The historical Buddha pointed out that everything is continually in flux. What we call “things” are conglomerations of points in a process of the continual movement of all life. This is similar to science’s reference to all life as a vibrating energy field. Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Buddha’s in China, advises us to, “Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”
Following his instructions for flowing with each activity works when things are going well. It may be quite easy to experience flow if we engage in activities we are familiar with and love doing. But what about dealing negative change, when things don’t work out the way we would like them to?
At the end of April I broke a tendon in my foot playing soccer with my grandsons. The rhythm of my daily life was up-ended. Not only couldn’t I drive or sit on a meditation cushion, I couldn’t even enter into or move around our Zen center without considerable difficulty for some time.
Maybe you finally get what you want in your career, or in a relationship or life, but things seem harder than ever. Or maybe an aging parent or you own child has become more difficult to manage. You may say to yourself, “If only this hadn’t happened, I could be in flow.” Disappointments may loom so large that the possibility of experiencing flow seems virtually impossible.
Maybe you’ve been practicing meditation for two years, or five years or ten years and you are wondering why it still takes so much of your energy to cope. Why do you still fall in troughs of sadness, depression, worry, irritation, moodiness, anxiety, and lethargy? “Flow,” you may say to yourself, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Someone who read my new book Zen in the Age of Anxiety: Wisdom for Navigating Our Modern Lives complained, “All your book does is tell me over and over to sit in meditation and accept, accept. How does that help?”
What he didn’t understand is that the desire to be in a different state of mind or situation than our current one inhibits our natural flow. When dharma teacher Phillip Moffitt discusses this he refers to Dante. In Dante’s Inferno there’s a sign at the entrance to Hell, which says, “Abandon hope, you who enter here.” Of course, we all need hope, but too often hope is a disguised refusal to be with things just as they are. When you reject this moment because it is unpleasant, you are rejecting the only moment you have to be alive. And if you get lost in disappointment about the future or the past, you will never experience the flow that Lao Tzu talked about.
Buddha suggests that we don’t embrace change because of the Eight Worldly Concerns: gain and loss, praise and blame, pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness. He refers to these as “terrible twins” because each always arrives with its opposite. He also suggests that these concerns are all emanations of the Three Poisons, which are the cause of all of our suffering: not getting what we want; getting what we don’t want; ignoring everything else.
In our meditation practice we observe these concerns as they appear, as well as the underlying push/pulls of the Poisons. We observe a particular desire, then see how you identify with that desire and how easily we become frustrated and disappointed. At that moment, we have the opportunity to follow Dante.
When Dante first sees the sign he is alarmed. He asks Virgil, his guide through Hell, about it. Virgil answers that it means to abandon cowardliness and mistrust.
When we encounter moments of pain and feelings of loss and confusion, we can a.) live in denial, b.) obsess about our pains and disappointments, or c.) embrace what is. This only happens when we enter into a given activity fully without hoping to get something out of it.
We can come to see pain and loss as great teachers. “I’m lost in sadness, and so identified with it that it is causing me to suffer.” Luckily, since everything passes as part of the great energy flow of life, so do pain and loss.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher