Prologue: The River

Somewhere inside me, a river seems to flow, inviting a journey into the deep unknown.  The mysterious river images that dance through my mind issue a call to an epic adventure of self-discovery.  Those images are of winding waters cutting through life’s rugged terrain, of blissful waters encountering beauty, of black waters twisting through despair and the dark passage of time, of roaring waters crossing tumultuous thresholds of transformation, and of still waters calling on the deep.  A river’s flow may be tranquil or rushing, but there is no arresting the push of the current.  Similarly, my life knows a momentum of change; it is a story that wants to keep moving forward all the time.  The compelling summons from deep within is to find a truth of love that will set me free.  I know the river journey itself to be my deep happiness.

…We reflect on the movement of life, from becoming to becoming…The river bends, and we turn to explore ways by which we appropriate genuine awareness.  Our journey of wholeness…relies on keen self-presence, critical insight and decisive action to awaken the power of our own determination…We ponder how we are freed from the grip of darkness and enabled to embrace the promise of a new dawn…As we become more ecoliterate, we experience a wider harmony – and abiding friendship with all life.  Once the “Sacred Fire” of compassion and gratitude is ignited, we find a deep generosity of spirit within ourselves, authentic identity, and our true belonging.

The day will come when we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, the human being will have discovered fire. – Teilhard de Chardin

What makes loneliness an anguish Is not that I have no one to share my burden, But this:  I have only my own burden to bear. – Dag Hammarskjöld

Human nature is always grasping, always on the seeking end, looking for what it can get; human nature wants to get and get endlessly.  Spiritual nature wants to pour out…Be prepared to pour!!  Discipline yourself so that you never expect good to come to you, but always expect it to flow out from you. – Joel Goldsmith

Part 1: A Wounded Riverman


Dumoine River

It was the last night of our river adventure.  We had been to whitewater school, and then six of us had flown by seaplane into the wilderness to the headwaters of the Dumoine River.  For days we had run rapids and worked our way downstream, and had become totally enchanted by the river and its song.  There were fourteen more kilometres to go on our last day to reach the Ottawa River, our journey’s end.  The early evening sky was deep blue, and the sun was sinking behind a high ridge of pine trees.  We’d had an exhilarating day paddling 22 kilometres on the Dumoine, and portaging the long gorge at the Grand Chute.  Exhausted, we decided to leave our canoes at the top of the Red Pine Rapids.  We would negotiate a kilometre of rather tricky whitewater in the morning when we were fresh.

I had been fetching firewood and was descending a fairly steep slope on my way back to our campsite.  A fallen tree lay on the ground in my path.  As I stepped over its trunk, the sharp-pointed stub of a broken-off branch pierced the skin on the inside of my right knee, and snapped with the momentum of my downhill descent.  Like a dagger, a chunk of wood three centimetres in diameter had become impaled in my leg.

Instinctively, I yanked the stick out of my leg.  First aid was ably administered by my rivermates:  my leg was properly bandaged and the bleeding arrested.  As we supped at a firepit on the river’s edge, a fat moon lifted out of the east and flooded our home in the forest with a brilliant light.  A wounded riverman, I crawled into my little blue tent by the rapids.  In the moonlight I lay down and watched the swiftly moving waters – and felt the pain!  I had bits of sleep on and off, and through the night I followed the full moon’s journey across the night sky from east to west.  As the temperature of the air cooled over the tepid waters of the Dumoine, a morning mist danced in the half light of the dawn.

After 33 hours I reached the Montreal General Hospital, where I was fed antibiotics intravenously to stem an infection.  The wound only became worse over the next eight days; eventually, an ultrasound revealed a piece of red pine, the tip of the branch spike, buried deep within my inner thigh.  It was surgically removed.  As I waited out the healing of my wound in the weeks that followed, a powerful inspiration stirred inside me.

My wounded knee took on a symbolic meaning, presenting itself as an image of broken humanity.  I recalled that as I held the pain through that night at Red Pine Rapids, I had reflected that my life has a river of deep sorrow that we carry in our hearts through the darker passages of time.  The moon had offered me its consolation until the dawn and had given me an assurance of light, the promise of a return to wholeness.  I welcomed daybreak, which announced the resumption of our homebound voyage and the healing journey that lay ahead.  I remembered how the care of my companions had comforted me, a sweet balm to my pain.  Compassion indeed heals us at the deepest level.  Several weeks later, towards the end of my convalescence, River of Awareness  was conceived.  For, during that short period of introversion in the summer of 1997, a multitude of images had poured forth from my unconscious, and the outline of this book wrote itself.  The rest of the writing process would take a little longer.

Part 2: Be in Love

listening compassion

As a lad, at our summer cottage, I frequently had to walk up Cedar Point Lane in the black of night.  I was often terrified, but when I had the company of a friend, we would talk and laugh all the way.  The presence of a companion can make all the difference as we journey in darkness.  Compassion means not so much fixing another’s pain with fast advice and false comfort as being present to an individual’s mystery and misery. As we hold the burden of another’s pain in our heart, we breathe love into wounded life.  A heartfelt presence to someone who is suffering offers the gift of profound peace.

A photograph in the Toronto newspaper pictured a beautiful young African woman with HIV/AIDS.  The caption read:  “I’ll die of loneliness before I die of AIDS.”  It is one thing to suffer, another to suffer alone.  Certainly, human affliction is intensified many times over when unattended by love, and experiences of isolation annihilate the quintessential meaning of life.  Those whose loneliness is unrelieved invite us to learn the language of love more completely.  For is not compassion the true law of life?  To be present to those in anguish is to allow our lives to become determined by the needs of others as much as our own.  When it is our turn to taste affliction, we, too, will long to trust that we truly matter to others.  To be cared for is to know that our suffering is felt by others and included in love; there is no greater consolation to the human spirit than the compassionate presence of another.  Conversely, when sensitive understanding and loving-kindness are absent, we experience true desolation.  Only compassion, a power that has no limits, miraculously transforms suffering into solace.

Part 3: Law of Generosity

Acts of generosity, big or small, always generate miracles of life.  Generosity begets generosity and creates a circular flow of compassion and gratitude.  Sharing is the true language of interdependence, and life invites us to be generous both in giving and in receiving.  When we live out of a spirit of sharing, we come to know the full meaning of loving-kindness. Sharing is not to be thought of simply in material terms, for there is also the generosity of judgment, of patience, of forgiveness, of gentle presence.

Before I left for India in 1973, a group of individuals from an inner city slum in Montreal passed a hat and put a hundred dollars in my pocket.  Four months later, I hired a Bengali carpenter, purchased some bamboo, and constructed a small hut for dying lepers along a stretch of abandoned railway tracks in the Himalayan foothills.  In 1995, some 22 years later, I revisited a new generation of lepers who had set up a squatters’ village around the bamboo hut for the dying.  The lepers were thrilled to show me their individual huts and eager to express their heartfelt gratitude.  What was remarkable was to behold the tender care that they bestowed on one another; it was truly one of the most moving moments of my life to witness this vibrant community of love.  A small seed sown by the generosity of a few had grown into a tall tree of joy.

When the law of scarcity is foremost in our thoughts, human nature expresses itself in terms of acquisitive desire.  This need to acquire is built on a fear of lack.  We compete for what we think will run out, what there cannot possibly be enough of:  divine favor, parental love, the affections of others, commodities, natural resources.  We create categories of the chosen and the unchosen, suffer sibling rivalry and jealous murder, and wage war over land, oil and water resources.  The human propensity to possess, and to protect possession, forms the basis of strife and injustice.  Violence grows out of rivalry, and rivalry out of a notion of scarcity.  The truth of the matter is that this passion for acquisition robs us of life.  As Joseph Campbell puts it,

But the dragon of our Western tales tries to collect and keep everything to himself.  In his secret cave, he guards things:  heaps of gold and perhaps a captured virgin.  He doesn’t know what to do with either, so he just guards and keeps.  There are people like that, and we call them creeps.  There’s no life from them, no giving. (1)

The notion of scant supply arises out of a consciousness of separateness, and sets up a me-versus-them duality.  A sense of lack and limitation engender rivalry.  Inasmuch as there is an insufficient supply of anything, we perceive others as a threat and begin to compete for what is available.  Though the real enemy is not lack, the consciousness of the separate self grasps after the illusion of its own self-protection, and we define boundaries of ownership based on our beliefs of entitlement.  Envy and greed abound.

The law of sharing, on the other hand, affirms a view of unlimited potential and creativity.  It turns the law of scarcity into a law of abundance, and puts ultimate confidence in the plenitude of the universe and the providence of the divine.  Spiritual law teaches that there is enough for everyone.  Acts of generosity spur economic creativity to harness the abundance of the universe:  Goods are not used up; they only circulate, and ultimately multiply through sharing.  The few fish and loaves feed the multitudes.

The Judeo-Christian Scriptures contain the appeal to go and sell all we have and give it to the poor.  I am fond of two beautiful tales of generosity in the Old and New Testaments.  First, from the Book of Kings, is the story of Elijah and the widow:

After some time, however, the brook ran dry, because no rain had fallen in the land.  So the Lord said to him (Elijah):  ‘”Move on to Zarephath.”  As he arrived at the entrance to the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her:  “Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.”  She left to get it, and he called out after her, “Please bring along a bit of bread.”  “As the Lord, your God, live,” she answered, “I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug.  Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.”  “Do not be afraid,” Elijah said to her, “Go and do as you propose.  But first make me a little cake and bring it to me.  Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son.  For the Lord says ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth’.”  She left and did as Elijah had said.  She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well.  The jar of four did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the Lord had foretold through Elijah. (I Kings 17.7-16, New American Bible)

We should not expect good to come to us but rather to flow out from us.  The challenge of love beckons us to pour out, to transform attitudes of grasping into giving.

The second story about a poor widow is taken from the Gospel of Mark, and echoes the true meaning of generosity:

…and many of the rich put in a great deal.  A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny.  Then Jesus called his disciples and said to them, “I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they all put in money they over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on. (Mark 12.42-44)

We should not expect good to come to us but rather to flow out from us.  The challenge of love beckons us to pour out, to transform attitudes of grasping into giving.  In fact, says Joel Goldsmith, God is not our supplier, but our supply.  When we awaken to the knowledge that our deepest desire is to make another happy, the mind that wants to get and get and get learns a new law of giving.

I recall attending an Aboriginal powwow where this same spiritual principle was echoed.  Activities at the powwow included storytelling, drumming, and ritual, and at the end of a long day, an Elder rose to speak.  I was deeply moved by his reflection on the practice of that gratitude that finds expression in generosity.  His teaching was summed up in three words:  returning the gift.  What the Elder proposed was that we offer back to life the beneficence that comes our way.  That night, as I lay awake in my moonlit tent, I thought about the many blessing life had bestowed on me.  I succinctly identified two special gifts:  awareness and friendship, and thus it occurred to me that this is what I must give back.  The twelfth step of Alcoholics Anonymous encourages us to carry the message of our awakening to others.  If we do not share what we learn or receive, it fades away or we lose it.  We ignite life in others through passing along the gifts we have received.

Part 4: The Degenerative Ego

The wrong departure for humanity begins when we live out of a what’s-in-it-for-me ethic, out of a determination to be on our own, and not for others.  In his treatise onThe Solution of the Ego, Gerald Heard speaks of the ego as a degenerative process involving greed, fear, and ignorance.  The wrong direction happens when we chase pleasure, grab at the goods of life, and become possessive.  The net effect of this is “…the complete sundering of that sense of compassion which is the intuitive sense of kinship and union with life.” (2)  Heard identifies greed as the beginning of our real trouble.  In our fear of lack and loss, an attitude of possessiveness takes hold and leads us into the love of gain.  But greed causes disintegration and turns to trepidation.  As our sense of separateness grows, our fears are compounded.  Such grasping for material benefits, Heard adds, can also be experienced on a higher plane as rapacity for spiritual gain.  He goes on the talk about the love of pleasure, and suggests that the gratifications we crave give rise to addictive behaviors born in the dread of weakness and pain.  Lastly, Hear describes the love of fame, and how pretentiousness arises when we fear blame and shame.

The antidote to the love of gain is found in frugality.  In this spirit we live out of simple basic need, travel light upon the earth, and learn to trust providence.  Beyond self-indulgence, we discover the more sacred uses of the body.  According to Heard, the right meaning of life provides the impetus to cast out greed.  The love of fame is cancelled by choosing anonymity.  As we dismantle the illusions of the false self, we awaken authenticity and a humble spirit.  Addictions are counteracted by self-restraint wherein we come to know the body as a vessel, not a nest.  As we transcend our need for immediate gratifications, we find what is truly worthwhile and of lasting value.  To sum up, our dread of limitation and weakness, our possessiveness and pretentiousness, and our addictiveness all begin to dissolve when we discover the simple way.

The healthy release of sorrow and desolate emotion makes way for gratitude’s entry.

I remember once being reproached by a friend who told me to stop my grumbling.  I felt a little taken aback, not because I never need correcting, but because in that particular situation, I was not whining as much as feeling and expressing my sadness.  Indeed, there is a time for legitimate complaining: to lament lost love, defiled beauty, compromised truth, wasted talent.  There is certainly a time to weep, feel injury and injustice.  The healthy release of sorrow and desolate emotion makes way for gratitude’s entry.  Our sadness ultimately gives way to gladness, much as the mud gives way to a beautiful garden.

Indeed, I count it pure grace when I experience gratitude in my heart.  The soft refreshing rain, the harvest, our health and happy relationship, everything we have has been received as gift.  When I get stuck in my grumbling, and my heart fills with covetous longings, songs of gratitude stop and disenchantment quickly follows.  In genuine thanksgiving, I learn to let go of thinking about what I deserve.  It is then that I come to know the universe as benevolent, to trust that all is grace.

Part 5: The Wounded Healer


Like mud and flowers, the archetype of the wounded healer contains a paradox of meaning: it proposes that our participation in the suffering of others is linked to our own personal woundedness. Compassion is born in the experience of becoming sensitively engaged with our own world of vulnerable feeling. Paradoxically, right in the middle of our suffering and desolation, we hear the call to remedy not only our fragile selves, but also a wounded world. As our personal frailty is accepted and becomes rooted in self-knowledge, our capacity to care for others enlarges. Through finding equanimity inside our own hearts, we awaken a warm compassion that reaches out to bestow itself on others.

I met Ralph in a circle of palliative care volunteers. Later, he shared with me an entry from his personal journal. Ralph’s poetic narrative described his own initiation as a healer. The compelling image of an injured tree enabled him to come to terms with his own woundedness:

The broken crown Beech tree called me with its brilliant yellow leaves smiling to sing to my spirit and calm me. Her crown had broken during the ice storm, but still living, she shone and celebrated her being, her life, her part in the symphony as strongly and loudly as before the breaking. Her spirit paraded her purpose to me. Her purpose, not to grow higher like her brothers and sisters, but still to grow and be a lower part of the forest canopy. She did not see herself as stunted or broken. She ran in creation’s race to light with the same speed and intensity as always, as seed, as bud, as bush. Hers was a purpose to tell this story to my heart. A special gift from Creator, to her and then to me, one afternoon walking on the mountain. (3)

My friend and mentor Tony Walsh was born in 1898. Tony, when he was well beyond his middle years, had embraced enormous challenges in living with the downtrodden. I did not meet Tony until he was 80, at which time he declared that he wanted only two more years to finish his life work.  In fact, he was to be my friend for the next 15 years.  During that period, I worked in a hospitality house for the homeless that he had founded in the early 1950’s in the inner slums of Montreal.  After the first two years of our acquaintance, I kept reminding Tony he was past his time, but he would smile and say he had just a little bit more work to do.

He described how the seeding of his call to befriend the poor germinated in the soil of a negative father complex…In the middle of a painful rejection, Tony heard his call to service.  A heart that knew so much personal sorrow opened out to the woundings of others.  Tony had found the grace of acceptance and chose to be guided by the law of love. The pain of being cast out by his father awakened a deep sympathy within his spirit, and he spent a lifetime welcoming other men similarly rejected. Humility grows in the humus of a broken existence. The humble person meets fragile life with bravery, accepts limitation and powerlessness, and discovers equanimity in obedience to a mystery of suffering. Tony’s consciousness and consent and courage transmuted his pain into great spiritual gain both for himself and for others.

Part 6: A Call to Compassion

Bodhisvatta mural

The enemy of joy is not suffering. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his listeners that happiness belongs to the poor in spirit, to the gentle, to those who mourn, to those who hunger and thirst for what is right, to the merciful, to the pure in heart, to the peacemakers, and to those who are persecuted in the cause of right. Unhappiness reflects our inability to hold personal hardships and the burdens of others in our heart. Through an intimate embrace of our poverty, we become attuned to the tears and toils of all humanity. If we attempt to flee from the impoverished aspects of life and from personal pain we will lack empathy for the suffering of others.

For two years I kept company with the homeless in the inner city of Montreal. At that time I was negotiating the terrain of mid-life; these men enabled me to be present to my own woundedness and negotiate my own shadow self. Certainly, to be with those whose afflictions are greater than your own heals ingratitude. I have always felt inspired by the word of the prophet Isaiah as he writes of the Lord’s call to compassion, with its promise of light and healing:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall you light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily…
{Isaiah 58.6-8. Revised Standard Version}

Tonglen is a Buddhist meditative practice, a practice of mindfulness that enables on to take on the mental and physical suffering of others, and to bestow on them one’s own well-being. In a sense, it is a spiritual exchange of peace for pain, imagining the other person as exactly the same as you. When we hold another’s hardship deep in our hearts, we send out a “prayer” for happiness and healing, light and love. The Tonglen practice aims to cultivate a spiritual capacity to give our own happiness away in exchange for the suffering of others. Tonglen is opposite to the more typical reaction of a well-meaning friend, who said to me at the time of my river accident, “Man, I’m glad I’m not you!”

Another Buddhist term is Bodhisattva, which refers to an individual who voluntarily participates in suffering, and thereby endeavors to bring joy to a sorrowful world. Beyond sympathy, it is the practical determination to do whatever we can to help alleviate the suffering of others. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying exhorts us to such compassion

…when experiencing a sight that can open the eyes of your heart to the fact of vast suffering in the world. Let it. Don’t wasted the love and grief it arouses; in the moment you feel compassion welling up in you, don’t brush it aside, don’t shrug it off and try quickly to return to ‘normal’, don’t be afraid of your feeling or embarrassed by it, or allow yourself to be distracted from it or let it run aground in apathy. Be vulnerable: use that quick, bright uprush of compassion; focus on it, go deep into your heart and meditate on it, develop it, enhance, and deepen it. But doing this you will realize how blind you have been to suffering, how the pain you are experiencing or seeing now is only a tiny fraction of the pain of the world. All beings everywhere suffer; let your heart go out to them all. (4)

Part 7: Making the Difference

starfish on beach

I love the anthropologist Loren Eiseley’s starfish story. It reminds me that each kind thought and gesture truly matters. A woman asked a boy what he was doing. She saw him repeatedly bending down, picking something up, and tossing it gently into the sea. The boy responded that he was throwing starfish in the ocean so that they would not die in the sun. Looking at the miles of beach stretching before her, the woman suggested that the star thrower, despite all his effort, could not make much of a difference. The lad listened politely, then stooped to pick up the next starfish, and threw it back into the sea past the breaking waves. The he looked up and said, “I made a difference to that one.” (5)

Time and time again, I have seen evidence of this truth. I recall one such experience where the difference was very visible. As a hot red sun set over the dusty Indian terrain, Ivana and I leaned over a dying leper who had been found beside some railway tracks five days earlier. His maggot-filled wounds had been washed by another leper, and he had been given some food and medicine. Now he had relapsed and was very weak. Ivana told him he might die. In his native Bengali language, he replied that he believed in God, and he tenderly expressed the gratitude he felt for five days of “beautiful kindness” while he lay dying. As he let go of life, he cherished our presence. I thought to myself that this leper would have no difficulty
understanding the invitation to love summed up by Saint John of the Cross: “Friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. God is love. And where there is no love, let us put love, and then we will find love” (see 1 John 4). I was profoundly touched by this leper whose gentle heart was filled with courage and gratitude.

The task of love is daunting. The work to win love’s freedom, the courage to suffer its trials, and the discipline to give what it demands requires a continuous inner evocation of being. But love comes from an infinite source. Like a spring of water, it is unable to contain itself. The river journey of awareness, with its many teachings, leads to the wisdom of happiness. As I begin each new day, I like to remind myself to be in love. This is the mantra that steadies my intention. Through awakening a power of compassion, we participate in enchanting each other’s lives. As our journey continues, may the spirit of love burn within our hearts.

(1) Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York:  Doubleday, 1988), p. 150

(2) Gerald Heard, An Anthology of Devotional Literature (Michigan : Baker Book House, 1977), 727.

(3) Ralph Evans, collection of personal reflections, October 1999

(4) Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 199-200.

(5) Loren Eisley, adapted from “The Star Thrower,” found in
The Unexpected Universe
(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1969), 67-92.

Author Stephen Sims is the founder of IASIS, an awareness education project that endeavors to awaken positive potential through nurturing physical wellness, emotional wisdom, and spiritual balance. Steve’s life work has revolved around community service related to drug rehabilitation, care for the elderly, prison visitation, outreach to the homeless, and wilderness tripping.  This is Steve’s first book, with a variety of thematic reflections that make reference to his wide range of life experience.

River of Awareness is available on


Love is Transformative