River of Life

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is a popular English nursery rhyme, often sung as a round. The tune is credited to Eliphalet Oram Lyte (1842-1913) in the publication The Franklin Square Song Collection (1881, New York). Lyte was a teacher and author of grammar and composition textbooks. He lived in Lancaster County and taught in Millersville, Pennsylvania.

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

Every word in this rhyme has a deeper meaning.

The lyrics have often been used as a metaphor for life’s difficult choices. Rowing takes practice to navigate the vessel. It is almost impossible to stay in a straight line at a consistent speed. When sung as a group, the act of rowing becomes a unifier, as oars must be in sync in a rowboat. It also implies rhythm, the archetypal essence of life. It takes physical strength and coordination: all the attributes of healthy living. Time and space are variables in the nature of life. It contracts and expands with the seasons, with day and night. It is non-linear. It moves and weaves and branches out in an organic way.

By skillful rowing we can avoid obstacles in the water. However, we must surrender to the flow of life. When rowing the person actually looks backward, only occasionally looking over his/her shoulder to navigate. There is time for reflection. We need to trust that the present course will take us safely to the next bend.

Please note that it is your boat, not your spouse’s or neighbor’s, or anybody else’s.

It is a boat, not an ocean liner or a kayak – it’s a sturdy, universal vessel that we can easily overview from stem to stern. It can also be swift.

Any moves we make in life should be gentle, not extreme: fanatic, abrupt, sudden changes are not compatible with wholesome living.

It is suggested that we row down the stream. No comment needed…

It’s a stream, neither rapids nor still waters. The idea that we travel down a stream suggests boundaries in the path of choices and in free will. However, it provides enough freedom to find our individual journey.

Merrily means festive, full of fun and laughter; lively and cheerful. Life is a celebration.

The final line, life is but a dream, is perhaps the most meaningful: Western approach to life is materialistic and goal-oriented. We often have a hard time letting go of the illusion of control. How much time, energy, and money (homeland security!) we spend to make life safe! The fact is that life is an open system and therefore frail. We would do better to trust that the universe will provide for our highest good.

Esoteric teachings tell us that life is maya, illusion. We are here temporarily to work on ourselves and do good deeds for the community. Our true home is the spiritual world.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” –Teilhard de Chardin



Peter Hinderberger, M.D., Ph.D., DIHom practices at Ruscombe. The mission of his practice is to promote optimal wellbeing by providing health care through an integrated approach, combining conventional and complementary therapies, which include Anthroposophic medicine, homeopathy, and salutogenesis.

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