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Surfing Life's Turbulence

My work has recently brought me in to contact with an internationally recognized fish expert who also happens to be a professional-level angler and actor. I think of myself as well-rounded but this guy puts me to shame. I know Jimmy Liao as a scientist/angler/actor, but he did a piece for NPR a few years ago that is one of the most elegant descriptions of mindfulness I’ve encountered. Add poet-philosopher to his list of talents. Listen to it here. He says:

"Then one night something wonderful happened. I was researching how fish swim in turbulent flow and discovered that they could surf on swirling eddies without using much muscle. What I suddenly realized was that obstacles could actually help you struggle less. That was what I'd needed to know for a long time."

That is a wonderful image of the meditator's process. It’s the opposite of salmon, leaping and straining to get upriver against the current, driven by biological imperative. Buddhism is full of metaphors from the natural world: flowing water, leaping monkies, bridges over flowing water, etc., and I never get tired of them. I like the image of a hawk riding thermals - relaxed and attentive, but still full of agency, watching the landscape below. More Jimmy:

"I believe I can get around the obstacles in my life not by fighting them, but by yielding to them and pushing off from them. It is what Taoists call Wu Wei, literally: to go with the flow. Now I could take the energy of my father's violence and move through it, to surge past that turbulence."

Jimmy has found a particularly taut integration of professional, intellectual, and emotional strands in his life. Not every job lends itself to the working-through of deep psychic material (gardener, therapist, writer: good. Derivatives trader: not as good). But I take Jimmy as an example of how one’s work can be an expression of one’s practice, even in a very specialized discipline.

How is your work an expression of your practice? And I wonder: does it have to be a particular kind of work, or can anything be done mindfully? Even soldiering?

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At work...

That's a tricky one. Without goals and strong effort I don't get things done. Often, the stress of a deadline propels me to action (even if it feels stressed and gross). I suppose that's different than being deterministic about the outcome - I need to work on my process!


Stillman, I keep coming back to the metaphor of space - that is of creating space around all experiences- whether we label them flow or obstacle - so that the energy of whatever we encounter has room to keep us flowing on momentum. When we cling to tightly to obstacles or triumphs, we smother that energy and space.

Rainbow Brite can probably put this into more colorful and Buddhist-appropriate language than I.

How does this work for me at work? It doesn't always. As you may be aware. But then I try to remind myself of the practice, and making space, so that I can see a way forward with compassion and emotional intelligence.

I love Jimmy Liao and your writing.

I think you did better than

I think you did better than Rainbow Brite. On the other hand, she has a unicorn.

I agree we have to be careful with labels - one moment's obstacle is another moment's flow. Jimmy has pulled a useful maneuver, though, that i try to bring to my own life. Re-framing difficulty as opportunity is an important first step in loosening the grip of difficult, painful emotional patterns.

Welcoming the demon as your friend is tricky, and worthwhile.

Thanks for sharing! It's

Thanks for sharing!

It's amazing how a little space around the obstacles of life can generate so much empowerment.

For me the struggle in my work comes from letting go of results.  Lots of people to please, but no real way to do it.  My practice is to consistently notice when I'm getting attached to the outcomes of successful or unsuccessful programs, lots of hits on a blog post etc.   The challenge is to just do things for the joy of being involved in them, even if they are difficult or uncomfortable.


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