All of us lead extremely busy lives and we like to think that we have everything under control. But do we? Or, should we? There has to be a balance point in our lives where we understand when to go with the flow and when to offer some resistance and take control. We can find some guidance on this from the ancient philosophers whose ideas may still hold relevance today.
You may have heard of Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy from 500 years BC and written by a contemporary of Confucius by the name of Lao Tzu (Laozi).
Taoist thinking is also related to our favourite Greek philosopher Heraclitus because it is all about paradox, flux and the unity of opposites.
We find these ancient ideas very applicable in today’s world, not because they hold any secrets of the divine, or because they relate to any mystical source of power beyond our physical state of being.
Quite the opposite, in fact. The teachings of Lao Tzu Heraclitus actually provide us with practical and simple guidance on how we can navigate this turbulent world, without succumbing to our fears and anxieties.
Taoism is a philosophy of flow and resistance. Being in a state of flow is described as the paradox of action through non-action. This is the secret to “going with the flow”, not resisting the sequence of events happening around us. The same Taoist principles apply in the idea of being “in the zone” where, for example, athletes seem to achieve incredible results without seeming to be trying too hard.
Flow and resistance also related to the much more modern practice of mindfulness in which we try to maintain ourselves in the present moment by letting go of intrusive thoughts about the past or the future.
Being in harmony with a sense of flow is about humility and not striving too hard to reach distant goals. It is a stillness of the mind, but it does not necessarily mean sitting cross-legged on the floor in a dimly-lit room Mindful stillness can also be achieved while we are physically active. Finding the sweet spot of peaceful mind and active body is the point of effortless effort. When we are in this zone we are focused on the task at hand, using or strength efficiently and also taking pleasure from our labour.
Experiencing the flow and not fighting the current that is carrying us along is also a form of gentle self-care. If we resist and try to force the pace it is likely we will waste our energy and, through loss of focus, make mistakes. Being in a state of flow means acting through and with intelligence. It is knowing when to act and when to simply be; it is the ability to find a balance between action and non-action.
Finding this balance in the flow of the universe reminds us of Heraclitus famous aphorism that loosely translates to a person never steps into the same river twice. The river represents the constant movement of the universe around us. Short of building dam across the river we cannot stop the flow of water and as we walk across the river our feet are briefly in the flow, offering some resistance to the current.
However, we cannot stop the current by walking in the river, we can only divert the flow around the obstacles (our feet) that are in its way. The river does not care that we attempt to block its flow with our body, it simply finds the path of least resistance to flow around us.
This is Heraclitus paradox; the water flowing around our feet is always new. In an instant, the current carries the water we touch downstream and the water we touch is being constantly renewed by that action of the river. We do not have to do anything but stand still to experience this constant flow, what Heraclitus call “flux” a constant process of change and renewal. At this point we are in the flow and our doing nothing (the action of inaction) briefly alters the course of the stream as it effortlessly diverts around the obstacle in its path.
Sometimes we struggle with the idea of doing nothing. The work-ethic is often our relentless master and the values of ambition and “getting ahead” are encouraged. There is a pernicious ideology of economic success and competition foisted up on us from an early age. We’ve all heard the talk, from parents initially, but repeated by friends, peers and work colleagues – take control, strive, chase that promotion, compete.
Now we’re also becoming conscious of the paradox of this pressure to succeed – the consequential downside of burnout, anxiety, sleep disorders, depression, self-medication, addiction and relationship breakdown. In our pursuit of external gratifications and material wealth, we are liable to neglect our emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Many of us find it hard to take our foot off the career throttle. We tend to be dismissive of passivity and can often mistake “doing nothing” for “laziness” or lack of desire. This is a sign of our resistance to letting go and allowing the water to just flow around our bodies rather than trying to dam the whole river. A life that is always busy and striving is a life out of balance, which brings us to Heraclitus concept of the unity of opposites.
The unity of opposites is the resolution of a contradiction. For example, when we place our body into the flowing river, the water actually separates at the point where its flow is interrupted by the resistance generated by the obstacle of our foot and leg. The contradiction (our body resisting the flow) is resolved by the water separating into two streams and then reuniting as it overcomes the resistance. We sense this through the feeling of the water moving around our body and we can see the effect in the small eddies created on the downstream side of our leg or torso and the water rushes to recombine into one uninterrupted flow. The river is both the same and not the same because of our bodily intervention.
In this analogy of the river, Heraclitus is reminding us that contradictory states are actually joined together and can exist within the same phenomenon at different times or under different conditions. So it is with flow and resistance in our lives.
We must go with the flow, but we must also be capable of mindful resistance and purposeful action in order to direct the flow of life into streams and directions more conducive to our long-term wellbeing. In other words, we have to be capable of conscious interventions and using our willpower to make decisions in our own best interests.
If we were to remain constantly passive, we would not be consciously going with the flow, we would be as helpless as a cork bobbing on the tide. Thus, in the unity of opposites, going with the flow does not mean surrendering all control; it means recognising the aspects of life that we cannot bend to our will, but also consciously steering ourselves within the stream to maintain a healthy balance in our lives, to set realistic goals, to have healthy ambitions and a healthy ego.
Life is like a river. The way of life is to flow with the current. To turn against it takes effort but the current will carry you if you let it. Float with joy and ease