In the Flow


To say that ‘everything just is what it is’ tends to sound rather vague, rather wishy-washy. It tends to sound emptily portentious. It doesn’t sound like we’re saying anything really. Of course everything is what it is! So what, we might ask. Where does that get us? It might sound rather wishy-washy to say this (from the point of view of our ordinary way of thinking) but actually this is a radical insight. It’s a ‘radical insight’ because it changes everything!


Normally, we take it for granted that ‘things are what we think they are’ which is an entirely different kettle of fish to them being ‘what they actually are’. Normally, we do a whole heap of assuming in arriving at our identifications of what things are, what the world is, what we are, and we never pay even the slightest attention to the fact that we have done all this assuming to arrive at what we think to be ‘the final picture’. We assume a hell of a lot to obtain our rational picture of the world, and this – we might say – wrong-foots us right from the very start. It wrong-foots us right from the very start because it makes everything about us, and everything isn’t all about us….


When we make assumptions in order to arrive at a rational picture of the world (which we have to do, since this is the only way the rational process can occur – by guessing, by assuming, by jumping to conclusions, by saying ‘let’s suppose that..’ and then proceeding as if this basis were true) then we make everything ‘about us’ because the assumptions that we are using here are ours and do not exist independently of us, out there in reality somewhere. So when we form a rational picture of the world we are of course seeing that world in terms of our own assumptions and this is making the world all about us. We’re not seeing things as they are in themselves at all.


Another way of explaining this is to say that when we see the world through our rational/conceptual filter then – even though we are unconscious of the fact – we have introduced the need to control and because we have introduced the need to control (right there at the very beginning of the process) we are obliged from here on in to carry on controlling. Controlling always leads to more controlling. There’s no way we can start off controlling without being obliged to continue – there’s no way out of this because we have ‘taken charge of the process’. By taking charge of the process because we’ve made it all about us!


When we see that ‘everything just is what it is’ then this means that we haven’t made any assumptions. We haven’t taken control of the process therefore – we’ve allowed it to carry on being the way that it already is and so we don’t get hooked into the need to control it. Or as we could also say, when we see that ‘everything just is what it is’ then we are in the flow. But how often is this the case? Generally speaking, we don’t even know what it feels like to be ‘in the flow’. Generally speaking, what happens is that we set up a static framework of thought around us and then we see everything in terms of this framework. We conceptualize everything – we have it all organized neatly in our heads and once we do this then we don’t let go of the reins – we can’t let go of the reins because we’ve taken on the job of saying what reality is’ without even realizing that we have taken anything on. Unwittingly, we’ve taken control of something we ought never to have taken control of. Or perhaps we could say, we’ve taken control of something that didn’t actually need us taking control of. It was after all doing quite fine all by itself beforehand…


We might have the world all conceptualized, we might have it all organized in neat and tidy boxes in our heads, but that of course isn’t the way it actually is. Really, the world just is. It doesn’t fit into any framework. Why should it? The framework is just there for our benefit, after all. The world doesn’t need a framework to explain itself to itself! The world isn’t obliged to ‘make sense’ in any particular narrow way. That’s just the game we play with it. So what we think is going on around us when we look at the world through the ‘narrow filter of the rational mind’ isn’t going on at all. When we look at the world in the way that we normally do then we’re seeing things in terms of our agenda, and this happens without us even knowing that we do have one. We think we’re ‘seeing things straight’, just as they are! We’re absolutely convinced that we’re seeing things straight – we couldn’t be more convinced.


This invisible agenda guides our thinking. More than this, it determines what we see and what we don’t see. If something doesn’t have any bearing on our agenda, any relevance to our agenda, then it doesn’t have any importance to us and because it doesn’t have any importance to us we don’t pay it any attention. Because we don’t pay it any attention it doesn’t really exist for us. So the invisible agenda (which is the same thing as the rational-conceptual mind) determines what we see and what we don’t see, what’s important and what’s not important, what is real and what is not real. Having an agenda (or having a ‘framework’ or ‘rational overview’) gives us a whole different way of relating to the word, therefore. In short, we personalize it! We personalize the world – we make it all about us.


When happens then (after we personalize the world) is that we react to everything  that happens according to the meaning that our agenda puts on it: if it fits in with what we want to happen then I feel good and if it doesn’t fit in then I feel bad. Everything gets coloured with this – the whole world gets coloured with ‘like and dislike’. Because I am seeing everything in terms of my framework (the framework which is my mind, the framework which is ‘me’) nothing gets seen for what it is in itself. Instead, everything gets seen in terms of me, in terms of what it means to me, and this isn’t the same thing at all. As we have said, everything has now been personalized and so all I am really seeing is my own agenda reflected faithfully back at me…


Because everything has been personalized, there is no more flow. I’m not in the flow any more. Instead, I am controlling. I’m out of the flow. I’m in my head. I am bending everything out of shape to fit my agenda for seeing things. I am complicating everything by ‘making it what it is not’. What I am doing is as we have said is that via my controlling I am personalizing everything – because I am controlling everything I am making it all about me. I am of course perfectly free to personalize the world in this way but to do so is to introduce a distortion because the actual truth of the matter is that the world isn’t ‘all about me’! This just isn’t true, this just isn’t the case! How could everything be about me? How could the whole world be centred on me (and what either I want or don’t want)? And yet despite this being very obviously absurd, we still go ahead and personalize the world on a full-time basis. We hardly ever don’t personalize everything. The very fact that I only ever see the world in terms of how it looks when it is fed through the distorting filter of my rational mind means that I am personalizing it. This isn’t reality – this is my own private version of it. As Heraclitus says,

The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own.

My everyday mind is the framework into which I am trying to fit everything – it is ‘my agenda for seeing things’ and so when I see the world through this framework then I have immediately taken myself out of the flow. When we operate out of the assumed framework, out of the thinking, measuring mind, then we are taking ourselves out of the flow because we are not seeing things for what they are. Instead, we are seeing them for what they mean to us. We are then trapped in the abstract world that the measuring mind has created for us, and we don’t know the difference!  Or as is suggested here in verse 32 of the Tao Te Ching (Trans. Stephen Hodge 2002), once we start naming then we get trapped in the world of names and we don’t know the difference –

When we begin to regulate, there is naming,
But when there has been naming
We should also know how to stop.
Only by knowing how to stop can we avoid danger.

To our normal way of thinking the suggestion that we are trapped in a false, mind-created world sounds quite ridiculous – we would reject it straightaway as being nonsensical. We’re in the real world, we would say. The suggestion that we are seeing things in our own private, personalized way sounds nonsensical. And yet – as a moment’s reflection would show – there’s no way that this can’t be the case. Of course we are seeing everything from our own arbitrary point of view, of course we are seeing everything purely in relation to our own personalized ‘yardstick for measuring reality’. Of course we are trapped in an abstract mind-created representation of the world. We might collude with others in using the same arbitrary point of view, the same yardstick, but this doesn’t make it any less arbitrary. Utilizing a collective viewpoint just makes it a million times harder to actually see that it is arbitrary…


Because of our assumed viewpoint everything’s bent out of shape without us knowing that it’s bent out of shape. Because of our assumed viewpoint we’re bound to keep on controlling without knowing that we are controlling. We don’t know that we are controlling, we don’t know that we are holding the reins so tight the whole time. We aren’t aware of this because we’re so very used to it. It’s normal for us. The only time we start to become aware of this controlling is when anxiety creeps into the picture and we catch a glimpse (a very unwelcome glimpse) of just how much stress we’re under, of just how much we need to control. Sometimes we get more than just a glimpse – sometimes we become very aware indeed of how terrible our ‘need for control’ is and when this happens we are said to be clinically anxious. At such times we tend to get the terrifying feeling that we are ‘about to crack up’ – only it’s not really us that is about to crack up, but the unconscious ‘system of control’ that we have come to rely on without realizing it. It is this system of control that is heading for a crisis point (it is after all ultimately unworkable anyway) but because we have identified so thoroughly with the system of thinking, and because we invested so much in it, we experience this as our impending crisis. The one thing we can’t see at such times is that we don’t actually have to be in control at all!


If we were ‘in the flow’ then we would see that we don’t have to control because the flow doesn’t need controlling. That’s why it’s called ‘the flow’ – because it doesn’t need controlling! The normal state of affairs however (as we have said) is for us to be ‘out of the flow’. Everything’s bent out of shape without us realizing that it’s bent out of shape. We’re controlling without realizing that we’re controlling. In this ‘normal state of affairs’ – even when there (apparently) isn’t any major stress going on – there are constant minor fluctuations or perturbations going on. When these fluctuations tend towards ‘the way we think things should be’ then we feel good and when – on the other hand – the parameters under consideration are drifting away from their designated values then we feel correspondingly bad, we feel bad because we feel that we have failed to control the situation satisfactorily. These variations in the gap between ‘how things are’ and ‘how we think they should be’ have the mechanical role of determining whether we can feel good or bad, therefore. In Eastern terms, this is known as attachment.


There are always going to be these little stresses occurring in everyday life in accordance with how we are doing with regard to controlling the relevant variables, the variables that we (or society) have deemed important. The ‘need to control’ is always present therefore, but as long as we are able to stay more or less on top of things it seems as if we have controlling because we want to, controlling because it suits our interests to be doing so. When however anxiety cuts in (and we start to get the feeling that everything is going out of control) then we become painfully aware that we are ‘controlling because we have to’ and this is a different kettle of fish entirely. In the first scenario, this is more like a pleasant game or distraction that we can enjoy, whereas when anxiety really cuts in then everything switches over into the dark side (so to speak) and there is no hiding the fact that we are mercilessly controlled by ‘the need to control’. This is the grim reality. Fear is the grim reality.


The type of life we normally lead (which is to say, the type of life that we lead when we are not in the flow) is thus one in which we are constantly swinging between right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, satisfactory and unsatisfactory. Everything is either ‘win or lose’, as we could also say. This is a very peculiar state of affairs because there is no peace in it, no ease in it. There is simply no ‘resting’ in this type of a situation – if I get it wrong (if I lose) there is no resting because I have to make things right, and if I get it right (if I win) then I still can’t rest because I have to make sure that the advantageous position which I have just secured for myself doesn’t slip away from my grasp again. It’s an ongoing struggle, in other words, and the reason it is an ongoing struggle is because the goals that I am trying to attain are abstract ideals that do not exist in the real world! This particular type of problem shows up very clearly in what is called ‘perfectionism’ – perfectionism is an endless, fruitless struggle because there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ in the real world…


The state of affairs in which we are constantly swinging between right and wrong, good and bad, win and lose, etc, isn’t actually life, no matter what ideas we might have to the contrary. This isn’t life – it’s a mockery of life, a cruel distortion of life. What we have actually done by ‘personalizing everything’ (or ‘controlling everything’) is that we have turned life into a game. Life is a flow – it moves freely on, it doesn’t need to be controlled or regulated. It moves with grace, with ease, with its own innate poetry and dignity. It doesn’t get snagged on hooks the whole time; it doesn’t keep running into insurmountable barriers, into brick walls. A game, on the other hand, is a loop. And not only is it a loop, it’s the type of a loop that we can’t see to be a loop, and because we can’t see it to be a loop we keep on going around and around in it. Rather than seeing that we’re trapped we think that we’re actually getting somewhere and so we keep on with what we’re doing, we keep at it and it, ricocheting from win to lose, from right to wrong, from hit to miss the whole time without ever really getting anywhere. We’re forever bouncing from one extreme to the other; we’re forever oscillating from one polar opposite to the other like some kind of a crazy rubber ball.


What’s tripping us up all the time is ourselves. That’s what’s keeping us out of the flow. Or we could say that what’s keeping us out of the flow (what’s keeping us trapped in the loop that we think is the flow) is our agenda – i.e. our everyday thinking – which is of course the one thing we are never going to see as the source of our problems.


‘Like and dislike’ is what’s tripping us up all the time. ‘Like and dislike’ is what’s keeping us spinning around and around on the wheel. And all we need to do to get free from this wheel and come back into the flow of life is to see through like and dislike, is to see though our constant counterproductive fear-driven need to be in control…