Of Waterfalls and Lightning Bugs: Reflections on the 2013 Practicum for Experiential Peacebuilding

The task at hand was to step backward off the edge of the waterfall and gracefully, crab-like, skitter down to the river and rocks below.  Belayed from above, water raging over under everywhere, I assure you I did not go gentle down that good waterfall.  Rather, I was like Dylan Thomas on a bender: crashing, hurtling, twisting into and against rock and water.  In this sense alone could my actions be construed as poetry in motion.

It was not for naught though and never will be, because the thing is: you get to do some critical thinking and experiencing hanging two-thirds of the way down a waterfall, helmeted and soaking wet.

You feel firsthand that the waterfall never stops, that the rocks endure.  You realize the obvious:  that the world is large and you are small – and the revelatory:  that you don’t have to be inside your head all the time; that you have taken backward plunges like this before and that it will be okay and that you will be okay; that you alone did this no matter how it looked on the descent and it is yours to keep forever.  You understand your grit and your vulnerability and that you can’t have one without the other, can’t be compassionate without both.  And perhaps most importantly,  it dawns on you that even though you wish nobody saw this spectacular flailing, you would not be here were it not for the 10 other remarkable people on this trip – complete strangers only days ago – waiting for you to come down.  And you think of all the people who aren’t there who also brought you to this fall and these rocks. You can’t hear them shouting your name over the roar of the water, but you feel it nonetheless.

I might be a rock sometimes, but I am not an island – certainly not anymore.

All of these ideas come together so effortlessly, organically while you are hanging there.  And it is just like everything else that has happened and will happen as the days in the Costa Rican rainforest go by.  Each moment, each experience builds on the next, pushing you to move past what you think your limits are.  You don’t feel the push per se, but rather that you are in the right place at the right time and this is the right thing to do – the only thing to do. Physical exertion leads to mental clarity, emotional openness, deep camaraderie, a greater sense of self.

It occurred to me as we were hiking, on my own and in tandem with others, how much our identities are tied to landscape, how much conflict is about landscape – and here we were, in a landscape none of us had been in before using it as a means to understand viscerally what our bodies, not just our minds, feel like in conflict and what they feel like in peace and how to mediate the former to get to the latter.

It was difficult work, but good work.  And for this, the landscape gave back to us.  Every hard tumble down a waterfall begat a gentle reminder of profundity:  lightning bugs blinking in constellation in the pre-dawn fog after a night of storms; my own little universe.

I come back to this little universe often to remember the beauty in small things.  To remember the physical manifestations of the things I learned about myself in landscape. The knots I make do hold.  It will be okay and I will be okay. To remember there are always more questions than answers. To remember that compassion can take many different forms and that we are all beauty, are all peace, if only we look for it.  Leadership is about empowering others to find their capacities for both.

Disentangling from the waterfall, I was scraped up and battered and ambushed by much fanfare:  a chorus from all over the world.   I was covered in (SO MANY) bruises. One for every person, animal, plant who changed my way of thinking, who expanded my notions of what compassion can be, of what wonder is.  And despite the lack of poetry in my motion, they connected like lines of a poem over me anyway, ever changing in meter and rhyme as they healed.  Until eventually, like my bruises, this poem was perceptible only to me.  I might be the only one who knows it, but I am not its only author. And it speaks volumes into the world.

I am not an island – certainly not anymore.

Nadia Siddiqui is a 2013 PEP alumnus and has worked in neuroscience, community-based drug treatment, and international human rights and justice.  She has also developed and run art and design events in New York. She enjoys working between and across disciplines and is particularly interested in experiential learning, innovative problem-solving, and the links between cultural practice and justice.