Watershed Spirituality

We can't help being thirsty, moving toward the voice of water. Milk drinkers draw close to the mother. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, shamans, everyone hears the intelligent sound and moves with thirst to meet it.
- Jeladuddin Rumi (1207-1273)

The Image Unveiled

James Hillman, the founder of Archetypal Psychology, has become convinced that individual and corporate spiritual growth is made through the meditation on images. The image of what I refer to as Watershed Spirituality comes from the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. It has to do with rejuvenating waters which make stagnant things fresh, have healing properties, and perpetuate life in a variety of forms. The physical location of Ezekiel's watershed is subterranean. The life-giving water makes its way earthward just under the temple in Jerusalem.

The Watershed image implies that spiritual life originates in the unconscious depths. Only when touched by spirit and consciousness do instinctual and primal forces become creative. At the Watershed, the relationship of spirit with matter, body with soul, is acknowledged and celebrated. The image is evolutionary insofar as it recognises that matter is potentially conscious through the mystery of spirit. It is an alchemical image. Common matter when combined and blended with spirit is transformed into a new creation. It is a magical image . The Source of spirit yearns to manifest itself through matter.

When we are isolated and confused about our identities, when we fear that we are embedded in our limitations, spirit offers us hope. Spirit, as a water image, utters the poetic language of flow, flexibility and soothing. Water imagery conjures the sensation of the refreshing liquid of life akin to mother's milk. The relationship between soul friends, or twixt a spiritual guide and a seeker, manifests the nurturing qualities of this image.

The physical rhythm of life established through sensitivity to qualitative time mirrors the ebb and flow of water. Maintaining rhythm is dependent on our daily decisions concerning vocation, recreation and work. Using the image of water roots Watershed Spirituality in diversity and pluralism. Life in a "variety of forms" implies an emphasis on inter-religious appreciation and the universalist vision.

Watershed Spirituality requires a new way of interpreting our experience. Its interpretation is informed by the free flow of water since it seeks to explore what an image or concept could mean rather than specify what it has to mean. Symbolic and metaphorical interpretation supersede literal or propositional approaches. The aspiration of symbolic interpretation is not to define truth but to evoke further spiritual experiences and responses. Life experience and ethics are more clearly seen within the context of a moving life rather than through abstraction, objectification, and dogma.

The Image Of Water

Working with water images is potentially hazardous. It is very easy for our spirituality to become cloudy and even contaminated when guided by the image of water. A spirituality of metaphor, symbol and evocation can lead to a form of idealism quite disconnected from the earth. In the hope of bringing substance and grounding (earth) to this (water) ideal, it is worthwhile to discuss what the bedrock of a Watershed Spirituality conceivably looks like. Even this can be dangerous since being pragmatic or concerning ourselves with first principles can easily kill our dreams, distorting them into programs and ideologies that get wearily clung to when the living spirit has long left the image.

Translating the language of the ideal into that of the real involves finding a way to define our Work. The ancient word of the gnostics, mystics, and alchemists that best describes "Working" is theurgy. It meant to do the practical, disciplined, and sometimes repetitive tasks that lead to the magical transformation at the end of the process. Put another way, theurgy is taking the dross of human egocentrism and through an arduous process changing it into the pure gold of Spirit. The benefit of doing the Work of theurgy is by no means revealed immediately; it requires a life long commitment. The theurgy of Watershed could be stated in this way:

"Watershed is any context where training is given in order to make decisions which lead to a greater awareness of consciousness and connection to the Soul."

Making It Work

As we investigate the theurgy of Watershed, we must keep in mind the underground stream of life - the organising center and source of our vision. We arrive at this place of life through many initiatory tests which demand constant awareness of how even the smallest decisions can lead us toward, or away from, consciousness and connection to our spirituality.

The Training and Discipline of Grace

The discipline of training is a hardship under which we either buckle and regress or we grow. In evolutionary terms, we are alluding to the process of selection whereby a species either adapts or dies on the beach. We will be slaves to the selection process, to habits of destruction, until we have made an adaptation, a cellular choice, that ensures our continued growth. To make a decision to change often requires a sufficient amount of discomfort involving both internal and external resistance. Nikos Kazantzakis eloquently describes the arduous journey to growth that we share along with all Creation:

The Great Cry
Blowing through the heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath - a great Cry - which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the cry leapt up within it and violently shook its roots: "Away, let go of the earth, walk!" Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried "I don't want to. What are you urging me to do? You are demanding the impossible!" But the cry without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, "Away, let go of the earth and walk!"

It shouted in this way for thousands of aeons; and lo! as a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.

Animals appeared - worms - making themselves at home in water and mud. "We're just fine in here," they said, "We have peace and security; we're not budging!"

But the terrible cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. "Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!"

"We don't want to! We can't!"
"You can't but I can, Stand up!"

And lo! after thousands of aeons, humanity emerged, trembling on their unsolid legs.

The human being is a centaur; his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but their body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. They have again been fighting for thousands of aeons, to draw themselves like a sword,out of their animalistic scabbard. They are also fighting - this is their new struggle - to draw themselves out of their human scabbard. Humanity calls in despair, "Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle beyond the abyss." And the Cry answers, "I am beyond. Stand up!" All things are centaurs. If this were not the case, the world would rot into inertness and sterility."
- Report to Greco

Like all developing life forms in creation, we are called to recognise and renounce the ways we are bound to lower instincts. This honest appraisal of our poverty and our shadow has in Christian tradition been called confession. Shame and guilt, the normative response to our incapacities, only keep us bound to repetitious cycles. Growth comes through responding to the Great Cry. Strong evolutionary and spiritual forces push us toward individuation and freedom. Being called to drink from this Source of empowerment has been called soter - salvation or healing.

Seeing What Is There

If the image of our spirituality, the underground water source, is to be a reality it is important to see through (diakrisis ) those places where we are stuck in patterns, where we have become comfortable. Unconscious repetition and laziness impede the journey more than any other factor. Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay "Experience" that the greatest single barrier to accomplishment, understanding, and growth is rooted in being asleep, not, of course, the natural rest of the body at night, but rather the ignorant sleep of the mind during the day.

Spiritual sleepiness may not look at all like natural sleep. In fact, it is often when we feel we are alive and awake that we are in reality drifting. Spiritual sleep often disguises itself in hyperactivity, self-centeredness, and religious zeal. When operating "automatically" within our patterns of malformation we would never call what we are doing selfish. Nevertheless, our actions, if looked at carefully and contrasted to the spiritual disciplines of rhythm, service and responsibility, may reveal their motivations.

Compulsivity vs. Spiritual Rhythm

At its root, compulsivity is the fear of damnation. This misguided fear leads us to scramble for what is essentially a gift. When we try to earn what is given through exertion, we demean and distort the Giver, the Gift, and ourselves. Spirituality is the Gift. Spirituality is the experience of being joyfully alive and compassionately responsive to the world in a manner that causes celebration in others and produces wholeness in the world. We have the option to receive this Gift as an unearned inheritance from a gracious universe, or to attempt to wrench it out of the hands of a withholding deity. Gratitude is the requisite emotion given the former, whereas deep resentment coupled with strain is the natural response to the later. When the free nature of the Gift is recognised, we become co-creators and move away from enslavement. If we attempt to earn what can never be earned, we become gnarled and driven.

Spiritual compulsivity is similar to workaholism. You can never do enough because there never is enough. Compulsivity and scarcity are intimate partners. To use our water image, spiritual compulsivity assumes that we are thirsty and living forever in adrought. In dry times we are preoccupied with water. When we are driven mad through spiritual thirst, we crave only salvation. Traditions, chants, techniques, and methods will be sampled and harvested for the spiritual water that quenches our soul. When dehydrated we gulp down water out of dire necessity. We have no time for contemplating how light refracts in water or how motion causes water to undulate and ripple toward eternity. No, water becomes "water for me", and for me alone. It is a life saver and we are dependent on it. When salvation is received compulsively it too becomes "salvation for me". It apparently is a soul saver. We indescriminantly drink in salvation, savouring its security and protection from all that destroys.

In the end, spiritual complusivity is a soul destroyer. It eats up our time and our energy. It distracts us from the paradoxical goal of disinterested compassion.

We need to become spiritually disinterested in either our salvation or our damnation in order to become compassionately interested in life and in serving others. A spiritual discipline that opens up the experience of disinterested compassion is the practise of rhythm in our daily activities. In Western spiritual traditions this practise has been called Sabbath. Unfortunately, Sabbath has degenerated into a method of compulsive spiritual striving and legalism for many. The word rhythm seems a good replacement for the term.

Natural rhythms and cycles must be honoured in order to arrive at the refreshing waters. I imagine that we are a crew of workmen and women constructing a tunnel to the Watershed. Our shifts have been too long and the work of digging and propping up the earth around our tunnel with wooden scaffolding has taken its toll. Gazing, fish-eyed and burned out, into the darkness is not the time to change the plan or rush toward implementing innovations; rather, we need to patiently rest and muse on what we have started. It is a time to dream and renew our vision through contemplating the image of water. Rather than working strenuously toward the image we have an opportunity to let the vision of the Watershed draw us toward itself. Once the image itself has empowered us then its back to work with renewed energy. Stopping our work is an act of faith. It is the embodiment of the idea that the universe turns without us. To stop is to declare that spiritual water flows naturally.

Egocentrism vs. Ego Transcendance

While contemplating images there is a temptation to become distracted by apparitions, especially apparitions of self-identity. The clarity of the Watershed image is blurred when we become either inflated or deflated by what we are doing. Constant vigilance as to our own motives, and the effects of our work, can feign as proper self-examination. Egocentrism blinds us to such an extent that we no longer see the Watershed as a gracious offering of healing to others. We begin to believe that we are special people, that the healing is for us alone. Here we become selfishly exclusive.

Spiritual pride pollutes the waters by making them stagnant. Undoubtably the waters refresh all who come to them, but when we are scarcity-based, we are assuming that the waters are limited. These waters are there to empower the thirsty to serve others. When thirst becomes overwhelming, it is time to realise that we have not availed ourself of the spiritual resources contained in the depths.

A person whose thirst for acceptance and meaning has been sufficiently quenched is the best servant of others. They do not give to get. They are not driven by accolades or by criticism but by what is needed. Such a person listens deeply to the Great Cry at the center of the Watershed and responds from this internal power. The ancients called this voice within the daimon; today we might call it the Inner Teacher. Our Inner Teacher is a personal manifestation of the wisdom of the collective unconsciousness that resides in the depths of each person. It links us both to social responsibility and personal freedom. Christian metaphors for this teacher include the concepts of Sophia, the Holy Spirit and the Paraclete or inner advocate.

Herd Faith vs. Individualized Spirituality

We must drink deeply from the waters in order to be refreshed enough to serve. Clarity of personal vision requires a sustained practise of spirituality. Each of us needs to establish an individual connection with the Source. Undoubtedly, all of our god-images eventually coalesce into one unifying center, which, in the final analysis, is indescribable. It is the experience of this Unity beneath the diversity of our images that anchors our faith in something beyond our immediate senses. This said, it is important that we attempt to relate to and describe this "Source"which fits the contours of our souls. Spirituality is rarely explored with effectiveness when we merely skim the surface of belief systems and hurriedly take from here and there. This tossed salad approach has the effect of scattering our focus and minimizing the distinctions between different spiritual images.

Preferably, time will be taken to connect ourselves as individuals to a tradition which becomes a root for us. The root, however, is not the entire tree and it is helpful to see spirituality as a sort of spiritual ecosystem whereby other faiths and experiences augment the root. The obligation of inter-religious dialogue is to strengthen the root of the partner with our unique perspectives and images, not coerce them to adapt to the same faith. For many, the Source will be described in relation to the Christian Story. For others, the Buddha holds a path of liberation. Some of us are interested in the spirituality of the ancestors whether Celtic, Aboriginal, or any other cultural group.

To anchor our spirituality in our unique soul, an attitude of freedom and grace is required. The heart-felt belief that we are encouraged by the Source itself in our explorations is essential. A commitment to a historic faith tradition can be considered a spiritual aid or a "means of grace" as long as that belief does not impede the greater goal of unity with all people and an individual commitment to the Source. A distinction between faith as an attitude of trust and faith as a set of propositional beliefs is necessary for spiritual exploration. Faith as a attitude leads away from absolute certainty toward trust whereas faith as belief leads from certainty to ideology and spiritual exclusivity. Put into grammatical terms, faith as a verb leads to the activity of trust that benefits spirituality; faith as a noun tends to obscure the vision. To get caught in any literal image bogs the seeker down in static views which neither allow for dynamic change nor tolerance of other faith images. Not only does "faith as noun" lead to intolerance, it also leads to conformity and impedes creative interpretations.

Carl Jung once said that the spirituality of the collective leads to a sort of innoculation against religious experience. The size and protection of a faith community can function as a confining womb inhibiting maturity. In order to move beyond the womb, it may not be required to discard the contents of a faith tradition but it certainly is necessary to allow ourselves to experience directly the living dynamics and archetypes of faith.


Spiritual integrity is notably enriched when personal responsibility is taken for both the images we adopt and how we use them. Inherited faith is insufficient. The old preprogrammed line produces spiritual and emotional free loaders who feed off the spiritual energies of other times and persons who once strove for authenticity and meaning. The penchant for religious dependency is undoubtedly the legacy of those religions of revelation which make it imperative to have mediators and means to the divine that reside outside of individual consciousness. Within the Christian tradition this maladaption is evidenced by the use of the image of leaders as shepherds, congregations as flocks and the individuals within them as sheep.

The spirituality of the herd mistakes leadership, hierarchal structures, and religious texts as the chief means of grace. It pits the authority of tradition over the direct experience of the person. What was intended to support individual spirituality has turned out to be one of the greatest factors in the disempowerment of seekers. Collectivist spirituality turns the underground stream into a tepid pool of conformity and boredom.

When an individual finds themself rooted but not enslaved by a tradition, that tradition comes alive in that person. The renewal of the collective faith inevitably comes through individuals (eg., Jesus, Siddhartha, Muhammad, and others) who have stood in their individuality and tested, revised and even on occasion disregarded the old forms in favour of the spirituality of lived experience.

Watershed: A Partnership of Manifestation

Once the image of the Watershed has caught our inner eye and we have begun the process of seeing our lives from within its reflection, we recognize that the Source of the Great Cry is both within and outside of us. Paradoxically, we understand ourselves most authentically when we respond to the voice of an Other within. This voice, beyond our personality, calls us to the task of manifestation. It is not the grandiose salvation scheme of revealed religion but the quiet act of living in the world with a different sort of consciousness that is the central mission.

There is a saying in esoteric circles that can guide our thoughts as we consider the partnership of manifestation: "As Above so Below." Those who have drawn water from the well of Christian tradition can not help but associate this saying with the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven." The petitioners of such a prayer are requesting that there be a correspondence between the Divine intention and the everyday affairs of humankind. God is asked to make an effort to manifest the Divine will in physical reality. It might also be assumed that in so praying the seekers are committing themselves to a partnership toward this manifestation.

Given our modern temperament and experience, we are at liberty to rearrange the saying "As Above so Below" to read, "As Below so Above". This inversion is a way of asserting that the Source of spiritual renewal comes from below or deep within the individual's experience rather than from an external source. The Source once referred to as "out there" or "up there" has been relocated in the depths of the human psyche and even in the earth from which we have come. The theme of divinization so feared among Western Christendom but accepted in the East, even the Christian East, is at the center of Watershed Spirituality. This apotheosis, in-godding, is the ultimate destiny of those called to drink from the Well of Life at the center of Creation.

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