Mindfulness: A Meditation Lesson About Life

"All of Life Is The River"


There is a voice I have heard at various times in my life. It has always been the same big, warm, loving voice. Each time I have heard it, it has said something to me that has positively and profoundly changed my life. This is a story about two of those times, both related to my meditation practice and to my daily experience of life.

I share this with you in the hope that it may in some way deepen your experience of the gifts of meditation and expand your sense of inclusiveness and connectedness with all of life.

Meditation Retreat

Many years ago I was attending a 10 day meditation retreat led by Ram Dass in the beautiful mountains of central Oregon at the Breitenbush Conference Center, located deep in the forest adjacent to the Breitenbush River. It is a very spiritual and healing hot springs and old Native American sacred grounds.

The morning meditation was to start at precisely 6:00 that day. I arrived at 6:05 and the doors were closed and locked. I was upset. "I mean, I was only 5 minutes late. They should let me in." I made them wrong in my mind and then I made me wrong for being late. "Geez, Frank, you should have gotten up earlier." As I turned to walk away, I thought, "Why don't I go down to the river and meditate there? That would be even better. What a brilliant idea. After all, sitting by a river in the forest is my most favorite place in the whole world. Meditating there is the best of all places." 

A Place of Awakening

The Breitenbush River was only a short walk down the hill from the conference center. At that time of year the river was about 50 yards across, about 1 to 4 feet deep and was moving swiftly, strong and sounding just like a healthy mountain stream. There was a walking bridge over the river that was about 10 feet above the water line. The bridge was about 6 feet wide. About halfway across the bridge was an out-cropping of a couple of feet. There was a bench right there in the middle of the bridge where people could sit and enjoy the beauty and sounds of this amazing place. 

It was early May and it was a beautiful, crisp, blue sky day. It was very chilly as the sun had not yet risen above the snow capped mountain peaks. I was wearing a warm parka and was very comfortable and quite pleased with myself for finding this remarkable place to meditate. I sat down on the bench and looked around for a few minutes taking in the amazing scene in front of me. I felt peaceful and very much alive and present to the moment. I closed my eyes and began to meditate. I sat upright, open, and very much at ease. I began to lovingly notice the effortless rising and falling of my breath. I noticed the sensation of the cool air passing across my nostrils. Then I noticed a thought, "Wow! This is as good as it gets." And as I became aware of that thought I lovingly brought my attention back to my breath. I could hear the river flowing underneath me, very much enjoying the sound, the subtle and not too subtle variations as the water passed over and around the rocks. Sitting just above the water, I could actually feel the force of the water flowing beneath me. It seemed as if it were all around me, like I was sitting right on the river. I thought, "I love the sound of a river. It wants nothing, it just flows, strong, free, and timeless." 

But then I began to think that the river and its beautiful rhythmic sounds were a distraction from my staying focused on my breath. I thought, "How could I be judging and wanting this seemingly perfect moment to be somehow different than it is?" As I noticed that thought I again, somewhat impatiently, not so lovingly this time, brought my attention back to my breath. I was feeling annoyed with myself and with how I was doing this meditation, not quite right.

A Guide on my Spiritual Journey

Then I heard the big, warm, loving voice say, "Listen to the river." "What?" I thought. "How could that be?" The voice was telling me to listen to the river, to invite into my awareness the very thing that seemed to be a distraction from it. It was telling me to bring all of my loving awareness and attention to the river, to let go of separating myself from the sound and feel of the river. 

Loving Kindness

So I began to really listen to the river and let myself feel the fullness of its presence. I let it become my point of focus without any judgement, resistance, or objection to it at all. I began to feel like the sound of the river was my breath. It was as though the river and my breath became one. In that moment, I experienced an effortless, timeless letting go. For just even a few moments, I had let go of "wanting". I felt a wonderful peacefulness, pushing nothing away, wanting nothing to be any different than it was. It was one of those moments in life that has stayed with me. So I sat watching my breath and listening to the river and everything was right with the world. 

Distractions and Annoyances in Meditation

Then I began to hear some ducks that were sitting by the river just below the bridge. "Quack Quack Quack Quack." It almost sounded like they were laughing at me. And as I was paying attention to the annoying quacking of the ducks, I realized I couldn't hear the river or follow my breath. And the voice once again lovingly said, "Listen to the river." Again, I gently refocused my attention on the sound of the river and on my breath. It was another wonderful moment, feeling free, light, clear, rock solid, timeless and fully present.

In a few moments I started smelling the pancakes that were being prepared for the breakfast after the morning meditation. I realized I was hungry and breakfast was only 20 minutes away. And as I inhaled the wonderful smell of pancakes I couldn't hear the river. Linear time had returned to my awareness and I was stuck. It was hard to let go of attaching myself to the scent. After a few minutes of contemplating breakfast in all of its imagined glory, including blueberry pancakes, butter, syrup, orange slices, hot coffee, and perhaps a chance of getting to sit next to Ram Dass, I returned my attention to the sound of the river and my breath. 

A few moments later I noticed that I had started thinking about an attractive woman I had met the night before in the hot tubs and wondering if I might get a chance to talk with her again sometime. And I couldn't hear the river or follow my breath. Again, I returned my attention to my breath and the sound of the river. A few moments later I started thinking about how clever I was to have come up with the idea of listening to the river. And I couldn't hear the river or follow my breath. Once again I returned my attention to my breath and the sound of the river. And so went my morning meditation that fine day at Breitenbush.

A Never Ending Spiritual Journey

Five months later, in the early afternoon of October 31st, I was at the copy mart store near Green Lake, in Seattle. I was getting some copies made of a brochure for a meditation seminar I was presenting. As usual, as I sat there waiting for my copies to be made, I began to meditate. I sat forward on the chair, upright and open. I began to watch the rising and the falling of my breath. Before very long I found myself feeling annoyed with the clickity clack of the copy machines. I thought, "I really need a little more peace and quiet." I missed the river. I felt bothered and distracted by the sound of the traffic and a siren going by. I found myself making a judgement about a person going by blasting out some song on a boom box. I was unhappy. I was really missing the river, the beautiful, strong, and peaceful sound of the water flowing over the rocks. 

Then all of a sudden I felt someone very close watching me. I opened my eyes to see the most precious little 4 year old, curly haired, blonde girl standing right between my legs looking up at me with the sweetest, totally innocent, curious smile you could possibly imagine. It was Halloween and this dear child was dressed up as a bunny with her cute little pink bunny outfit, bunny ears attached to her head, and her face painted as a whiskered little bunny. Her mother said, "Oh sweetie, don't bother the nice man." I smiled and said, "It's okay, she's just fine." Her loving presence so moved me, so opened my heart that it brought tears to my eyes. 

Realization and Non-Duality

I sat quietly for a few moments to catch my breath and then I heard the voice say, "My dear boy, all of life is the river." It almost knocked me out of my chair. All of life is the river. All of it, absolutely all of it is the river. The clickity clack of the machines, the siren going by, the young man with his boom box, and the sweet little girl - all of life is the river. Wow. That moment changed everything. There is nothing I need to hold onto, nothing I need to push away, nothing I have to judge or compare. It is possible to be free and at peace with all of life being exactly as it is. I also know that letting go does not mean going away. It means opening my heart and also being fully present and available to what is.

It was a moment that changed my life and my meditation practice forever. Sitting by a river somewhere deep in the forest is still my favorite place to be in the world and my favorite place to meditate, but it is only a preference. It is not a requirement, not essential. I now know I can and do meditate anytime, anywhere because I know that all of life is the river. Now when I become aware of wanting things to be different, my busy little mind pushing or pulling, when my innocent but misguided ego seems to take over, I am much more likely to hold myself with tenderness and compassion, to lovingly notice what just happened and gently bring my attention back to my breath and to the river of life.

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by Frank Robinson
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