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Written by Master Dao on Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Power of Learning to Go with the Flow


Sometimes making a choice in life can be difficult and instead of moving forward we find ourselves stuck in one place. So what does 'Going with the Flow' mean and how does one apply this concept in life so that one can move forward? Can it be bad to go with the flow? Master Dao will answer these questions and more.

Let's begin with a story.

The Flowing River Story

It is a beautiful day and you are surrounded by mountains and water. You're in a canoe with a friend in the middle of a small lake, and you're both slowly paddling towards the mouth of a river.

You've never been here before and you don't know what's down that river. You both decide to explore, and besides you have no time constraints anyway.

You enter the river and as you're enjoying scenery, you realize that the water is moving a bit more rapidly, so it's getting easier to paddle and you're moving a bit faster.

About a hundred metres ahead, the river splits into two. It's such a relaxing journey that you and your friend decide to take the left route because your boat just happened to be more on the left side. 

As you enter the left stream, you notice shallow waters ahead and many rocks, but it's too late to turn back. There are rocky cliffs on either side and the speed of the river has already doubled. There doesn't seem to be a way to forcible stop the boat.

Many more thoughts enter your mind. This is dangerous. Will your boat capsize? Perhaps you can navigate around the rocks? Should you bail and try to swim to the cliffs? Will you drown or hit your head on a rock?

The Impact of Decisions in Life

Life is very much like this story. Everyday you will encounter events where you must make a choice (whether you realize it or not and not making a choice still counts as making a choice!).  When you are making the choice, you carry it out through thought, action, or speech.

Each choice will shape your current [and future] environment differently, and will lead to yet another choice.  In other words, the choices we make will have consequences on ourselves or on those around us. 

It's no wonder why you would normally feel anxiety and stress when making a decision. The bigger or the more perceived impact of a decision, the worse the anxiety and stress.

This story may help highlight the differences in approach by different people.

For instance, here are some different approaches below. You may:

  • look up Google maps to examine the river system first
  • ask the locals whether the rivers are safe to navigate
  • try to navigate around the rocks but be prepared to bail
  • scream for help, hoping there will be someone in the area who can come rescue you if you have to bail
  • look for something to grab onto and then bail right away
  • bail immediately and look for something to grab onto
  • brace yourself and hope the boat can make it through
  • just go straight through and not worry

There are many approaches in life and not one is necessarily correct. How will each one affect your friend in the boat? You’ll never really know because when you make the choice, everything that follows will change, leading to an infinite set of possibilities and choices.

Making the Decision Puts You in Control

When you make a decision on how to proceed, at the very least, it puts you in control of your fate. This doesn’t mean you are unable to wait - deciding to delay a decision still puts you in control, even if there is an unexpected outcome.

When you cannot make a decision in a reasonable amount of time, you’ve become complacent, and your fate is now at the mercy of others. In this case, you are no longer going with the flow.

The difference is further explained below.

Non-Decision vs Not Deciding

The decision to not decide on an action is not the same as not making a decision. Why is there a difference?

In our story, consider that you can either:

  1. Become complacent and unable to decide what to do, or
  2. Decide to wait

In both cases, it is plausible that the boat capsizes and the fate of you and your friend remains the same (whatever that fate may be!).

The key difference is the mental state.

In the first case, you’ve given in to hopelessness and despair, or you have frozen due to being in a panic state.

In the second case, you are mentally aware of your decision to wait. This may put you into a heightened state where you can consider the possibility of more solutions as time passes.

Thus by deciding to wait, even if it meant the same result, still puts you in control of your fate. It is a subtle but very important difference. 

The Key to Making Decisions

When faced with what feels like a critical decision, many of us will feel stress or anxiety to the point of complacency. Why is that?

The reason we find it difficult to make decisions is because we have a difficulty with accepting the potential outcome.

In the story, you may have issue with any or all of these:

  • You cannot accept that you are in danger
  • You feel responsible for your friend
  • You cannot accept that your decision may lead you to your doom
  • You cannot accept that your decision may cause disaster for your friend

Acceptance is the key. Acceptance is an interesting topic, worthy of an exploration on its own, so we shall tackle ‘Acceptance’ another time.

For now, consider you need to accept that you are making the best choice given the information that you have along with your life experience.

In other words, you may feel that a different decision could have lead to a better result, and you add that to your experience, so that next time you may try something different in a similar situation and determine if a better result was achieved.

On the other hand, if you do not accept the result, then you will never learn and grow, and instead suffer from regret and anger.

Going with the Flow, A ‘Chan-Dao’ Perspective

‘Going with the Flow’ means you are making the best decisions you can as events arise, regardless of the result. You will feel that life is naturally taking its course.

When you do not ‘Go with the Flow’, you go against nature and you make life difficult for yourself, resulting in suffering.

This is absolute. Observe it for yourself and surely you will discover your way to peace.

An Example of Going with the Flow

You wake up in the morning but for whatever reason you did not wake up on time. Perhaps you forgot to set your alarm clock or you turned off your alarm as it went off. You are now late for work!

You rush out the door and into your car. As you head into the big city, there is a major traffic jam. You forgot to check the traffic report first and now you're stuck in what feels like the slowest route. What's worse is that other drivers are budding in or illegally driving to get an advantage. You feel frustrated and angry.

When you go with the flow, you will not suffer from frustration and/or anger despite being stuck in traffic! This is, because you accept:

  • that you will be late,
  • that it was due to you being unable to wake up at the intended time (for whatever reason)
  • that you made the mistake of not checking the traffic reports because you rushed out the door
  • the consequences for being late

Because you are going with the flow, you understand the consequences and you will naturally learn from this experience, so that next time you are less likely to repeat your mistakes.

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