Water and spirituality

The sound of a pack of laughing Aboriginal kids floats across the river. It’s wild and excited and punctuated by a loud splash as a child drops from a rope swing into the river below. I’m in Wilcannia in the far west of New South Wales; I’m here to see the first huge flow of “fresh” gush down the Darling River in many years.

A raging Darling River is a wonderful sight for any Australian, especially those who survive on water from the Murray-Darling basin. Yet watching these kids scurry around the snaggled river redgum roots, I wonder how it must feel for them, as Paakantji kids. Paakantji means “river people”; these children are connected, ancestrally and spiritually, to the very water they play in. The Paakantji’s connection here stretches back an estimated 35,000 years.

Unlike the Paakantji, white Australians have no ancestral connection to bodies of water in and around our country. But for many, water is still a rich source of spiritual nourishment — and to none more so than our surfers.


To learn to pray, go to sea

Nathan Oldfield is a surfer, photographer and dad from the Central Coast of NSW. Introduced to surfing by his father, Nathan can’t remember life without waves. His connection with the sea is fused into who he is. “Surfing has never been merely a physical activity for me. It transcends physicality — it’s an experience of the heart and the spirit. For me, surfing is a way of being and breathing in an imperfect world. It’s a place to go to, a place to be, a place to belong.”

It’s not a connection that has been passed down ancestrally, but surfers like Nathan still feel intensely bonded to the ocean. “Words are inadequate to tell the depth of meaning I attach to a lifetime’s practice of surfing. It’s a beautiful, involved, intimate connection, getting into all that wide-open landscape and wild, wonderful water, day in and day out for weeks, months, years on end.”

Nathan believes his connection to surfing is “inextricably related” to water as an element. “It’s all about the water, about being in it, on it, under it, along it, across it, inside it. We surfers go to the sea to ride bands of energy that have travelled through the water for thousands of kilometres. We are upheld by something larger than ourselves.”


Water, water everywhere

The idea that water is “larger than ourselves” is one we have long believed, evident in many creation stories from around the world. In the most common kind of story, the world is created by the speech, dream, breath, thought or bodily secretions of a creator. This creator often exists in surroundings such as darkness or water. The first verse of Genesis, for example, reads: “The earth was without form and void … and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”

In other tales, a formless abyss exists before the world is created, which often has the consistency of vapour or water, sometimes salty or muddy. In the “earth diver” creation stories, a diver plunges through a primordial sea into the seabed to bring up sand or mud, which creates the terrestrial world. In Hindu holy books, all the inhabitants of the earth emerged from such a primordial sea. In Babylonian mythology, the gods came from the fusion of salt water and fresh water. Meanwhile, the Koran says, “We have created every living thing from water.”

For ancient and primitive cultures, water was worshipped because it was both the source and sustainer of life. Most of the great ancient civilisations were built around a body of water; for example, the Egyptians on the Nile or the Chinese near the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. Without water, there were no crops, no waterholes, no civilisation, no people. Water, therefore, must be a precious gift from the gods. And from these earliest times, water has been strongly associated with fertility. Countless gods and goddesses of fertility also shouldered the responsibility of water, rain or the oceans.

Yet many water deities worshipped for their ability to create were also feared for their power to destroy. The Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, was also the fearsome god of storms and earthquakes. For Aborigines, the Rainbow Serpent — responsible for regenerating rains and sending conception spirits to waterholes to create babies — also issued storms and floods as punishment to wrong-doers who transgressed Aboriginal law. Legends of sea monsters such as the Kraken, or dangerous spirits such as sirens, symbolised the violent threat and terrible unknown nature of the sea.


Cleanse, purify, make holy

Tales of great floods at some turbulent point in the past are common in many established religions. Usually, after the flood came regeneration and a blank slate. Water as a symbol moved from fertility to punishment to purity. Religious ritual cleansing is still practised widely today, where water cleanses the body and, by extension, purifies it ready for worship.

Muslims must be ritually pure before approaching God in prayer. The major ablution (washing), ghusl, involves washing the whole body in pure water, necessary after sex or before touching the Koran. The second ablution, wudu, involves washing the face, head, hands, arms and feet. In Judaism, too, ritual washing restores or maintains a state of purity. Hands are washed before and after meals and on many other occasions. A Jewish ritual bath, a mikveh, is used for cleansing after menstruation, for example, or as part of initiation ceremonies.

Almost all Christian churches, too, have a symbolic ritual involving water. Catholics extend the symbolism, believing baptism removes the stain of “original sin” (referring to the sin of Adam and Eve in eating the forbidden fruit and symbolising the imperfect nature we are all born with). In the same way that water washes dirt from the body, baptism washes the soul.

In Hinduism, attaining purity and avoiding “pollution” are paramount. This relates to both physical cleanliness (morning cleansing is a basic obligation) and spiritual wellbeing. Important pilgrimage sites are usually at rivers and coasts, and funeral grounds are always near a river. Water has spiritually cleansing powers in Hinduism, none more so than the waters of the River Ganges. The Ganges is one of seven holy rivers in Hindu faith, most of which are personified as goddesses. At the Ganges, the pure are made purer and the impure are rid of pollution as all their sins fall away. Hindus believe if you leave a part of yourself — hair, bone or fingernail — on the left bank, you’ll attain paradise.

Even Buddhists, whose religion is far less ritualistic than others, use water at funerals. The deceased is laid in front of a monk and water is poured in a bowl. As it spills over the edge, Buddhists monks recite: “As the rains fill the rivers and overflow into the ocean, so likewise may what is given here reach the departed.”

In religious practice, water is never neutral. It has the power to transform, to purify or annihilate sins and to create or transmit holiness. In this way, water is unique: it represents the border between this world and the other.


Watery dreams

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always our self we find in the sea.” — e.e. cummings

Before mirrors were made, we looked to water to see ourselves reflected. Today, it’s possible that not much has changed. Outside of religious traditions, water is intimately connected with human emotion.

Dream interpretation practitioner Jane Teresa Anderson says watery dreams are very common. While she rejects a “dream dictionary” approach — ie applying universal meaning to symbols — she says water usually represents unconscious or repressed emotions. Anderson looks at the whole dream storyline for clues. “One person might say, I’m sitting by a peaceful body of water and all of a sudden a storm starts up, or vice versa. So I’d have two completely different interpretations.”

When people relay their dreams to her, the emotions connected with the water in their dreams are revealed by their language. As in waking life, when we describe water we tend to use emotional words such as “depressing rain”, “peaceful lake” or “raging river”. Would we use such words to describe a field or a mountain? It’s unlikely.

Anderson believes one possible reason for our emotional connection with water is the first nine months we spend enveloped in water in our mother’s womb. “It’s believed that foetuses absorb a lot of their mother’s emotions, so even at that early stage you connect emotions and water.” Or, she says, it’s simply because water, especially the ocean, resembles the very nature of emotions, especially repressed or unconscious emotions.

“It’s so easy to stand on a beach and become mesmerised by waves coming in and going out and by not really knowing what’s under the surface. Water never stands still; it keeps changing shape and on some days it sparkles and is blue and calm, with at other times it’s stormy. It’s very like emotions. They too ebb and flow and run very deep like the ocean. You can see someone’s face, as you can the surface of the ocean, but you can’t see what’s beneath; you can’t see the emotion. I think water gives us that feeling, too.”

The link between water, the unconscious and emotions has many cross-cultural manifestations. In Hindu philosophy, water is associated with the Moon and Venus, which represent feelings, intuition and imagination. The sacral chakra Swadhisthana is associated with the unconscious and emotion and its element is water. And in Western astrology, water signs (Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces) are attuned to emotions and have a built-in “sonar” for reading moods.

Taoism views water a little differently: it’s considered an aspect of wisdom. Even though water is soft and weak, it moves in the path of least resistance and may go anywhere, given time. It takes the form in which it is held yet has the capacity to erode solid stone or move mountains. All these things are considered wise. In Taoist thought, the negative emotion associated with water is fear, while the positive emotion is calmness. As with dreams, interpretation depends on how the water takes form. Is it a calm pool? Or a stormy ocean? Water carries all these possibilities.

Anderson says that, in dreams, water represents the total unconscious mind. “The land is the conscious mind: what you can see, what you know, what you can stand on. Water is the unconscious mind: what you don’t know or understand but which you’re deeply attracted to.”


A feng shui bathroom

Feng shui is an ancient Chinese art of balance and placement, where feng means wind and shui means water. The elements of wood, water, fire, metal and earth are harmonised in a space to allow qi, or energy, to flow freely. Good placement assures the health and good fortune of those inhabiting the space.

Water is associated with wealth and prosperity. Because most action in bathrooms involves water, there’s a very important connection between bathrooms and wealth! Bathrooms are seen as the space with the biggest leakage of qi. Good airflow, adequate lighting and zero clutter are important to keep the qi flowing. Here are some extra tips:

  • Cover drains to stop wealth energy flowing away; keep the toilet seat down.
  • Keep drains in good working order — if blocked, use baking soda, vinegar and hot water to clear. Refrain from using toxic chemicals as they pollute the water system and the qi in the home.
  • Display bamboo and reflect it in the mirror — plants that grow upward represent money and the reflection doubles the effect. Water also represents emotions and healing in feng shui. So when designing and placing your feng shui water elements, you need to maintain balance.
  • A huge pool dominating your garden as the sole focal point may translate to a feeling of being overwhelmed emotionally.
  • Avoid building a pool too close to your house as it can symbolically submerge its inhabitants.

Dream analysis

How did you feel about the water in your dream? Were you terrified? Exhilarated? Peaceful? Look to these clues first and remember that a dream always draws on the past 24–48 hours of our conscious or unconscious experience. Try Jane Teresa Anderson’s “dream alchemy” visualisations to speak to your unconscious, or dreaming, mind and to transform the dream into a positive one.

The tsunami

If the water represents emotions, the massive wall of water represents the inevitability of these emotions overcoming you. This dream will often come after a period of repressing emotion, staying calm or holding something at bay. You can do that for only so long, until it comes up to wash over you.

Stand on the beach and visualise the wave coming. Instead of the wave breaking over you, or creating destruction, look at it and think: “This is awesome. I feel so calm.” Swim into it and then ride the wave, or calm the wave.

Is it a feeling of skimming across the top? This could indicate a sense of superficiality, as though you’re skimming across your emotions instead of delving into them.

Begin by walking on the water and notice it is now crystal-clear, safe and only chest deep. Now step down onto the bottom, your head and shoulders above the surface, and feel a healing energy flowing through you as you walk through the water.

Falling into water, feeling as though you’re drowning? You may wake up at this point. Stay in the dream longer and you may be able to breathe underwater. This usually comes at a time when you’ve been deeply emotional about something and you’re at a point where you can handle it.

Are you in a house with water flooding in? Do you feel exhilarated or fearful? If you have a negative response you’re probably having a hard time processing emotions or are feeling “waterlogged” with emotions, unable to release them. It can also reflect being physically bloated, which, of course, is the bodymind counterpart to emotional bloating.


Kate Hennessy

Kate Hennessy

Kate Hennessy's arts and travel writing has taken her to Africa, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, Turkey, the Solomon Islands, Peru and top-end aboriginal communities. She is published in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald and many more, and guests on ABC TV as well as at writers' festivals and panels.

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