everything is made out of water

Warning: long and reflective. Beware of slippery surface.

“Dad, don’t fight the water. Stretch your body as long as you can and really feel the water. Go with it.”

That was me a week ago in Macau, attempting to coach my Dad freestyle. He wasn’t half-bad. Afterwards, he proudly proclaimed that I may have inherited my swim genes from him. Alas – unless my mom actually decides to get her butt into a pool one of these days, we will never know.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the water, mainly due to competitive swimming. My mom likes to remind me that after two days of being born, she threw me into a bathtub. After wailing for a good minute, I suddenly did a 180 and thoroughly enjoyed my first swimming experience. I like to call myself a water baby on a regular basis. As Steph (my coach at Harvard) insisted before I retired: You like the water, Kelly.

Good thing too, since global warming might make a statement soon.

Thales of Miletus (624-546 BCE), one of the first recognized metaphysicists of our time, declared that everything is made out of water. So says the first page in my “Big Book of Philosophy” (aka toilet reading) which I picked up as a substitute for clothes at Urban Outfitters. Who knew I’d actually read the thing.

It’s not a bad start for recorded philosophy, seeing that water is a pretty important thing in earth’s history.

What is it – our bodies are 60% water? The brain = 70%, so MRI’s can read our brain through hydrogen atoms and their spinback mechanisms thanks to that high percentage? (shortcut to neuronerd.com to your left) There’s about 326 million trillion gallons of water in our earth? We can survive for two weeks without food, but only a couple of days without that beautiful liquid?

Water is the abundant source of life. From it we also developed energy, discipline through sports, cute analogies, and spa treatments. So what about water’s link to creativity?

Life originated in the sea, and about eighty percent of it is still there. — Isaac Asimov

In chakra philosophy (I’m not actually sure where it stems from – there are many different versions), the second chakra, termed svadisthana, is located within the sacral area and considered the abode of creativity. It is also, conveniently, linked to the element of water.

That got me thinking. If people way back when already considered the link between water and creativity, what implication does that have for us now in modern society?

There is a reason why scientists define intelligence as either crystallized or liquid. FYI, crystallized intelligence involves knowledge already known, vs. liquid intelligence which is the ability to think logically in novel situations. Liquids have an element of flexibility: they can take any new shape, can curve around obstacles, yet keep their fundamental properties. Gases are too chaotic (think early cavemen that traveled around in small groups, barely making contact with each other), while solids allow no room for change. Hence liquid intelligence.

Also, in Flow (referring to the Stream Brainset),  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi uses the concept of liquid to describe creativity:

not the single intensity of “focusing a laser”, but the feeling of drifting along a stream, being carried in a clear direction, but still tossed in surprising ways by the eddies and whirls of moving water”

But out of all liquids, why water?

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, sheds some light on this. After analyzing centuries of “good ideas” (creative, original ideas that are beneficial to human society), he determined that creative ideas are most easily produced in networked, non-market based environments. One of the factors for this is a liquid network.

A liquid network needs two things to be a good environment for creativity: 1) The ability to allow as many random connections as possible 2) the ability to provide enough stability so that the innovative system gravitates towards “the edge of chaos” (termed by Christopher Langton: the quality where the system is chaotic enough that new ideas can be formed at the highest rate possible, while maintaing the ability to develop and apply these ideas, versus pure anarchy or pure order).

For those who hated high school honors chem, a friendly reminder about those special hydrogen bonds that form between water molecules: ten times stronger than intermolecular bonds of other liquids, but weak enough to allow for the fluidity and solubility of water.

A good analogy is the brain. The brain is plastic (flexible) enough to allow for new, spontaneous connections (insight, creativity), but stable enough to allow for the development of neuronal pathways (Professor Jeff W. Lichtman alluded neuronal pathways to water streaming down the same paths on a rock, slowly carving it out). Water is flexible enough to allow new connections between solutes, but stable enough to maintain the structural integrity of new compounds.

True, one could argue the brain is always spontaneously creating at every moment. But that dips into the Eastern philosophy and their love of the paradoxical mind embodying constant form and constant change (What is the sound of one hand clapping? You tell me.) It is also a friendly wave to quantum physics and infinity. So let’s not go there for now.

I had the priviledge of chatting with being utterly amazed for four hours while chatting with Roy Horan, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic who is at the forefront of creativty and education research (also secretly an ex-kung fu actor and ex-Candian inuit tribe member). In order to examine the different stages of creativity, he came up with the Ocean Model in his paper that proposed a yogi-scientific review of Creativity and Intelligence. Aside from the quirky joke of OM that makes him smile inside, there seems to be some truth to his Ocean Model of creativity. Let me briefly explain.

Roy proposes that the three states of creativity is like the Ocean. The ocean is crystallized at the surface where the waves are, whereas the liquid movement is just below in the form of currents. The deepest part of the ocean, where ultimate stillness reigns, is vacuous.

He deems that crystallized creativity is the creative product itself: the idea, the performance, the hypothesis, the artpiece. This stems from liquid creativity, which embodies curiousity, imagination, connection, and incubation. Liquid creativity stems from vacuous creativity – the intention to transcend limits. At this level, the mind is absolutely still, connected with the infinite and one, and completely open to any expression of inspiration. For physics lovers out there, a useful analogy is the quatum vacuum. But again, I need to befriend a quantum physics lover at Harvard in order for me to accurately convey this theory.

Although these are only a few ideas about the connection between water and creativity, it is evident that there is some reasoning behind the concept of svadisthana, the water energy center in the body that resonates with creativity, sensuality, curiousity, and imagination. It is interesting to note that it is passive, and involves the human ability to let go. Food (or should I say water?) for thought.

You can never step into the same river, for new waters are always flowing on to you. — Heraclitus

So I was a water baby. Fast forward to the hours and days and weeks and months devoted to competitive swimming (I was already practicing 12 hours a week when I was in 5th grade, increased to about a day + more per week in high school).

It’s a pretty quiet sport. It’s just you and the water and the numbers. God, those numbers. Most of the time, I was trying to just make it thorugh the session, or secretly cursing the sport, or my mind tried to distract and numb myself from the pain.

My last season in swimming was interesting. Steph invited a rather intriguing guy to come teach us what he knew about the sport. He approached it with a neurological view, which I obviously loved. Before every practice, he demanded that we get in the pool and put our heads down and turn off our brains and just float. Lose complete control of your body and just let the water do it’s thing (this is pretty miserable when you first get in, because the water is so damn cold. Luckily, our coach tweaked his theory just a little bit and let us warm up for 10 minutes first).

It was…meditative.

He was also all about the physics – push your chest into the water, because the water will push up back into you. Sink your hips, because the water will respond. How is your body suspended in the water? What does the water tell you about yourself? It was as if water was a living thing I was exchanging banter with.

I remember what he said to me when he watched me swim: “You’ve been getting through the sport with your strength, not by naturally flowing with it. I think you’ve been going through life that way too.”

That really struck me.

And yes, I did quit at the end of that season. And thanks to my ankle sprain this summer, I’ve rediscovered my childhood love for the water. And met a lot of really interesting people thanks to it.

Like I said: I’m making amends.

Hopefully without the numbers, I can not only use the water as a place of healing, cleansing, and fun, but also to discover some creative inspiration between those microscopic hydrogen bonds holding that whole “thing” of constantly shifting water together. You never know.

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.

– Bruce Lee

(fun fact: Professor Horan was baller enough to be in a Bruce Lee film)

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Filed under creativity, neuroscience, spiritual, swimming

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