Finding the flow

Imagine the human being like a complex, vastly intelligent and finely balanced machine.

When it works smoothly it is magnificent and flows without effort.

But when something goes wrong it grinds and tears at itself and makes horrible noises.

The human being is not really a machine but it does flow with impeccable smoothness and ease, and it does grind and tear and make horrible disturbances when something goes wrong.

I’ve been interested in religions, philosophies and other teachings that address on the one hand the perfect state of flow we all innately desire, and on the other hand the “something” that went wrong with us to disturb this flow.

Through my studies and my searching I’ve slowly merged and converged these many explanations into a core set of principles.

Flow is natural

Flow is our natural state of being. Natural means “from birth” (natal) and denotes what belongs to us innately (in-born), our essence.

Flow is ordered

Our natural state of being is ordered, it participates in an order that is expressed through all things, all being. When we participate in the state of flow we feel connected to the greater pattern, the chorus, the flow of all existence.

Flow is empowering

When we connect with this state of flow we remove resistance from our immediate experience. This may feel like handing over control to something greater than ourselves, and at the same time we feel as if our physical self operates on a kind of intelligent auto-pilot.

This is empowering because it demonstrates in real time the ease of non-resistance. The power is in the freedom from effort, the timing, the sense of being guided, the sense of being able to sit back and relax rather than micromanage. Going with the flow, within the flow, rather than fighting our way through life.

Resistance disrupts the flow

Resistance occurs whenever something grabs our attention and pulls us out of the flow.

The primary source of resistance is our belief in negative consequences or outcomes. When we think something bad may happen the flow is disrupted in us, and we experience the disruption as fear in various degrees and forms.

Most of us accrue a number of fears in early life, typically learning them from other people and our own experiences.

Layers of resistance

We tell ourselves complicated stories and enact patterns of behaviour in an effort to manage our fear.

Flow is replaced by our own efforts and struggles to control resistance. But typically we just create more resistance.

For example, we begin to crave things that we believe will make up for the problems caused by our fears. Fear and craving dominate our motives when we are no longer in a state of flow.

Flow is fearless

In a state of flow there is no belief in bad outcomes or consequences.

A state of flow can only come when we believe nothing bad can happen.

The moment we think there’s something “important” at stake, we are pulled into micromanagement and a focusing of attention that disrupts the flow.

Flow is freedom

Daoist, Neo-Confucian, and Zen Buddhist literature has some great resources on the psychology of this flow state.

In particular one of the more famous samurai wrote about this state, and received illuminating teachings on it from a renowned monk contemporary.

In the context of fighting, the mind must not “stop” at anything: not thoughts of losing nor thoughts of winning, not fear of being cut with the sword, nor thoughts of using some particular technique.

In a life and death struggle, these people believed the state of flow to be of greatest significance and value. Surely we, in our easy modern lives can find it too?

What does it mean to be rich?

I love using etymology to inform my philosophy as I ask and answer questions like: what does it mean to be rich?

Full credit for all etymological resources to the magnificent website etymonline.com

Rich comes from Old English rice “strong, powerful; great, mighty; of high rank,” in later Old English “wealthy,” and was influenced in Middle English by Old French riche “wealthy, magnificent, sumptuous”.

So the high-ranking elites in Old English society were powerful and mighty and also wealthy. What we think of as rich most directly links to the wealthy component.

So what is wealthy?

Wealthy is the adjectival form of wealth, which means “happiness,” also “prosperity in abundance of possessions or riches,” from Middle English wele “well-being” (see weal(n.1)) on analogy of health.

Now we have a bunch of new words to track down:

Happiness, prosperity, weal, and abundance of possessions and riches.

Starting with riches, which, you might have guessed, is a bit of a dead end since it takes us back to rich.

In fact riches means “valued possessions, money, property,” c. 1200, modified from richesse (12c.), a singular form misunderstood as a plural, from Old French richesse, richece “wealth, opulence, splendor, magnificence,” from riche (see rich(adj.)).

What about possessions? Possessions are things that you have or hold, believed to stem from a root word that means “having power, able”.

Abundance means “copious quantity or supply,” mid-14c., from Old French abondance and directly from Latin abundantia “fullness, plenty,” abstract noun from abundant-, past participle stem of abundans “overflowing, full,” present participle of abundare “to overflow” (see abound).

So abundance of possessions and riches basically means having or holding so many things, especially the kinds of nice things high-ranking people have, that they are metaphorically overflowing.

But that’s not necessarily what we mean when we say “I want to be rich”. There’s more nuance needed, though in some respect it can simply mean “I want to be like one of those high-ranking elites!”

Let’s keep going.

Weal isn’t used much these days. It means “well-being,” from Old English wela “wealth,” in late Old English also “welfare, well-being,” from West Germanic *welon-, from PIE root *wel- (2) “to wish, will” (see will (v.)).

Will means “to wish, desire; be willing; be used to; be about to”. A fascinating word that predates our contemporary notion of free will, and appears to combine intentionality (he wills it) with behavioural commentary (he will do it).

What makes it even more fascinating is that well as in well-being comes from the same root as will.

Well means “in a satisfactory manner,” which makes sense if we take satisfactory to mean as desired or as willed.

Well is satisfactory because it matches what I will. And well-being therefore means being as I will.

So let’s add weal, meaning “being as I will” to our understanding of wealth. Wealth doesn’t just mean having so many things that they are metaphorically overflowing. It also means things being as you will or desire them to be.

Let’s keep going.

Prosperity is traditionally regarded as from Old Latin pro spere “according to expectation, according to one’s hope,” from pro “for” + ablative of spes “hope,” which sounds a lot like things being as one wills.

Finally, happiness, from happy means lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous;” of events, “turning out well,” from hap (n.) “chance, fortune”.

Etymonline notes that: From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words for “happy” at first meant “lucky.”

And just for the sake of completeness, hap was a purely positive conception of luck. “chance, a person’s luck, fortune, fate;”.

So going back to where we started, Rich referred to a class of people who, amongst other things, were wealthy.

Wealth turned out to refer to a number of concepts, most predominantly the idea of things being according to one’s will.

Happiness has come to mean the emotion once associated with being favoured by fortune.

And abundance of possessions clarifies the overflowing of material things, presumably desirable things, which most people associate with wealth anyway.

If I had to summarise, I would say that the underlying historically-informed meaning of wealth is about the fulfilment of desires, which for most people includes material possessions and is commonly believed to rely on fortune or good luck.

I would argue that the word rich retains additional implications apart from wealth that touch on things like status and power. Perhaps that’s why we have the phrase rich and famous but not wealthy and famous.

Crazy wealthy Asians doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Am I religious?

Someone asked me recently if I am religious and I struggled to answer them.

“Spiritual but not religious?” they offered.

But I don’t want to be a walking cliche either, and what does SBNR mean anyway?

From the perspective of an irreligious person I guess I am religious. From the perspective of a religious person I’m not.

Transcending religion

The problem is that I’ve read too much into multiple religions and tried to see the world through their eyes.

Like learning a new language, I know that people have different names for the same things, but they also have names for things that other languages don’t have.

They cut up reality in slightly different ways.

And so do religions. They talk about this one transcendent experience in different ways and translate it into different forms.

People get fixated on whether Buddhists believe in God or not; but people also get stuck on whether Christians from the same denomination worship the same God if they differ in their fundamental conception of Him.

Why not just say that Buddhism and Christianity both contain something transcendent, and they try to describe it in their own particular ways?

Wheat and chaff

But I’m making my own assertion here: that what is of value in any and every religion is the transcendent and otherworldly aspect of it. Not the afterlife so much as the new life, the qualitatively different experience of life in this world.

I have zero interest or time for a religion that is merely a set of rules unless those rules promise to deliver a tangibly improved relationship with reality.

It’s worth bearing that in mind, because to some people outward adherence to a creed or membership of a community is more important than some kind of obscure or, worse yet, esoteric experience of transcendence and joy that some people get and others don’t.

Some people don’t want religion to be universal unless it’s all under the one creed.

But my experience is that we are all operating on a personal creed, whether we admit it or not. And mine has evolved through familiarity with the thought of a half-dozen religious streams.

I don’t have the common ground of fellow-believers who sit together in their churches or mosques and provide a range of social reinforcements to their faith, but I probably don’t need it either. If I wanted to belong I probably wouldn’t have such a strong desire to explore and push past the boundaries of other people’s conventions and comfort-zones.

I can say for sure that life is meant to be enjoyed, and though i know that rubs some people the wrong way I have less and less concern about that.

Perhaps in writing this I’m letting myself have less concern about religion too; letting go of my awareness of all the varied and intricate issues within and around religious practice and belief.

Does it matter what I call myself or what others call me? Religious or not, the label doesn’t change anything for me apart from how I think others see me. And how I think others see me is…probably the least important question that could occupy my mind.

His God is a douchebag

My friend Dtcwee looks back on his past effort to come to grips – if not to terms – with the Bible, or should I say a Bible, via a no-holds-barred reading plan that spanned an entire year. His conclusion?

“The bible is not what anyone says it is.”

For me that means: it is not cohesive or consistent. It does not evidence God’s fairness or mercy. The New Testament ideals of love and fellowship were not novel, even at Jesus’ time, and are rather shallow in his expressions…

But what you were taught in Sunday School is different to what I was taught in Sunday School. Following the Plan was more about examining and articulating my own beliefs than trying to work out what the Bible was attempting to communicate. The bible has been more a mirror than a window.

http://dtcwee.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-annotated-bible-reading-plan.html?m=1

I really enjoyed reading this again, some years on, and it’s more relevant to me than ever, speaking to my own lacklustre impression of the source material and more pointedly the subjective weight of any one person’s interpretation of what it all means.

International Batman Day!?

Happy International Day, Batman!

Or should I wish you a Dark and Brooding one instead?

I read somewhere that May 1st is unofficially Batman Day, because that was the cover date on the issue of the comic he first appeared in. But I’ve since seen March 29 and Sept 15 thrown around, so I have no idea.

International days are like a secular version of the feast days held in honour of saints, so the yet-to-become-widespread observance of Batman Day is appropriate given Batman’s prominence as a cultural icon and first among superheroes.

It’s 80 years since Batman was first published, and his mythos has become as well-established as Sherlock Holmes or King Arthur.

Despite forgettable renditions in the current crop of DC films, Christopher Nolan’s 2005 trilogy set the bar high in our appreciation of the Dark Knight’s story.

But why does Batman hold such lasting appeal to us?

It’s partly because Batman began as a detective, in fact “the World’s Greatest Detective”, invoking deductive genius in the vein of a Holmes or Poirot.

But this was quickly subsumed into a more literal crime-fighting role, as Bruce Wayne’s martial-arts prowess, cutting-edge technology and unlimited finances allowed an otherwise “ordinary” man to become a legitimate superhero.

So is it all just an excuse to beat up bad guys? Not quite.

Batman is a vigilante with a moral code more reliable than Gotham’s law and order. Nolan’s trilogy drew on this theme of a city’s own rottenness and corruption, absolving us of qualms about vigilante action by a morally upright individual.

Batman is, above all, a character we trust as a symbol of higher justice within an unjust social order. And we trust him because the Dark Knight’s typically non-lethal terrorising of violent criminals is inspired by his own tragic experience of crime at a young age – witnessing his own parents’ murder.

In that sense like Tony Stark’s Iron Man in the rival Marvel universe, a tragic and traumatic event serves as the awakening to a moral order within a fallen world and gives the hero his purpose in life.

Genius intellect, untold wealth, and cutting edge technology are given a higher meaning and value because of an irrefutable moral conviction we all understand.

Antihero elements

Yet the darkness of Batman’s character also serves his longevity in our culture. He turns the tables on Gotham’s criminals with a somewhat questionable modus operandi of striking fear into their very hearts.

Using fear against those who prey on the innocent is a staple fantasy of revenge, but in Batman vengeance is transformed into a higher calling. As Bruce Wayne is told by his teacher in Batman Begins:

“A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification…But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.”

Vigilante or something more, since the Dark Knight’s existence is always conditional on the failure of the justice system around him he remains “the hero Gotham deserves” through its own failings.

In that sense Batman himself is a consequence of Gotham’s faults, a city that murdered the philanthropists intent on saving it, setting their orphaned son on the path of vigilante justice.

In the end I’m an idealist, so it’s Batman’s idealism that most speaks to me. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always struggled to take seriously the “no one is above the law!” protestations in the superhero genre.

Accusations of unjustified vigilantism aside, Batman is obviously a good guy and I think we all relate to the idea of someone with so much talent and so many resources dedicating it all to saving ordinary people.

So live on, Batman! Hopefully future incarnations will live up to the character’s full potential.

The feeling of freedom

I saw some kid sitting against a fence by the bus stop waiting for his bus.

Seeing him there alone and waiting, somewhere to go but no hurry to be there, reminded me of a feeling I used to have.

The feeling of freedom. The freedom of no cares and no worries, walking out into the world and feeling existence surround me.

Feeling my own solitude against the world. The isolation and potential of nothing I need to be doing.

Having kids, a home, a wife; people and things to come back to. Yes, they tether me. But they don’t have to.

Freedom is a mental condition. Driving a car can feel like freedom, or it can be a tense, white-knuckle experience.

You can relax behind the wheel and hit some kind of zen-like trance where everything feels connected and flowy.

So why not relax behind life? Loosen your grip on the reins or the wheel, take your foot off the brake. Trust your instincts, trust the journey, trust the flow.

The world is still completely free. It never changed from when I was young and solitary.

I’m still alone, but I also have people I care about, and do you think that’s not part of the flow too?

It’s not my efforts or worry that keep the world going. My heart won’t stop beating if I let go nor will I forget to take my next breath.

If I’m tied down, let the ties do their work! Relax and know that nothing I want will drift away or be lost.

I’m just another ingredient in this beautiful medley. Counting heart beats or following my breath, I’m free to be just a piece of this grand composition that is living me.

That’s what freedom means. Life is loving me and not an atom of my whole experience needs my work to hold it in place.

And on the contrary there are many many wonderful things waiting to join in if I just give them the space to enter, and my willingness to appreciate what they bring.

Killing the Buddha

If you meet the Buddha, kill him. – LinJi

The basic dichotomy of melancholic spirituality is that we are prone to despair and we require faith in providence to see us through.

But lots of spiritual teachers accentuate the suffering and disappointment in life, as if they are keen to get us disillusioned with worldly happiness and craving something more refined.

Buddhism hits the ground running with the first noble truth, frequently rendered in English as “life is suffering”, but with the more nuanced translation of “dissatisfying” also on offer.

In hindsight I don’t think melancholics need to be encouraged to view life as intrinsically dissatisfying. I don’t think it serves us to take such a negative principle on board as the premise of a spiritual path.

Killing the Buddha

The Zen Koan about “killing” the Buddha is a warning against religious idolatry, sanctimony, and the kind of spiritual practice that forgets the real meaning of the Buddha in favour of an image or a vision.

But today for me it means letting go of spiritual principles that don’t serve me – no matter how esteemed their author or noble their pedigree.

Is life suffering? No. Is life dissatisfying? No. It might have felt that way at times, but thinking there was something intrinsically negative about life and existence only made me feel worse about it.

Life is meant to be happy and joyful and satisfying, and if killing the Buddha helps me get there, I’m sure he won’t mind.

Raising happy children

It’s actually not difficult, since children are naturally happy and find happiness easily.

All you really have to do is not actively undermine them and you’re already ahead.

I took to heart some painful lessons from my own childhood, and so with my kids I make an effort to:

Not belittle them, their efforts or their interests.

Not criticise, pick on, or draw attention to perceived faults.

Not mock, ridicule or laugh at them.

Limit the harm

We aren’t perfect. I get angry, frustrated, and can be petty or stubborn.

But I make an effort to limit the harm my bad mood might have on my kids.

I apologise to them, and explain that even if they’ve done something wrong, they aren’t to blame for my mood.

Sometimes our reactions as parents can be remarkably childish. It’s important to admit that and apologise rather than dig in and get defensive.

Focus on happiness

As part of my own efforts to be happier I’ve taught my son the “feeling game”, which is basically about finding good things to focus on rather than bad ones.

He’s taken to it with enthusiasm, and will even remind me of it when I’m frustrated or tired.

He has learned through his own experience that focusing on the wanted aspects of life is far more enjoyable than whining about the unwanted.

I don’t think we have to be perfect to be good parents. But I hope at least that my kids will grow up with a clear sense that happiness is accessible to them, and that my honest admission of my slip-ups and shortcomings on this path will aid them in their own journey.

Empty your cup

Yesterday I started tidying the kids’ bookshelf. It was a real mess, with new books having been piled horizontally on top of the others making it almost impossible to retrieve one without triggering a book avalanche.

There wasn’t enough room for everything so I moved onto the parents’ bookshelf hoping to make some space.

An intellectual house-cleaning

Wow! There were some really old books in that shelf!

I don’t mean hundred-year-old treasured volumes. I mean books that represent a part of me I no longer want or need to hold onto.

Textbooks on Neuro-philosophy from my Honours year that were horribly bleak when they first came out and are now outdated to boot.

Books on orthodox Catholic philosophy and theology from when I thought that perfect intellectual formation was the key, as if the answers to life’s questions could all be found via sufficient mastery of the Summa Theologicae.

A couple of new-age and qigong books from people I now know are basically charlatans.

Incredibly abstruse texts on philosophy of language and parsing religious relativism from my PhD studies that might as well be treatises on theoretical physics for all the interest they now hold for me.

The tome-like “Zen and the Brain” I ordered from America back in the early 2000s which I hoped would give me some kind of objective guide in my search for spiritual insight.

Books complaining about the decline of Western civilisation, marshalling the proof that the world as we know is falling apart in all new and exciting ways!

Whether these books were on apologetics and philosophy or mysticism and prayer, they each represent part of my search outside myself. A search for identity, a search for wisdom, a search for inner peace and happiness, a search for empowerment through knowledge or spiritual practice.

Getting rid of these books is like allowing a space to open up for new things in life. Not likely new books, but a new approach. Nor new answers but a new receptivity to what life is offering me.

Because the only reason for keeping a big old textbook on Philosophy is to have it there, on the shelf, as if to advertise my intellectual inventory.

Not a single person has ever inquired, and with good reason. I kept those old books on the shelf but they weren’t active in my life. I was presenting them to others, but even I didn’t value them anymore.

Empty your cup

“Empty your cup” is a popular martial arts idiom derived from a Zen proverb.

It means that we can’t learn something new when we are already full of our own opinions and ideas.

It’s become cliché but I think it fits well with another popular saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”.

What does this mean in practice?

For me it means that yesterday I got rid of all the “answers” sitting on my shelf, all the tomes of dead wisdom and intellectual esoterica that I’ve been carrying around as part of my identity, like a sticker saying “ask me about my philosophical background!”

And these non-answers, like the proverbial overflowing tea-cup, kept me from receiving actual answers and insights and wonderful coincidences.

So this morning as I walked home after dropping my son at school I bumped into a friend and enjoyed a conversation that was a perfect match for where I am at today.

There was more satisfaction in receiving that answer, like a sign-post along the way, than I could ever have found digging into my old resources searching for wisdom.

Besides, I’ve already become what I was looking for in many of those books. My personal knowledge and experience outstrips what one might gain from rereading them.

So with a great appreciation for irony I’ll end with a quote from the long-dead Zhuang-zi, translated by the also-dead Thomas Merton:

The men of old 
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them.

Weight loss and happiness

It’s been over a year since I published The Weight-Loss Paradox: an enlightened approach to body weight and diet.

I reread the book recently and what struck me was how intense it is. It’s like a concentrated dose of all the principles and ideas that helped me lose weight and change how I was eating.

Reading it again helped me get back in that mindset, and to appreciate what an intense period of reflection it was.

Ultimately any major behavioural change requires a lot of focus and energy. What made this approach work for me?

Above all it’s about clarity – clarity of purpose and clarity of method. It’s much easier to commit to a path when you know for certain that this path is the right one.

Looking back on it, I can’t say that it’s the definitive approach and I doubt that any approach to diet and weight loss will work if you can’t find it within yourself to focus and change.

It doesn’t matter how straight the path if you refuse to walk it.

In hindsight what I would most like to explore in greater depth is the relationship between our motivation to change, and the need to find sources of happiness other than eating.

I touched on it in the book, but my own motivation was already well established by that stage. For people who are reading, rather than writing, the book – is it really enough to just look for alternative sources of pleasure and enjoyment?

I think next time around I would make this question more central, because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that eating too much goes hand-in-hand with insufficient sources of happiness and enjoyment.

Many of us think we would be happy if we lost weight, but it’s likely the other way around: we would lose weight if we were happy.

And to achieve happiness we need something more than just a change to our eating habits.

What if we made happiness central to our lives, trusting that issues like body weight and lifestyle choices would gradually shift?

After all, over-eating and being overweight are not the happiest experiences in life. As I get deeper into positive-thinking it seems obvious that we overeat partly because we don’t know how to treat ourselves better.