Recently, I hit on an idea. Instead of stressing about the pile of chores facing me each day, or the tasks over-spilling my desk, I would give up ‘admin’ altogether. So I put away my To Do list, and banned any reference to work-related items. To be more precise, I re-named them. I did Really Useful Things all day instead. This made a real difference. I no longer groaned over my loss of adventure or fun. Instead I basked in a vision of usefulness, where purpose and meaning meet in perfect union, and sighed with satisfaction at the really useful way I spent my hours. Believe it or not, as my attitude changed I felt the burden lighten. Seeing time so usefully employed, I began to appreciate my individual efforts, and how each creates the whole.
Did this work? Well, yes. Up to a point. But …
I had to wonder: is a simple change of attitude enough? Can it sustain us through horribly busy patches? Would it cope with undue stress? And then, what about those ‘really useless things’ which are just as important? Some activities serve no obvious purpose but still lend a dash of colour: ones without rhyme or reason that bring added zest to life; or, being unexpected, open up space for unplanned joy. A change of attitude may help in part, certainly, but more is needed. We need a change of state.
What state is that? It is the state of FLOW. When we flow with the stream of life, we are never stumped or stuck, stopped or stymied, bored or burdened The endlessness of our jobs dissolves, because it too is part of the flow. This is not an idea or attitude. Flow is something we experience deeply from within. It is our essential agreement with Life as it is. Flowing with whatever comes, we have the energy to engage fully and creatively, with focus and care. How different we become – and how different Life looks – from a state of flow.
Into the Flow is the second of my Gentle Guides to Meditation. It is also a guide to flow. For meditation, in essence, is the practise of flow. Meditating, we see flow close-up, from within. We explore what it means, how it feels. We taste for ourselves its infinite ease and freedom.
Flow is a blessing, in meditation and in life. Finding flow is the first step to making peace with ourselves, with the world – and (as it happens) with our ever-flowing To Do list.
Going with the FlowElizabeth English2023-12-03T17:25:14+00:00
My Spanish was about as good as the policía’s English – which wasn’t saying much. Before he could sign and stamp the eight-page crime report he’d laboriously tapped out on his clunky old Amstrad I needed to prove that I was, indeed, the aforementioned female of said age, address and nationality. Reader, I couldn’t.
I’ve experienced many losses in my life: job losses, financial losses, human losses, weight losses, you name it, but one loss I hadn’t experienced until last February was the loss of my identity.
Once upon a time, in those halcyon, pre-Brexit, pre-Covid days, David and I had spent two glorious February weeks in sunny Barcelona, basking in shorts and t-shirts. We’d returned tanned, relaxed and raring to go.
‘Let’s do it again,’ I urged him, after a miserable, wet winter of hard work and ill health. ‘Recharge our batteries, only this time let’s go further south for even more sun!’
Ha, ha. Almost as soon as we stepped off the plane in Alicante we came down with stonking head colds. Then it started snowing. The weather was so unseasonable it was even featured on the BBC News.
Our glacial Airbnb looked out onto a modern church with a thirty-foot crucifix in its forecourt – somewhat disorientating for a pair of intrepid Buddhists. Determined to make the best of it, we decided to hire a car. As the bog-standard one we’d opted for had a flat tyre we were upgraded to a plush, techno-smart, brand-new car for free. Hopeful that our luck had changed we decided we’d risk a picnic by a lake we’d spotted on Google maps.
The moment we drove into the empty car park it began to rain. ‘ We’ll have to picnic in the car,’ said David. ‘But let’s take a quick peek at the lake, first.’
The lake turned out to be a boring reservoir. Drenched to the skin, we hastened back to the car only to discover one of the windows had been smashed and my handbag, (which I’d stupidly left under the seat), containing my passport, phone, driving licence, bank cards, purse and five hundred euros, stolen.
The old boarding card in my pocket wasn’t enough proof for the policía, who clearly suspected I was intending to make a bogus insurance claim. As he sat back in his seat, weighing me up, I furiously chanted a Buddhist mantra in my head. Eventually he shook his head, sighed and stamped the report.
My bank and the British Consulate also viewed me with suspicion and wanted to send notifications to my phone to confirm my identity. But I had no phone. I no longer existed. I felt like a persona non grata.
As we drove into Benidorm, where we’d been instructed to drop off the damaged car, I couldn’t help but admire the courageous 11am lager drinkers, thighs purple with cold under optimistic shorts. And as we drove away in our inferior replacement vehicle, I felt vindicated for having avoided, until now, this brash Spanish metropolis.
On our last day we discovered a colourful little seaside town called Villajoyosa (Joyful town). An antidote to Benidorm, it was, indeed, a joyful place. ‘Suffer what there is to suffer’ wrote the thirteenth-century Buddhist sage, Nichiren, ‘enjoy what there is to enjoy.’ And so we did. The langostinos and Rioja were as fabulous and as welcome as the sunshine.
The day after I returned home on an emergency passport the insurance company agreed to pay my claim in full. I added ‘loss of holiday I’d craved’ and ‘loss of identity’ to the list of life losses that, thanks to my Buddhist practice, I’d somehow managed to survive.
As a professional psychotherapist and someone who has had a long-term engagement with the Buddhist teaching of Dzogchen, I’ve become used to wearing two hats. In fact, I can hardly remember a time where I have not been a fence-straddler.
It’s a trait which shows up in this book. The two hats in this instance are those of someone who is writing about the tradition to which they have been devoted for almost fifty years, and someone who has discovered the value of Buddhist academic scholarship for – surprisingly – the cultivation of faith.
In the first section, Who’s Who within the tradition’s lineage, I have not only retold the legends but also – and this is a little unusual for books written for those practising the tradition – revealed in some cases where the legends have come from. When I do this it is immediately apparent that most were written many hundreds of years after the events they recall, and that they are certainly not histories as we would understand the word, but rather narratives whose intention is to teach and evoke devotion.
Similarly, in the section on ideas, What’s What, I have occasionally stepped out of the box of simply representing the tradition, and have instead written about it from slightly outside. The origins of this are actually quite straightforward. Over the many years of my engagement with the Dzogchen teachings there have been a number of things that I could not understand and which did not seem to me to add up. This is where I have turned to scholars of the tradition. Buddhist scholarship can sometimes appear obtuse and opaque, but it is more than often clarifying. I have discovered repeatedly that when something does not make sense it is because layers of Buddhist thought have become compressed together. Knowing something of this history helps to tease things apart; what we are left with is an appreciation of a thousand years of yogic experience that repeatedly attempts to express what is ultimately ineffable.
And this neatly takes us back to the cultivation of faith. If the life stories of the saintly and wise are all made up and the ideas just a ragbag of Buddhist bits and bobs how could one possibly be so devoted? For me the answer is simple: this is not just a handbook for a rather esoteric form of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a demonstration of how such a tradition may make the transition into a secular society that, while it no longer believes in fairy tales, is able to appreciate deeply the value of human creativity when it is for the good.