“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.
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 work.
- 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 learning process.
- 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