I sat on a rock by the river, one of the first warm days of spring, and I watched the water flow. It seemed to move despite itself, at once at battle and in peacetime.
The water was murky, gray with mud, yet it carried items along like a conveyer belt. A Gatorade bottle, a tree branch, a loud-mouthed duck, and a kayak filled with a family of four.
“That looks like fun,” I said to the family from my rock.
“Oh yeah!” the woman said. “And that looks like a great rock.”
From either of our vantage points, rock or river, the water moved. From their vantage point, atop the water, it bent to their will. The water obliged in moving them along as they sliced through it with their oars.
Yet as I sat on the rock, I watched the water carry them with its brawn. They were at the mercy of the water, from my perspective. It carried them; they floated.
Water is strange substance with a high surface tension that allows a kayak to effortlessly float atop it. This high surface tension exists because water’s hydrogen molecules at the surface are more attracted to each other than they are to the air above. Below the surface, the molecules are in a constant dance with each other, briefly holding together, then separating. Then they pull back together and break up again, giving water a flowing, changeable quality.
At its surface, these water molecules hold more tightly together against the air, allowing for things to float atop the water—a kayak, a duck’s body, an insect, a Gatorade bottle. But the tension can be easily broken by a diving oar, a plunging human, or the ever-kicking feet of the same floating duck.
But if it were winter, the family in the kayak could perhaps march over the frozen river, carrying the kayak across their shoulders. I’d marvel at the murky water’s ability to crystalize and hold their weight.
Water changes at 32 degrees or below because of the large gaps that form between the hydrogen and oxygen molecules as they float apart and together. When these molecules move apart from each other in freezing weather, they’re preserved, separated in place. They become less dense than the water below, turning them into another floating mass atop the unseen, unfrozen water below. This is why ice cubes float when you plop them into liquid.
But does water’s state matter? It floats on either way, whether under the surface of ice or highly tense and continuously divorcing and remarrying itself down the river.
Either way, water floats on.
As I sat on that rock, I thought about the similarities between water and the mind. The mind carries thoughts like the water carries objects, surfing the surface tension of the subconscious. Just under our conscious mind, millions of thoughts bubble and battle—some eventually come to the surface, our conscious mind, and float along. Others die before we ever see them.
As neuroscientist David Eagleman writes in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, the mind thrives on conflict with itself.
“Brains are like representative democracies,” Eagleman wrote. “They are built of multiple, overlapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices. As Walt Whitman correctly surmised, we are large and we harbor multitudes within us. And those multitudes are locked in chronic battle. There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior. As a result, you can accomplish the strange feats of arguing with yourself, cursing at yourself, and cajoling yourself to do something—feats that modern computers simply do not do.”
The thoughts enter your mind and battle each other, coming together and pushing apart like hydrogen models under the surface of the water. Then, the “winning” thoughts rise to the surface—your conscious mind—float by, and leave.
This all happens without any control or authoring. We don’t author our thoughts so much as we perceive what our brain tells us, Eagleman wrote.
You might think about the first time you told someone you love them, feeling the excitement and hesitance and joy. Or you might remember the fear you felt when you thought, this is it, I’m going to die. What control do you have over these thoughts? Almost none. Both extremes float on, as do your mundane thoughts—note to self, take out the garbage. Cook dinner. Go to sleep at a reasonable hour. Consider a new brand of lotion. Buy new shampoo.
These thoughts all float on, just the same.
Sometimes it may not feel like thoughts float on—the nagging, the hectoring rumination of your mind can turn thoughts into vicious waves, akin to what a storm does to water. But the waves do eventually calm down and float on.
You can’t forever hold onto any single thought. Try holding onto your worst thoughts and you’ll end up watching as they wrestle away from your grip and float away, just as your best thoughts do.
Time seems to swim above and over and under it all effortlessly. Sometimes you live a week that, in retrospect, feels like a year. Other times, you live a week that feels like it only lasted a few seconds—to anyone familiar with this experience, you likely experienced what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.”
Whether you sit on a proverbial rock and watch life float by or fight the current by going for something better, something different, something unique.. SOMETHING!… All the same, life floats by at its own speed, not caring that your time seems to be racing by faster or attempting to slow to a halt. Life cares not for your aspirations. It cares not for your fight, nor your acceptance. It cares not for your something, anything more, nor your time. It simply exists, floating on every day.
Try to sit silently and see what thoughts pop into your head. Pause reading this to watch your thoughts—don’t try to answer them, don’t ruminate on them, don’t judge them. Simply watch the thoughts as they appear.
What happens? What thoughts pop up?
In my mind, my thoughts seem to appear suddenly. Wow, I’m 34 now—it’s been 16 years since I was 18. Damn.
And if I lose focus, the thoughts change quickly; the mind seemingly has a mind of its own, as Eagleman wrote. I begin to wonder how many people still eat Wonderbread? Or how many times do humans, on average, actually see their buttholes? Water is great but I can’t even describe what it tastes like with mere words—everything comes out sounding so general. “It’s so…refreshing!” And what does that word even mean? Refreshing? I’m refreshed when I’m hungry and eat some pot roast, but that seems different than drinking a cool, tall glass of water. And why does “tall, cool glass of water” sound so much more refreshing than a “short, fat cup of water”? The latter sounds exhausting. Speaking of exhausting, Jesus Christ I’m tired. Did I drink enough water today? Am I sad, maybe? Have I…
Thoughts go on like that, if you let them. That’s our wandering mind, our default mode network, at work. If I pay enough attention, I can watch thoughts pop up, then watch them float away, all at varying degrees of pointlessness and emergency.
I watch my thoughts without judgment—wait, how many times DO we see our buttholes? That’s funny, I wonder if there’s even a way to quantify..—come back to paying close attention to them, and watch as they float down the river of my mind, sometimes unspooling into fragments, sometimes disappearing into nowhere, perhaps back into the subconscious. Or perhaps just floating out of the mind entirely.
Where does any of it go? The thoughts about Wonderbread, the ducks and the family on the water. Where do they go?
In the river, the answer seems clear. Items float by and keep floating for as long as they’re allowed. I watched a duck on the river run into a tree branch. It was briefly confused, standing still for a moment, before realizing that its kicking feet could be used differently. The duck climbed over the branch with a swift fuck-this-branch motion. Problem solved, or in his language: quack quack, motherfuck.
But then where does the branch itself go? It was floating too. What about the Gatorade bottle? It floats along too, sans the duck’s ability to climb and its disdain for branches.
But eventually they all stop floating. They have to, even the duck—once he gets tired of the obstacles, the duck realizes, Oh shit, I told my duck wife that I’d be back home by duck dinner. Or the duck simply dies, its body caught along the riverbanks, eaten by a lucky fox, leaving its duck wife, duck mistresses, and 85 duck kids. RIP, return if possible, Mr. Duck.
Any of these objects, living or dead, eventually reach the end of the river, or they get caught up in some roots and shrubs on the riverbank, or they get pulled away, or perhaps they sink, composed of stuff that can’t float forever, as we all are.
Life and the activity of the mind float by the same way. Whether or not we watch our thoughts, our lives, our time, they’re with us until they’re out of our view entirely. Either way, our thoughts, our life, our time—they all float by.
Before that first warm spring day, I had never sat and watched that river. All the same, I’m certain that over the centuries it has carried many boats, people, ducks, tree branches, leaves, gallons of urine, and garbage, long before I decided to sit and stare.
Up until my 20s, I had never watched life, either. I assumed I’d live for as long as possible, until some unfortunate and surprising end, completely out of my control but also something I wanted completely out of my thoughts. Death? For me?? Surely you jest.
To watch life would have been to waste it, I figured. And I had troubles I wanted to avoid. My mom died in front of me, choking on her last breaths. And I was sad and depressed so often, I figured that paying any attention to my own state would have been to prolong my misery. Mom’s death carried these weird memories that I actively tried to avoid, no matter how often they popped up, these nauseating thoughts that seemed to implode upon themselves, then multiply, as though they were the broom in Fantasia.
Why would I want to examine my life? It seemed like a bother, an admittance that I’m not perfect and that frankly, that I’m kind of fucking nuts.
But then I grew to an age where I wondered where my life went. I was in my mid 20s and had the strange feeling of having lived the experience of both a teenager and an elderly man. So much death, so much confusion, not enough sex, not enough success, not enough stories—right? Was I right? I hadn’t truly watched much of it, so it was a lot of guess work, a lot of piecing my own life together.
When I turned 26 or 27, my friend Trevor, a few years my senior, told me that this was the age when he started taking life seriously. “That’s when I really started thinking about things,” he told me. Did I ever properly think about things?, I wondered. That night, I got rip-roaring drunk, not taking much seriously or thinking too hard thanks to my friends continuously handing me birthday pints and shots. But I kept wondering what it meant to take life seriously, even as I arrived home, beelined to the bathroom, and immediately puked. Was I taking life seriously? Blagghhh. I returned to the party and had a fun night.
It took me years to truly watch life, to move past that bleak thinking that every problem in my world was unique, that every miserable thought would last forever, that every bout of crying would wrestle me to the ground and make me scream uncle, that any bit of examination would be akin to a visit to the proctologist. I started watching and listening to others more often. Others seemed to have similar problems to mine. I remembered meeting other kids in high school whose parents also died as part of a group for kids with dead parents. Other people watched deaths, too—some felt guilt, a wish that it were them who died instead. Whoa, I never had to deal with that thought. Other people had this same feeling of life slipping from under them. The same problems, sometimes, floating by again and again in our different heads, the same Gatorade bottles of the mind that some asshole threw in there. “You’re not good enough,” I’d say inside my own head. “I’m not good enough,” other people would tell me. “Where did it all go?” we’d wonder together. Or perhaps, “What’s the point?”
Now, I realize that part of taking life seriously is watching it in the moments when it passes you by. This watching isn’t so much taking life seriously so much as it’s being appropriately awestruck by the moment, the present, life itself as it happens. That’s right now, you reading these words, me typing them but also simultaneously off somewhere writing something else, staring at some other river on some other rock. It’s this beautiful symphony of events that collide and create our confusing reality.
It’s a beautiful thing to watch, I’ve found, once you learn to accept all the gut-punch truths about yourself and the world around you, once you accept that to love, to take chances, to live is to accept some form of pain.
Watching life—even its worst moments—is a way of normalizing ourselves to ourselves. It’s a way to know things like: This is how I react to something upsetting. This is how I react to something good. This is how I react when I’m in love or ashamed or worried or content. This is what it’s like to cry tears of joy. This is what it’s like to feel alive.
I had never loved myself until I watched my life unfold in my own mind, until I was awestruck by the moment. I watched what happened, recognized the patterns of how my thoughts and emotions changed my experience, and realized that this was me, but it was also a version of everyone else. We’re all built so similarly and, once you get past the awkward small talk with people, you realize that we all think, feel, and act rather similarly, too. What separates us is what happened to us, what filled our preverbal river, but the rivers all float by the same way.
As Eagleman wrote in Incognito:
“Imagine for a moment that we are nothing but the product of billions of years of molecules coming together and ratcheting up through natural selection, that we are composed only of highways of fluids and chemicals sliding along roadways within billions of dancing cells, that trillions of synaptic conversations hum in parallel, that this vast egglike fabric of micron-thin circuitry runs algorithms undreamt of in modern science, and that these neural programs give rise to our decision making, loves, desires, fears, and aspirations. To me, that understanding would be a numinous experience, better than anything ever proposed in anyone’s holy text.”
Watching ourselves is like watching the river both from the kayak and the rock.
From the rock, we see that life can be filled with random sticks and stones and Gatorade bottles and gallons of urine, but it can also be filled with beautiful, moving things—ducks, families, the water itself, at once at war and peace.
When we can move to a different vantage point, sitting atop the water itself, moving with it, we see that life sometimes feels like it bends to our will. At the very least, it seems to carry us through, holding us atop itself, moving us inexorably toward somewhere else.
There’s no separation between a life led actively and a life examined, I see now. Both are fine, both are needed, both can be integrated within our own minds. They’re both like that river—they’re the same body of water, but you can look at it from different vantage points.
But whatever vantage point you take, life floats by. Even if you don’t pay any attention, hiding away from the river of thoughts and feelings that is life, it still floats by.
Life floats by takes you wherever it damn well pleases.