“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t
resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let
things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” - Lao-Tzu
No matter how much structure we create in our lives, no matter how
many good habits we build, there will always be things that we cannot
control — and if we let them, these things can be a huge source of
anger, frustration and stress.
Photo courtesy of FreeWine
The simple solution: learn to go with the flow.
“Smile, breathe and go slowly.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
For example, let’s say you’ve created the perfect peaceful morning
routine. You’ve structured your mornings so that you do things that
bring you calm and happiness. And then a water pipe bursts in your
bathroom and you spend a stressful morning trying to clean up the mess
and get the pipe fixed.
You get angry. You are disappointed, because you didn’t get to do
your morning routine. You are stressed from all these changes to what
you’re used to. It ruins your day because you are frustrated for the
rest of the day.
Not the best way to handle things, is it? And yet if we are honest,
most of us have problems like this, with things that disrupt how we
like things, with people who change what we are used to, with life when
it doesn’t go the way we want it to go.
Go with the flow.
What is going with the flow? It’s rolling with the punches. It’s
accepting change without getting angry or frustrated. It’s taking what
life gives you, rather than trying to mold life to be exactly as you
want it to be.
“Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be
free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the
ultimate.” - Chuang Tzu
A reader recently asked me to write more about going with the flow,
so this is my attempt to share some of the things that work for me. As
always, I don’t have any claims to perfection, and I’m learning as I
improve, but the tips below should help anyone.
- Realize that you can’t control everything. I think
we all know this at some level, but the way we think and act and feel
many times contradicts this basic truth. We don’t control the universe,
and yet we seem to wish we could. All the wishful thinking won’t make
it so. You can’t even control everything within your own little sphere
of influence — you can influence things, but many things are simply out
of your control. In the example above, you can control your morning
routine, but there will be things that happen from time to time
(someone’s sick, accident happens, phone call comes at 5 a.m. that
disrupts things, etc.) that will make you break your routine. First
step is realizing that these things will happen. Not might happen, but
will. There are things that we cannot control that will affect every
aspect of our lives, and we must must must accept that, or we will
constantly be frustrated. Meditate on this for awhile.
- Become aware. I’ve mentioned this step in previous
articles on other topics, but that’s because it’s extremely important.
You can’t change things in your head if you’re not aware of them. You
have to become an observer of your thoughts, a self-examiner. Be aware
that you’re becoming upset, so that you can do something about it. It
helps to keep tally marks in a little notebook for a week — every time
you get upset, put a little tally. That’s all — just keep tally. And
soon, because of that little act, you will become more aware of your
anger and frustration.
- Breathe. When you feel yourself getting angry or
frustrated, take a deep breath. Take a few. This is an important step
that allows you to calm down and do the rest of the things on this
list. Practice this by itself and you’ll have come a long way already.
- Get perspective. This always helps me. I get angry
over something happening — my car breaks down, my kids ruin my
microwave — and then I take a deep breath, and take a step back. You
know how you’re watching a movie and the camera zooms away and you can
see much more of the world on the screen than you could before? How it
goes from closeup to a larger, panoramic view of things? That’s what
happens in my mind’s eye. I start to zoom away, until I’m pretty far
away from things. Then whatever happened doesn’t seem so important. A
week from now, a year from now, this little incident won’t matter a
single whit. No one will care, not even you. So why get upset about it?
Just let it go, and soon it won’t be a big deal.
- Practice. It’s important to realize that, just
like when you learn any skill, you probably won’t be good at this at
first. Who is good when they are first learning to write, or read, or
drive? No one I know. Skills come with practice. So when you first
learn to go with the flow, you will mess up. You will stumble and fall.
That’s OK — it’s part of the process. Just keep practicing, and you’ll
get the hang of it. Someday, you may even become a Zen Master and write
a guest post on what you’ve learned for Zen Habits. :)
- Baby steps. Along the same lines, take things in
small steps. Don’t try to become that Zen Master mentioned above
overnight. Don’t try to bite off huge chunks — just bite off something
small at first. So make your first attempts to go with the flow small
ones: focus on the tally marks (mentioned above) first. Then focus on
breathing. Then try to get perspective after you breathe. And you might
try the easier situations first — if your work problems are easier to
accept than your frustrations with your kids, for example, start with
- Laugh. It helps me to see things as funny, rather
than frustrating. Car broke down in the middle of traffic and I have no
cell phone or spare tire? Laugh at my own incompetence. Laugh at the
absurdity of the situation. That requires a certain amount of
detachment — you can laugh at the situation if you’re above it, but not
within it. And that detachment is a good thing. If you can learn to
laugh at things, you’ve come a long way. Try laughing even if you don’t
think it’s funny — it will most likely become funny.
- Keep a journal. This is one of the best uses of a
journal actually. Once a day, try to recall what all your tally marks
were for — and then write about those situations. Why did you get
upset? What did you try to do? Did it work, and if not, why not? What
can you do next time? This kind of recollection and examination, after
the fact, will help you learn from the process.
- Meditate. If you aren’t good at keeping a journal,
at least do a daily review in your head. Do some meditation, or have a
bath, or a cup of hot tea, and as you’re de-stressing, go over your day
and examine it. Don’t get frustrated — you’re learning. Do some deep
breathing, and then go over each situation, trying to see it as a
detached observer. This kind of review will help you improve in the
- Realize that you can’t control others. Ah, one of
the biggest challenges. We get frustrated with other people, because
they don’t act the way we want them to act. Maybe it’s our kids, maybe
it’s our spouse or significant other, maybe it’s our coworker or boss,
maybe it’s our mom or best friend. But we have to realize that they are
acting according to their personality, according to what they feel is
right, and they are not going to do what we want all of the time. And
we have to accept that. Accept that we can’t control them, accept them
for who they are, accept the things they do. It’s not easy, but again,
it takes practice.
- Accept change and imperfection. When we get things
the way we like them, we usually don’t want them to change. But they
will change. It’s a fact of life. We cannot keep things the way we want
them to be … instead, it’s better to learn to accept things as they
are. Accept that the world is constantly changing, and we are a part of
that change. Also, instead of wanting things to be “perfect” (and what
is perfect anyway?), we should accept that they will never be perfect,
and we must accept good instead.
- Enjoy life as a flow of change, chaos and beauty.
Remember when I asked what “perfect” is, in the paragraph above? It’s
actually a very interesting question. Does perfect mean the ideal life
and world that we have in our heads? Do we have an ideal that we try to
make the world conform to? Because that will likely never happen.
Instead, try seeing the world as perfect the way it is. It’s messy,
chaotic, painful, sad, dirty … and completely perfect. The world is
beautiful, just as it is. Life is not something static, but a flow of
change, never staying the same, always getting messier and more
chaotic, always beautiful. There is beauty in everything around us, if
we look at it as perfect.
“I accept chaos. I am not sure whether it accepts me.” - Bob Dylan