a conversation for another blog.)

Until my mental health took a turn for the drier, and suddenly the water seemed . . . different. I remember precariously perching at the edge of the pool the summers during and after college, letting my feet submerge only when my body temperature reached an uncomfortable peak. I stopped swimming entirely, partly due to severe insecurities about my body; but there was also the deep, inexplicable fear that overcame me if I dared to take more than two or three steps into the pool— that the water, even in this manmade form, would drag me under, disappear the edges of me, and force me to surrender the sense of control I fought for in every waking moment. 

This aversion to (maybe even a phobia of) water reflected the state of profound disconnection I felt within myself and with others during this period of life. Rehydration was key in breaking this dysfunctional and distorted view of the world—on a cellular level, as well as on an emotional level. As Ayurveda teaches, the water element is associated with the sense of taste—that which provides flavor and pleasure, and which was completely absent from my food and life. My healing, therefore, required that I restore an appreciation for the flavor and juice of life. In my sickness, the only taste I knew was bitter—air and space element, practically invisible, and almost anti-nourishment; it is the bitter taste that actually stops digestion, and engenders the emotion of—you guessed it—bitterness, isolation, and withdrawing. By bringing back water, I got a taste for the sweetness—water and earth elements, which bind things together—I instinctually craved to keep my constitution balanced, even in my choice of lotion fragrances. I not only remembered how to “go with the flow,” as opposed to clinging to the dry land of my rigid, self-imposed rules, which opened me up to relationships of all kinds that have been nothing short of nourishing. But I also learned that the thing I feared about water—the endless tide of unpredictable human emotions that destabilized me so much—was exactly the medicine I needed to heal. 

Thanks to the tools of yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda (and, a healthy dash of psychotherapy), I learned to stop resisting my own and others’ emotions and realized I discovered an inner strength I never thought I had: the deep undercurrent of the ocean that, because of its perpetual motion, maintains the whole system of water-dependent life as we know it. The power of the ocean can’t be underestimated, but water is perhaps more dangerous when it stagnates than when it’s surging, becoming home to any number of disease-carrying organisms—parasites, amoebas, and even our own thoughts, when, as Ayurveda explains, the tamas guna covers the mind with a film of pond scum that would suffocate even the strongest swimmer. In fact, the less I tried to swim against the current of reality, controlling and planning and restricting the element that makes up the majority of our bodies and our planet, the more “in control” I actually felt. Letting go of the delusion that I could master or totally know anything with my mind, I discovered the pleasant buoyancy of my watery body, which floats effortlessly—even amidst the pond scum.

***

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard” writes Lao Tzu—an application of the meta-logic of Ayurveda, particularly as it applies to pitta dosha, which dominates the summer season, when the impulse to “seek water” is as undeniable as breathing. Fire might be pitta’s main element, but it knows that it can’t exist without water. On the one hand, water is what allows pitta to spread, increasing its square footage of incinerating power. (Pitta is undeniably egotistical.) On the other hand, a fire unchecked will eventually burn itself out. Like the hydration station on the side of a marathon route, water is essential for the endurance of pitta. And so fire hooked up with the element that it knew it needed to avoid its own destruction: the emotions that soften the hard edges of intellect; the moonlight that allows the sun to shine, even if vicariously, in the darkness of night; the menstrum for every act of digestion, understanding, and love. 

The necessary pairing of fire and water has been a cornerstone of my educational journey—the water-less path toward intellectual prowess was nothing short of a scorched-earth campaign that left me burned out at twenty-six, whereas the reunion with the cyclical intelligence of my body (through studies and practice of movement, nutrition, and traditional medicine) have allowed me to heal, grow, and maintain all aspects of my life simultaneously. And my recent graduation from a year-long program, Embodied Ayurveda and Yoga, marked another milestone in this process. In the weeks leading up to our Zoom ceremony, for which we students were asked to prepare some words on what we’ve learned, I waffled among a few topics—certain technicalities of Ayurvedic anatomy that became clearer to me, new ways of moving and experiencing my body in yoga practice, the value of the friendships that arose from having our minds blown over and over again by the truth of these practices, explosions destructive and generative by turns. When the perfect idea finally revealed itself, it didn’t feel like a lightbulb turning on or a spark being lit—or any of the other fiery metaphors we have for understanding. “It felt like I had fallen into a river,” I told my classmates and teachers, swept away by the nonstop flow of the water and totally held by it at once. A feeling of complete belonging, free of struggle and optimally positioned to soak up the warmth of the sun above. 

A feeling that came back even now, as I crawled through Google looking for a “water poem” for the epigraph to this essay, only to be pulled back to the poet whose poems beguiled me most of all in college, teasing me with their challenge of dense and metaphorical language, but which now, when I don’t care at all about writing a perfect essay about them, makes total, effortless, sense. Which are more interesting for their wholeness than for their line breaks, for the simple beauty of the ordinary images than the string of words that contain them. A love of the world— “not ideas about the thing but the thing itself”—I can stare at indefinitely, with my own eyes, because it’s contained in the river of writing that has been washing over, and over, and over me, not wearing anything away but polishing my Self as both artificer and the world I make in words.

***

Two summers ago, long after I moved through the worst parts of my mental health struggles but was faced with the new, fiercer breakers of grief, I decided it was time. I opened the drawer that contained my decade-old bathing suit, checked to make sure it hadn’t become dry-rot, and put it on. When my mom and sister saw me walking toward the pool, they gasped. And when I took one step and then the next into the water, I gasped, too. Not from the cold (though it was pretty chilly), but from the shock of how much I’d missed my old friend. My body hadn’t forgotten the mechanism of swimming, floating, treading water, or holding my breath to dive into the deep end, as much as my mind had almost willed that forgetting for the past ten years. And before long, I was walking with the same confidence into the ocean, meeting the strength of the waves with my own, and laughing when the water inevitably won. 

I won’t pretend that I throw myself headfirst into every body of water I confront—expression is still hard, emotions still scare me, and even recently I’ve felt trapped beneath the pond scum of tamas in my own mind (not to mention the actual ocean, that tease—one minute, luring you in with a soothing woosh and the promise of cool your body is so, so desperate for, the next minute pummeling you with humbling, deafening breakers). But the nonduality of water is no longer something I fear. Rather, I know I can wade in to whatever depth I want, and stay for however long I want—not because I am in control of the water, no ma’am, but because I recognize that we are the same. Standing at the edge of any body of water, looking out at its power and enormity, I see the incredible possibility of life that is water. And that I, too, am.


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