Daniel Siegel, M.D. often writes about the importance of navigating the “river of well-being” in order to achieve mental and emotional health. He uses the metaphor of a river, which symbolizes well-being, with two banks – one representing rigidity (imposing control) and the other chaos (out of control). Ideally, we are able to “flow” down the river without hugging either bank too closely. When we cling to rigidity or chaos it interrupts our ability to be present and integrated in both our internal and external worlds.
Most of us can easily identify which river bank we default to. Those who veer into rigidity may experience stress and anxiety when life does not conform to plans and expectations. Those who stray to the bank of chaos may feel stagnant from unmet goals, fragmented relationships or a general lack of grounding. Additionally, rigidity can be a reaction to chaos and vice versa. For example, a person growing up in a chaotic, disorganized home may swing to rigidity as an adult in order to compensate for the discomfort they felt as a child. Unfortunately, the rigidity does not actually heal the past experiences and more dysfunction is created.
How do you guide yourself into the center of the river – the place where you may have moments of rigidity and chaos but neither dominates your life? The first step is to observe your patterns of thought, feeling and behavior. Do you notice the role you play in creating more rigidity or chaos in your life? The next step is to identify the impact these patterns have on your well-being. What suffering comes from being too inhibited or uninhibited? Some may see the suffering in their relationships, others may see it in career, health or lifestyle. Finally, there must be a conscious choice to move in the opposite direction. We will not find the middle of the “river of well-being” without moving towards that which we fear. A rigid person may need to practice letting go in order to be more open to novelty, change and growth. A chaotic person may need to pause and slow down in order to listen to oneself and find purpose and direction.