Mind like water

I’d like to offer up a simple concept that has helped many, and may help you if you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or out of control. (First off, you’re not alone, or this post wouldn’t seem necessary!) It comes from the Japanese Mizu no Kokoro, commonly translated as “Mind like water”.

This concept is rooted in Eastern philosophy and is frequently referenced in martial arts training, but never having donned a gi, I first encountered it in David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the productivity classic that changed my life in many ways. (That’s a story for another time.)

Why now?

I’ve been meaning to write this up for some time now, in response to the obvious need for such an idea. Especially during COVID, revelations of increased anxiety and general frustration have been cropping up regularly in my coaching and consulting sessions with artists and arts administrators. News from around the world shows that this trend appears in every industry, every region, and every demographic group. I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but with American “busyness” so entrenched in our culture, it seems that many folks here could use a good alternative to the pressure-cooking drive for ever increasing productivity.

The good news is that the concept is so simple that it is highly adaptable, and “mind like water” can be easily applied by anyone who wants to feel more engaged, less stressed, and more confident about their ability to handle their own lives. Here’s how it works:

The idea

The basic concept is that the way we react to the world should be the way water responds to a pebble, a stone or any other disturbance: the water adapts and moves, but only as much as required.

This means that a small challenge to our naturally peaceful state need not result in an explosion of agitated splashing, and we can be ready to return to calm readiness as soon as we are able.

Like most metaphors, this one can seem ridiculousness if tortured too far. But it effectively addresses the common tendency to want to bend the world to our own will — to kick and scream and splash in a doomed attempt to make our life experience match our expectations. If you’re proud to call yourself a “fighter”, you may want to take a good look what you would consider a “normal” response to adversity. Is that working for you, or creating more drama for you and those around you? In truth, we cannot control how life goes. We can adjust our reactions, and this is one very useful way to think about it.

How to get there

One of the best ways to get closer to this mindset is through meditation, which teaches that outside stimuli do not control us. That practice strengthens the individual’s ability to filter stimuli and respond as needed, rather than succumbing to a habit of overreaction. This is not a panacea, of course — you will not suddenly be immune to disaster, nor will you develop a heart of stone. No one is telling you that emotion is bad, but it shouldn’t control the way you respond to the world. What you can do is increase your tolerance for life’s disruptions, and that is extremely valuable on its own.

The simplest explanation, for me, is this: practice non-reaction, and you will slowly lose the tendency to overreact. The results can be surprising, even overwhelming… if you hadn’t just managed to adjust your ability to be simply “whelmed”, which is a far more adaptable alternative.

Examples of types of practice that can help build your "mind like water":  this series of images shows tai chi, painting tools, an image from the Headspace app, a picture of stacked stones and a lotus blossom suggesting yoga or meditation, the logo from the Calm app, a candle suggesting prayer, and an open journal.
Over time, various practices such as tai chi, painting, Headspace, meditation or yoga, Calm, prayer, or journaling can help build the particular skills of focus, resilience, and measured response.

Suggested tools

If you’re not sure how to begin, consider an app like Calm or Headspace (which even has an episode series on Netflix) to get you started. You might find a meditation or Tai Chi class at your local college or community center, and some people find yoga to offer some of the same benefits. There are many ways to strengthen this sort of resilience.

Let’s also clarify that this is not an attempt to convert you to any religion, but to consider adding some useful peace to your life. Prayer may serve the same purpose for you, and if you have questions, talk to your religious leaders about how you can find the same practice of calm within your own traditions. For some, specific journaling or artmaking practices are useful for building this focus. Once you have the idea, you’ll find that there are many ways to practice this peaceful mindset that will fit your temperament and ideology.

The simple concept of “mind like water”, or whatever you choose to call it, can help with performance anxiety, career stress, task paralysis, depression, and much more. Give it some thought… but only as much as is required.


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