The longer I live and the more I talk to people from different fields – philosophers and physicists, abstract mathematicians and musicians — the more empirically ungraspable reality seems. Whatever stability in our socio-economic systems we think we have, it is not fixed and perhaps not even really there. Everything flows. Everything is finite.
So, how things will evolve in the future is inherently unknowable — there is epistemic uncertainty everywhere. And, this is just the nature of complex systems with their numerous interacting parts and billions of humans within them. Anyone who thinks or claims that they have “the answer” is best received with extreme caution. For, the well-intentioned idiot can be as dangerous as the more-traditional face of evil.
That which flows
If there is so much that is unknown and unknowable, what does that mean for us as individuals? For how we live and make sense of life. Panta rhei — everything flows — Heraclitus observed. If everything flows, perhaps individual action is something about flowing-with? The art of navigating life without fighting it — what the Taoists call wu wei, “action without forcing”. And, this is what any masterful musician, martial artist or surfer does. A state of highly disciplined action while paradoxically being completely surrendered to the force. Did I just say “force”? I meant flow. But, the Star Wars lingo will do just as well!
The paradox of the matter is that while there is certainly an amount of “doing”, there is also a huge amount of “not doing”. A huge you getting-out-of-the-way of yourself or what Timothy Galway in the Inner Game of Tennis (1974) calls Self 1/Self 2 — quietening the self-critical inner voice that stops our flow.
What all these vignettes, whether from ancient Greece, Chinese philosophy, the movies or sport are talking about, is the complex nature of our humanness. The fundamental essence of our reflective minds that creates a conundrum of sorts. The human mind allows us to plan, analyse and manipulate our environment with great effectiveness, and even to know our own mortality. At the same time, it also stops us from flowing, by creating unnecessary psychological tension within us. We seem to push ourselves out of flow in a way that does not appear to be the case with our animal cousins.
The human animal is then a strange creature with peculiar mental machinery. Mental machinery that we have no choice but to navigate. It is both our gift and our curse. Our tendency to push and force is linked to a desire to have control and certainty over everything. And, I mean everything. Both within and without.
The human condition is one where something within us —what we might call the ego as a shorthand — is constantly striving to derive certainty and validation from all manner of things. Whether it is seeking to control the external world of events, or your internal world of thoughts and emotions, the ego is constantly grasping and jostling to have certainty. To be right. And, this is the root of falling out of flow.
I elaborated in Machine Ego how this seed of control-desire has probably always been within us. And how it has magnified to astronomical levels through our ways of living in modernity, particularly since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Our ever-increasing desire to dominate and manipulate our world has brought with it a kind of endemic psychological insecurity despite all our amazing material advancements.
Modernity has created the paradoxical situation where greater control of the physical world has detached us from the very essence of who we are and left us feeling more out of control. More insecure in our relationship to ourselves. More out-of-flow probably than ever before because we have tied ourselves up in psychological knots.
Doubt amidst power
We can claim great technological power, but we seem to doubt ourselves so much despite it. Whatever material and technological progress we have made then, our wisdom as a species does not seem to have increased in equal measure. In fact, we may even have regressed. Like the cocaine addict that needs higher and higher hits to satisfy themselves, we seem to be seeking more and more, but never really finding. Perhaps because we are seeking in the wrong place. For, action without force can only originate from a mind that has the humility to look at itself.
Everyone wants to set the world straight, but how many are willing to first look at themselves? To notice how often we fight against ourselves with a form of mental violence. Mental violence that forces and spills over into our actions no matter how subtly. For, to fight with yourself is really to fight with the world. Because you are well and truly yourself part of the world and not something that stands outside of it. Such that to wage a war within, is in a sense to wage a war against all that is. As the masterful Alan Watts (1915-72) beautifully put it:
“Peace can be made only by those who are peaceful, and love can be shown only by those who love. No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now”
At peace with yourself
Flowing-with is first and foremost about being at peace with yourself. And, it begins with noticing how you constantly bend yourself out of shape to fit into some idea of what you think you ought to be. Successful, worthy, good, righteous, noble, whatever! And, that includes what you believe you even ought to think and feel. Desperately, the mind races as it looks to assert control over itself through various ideas of what should and shouldn’t be. Rather than first look simply at what-is, the control-obsessed mind constantly seeks to force matters.
In a sense, anxiety and fear only exist as prolonged states because they compound themselves. And, this is very different to fear for example when quickly running from a wild elephant and being done with it! In prolonged states of inner tension, the mind becomes anxious about anxiety and fearful about fear. And, so these feelings mushroom ad infinitum.
The only way to break free is to become okay with anxiety and fear. Paradoxically, the very act of accepting what arises and flowing-with, frees you from its grip. By not denying natural sensations that arise within, you acquire mastery over yourself in the same way that the skilled surfer does with a wave.
Everything flows and so do you by virtue of being a part of everything. To well and truly recognise this can become a source of great liberation. A path to skilful action in a complex world, where personal mastery automatically flows outwards into your daily actions.
This is a path that is inside out, where the focus is first and foremost on self-knowledge. It begins with an understanding of your own mind and its tendencies. It begins with the courage to look within.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.
Excellent article Harsha!
Thank you, Stefan!