The Ocean Refuses No River
Presented on February 24th, 2019
This week, I have been learning about flow by dealing with the snow and ice on my driveway and sidewalk.
After the last big snowfall a couple of weeks ago, I shovelled a little, but I made the mistake of assuming the temperature would bounce back up above zero as it had been doing earlier this year.
It did not.
Then there was another snowfall. I was away and so did not shovel anything.
If you remember the weather last week, every sunny day it got a little warm and every night it got colder and the snow on my driveway turned more and more into ice.
It was so thick there was no shovelling anything. I tried hacking at it with a garden trowel but the 3 inches of ice didn’t notice.
The first time I tried to clear it, I spent a frustrating hour damaging the shovel and making no real difference.
The second time involved two wipeouts and several curse words.
And so I surrendered to the flow. The ice wasn’t going to go anywhere until the conditions were right.
But I could help those conditions. I couldn’t impact the sunshine or the temperature, but every day, I put a little salt on, and I hacked away at the edges. With the salt on the sidewalk ice making it grippy enough not to cause accidents, I could be patient.
Three days ago I got a third of the sidewalk free of ice.
Two days ago I got another third of the sidewalk.
Yesterday I got almost all the rest.
This afternoon that last chunk will be gone.
And in the end the effort each day was minimal. I went out for 15 minutes and removed the slushy ice that was willing to move.
Once I accepted the reality – the conditions around me – that the weather wasn’t going to melt it all away AND that me and a plastic shovel weren’t going to shift a 15 foot length of 3 inch thick ice – then I could focus on what I could do.
I went with the flow.
I don’t recommend learning about flow this way. Yoga is better.
Vinyasa yoga is a style of yoga which is a flowing sequence of poses coordinated with the breath. Vinyasa yoga is a physical metaphor for “going with the flow”. Moving with ease through a set of movements, and with on-going practice, being able to inhabit those poses in a way in which you are both focused and not focused,fully engaged in the moment.
Krishnamacharya, the twentieth century yoga master who created vinyasa yoga, saw vinyasa yoga is an artful approach to life, to be applied to work, self development and relationships.
Living in a vinyasa way is to pay attention to each moment, doing what is needed in an effortless way.
Krishnamacharya, a renowned master, would greet his students of the gate of his compound, guide them through the yoga, then honour their time together by escorting them back to the gate. He took his time and was intentional about each phase of their time together, linking all the actions together in a graceful flow.
Each step mattered.
As much as we might wish to be so intentional, life is not always – or even often – a graceful flow.
Life is change, changes we must learn to navigate.
So we learn to sail the great ocean of living, finding our balance between wind and currents.
Like sailors, we must find a way to synchronize with these natural forces, we have to learn how to sail through all the weather – from calm to storm. Sailing requires skill and intuition, both acquired through hours of practice.
Life needs skills and intuition, and we can acquire both only through living.
In yoga, practice is how you build up your skills – the capacity to do the poses. How you begin, how you move from one pose to another, is as important as the most challenging movements.
You also use your breath to sustain the work – with the power and momentum of your breath – the effort becomes effortless. Intuition takes over as you become both focused and free.
To be in the flow with yoga, you need a stable base of skills developed through practice, and you need to align your breath, your energy, with your actions. All of this develops over practice and needs practice to be sustained.
Practice in building skills and aligning energy helps create the conditions for flow.
This applies to life – keep practicing – keep aligning energy with what matters in the moment – keep focus while seeing the bigger picture.
As the little girl in the story this morning says
I can sail the sea, I go with the flow.
I open my heart, I feel love.
I can see far and wide, I am focused.
(I am Yoga)
May we sail the seas of life, learning to live with our skills and energy in alignment, with open hearts and clear eyes.
Going with the flow is undervalued in much of modern society. It’s seen as a slacker, kind of hippie thing to say – “just go with the flow, man”, the non-battle cry of the lazy person.
Going with the flow suggests passivity, a lack of engagement with life.
We live in a society of achievers, where we are supposed have a strong sense of purpose, set clear goals, and with laser sharp focus work towards success. Never give up, and when you reach one goal, set another.
I imagine the concept of simply going with the flow does not play well in the executive offices of CIBC.
But “going with the flow” is not laziness, it’s an ancient and worthy way of being. It’s a radical shift.
It’s hard to get our western minds around the concept, but to go with the flow is to accept life as it is, and work within its parameters.
It is different then the more common “grab the bull by the horns” attitude. Which can lead to success but also to getting trampled by a bull.
Going with the flow would be creating a situation so that the bull wants to go where you want it to go. It takes longer, requires more patience, but both you and the bull survive.
With flow, we channel our skills and intuition and energy in ways that work with the context. It is sort of like “work smarter, not harder”.
In the eastern philosophy Daoism, going with the flow is seen as the right and healthy way to live.
Daoism is about following “the way”, the way of life, of nature.
Lao Tzu, the Chinese sage, says
The way in the world
is as a stream to the valley,
a river to the sea.(32)
To follow the way, to live humanely as people, is to live by wu-wei. The Daoist concept of Wu-wei means to not do.
By not doing we do.
Hmmm…. It’s a paradoxical concept.
Do without doing.
Act without action.
Savour the flavourless.
Treat the small as the large.
The few as the many. (63)
To do without doing is hard. A game called Mindball is a good example. Two players try to move a ball across the table with their minds. The one who moves it towards the other’s side of the table first wins.
The players wear headbands with electrodes which measure brain waves, which is connected to a magnet under the table, and try to move the ball. The electrodes are calibrated to the alpha and theta brain waves. These are the waves produced by the brain when it is relaxed.
Which means the ball is moved by the person who is the most calm.
Players visibly struggle to relax, and when they do relax and move the ball, they then get excited about winning and lose control of the ball.
It’s a good example of wu-wei. The way to win is to not care about winning.
And to be human – at least in this society – is to want to win.
We are raised that way. Power comes from being a winner, from being in charge.
But Lao Tzu says:
Nothing in the world
is as soft, as weak, as water;
Nothing else can wear away
the hard, the strong,
and remain unaltered.
Soft overcomes hard,
Weak overcomes strong.
Everybody knows it,
Nobody uses the knowledge.(78)
Going with the flow is to live by following the Way, staying soft and yet overcoming the hard. Being a river flowing to the sea.
It’s about power without force, which is a radical concept in a time where might too often makes right. It’s to be non-competitive, patient, trustful. It’s a big mental shift to think of having power through trust instead of triumph.
But this is flow, living with trust and understanding, flowing around obstacles. To go with the flow, to do without doing, is to have a deep understanding of your context, the environment. It’s about seeing which actions fit, what comes next to get where you need to go. Effortless action – the action that is right in that environment, that is easy in that moment – the small things.
To do this – or not do – requires knowledge and skill. Knowledge of what you can do and having the skills to do it, as well as knowledge of the larger context. To see what fits right now under these particular conditions.
It is a practice of learning how to be in the world in a new way, to be water – shaping oneself to the context but remaining always oneself. Choosing trust and patience over and over again.
For us as Unitarian Universalists, this way of being – following the Daoist way – finding flow – fits with our principles.
The way is about following nature, being part of the interconnected web of life, and working with it rather than against it.
Working from trust instead of triumph promotes the inherent worth and dignity of each person.
And I think going with the flow can encourage actions for justice.
Injustice is a blockage, a state of affairs in which something is out of balance.
Justice brings flow – people able to marry regardless of sexual orientation – justice helps heal.
I hope this month of water metaphors, yoga, and the concept of flow has brought you insight and understanding.
Perhaps you can see a blockage in your life that you might need to flow around instead of fight. Look around the obstacle to see what else might be possible.
Perhaps you see a situation where you need to let go of your goals and take time to understanding the larger context. To accept what the conditions are.
Perhaps you have found a love for yoga and will keep practicing.
May we all find ways to go with the flow, to be the river reaching towards the sea.
So Say We All.