Originally published on January 2, 2022.
“First, move your mind.” That’s what one of my teachers at the Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Seattle often invited us to do when preparing to engage patients in our student clinic. During our study of Chinese medicine and philosophy, in addition to the energetics of elements, points and meridians, we learned a lot about self-cultivation.
My instructor never actually spoke of where to move our minds, or how to do it. Her invitation mirrored a concept from our tai ji quan teacher taught— where the mind goes, energy flows. At the time, I thought I understood “First, move your mind” as an instruction to set an intention to focus and direct my energy.
Thirty years of study and practice later, including four years researching the nature of water for my book To Be Like Water, I realize that perhaps my teacher meant something different about ‘moving our minds’ than what I had assumed.
As I have been observing and embodying some of water’s virtues, I’m recognizing what the classical texts —Dao De Jing, Su Wen, and Zhuang Zi— might be inviting us to consider. It certainly has to do with moving one’s mind, but not in the way I first understood.
All these classics speak of the virtues of water and use water as a guide for how we behave. They specify what virtues to emulate and cultivate in oneself. One of water’s virtues that have captivated me is it doesn’t contend with anything it encounters. It adapts itself to the situation at hand, going around, over, or through. It is soft and yielding. By not doing, not forcing, not trying to change anything, just by being itself, it transforms and shapes its environment and flow while allowing whatever it touches to be true to its own nature as well.
Water moves spontaneously along its path, sometimes separating from the flow as a leaping droplet, then returning again; sometimes moving in waves or being still. It can change state according to its environment — transforming into a light mist when it heats up, condensing from moist air into drops as it cools, changing from a liquid state into solid ice, and back again. It attunes to its environment and responds accordingly.
Now when I consider the invitation, “First, move your mind,” I see my teacher may not have been asking us to move our minds in the sense of concentrating on an outcome or intention. On the contrary, she may have been inviting us to move our mind from those intentions and desired or expected outcomes, and simply notice what is, right here, right now, and engage with what is in the present moment.
Reading the classics and watching the water has led me to explore the possibility of being more like it. I’ve found the easiest way for me to relate to the virtues of water is to put them into practice through movement. The discoveries I’ve made over the last four years have been at the same time ordinary and profound.
I’m no stranger to conscious movement. I’ve practiced Hatha yoga since the late 80s, and, for nearly two decades, dao yin, a series of therapeutic movements that date back to the early 7th century CE in Chao Yuanfang’s treatise on the origin of disease, Zhubing Yuanhou Lun. Many of these dao yin movements are quite similar to yoga asanas. One difference is that in dao yin, we voluntarily alter our breathing patterns as we repeat the same sets of movements to discover what difference changing the breath makes.
Unlike Hatha yoga where you take a rest, reflect and integrate into corpse pose at the end of an entire practice, in dao yin, we rest in corpse pose and do a body scan at the end of each series of movements, including after working just one side of the body. This is so we return the mind to the body, open our attention to notice what we are experiencing at the moment, take measures of ourselves, and see how our actions have affected us. In time, we let go the directions for the dao yin movements and just let ourselves explore movement in a way that lets our energy take its own course without outside governance. In other words, we move spontaneously, able to freely express our own innate abilities and nature.
Certainly, we can move like water no matter what we are doing— from dancing to vacuuming the floor. I’ve found even though ballet is very structured and prescribed, it too lends itself to the practice of being like water. In fact, I find my ballet is more fluid and graceful when I approach it like water. Speaking of other nourishing traditions of movement that lead us to the water, I’ve been enjoying the spontaneity of katsugen practice as an integral part of learning sei-ki.
To some, being like water might be a terrifying prospect. Living into spontaneity may feel like moving toward anarchy. Some of us need direction to contain, guide, and maybe even restrict our flow. Oddly enough, by being present to how we feel in the present moment, we discover what we need to flow in life, even if that means containing ourselves with boundaries, rituals and rules. That is also part of the path: we get to discover what kinds of parameters we need to be effective, yet relaxed, making our way through the terrain of our lives.
You might be wondering, where and how do you begin to cultivate the possibility of moving and being like water? I can tell you what I do: First, visit a body of flowing water. Spend some time with it, with all your senses—one by one and then all at once. Take note of water’s different qualities — its color, sound, texture, smell; its different states; the way it manifests from deep and still reflecting ponds to fast running streams or crashing ocean waves. Notice its nature within yourself. I also recommend experimenting with movement practices that move your mind into the moment so you can discover what is true for you here and now.
These practices also invite you to move from structured and prescribed to spontaneous movements. When I’m present like water with my patients, I find the less I do, the more impactful the sessions are. I look forward to hearing what you discover!
Note from the Author: My book To Be Like Water—Cultivating a Graceful and Fulfilling Life through the Virtues of Water and Dao Yin Therapeutic Movement is your invitation into the practice of Dao yin and an exploration of the virtues of water. It’s available through your local or online bookseller. If you are interested in learning more or experiencing the virtues of water within your own life, join me for classes or email@example.com.