Water and Story

Detail of water spout, Pyramid of Quetzocoatl, Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Detail of water spout, Pyramid of Quetzocoatl, Teotihuacan, Mexico.

We tell stories. From the Toltec perspective, we live within a story we have created, which can cause a lot of upheaval when our stories don’t match (or sometimes, when they do match) another’s story. We learn to make up stories to explain things, to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Why does it matter?

My pilgrimage to Teotihuacan pyramids in Mexico last fall, fell on the year the Pyramid Academy’s cycle focused on water. Each year the focus is on one of the elements—earth, water, fire, air. The element water is a common theme in dream work and spirituality, associated with the fluid of the womb, its role in evolution, as a symbol of the spiritual life force, and as a symbol of healing and cleansing. It also is a powerful symbol of emotion.

We tend to think of emotions as good (joy, love, happiness, etc.) and bad (jealousy, hate, anger, etc.). The Toltec teachings at Teotihuacan clarified a new perspective for me: that emotion just IS. An emotion just is; it is neither good nor bad. Our judgment of it, our actions upon it, result from the story we have attached to it.

Take, for example, self judgment. If I look in the mirror and see myself as fat (or skinny, or ugly, or old), what emotion goes with that assessment (judgment)? What story have I attached to that emotion? Do I see too many pounds as a sign of poor self worth, laziness, sloth, gluttony, or any of the other seven deadly sins, and condemn myself? Or do I see it as an indication that it would be worthwhile to shed some of those pounds in the interests of my greater health and in consideration for my heart and knees? Or do I accept the image of myself as but one aspect of who I am? Which is the more loving response?

To feel an emotion and regard it as just that – an emotion – releases it of unwieldy baggage. An emotion of itself is neither bad nor good. It’s the significance (story) we place on it that makes it more than it is. If I notice that I feel sad, why is that? Perhaps I wasn’t invited to the party, and I feel excluded. I sense that as sadness, perhaps rejection. It is my expectation of receiving an invitation that needs to be explored. Is this an instance when the other person’s story and my story don’t match? I can explore the story I have developed around the invitation, separate from the feeling. The feeling just needs to be acknowledged, and allowed to flow on by.

In the Medicine Wheel, water lives in the South. There, energetically, we give with emotion. The intention is to allow our emotions to flow freely. Letting emotions flow freely can dissolve what is stuck. A geology professor once told me, “Ninety percent of erosion occurs during storms.” This is true in the metaphorical sense as well as the environmental sense.

When emotions are encumbered by stories and elaborations we place on them, it’s like throwing rocks into the stream. Eddies and dams created by the rocks keep the water from flowing smoothly. Thus it is with our emotions. We can recognize a feeling, see it by itself as neither good nor bad but just as a feeling, and let it pass by without the obstruction of an attached story.

One way to separate emotion and story is to look at them separately. What is the emotion I feel? Identify it. What are the observable facts?

An example: A friend was laid off from work shortly before her maternity leave came to an end. She was devastated. She mourned the loss of the job and was angry that the company would do this to her. We looked at the facts, and made a list: She hadn’t really wanted to return to work; she’d been thinking of resigning to spend more time with her baby. She was very skilled and could find another job when she was ready to return to work. She hadn’t been happy with the direction the company had started taking. This exercise revealed that it wasn’t the job loss that disturbed her, but she felt betrayed and rejected by the company because they released her, instead of her taking the initiative to resign. Recognizing the feeling of being betrayed and rejected helped her remember several times when she had felt the same emotions. With that realization, she was able to allow the emotions to flow out and begin the process of healing the past hurts. She also realized that by being laid off, she received a severance package that would not have been available had she resigned.

It’s quite a freeing concept, separating emotion from story, allowing an emotion to be simply an emotion. It does take practice and attention. Try it.

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"Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." - George Eliot
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." - Gandhi
"There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings – we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and live freely, and we all share this planet together." - attributed to Gandhi
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