How to go with the flow

“Just go with the flow” is a common piece of advice given out for finding peace and calm with oneself. But what does that actually mean?

When people say that phrase my mind conjures up the image of a leaf, like in the picture, gently resting on the surface tension of a meandering stream. Twirling occasionally in a random eddy current, accelerating spritely into a fast section, and gliding gracefully when the flow slows down again.

I’m sure that you can already create analogies with life every day against that leaf-on-a-stream description. But the idea still lacks clarity. What does going with the flow mean for you, as a person, going through life?

Here’s a list of points that will help to remind you how to get back into the flow state:

  • Meditate
  • Accept change
  • Be aware of your breathing
  • Be aware of your surroundings
  • Look at the bigger picture
  • Acknowledge the power and majesty of nature
  • Have a sense of humour

You might think it means not resisting any outside force that you may encounter, for example only ever walk forward with the wind blowing from behind you, or always obey every command you’re ever given without question, or do whatever the crowd around you is doing regardless of whether you want to or not. Generally doing little to nothing towards changing your current situation in any way. Some of those ideas seem to suggest giving up any amount of control that you may already possess.

That is not what “going with the flow” means to me. Let me try to sum it up:

To go with the flow is to allow inevitable change to happen, accept what we cannot control, be open to new ideas and experiences, and remain centered and calm while events happen around you. You do not give up control by going with the flow, you simply adapt more closely to change as it happens.

Change is the only constant

Even if you think you’re just sitting there and nothing’s happening, in reality, there are near-infinite changes happening per nanosecond. Every blood cell transferring nutrients and oxygen to your cells, the season is slowly changing from one to the other, there is a permanent electrical storm happening at every moment in your brain, its state changing constantly.

Change and flow are essentially the same thing.

All these nano, and micro changes that happen everywhere add up into macro changes on a personal, global, galactic and universal scale. The knowledge that I find truly fascinating is that we, both as individuals and collectively, have a profound influence on the flow of change as it happens.

The one thing we know for sure is that things will change. We don’t know how they will change or to what extent. Except in some cases we do. We build things, we cause chemical reactions to create new materials, we divert rivers, send rockets to outer space. You might look at a puddle of mud and see a stagnant pond. An artist might see the most incredible sculpting clay he has ever seen and create something stunning.

That last point is an illustration of how we are able to affect the change/flow that takes place. We do it all the time with our hands, bodies and tools to change our physical environment. But every energy event affects everything else. When you realise that your thoughts and emotions are energy events, life gets very interesting indeed.

Control or let go?

It’s actually a bit of both, and a lot more letting go than controlling.

Let’s go back to the leaf-floating-on-a-stream analogy. Except that this time you are not a leaf, you are a human, and you are sitting in a kayak with an oar in your hands.

The analogy is obvious. As you float along in the direction of the river flow, you have a measure of control with the oar in your hands. So you can avoid hazards in the water (rocks, logs etc), steer towards the bank, or do an Eskimo roll if you need to. Within your window of control, you can shape your experience. But you cannot control how fast the river flows, where it goes and the fact that you are on a river, kayaking, and not in a cabin on a mountain side, or in a grand library perusing books at this particular moment.

There are a lot of things to let go of as you kayak down your river. You suddenly get splashed in the face just as you are making a critical turn. Let go of that. Your hands are a bit cold, your bum a bit sore, your shoulders fatigued. You let go of all that and keep going. You are enjoying the flow. In fact the more you let go and allow the river to take you, the better a time you have. Once you reach the end of your ride, you just feel great.

Let’s see how this analogy can fit into daily life. For example, at work, in most jobs, people have certain tasks to perform. Let’s say the work is the river. It will take you from this point to one further along in the future. The tools that you use to do your job are your kayak and oar. This may be a computer, mouse, keyboard and screen. Or it may be cooking utensils, or a hammer and chisel. Whatever the tools are, you are using them to guide your journey through your day. You are doing your work in the same way that the river flows. At the end of the day, you might be a little tired or strained, but you can be satisfied with what you achieved.

Every action you take, whether at work or not, contributes to your flow.

There is no need to force, rush, or stress about anything most of the time. Of course in critical situations, you’d better jump when you need to, but for most people, these occur very seldom. Just allow the next thing that needs to happen, happen. This will put you into the flow state.

If you find yourself feeling stuck, stagnant, stopped, just ask yourself: “What is the very next thing that I should do right now?”

The answer you give to yourself might surprise you. It could be “start my new business”, or “plan the first stage of my trip around the world” or simply “take a nice big deep breath”. As soon as you take action from your answer, you are in flow state.

How do I benefit by going with the flow?

Try asking the other side of that question. What other side? Well, how do I benefit by fighting against the flow? If I were to try to write a paragraph to answer that, I believe I would struggle. Okay, I’ve got one.

You’re floating along the river, enjoying the peace and the scenery, when you gradually become aware of a distant roar. Like continuous thunder. Some moments pass and you notice the roar getting louder, now louder still.

Your drift speed has notched up a clip and the gentle, tree-lined banks have morphed into vertical rocky precipices on both sides of the river.

And the roar keeps getting louder.

“Oh poop!” You exclaim. You realise that the roar is a mighty waterfall and you are speeding up straight towards it! You can’t paddle to the bank – there isn’t one. You’re only option now is to row as hard as you can against the current.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a situation in which going against the flow would be an advantage. Though you could also argue that by reversing your direction, you are still going with the flow of your own perception and decisions. The river may be flowing in a certain direction, but your thoughts and actions are the more powerful flow.

Now, if you try paddling against the current with all your might, and you find that it is simply impossible. Then it is time to let go of that idea and allow the river to take you towards the fall. You still don’t know what will happen. Maybe there’s a rocky outcrop that you could grab. Maybe you’ll survive the fall…

Other benefits of going with the flow are:

  • Conserve energy. Achieve more while doing less.
  • Opportunities almost come to you without effort.
  • Restedness. Always have enough in reserve physically and mentally.
  • Force multiplication. The power of the universe is behind you.
  • Flexibility. Flow is movement. Movement loosens joints.
  • Fulfilment. You will experience more through flow than by stagnation.
  • Connectedness. You will see how, through cause and effect, everything is connected.
  • Enlightnement. You get here through mastery.

On a surface level, there are practical benefits of going with the flow. On a deeper level, the flow is responsible for everything including life itself. Events happen, time passes, your parents meet, you are born, you grow up, all of this is flow in real time.

Time itself is governed by flow. Having said that, does time flow? Or does flow happen in time? Are they in fact kind of symbiotic with one another? Whatever the answer is, flow is at a peer level with time itself. Why then do we ask “what’s the time?” and rarely if not never do we ask “what’s the flow?”

As an excercise for the reader, I would suggest to add the question “what’s my flow?” when you are wondering about the time.

A note on Stoicism

If you have ever looked into the philosophy of Stoicism as espoused by ancient Greek philosophers such as Zeno, Galen, and to some extent Socrates, you may recognize parallels with the modern “go with the flow” idea. The Stoics were never moved from their own internal state of neutral balance, no matter the circumstances. A quote from Zeno really fits into what we are talking about here:

Happiness is a good flow of life.

Zeno

Finally, here is an ancient Taoist story that ties Stoicism and going with the flow together:

There once lived an old farmer, who had seen many things throughout his life and cultivated, along with his crops, great wisdom. He had built a wonderful farm and had a wonderful family. His neighbours would comment on how fortunate he was. His response to this was always the same:

“Maybe so, maybe not.”

Among his valuable possessions was a prize stallion of very high pedigree. He was beautiful to behold and matched the magnificence of the farm and surroundings. The neighbours would say how lucky he was to own such a stunning beast.

“Maybe so, maybe not.”

One day the stallion caught a scent on the air and became very active in his enclosure. He was in a field of lush green grass which he galloped around three times with his head and tail high before leaping the brush fence and tearing away towards the horizon at break-neck speed. He vanished quickly out of sight.

The neighbours came around to visit. “What terrible luck that was. To lose your prize stallion so quickly! You see, you can’t be lucky all the time.” They lamented.

“Maybe so, maybe not.”

A few days later, early one morning, the farmer and his family woke up to whinnying and nickering sounds in the yard, and the clattering of many hooves. They got up and went out to see that the stallion had returned and brought with him a string of wild mares, all healthy and strong.

“Wow! Your horse went out and increased your wealth all by himself .” Exclaimed the neighbours. “You are lucky after all.”

“Maybe so, maybe not.”

The next day the farmer’s son thought it would be a good idea to try to tame some of the wild mares to use around the farm. He caught one, instructed his younger brother to hold the lead rope, and jumped on her back.

In an instant, she bucked him off. He went flying through the air and landed awkwardly on a boulder which was sticking out of the ground. There was a loud snap as he hit it and they knew he had broken his leg.

As the farmer’s son lay in bed with a broken leg, the neighbours came to visit. “Oh what a terrible turn of events! This is surely bad luck.”

“Maybe so, maybe not.”

The next day there was a great commotion as the military were riding through the region, forcing men and boys of fighting age to go with them to fight a bloody battle to the north. It was expected that most of them would never return. When they got to the old farmer’s place, they demanded to see his eldest son. The commander went into the room where he was, took one look and said “He’s of no use to us in that condition. Leave him here.”

After the military had left, again the neighbours gathered to talk about what happened. They saw that the old farmer’s eldest son had not been taken. “That is so lucky! Your son gets to avoid that terrible conflict and you don’t have to worry about him.”

“Maybe so, maybe not.”