Interviewsand Articles


Conversation: Emmanuel Vaughn-Lee: Deep Water

by Richard Whittaker, Jun 13, 2011




Most of us in the west take clean water for granted. And generally we're equally asleep to the profound role water plays in our lives. In an interview with Sam Bower of [issue #18] I brought up the question of water. He mused, "If you think of what we are, I mean we're made up of cells and each little cell contains a drop of seawater. In some ways, all the little creatures that emerged from the seas found each other, bound together and found a way of collaborating and sharing the recipe over and over with helpful modifications, and here we are today! Every chance we get to replenish that connection to the seas is just a delight. In some way, it's a reminder of home." Sam pointed me to Betsy Damon [see issue#19] who has devoted her life to studying water, to creating systems for the restoration of degraded water and to raising consciousness about what she calls living water. "Basically, higher life-forms like water that has gone up and down the mountain ten thousand times," she says, quoting an old Chinese proverb. Each of us, if we were to look carefully, would find that some of our deepest memories are intimately connected with water. We need to be reminded of this. 

     And so when I learned that Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee of Global Oneness Project was making a feature length film on water, Elemental, I was curious to learn more. How was he approaching this subject that seems to take up too little space in our general awareness? Being familiar with his work I knew that whatever he did would be special. At the time of our conversation, shooting was not yet finished, but a trailer was already available on YouTube. I couldn't wait to talk with him.
Richard Whittaker:  I'm interested to hear about Elemental, the film you're working on.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee:  A little over a year ago I was thinking about what new project I wanted to work on. I'd been thinking for some time about water and was fascinated not just by the crisis of water but by water itself and how something so basic is taken for granted. There haven't been that many films about water. 
     I think about it not just from the environmental and the political sides; I also see water as a metaphor for what's happened with the desacralization of the natural world. The way we've been destroying our water systems is a prime example of how we've become so separated from what's fundamental, elemental and needed for our survival as a species on this planet. I was interested in exploring that using water. 
     So I began reading and researching and became more fascinated and enraptured. I decided to take a character-driven approach to the film rather than to focus on the issues through talking. I wanted to find a handful of people with a unique and special relationship to water on a personal level, and earlier this year I found three people. 
RW:  Could you give us an example?
Emmanuel:  One of the characters in the film is in India, Rajendra Singh. He's often referred to as "the waterman" or the water Gandhi of India. He was trained as an ayurvedic doctor and as a social worker. In his early twenties he got a job in Rajasthan working for the government. But after a year he was fed up with the bureaucracy and corruption. He was raised with Gandhian values and wanted to take the path of service, but he felt he couldn't do that in the government. So he and a couple of friends, young idealists, got on a bus. Their idea was, we'll take the bus to the last stop and wherever that is, we'll get out and be of service using our skills. 
     They got out in a tiny little village in Rajasthan in what was known as the dark zone. There had been a drought there for forty years. In post-colonial rule the area had suffered from severe droughts and from mismanagement of the water systems, which had drained the aquifers. It was really a dire situation.
     He set up a clinic and tried to do his work, but there wasn't much response. His friends left and he was the only one remaining. At that point a local elder told him, "What we really need here is water. Look around."
     "How can I help?" he asked. "I don't know anything about water." The man said, "We used to know how to harvest the rain here. We saved what came in one month and used it for the year. I'm too old to bring these practices back, but you can and I'll help you." 
     So Rajendra took up the challenge and for the next three years he worked tirelessly in that village to bring back these ancient rainwater harvesting techniques. It was mostly about shaping the land, creating little barriers so that when the rain comes down it has a place to stop and sink into the aquifer. After three years, the river in that village flowed again. It flowed year round, not just when the monsoons came. 
RW:  After three years of his work with the elder, the river flowed again?
Emmanuel:  The river flowed again. It wasn't just his work with the elder. He mobilized the community and put them back in touch with their own cultural heritage. It was very much a community-driven system. And after that he went around to do that with hundreds, then thousands of other villages in Rajasthan. 
     In twenty years he brought seven rivers back to life in this rural area, affecting the lives of more than two million villagers. Along the way, he himself was transformed. He's become very knowledgeable about water in many different ways. It was through water that he found his calling.
     So I was interested on the personal level about how water allowed him to become a vehicle for service. He was only a doctor because his father wanted him to be. But from a young age, he wanted to be a man of nature and he loved working with people. But his father said, no, you're from a Brahmin family and you will be a doctor. So this experience put him in touch with this part of Indian culture and traditional knowledge systems. And he was able to become a facilitator. He's a man who water has changed. And his knowledge of water in its reference to Indian spirituality, mythology and history is amazing. So he is waterman.
     I was intrigued when I heard this story and went to meet him. He was that guy, the man who walked that talk. You could see him moving seamlessly from a village to a maharaja's palace. For the last eight years, he's dedicated himself to working with the Ganga, which is what the Indians call the Ganges. 
RW:  Because it's polluted?
Emmanuel:  It's facing a variety of problems: pollution, dams, over-development on the river banks, depletion of aquifers around it. There are so many problems. It's the lifeblood of northern India. It impacts six hundred million people. And it's a symbol for their cultural and spiritual heritage. 
    He feels that the underlying problem is that the Ganga has become desacralized. This is sort of the backbone of what he's doing, but the work is very practical-trying to stop dams that are slated for construction, take dams down, clean up pollution, mobilize community, mobilize government.
     People go the Ganga to absolve themselves of their sins, whether it's once a year or every four years or once in their lifetime. But how they actually live their lives is not in remembrance of the river as a sacred part of their lives. They go and pray one minute and then throw trash in it the next. This is the river that has allowed India to thrive for ten thousand years. 
     He aims to remind people of the importance of the river from a deep spiritual place, while outwardly getting people to take action locally and nationally to try and save the river from its dire state. By doing this he thinks there's a chance that the river can be freed from the grip of the shadow side of globalization that has taken root in that country. 
     In four weeks I'm journeying with him for thirty-seven days from the source of the Ganga at the Gaumouk Glacier, twenty kilometers from the Tibetan border, high in the Himalayas. It's sixteen hundred miles to where the river meets the sea in Ganga Sagar. Along the way we'll see how the river is an essential part of Indian peoples' lives on a lot of different levels. We'll see the challenges it's facing from dams, from pollution, from overuse, from climate change. I'll see also how he's working to save it through mobilizing people to take action themselves. 
RW:  That sounds exciting. Would you say more about how you got interested in water? What were those stirrings for you? 
Emmanuel:  It was a gradual process. I've been interested in environmental issues for a long time. Water is always there underneath these issues. At a certain point it was just something I wanted to dive into more.
RW:  [laughs] Nice metaphor. I'm wondering what was your first memory of water? Can you go back to some of those early memories?
Emmanuel:  I was probably six months old, sitting in a pushchair in the streets of London with a plastic rain cover above me. Raindrops were falling on it. And I loved water growing up, as all kids do. Loved swimming. Spent a lot of time in the ocean as a swimmer and a surfer.

RW:  You must have wonderful memories of being out there in the ocean.
Emmanuel:  Completely. Water is both calm and powerful and can change in an instant. It's both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. And there are not many things like that that are also part of us. We're made up of water. When I started becoming more aware of this, I began to feel more deeply connected with it. Every single object around us has water in it or water went through it-the air around us has water in it, water shapes what we do, water shapes us. It was almost like the unconscious understanding of water's relationship to us, to me, was slowly being made more conscious and I found that very interesting. 

RW:  Your unconscious relationship with water has become more visible?
Emmanuel:  I think so, yes. As I've become more aware even of just the fact that we drink it every day, we use it to grow food, we wash the dishes with it, we flush the toilet-in the modern world. Water has so many functions for us. We're really a slave to water. I heard a really great quote: "God created water so life would be able to get around." 
     If you put your water eyes on and look at the world through that lens, you start to see, wow, all the connections! All the things we just don't even think about, but are there. Later I started learning how the movement of water basically represents the movement of our universe, how the shape of water, this archetypal form of movement, the spiral, the Fibonacci sequence, the golden mean, all these shapes...
RW:  Wait a minute. Water flows and it has a relationship to the Fibonacci curve?
Emmanuel:  The second character in the film, Jay Harmon, kind of discovered this and puts it into practice. Jay, at a young age, was fascinated by nature and the shapes he saw in nature. He noticed that pretty much everything moved in spirals. Eventually he dedicated his life to try to take these shapes and utilize them as a model for creating technology. He studied the flow function of water early on. He froze a whirlpool in a bathtub and looked at it from a three-dimensional aspect. 
RW:  How did he do that?
Emmanuel:  He won't tell me. But that allowed him to reverse engineer how water moves. That knowledge could help us with fans or pumps, air conditioning systems and many things. It was fascinating to learn about another dimension of water and what it can show us about how nature functions - not just nature, but how everything in the universe functions because water is not just here on earth. There are water molecules in the sun. There are water molecules in outer space. It's remarkable. In water, there's a way to see how the flow of energy moves. And everything in nature goes through a water phase, or is touched by water. As a result it is shaped by that pattern, which is the path of least resistance, the most energy efficient way to do something. Nature is completely efficient. 
RW:  Rudolph Steiner was a student of some of this wasn't he? 
Emmanuel:  Yes. And Theodor Schwenk and a handful of people were really interested in this. If we could understand how these patterns work and move, we could take advantage of efficiencies that nature has evolved over billions of years versus our Cartesian way of thinking-straight lines. Let's just power our way though and blow everything else left and right. The way nature does things is beautiful and it's an archetypal shape. So it was quite illuminating to see this side. It gives us another dimension to explore.
RW:  In moments it has occurred to me how really miraculous this substance, water, is. The temperature goes down fifty or sixty degrees and there's this radical transformation: liquid becomes solid. Isn't that kind of amazing? Heat it up and liquid becomes gas and floats up into the atmosphere. I mean, if you stop think about it, that's pretty far out. But we just take all this for granted.
Emmanuel:  Yes. Those three phases are how water functions on our planet. It is quite a remarkable substance. But when something is so mundane, it is a real challenge to get people to see it as really profound. We're just asleep to its importance.
RW:  I take it this is one of the things you want to do, to wake people up to this.
Emmanuel:  I'm hoping the film will provide some sort of experience through the stories of the characters that reminds people of the profound role water plays in our lives. I hope it will somehow change people's relationship with it. Here in the Bay Area, we turn on the tap, we use it, we turn it off. We take a shower, we drink it, but we don't think about it. 
     I think one of the first steps is to go back to basics about what is important to us and what is sacred. If we can do that, I think patterns of behavior can change. What way they might change I don't know, but to offer an opportunity through these stories is one of the hopes of this film.
RW:  The word sacred - what are the possible doorways through which someone might be able to move closer to an experience of water in this way? 
Emmanuel:  That's a tough question. In India it's much easier in some ways because at least it's a culture in which the sacredness of water is ingrained. It's there in the collective and historical traditions. Here there's not even a recollection of the sacred in that context. You don't say water is sacred. If you do, it's usually dismissed, right? We pushed away the natural world and banished God to the heavens. Water is just something we use to survive. It's not something to revere.
RW:  Here's something interesting, though, in this culture: baptism.
Emmanuel:  Yes. It may have been present in that sacred sense, but I think it's become ritualized.
RW:  I may be kidding myself - it seems far-fetched - but I have a dim sense of remembering the priest's finger dipped in water touching my forehead to make the cross. In any case, when water is put on the skin, there's a strong registration of that. When you go into the water, into a pool or the ocean, isn't that a powerful sensory experience? 
Emmanuel:  It is. It's very powerful. And I think many religious traditions recognize that and incorporate it as a way to cleanse oneself, as a way to connect oneself with the divine, as a medium between us and the divine. But in many cases it's no longer thought of beyond something you just do. It's not one of those conscious actions we participate in. So I think that's the challenge. Here in the Western world the distance between the ordinary and the sacred is greater. 
RW:  I agree. It interesting though that if you were to ask people, and if they were willing to focus on it, I think they'd remember that experience of being dipped down in the river. 
Emmanuel:  I think that's very true. It's just getting people back to that memory of connection with something more profound. Can that be evoked? That's one of the hopes I have, not just through the stories, but through the visual ways in which we capture water in many forms - that it will bring you closer to the experiences you've had. And, as you say, some of those experiences are experiences of joy, experiences of happiness. 
     When you're a child in the swimming pool, in the ocean, in the bath with your mother or just drinking a glass of water when you're thirsty, there's so much joy there!  
     If you can get people just a little closer to that I think it can go a long way to changing people's perceptions about water. It's one of the hopes. Not just being blasted about what's wrong with our relationship with water, but also recognizing the joy it brings and the roles it plays in culture and in our lives in the most mundane ways, like when you have a glass of water. 
RW:  If you're really thirsty and you have a cool, clear glass of water, is there anything better than that? I mean, if you're really thirsty and you're out in the heat, that experience is very powerful.
Emmanuel:  Completely. 
RW:  Maybe even our cells celebrate in a moment like that! [laughs]
Emmanuel:  [laughs] They probably do - whether we're aware of it or not. That's another question. Whenever we're extremely thirsty or extremely hot or cold our senses are heightened. We have that glass of water and experience how much pleasure and joy it brings quenching that thirst.
RW:  Sacred springs. I wanted to bring that up. For me even the phrase sacred spring evokes something powerful. My brother is a trout fisherman and he loves nothing better than finding a spring-fed stream flowing through a meadow. Have you ever seen such a stream?

Emmanuel:  I have. It's a beautiful sight. We don't see them enough anymore. 
RW:  To be near a stream like that with the grasses, the plants, the insects, the birds is a way of being closer to the sacred. You just can't help feeling it.
Emmanuel:  Yes. In every culture in the world people are drawn to water. People are drawn to nature. People escape the cities to go to the lakes, the rivers, the beaches because it's relaxing, it's pleasurable, but it's more than that. Water calms you. I don't think people talk very much about it. But usually when one goes swimming, when one takes a long bath, it calms you. There is something deeply calming about water, deeply natural about water. Water is inside of us. We were born in water. 

RW:  Yes. Now there's a third person in the film.
Emmanuel:  Her name is Eriel Deranger. She's a Dene woman from Northern Alberta of the Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation. Her community is on the Athabasca River 240 miles downstream from the largest industrial project on the planet, the Alberta tar sands. It's a UNESCO world heritage site, the third largest river basin in the world and a beautiful place.
     For hundreds of years, her community has been dependent on the water systems, on the fish, the moose and other wild game for their sustenance. For her people, water really is life. The role water has played consciously in their culture as an aspect of the sacred is very present. 
     But as a result of the tar sands project, the water has become so contaminated they can't drink it. It's killing the fish and animals and causing high rates of a rare form of cancer in her community of 1200 people. So they're dying. She is fighting to save her people. The film follows her story. It's a really tough story. 
     I was just up there for a second shoot. It's just a very challenging situation. A very large machine is in the process of destroying the land, destroying the water. Everything in its wake is getting destroyed. It's like Mordor up there, a wasteland with giant industrial plants with plumes of smoke. 

RW:  That sounds pretty grim.
Emmanuel:  It is grim. The oil from Canada is what goes into our gas tanks. It's what we use to keep our economy ticking. It's something that we're part of. The repercussions of that are very potent and disturbing. 
RW:  And I think we're kidding ourselves when we think we're safe and the problems are over there. 
Emmanuel:  Exactly. 
RW:  So although here in San Rafael we're feeling secure, in large parts of the world water issues are quite real and maybe even getting desperate. 
Emmanuel:  And in coming years it's only to be exacerbated. The crisis with water will be, I think, the greatest crisis. We can only live without water for a few days. 
RW:  I've also read about natural gas mining where they do something called fracking, which pollutes streams and aquifers. It sounds horrendous.
Emmanuel:  Water is the easiest way to look at how interconnected we are. One river is not isolated. So once you start polluting one system it spreads into other systems. That's why there are no clean rivers left in the United States.
RW:  It's like the blood of the earth. 
Emmanuel:  The arteries of the earth, the blood of the earth, and it can cleanse itself up to a point. When we do things like fracking, where we're not just polluting surface water but going down into the aquifers and polluting the water there, we're going right to the source. 
     In the coming years it's going to become a bigger issue not just because of the droughts and weather changes, but because the water we do have is going to be so polluted. We get accustomed to being in a toxic society, but at the point where your water systems are completely destroyed, what's left then? [long pause] I don't know.
RW:  I don't either. Getting back to your times as a swimmer, as a surfer, of being in the water, I wonder if you'd share some of your favorite experiences. 

Emmanuel:  Sure. I think every surfer remembers the moment they first catch a wave and the joy it brings. It's one of the few experiences where you are on something alive and moving. There's something magical about that. I think it's one of the reasons a lot of surfers talk about it being a spiritual experience. In that moment you're alive, you're in that moment. That's remarkable. 
     I've had that experience many times and I'm grateful-aware of the power of the wave and the fact you can't control it. The ocean is so powerful and we're so small. To experience that all at once, it's both awe inspiring and terrifying, especially when you're surfing in a big wave and you get smacked down. You're held underwater and you're fearing for your life; you get up and get smacked down again. It's scary. 
RW:  This is no joke. I've had the experience of getting caught in a large set and almost drowning.
Emmanuel:  No joke. It gives you even more respect for the ocean and for water. And like anybody else on a hot day who has hiked to the top of a trail and there's a cool mountain lake, you jump in and it feels heavenly - especially when it's clean and pure, no motorboat, no plastic litter, the water biting cold. You feel how alive it is. You just feel nature in its glory. 
     One time I was in the jungle in Ecuador. We stopped by a stream fed by glaciers in the Andes. It was next to a tiny village and the kids were jumping and playing. So you're in this hot, humid, sticky jungle and the water is cold and clear, pure water from the mountains. It was just a wonderful experience. 
RW:  Magical.
Emmanuel:  And I think that's what water can be. It can create magical experiences for people. I've seen my children playing in water and the joy it brings them - every child who has played with a garden hose or in a swimming pool or at the beach or in the bathtub. Kids love water. They never get tired of water. 
RW:  It's funny. I've been thinking about things I never get tired of. It seems there's something very important to understand about this. 
Emmanuel:  These things are the most real and the most natural. It's hard to get tired of something that's real and natural. It connects us with something instinctual.
RW:  Yes. Would you talk a little about what got you to start Global Oneness Project?
Emmanuel:  Global Oneness Project started at the end of 2005 and really got moving in 2006. For some time I'd been interested in how media could help people become more aware of the interconnectivity of the world we live in. I wanted to explore that subject outside of a spiritual context, which is a very valid one, but I wanted to look at this in terms of political systems or economic systems or social systems. 
     So we started traveling and gathering stories and sharing those stories through the web back in 2006. Over the course of five years we've grown and have become more of a media organization. We produce media content for a variety of formats from web to television, and feature films to educational materials. All of it is based on the importance of recognizing that we're part of an interconnected and interdependent system. The idea that one's actions don't have an impact on others has gotten us into a bit of a pickle. 
RW:  How's it going with Global Oneness Project?
Emmanuel:  For the record? [laughs] It's been an interesting five years. We've made 27 films. There's been a revolution that supports the content we've produced. Five years ago there was no YouTube and very little video on the web. It's now a standard for watching content worldwide. This has allowed content to flourish that's not part of mainstream media. A few years ago if you turned on NBC you wouldn't hear about sustainable ways of farming in Africa. But now you can go on websites all over the world and find material like that. There's a growing desire to learn about these issues-not only accounts of what's happening, but stories of people meeting these challenges on a daily basis.
RW:  You feel there is a growing interest in all these environmental issues?
Emmanuel:  The numbers show it on our end. But in general I think there are more people interested in these issues. At the same time there's been a greening of mainstream America. So are people really interested or have they just been co-opted by the system? But overall I think there's been an incredibly positive step. And it's been a pleasure to be part of that.

RW:  You've traveled a lot. 
Emmanuel:  I've been to every continent.
RW:  And you're young, which means to me, that you may have a sense of things I don't, being in an older generation. With all the change do you have any sense where it's going? Does it all baffle you? Pluses and minuses?
Emmanuel:  Lots of pluses and minuses and lots of concerns. I think there's a growing movement of young people on the planet deeply concerned about the state of the world that their parents and grandparents left them. That group could be incredibly powerful in creating change in the world if they're mobilized. And they're starting to mobilize. They're not as attached to structures as their parents. They don't want to see the destruction of this world in order to maintain the American Dream. 
     Will it be enough to turn the tide? I don't know. One day I can say yes and another day no. Coming back from filming in the tar sands, it doesn't feel very good. There's a big machine out there saying I don't care about the wellbeing of this planet and the importance of preserving it for my children and my grandchildren. 
     You talk individually to the people behind this and they don't say that. But the machine, this corporate structure and this oil extraction economy - when you see how big that beast is, how hard it is to stop, how embedded it is in government and business, it doesn't provide me with much hope. 
     So that's overwhelming. Will we be able to stop that? It will stop at some point, because something that unsustainable will implode. What happens then? I don't know. If you look at the numbers and you really know what you're talking about, you have to say there's really not much hope. But people are remarkable in how they can respond to crisis and create change. It's a possibility. I think it grows slimmer every day. If I answer honestly, I would say I'm not sure how things are going to turn out. It's quite scary sometimes.
To learn more visit
The Elemental film trailer is available on the website.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine    


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