Going with the flow is the way to go


Life can be embraced but not mastered, so relax, absorb the bumps and learn to enjoy it

Flow with whatever may happen, and let your mind be free: stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate - Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu.

I grew up thinking that life is perfectible, that if you are smart enough and determined enough, you can make your life and your world better, and better, and better.

But I no longer think that way.

I now view life as a complex and unpredictable affair that cannot be mastered. It can be embraced. It can be negotiated more or less skilfully. But mastered? Not a chance.

However smart and determined you are, your life is always going to consist of both light and darkness, joy and sadness, good and bad, up and down, yang and yin.

Life is a bumpy ride. The trick is to relax, absorb the bumps - and learn to enjoy it.


I recently read Tao: The Watercourse Way by American philosopher and writer Alan Watts (1915- 1973) and was struck by a passage in which he talks about his experience of practising Chinese calligraphy.

He writes: "Because ink is mostly water, Chinese calligraphy - controlling the flow of water with the soft brush as distinct from the hard pen - requires that you go with the flow.

"If you hesitate, hold the brush too long in one place, or hurry, or try to correct what you have written, the blemishes are all too obvious."

That is precisely how I have come to feel about life. After years of failed attempts to master and control it, to eradicate all of the darkness, the sadness, and the bad, I have discovered the importance of acceptance, of going with the flow.


Last week, I started a new part-time job, teaching English to Japanese kindergarten pupils.

I planned and prepared my first lesson meticulously.

But I quickly learnt that when you are dealing with a dozen three- year-old bundles of fun and energy, who do not speak your language, things do not always go to plan.

Young children laugh at the most unexpected times. They misinterpret the simplest instructions.

They learn some things much more quickly, and other things much more slowly, than you expect them to. So you have to adapt. You have to go with the flow. You have no choice.

I planned my first lesson as though it were a train journey, along a straight track, with fixed stops en route. But it turned out to be more like a sailboat journey, borne along by tides, currents and winds.


Going with the flow does not come easily to me.

But if that first lesson is anything to go by, my new job will give me plenty of opportunities to practise.

When I accidentally put my glasses on upside-down, knocked them halfway across the room in a failed attempt to catch them when they slipped from my nose, and then put them back on with one of the lenses missing, the children roared with laughter.

My first reaction was to panic at the loss of control, and to feel humiliated. But then I remembered that innocent laughter is a good thing, and that I ought to accept and embrace it, even when - especially when - it is directed at me.

Everybody learnt something that day. The children learnt a little bit of English, and I learnt a little bit about life, laughter and going with the flow.

  • Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Going with the flow is the way to go '. Print Edition | Subscribe