Focusing on the Throughline

Here you’ll find a vivid narrative metaphor about attending to what’s most important in times of rapid change and challenge… where the flow of change, itself, can become central to what’s most important…. And after that, I encourage you to subscribe to the Co-Intelligence Institute’s newsletter – and offer a table of contents for the August issue to invite you into it…. 

Recently I got in touch with an old friend, a courageous loving innovator in the world of environmental activism.  His name is Mark Dubois and he earned his first hit of fame when in 1973 he chained himself to a rock by a beloved river to prevent it from being flooded by a dam project. Some folks believe that marked the end of massive dam building. (“What can one person do?!”)

As Mark and I talked, he called forth the image of a “throughline” which people riding river rapids track to make safe progress.  I asked him if he’d ever written about it.  Apparently not.  So I found and transcribed an interview where he talked about it and we edited the transcript back and forth until we landed on the version below, now posted for your inspiration and sharing.

At the end, I have a question for you, on behalf of all of us.

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by Mark Dubois  (with thanks to Tom Atlee!) 8/4/23

In whitewater river running there are classes of flow that tell you what to expect to match your skill level to the river. Class I is for flat water, an easy trip, as safe as it gets.  In contrast, you don’t run a Class VI because you’ll die.  A Class V rapid is considered the highest level of workable danger on a river and requires substantial skill, and still you can easily die.   

To be a good boater means learning to read the river.  You must read the gargantuan hole that could eat you and your whole craft. You must read the shredder rock just under the surface that’ll rip things apart.  You’ve got to see those big obstacles as well as the little things.  If you miss the little rock just below the surface or the little eddy, they’ll spin you towards the big threats. 

The challenge of being a Class V boater is you have to SEE all of those – and then, put all your attention on the throughline where the current most cleanly flows.  The river always goes downstream.  So you focus on “Where’s the most benign path through the most powerful flow that I can stay aligned to?”  

If I obsess on the obstacles, they become magnets pulling me.  Despite their life threatening nature, I still need to focus my attention on the throughline. That is the challenge.

There’s a metaphor for humanity in this.  We’re facing a Class V rapid challenge and we’ve never been here before.  No river runners have ever run this particular Class V rapid.  It’s right on the edge of our capacity.  And so much of humanity is in denial or thinking “someone else is going to take care of it.”  Meanwhile, those who see what’s coming are going “Yikes!!”. They’re panicking because they know that all of Life is on the edge in this global Class V.  Everything is threatened.  Most of us have yet to cultivate the expanded seeing that can notice Yes, Yes, Yes at all the details AND keep learning to focus on where’s the throughline.  Most importantly, we need to learn how to do this together. 

A corollary is when we’re paddling together, and somebody on the other side of the boat does something I don’t understand, instead of wasting my time getting mad at them, I must trust that they see something that I can’t see.  Perhaps they didn’t take a crucial stroke because there was a rock in the way. How do I not squander my/our time fighting?  

Likewise, if I make a mistake on my side, instead of everybody wasting time yelling at me, we all still focus on the flow even as we’re now going backwards because of what I did.  We stay grounded in the fact that we’re all in the same boat together and still need to focus on the best throughline and get to work together.  In this new situation, how do we put our attention on the throughline …. while now looking over our shoulders as best we can?  And we keep breathing as best we can, keep honoring each other and trusting we’re each doing the best we can. We tease out of each other what’s needed next with our collective intuition and wisdom while accelerating our learning in this terrain that’s new to all of us.

Pushing edges, you learn the most.  We all find ourselves in this Class V together.  Many of our fellow passengers don’t even know they should be holding a paddle yet!  So now we all get to learn together and tease out each of our unique strengths and gifts together. And we get to trust each other’s observations because we need all of our different seeing and antennae to make it through the caprice that lies ahead.  

AND we get to remember that even on life’s edge, learning the river’s challenges & beauty together can be great fun.  We’ve never been here before and we’re being called into these remarkable times to do the best we can.  We also get to call everything we do an experiment – because we’re focused on learning and there are no mistakes when you’re just doing an experiment. 

So how do we have fun learning to read the dangerous waters and finding the throughline together, over and over, making mistakes together, and supporting each other and nurturing each other to bring out our best and further develop skills we’ll need to dance together through these amazing times we’re in?  

Given our lack of skills and maturity, humanity may not all make it through this Class V rapid; lives may be lost. So how do we celebrate and have fun even if we don’t know where the rapids will take us? With each sacred breath, we get to celebrate our successes and our learnings, and to develop our skills together.

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Marshall McLuhan observed, “There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”  Each of us is needed.

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And my favorite Betsy Ross song points out “We all come here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

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I LOVE this image of a throughline.  AND I’m curious:  What do YOU think is the throughline we should be attending to, where life is flowing most powerfully over, under, around and through all obstacles and hidden dangers?  Do please share your thoughts in the “Leave a Reply” section below for the rest of us to consider!  I look forward to learning from you.

Blessings on the Immense – and bumpy! – Journey we’re all on together!


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Table of Contents for CII’s August Newsletter

•  What do we mean by co-intelligence?
•  Results of our 20th Anniversary Tao of Democracy Poll…
•  What’s Listening and Love Got to Do With It?
•  RWCI is Back in the Fall
•  CII is Recruiting a Board Treasurer
•  August’s Wise Democracy Pattern: Citizen-Stakeholder Integration
•  August’s Co-Intelligence Poem


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440


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