Are You the River Or the Rock?
by Kate Severson
I often feel trapped, held in a concept of time that I know to be false but that persists nonetheless. Looking at my days in terms of hours, visiting the week in terms of my schedule, passing minutes in between activities feeling either bored or too busy all of these states suggest someone who is not quite able to be present. Although difficult to admit, it is liberating to say out loud that I am caught in the cultural web of dissecting existence into measurable increments and basing my value on how I "spend" time (as if it's a commodity).
Increasingly, my attention and curiosity lead me to the question of time. What exactly is this thing of which there is never enough? The fact that it stands so completely as a made-up phenomenon and yet dominates how I perceive myself and my reality is reason enough to pursue its deeper meaning in my life. Divorced from the cycles of day and night, time is an abstraction, a way that someone, somewhere, decided to order experience. It is, however, also a very real construct within my psyche, within the cultural psyche. I sense that our construction of time probably has more to do with the fear of death than with actual numbers on a dial.
Given the limits of the rational mind to understand these questions, I decided to seek guidance from ancient sources. I have been practicing simple shamanic journeying since first learning of the method through the Michael Harner Institute for Shamanic Studies. Having searched for a spiritual practice that is at once transcendent and embodied, the rhythmic drumming of the shamanic journey provides a way home for me. With gratitude and respect for the indigenous people who are sharing their knowledge, I have taken to the study of shamanism with enthusiasm and trust.
The basic method of journeywork is simple and powerful. It offers a way to commune with power animals and spiritual teachers. The process allows for the accessing of information not bound to ego or socialization. Basically, all that is required is a willingness to follow the drumbeat through an opening into the earth and to enter what is called "nonordinary reality." The information that ensues is accessed both intuitively and through the senses.
The drumming begins, and I feel my body and mind relax into the beat. I intentionally focus on traveling to the lower world to speak with my power animals about time. I enter an opening through a large waterfall, moving first through water and then through earth. My hands touch the wet walls of clay as I walk downward through this earthen tunnel. I emerge into an open space, a ledge overlooking a wide field surrounded by large evergreens. There is a river to my right, and a sloping hillside to my left. I rest on the rocky/grassy ledge and am soon greeted by Owl and Dolphin.
I went to the lower world with the question, "How do you experience time?"' The question itself speaks to my knowing that there is a different way, a way free of clocks and calendars. Owl led me to the edge of the river where we stood in a gentle breeze. Suddenly, I went from being a human to being a large stone and Owl pushed "me" into the river. I spent the rest of the journey as a river rock, settled on the sandy bottom, the water rushing over and around me, sometimes through me. I could see up through the clear water and Owl, perched near the river's edge looked down at me. "Are you the river or the rock?" he shouted, eyes full of mockery. "Hey, Kate, are you the river or the rock?" came the question over and over again.
Eventually the solidness of my being was softened and loosened, and I moved with the water as tiny particles of sand and silt. Before the journey ended, I had once again washed up to shore, feeling myself become ground for the reeds and grasses on the riverbank. And now, reduced in size, the water moving me in gentle waves, I continued to hear the question, "Are you the river or the rock...are you the river or the rock?" With Owl as my teacher, I had experienced myself as both water and earth: river's path had shaped itself around rock; rock's form had changed under river's constant flow. It was all one continuous motion.
In this experience was the answer to my question. Time is motion. It is moving through me as I am moving through it. Time is force acting upon me as I exert my presence within it. Time is not the minutes of the clock or the hours between appointments. It is my very movement in the world, a world that is also moving. To better feel my life, then, I must abandon notions of quantity and measurement and "not enough." Using clocks and calendars as tools instead of rules will allow me to shape-shift, to see myself, and therefore my reality, as infinitely connected and expanding.
As I prepared to leave the lower world and return to ordinary reality, now in human form again, I turned to wave goodbye to Owl and Dolphin. Owl had on a wristwatch and Dolphin held one in her mouth. They were horsing around, their bodies full of laughter. I exited the journey with this image in my heart, the two of them not taking any of it too seriously. I actually came back to the room laughing out loud.
The work of integrating this information continues. I still plod along feeling dense and unyielding. Every now and again, though, I remember that everything I do here is simply motion, experience, and space. I can feel myself moving quickly or slowly or not at all. The challenge is not to get better at "managing" time. Rather, it is to be able to construct a world of timelessness, where each breath, or negative thought, or kiss, or grief, or dash for the bus takes forever and not a second.
Kate Severson, M.C. is a counselor practicing in Seattle and on Vashon Island. She can be reached at (206) 233-8538.