Alongside green acres of alfalfa, a twisting river cut through the farmland on which I spent much of my formative years. In the summers, after the chores were done, my friends and I would spend hours on the river swimming, skipping rocks and catching fish. (At this point in the story, you may be tempted to whistle the theme song to “The Andy Griffith Show”… but I must protest – I’m not that old. If you’ve never heard of that show… well then, maybe I am that old!)
The water level on the river was controlled by an upstream dam, according to the needs of the farmers in the valley. At times, we could cross the river without getting our shorts wet. But at other times, the river would swell quickly, creating swift currents and daunting whirlpools under the river’s main bridge. These whirlpools were something of legend and lore among children in the area – there were wild stories of men, women, children, and even animals disappearing into these whirlpools, never to surface again.
One lazy summer afternoon, my friend and I were floating downstream on driftwood logs that we found on the shore. We were so busy talking and splashing that we failed to notice that the river was rising rapidly. In fact, by the time we became aware of the water’s alarming elevation, we were already moving downstream at a pretty good clip. Fear washed over both of us as we realized that the now-turbulent currents were too strong for us to leave the relative safety of our driftwood and make it to shore before reaching the whirlpools. Without saying a word to each other, we both decided to ride it out.
Clutching his makeshift life preserver, my friend went through the whirlpools first. He narrowly missed the first whirlpool, but a second one spun him sharply to the right and then generously spit him out unscathed. My turn. I too skirted the first whirlpool, but the second one caught me squarely, pulling me into its center. Certain that my log and me were going to be sucked into the abyss, I leapt from the sinking deadwood and swam with all my might. For a dreadful moment, the pull of the whirlpool counteracted my desperate flailing limbs and I made no progress whatsoever – like I was swimming in air. Then, slowly I pulled away, and eventually with all my adrenaline spent, slopped myself onto the muddy shore.
On the river of life, it is so easy to be unaware of rising emotional waters. In our busy lives, chock-full of potential distractions, we can find ourselves floating through life without really paying attention to what is happening around us and just as important, what is happening inside us! In fact, sometimes the pull towards busy-ness and racing thoughts can actually be a subconscious defense against being more aware of our moment-to-moment experience. Whatever the reasons, we can easily find ourselves rushing down life’s stream, experiencing emotional turbulence, without a clear understanding of how we even got there.
Along these same lines, frequently when we encounter rising emotional waters in life, we are well into our automatic patterns of reactivity (e.g., anger, fear, shame, depression, etc.) before we even realize how far downstream we really are. In fact, sometimes our conditioned reactivity not only prevents us from being aware of the rising waters, but it actually lets more water out of the dam! Before we know it, we are frantically pulling ourselves from perilous emotional whirlpools, struggling to safely get ashore.
So much of the time, we are completely caught up in the experience of the churning and twisting emotional waters, unable or unwilling to safely observe what is happening from shallower water. In other words, we are in the middle of the emotional experience, which makes us less able to step back and observe the experience as it unfolds. In those moments, we are at the whim of the emotional currents, clutching to whatever we can to stay afloat and constantly in fear of being sucked into the abyss.
As it turns out, the ability to pull back from the rapids of our emotional experience and take an observing stance is extremely valuable. From the vantage point of shallower waters we can feel the seductive pull of the emotional eddies, without necessarily being right smack in the middle of the river’s dramatic affective whirlpools. From this observing stance, we begin to realize that some part of us is separate from the rushing river of emotions – that emotions are just emotions.
As you may have gathered, observing the flow of emotions from the position of shallower water requires that we pay attention to the always-changing water levels in our emotional life. Exercising the power of intention and attention, we can gradually become more committed to the self-care practice of bringing greater awareness to rising emotional waters. As we continue to hone our skills of emotional awareness, we will begin to notice ever-so-slight elevations, which will allow us to move to shallower waters earlier in the process, well before we go tumbling mindlessly downstream.
Perhaps the myths associated with the river from my childhood weren’t true – maybe no one was lost in the bottomless whirlpools under the bridge. However, I can say with some certainty that many of us get lost in powerful emotional whirlpools that have the potential to drag us down… into all kinds of abysses. Pay attention to rising waters! Make a commitment to step back from the rushing river of emotions to inhabit shallower waters where we can observe it all with a degree of stillness and inner peace.
Jon G. Caldwell, D.O., is a board certified psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of adults with relational trauma histories and addictive behaviors. Dr. Caldwell currently works full-time as a psychiatrist at The Meadows treatment center in Wickenburg, Arizona. For many years he has been teaching students, interns, residents, and professionals in medicine and mental health about how childhood adversity influences health and wellbeing. His theoretical perspective is heavily influenced by his PhD graduate work at the University of California at Davis where he has been researching how early childhood maltreatment and insecure attachment relationships affect cognitive, emotional, and social functioning later in life. Dr. Caldwell’s clinical approach has become increasingly flavored by the timeless teachings of the contemplative traditions and the practice of mindfulness meditation.