by Nick Gier
The sage dwells in the midst of non-action (wuwei) and practices wordless teaching.
—The Daodejing 2:3
I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than Bill Parks for negotiating the rapids of a wild river. He is president of Northwest River Supplies in Moscow, Idaho, and he has been running rivers since the 1970s.
The lessons began on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon in the early 1990s. The first thing Bill taught me was that I was overcorrecting as I lined up for a rapid. I eventually learned that in most cases, it took, if you were far enough out, a few effortless strokes to position yourself accurately—that is, in the center of the rapid’s “tongue.”
The Dao of Rafting
The key was finesse and not power. The only exception is that if you were in the rapid and had to avoid rocks and hydraulics—or “holes” as they are more commonly called. Even then, if you had sized up the conditions of the rapid, finesse was still the way to go.
I discovered that there is an art to river rafting, and I call this the Dao of Rafting. Chinese sages navigate life with little or no effort (wuwei). For them the greatest mistakes come from trying too hard.
Down the Grand Canyon: First Time
In 1993, my former partner and I were invited to take our largest raft down the Grand Canyon. This is a trip of 21 days and 221 miles through the most challenging rapids in North America. We both knew that we could not do this without expert help. Bill gladly agreed to be our main oarsman.
I was assigned to be the “grunt” rower between the huge rapids. Most rivers have eddies, currents of water that collide with obstacles (usually on the sides) and the water reverses direction. On smaller rivers these are not much of a problem. It’s fun to watch kayakers pull into an eddy behind a rock and rest there Daoist-like, usually waiting for the rafts to catch up.
Don’t Get Caught in Life’s Eddies
On the Colorado the eddies are huge and powerful. I don’t know how many times Bill yelled out: “Nick, you are in an eddy again!” I mistakenly tried to row against it, but to no avail.
Bill taught me to find the eddy line and bust through it to return to the main current. Now that took great effort, but that would have not been necessary if I had stayed in the center of the current.
Truth as a Moral Virtue
What does this have to do with truth, a reader might ask? In philosophy classes students learn that there are two theories of truth: correspondence of facts and concepts and the coherence of a statement with a system of truths.
Truth is also a moral virtue. It is more than just telling the truth; rather, it is being true to yourself. My favorite example is Mahatma Gandhi. Hindus expected him to follow their concept of nonviolence, but he developed a pragmatic view that worked for him.
Gandhi and the Virtue of Non-Violence
Gandhi’s view became a model for over 21 non-violent revolutions in the 20th Century. Even then there were personal or national appropriations of Gandhi views. Initially, Gandhi insisted that only the spiritually pure could practice nonviolence. However, none of the leaders of these revolutions ever reached this standard.
Truth among the Virtues
In the process of moral development each of us, ideally, should possess an ensemble of virtues that cohere each to the other and guide us through our lives. Truth as a moral virtue is intimately related to the virtues of integrity, courage, fortitude, mindfulness, and wisdom.
Most moral virtues are means between extremes. For example, courage is the mean between cowardice on the one hand and foolhardiness on the other. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle taught us, moral virtues are “relative to us.” They are uniquely personal to each one of us.
For example, Gandhi’s courage in “battle” with the British is personally different from the courage of a Ukrainian soldier in real combat. It was specific to his own moral truth.
Aristotle believed that well trained soldiers are merely brave, and only citizens fighting false charges as Socrates did, had moral courage. Socrates was in fact one of Gandhi’s heroes. Both faced, with great fortitude and integrity, judges and juries with short-sighted views of justice.
Staying in the Center
I’ve learned from my own meditation practice that it helps me stay in my center. The farther we stray from our centers, the more likely it is for us to forget the needs of others as well as our own. I firmly believe that the Chinese were right that “evil” is the result of imbalance and resultant disoriented wills.
Returning to the Grand Canyon, I want to draw an analogy. Not only should we always aim for the center of the rapid’s tongue, but we should stay in the current and not, unmindfully, be trapped in the eddies of life, where trouble will always find us.
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
Not only does the good life have truth, it also has beauty. Many of us have heard the compliment: “She is a gem of a person.” The Chinese believe that moral development is like fashioning a rough gemstone.
A virtuous person is a thing of beauty. It is an inner moral beauty (neither Gandhi nor Socrates were handsome), and it comes from the courage of being true to one’s self and being true to others.
Even with an expert teacher, I never rose above either intermediate rafting or skiing. Effortlessly carving turns on a ski slope is just as beautiful as watching Bill negotiating a Class 4 rapid with as few oar strokes as possible. You didn’t know you were a Daoist, did you Bill?
Lava Falls: Finding Your Way Through
The most dangerous rapid on the Grand Canyon is Lava Falls (at river mile 179). It contains the Mother of All Hydraulics, an immediate drop of 15 feet and a 10 by 30-foot expanse of surging water turning back on itself. Everyone in the group “ran it” on the left, but Bill found his own “truth” on the right.
On our second trip down the Grand Canyon in 2002, we rented an 18-foot raft which we loaded to the gills. John Wohl, an experienced oarsman from Bellingham, was our captain. For reasons that will remain unnamed, John was simply not himself all the way down the river.
When we approached Lava, it appeared that we were lined up correctly. Instead, we went right into the hole. John was thrown out of the cockpit and rescued himself downstream.
While John’s wife huddled in fear in the front (my partner had declined to join our raft), I grabbed the left oar and tried to row out. To my surprise, the oar stand for the right oar was bent straight over. The 11-foot oar was acting as a dagger board, just as some small sailboats have. Incredibly enough, it had stabilized the raft.
After what seemed an eternity, the oar blade broke with only a two inch piece of wood left attached to the oar. We did not capsize, but instead we were spat out into the raging white water below Lava. We safely “eddied out” downstream and, using another oar, straightened out the oar stand.
Most of our party was still on a bluff scouting the rapid and watching the routes already taken. They all praised me for staying calm throughout. Yes, I stayed in my center. Contrary to Colorado River lore, however, the grey beard professor from Idaho did not run Lava with one oar. The river did it, not I.
P.S. On our way back, we stopped at a Utah rest area on Interstate 15. A fellow came out and spotted the Idaho plates and the grey bread. After introducing himself as a river guide on the Colorado, he said: “You must be the professor from Idaho who ran Lava with one oar.”
I replied: “You must be thinking of the one-armed John Wesley Powell. I did no such thing”! Yes, Powell was the first to explore the Green and Colorado Rivers, but he portaged around Lava Falls.
Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read excerpts from his Gandhi book The Virtue of Non-Violence at bit.ly/3jFeAjf. Email him at ngier006∂gmail.com.