At a meeting of my alchemy group, a friend who recently returned from a rafting trip told a story about some rapids she encountered. These particular rapids were quite dangerous, and it was the only place on the trip where the guides gave everyone the option to walk around the passage rather than riding through it.

My friend looked at the rapids coming up and immediately knew, felt in her body, that she should walk, not ride. Later, she questioned her choice. Had she let fear dictate her actions? Was she simply a wimp for not choosing the rough water?

These particular rapids had been class two until 1965, when a heavy storm caused a landslide that washed boulders into the river and changed the landscape under the water. A boy scout leader expecting to lead his group through a simple and well known stretch of river died in the attempt. Another group of rafters with inadequate equipment and experience were sucked under, raft and all, and spit back out downstream, minus the raft. The guides were very respectful of this place and approached it with care.

As my friend talked about the natural history of this river, these rapids, I felt great respect for her choice. I heard the voice of a a woman with a deep respect for the natural world, very atuned to the landscape beneath the surface, and the way water moved over it, very willing to feel into the world with her whole body and listen to what it wanted to tell her. I thought of the psychological metaphor implicit in the story of how the river had changed.

Sometimes things cause the inner landscape  to shift. Sometimes things don’t flow over us in the same way from year to year, and water that is innocuous and easy to navigate in one season rages in the next. It takes courage and wisdom to know when to dive in head first and when to respect something that has the power to suck us under and hold us away from light and air. There are gentle ways to inhabit both self and world, and though we may prefer the reckless heaviness of swinging a sledgehammer to crack open what every passage, maturity teaches us to use other tools as well.

Though as this woman talked about hiking around the passage, climbing over boulders on dry land, another friend asked, how do you know yours wasn’t the harder way?