Have you ever noticed that the things you spend the most time and energy on avoiding are the very things that trip you up the hardest? I think it’s a common trap that is excruciatingly difficult to see when you are inside it. The fear feeds on itself and you can be caught in a vicious cycle of making your problems real through the very act of fearing and avoiding them.
I learned this pattern of behavior when I learned how to whitewater kayak. As a beginner kayaker I was presented with a large assortment of obstacles in the form of rocks, currents, and eddies. I didn’t have enough experience to turn these individual pieces into a pattern that I could paddled through unscathed. There was no flow. Instead I had to deal with each obstacle only to be quickly presented with the next one in turn. I kept running into rocks, hitting currents wrong and, in general, doing exactly the opposite of what I should be doing if I wanted to stay in my boat, dry, and uninjured. The harder I tried the worse it got. After a lot of hard knocks, and some good advice from more experienced boaters, I learned a secret to success. Instead of focusing on the obstacles, focus on the space between. The river is more powerful than you are, go with the flow, focus on the areas that will provide safe passage, and stop focusing on the rocks! Amazingly, all it took to become a decent kayaker was a willingness to relax, trust the water, and stop focusing so hard on all the parts of the river I didn’t want to go.
Wow, talk about a revelation. Once I recognized the pattern I started seeing it everywhere. First in mountain biking and skiing – don’t focus on the trees! Then in life in general: relationships, career, family, flying, public speaking. Almost every area of my life was affected. I stopped worrying so much about risks and problems and instead I focused on positive outcomes.
I’ve started to build an innate feel for when I’m in the flow. Sometimes life feels easy and I can tell I’m in the flow. Other times life is hard and it feels like my struggles are just making it worse – I’m out of the flow. Just like on a river, the difference between easy sailing and a rocky struggle can be a couple of small decisions that place you in the right current. In life, just as in kayaking, it is critical to see the larger patterns and know what small moves will have a large positive impact. When I can’t figure that out I am consigned to struggling with each crisis one at a time, only to have the next one rear its ugly head.
I have some thoughts about what it takes to recognize and stay in the flow but I’ll save that for another post.