Does the River End?

Become totally empty.
Let your heart be at peace.
Amidst the rush of worldly comings and goings,
Observe how endings become beginnings.
Things flourish, each by each,
Only to return to the source …
To what is and what is to be.  
- Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
- Seneca the Younger

Just as a mountain stream, coming from afar, swiftly flowing, carrying along much flotsam, will not stand still for a moment, an instant, a second, but will rush on, swirl and flow forward; even so . . . is human life like a mountain stream.
- Discourses from the Pali Canon, The Buddha


Endings have always been a challenge for me. Saying goodbye at the airport. The last day of school. Children leaving for college. You know the feelings - a lump in the throat, an emptiness in the gut, a yearning heart. Perhaps such grieving at departures is just intrinsic to the human condition.

I became acutely aware that my particular manifestation of separation anxiety had really gotten out of hand ten years ago. As a single father, I had embarked with my two sons on various travel adventures since they were young. After they went off to college, we continued these mutual adventures. The difference was that, after a week of deep connection, spirited exploration and intimate camaraderie, I would return to an empty house and would not see them for months as they returned to college, or eventually jobs, and their own lives. I would experience a profound sense of loneliness that was magnified by the week of intimate connection. I became so attached to the bliss and fellowship of the week with them that the ending descended upon me like a suffocating dark cloud. At one point, I actually thought, “I don’t want to do this anymore.The lingering pain of the ultimate separation is not worth the short joyful week we shared.” I ultimately awakened to the nonsensical nature of this impulse, but the mere fact that it even arose shocked me. It was evidence of how grasping and aversion can threaten the abundant experience of life.

Within the Buddhist gestalt, I was suffering from my denial of the reality of impermanence. I was seeking to cling to the pleasant experience of shared intimacy and adventure while wanting to push away the sadness of separation. In the Taoist realm, I was seeking to inhibit or deny the natural flow of parental connection with my grown sons now living independent lives. A wiser approach, I ultimately concluded, was to fully relish the rapture of our travels together while accepting the reality of ultimate separation. Endings are inevitable. Endings make room for new beginnings, awareness  and regeneration.

An even more nuanced perspective on this recurrent personal drama was to reconfigure conceptually and emotionally the return from our shared adventures as a natural transition in the flow of life rather than a definitive ending. While I was indeed returning home physically alone, the experiences of the week together lived on within me and them – glorious sights, shared humor, expanded awareness of the world, travel mishaps, memorable personalities. Actually embracing the inevitability of eventual separation while holding a visceral appreciation for the enduring blessings of the actual experience felt more in alignment with the natural order of things.

This discourse upon endings is especially poignant right now because of the transitional state of the beloved organization sponsoring this article and my place in it. After 25 years, Chrysalis is ending and The Innerwork Center begins. But is that true? Is that seeing clearly? Does the caterpillar actually end within the chrysalis heralding the beginning of the butterfly? Or is it more accurate to see the unfolding as a process, as evolution? As Thich Nhat Hanh observes, the paper upon which this article resides contains within it clouds, rain, sunshine, the logger’s effort, and a multitude of causes. While the identifying moniker of this organization has indeed changed, there is no real end of Chrysalis. Contained within the nascent Innerwork Center are the fruits of all the strivings of the past 25 years: Nancy Milner's original insight, the financial struggles and successes, the transformative keynote presentations, the indefatigable efforts of leaders, staff and Board members, the tears and tenderness of the hundreds of program offerings. As the butterfly contains all the components of the caterpillar, the Innerwork Center emerges embodying all of the lifeblood of Chrysalis, and as the butterfly spreads its wings to fly, The Innerwork Center arises with a larger vision, an expanded audience and a capacity for greater impact upon the community.  

On a more personal level, while my three year tenure as Board President ends this month, the presidency and the organization’s dynamic evolution certainly do not. My departure heralds the arrival of the new President, Mike Grow, and leadership evolves with Mike’s enhanced non-profit experience, management skills and fresh perspective.

As I was initially inclined to do with my sons regarding our travel adventures, one can choose to hold on to the past, live in regret and accentuate what is absent. Aversion to endings and resistance to change can lead to personal and organizational atrophy, risking a loss of vitality, thriving and renewal. A wiser path, it seems, is to accept the inevitability of change within the flow of the river of life - or employing an even deeper wisdom and equanimity, to embrace it with the gratitude reflected in Thich Nhat Hanh’s observation: “Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.”

Aubrey Ford is completing his term as Board President of The Innerwork Center, formerly Chrysalis Institute. He has been a practicing trial lawyer for forty years, and retains occasional obligations as father of grown-up sons, Aubrey and Billy. He's currently enrolled in a two-year mindfulness meditation teacher certification program with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. 

Elizabeth Smartt