Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Row Your Boat

Do you remember the children's nursery rhyme and round "Row Your Boat"?
For some reason I thought of that poem a few weeks ago. Perhaps it floated into my mind because of the New Year. Perhaps because I just read the Urban Shaman by Serge Kahili King in which he focus on the premise that life is a dream. (Read the book review at

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

What a wonderful piece of wisdom that's been hidden right before our eyes.

I decided to search the Internet to find the source of this wisdom. First, I found that the poem is anonymous. Intuitive Connections Network ( states that "this round is from an ancient text of unknown origin. The Great Songs Thesaurus says the earliest found publication of these words was in 1852; the music was added in 1881."

I was amused to find that there are hundreds of essays on and references to this poem with titles like "Forming Your Opinion About Life", "Row Your Boat Mantra: A Buddhist Commentary", "A Guide for Living Life in the Divine Flow" and many others.
What I saw in the poem is slightly different.

William Crews' book Four Causes of Reality (Philosophical Library, 1969) builds on Aristotle's philosophy of the four causes of reality. Crews develops the four causes:

First Cause - Material Cause
Second Cause - Formal Cause
Third Cause - Efficient Cause
Fourth Cause - Final Cause

The basic idea behind this construct is that all reality has four causes, i.e. necessary elements of its existence.

The material cause can be considered to be what the reality is composed of. In the case of a house, it's all the building materials. The formal cause shapes or gives form to the reality that is becoming. In the case of a house, it's the plans. The efficient cause describes the action. In the case of a house, it's the construction. The final cause is the reality's manifestation. In the case of a house, it is the home.

In "Row Your Boat", the first phrase could be interpreted to say that the building blocks of life are actions. Row is repeated three times, forming a trinity, maybe in this case like past, present and future. The wisdom in this poem suggests that drifting is not an option. You're going to have to work.

The second phrase, and second cause, or formal cause is "gently down the stream." The wisdom doesn't encourage fighting the current, or even attempting to cross the stream. It suggests finding the currents in the stream and rowing to the currents and then in the currents. A whirling stream with eddies and many different currents is probably not a bad metaphor for the future. Out role, and what should shape our lives, according to this wisdom is to search for the shifting currents, find them and exploit them gently.

The third phrase, and efficient cause, is "merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily." To be merry is to be joyous in disposition or spirit. Good advice under any circumstances. "Merrily" is repeated four times. It may have been repeated for emphasis. Or, it may have been to remind us of the fractal nature of the four causes. For each cause there are four causes, and so on, and so on. If this was the case, the poet wanted to make sure that we got it. Joyousness was the key to the efficient cause of the reality you were creating, and the material through final cause of that efficient cause was in itself joyousness.

The fourth and final cause is in the fourth phrase "life is but a dream." We make reality up as we go. Our limited sensory capabilities provide information on our environment that we integrate in our minds with assumptions, prior history and paradigms to construct our reality. As this all occurs in our head, it is no different than a dream.

Happy New Year! May you row your boat gently down the stream joyously for life is but a dream.

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