When in Doubt, Do Nothing

Prevention Magazine . November, 2005
If you want to be creative and inspired, don’t try so hard.

A red-tailed hawk is soaring above the ridge outside my window, riding invisible air currents with ease and grace. It’s literally in the flow, letting the wind under its wings move it forward. I, on the other hand, am sitting at the computer with a knot in my stomach, trying to force myself to write.

I feel frustrated and anxious, tired of laboring fruitlessly over this same miserable paragraph and getting nowhere. I finally decide to give it a rest and check my e-mail instead. There’s a note from my friend Valerie, explaining that she’s going through some major changes but is doing fine. She tells me that one of the early lessons she learned when she began to fly small airplanes was that it’s the nature of a small craft to right itself. Her instructor told her not to fight the plane when she was in a tense situation: “Just let go and the airplane will settle out, right itself, and fly.”

I laugh when I read her story. My futile attempt at writing is the equivalent of being in a tense situation and fighting the plane. So I shut off the computer and go for a bike ride. When I come back, rewriting the column seems almost effortless.

Perhaps you’ve had that experience. Maybe you worked like a dog to make some project happen, but it wouldn’t come together. But when you went away for a while and did something completely different, you had a creative breakthrough that just seemed to happen by itself. The truth is, you tapped into an energy source that all your effort suppressed. You let go and went with the flow.

Lessons from Childbirth

The ancient philosophy of Taoism calls the art of letting go and going with the flow the Wu-Wei, which means not forcing. Sensing the underlying flow—like the wind beneath the wings of a plane or my red-tailed hawk—and cooperating with it requires that you get into a natural state of being, in contrast with a frenzied state of doing. The term “being” implies a relaxed mode of paying attention to and acting in tune with the energies around and within you. It’s a way of functioning that I first experienced with great clarity during childbirth, the ultimate creative act.

Before my son Justin was born, I’d patiently practiced Lamaze breathing for months. But I really didn’t get the point of it until labor was well under way. At first, I thought it was just supposed to be a distraction from the pain. Silly me. It would take more than breathing to distract the average woman from the bodily equivalent of a tsunami. You can’t outrun the energy wave of a contraction.

But it was possible (at least sometimes) to ride the wave, which completely changed my experience. When I was able to relax into the contractions and become present to them with the help of the breathing, I could go along with what was happening, which made labor seem easier. But if I tensed up and resisted, I just increased my pain. The switch out of “doing” labor to “being” in the flow with it was like the difference between riding a wave to shore and struggling against a riptide.

Be Here Now

Learning to “be” is no big deal. You’ve probably already done it: Whenever you’re totally wrapped up in something—knitting, painting, cooking an elaborate recipe, even cleaning the kitchen—time seems to fly by. You’re in a highly focused state and present in the moment. You’re just being…in the flow. And you feel happy and centered. The best part is that you can find your way back to this delicious feeling.

Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, PhD (pronounced Ma-hi Chick-sa-mea-hi—his name always makes me feel much better about Borysenko), is a professor at Claremont Graduate University. His book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience speaks to the blissful state of being that everyone from yogis to video-game players to surgeons share when they’re at the top of their form. When studying the brain waves of people in the flow, researchers find the slow alpha rhythms typical of meditation. The study participants feel alert, present, unselfconscious, and relaxed. The flow state, that natural experience of being, feels so good that it’s a reward in itself, even if the picture you’re painting doesn’t win any prizes.

Csikszentmihalyi’s studies show that people are most likely to experience flow when engaging in challenging tasks (like flying an airplane or writing a column) that require both commitment and intense concentration. Flow is most likely to occur when your skills are well matched to your challenge, you have a clear goal, and you can get immediate feedback on your efforts from the activity itself. I know that from experience. When I ride my mountain bike on a hilly course, it’s just hard enough so that I have to keep my mind on what I’m doing, but it’s not harder than I can manage. Because my mind is focused on the bike, the road, and the straining of my muscles, there’s no mental space left for worrying or whining. I’m in the flow, enjoying a natural meditation.

As the holidays approach, our to-do lists mushroom. If you think of your preparations as opportunities for being in the flow, you can make this time of year more enjoyable for yourself and those around you. And the bonus is that your most creative, contented self will emerge in the process of what might otherwise be harried preparations. Now wouldn’t that feel much better than losing your peace of mind to a pie, your mother-in-law, or the vacuum cleaner?

Let It Flow

Take 20 minutes to meditate, enjoy relaxing music, or exercise before you begin your holiday meal preparations so you’ll start off in a calm, centered state of being.

Identify a skill you have—cooking, appreciating other people’s gifts, creating prayers or blessings—and challenge yourself to express that in a new and beautiful way.

Switch gears if you get stuck and feel like your plans aren’t coming together. Just stop trying and do something else that’s enjoyable. When you return to the task, there’s a good chance that new inspiration will come to you.

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