David James Duncan, author of The River Why, explores the concept of Water as Soul.
written by David James Duncan | photo by Chris Mather
The spiritual connection between water and soul
Some words are so mountainous they generate their own weather systems, sending forth thunderhead-energies that blast our definitions to smithereens, forcing us to rethink the word over and over. Some words are so potent they deploy us to achieve their ends, not the other way around. Soul is such a word. Water is another. Tom Robbins said a mouthful when he defined human beings as a device invented by water to transport itself from place to place.
Water and soul, for me, are alike in that each, gracefully and mysteriously, links the natural to the supernatural. By supernatural, I don’t mean the weird, the occult, the ghostly, the unnatural. I mean the extra-natural, the really, really natural. Water links us to the extra-natural because it is in water that most life is generated. Water can take so many forms and strike us in so many
The Subtlety of Water
Think of all those Inuit words for snow. Apun (snow in general); apingaut (first snowfall); aput (spread-out snow); ayak (snow on clothes); aniu (flat, hard-packed snow); aniuvak (packed snowbank); akelrorak (newly drifted snow); auksalak (melting snow); aniuk (snow for melting into water); akillukkak (soft snow). And that’s just their A words! How many names should there be for different thicknesses of fog, or for drizzle, or kinds of downpours, or sizes and shapes of raindrops? How many nameable parts in a creek or river?
Water is extremely subtle in its forms. Read a poem—or, hell, the want ads—to a glass window on a cold day and you see watervapor form on that glass. Why? Because water’s hidden in our words, bodies, brains and breath. Water is the most natural thing in the world, it covers four-fifths of the world, it’s easy to take for granted, but it is also, as Thoreau put it, “Earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder perceives the depths of his own nature.”
In the depths of this nature, I glimpse something truly natural—supernatural—not only about water, but about my true self.
Tens of thousands of years ago our wise forefathers shared myths wherein water was said to be the primal, chaotic substance from which all forms proceed. It is clear that our forefathers have not been refuted, clarified or improved upon.
Infinity of Water and Soul
So does water connect directly to soul? I feel it does. One of my favorite descriptions of soul is Lord Krishna’s in the Bhagavad Gita: “The soul is not born, it does not die. Having been, it will never not be. Unborn, enduring, constant, primordial, it is not killed when the body is killed. Weapons do not cut it, fire does not burn it, waters do not wet it, wind does not wither it.” Substitute “water” for “soul” and the definition still largely holds. Water is not killed when the body is killed. It evaporates as a body desiccates but evaporation isn’t death. Water doesn’t “wet” water any more than black blackens blackness, because water’s already completely wet. Weapons do not cut it. Does fire burn it? Let’s be scientists about this. Extreme heat changes water from liquid to steam and returns it to the atmosphere, but changing form is not burning. Burning is an exothermic, self-propagating oxidation reaction that usually gives off a flame. Extreme heat causes water to decompose by reducing its hydrogen atoms to H2. This decomposition isn’t the same as burning.
Is water “deathless” like the soul? A tricky question. If the sun eventually goes cold, Earth’s waters will freeze. If the sun becomes a nova, Earth’s waters will vaporize. But freezing and vaporizing aren’t dying. Water is being transformed ceaselessly by the plants and animals and chemical reactions that make use of it, but transformation isn’t dying either. I’ve seen so-called “dead” rivers and streams, several of them, come vibrantly back to life.
Is water “unborn,” as Krishna says of the soul? To possess this mysterious attribute water would somehow have to precede creation, would have to have existed before “the Beginning.”
Seems impossible. Yet some of the world’s ancient scriptures suggest that water was indeed here before any other kind of story could begin. “In the beginning,” says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, “there was nothing here at all …Death alone covered this completely, for what is nothingness but death? Then Death thought: “Let me equip myself with a body” (Sanskrit: atma). So Death undertook a liturgical recitation (arc), and as it was reciting, water (ka) suddenly sprang from it. Amazed, Death thought: “Recitation caused water to spring from me!” This is what gave the name to and discloses the true nature of recitation (arc-ka). Recitation is running water.”
Water is one of the few substances whose solid form is less dense than its liquid. If it were other wise, ice would form on the bottoms of lakes in winter, would melt incompletely in summer, and our planet would soon enter a permanent—and fatal—ice age.
I love the mystery here. In this ancient myth, water springs from Nothing—before the very first body, or anything else, even exists. In this sense it is indeed “unborn.”
Wonder for Wild Water
Sierra Club founder David Brower, at age 6, saw a wilderness spring for the first time. At age 86, he still remembered it so vividly I heard him gush, shortly before he died, “All that clear clean water coming up out of nowhere. I couldn’t figure out how it could do it!” Brower’s life began and ended in a recitation (arc-ka) of praise and wonder for wild water. Hard to beat that!
Is water somehow coequal to the “dark energy” physicists say was here before the universe exploded out of the Om point into existence? I can’t answer such questions, but I can marvel at them.
My lifelong love of running water is born of the fact that water links me, in the most natural way I’ve ever discovered, to the marvelous, the extra-natural, the really natural. When I stand in a river fly-fishing, I sometimes get so wonderfully lost in the flow that my sense of identity turns inside-out, and I honestly don’t feel I’m “outside” any longer—I’ve entered something indestructibly alive and interior. “Soul?” I wouldn’t swear to it, but I wouldn’t discount it either.
Religious and Spiritual Meanings of Water
Maybe baptism, in the time of Jesus, was conducted in flowing rivers because “the kingdom of heaven was within him” and he needed to be connected to that soul-circuitry via the unborn, primordial current of literal water. Maybe the infant Moses was launched down the Nile in a basket because, to fulfill his prophetic function, he too needed to get into “kingdom” and the Nile was the way to make the move from outside to in.
And, to bring all this home to the meaning of “me,” when water is so wondrous and such a huge percentage of me, what do I really know about myself? Maybe I’m the Alpha and the Omega wading through this literary trout-fisher’s life with a hilarious low self-esteem problem. Maybe I’m the Almighty Herself, stuck in the throes of a “Call me Dave” dream that will one day pop like a bubble, leaving the entire universe and its Creator standing in the place of poor little popped “Dave.” Maybe my unborn soul stood, laid, or floated on the face of dark waters till it heard a Voice say, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters,” then I watched that division happen, and the waters roil and swell, and the firmament rise up into being. It all feels vaguely familiar, to be honest.
Water as Soul
Water as soul? Why not? How can the souls that enliven these watery bodies of ours be “unborn” or “deathless” if they don’t reach, like water, all the way back to The Beginning and beyond? Think about it: The only way any of us is going to live forever is if we already have.