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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

The Water Wheel

A water wheel is a machine for converting the energy of flowing or falling water into useful forms of power, often in a watermill. A water wheel consists of a wheel with a number of buckets arranged on the outside rim forming the driving surface. Water wheels depend on flowing water to keep turning. Without a continuous source of water, the wheel comes to a halt, and the water in the buckets begins to putrefy. In her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthea Bourgeault writes: “As the buckets of the waterwheel are drawn upward and over its top, they self-empty into the next bucket, providing energy for the wheel so that the next bucket reaches the top and self-empties into the next. The bucket has no function on the waterwheel but to give its water away. If it retains its water, the wheel stagnates.”

The water wheel becomes a beautiful metaphor for the relationship of the Trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit endlessly giving and receiving love in oneness to each other, and also to us. As we receive this love, and our “bucket” replenishes, we are able to give from our overflow to others. As our “bucket” empties, we receive more life-giving water from our Higher Source as well as from supportive beings in our lives: a partner, family member, friend or pet for example.

What interrupts this seamless flow? What happens when we feel disconnected from God, and/or others? Our bucket doesn’t seem to fill, and we have nothing to pour into another’s. The water wheel seems to grind to a halt, and any water remaining becomes fetid and murky. Depression, anxiety, a crisis at work or home, illness, fatigue, a loss, rejection or trauma can make us feel separated from the emotional, psychological and physical resources that usually keep us filled and moving upward. When we experience emptiness, we become afraid to give away what little we have, so we begin operating out of the scarcity principle. If I don’t have enough resources (energy, money, time, etc.) for myself, how can I give any of it away? We become defensive, reactive, isolated, and withdrawn. Requests from others become burdens, threats to our well-being. We become resentful and may lash out or pull away from others. These behaviors cause us to feel even worse as we cut ourselves off from potential gifts of encouragement, support and care from others. Our bucket is empty and moss-covered now.

In Luke 17:33 Jesus says, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” The paradox of the water wheel is that it only keeps turning and replenishing as long as we trust that our bucket will be re-filled upon emptying. The more we hoard our resources, not only do we have less for others, we end up with less for ourselves as well.

In her article How Selfish Love Differs from Selfless Love ( Kate Ferguson notes: “Selfish love withholds and stagnates, because it is all about you and not about building a connection.” It is through vertical connection with our Higher Power and horizontal connection with our community that we find a balance between giving and receiving, between emptying and filling, between moving upwards and then back down again.

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