Tread water or learn to ride the waves?

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It’s not until the boat tips over that you see that your swimming lessons paid off. Looking over my whiteboard calendar for 2020, I see how I have needed to erase and rewrite so much. I look at those first two months — pristine, with straight lines, certainty, and events that were scheduled actually happened. Then I look at what was supposed to be the rest of the year, and think, “You had no idea what was coming.” Travel, retreats, programs, speaking engagements, all rubbed out and written over with new things.

Far from a lament about the pandemic, this is a shout out for learning. There are two very different mindsets among swimmers in this uncertain time. Some are fighting the tides, hoping to tread water, and hoping to wait it all out. We hear a lot of talk about a “return to normal.”

Others are using this time, this new perspective, to lean into what is now possible. Why don’t we do something brilliant, since we are disrupted from the old patterns? We can jump forward into new ways to work, strategise and find out what’s possible.

The systems thinker Alicia Juarerro says many things I really like, but particular to this, she points out:

— Constraints in nature are the cue to evolve, emerge and grow.

— Evolution selects for resilience, adaptability, and evolvability.

More simply, the poet Wendell Berry illustrates:

“The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

The pandemic has curtailed some things, but in doing so, something new emerges. Before I make this sound all romantic and transformational, I don’t want to suggest the time you and I are going through is an all-or-nothing opportunity to grow and innovate. You will need to manage the threats of the crisis in an immediate sense. People are dying, losing their incomes and are separated from their loved ones.

You will ultimately benefit, though, if in addition to handling the immediate danger, you also see past the waves that are coming. It only makes sense to learn to anticipate beyond our current struggle. At the heart of this is a personal liberation from small views.

This is a moment where a wise person learns to do more than tread water. The wisdom is this: You and I either jump into the waters, or our growth comes to a halt.

When you find you identify with the past, or one outcome, or one set of conditions, then you should check yourself. Have you set yourself up for limitation? Are you missing potential?

When the end of the crisis does come, our world won’t return to what it was in the past. For one thing, many of us will have learned and grown past what we were. This is the opportunity of our times.

Written by

I’m a teacher in the Diamond Sangha Zen tradition. I speak and write about learning and attention, and I coach and facilitate in private practice.

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