The stream had flowed through the center of the forest for as long as anyone could remember.
It began as a cold, clear fountain in a fractured hillside, then tumbled down over mossy stones and last year’s autumn leaves.
At the foot of the hill the stream took a course running southeast through tall stands of beeches, maples, and oaks, and by the time it left the forest five miles later it carried a river’s ambitions.
But in the center of the forest it was a watery dream, about ten feet wide and ten inches deep. Fallen logs made bridges for chipmunks, foxes, and children looking for secrets.
Occasional shafts of sunlight revealed freshwater muscles in the silt, crayfish picking over pebbles, water beetles dancing on the surface, and young trout darting among roots, branches, and softly bubbling falls.
The stream was full of life, and full of lessons for those who knew how to see them.
And regarding it silently on the bank stood the master and the student.
The master and the student had arrived at the stream after walking the forest path for nearly two hours.
Every step of the way, the student spoke anxiously of the impending choices that filled his mind with confusion.
Should he travel?
If so, where?
Should he continue his studies?
If so, in what field of knowledge?
Should he learn a new trade, or perhaps join the family business?
Should he save his money, or spend freely and enjoy life to its fullest?
And on, and on, and on. And every step of the way the master only listened.
When they reached the stream the student fell silent.
They stood side by side, watching the water.
Then, pointing to a fallen twig, the master asked, “If you throw that stick into the stream, where will it go?”
The student answered, “It will go downstream, of course.”
But the master shook his head. “No,” he said, “I want you to tell me exactly where it will go.”
The student crouched down on the bank and observed the water carefully.
He noted the paths of leaves, the surge of bubbles, and the sway and drift of weeds growing on the bottom, until he was sure.
“Well,” he said, “If I throw the stick to land at that spot there, it will follow the current between those two rocks, rush over that fall, then swirl in that eddy for a moment, then pass under this branch, and then move off under that fallen log over there.”
The student smiled, supremely confident.
“All right,” the master said. “Throw the stick.”
And the student did.
And it traveled on a course entirely different from the one he had predicted.
They watched the stick drift out of sight. The student shuffled his feet and looked at the ground, but finally met the master’s eyes.
“The important thing,” said the master,” is to throw the stick!”