The Imaginary River

"I said to the wanting-creature inside me:What is this river you want to cross?"


These lines come at the beginning of a poem by Kabir, a 15th-century Indian poet. If you just read this snippet, it might sound like an invitation to be introspective, as if saying there are rivers that might need to be crossed—so what is the one in front of me now? As I thought about this quote recently, though, somehow I knew there might be a different meaning intended. The “wanting creature” part points to the idea that this urge to cross a river might need to be unpacked and questioned.


Sure enough. When I went back to read the entire poem, Kabir notes, “There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road… There is no river at all, no boat, and no boatman.” And finally later, “Do you believe there is someplace that will make the soul less thirsty?” He drives the point home: what is this river you want to cross? It does not exist—it’s all in your mind.

Right now, the meaning of this metaphor is swimming in my mind a bit. I’m looking for some sort of referent to attach it to. How about the various goals and rules that I keep and get stressed about keeping or not keeping? For example, at the beginning of the year, I tried to meditate every day. I kept it up for about three months and now I’ve missed a day here and there, maybe 4 in all, and mostly when I oversleep and have to miss my morning routine. I had a goal, to be the person who meditates every day, who never misses it. And I missed it, and I will miss it again.

I get kind of annoyed about it. Why can’t I stick with it? Why can’t it just be a part of me? But maybe the person who never ever misses a day is an illusion. Or maybe this isn’t even to be desired at all. What about the person who misses a day and comes back again the next day? Or the person whose morning routine is changed up, but who still sits at her desk quietly just for three minutes to re-set. These are great people to be as well.

What if meditation isn’t even an appropriate activity to make goals about? Hmmm? What if you just do it or don’t do it and don’t worry about it? “Do you believe there is someplace that will make the soul less thirsty?” Do you believe there is a right and wrong way to do everything? A good and bad?

Kabir invites us to come away from that imaginary river, that fantasy goal, and simply rest in the reality of who we are—embrace what is solid and firm.