We gathered, seated in a circle, in an open classroom at The Burren College of Art. Wind and rain swept up against the walls and ceiling in great, heaving gestures, and the building seemed to be laboring to breathe while holding itself sturdy against the storm. My body shivered from both the coziness of the room, protected while the coastal Ireland elements raged, and from anticipation as to what the morning would bring.
I sat one chair over from David Whyte.
David drew in a deep breath and turned toward us with an urgency. He raked his fingers across the hair covering his forehead, reminding me of a Robert Kennedy oratory mannerism. I sensed that he was eager to make his point precisely right—that this conversation would hold for us mystical power in the now and in the future. I lowered my gaze to my journal, pen ready … at full attention.
David began with reciting Robert Bly’s translation of Rilke’s “The Swan.”
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.”
“The Swan” by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Robert Bly)
David parsed each image and element from the poem into a stream of truth serum. He noted that the poem opens with the perfect metaphor for the clumsiness of our modern-day Monday, pushing ourselves forward into the tasks that we face with obligation and heaviness. That is, waddling (like a swan walking) into our To Do lists.
It is not through efforting or our whipping ourselves with our day planners that we find union with ease and allowing. Such a delicious state of being in flow comes from making the courageous decision to let yourself down into your own elemental waters—the place that brings you alive, with the very people you want to adventure with, in the very way you want to work and be.
And when we make that decisive move into our elemental waters—our place of belonging—we are then (re)connected immediately with our own grace which carries us forward with joy.
I stared at David, blinking.
I remembered the day, 20 years earlier, with my sister on Yellow Mountain. We had set out on a beautiful, sunny day, eager to move our bodies up the challenging trail. As the afternoon wore on, we stopped at a vista point and stood on the pitted granite facing the view. Dark clouds moved in quickly, and the rhododendron rustled and shook in the wind.
I was about to suggest we descend when a lightning bolt struck the bald outcropping about 30 feet from us. We ran down the narrow trail, high stepping to avoid roots and rocks, in sheets of rain and flashes of lightning and thunder. From the safety of our car, I realized the weird, buzzing sensation in my body, the feeling of adrenaline in my veins, and an odd taste of acidity in my mouth.
My body was buzzing again like that stormy day in the car, and my hand shook a bit as I wrote “elemental and nonelemental waters” in my journal. I could feel the full weight of the realization unfolding, and my ego was girding up for a helluva fight.
It would be a morning of more “outing” myself to myself.
Once I embraced the knowing, words quickly lined up like soldiers beneath each column: elemental and nonelemental waters. I already knew what comprised each for me, but seeing those words in blue ink on the lined page brought the realization close in, with more vulnerability than I had ever previously let in.
I had some changes to make in my life.
If I wanted to embrace more ease, more grace, I would need to be much more intentional as to how I would spend each day. I could continue to waddle awkwardly through To Do lists, and eventually arrive at my destination, exhausted.
Or, I could choose the path that required more courage upfront, like a deposit. I could ease onto the path that would enable me to find more of what brings me alive in the moment, thus attracting into my life (and simultaneously extracting from me) the very qualities that bring me most alive.
Consider your level of energy right now. I would imagine your energetic state completely reflects the percentage of time you are in your own elemental waters. Where are you lumbering and struggling against your true self? Where are you fully in grace and ease?
As I remove tasks, mindset, ways of working, habits, people, environments, etc. that are nonelemental waters for me, I can feel an all-encompassing lightness rising within me. Not unlike the multiple times it took me to purge my home of unwanted clutter and become much more of a minimalist, this work has required many “passes.”
Each time through reveals another place of pretending, another 50 pounds of weight I can choose not to carry. And each courageous choice takes me closer to belonging to my own life, gently carried, bouyant, upon elemental waters.