Should You Go with the Flow?

A Tufts psychiatrist reflects on the wisdom behind an overused saying
abstract image of water flowing
“A quote from the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius always came to my rescue: ‘Nothing will happen to you which is not conformable to the nature of the universe.’” Photo: Depositphotos
May 29, 2014

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You’ve heard it a thousand times: “Go with the flow.” For many, this well-meaning advice has become a kind of pop psychology cliché, a mental bumper sticker. Properly understood, the message is one of the most profound in the entire corpus of religious and spiritual literature. But “go with the flow” can all too easily become an excuse for apathy and indifference. How do we apply the phrase wisely?

The idea of going with the flow finds strongest voice in the Taoist, Buddhist and Stoic traditions. Taoism (or Daoism) is an ancient Chinese philosophy associated with the semi-mythical figure Laozi. Tao is usually translated as “way” or “path,” but it really represents the mysterious, ineffable foundation of all being. The central teaching of Taoism is wu-wei. This, too, is difficult to translate, but it is usually rendered as “non-straining” or “effortless action.”

A Taoist practitioner, Elizabeth Reninger, nicely defines wu-wei as “a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world.” (We see debased versions of this teaching in popular sayings like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”—or, even lower on the spiritual scale, “find some tequila.”)

The core idea of Taoism—as well as of Zen Buddhism, which Taoism influenced—is that of not forcing or grasping one’s way through life, but instead living life spontaneously, in harmony with the natural order of things. The ancient Stoics followed the similar principle of living in harmony with the “Logos”—roughly, the underlying rational order of the universe. How might this philosophy play out in our daily lives?

When my mother became seriously ill, I made many trips over great distances to help take care of her. It was nearly impossible to predict when I might be needed and when I would have to cancel professional or family plans. I often found myself ruminating on the stark uncertainty and terrible unfairness of my situation, sometimes giving in to pangs of self-pity.

But a quote from the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius always came to my rescue: “Nothing will happen to you which is not conformable to the nature of the universe.” We are flesh and blood, our loved ones get sick, we take care of them. Marcus’s teaching became a sort of mantra for me—and was my way of going with the flow.

So far, so good. But what does a morally responsible person do when confronted with prejudice, injustice or hatred? Should one go with the flow, saying “Oh, well, that’s life”? What would have happened if the world had gone with the flow when Hitler threatened the annihilation of Western values and civilization? How do the Taoists, Buddhists and Stoics reply to the presence of violence or genocide in the world? In short, isn’t going with the flow a gigantic and unconscionable cop-out in the face of evil?

Philosophers throughout the ages have given their answer: we should not go to pieces in the face of evil, nor should we emulate the cruelty of our oppressors—we must do what we can to oppose injustice. We see this teaching played out in the great traditions of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. We see it in the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, as well as the Buddhist monks of Chinese-occupied Tibet.

But are these not examples of people who went against the flow? Yes, in the narrow sense that they acted against the flow of ignorance, tyranny or bigotry. But when the Taoists, Buddhists and Stoics speak of going with the flow, they have in mind the great river of nature and reason, the underlying order of the universe. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred . . . for there is one Universe out of all . . . one substance and one law, one common Reason of all intelligent creatures.”

The sages instruct us to accept with equanimity the reality of evil in the world, but not its sovereignty; and to accept that while cruelty is a part of life, it is not a part of our common bond as intelligent human beings. Yes, we do our best to go with the flow—but not with the torrent of injustice.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Ronald Pies is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine. He wishes to thank his wife, Nancy L. Butters, for inspiring this essay.

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