There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
(taken from Buddha’s World )
“Going with the flow” is probably one of the most overused of phrases derived from the Taoist tradition. And while we use it frequently (or its Spanish equivalent “Tranquilo amigo” as my brother-in-law likes to say) to tell others to relax, it probably is one of the hardest thing to do in practice… especially for the things that matters to us.
Part of the problem is probably because we are only familiar with the first half of Chuang Tzu’s saying. But it is in fact the second half of the statement – “let your mind be free” that is instructive. But free from what?
The most obvious answer would be freedom from ‘negative’ desires such as greed, hate, anger and lust. But I suspect these aren’t the issues that prevents us from ‘going with the flow’. I believe most of our lives are not the equivalent of a Taiwanese soap opera. I believe also, that many of us are decent folks who do not actively seek to further our own desires at the expense of others. We may not be actively doing good, but we all seek to minimize doing harm to others. And we generally make enough to pay the bills.
And yet we worry over many things still. We worry if we are good parents. We worry if we are good employees. We worry that we are not getting paid as much as our peers. I find it incredibly vexing sometimes to find myself worrying about these things – even as I recognize that my goal in life isn’t to fit within conventional norms. How strange indeed!
A couple of weeks ago, at the recommendation of a friend, I bought and read Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. Here’s a brief description from the website –
This is a book about an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. This is a book about status anxiety.
In a chapter titled “Equality, Expectation and Envy”, de Botton wrote:
Our sense of an appropriate limit to anything – for example, to wealth and esteem – is never decided independently. It is decided by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, with that of people we consider to be our equals. We cannot appreciate what we have in isolation, nor judged against the lives of our medieval forbearers. We cannot be impressed by how prosperous we are in historical terms. We will only take ourselves to be fortunate when we have as much as, or more than, the people we grow up with, work alongside, have as friends and identify with in the public realm…
It is the feeling that we might be something other than what we are – a feeling transmitted by the superior achievements of those we take to be our equals – that generates anxiety and resentment. If we are small and live among people who are all of own height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size.
So what has status anxiety got to do with going with the flow? Plenty, I would say.
It is easy for us to go with the flow when the matter is of little or no consequence to us. If my appointment is in two hours’ time, then a train delay of fifteen minutes would scarcely make me break into a sweat. On the other hand, it would be a big deal if delay was for three hours, and the appointment is to seal a deal worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Our frustrations arising from things not going our way is always tied to the outcome we want to achieve, and what failure to achieve that outcome means to us. And whether it is really true or not, we always tie these outcomes to very real consequences. But often, it’s not the consequences, but what we think the consequence reflects about us – in comparison to our peers – that ultimately causes these frustrations. For example, failure to get above-mentioned deal will be seen by us as a failure on a professional level. We perhaps feel we didn’t try enough. It feels even worse if we learn that our peers have succeeded. Especially in an age where success is often tied to ‘worthy’ attributes such as hardwork, grit, determination, ingenuity, failure is seen as a reflection of the complete opposite attributes.
Our worst critic is always ourselves. Freeing our minds means first recognizing our attachments to such mental constructs. And they are all mental constructs.
On the subject of attachments, I once attended a six-week Zen meditation course. At every session, we get to spend a few minutes of private time with the Zen monk/master. At one such session, I asked the Master this question:
“The Buddha upon attaining Enlightenment is said to be free from all attachments. And yet he vows to free all sentient beings from suffering. So, is he attached to his mission?”
Without missing a beat, the Master replied, “Of course!”
And then we both burst out laughing.