November 24, 2017

{Cutting Through}: Being Present vs. Being Practical. How can we Go with the Flow & still Get Things Done? {Q & A}

A post shared by Travis May (@travismay11) on Feb 3, 2017 at 11:44am PST


{Cutting Through} is a column on elephantjournal.com. Have a question about meditation, mindfulness, or Buddhism? Please send it to Travis at [email protected] or in a comment on this article. Travis is an authorized meditation instructor in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and the Center Director of Shambhala St. Petersburg. He is a joyful student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

Question: If we just allow things to happen by themselves and not try to secure situations, then how do we accomplish career and relationship goals? There is certainly a certain merit about not forcing things and letting them come from something organic, but at what point do we need deadlines and structure? What if we feel forced? How do we work with that?


Thank you for your question.

There does seem to be a conflict between going with the flow and planning for our future and working toward our long term goals.

Maybe there’s a way we can do both at the same time.

Let’s explore what is meant by phrases like “allow things to happen by themselves.”

There seems to be a connotation there that when we’re living in the moment, going with the flow, or however you want to say it, we’re acting whimsically, or in an ungrounded, impractical way.

But, that doesn’t really seem like something ancient wisdom traditions would be telling us to do. So, we should examine our own preconceived ideas and try to see where we’re missing the point.

Contrarily, another way teachings like this are often taken is that we should live freely, letting whatever happens happen…except for when it comes to “important” issues like establishing a good credit score, building up our 401k, and so on.

But, let’s explore what is really meant by allowing things to happen on their own or going with the flow.

Let’s think of these sayings as signs of certain attitudes or outlooks. I think that what is meant by the idea of going with the flow is that we’re talking about a certain way we feel about our lives on a moment to moment basis. Going with the flow has an implication of being without resistance, of being open to what is happening, and of seeing situations with a fresh perspective.

It seems to be more of a psychological attitude than a conceptual one. Meaning, it’s not a philosophy—it’s a feeling.

Let’s also look at what we’re doing when we’re not going with the flow or allowing the space for things to happen. Some people are really resistant to change. This is an unfortunate neurosis to acquire…because, as we know, everything is constantly changing. This way of being feels small and as if we were bracing for something to hit us. When we’re in this state, we have fixed and rigid ideas about how things should be, and we feel negative emotions when things inevitably take their course.

There is a sense that our conceptual mind or ego can put up an invisible (yet very claustrophobic) barrier between “ourselves” and our experiences. We can shut ourselves off from the world and view things in very concrete terms: this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong.

In that state, there is a disconnect not only between the body and mind, but between both—and everything else in the universe. It isn’t healthy, it isn’t clever, it isn’t helpful, and nothing good comes of it.
What do either of these two ways of being have to do with planning for our future? Not much.

We can plan or not plan for our future goals and dreams while embodying either of these types of behavior. Being present or going with the flow is related to our state of mind and body, and saving for our retirement or structuring our day to meet a deadline—or not—are actions we perform out of our state of mind.

So, in this sense, I don’t think there is a conflict.

But, what may happen is that through learning to live our life in a mindful, present way, we begin to develop some discernment about what we really need and should spend our time doing. We may realize that we were putting a lot of unnecessary effort and anxiety into things that did not necessitate it.

Furthermore, when we are living mindfully open and inquisitive, we may just do a better job taking care of what we need to do!

If we feel uncomfortably forced or compelled to complete a task or meet a deadline, we’ve probably allowed ourselves to be filled with thoughts and feelings that are leading to fear and anxiety.

The question is, what do we do next?

Some people naturally use those feelings as fuel to get things done. If we could feel that energy, drop the discursive thoughts, and bring our attention to the task at hand (rather than worrying about repercussions or shaming ourselves for not having completed our task sooner), we may find that the energy provides a spark and a clarity that we can use to our advantage to focus and do our best.

If we’re more connected with that “flow state,” keeping an awareness of the feeling of our peaceful mind and sense of health and well-being, then we may not experience the negative aspects of the upcoming deadline or project that we’d sooner just be done with.

Meditation helps us develop discernment. We realize that it doesn’t really do us any good to get all freaked out about things we can’t control. And our practice of taming our mind and touching in with our basic goodness helps us develop the capacity to stay in that place. 

So, what I’ve found, as just being a regular person working on these things myself, is that even when feelings of anxiety and depression do occur, they’re not as loud or as strong, and so they run their course more quickly.

We’re looking for the place where going with flow and doing practical things like earning the money we need to pay rent meet one another.

When we are allowing things to happen by being open and present to our lives and listening to the messages and feedback we’re receiving from the world, we may find that things begin to fall in place rather nicely. Maybe not even in the way that we had envisioned, but in a way that now seems more right or inevitable.

At the very least, we could be looking up and meeting the world on the spot and not causing ourselves a lot of suffering with our discursive thinking and unhealthy thought patterns—because what could we expect to accomplish in that state except more of the same?


More from Travis:

{Cutting Through}: Emotions. Does Buddhism Teach Avoiding the Highs & Lows? {Weekly Q & A}

{Cutting Through}: The Four Noble Truths. Isn’t suffering important for growth? {Weekly Q & A}




Author: Travis May
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