“Don’t Push the River,” was the name of a book I read years ago by Barry Stevens. It was a concept that I wished desperately to understand but just couldn’t at the time. I was (am) tenacious with a personality that believes one should never give up and that effort (and more effort) will make things happen faster and better; which sometimes works, but more often does not. I imagined a life filled with flow, with being in the “zone” if only I could understand this concept.
Although effort is necessary to move things along, I now know that excessive pushing doesn’t get me the results that I want. It is difficult to paddle upstream; you exert great effort and seemingly get nowhere fast. On the other hand, you can learn to read the river, look downstream for the drops and bends, listen for the rapids ahead, and move swiftly along with the direction of the river.
Kevin Cashman wrote in his book “The Pause Principle” that pausing is a universal principle that creates order in the universe. In physics, this is the second Law of Thermodynamics: “As activity lessons, order increases.” By slowing things down and pausing we discover the path of least resistance.
Pausing and “listening” may be key components in not “pushing the river.” It can be as simple as allowing silence without feeling the need to fill the space. It is the “pregnant pause” in a sales meeting or holding off making a major decision until you have done more research; taking personal time to meditate, do yoga, or take a vacation when feeling pressured and overwhelmed.
Researcher Jonathan Schooler believes that our brains are often working on “task-unrelated” ideas and solutions when we daydream. The new brain research finds that our minds make unlikely connections between ideas, experiences and memories when at rest. In this state of “relaxed attention” the problem or challenge is still taking up brain space but is not on the front burner. This kind of relaxed attention is the intersection between meditation and intense mental focus. Many of us have had the experience of powerful insights happening in the shower, in a dream state or while taking a walk.
“Don’t Push the River” is the approach to take when you are stuck on a problem. For those of us who are used to velocity and pushing, the best approach may also be from Lily Tomlin who once said, “For fast acting relief, try slowing down!”
When you feel something is not working, and you notice yourself pushing to make it work, give yourself a pause, pull back and take a breath. Release your efforting, stop whatever you were doing and try switching it up. Shift your environment, take a walk in a quiet place, watch a movie, read a book about a completely different topic. If you are at work, move to another project for the moment, or just allow silence to be there in the room. One of the best ways to find the place of “relaxed attention” is the space right between waking and dreaming. Let yourself soften in this place as your brain works in an unfocused way on one of your current challenges.
We have a choice in every moment, am I going to swim against the current, or accept the river of change that moves in and around us. “Don’t Push the River” is a practice available to each one of us, at any time. Why not give it a try!