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Unlearning “The Flow”

Photo by Hanniel Yakubu on Unsplash

I’m going with the flow” is a statement that has become part of pop culture today and personally, I have seen people use in several different ways – from the mildly misunderstood to the outright atrocious. What does “the flow” signify? And how can we rediscover it in a way that it can become a tool for our authentic growth?

If you look up “the Flow” quickly, you’ll probably find a reference to the term as used in positive psychology coined around 1975 by a Hungarian-American Psychologist which essentially talks about a sense of timelessness when one gets deeply focused with doing an activity.

Sadly, this is yet another evidence that we have a long way to go in decolonizing and liberating our narratives which heavily lean towards white, male, eurocentric views.

“Wu Wei” or “the flow” state according to Taoism is based on Chinese philosophy , tracing its way back to 6th - 4th century BC to the times of Lao Tsu himself. The flow in Taoism refers to the experience of transcending from doing an act to becoming it.

Interviewer : “How did you spend your time before enlightenment?”

M: “I chop wood. I carry water”

Interviewer : So what have you been up to now that you are a realized master? M: “Chop wood. Carry water.”

Interviewer : I don’t understand. So you mean nothing has changed?

M: No everything has. There is no “I” anymore.

At Unlearning Ashram, we invite participants to consider 4 agreements as a foundation before embarking upon any deep dive work with me. One of the agreements is about “Honoring Action” which invites the person to try and totally absolutely involve themselves into any activity that they set out to do no matter how big or small, important or unimportant they may think it to be. This requires us to set aside our conclusions and biases and not invest in worrying about outcomes but simply focus on putting our heart , head and hands into the moment – whether we are sweeping up the place or facilitating a workshop. This is one of the powerful ways towards mindfulness.

To be ‘with the flow’ means to be in harmony with the deeper intelligence of life. To dissolve our sense of self in surrender and acceptance of the larger intelligence of life that unravels in it’s own seemingly chaotic harmony. However, the challenge that I face in my own journey of unlearning and in facilitating spaces for self transformation is that I notice that none of us really know what it means to truly ‘be’ with anything. There is a reason why a large part of such a teaching needs to be experiential. However, when a sophisticated idea gets merely understood instead of experienced, it loses it’s context and becomes distorted into a system of convenience.

“Going with the flow’ is often used as a clever means to go after what one likes and to argue against taking responsibility. I have lost count of the number of times that I spend enormous effort in preparing someone to start a sadhana (conscious practice for self transformation) , like breathwork, for example, and they tell me, “I just didn’t feel like doing today, just like the yesterday. I didn’t want to ‘force myself’ and thought I’ll go with the flow”. That is not how it works. It is important to understand that ‘being with the flow’ cannot become an excuse towards indulging in the compulsions of life, especially since it creates the exact opposite effect. How about at some of the common phrases we may use in the same spirit with an example?

Asif wants to have ice cream knowing that he is risking his throat before an important speech tomorrow. When others try to remind him, he goes, “Hey, I don’t want to be so strict with myself. I just want to go with the flow. This is what I feel like doing naturally.”

Asif loves butterscotch and vanilla which usually are the most commonly available flavors. However, when he does check with the shop, they are out of those flavors and only have strawberry and mango which are his least favorite. Now , he chooses not to have ice cream and look elsewhere. “Why don’t you just ‘go with the flow’ of whatever flavors the universe has made available for you buddy?” his friends teased him.

Any tool for transformation has the potential to become a trap - a trap that enable our compulsions and further deepen us in our limited identities. When it comes to learning to be with the flow, it is important to first slow down and examine how we hold such a possibility and unlearn the ways in which it holds us back from growth. In my personal experience, being with the flow is a state of being that emerges as a consequence. It is not something you do. It happens because we have come to a state for those who realize that the journey is all that matters. So the significance of the destination doesn’t matter anymore. One simple way of understanding it relevant to our everyday experience is in terms of being conscious of our actions but not entangling ourselves in the emerging consequences.

Photo by Maksym Tymchyk 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

When one begins to completely immerse themselves into action that way, it brings about a quality of freedom that can only be known through experience. However, there are always also a small but significant number of people who are willing to surrender both actions and their consequences in recognition of something larger than themselves. This is the path of devotion or absolute surrender. Devotion too is a quality of being and not something to do. This is why in the yogic traditions, it is emphasized that the object of devotion is not the main focus. Because it is the quality of ‘being devout’ that brings about transformation. In devotion, similar to that of being ‘with the flow’ , the sense of “I” is no more. In fact, I see these as just different ways of talking about the same esoteric experience.

So then, if being in harmony with the flow is a consequence that emerges, how does one get there? In Unlearning Ashram, I approach this through O-A-R and in that specific order.

Openness. Awareness and Responsibility.

Without cultivating a sense of openness , working on building practical and daily awareness and willingness to own up responsibility, there is no foundation to work on self Transformation. But learning to allow these qualities to be a throbbing, live reality within us takes work and dedication.

If you consider life to flow like a river.

The first stage is of waking up is to realize that the boat that you are is being tossed around like a puppet because of what’s happening on the surface of the river.

Your likes, dislikes, biases, judgments, self image and insecurities shape the way you experience life. Isn’t it? Life seems good when things fall into place and mild-extremely distressing when things do not.

Now, having recognized the unconscious state of things, there is a natural longing to want to learn to ‘steer the boat’ in the direction that you want. This is where the “O-A-R” comes in handy. It fits perfectly in with the analogy as devices that let you steer your boat the way you want. The way to learn to consciously steer your life the way you want is through ‘sadhana’. You must be willing to build discipline towards taking charge of your life. You’ll see then that everything from the way you sit, breathe, walk, talk, think, react, love and dream are happening with a lot more ease and grace.

Then, when you now know how to handle the boat well, the next question naturally is, ‘where do I want to head to”? Maybe you have a few things you’d like to do with your life. You may spend your time setting your boat in different directions, exploring, fulfilling whatever needs you deeply long for. But a time will come when there will be an invariable recognition of the river’s intelligence itself.

For beyond the surface variations, the river has it’s own intelligence of how it ebbs and flows. You realize that if you tune yourself perfectly to the way the river flows, there is absolute ease and balance within you. For it is the river that carries you and you don’t fear or worry about being tossed around anymore. There is no effort required anymore. You realize that all rivers tend towards the sea anyway. Meanwhile, one destination is no better than another, because in your experience you have transcended all sense of hierarchical discrimination.

There, in that moment, emerges an experience of being in harmony within and without as a consequence of the journey that has happened. You are now, ‘with the flow’.

The River’s Flow

A few centuries ago, there lived a realized Tao master on the riverbanks of a village in Southern China. He was a simple ferryman by profession but was loved and respected by many for his wisdom. One of the things that people gathered to witness about him was his morning ritual of ‘welcoming the rising sun’. He would do this by taking his small wooden boat out to the river and standing on his toes on one leg on his boat, with his one arm folded in a welcoming gesture as he seemed to stand perfectly balanced for about 40 minutes : 20 minutes before and 20 minutes after sunrise. It didn’t matter what the weather was or whether he had eaten or slept the previous night or not. He would be there without fail everyday. This became a local spectacle and the villagers would gather in awe of this sight to behold.

One of the youngsters in the village who was a wrestler and sportsman, had invested considerably in improving his physical abilities. People in his training school saw him as a prodigy and he let that fame get to his head. This man was growing steadily jealous of all the attention the master was getting and he decided to put him down for good one day as he pulled up a similar wooden boat and rowed out in to the river one morning, wanting to show everyone, that the old man wasn’t doing anything that he couldn’t. He rowed up a few yards from the master’s boat and looked back to check if he had the crowd’s attention before standing up on the toes of just one of his legs like the master did, looking towards the east.

Although his training allowed him to stay relatively balanced, he noticed he had to constantly adjust his stance and was shifting around a bit and could never stand as still as the old man did. He grew increasingly frustrated and tried to make his body as rigid as possible and immediately the river toppled him off his balance and he fell into the water. He quickly looked up hoping that the ripple he created would topple the old man, earning him a laugh at least. But the huge ripple passed the boat, shaking it quite a bit, but the old man seemed to magically remain absolutely still. The sportsman couldn’t believe his eyes. He waited on the shores for the master to return and fell at his feet.

“Forgive me master. For I have been arrogant. I now see that you are truly gifted. Please master, teach me how to achieve this balance.” he pleaded.

The old man smiled at him and spoke. “It is the river that you need to learn from my friend. You see, you cannot remain seemingly still on moving waters, unless you are perfectly in tune with the rhythms of the water. If you wish to be absolutely in tune with the river, you must become one with its flow”

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