We have all heard the expression before: Go with the flow.
It has become so hackneyed that we might not stop to consider what it actually means. This is the problem with clichés—they impede original thought. Our brains hear the cliché, remember the commonly attached meaning, and assume understanding: I know what this means. I don’t need to think about it.
Likewise, go with the flow connotes a sort of carefree idleness. You can almost hear a guy with long hair and a bandana, perhaps a joint dangling from his lips, professing, “Just go with the flow, man.” You might roll your eyes upon hearing it, even. However, a cliché is like the tip of an iceberg (hehe); there is more beneath it. I think this is especially true of go with the flow, which is one reason it is worth revisiting.
The other reason is that for the past couple of months, I have been living it—at times with great ease and success, and at other times barely keeping my head above water.
This underlying flow of life is what Taoists call the Tao (The ‘T’ is pronounced like a ‘D’), and it is analogous to a river. This article is not a treatise on Taoism, rather it is my ongoing personal experiment with the Taoist principle called wu-wei, or non-doing. Practicing wu-wei means cooperating with the natural flow of things, the Tao, otherwise known as the Way.
It started this past summer, unbeknownst to me at the time, in Asheville, North Carolina, where I would walk regularly along the French Broad River. This ancient river, one of the oldest in the world, penetrated my imagination.
A river’s flow can be serene in one moment, and then it can pick up speed with crushing intensity and render powerless anything in its path. Consider the Niagara River and the humans who first came upon the Niagara Falls. I conceive the Tao to be like the ever-changing nature of a river.
Will it be peaceful? Will it be an onrush of white waters? There is no way to know. But to be in touch with it always, to, yes, go with the flow, or rather, to be the flow, is what wu-wei is about.
It is the ultimate sense of harmonious action, and it is the basis of my grand experiment of late.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have been striving to be the flow almost every waking moment during these past months. The wonderful thing about wu- wei is that it is natural action. Action in the right direction feels effortless. I am not swimming against the river’s current like a fool. I am swimming with the river, and underlying circumstances are flowing in the same direction simultaneously.
Things just work. I am guided by intuition—a surefire way to connect with the Tao—to be in motion of varying degrees.
I might be swimming hard and fast in one moment, idle and carefree the next, doing somersaults in the water or floating on my back with no particular place to go, yet the Tao is always moving, and I along with it. And at times, I am it. (Of course, I am always it, but I do not realize this fact. Sometimes I feel disconnected from the world, circumstances, and the people around me.)
What does practicing wu-wei look like?
I do not know what any day will bring, let alone the next moment, but I have been attempting to meet each moment without any psychic resistance whatsoever.
For me it feels like this: I relax tense muscles, breathe consciously, and surrender myself absolutely to whatever is happening. It requires complete attention and a commitment to not getting frazzled. Sometimes I do not like what I’m experiencing and I think, “This is what is happening. I don’t like it, but I accept it.” And in that moment of acceptance comes a sense of clarity that shows me what to do, and the appropriate action to take, or not.
Years ago, I read a book by Gavin de Becker called The Gift of Fear. It is written like a thriller, but it is a nonfiction book about violence and strategies to avoid it. A chilling example that he recounts is about a woman whose home is invaded by a rapist. If I remember correctly, the rapist gets her on the bed and unclothed. Then he leaves her unattended momentarily to get a knife from the kitchen (the exact details escape me). The point is, the woman is petrified, but despite her fear, she sees a clear, simple path of action, which is to wrap a sheet around her body and walk out of the apartment, which is what she does.
This was raw intuition. If she gave herself a moment to rationally consider her actions, her fear might have kept her on the bed. The ethereal image of her walking out of the apartment in absolute silence haunts me still, and when I consider the woman’s story now, I see what she did as wu-wei in action. Her action was spontaneous and effortless. It was not lazy acceptance or wimpy surrender! It is conscious acceptance and active surrender because the river (The Tao) is dynamic and alive and fierce.
Yet … it is also idle with no thought of rushing anywhere to do anything. And it is up to us to get in touch with it because it is always there to guide us.
I have mastered wu-wei in at least one area of my life, and that is traffic, which has, for me, become an allegory for life. I never (yes, never) get flustered on the road or succumb to road rage anymore.
The road is the perfect place to practice wu-wei. I have an underlying certainty that everything will go smoothly, and it does. I will merge without effort; someone will let me pass or let me in; I will get to my destination on time and with ease and comfort, so there is no need to freak out.
In traffic at least, I have abandoned the Us vs. Them mentality. It’s all me; it’s all us; we’re all the Tao. That is not to say I am driving around on a blissed out cloud and not being attentive. On the contrary, as aforementioned, it is vigilance of the highest order.
If traffic were life, I would be a master sage! But extrapolating this wisdom into my transactional world will be a lifelong practice of successes and failures, hopefully more successes than failures.
If I can accept whatever happens, even failure or death, I am free to be present in my actions, and that presence will show me the way.
It can actually be a fun practice to release expectation and meet life as it is and see how the knots untangle themselves, how the wrinkles in the blanket straighten out, because they eventually do, with conscious action. Ultimately, there is no need to worry about anything, and that is no exaggeration. I can do this effectively with the small things in life such as finding a parking spot, not being overly concerned with time, and just knowing all my little fears and worries throughout the day will take care of themselves. They always do!
Worry is contrary to the clarity that I need to make effective decisions. But the question, again, becomes how to let go of the bigger worries in life like career, family, etc., and let them also be, without too much meddling.
I want to stress that surrender to what is, is not always easy when what is is contrary to your expectation. Again, not to sound like a broken record, it takes time and conscious effort. A friend recently recommended a bathtub meditation as a way to acceptance and surrender, so I tried it. I was holding onto some major emotional baggage that I desperately needed to release, so I started a hot bath with some Celtic sea salts and baking soda and immersed myself in the water.
But as I sat in the tub, I kept hearing the sound of leaking water. This was highly irritating and seemingly contrary to what I was doing in there. I thought, great, how am I going to get a proper meditation with this going on? I had no choice but to use the sound as part of my practice. We are constantly encountering life’s gadflies, but what if we accept them as they are? After several failed attempts at trying to accept the leaking sound, I finally succeeded.
And just at that moment, the leaking stopped, but I did not go into it thinking that it would. It simply happened that way.
Then, after my bath, the emotional baggage was actually released and what I wanted to happen, did happen, almost immediately. Again, and this can be the tough part, I had to abandon all hopes of results. It sounds dismal, but it is incredibly liberating, and it made me feel lighter, happier, and more present.
But it is not always fun.
Emotional turmoil can put us out of touch with the flow and out of touch with unitive consciousness. I experienced this recently when I became estranged from a friend whom I missed very much. My thinking became dualistic, and it became about me vs. my friend. I kept seeing myself in a turbulent river, barely keeping above the water. But still alive. It was all I could do. Eventually, the situation resolved itself, and I was happy again, but it was far from easy.
It made me question writing this piece because, before that, practicing wu-wei was easy. I felt I had discovered a magic key that I had to share with everyone, and then the Tao said, I am about to rage, so hold on. I guess sometimes, holding on is all we can do… until we get to calmer waters.
Excerpts from Red Pine’s translation of Tao Te Ching:
32.5 to picture the Tao in the world imagine rivers and the sea.
35.3 when the Tao speaks it’s senseless and plain we look and don’t see it we listen and don’t hear it.
37.1The Tao never does a thing yet there is nothing it doesn’t do.
41.1When a great person hears of the Way he follows it with devotion when an average person hears of the Way he doesn’t know if it’s real or not.
52.6 who uses his light who trusts his vision lives beyond death this is the Hidden Immortal.
53.1Were I sufficiently wise I would follow the Great Way and only fear going astray.
53.2 the Great Way is smooth but people love byways.
53.3 their palaces are spotless their fields are overgrown and their granaries are empty.
53.4 they wear fine clothes they carry sharp swords they tire of food and drink and possess more than they need this is called robbery and robbery is not the Way.
73.3 the Way of Heaven wins easily without a fight answers wisely without a word comes quickly without a summons plans ingeniously without a thought.
76.1When people are born they are soft and supple when they perish they are hard and stiff.
76.2 when plants shoot forth they are soft and tender when they die they are withered and dry.
76.3 thus it is said the hard and strong are followers of death the soft and weak are followers of life.
76.4 when an army becomes strong it suffers defeat when a plant becomes hard it snaps.
76.5 the hard and strong dwell below the soft and weak dwell above.
81.5 the Way of Heaven is to help without harming the Way of the sage is to act without struggling.