If you had to choose just one, would you describe yourself as being more rigid or more chaotic?
In any case, I have an idea to share that can help you find a little more flow in how you move through life. I want to introduce you to a concept from Dr. Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and expert on presence.
Siegel describes a river that serves as a metaphor for our minds. Imagine that on one bank you have rigidity, and on the other bank you have chaos. Next to the bank that represents rigidity, the water is stagnant and barely moving, representing the drive to control and judge–to keep things fixed as they are. Looking across toward the bank of chaos, the water is turbulent and rushing around and over obstacles, representing energy that is anxious and unpredictable–out of control.
According to Siegel, kayaking close to either of these banks is not very conducive to well-being. He speaks to a well mind being a well-integrated mind, and where we’re clinging to one bank or the other, we’re not well-integrated. Siegel encourages us to develop the skills and mindset necessary to keep us paddling our kayak closer to the middle of the river where the flow is more steady and we feel most effective and resilient.
To understand why, and how these different ways of being might show up in your life, let’s look through the lens of the language used by a couple of hypothetical bank-dwellers.
Meet Rigid Roger. He’s paddling next to the bank of rigidity, and can often be heard saying things like:
“I/you need to.”
“I/you have to.”
He has an unshakable belief in a certain structure being required in the world and it’s hard to get him to shake it. He’s a bit like a dog with a bone–he just won’t let it go. Roger struggles to be open to new ideas (though he’d never admit it). He’s a my-way-or-the-highway kinda guy. He's someone you can always trust to get a job done... but sometimes that's at a cost.
Now meet Chaotic Calvin. He’s most often found being tossed around by the rapids alongside the bank of chaos. When you paddle past, you might catch him yelping (or mumbling quietly to himself) things like:
“I don’t know how.”
“It’s too hard.”
“It’s too much.”
“Why is this happening?”
“What’s wrong with me?”
Calvin has a bit of trouble connecting to his North Star. He’s doing so many different things that nothing much gets done. He has a lot of ideas, but finishing isn’t his strong point. He doesn’t keep track of things well. He’s lost a lot of confidence in himself and feels like life is against him.
Neither Roger and Calvin seem to be very cheerful. And they certainly don’t get along very well.
That’s because neither side of the river offers much space for growth, creativity or healthy rationality (e.g. ‘I like to win but I can learn from losing’).
Neither side of the river offers a space where someone can develop themselves at the level of body, mind and spirit while also making a healthy contribution to the external world.
If either (or both) are recognisable to you, then you have an opportunity in front of you to re-centre your kayak in a way that allows you to feel a greater sense of well-being. There are a lot of practices that could be really helpful here, but in this article we’re going to focus on words as framing.
ABRACADABRA - as you speak, you create!
Words can be the difference between being powerful and feeling powerless in almost any given situation.
What I want to offer you in the context of Siegel’s river is inspired by a conversation I heard between Holistic Health Coach Paul Chek and Clinical Psychologist Dr Keith Witt. If rigidity and chaos are the gutters in 10-pin bowling, then what I have for you are the bumpers:
Clarity + Confusion
Witt suggests these concepts as mid-points that help keep our kayak a little closer to the centre, without fearing dire consequences if we steer a little off-course.
Let’s see how we might use them…
If I asked Rigid Roger to pause a moment and get really curious about the accuracy of his convictions, I imagine what he would find are some ideals that help him retain a sense of structure. They help him see where he is going and provide some sense of security. They may not necessarily represent facts, but they help him feel safe and know which steps to take next.
You might call this clarity.
If I asked Chaotic Calvin to zoom out and let me know what he was really experiencing close to the banks of chaos, he might share that he is struggling to prioritise and grasp onto what is most important to him. Everything might seem important, which was probably okay while he was at school and university, but now that he's an adult and got more responsibilities, carrying everything on his shoulders without dropping anything is probably not going to work out anymore.
You might say he is confused. And important to note, confusion precedes learning.
When you look at it that way, it becomes clear that there is not much to gain from venturing beyond clarity. And on the other bank, to stop and create space for a structured review when we meet confusion seems like a good way to avoid getting caught in the rapids of chaos and stay in a zone where learning and integration is possible.
By staying between those two new lines, we inhabit much more actionable states.
Clarity informs the actions needed to keep moving forward, without requiring added judgement.
Confusion informs options and inspires a need to make a choice, so that one can stay focused.
This challenging river that once felt fraught with dangers all of a sudden feels more accessible. We can now release our clutches to one side or the other, knowing that the bumpers that clarity and confusion offer will ensure we don’t lose our momentum and go too far the other way when we try to correct.
To help keep you within the lines, go back to review the language we looked at for Roger and Calvin. Take a moment to pause and evaluate when you hear yourself saying anything of that flavour. Be compassionate with yourself, but also, allow those words to be an invitation to you come back to centre, because you might have drifted beyond the bumpers.
So with that, allow yourself to be curious about what becomes available for you now that you get to stop clinging to the comfort of the bank you know best and allow yourself to join in the flow of life.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot more willing to hop in my kayak with those guard rails in place!