The Art of Living in the Flow: the Objective Witness
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” ~Lao Tzu
Recently, while sitting in heavy car traffic, I was thinking how I was wasting my life away. A drive that should have taken 45 minutes, took me 2 hours — almost double the time. As a Southern CA resident, I live with the heaviest traffic in the country. While it may seem almost trivial, for some reason, traffic always tests my patience to the brink of losing my mind, and I confess to failing the test many times. Due to my lack of traffic patience, I dread going to meetings, events, etc. because after being in Dante’s traffic of hell, I always feel physically and mentally exhausted. In my attempt to have a more positive outlook, the other day, I started blessing all of the cars around me to shift my thoughts about other drivers and cars as friends, rather than as enemies. I am working hard to nurture a more loving relationship with traffic, so, hopefully one day, it will be a cordial relationship by accepting traffic for what it is.
Whether we’re dealing with more trivial situations, like traffic, or dire ones, like the loss of a job, our biggest challenge in our daily lives is to live in the flow — to accept and surrender to events as they arise without judgement. Pema Chodron said it so eloquently, “That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. Everything — every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and inanimate is always changing, moment to moment.” As she put it, “the first mark of existence” is to understand that our whole existence is based on the premise of change. Once we realize this, then we have a much better chance at accepting change.
Our resistance to change is the most common way we act against the flow of life. The irony is that the only constant in life is change. Even though change is taking place every second of our lives — in our minds, our bodies, and all around us — we just can’t seem to embrace it. Change is difficult because it triggers the emotion of fear from the unknown uncertainty of the future. Recently, my husband’s employer announced that they were moving all of their jobs to another state. Everyone was in an uproar, as the fear of losing their jobs or moving to another state set in. As no one embraced the bad news, the energy at work became negative. My husband could not recall one person who saw the change as an exciting opportunity to do and learn something new. When we resist change, it only causes stress and suffering because we are going against the natural course of events. In the flow of life, change is not only constant — but necessary — and is presented to us as an opportunity to learn and grow. When we accept change, we are living in the natural order of ourselves and relation to this Universe, the only state of happiness.
The best way to live in this flow is to be an objective witness to the events in our lives. Like a fly on the wall, we can just observe what is happening without judgement, so as a situation arise, we accept it for what it is. As an objective witness, we are consciously taking control of our emotions — whether high or low — so rather than being so caught up in them, which makes us confused, our emotions become balanced, clearing the fog in our minds. When we apply this “objective witness” to daily situations in life, like maneuvering traffic, we are living more effortlessly, so rather than getting angry and spewing nasty curses at other drivers when they cut us off on the freeway, we can accept driving for what it is and simply enjoy the experience. Any negative emotions, like anger or frustration, we carry on the road can easily cause an accident, so it is in our best interest, whether we’re driving or in any situation, to keep our emotions in check. When we give energy to unnecessary emotions, the stress, when it becomes cumulative over years, will ultimately cause damage to our bodies, manifesting in diseases. As human beings, emotions of high and low will naturally arise, so we do not want to deny or detach ourselves from them. As an objective witness, we are still acknowledging all of our emotions as they arise, but just not giving it more attention and energy than it deserves, so it does not escalate into a state where it can get out of control.
One of the most important practical tools in being an objective witness is our ability to think clearly. When we’re confused, it’s like looking into muddy waters, so our mind’s vision is blurred, which is when fear and doubt take over, limiting the possibility of making good decisions. The mud in the water only disappears when we keep our minds clean, and then we are able to receive answers to life’s questions. Like an open road where we can see far ahead of our current position, in thinking clearly, we can see deeply into all situations, so we feel anchored to life because it makes sense.
Objective witnessing produces a state of equanimity, so our emotions are always in balance. Whether we receive great news, like winning the lottery, or extreme bad ones, like the death of a family member, we can handle any situation constructively. When our emotions become too high or low, we become the sprint runner who is in danger of burning out, but when we keep our emotions in balance, regardless of the situation, we become the marathon runner who can cross the finish line. The more we are able to nurture and practice this emotional balance in our lives, the better odds of victory in the game of life.
Emotional balance also allows us to live in the present moment — the essence of living in the flow. Because we only ever have the moment of now, our only concern should ever be in the present moment. If we spill milk, we do not need to be concerned about the past — that the milk has spilled because it has already happened — or the future, whether the milk will spoil. Our only concern should stay in the present moment — that the milk simply needs to be cleaned up. So, as we keep our emotions balanced, our focus stays keenly on the current situation and how we can solve the problem at hand, releasing any negative emotions about the past or future, both of which serve no real purpose in our lives.
Near death people are perfect examples of objective witnesses. Such people consistently report that when their souls leave their bodies, they become the fly on the wall to witness what is happening to their bodies and everyone else in the scene. They can observe nurses and doctors scrambling to revive their bodies, all the while their souls are in the ultimate state of peace. Because their souls are in such serenity, they are often reluctant to return to their bodies and only do so in order to fulfill an important mission in life.
The best way to become an objective witness is to practice meditation. As thoughts arise, we just observe and release without judgement. Pema Chodron shares her meditation experience,”Gradually, through meditation, we begin to notice that there are gaps in our internal dialogue. In the midst of continually talking to ourselves, we experience a pause, as if awakening from a dream. We recognize our capacity to relax with the clarity, the space, the open-ended awareness that already exists in our minds. We experience moments of being right here that feel simple, direct, and uncluttered.” When we move into the space in meditation to clear our minds, we are opening the door to becoming the objective witness to our lives.
To live in the flow, as the objective witness, we must train ourselves to be flexible and adaptable to change. As Bruce Lee said, “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” In life as in nature, to be happy, we must be the same bamboo or willow tree that bends with the winds of life’s changes — the only constant variable in the puzzle of life — and, as in art, we can be very creative about how to be flexible and adaptable to change. As we become the objective witness to our lives, we can experience how effortlessly our life unfolds before our eyes. Living effortlessly — now, that’s the art of living in the flow.
By Moon Cho, Creator of Ying & Yang Living