Drowning to the Self

Well, tomorrow is my 43rd birthday and I have a lot to celebrate this year. As opposed to last year when I fell out of a river raft in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in Glacier National Park near where we live…and got to ride a class 3 rapid, old school– pre-canoe.

It was the worst birthday of my life.

I was in the midst of my marital “adventure” and not knowing at all what would happen with the future of my relationship with my husband. I loved him. And, despite his declarations, I believed he loved me. And even though I had been quite sucessful in practicing living in the moment, letting go of outcome, and choosing, breath by breath, not to suffer…even though I’d become pretty good at contacting some level of happiness in a time so fraught with what could have been interpretated as pain…when I took that rapid, it was the ultimate “challenge” to my new method.

If we’re living in the moment for the sole purpose of receiving something like Grace…then we might just prove that old adage that God has a good sense of humor. (see: 200 mph swirlie!) I do believe, however, that we can create many things for ourselves, and in that moment, being sucked under and swirled around, and sucked under some more, and then shoved up to the surface, only to gasp for air, and be sucked back under, swirled around, sucked back down, and finally popped up like something leftover from a shipwreck…I was forced to really CREATE surrrender.

I’ve done a lot of scary things around here in these last 15 years of rural living, but this was the scariest. I really had a flash of understanding that I could be in my last moments on earth. And in that moment…in that MOMENT…there was no panic. There was no state-of-emergancy. There was a lot of rushing water, and the sense of my body being in it, and being totally powerless. And there wasn’t a whole lot more than that. It was the nothingness I’d read about in so many wisdom texts and not understood. “Nothingness” as a destination sounded empty and sad. But whatever I felt in that moment under the water, was not empty or sad. It was whole. No disturbance fragmenting it into a million disruptive thoughts that tug at the heart and mind and derail us. It was only afterward that all those thoughts and translations of the experience brought on the fear and the haunt of what might have happened on my 42nd birthday on a sunny summer day in Montana.

A lot of people have asked me to let them in on how I achieved some level of inner chill, calm, harmony during my husband’s dis-affection. I wish I had a stock answer. I wish I could give it away free in the streets. But I can’t. It can be inspired by spiritual practice– praying, meditating, communing with nature, one’s sense of the Divine, being with animals– but the place where I felt the most centered and calm last summer and namely in that moment in that river…is more of a state of mind. Almost trance-like.

I wish I could achieve it more often. And yet I’m glad for not having to daily almost drown to experience it. Maybe that’s what Paul was getting at in the Bible when he talked about dying to the Self.

I’ve known it one other time, and that was in natural childbirth– the labor and delivery of my daughter, on Pitocin, which was an experience of one long 12 hour contraction. I knew not to fight the pain. I knew to use the pain. I knew that the pain would open my cervix and bring me my baby. So I just went with it: stone silent surrender. Afterwards, I explained that it was like I was going into the depths of an ocean and holding on to weeds while the waves swelled and crashed over me. Perhaps then, it was no small surprise that being caught in a class 3 rapid brought up the same reaction.

I feel it with horses too, when we’re going fast and doing something dangerous in the woods…and maybe that’s why I ride as often as I can. It’s a way to get to that intersection of living and surrender, when you know you are powerless, and you must go with instead of against. That’s what I did last summer.

Maybe that will help some of you who were wondering. I wrote a book about all this while it was happening. The essay in the “New York Times” and in “The Week” is the short version of it. It should be in print this April. I am hard at work revising it to make sure I get it as honest and powerful and helpful as possible. Thanks for all of your comments. I wish I had answers for those of you who’ve asked me questions. Maybe what I’ve written here will give you a greater understanding about where you’re suffering in your life, and inspire you to imagine the possibilites of what can happen when you decide that even though you are in the line of fire, you can choose not to suffer. Whether or not that heals your relationships with others, I do know that it can heal your relationship with yourself. That’s a good place to begin. It’s the only thing we can control, afterall.

Tomorrow I’m hoping that I will not have to almost drown to feel peace and even happiness. I’m hoping for a nice hike in the mountains with my family. And maybe breakfast in bed! but even that is an attachment to an outcome that may not occur, and so I guess right now, in this moment, I can practice not wanting bacon and poached eggs on toast with a side of spinach and green tea with jasmine in my favorite mug on my grandmother’s old robins’ egg blue bed tray (hint hint)… If I find myself making that breakfast and carrying it up to bed, I’ll do my best at keeping a smile on my face and being thankful for not having to drown a bit to live again.
p.s. that’s me in the back right. pre-episode. still thinking she’s a cool Montana chick.
White Water Rafting


Filed under "Those Aren't Fighting Words, Dear", Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

11 Responses to Drowning to the Self

  1. Kassidy

    Happy Birthday, friend who is alive and engaged with that turbulent state. Siddhartha traveled a river. Your words are truths and I thank you for them. I will make a wish that soon we can sit and connect in some hanging chairs by green woods and jagged cliffs ( aka your backyard). In the meantime, I love you and am forever thankful that not only were you born but you have chosen to stay truly alive.

    • lauramunson

      I love you. Come home soon and we can ride! I’ve got a sweet new horse. Names???? Mare. Calm. Very very calm.

  2. Gail Whitney

    Happy birthday to you!
    I have a couple of friends I want to introduce to you so if you are available during the week of aug 31-sept 7 let me know!

  3. Jeff

    I hope you have a happy birthday (on the same day that was my grandmother’s birthday). I have been enjoying your writing since your NYT Modern Love piece, as many others have, too, it seems.

    I turned 40 this month. It seemed like a big deal, and I think it felt that way, at least in part, because of the kind of attachments you write about. For me, attachment leads to a strong desire to control everything going on around me, including people who are important to me. Of course, the more we try to control, the more fate tends to show us the futility of our efforts.

    Your description of your rapids experience illustrates this point perfectly. Thank you for sharing it. Maybe it will help me remember not to hold on so tight.

  4. Rossell

    Rafts and canoes are great for survival, but you’ve got what it takes to live – to really live!!!!

    Happy happy birthday. Here’s to another year of making a difference to those of us that are hungry for more.


  5. Hi Laura,

    Thanks again for a glimpse of your inner process. I’m finding it very helpful.

    The closest explanation I’ve found about ending suffering comes from a Bill Moyers interview with Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun. She says:
    “…the end of suffering has to do with how you relate with pain. Let’s distinguish just for semantics, the difference between, let’s call pain the unavoidable, and let’s call suffering what could lessen and dissolve in our lives. So, if there’s sort of a basic phrase, you could say that it isn’t the things that happen to us in our lives that cause us to suffer, it’s how we relate to the things that happen to us that causes us to suffer.”

    The complete transcript can be found here:

    I saw the interview on TV and it was riveting. She’s an amazing woman. But then, you may already know her work well.

    I’m so pleased that your book is coming out. I so look forward to reading it!
    And in the meantime, have a very Happy Birthday!

    • lauramunson

      Thanks, Valerie– I love Pema’s message. I’ve read her books and have her cd’s. Thanks for letting me know about the Bill Moyers interview. I’ve passed it on.

  6. P.S. And here it is the Chodron interview on youtube:
    for anyone else who’s interested!

  7. Bonnie

    We have this episode to share, you and I, our own near deaths on different days but in the same fork of the river, in the same year. I was not calm, I was frantic, bursting for air, panicking, grasping anything and everything to get me out, out from under the logs and twigs that were pinning me under the water. I am glad we both survived, we have much more living to do. Just reading about experience made me hyperventilate.
    Your words read like a knife through melted butter – effortlessly and fluid. May we never be looking up through murky depths at the air above again. Tanti baci e successo cara. Bonnie

  8. A.Q.S.

    Hi Laura…

    I understand–if that is even possible for one human to say to another when it comes to the moment you describe above–your experience given what I went through myself. You can read about it here if you have time. http://annieqsyed.com/2009/10/viladah/

    Glad I discovered this post.

    Also, congratulations on the book! Can’t wait.

    Much gratitude for inspiring…

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