The Living Water
When you’re thirsty you often feel hungry. This is because the signals that the brain receives for hunger and dehydration are very similar. In fact, a recent study tracked situations when people at work were thirsty but not actually hungry. They responded by having a drink only two percent of the time! That means 98 times out of 100 people either ignored their thirst or ate something to soothe their headache or rumbling stomach.1
In this example, our physical body has a thirst. Instead of drinking, we eat to fill the emptiness, then we get even thirstier, and so the cycle repeats. Our innermost nature also has a thirst. We feel it as an emptiness in our lives or in our hearts. Sometimes we feel it in times of stress, but sometimes we feel this emptiness the most when everything is perfect from a worldly point of view.
We do a lot of things to try to fill this emptiness. We get involved in relationships, try to gain wealth or status, take risks, watch endless TV, and take drugs. But these things are like junk food that doesn’t take our thirst away. By pursuing these solutions, we aren’t recognizing our inner thirst for what it is. Unless we understand that thirst, we can’t take steps to quench it. Jesus called it a thirst for the Spirit. Like every great mystic throughout history, he spoke from his own experience and told his disciples that within every human being there is a current of divine love and radiance from which we have become disconnected. If we can re-connect to it, we can attain peace. And then we can become more loving human beings who radiate that same peace. Only that divine current or Spirit can quench our inner thirst.
In other traditions that divine current is called Dao, Nam, Kalma, Khuda, or the Music of the Spheres. Jesus sometimes called it the Word of God, and also refers to it as the Living Water.
In the gospel of John, Jesus is quoted as saying to the crowd of people:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said (referring to the earlier scriptures), rivers of living water will flow from within them.
Which earlier scripture was he referring to? Perhaps this one – in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, in which Isaiah uses a metaphor for the life-giving spiritual “water” reviving the barren earth:
For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.2
And John explains:
This He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive.3
Elsewhere in the gospel of John, Jesus is quoted:
Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.4
There is no doubt that the Living Water he is referring to is the holy Spirit. The highest grace we can have is to possess a conscious thirst, a strong need to drink of this Living Water, doing whatever it takes to quench this spiritual thirst. The next best thing, if we don’t have that conscious, desperate thirst, is to at least have faith in a person who observes that we need a drink. If we have such faith, we might put in the effort to take a sip and gain some benefit from it. Then we might build a habit of sitting and looking for that Living Water every day. Eventually we start to feel the thirst, and sitting becomes a matter of necessity, not obedience or duty.
The nineteenth-century mystic Soami Ji uses the word Shabd to refer to the Living Water. He says that you need to obtain the method of connecting to the Shabd from a teacher who has made that connection himself.
When you decide on a life of devotion,
obtain the path of Shabd from a Master
and devote yourself to him.
If he is not a Master of the path of Shabd,
you can be sure he is teaching under false pretences.
A true Guru is a lover of Shabd –
he practices Shabd, nothing but Shabd…
Obtain the secret of Shabd from him,
and put your heart and soul
into the practice of that Shabd.5
He's saying that when you have that thirst – or at least are ready to devote yourself to something, some practice or path – make sure that it is the path of Shabd, the path to that Living Water, because there are so many paths and practices competing for our time and attention. We might have figured out that money, status, and sex don’t fill the emptiness, but there are so many new, seemingly more-noble alternatives presented to us in bestselling books or by influencers and endless apps claiming to have the answers. Some examples are: eating the healthiest or most environmentally friendly foods; serving a good cause; practicing mindfulness; being in harmony with the planet; various forms of physical or mental exercise; spending time in nature; and being part of a religious, charitable, or creative community.
All of these practices aim to help us cope with the world or be more effective in the world. Soami Ji says, though, that the real Shabd comes from beyond the world we can see with our physical eyes. Putting our heart and soul into being attached to that divine current transforms us, brings lasting joy, and connects us to a power beyond time and space. Building a relationship with that Shabd is the only way to quench our thirst, to bring us peace. And for that, he says, we need a teacher who “is a lover of Shabd – he practices Shabd, nothing but Shabd.”
Now, our ego might not like the idea of a Master, a guru, a higher authority. The thing is, though, in the end, everyone has a master. It’s just whether we follow a spiritual master or a worldly authority. As the American songwriter Bob Dylan sang:
You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody's landlord, you might even own banks
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.6
What Dylan is getting at is that we all have some sort of goal. And in the pursuit of that goal we’ve got to serve someone. If our goal is peace, love, true humanity, or God – then we need to follow the one who practices Shabd, nothing but Shabd; we need to serve the Master and the Lord. If we don’t, then we are going to sink deeper into the world, with all of its greed and attachment. Even if we’re pursuing good causes, we will end up having to play politics. If we start our own business, we will have to serve our customers – and do what is needed to pay our staff. If we pursue mindfulness in order to be more effective at work or in our relationships, then we’re still saying that the approval of those people is the most important thing. Soami Ji put it this way:
A life of luxury, of worldly power and authority,
rests on wealth and the favour of your boss.
See how you serve your superiors
to acquire this wealth, power and prestige!
So slavishly do you comply with their orders
that you forego food and sleep to please them….
I feel ashamed to disclose
what servility you endure for love of wealth.7
You can see where he’s going with this. Just look at how much effort we put into our worldly endeavours – our studies, our jobs, our service of family. It seems automatic to cut into our sleep or miss a meal for a big obligation. If our salary or status is at stake, we’ll always be ready to put in extra hours. It might be the same with our seva or service – if others are watching or praising us, we’ll put in the time and effort.
But what about our most important service, the meditative seva that happens in private, where no one but the Lord can see us? If we shirk that duty, it means the world is our master, and we’re not really serving the Guru.
The Sufi mystic Shaikh Abu-Saeed Abil-Kheir (967–1049 CE) explains that performing this private duty as our top priority is not selfish, but rather makes us more selfless and loving to all:
The best use of your tongue
is to repeat the Beloved’s Name in devotion.
The best prayers are those in
the solitude of the night.8
If you are seeking closeness to the Beloved,
Whether in their presence or their absence,
see only their good.
If you want to be as clear and refreshing as the breath
of the morning breeze, like the sun
have nothing but warmth and light for everyone.9
As our spiritual master, Baba Gurinder Singh Ji, often says, peace of mind is the key to happiness. And if we have that peace, then we can radiate that peace to others. We can only give what we have. But this lasting satisfaction, the fulfillment of our thirst, comes only from within, from the Living Water that the Master graciously offers to us. Shaikh Abu-Saeed Abil-Kheir referred to it in the passage above as “the Beloved’s Name,” and Soami Ji likewise refers to it as Nam when he concludes his hymn by exhorting us:
Therefore attend satsang, serve the Master,
and utilize every breath of your life
to earn the wealth of Nam.
Nothing compares with Guru, Nam and satsang;
nothing else counts.
Everything will be accomplished through these –
you will wipe out your karma,
you will reach your original home.
Accept my advice now, while living,
or you will deeply regret it in the end.
Wealth and pride will do you no good;
power and authority will disappear.
Therefore practice devotion to the Lord –
apply yourself to this, the most fulfilling task.10
- Bible, Isaiah 4:3
- Bible, John 7:37–39
- Bible, John 4:14
- Soami Ji Maharaj, Sar Bachan Poetry (Selections), Bachan 16 Shabd 1, p. 171
- Sar Bachan Poetry, Bachan 16 Shabd 1, p. 173
- Nobody, Son of Nobody: Renditions by Vraje Abramian; Prescott, AZ, Hohm Press, 2001, p. 55
- Nobody, Son of Nobody, p. 33
- Sar Bachan Poetry, Bachan 16 Shabd 1, p. 177