The River Crossing Puzzle is my favorite puzzle ever, hands down. But not just for the usual reasons. The puzzle is presented as a brain teaser – get the wolf, the sheep, and the cabbage that have been left in your charge across the river. You da man. Your can carry only two item at a time in your small boat. The wolf will eat the sheep if they are left alone unattended,, and the vegetarian sheep, left alone with the cabbage, will eat it. I’ve spent many pleasant evening walks, maybe just ten minutes at a time, working and reworking the puzzle in my head. It doesn’t get old.
Sufi interpreters offer a mind-body-emotions explanation. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around this interpretation. Gurdjieff, in the introduction to Meetings with Remarkable Men, hints at a mind-body–feeling approach. But as usual, he doesn’t do much with it. He hints that a profound, esoteric explanation exists. He has it. It will put hair on your chest and make you a superhero-chick-magnet if you can figure it out or buy the solution (from him, of course) . Maybe he wants readers to “think for themselves,” but I’m no longer sure. I’ve had friends who read Meetings and were sorely disappointed when Mr. G says, “but enough about that. I’ll reveal the mystery in my later volume.”
Hey, my old reading group friend, didn’t it ever occur to you that maybe the “Master” was just teasing? Leading you on? And maybe, just maybe, the mind-body-feeling interpretation is not the most important. Now, I yawn (yes, I’m asleep) when Gurdjieff says he’s got got a secret for those who will follow him and write a check. Three parts of the soul seems like the long way around.
I think instead of the man and his charge. The job and the property. I hate it when people dismiss the puzzle by saying “dude should get a bigger boat.” They don’t even think about the puzzle, pass it over too lightly. I want to say, “he doesn’t have a bigger boat, OK? Haven’t you ever had to make do?” The man sits, thoughtfully, his hand on the wolf. The cabbage is near his other hand. Mindful Awake. Aware in the moment.
Unless the man moves himself and his goods across the water, he will, no doubt, suffer some other unnamed loss or die alone. He must plan, as we must, to complete the puzzle. We become him. Everything takes longer than we think, maybe longer than we can think. Six times the initial estimate to complete the project? Maybe a decent estimate, when you consider any large public works project. Twelve times estimate for a brand new project, something you have never done before? Seems legit. So the multiple crossings, over with two and back with one, over with two, swap, and back with one, again and again, feels life after a while. Everything takes more effort, more push, than we realized when we first committed ourselves to the project.
So my mind goes out with compassion, for lack of a better word, to the man in the boat. He is me. He is you. He is everyone who feels like the sole agent with more responsibilities than he realized. He’s the one who sits down on the side of the river, not just to rest, but to make a plan as best he can so he can act effectively when he stands, walks to the river, and begins his risky job with too few resources.
Think about the puzzle. Let this logic puzzle work on you as you work on it. As you work on the logic (there’s probably a nice set of Boolean diagrams that could be used to represent the puzzle’s players), see what else comes into your mind. I wonder, does the River Crossing Man have a family? Is he far downriver from the closest town? What is his larger task? Is he headed back to his own family, business, or farm? Is headed back to his wife, and is making his river trip in some sense for her? Is he headed back at all – or is he on a journey to deliver his store, and then make a return trip?
The logic of the River Crossing Puzzle is fun to play with. But wrestling and messing with the puzzle over time has yielded unexpected emotional reactions and speculations that may be even more interesting. Play with it. I’m not your Zen Master, but maybe the puzzle is a koan. And remember, most of all, that in the little logic puzzle one can find all that is implied in the old Greek saying, “Remember that everyone carries a heavy weight.”