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Learning to Release Control and Ease Through Transition

There’s an odd theme in ancient Asian art: a jolly man playing the flute while riding on an ox, backwards.

Obviously (not), this is a metaphor for true wisdom.

In Taoism, the ox represents the vast, powerful flow of energy that runs through all of nature, including us humans (think “the Force” in Star Wars). Truly wise people, so the theory goes, trust this power so completely that they can release their need to control or even see which way they’re going. They can settle back, enjoy the ride, even make a little music while they go.

Apparently this concept helped a lot of people millennia ago, but I suspect we need it now more than they did. Change has become so rapid and extreme that social scientists have declared the future essentially unpredictable. The best answer we have to the question “What happens next?” is “Haven’t the foggiest!”

I’ve thought a lot about this lately, because I’m in the middle of a complicated move from one American coast to the other. Transitional events like moving house remind us that everything is always ephemeral and out of our control; we just like to pretend that it’s not. We’d love to force every circumstance to conform to our wishes, but transitions invariably show us that we can’t.

Anyone who’s alive right now is in a massive transitional phase of human existence. We are already on the ox, and the ox is already moving, and we are already facing backwards.

Given all that, there are things we can do to make our lives and efforts more effective. These aren’t the Western norms (“Work like a steam engine!” “Yank yourself up by your bootstraps!”) but they work. So here are some ox-riding instructions for any of you who, like me, have no idea what the future holds.

First and foremost, relax. The ox may move in any direction, at any speed, at any time. We can’t see the path or the obstacles it contains. The way to survive such a situation is to stay loose, fluid, and adaptable. We can only keep our seats by going with the flow of events, whatever they may be. Relaxation, not tension, connects us to our true power.

Take a deep breath and let go, just a little, of any rigid ideas about what “should” happen. On the next breath, lean in to whatever actually is happening. Repeat ad infinitum.

Second, travel lightly. Clinging to anything, anything, will drag you off the ox’s back. In just the past few years, technological advances have revolutionized industries as varied as publishing (hello, internet) and taxi driving (hang on while I call an Uber). I’ve seen people go half crazy resisting these changes, wanting things to be the way they used to be. Good luck with that. If you’re ready for reality, remember this: accepting difficulty as lasting makes it more fleeting; accepting pleasure as fleeting makes it more lasting. The less we resist or cling, the easier the ride.

Next, trust what’s under your butt instead of peering forward to the far horizon. As the ox’s back pitches and yaws, staying alert and responsive to what’s actually happening right this second is much more solid and grounding than any fixed destination. Plan the route as best you can, but always come back to what’s happening now.

Finally, don’t forget your flute. When we struggle against the forces of change we become grim and obsessive, haunted by our ultimate helplessness to make reality conform to our wishes. If we can learn to relax, let go, and trust, we can get past this raw survival fear and open ourselves to the beauty welling up from within us: love, creativity, art, imagination, music. We can add our own singular melody to the harmony of the world, as we watch the grand sweep of life roll out behind us.

Join Martha later this month for a rare in-person workshop: “Navigating the Storm: Finding Peace and Purpose in Uncertain Times.” Click here to learn more.

This essay was featured in the Sept. 9th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.