Going with the flow

Flow is the antidote to trauma.’ Dr Peter A. Levine

One of the challenging after-effects of trauma can be a sense of being stuck in the past – whether it’s in the form of flashbacks which take us right back to the event, or else a sense of bitterness or hardening creeping into our lives. Anything which interferes with our sense of wholeness and control can be traumatic – this includes being attacked or being caught up in a natural disaster, but it can also be surgery, divorce, being unemployed, or being discriminated against. While we’re in the midst of an emergency we may need to be very strong in order to survive, whether literally or metaphorically, and we find ourselves toughening up. This allows us to get through the event, and of course we need a certain amount of hardiness in order to get by in life. Yet over time, this toughness can become a shell which keeps us trapped, and which prevents us from fulfilling our potential. The strategies we used in order to survive can become our prison, and they can control our lives long after the need for them has passed.

It is the difference between stagnant water trapped in a barrel, and a bubbling brook of clear spring water flowing through a forest. When we begin to flow again, the traumas of our past can gradually be released. The progress may be slow, and we may need a lot of support, but there is a sense of movement rather than entrapment.

There are many ways we can cultivate a sense of flow in our lives. Anything which involves moving our bodies, whether it’s Tai Chi, playing sport, dancing, yoga or walking, allows our energies to start flowing again. Sometimes even just a brisk walk around the block can be enough to lift our spirits. Moving our bodies in whichever way feels joyful to us is wonderfully therapeutic, and we can easily underestimate just how beneficial it is for our bodies to simply be moving.

Music also helps us to experience a sense of flow – whether we’re listening, or else singing or playing music, it never stands still. Music has this beautiful quality of allowing us to be engaged with it even as it is constantly changing and flowing. When we are present with music, it carries us along – neither feeling stuck nor direction-less. It is constantly changing, yet has its own internal logic and structure which holds and supports us.

Meditation can help us to experience this sense of flow and support as well. When we meditate regularly, we soon notice that no thought, emotion or sensation remains the same for very long. Everything is constantly changing, and with practice we can learn to relax into the flow of experience, rather than fighting it, or wanting to grasp onto it and hold it. We learn to go with the flow, rather than constantly putting up blockages and dams which take a lot of energy to maintain, and which prevent us from being freely in the moment.

Weekly practice idea:

What in your life helps to give you a sense of flow? Make a commitment to yourself to experience this activity this week, and notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

The music of now

‘The only thing that is constant is change.’ Heraclitus

Life is fleeting, ephemeral, forever transforming and changing. We might feel as if we’re living solid lives in solid bodies, with a solid value system and a strong sense of ‘this is me’, but in fact the cells in our bodies are continually dying and being renewed; our solid lives are highly vulnerable; our values change throughout our lives; and as for our sense of self – are you still the person you were at 12? Two years ago? Two breaths ago?

One of the fundamental ideas in Buddhism is that much of our suffering is caused by our attempts to live solid lives in an ephemeral world. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a sense of being grounded. We don’t need to live like tumble weeds, forever blown about by the wind, at the mercy of the slightest breeze. Yet even the Himalayas, which look so solid to us, are forever growing and transforming.

Music is the most ephemeral of the art forms – even a single held note is nothing more than ever-changing vibrations. By its nature, music can never be static. Each note is unique in its expression, and flows inevitably into the next. There is nothing we can hold on to in music, nothing we can own or pin down. By the time our brain registers a sound, it’s already gone.

Yet as human beings we love music, often passionately. With one or two exceptions, there are no societies which don’t have music as a fundamental part of their cultural identity. As a music therapist, I’ve been privileged to witness how sometime people can express more about themselves and their identity through music than through words.

And, despite its ephemeral nature, or perhaps because of it, music can ground us deeply into the present moment, to give us that sense of being alive right here, right now. We give ourselves over to music, without a desire to cling onto it, to own it or control it. We do this easily with music; often less comfortably with the rest of our lives. Next week, we will look at other similarities between music and mindfulness, and how these might be helpful for us.

Weekly practice idea:

Lie down on the couch and listen to a piece of music. Notice the sense of flow which music has, its ever-changing nature.

Anja Tanhane