With World Water Day on March 22nd, I started thinking a lot about water — and as my mind usually goes, that landed me thinking about all the ways we use and misuse water: All the chemicals from factories streaming into our waters unregulated; the privatization of what should be public water supply; the additives the county puts into our water, though, of course, only in “safe and nontoxic amounts,” as they say; and the tons of plastic bits floating in the gyre in the Pacific Ocean. Such thoughts have a tendency to make me quite angry and leave me wondering what it is we should do and how we should act and usually just steep me in a measurable amount of pessimism.
And yet I also began to contemplate the very essence of water in a way I had not before. While these thoughts are in no way a substitute for action, I do believe that our thoughts are tightly bound up with our actions. Just as polluting water without adequate repercussions is predicated on the belief that just a little bit is not going to hurt anything (or at least, not so much so that anyone is willing to pay for it), well, then, if we are to save our water, we must create a new narrative about what water is.
What is water?
Many Greek philosophers before Socrates thought on the essence of the universe, asking themselves, what was its essential form? Its basic grounding? Its primordial substance?
Some, like Thales, settled on water as the essential substance upon which the Earth rests and out of which all other substances spring and are formed; some thought it was air; others, like Heraclitus, thought that the essential substance was fire because things are only born when something else dies. Others still thought that no one substance was the world’s essence, but that its essence was a perfect balancing of them all: Earth, fire, water, and air, or that its primitive substance was none of the four at all, but rather some other eternal, unknown substance.
This made me ask myself which of these resonated most strongly with me. Fire, for me, just could not be it. Sure it is powerful and visible and bright — it seems like an essential source from which creativity, action and growth come. But, and this is truly my own perspective, fire seemed too external, too self-centered in its own power to be the grounding of all things. It is a powerful, creative form, but it is also merely an instrument, a tool for man’s use — it is not the world’s essential form. Perhaps it is only an extra justification for my opinion and by no means an essential end, but Heraclitus, who believed that the essential substance of the universe was fire, also believed strongly in war. He accepted that while war does destruct and enslave, it is nevertheless necessary for the continuation of the world and that it is “the father and king of all.”
This grounding, I thought, must be smaller, more subtle, always changing and yet pervasive. A proper balancing of all the elements is an appealing thought to me — it’s that happy mean. The essence is not just one thing, but is rather the ideal balancing of all things. The essence, then, is not a singular entity, but is rather the correct spacing between things.
And yet my thoughts still settle onto water. The point, of course, is that any and all of these conjectures could be correct. But taking each idea as being the ground of all things changes how we move and act in the world. What if we take water as this grounding? Perhaps in this moment in history, it is the proper time to think as such. Water is everpresent. It is powerful and big; it is everflowing and yet never really moves, and so it is often easy to forget that it is always there. The ocean is always present but it’s all too easy to forget about, as many living in Southern California like myself, could probably attest. Water is a great unknowable expanse. Maybe it is easiest to think of water as the grounding because it is a basic need for survival. Or perhaps it is because water runs low that it is easiest for me to think of it as the grounding of all things. In Vedic astrology, for instance, Pisces, the first sign of the zodiac, is a water sign, and the part of the body it corresponds to is the feet. It also reminds me of the line from the Tao Te Ching, in one variation translated as, “The best, like water, benefit all, but do not compete.”
There is something about the smallness of water; it is omnipresent, but it does not require any recognition of its power to be powerful. Water can be destructive too, of course, but whereas a fire must burn in order to produce light, water is strong in its very being. It does not need to destruct, as fire might — even in a creative destruction — in order to be powerful. Heraclitus, though he privileged fire, is most famous for his idea that the universe is always in external flux: “You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing upon you.” Water thus shares with fire the quality of constant change. Water is strong and sometimes unyielding, and yet also nurturing, creative and sustaining.
Now, as I said, these thoughts do little to change the reality of how we treat our water. Sometimes it is easy to think that our thoughts alone can just change things. I know I am guilty of a much too long shower, dumping water down the drain when I am too lazy to put it outside for the flowers, and leaving the sink running. But I do think it is important to turn our minds to those very things which are so present and commonplace that we all too often forget them and little acknowledge their importance because, well, it seems too obvious. Perhaps, through thinking on water, we can begin to live a little more like water: Powerful and expansive, nurturing and strong, but not dominating — and then taking those very qualities of water into our actions to protect it.
RYOT NOTE: Now for real action working to provide adequate, clean water to people in Africa, South Asia, and Central America, check out the work of Water.org. This organization bases its work on the fact that water is a fundamental human need. It takes a broad approach to ensure people have access to clean water through providing proper technology and maintenance for accessing water, educating about proper sanitation, and addressing the particular impact of the water crisis on women and children. Water.org takes the kind of expansive approach we need, all the while involving the community to ensure long term results. You can support this cause by donating, or by sharing this story.