Of Mountains and Water

8 Minute Meditation for Stress Relief

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In the fall of1981, I was assigned to teach my first stress-management course at the University of Maryland. My predecessor had taught only "sound Western approaches," proven by Western science. He encouraged me to do the same. At a time when saying the word echinacea would garner a response of "Gesundheit," I felt that I was rather novel in teaching a holistic approach in what can best be described, at the time, as a very conservative discipline. Within my first week of teaching this course, a student who looked no older than seventeen walked up to me and said quite confidently, "You know, everything you have mentioned about stress management I have already heard before." Realizing that college kids can be hip and knowing how young he was, it occurred to me that he just might be lying. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt and inquired where he had come upon this wealth of knowledge. "In my tai chi class," he answered. In the back of my mind I could see Jung smiling.

"We just learned a proverb that I thought you might be interested in," he said. "It goes like this, 'Stand like mountain, move like water.'" He then smiled at me, said he enjoyed the course, shook my hand, and headed out the door. Upon first hearing this phrase, I have to admit that it resonated deep within me, and it has become a personal mantra ever since. Once again, I was reminded of the power of opposites and the message of balance. These six words contain a lot of power. To "stand like mountain" means to stand strong and tall in the midst of change. It means to be secure in your being and stable in your environment. Conversely, to "move like water" means to go with the flow with things you cannot control. It also speaks to the nature of taking the path of least resistance, rather than trying to budge an immovable object or change someone else's behavior. The metaphors of mountains and water have universal appeal. Thomas Jefferson once said, "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock."

Balance is an inherent part of our constitution. Whether in our first attempts to walk upright or ride a bike or in our regular efforts to balance our checkbooks, it is the human condition—mind, body, spirit, and emotions—to continually strive for balance. Since first hearing this proverb, I have learned that almost every culture has a similar expression that speaks to the nature of living one's life in balance. The American version is a little longer than the Chinese axiom, but the message is the same, and Reinhold Neibuhr's "Serenity Prayer," a preamble to many twelve-step programs, is the best stress-management advice I've heard summed up in twenty-seven words: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

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