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The River, as metaphor for a meditative view

Ocean, river, stream, lake, drop of water, mist....

Water has always played a big role as teaching device for Buddhist meditation training. In some of these, the meditator "becomes water".

Wangchuk Dorje captures that the development of the mind of the meditator in these water-related images, called " The three stages of abiding as water" (Wangchug Dorje, 2017, 147f)

  1. Like a waterfall rushing down a mountain cliff

  2. Like a gently flowing river

  3. Like a motionless ocean

The River

The river metaphor is used to illustrate the witness nature of the meditator´s mind. The meditator eventually sits at the river bank and watches whatever floats by with a calm mind, unagitated.

He watches the "mind stream"

"One Taste" and "Equanimity" are related terms, describing the "holy indifference" (Rob Burbea) towards everything that is just simply a mind product, an empty appearance without self-existence, floating by as object of awareness.

The following orchestral piece is by the American composer John Adams, well known through his related work "Become Ocean" .

More Buddhist water metaphors / analogies

Water occurs in various forms or aggregates. Each of them has a particular symbolism:

​Water instance

Stands for...

​The non-dual unity of---

Mind and mental events; awareness and thought; ground and appearance etc.

​River, stream

The stream of mental events arising at every moment (sensations, emotions, thoughts...)

The constantly self-renewing appearances. A waterfall seems to have solidity but is always changing


​The mirror nature of mind (eg the moon reflecting in the quiet lake surface)

​Drop of water

​A thought that, once recognised, disappears like on a hot rock


​As above


​Whatever illusory phenomenon, when recognised, dissolves like mist in the morning sun.

Daniel P Brown

Daniel P Brown uses the river metaphor for the process of learning Mahamudra meditation. He has used this metaphor also in his live retreats.

Before any concentration practice, the beginner is like someone drowning in the river of a distracted mind. The somewhat skilled practitioner begins to float by means of a supporting log held with concentration. Once accustomed to floating, the practitioner lets go of the supporting log and swims about in the very currents that previously threatened to drown him or her. At that point the practitioner swims with considerable skill, finally swimming to a calm, quiet shore. The practitioner can now see the entire stream, both its currents and its directions, from the perspective of letting it go its own way while remaining unaffected by it (Daniel P Brown 2017)

Thus, when you let things arise in their own way, or their own place, it simply means that you do not make any attempt to meddle with them. You stay an unaffected, unattached observer of the landscape or river of your mind.

Fleet Maull, Neuro-Somatic Mindfulness

Fleet Maull uses the same river metaphor

The idea is that, to begin with, we're in this river of sensate experience without a lot of awareness and then, as we develop a mindfulness practice, it increases our ability to be present, awake, and self-aware. It could be likened to climbing out of that river, sitting on the bank, and witnessing the river. Now that we've separated ourselves from that flow of sensate experience, we're able to observe the river. We can look at all the hydrodynamics—the whirlpools, eddies and currents—and perhaps various kinds of debris, leaves, and branches floating by on the river; or perhaps we're able to see some fish swimming along or birds landing in the water; or maybe it's a larger river, where there are small boats. We are sitting on the bank, observing all this activity, the content and flow of the river. With our mindfulness-awareness practice, we step back from the experience, and we are then able to witness it (Heart Mind Institute)

Spiritual bypassing and dissociation

The "holy indifference" must of course not be confused with, or used as a way to sidestep psychological issues, problems etc.

It does not mean to not engage with the world in healthy ways.

It's not a big risk, and "spiritual bypassing" is a bit hyped up.

The best way to avoid it is to simply not do it, as Michael Taft humorously reminds one.

Objects become processes

Another aspect of the "river" metaphor points to a fundamental re-orientation, or re-perception of the world: it lets one perceive what seem to be solid objects as process (an observation made by Chandaria 2022).

As such, it is one of the de-constructionist cognitive effects of meditation, bringing us closer to actual sensory experience. And, in fact, there are no solid objects anywhere to be found: the deeper one goes, the more it becomes aware that everything is process.


Brown, D. P., & Thurman, R. (2006). Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition (Annotated ed.). Wisdom Publications.

Shamil Chandaria. (2022, October 30). The Bayesian Brain and Meditation [Video]. YouTube.

Wangchug Dorje. (2017). Mahamudra - The Ocean of True Meaning (1st ed.). BoD – Books on Demand.

Heart Mind Institute, Fleet Maull PhD, & Maull, F. (n.d.). Heart Mind Institute.

"Neurosomatic Mindfulness "can be downloaded as free brochure

Taft, M. W. (2021, May 17). Spiritual Bypassing and the Spiritual Friend. Deconstructing Yourself. Retrieved 9 September 2022, from


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