Water. The vital element that is the difference between life and death. At one moment life-giving and nurturing, only to change in the blink of an eye to a chaotic, destructive force of nature.
In the East, and in Japan in particular, perhaps because it is an island, water has been used symbolically in philosophy for centuries. The pond, representative of nature's lakes, is a common and important feature of many Japanese gardens. Alternatively, the carefully raked sand of austere gardens found in some Zen temples also betray the influence of water, with the sand symbolizing the ocean. References to water in one form or another can be found throughout Japanese literature and philosophy, but one phrase in particular that stands out is Mizu no Kokoro, or 'a mind like water'.
The phrase Mizu no Kokoro is sometimes translated as 'a mind like still water' but I find this to be inaccurate and unable to convey a fuller meaning. It should also be noted that the word kokoro in Japanese properly speaking means heart / mind with the implication that our emotional life (of the heart) and our rational life (of the mind) are intertwined and not separated as we tend to distinguish between them in the West.
With that background filled in, let's take a look at what Mizu no Kokoro means and how meditating upon it can be of value to your life and development.
The first thing that Mizu no Kokoro teaches us is that when water is calm there are no ripples. There is no disturbance. The surface of a lake appears perfectly still. On one level of understanding, this is how we should aim to make our mind: perfectly still, calm, collected and relaxed. This is the mind of insight; the mind that has given up its internal dialogue and has nothing more to say but rather acts as an observer, its awareness extending beyond the phenomenal world. It is neutral and is unable to distinguish between 'right' and 'wrong' or 'good' and 'evil'.
In more practical terms, this particular state of Mizu no Kokoro is able to show calmness in the face of adversity. It is the mind unruffled by events and the stresses of life. Summoning an image of a still, pristine lake in your mind when you are confronted by the hassle that life brings you is a great way to train yourself to remain calm.
When the surface of a lake is disturbed, ripples are created. Concentric rings spread out from the source of the disturbance. The water is no longer still and no longer calm. But the reaction of the water is measured. The water will never react in any way that is more or less necessary and proportional to the force of the causative agent. Water never over-reacts. Similarly, but with no less importance, it never under-reacts either. The reaction we witness is in perfect harmony with the initial disturbing action, neither more or less than is appropriate.
Here too we need to learn an important lesson from Mizu no Kokoro. Your reaction should be measured; an equal match to the situation. Too often people over-react. We see this all the time and it is obvious when we witness it. A person's reaction is completely over the top and is more often than not not directly connected to the event that sparks it off. Rather, the preceding event is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. Maybe that person has been having a bad day, barely keeping themselves in check and when something apparently minor happens an over-reaction is the result. The damage done in such moments can be life-altering. A harsh word to a child, spouse or friend that forever changes their perception of you. A physical attack that at the very least can leave the victim mentally scarred. An argument with your boss or a customer that leads to you losing your job.
Less obvious, but perhaps even more common, is the tendency to under-react. Here we touch on the distinction between Western and Japanese (broad) definitions of the functions of the heart and mind. In the West we are conditioned to keep our emotions in check except in very particular environments. Rationality rules. As described above, the term kokoro doesn't adequately separate mind and heart. Neither our emotions nor our rationality are dominant. The suggestion is that an under-reaction is no less damaging to your self than an over-reaction. Therapists are forever kept busy with patients who have successfully buried their emotions deep inside themselves for a variety of (rational or self-rationalized) reasons. The result is a damaged psyche.
Mizu no Kokoro teaches us that your reaction should be appropriate, neither an over- or an under-reaction. Your reaction must arise from inside you. It should be natural to you. How one person reacts to a spilt coffee will be different to the next person. Only you know what your true reaction is. This requires self-awareness and an ability to harmonize with yourself.
When your reaction is complete and has exhausted itself, return to the calm mind you would otherwise normally keep, just as the surface of the lake becomes pristine once again.
When Calmness Returns
Water then can quickly change from a state of stillness to movement and back to stillness.
It is vital to recognize that 'a mind like water' is reactive NOT passive.
Maintaining your 'cool' while your carefully constructed life is collapsing around you is not what this teaching is about, though unfortunately that is sometimes the message taken from it when the phrase mizu no kokoro is translated as 'a mind like still water'. This is not about passively accepting whatever fate throws at you. But neither is it about dominating your environment. Rather, it is – simple in theory, very difficult in practice – to react appropriately, from your inner self, to events in your life.
We can see this clearly when we watch masters of different martial arts. Their actions are almost childlike in appearance (as compared to the theatrics of a Hollywood movie). Simple, direct, and always just enough to get the job done with no wasted energy. At this level their minds hardly appear to have been disturbed at the conscious level; rather their technique is born from the unconscious mind.
When disturbed, water reacts as much as it needs to…but never more than that. Soon after the water returns to its original condition of calmness. This is the lesson to learn and apply to your life.
One of the characteristics that water, like any liquid, has is the ability to adapt to a changing environment. A measure of water placed in different containers will immediately alter its shape to fit its new surroundings.
The life lesson here from Mizu no Kokoro is obvious: adapt to circumstances. Don't get trapped in old ways of thinking, however traditional they are and however well they may have served you in the past (or not, as the case may be when we witness others fail to understand that doing the same thing repeatedly will not produce different results). Anyone reading this on the internet no longer lives in a world of slow-paced change. At the age of 36, in my lifetime I have witnessed an immense technological revolution and there is no reason to think this will not continue into the future. People can expect to not only change jobs but entire careers several times throughout their life, with each step requiring new and additional training. An inability to be able to learn and apply new skills can be limiting to say the least. Worse, a refusal to face facts and acknowledge this new environment can spell disaster for yourself and your children.
Adapt to what life gives you. Harmonize with it, don't fight it. Realistically appraise what is going on and make the changes necessary to allow you to continue living your life in a comfortable manner. Does this mean you should be a victim to circumstances? No, not at all. Water is reactive, not passive. Adapt to your true nature and find your own path to walk, your own song to dance to, your own game to play.
When you are complete take a few minutes to reflect on what it felt like when you had dissolved yourself into water and were able to travel anywhere without limitation. Remind yourself that the water flowed from and returned to a central source: yourself. Fix the feeling as best you can in your mind and practice returning directly to that state when you have a moment. Continue to practice the entire meditation in full so you gain a greater feel for being formless and are better able to recall that feeling in the future.
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