The surfer’s guide to life
Every once in a while, we come across a reminder that there is another way — a middle path — that resonates with us.
If you’ve ever tried your luck at surfing, it’s easy to see how it can serve as a metaphor for our human experience. Life comes at us in waves, no matter who we are or what we are trying to accomplish. It does not ask if we’re ready, nor is it completely predictable at any given moment. And sometimes it sends us a big one to deal with.
The only thing we all know for sure is that the waves will keep coming.
What is more interesting to notice, though, is how we feel as those waves arrive, since that is the only part of the experience we have any control over. Are we overwhelmed? Coping? Thriving? Are we getting pummeled by the waves and dreading the next one, or are we seeking a thrill from them, exhilarated like a seasoned surfer eagerly greeting a big swell? Or are we somewhere in between?
This question brings us back to “flow,” the state where we are fully present and meeting the challenges of the moment with a calm, clear focus and access to all our resources.
The unfortunate reality is that most of us do not have much of a sense of flow or know how to access it. Instead, our minds are caught in a state of perpetual distraction, often not aware of the arrival of the next wave. As a result, we can swing wildly from complete dejection over perceived negative situations at one end of the spectrum to elation over perceived positive situations at the other.
And even if we seek to step into flow, the culture around us is not much help. Instead of encouraging us to center and find the stillness within, we are distracted by an endless stream of messages competing for our attention, money, emotions, and on and on.
But every once in a while, we come across a reminder that there’s another way — a middle path — that resonates with us, like the Taoist story of the old farmer who had worked his crops for years until one day his horse escaped and ran away, leaving him no way to work his crops.
The townspeople were all sympathetic to the farmer’s plight, saying: “We are so sorry that this has happened. Now you have lost your horse and will not be able to take care of your crops.”
To which the old farmer just said, “We’ll see.”
The next day, the farmer’s horse returned with two other strong, young horses and the townspeople were amazed, exclaiming, “What good fortune! Now you have three horses, when before you only had one.”
To which the old farmer again replied, “We’ll see.”
The following day, the farmer’s son attempted to ride one of the new, untamed horses, but was thrown off and broke his leg. Again, the townspeople were distraught, saying, “Your son has broken his leg and will not be able to help you with your crops. What horrible luck!”
And again, the old farmer just replied, “We’ll see.”
A day later, military recruitment officers arrived, conscripting the young men in town to duty in an unpopular military campaign. All the young men were forced to join the military except for the old farmer’s son, who was spared because of his broken leg.
At Peace With What Is
This tale works on several levels. For starters, it demonstrates how circumstances that seem to be positive or negative at the outset can play out far differently than we might originally expect. The farmer’s reaction to his constantly changing circumstances also illustrates what it would be like to be fully present with those circumstances without getting wrapped up in them. Instead of riding a roller coaster back and forth between dejection and elation, he’s at peace with what is, but not attached to it and always recognizing that change is inevitable.
The typical day in the life of anyone in a veterinary practice is certainly waveform in action, full of unpredicted events and inevitable change. Despite all the order we might want to try to create, there is simply no knowing what is going to come through the door, who is going to call, what employee issue might arise. And that’s before we get to hurricanes, floods, wildfires and the like.
So, is there more to do than just “Zen out” here? Margaret Wheatley suggests that there is, although it will take us into some unfamiliar territory where we intentionally embrace a state of insecurity as a first step. In “The Place Beyond Fear and Hope,” her March 2009 article in Shambhala Sun, Wheatley provides beneficial insights on how we might navigate away from the roller coaster ride of ups and downs to a healthier, more centered way of being.
Here are a few of her observations from that article:
The Value of Groundlessness
“I’ve noted that those who endure, who have stamina for the long haul and become wiser in their actions over time, are those who are not attached to outcomes. They don’t seek security in plans or accomplishments. They exchange certainty for curiosity, fear for generosity. They plunge into the problem, treat their attempts as experiments and learn as they go. This kind of insecurity is energizing; people become engaged in figuring out what works instead of needing to be right or worrying about how to avoid failure.
“A willingness to feel insecure, then, is the first step. It leads to the far more challenging state: groundlessness. This means knowing that nothing ever remains the same, learning to live with the unrelenting constant of change, realizing that even the good things won’t last forever, accepting that change is just the way it is.
“We would feel stronger if we stopped searching for ground, if we sought only to locate ourselves in the present and do our work from here. All fear (and hope) arises from looking backward or forward. Only in the present moment, free from hope and fear, do we receive the gifts of clarity and resolve. Freed also from anger, aggression and urgency, we are able to see the situation clearly, take it all in and discover what to do. This clarity reveals “right action” — those actions that feel genuinely appropriate in this moment without any concern about whether they will succeed or not.
“Consider the visionary leadership of Moses and Abraham. They carried promises given to them by their God, but they also knew they would not live to see these promises fulfilled. They led from faith, not hope, from a relationship with something greater beyond their comprehension.”
Dare to be Different
If we are to become the visionary leaders of our own journeys, then we might be wise to follow Wheatley’s advice and abandon our attachment to specific desired outcomes and our desperate need for certainty in exchange for curiosity and engagement in meaningful relationships.
To be centered and fully present no matter what is happening around us, free from fear or expectation, might just be the trick, because surf’s up!
Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is vice president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services. Co-columnist Trey Cutler is a veterinary transaction attorney.