“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Imagine there is a river running through you.
Your entire experience of life flows through you, down that river. Everything you think, feel, and do passes through, powered by the current of the river.
Your emotions, your opinions, your sense of identity … your habits, diagnoses, and choices … they aren’t still or solid, sitting somewhere. They are brought to life, felt, and then they drift away. They are in constant motion, naturally replaced with a revolving stream of new experience.
You aren’t responsible for what flows down the river.
The particular thoughts and feelings that show up aren’t yours. You didn’t put them there and, in most cases, you didn’t choose them. They are simply part of the flow of life.
Your thoughts and feelings don’t come from the world outside the river; they can’t. What flows down the river is born of the river. What that means, in human terms (since this is a metaphor for how human life works, after all) is that what you feel originates within you. Life out there—your relationships, job, body, health, or any circumstance at all—cannot create or dictate your experience. Your experience begins and ends within you.
You (what you call me) are not the contents of the river. You are what remains when all has passed through. The contents of the river are in perpetual flux. You are what never changes.
It’s an incredible design! Can you get a feel for who you are? For the fleeting and safe nature of your experience?
You are awareness of life itself. The things you witness don’t stick. This means there is nothing to avoid, fear, change, or chase away. The current takes care of that for you, endlessly updating your experience in each and every moment.
If this is an accurate metaphor for human life, why do we feel so stuck at times? Why does our experience look so repetitive, and why do our issues appear to linger and weigh us down?
It’s simple: we misunderstand the design.
No one told you life worked this way, so you identify with and latch onto what flows down the river. You say things like I had this thought. I don’t like this feeling. I should be different. I can’t believe I did/said/thought/felt that.
It’s happening within you, after all.
You, like all people, miss the fact that your experience isn’t you. It isn’t serious. It’s life taking temporary form, expressing itself through you. Then flowing downstream making way for new and different temporary expressions.
Your well-being and your essential nature are ultimately unaffected by what washes over you. But when you don’t realize that, you innocently get in the way of the natural flow. We all do.
When what’s flowing through you looks personal and stable, of course you try to fix or change it. You jump in the river that is flowing and recycling perfectly on its own. You stand in the flow with your bucket, scooping up water that was trying to flow downstream. You carry that bucket around, showing everyone proof of your problems.
“See!” you say. “It’s right here in my bucket!” You replay what you did yesterday and fixate on fears and worries about what will happen tomorrow. When it looks like life out there can hurt us, or like what flows through us can hurt us, we’re filled with anxiety about what might show up next. Then we wonder why change feels so hard.
“There must be a problem with me,” we conclude. We’re broken. There is a problem in our design.
But make no mistake—you and the design of life are perfect. The only problem is your innocent misunderstanding of the source of your experience. The innocent misunderstanding (shared with virtually everyone on earth) of how the river operates.
Seeing through these misunderstandings changes everything. When people catch a glimpse of the resilient, health-affirming design of life, they uncover the wellbeing that has always been there.
It no longer makes sense to say that you “have” a habit, trait, or issue. You experience thoughts, feelings, and behaviors but they don’t have to linger or leave a mark. They aren’t personal.
When I was caught up in bulimia several years ago, binging and purging, I was furiously treading water in that river. ‘Furiously’ because that looked like the only way to survive.
Everything looked important, personal, and meaningful. What I ate, when I ate, how life appeared within and around me.
I was trying to keep from drowning in my own anxieties and destructive habits. Flailing about, trying to force change in my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors was all I knew to do.
I didn’t realize that life as I knew it was being created within me, moment to moment. Life wasn’t happening to me. I wasn’t feeling the effects of my past or my weight or some mental flaw I possessed.
I didn’t realize it was possible to watch the river from its banks. That my experience didn’t brand me with diagnoses and labels that meant something deep or stable about me.
Labels and diagnoses describe some of the thoughts and behaviors we experience at a particular point in time, from particular states of mind. They describe the contents of any given bucket of water taken from the river.
“This one is murky.” “This one is clear.” Those are labels that describe the water in a bucket in one given moment. They don’t describe water, or the river, as a whole. They are a snapshot.
“Obsessed about food today,” “Felt peaceful and wise,” “Felt scared and hopeless.” Those are natural, impersonal, human snapshots of experience that we innocently take way too seriously. We label ourselves with what’s moving through us, but if it’s moving through, how much sense do those labels really make?
Fresh, new water is always coming. We simply need to look upstream rather than downstream to see that there is nothing to fix.
As I explored this river and how human experience really works, I noticed one day that life felt lighter. I was no longer carrying buckets around.
I became naturally less tangled in the flow of life. The past—whether it’s five years or five seconds ago—does not exist. It’s amazing how much easier life flows when you aren’t taking stock of the past or preparing for the future. When you aren’t trying to control or change what shows up.
There is enormous hope for everyone—our incredible design ensures it. Anything that burdens you can wash away to reveal the health and well-being that is within you right now.
**While many are able to heal solely through understanding their design, for others, this may only be part of the process, and they may benefit from other forms of professional help. All healing journeys are unique. What’s important is that you find and do what’s best for you.
About Amy Johnson
Dr. Amy Johnson is the author of several books, including The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit. She is also the creator of The Little School of Big Change, an online school that helps people find lasting freedom from habits and anxiety. Please go here to get a free sneak preview of the school.