Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #101 How to Not Drown
About this episode

Today we learn to do when we’re in over our heads and sinking in the complexities, challenges and overwhelms of life. Spoiler alert: it’s easier than you think! (Originally aired: October 23, 2022)


Martha Beck:

So I decided on this week’s topic when Rowan Mangan, the gracious Badger herself, I think got some kind of an Instagram message. Anyway, it was a message from someone we both love who is living in a new city with two little kids and husband that travels a lot. I mean, little kids, like a one year old and a seven month old or something, but that’s not possible. But anyway, they’re small. They are possums. They don’t take as long in gestation. No, they’re actually not. And I shouldn’t be making fun of this poor woman’s experience because she wrote… Ro put something online about having a toddler isn’t the easiest thing in the world and she wrote back and said, “I’m so glad you said that because I love my kids, I love my husband, I love everything we’re doing, but I am drowning.” And I was like, “Dude, I know that feeling.”

How many of you out there are drowning right now? A lot of us.A lot of us can feel like we’re drowning. It only takes a minute for something to go wrong that really scuttles our whole lives. I’m thinking about whoever called the fire truck to 23rd Street is probably having a really bad day and will probably be drowning for the next little while as they try to collect themselves and start a new life after everything burned down. It’s cheerful, cheerful thoughts.

But I have been in the drowning zone a lot in my life, partly because of my physical flimsiness, which is legendary, and partly because I had three kids close together and partly because I’m just not that well mentally. So I know how to not drown when you’re drowning. And I thought, “I’m going to go on and talk about that.”

So we’re drowning because we have been given too much to do, there is too little time to do it. We are flooded with everything from information through our phones, to pressure from all the different people who can connect with us, to our own aspirations and what the world has given us. I used to give people this statistic, I’d say, “Do you know there’s more information in one Sunday edition of the New York Times than there was in all of written recorded history and literature in the 12th century?” And now I can say you have more than that in your pocket for sure. If you don’t have a phone or something you’re watching this on, you probably will soon. And through that little phone can flood millions of times more information than was available in the entire middle ages in all the written histories of humans, right? So we are being flooded by all kinds of things and all the things we’re supposed to be able to do and the fact that the economy’s all breaking down and we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and nobody quite knows what to do about that.

So what’s the plan? The first thing is that when you’re drowning, think of yourself in a flood. Row’s mom in Australia is dealing with a flood right now. So the flood takes you, it’s a huge flood. You know if you’ve ever tried to fight really, really fast running water, especially if it’s deep, there’s no swimming against it. That is just a silly joke made up by a few people in the movies. You can’t do in two feet of water, you can get swept away. So what do you do when it starts to sweep you away? First thing, stop trying. Stop trying to do anything. Immediately. Stop trying to take care of your kids. Stop trying to write your book. Stop trying to drive through the streets of New York. Just stop trying. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to do anything, you’re just not going to try. If you’re trying something, it’s this, it’s like Yoda says, “There is no try. There is no try. There is only do or not do.” I don’t do a very good Yoda.

If you’re in a space where things are moving fast and you are flooded, you need to not try to go against it because that means you’re braced against something much bigger than you are and it will exhaust you and it will not make things better. So what you want to do is float. How many of you learned to swim and the first thing they taught you was get on your back, put all your limbs out, go pretty darn limp and just float? And every time you take in a breath, you become a little more buoyant. And then you blow out a little air and you sink back and then you inhale and bring yourself back up. And all your focus when you learn to float is on just becoming sort of a jellyfish, right? Well, you become a jellyfish of life when you’re drowning. You just spread out and you’re like, keep your head, even just your lips above water and you can keep sipping air.

Now if you’re taking care of other people, your kids, elderly parents, people who depend on you, they need to float too because you can’t float for everybody. But you can put a hand under each of your little ones or a hand in a foot. If you’ve got more than four and you’re not an octopus, somebody’s going to have to learn to swim, but they’ll be old enough by then anyway. So just put the gentlest hand under another person the way you would when you’re teaching a two year old to float so that they won’t drown. They just call it ground proofing your child when I was raising my older ones. You don’t need much pressure at all. You need a gentle reminder on their back that they can spread out and go limp. And then you spread out and go limp.

You can feel the pressure of the energy of the universe gently putting a hand on your back as well. And you just go limp. I used to call these minimum days. Okay, I was in pain, I was overworked. I had a dissertation to finish. I had three little ones, one of them had a disability. You know my story, you’ve heard it a million times. So I would say, “Uh-oh, today’s a minimum day. I’m in a lot of pain. The kids are sick. I’ve got papers to grade and a dissertation to write.” What I’m going to do is lie on a king size bed, put on the best thing I can find for my children on the TV, be there for them to read them stories and help them go to the potty and whatever else it takes and then just lie here and sip the air, because I had learned something that I would like you to remember now. It’s going to move you somewhere. The force is moving you somewhere. This river flows. It is not just going to submerge you and then kill you.

When you’re drowning, it’s trying to sweep you somewhere, because, and you can just take this from me, the universe actually has your best interests in minds, and it loves you and it wants you to be okay. Now sometimes part of that is doing things that are terrifying and seem undoable, like almost drowning and somehow getting yourself in your loved ones through it. So just remember, give up, minimum effort, stop trying, float. And then trust that this river flows and it is taking you somewhere better. And all you’ve got to do is survive while you’re flooded and you will wash up somewhere better.

One of the things I was telling Ro is she was talking about, because of course we’ve entered the time when our child is going to nature school. A lot of nature, it turns out, is composed of germs. And as you know, if you’ve ever raised a child, the second they go out into the world, they bring back every germ in the universe and the whole family gets it. So that’s been happening. Colds. Everybody with me had COVID, but then now we all just get colds. So we’re always kind of sick and the baby can’t quite talk to us about her needs and she can’t quite be comforted when she’s sick and and we’re trying to run our company and do all the things. And Ro is like, “I’m not living the life I mean to live. I’m not taking long… I’m not meeting with other novelists in fancy coffee shops or rundown coffee shops in Manhattan. I could, but I’m not.”

And I was like, “No, actually you can’t because you have a two year old. But then next year she’s going to be a three year old. And in 10 years she’s going to be a 12 year old, and then you’ll have a real problem.” No. Then it’ll be wonderful and they’re amazing. The river is flowing. The kids are growing up. Even those people who were helping walk to the end of the line will reach the end of the line. Everything’s always moving. And when you realize that the power of the entirety is what’s moving and you don’t have to, I think that’s why the universe allows us to get in these places of drowning so that we learn because we can’t fight it, that we don’t need to, that the power wasn’t coming from us ever. Our swimming is very impressive to our mothers, but not at all to the universe because the universe is moving with the force of a million constellations and galaxies.

Yeah, we’re pretty tiny in the great sum of things. But you know, what Jesus said that not a sparrow falls without the attention of all of consciousness, I believe that. And that’s something that is watching, every sparrow is watching you. I think sometimes when you’re drowning and you’ve learned to float and you can feel that hand on your back just barely holding you up and you think maybe you’re imagining it, but then you have to trust it again and trust it again and trust it again. And that’s the virtue of being flooded, is that you have to trust it again and again and again until you know that it’s real and that it works. This is the great gift of getting older because I have relaxed onto the hand on my back and sipped the air when I could no longer try so many times that I know for certain it’s always going to be holding me, including at the moment I die. It’s always going to be there. It just always is. It’s like the sun rising.

If somebody said to you, “Are you sure the sun’s going to rise tomorrow?” You say, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

“Yeah, but you can’t know that. It’s not like you control the sun.”

“Yeah, but it’s good. The gravitation…”

“No, you can’t know for sure.”

“All right, but I believe it because it always happens.” And it doesn’t always happen as soon as I want it in the dark wee hours of the night, sometimes I wish the sun were up. And it won’t come up until it comes up, but it always comes up and it always will during my little brief lifetime.

So the first thing, stop trying. Second thing float. Third thing, go with the current. Let the river carry you, trust it. And if you don’t trust it first, pretend that you trust it because I got news for you, you’re drowning. There’s no other option. And as you trust it over and over, the evidence will add up. And finally it will just be saying, “Eh, the sun always comes up. I think I can rely on that. Not the way I wanted it, but always the way it wants to.”

So I have no idea when I started. Oh, I’m 13 minutes. On FaceTime, they have a clock. How exciting. Just when I need something, it’s there. That’s how it works. Okay, so I am going to get some texts, questions. Sorry, I’ve got this very rickety tower of books that I’m using to support the camera. Ro’s supposed to be sending me things, but I don’t see anything. So yeah.


They’re there.

Martha Beck:

But they’re not. She’s coming. See, I can can trust Ro is like the forest. She comes, oh, and hands me a phone. I swear to God it’s not on my computer. You can see for yourself.

Okay, so Rose says, “Hi Martha. Any tips for trusting that where you’re going is better and worth the drowning when you can’t see the outcome?” Any tips for trusting. Here’s what I would say I really truly believe, and this was the premise of my book, The Way of Integrity, that anything you think that is true has a feeling of setting you free. And everything you believe that is false has a feeling of closing you down. So it’s tension versus relaxation. So you’re in a situation where you don’t know the outcome. I don’t know the outcome. You are drowning. That’s what you know. So how do you trust? You think the thought, “Okay, I can’t count on anything. I’m going to drown and it will all be over and it will be a nihilistic nightmare and nothing is worth anything.” How does that feel? Okay, that sucks.

“I’m going to try trusting that the universe is good and that this is a meaningful experience, and that I am somehow growing from this at a level I don’t even understand and that my higher self is really enjoying this little pleasure trip down the river.” See how that makes you feel? “All right, that feels better. Since I don’t know what is true, let me do what is useful. Is it going to help me while I’m drowning to be depressed and clenched?” No. If you’ve ever floated on water, you know the first thing you have to do is not clench. This is how to drown deep. This is how to almost drown but survives. So believe what opens you up and brings you joy.

Gene Ann says, “How do you help somebody who’s drowning who won’t listen to any helpful advice?” Oh, this is a life coach’s message. I don’t know if you’re a coach, but you think like one. Because we’re always like, “I can save everyone in the UK from rising food costs by manifest…” Yeah, my family calls it my God tentacles. “Here’s my advice in 16 books.” Guess what? You’re not the river and you can’t support them. Your only job is to support yourself. Sometimes you can paddle over to somebody and put a hand on their back and say, “You’re going to make this. Look, you can float.” But you can’t hold them up by yourself. So here’s the thing, don’t ever give advice to someone who has not asked you for it, otherwise they will resist it because they’re learning from their own internal experience and they don’t need advice they haven’t asked for.

What do you do instead? You remain present with them and you relax. So you float next to them and you say things like, “You’re doing fine. Yeah, just sip the air.” Well, that was advice. See, I can’t help. But just say, “It’s okay if I just relax. Look, I’m floating.” They did a study, a fascinating study in an Indian city. I think it was Bangalore, I don’t know. But they went into a slummish part of the city and they built into the wall of a bank. So the outside wall of a bank, a computer where you could put your hands in and touch the keys through a plastic screen, but you couldn’t steal the computer. You had to stand by the wall to use the computer. All these little kids who did not speak English started playing with this computer. Within a couple of months they were using English fluently and they were starting to do things that were phenomenal just by playing around with information.

The scientists, the researchers went in and they said, “Here’s a problem in genetics. Can you guys solve this problem, you kids?” So they came back a year later and the kids were like, “Okay, we’ve got it all solved except for one code of RNA transfer. We’re going to need some help with that.” Amazing what people can come up with if they’re just allowed to be playful and inquisitive.

Well, my point is this. Then the researchers hired older women for like 20 cents a day to sit by the computer and tell the children… Now these were women who also did not speak English and had never used a computer, and all they did was tell the children, “You’re doing very well. Keep it up. This is awesome. You are having a great time. I’m so proud of you.” And the problem solving skills of those kids went through the roof. They call it the grandmother effect, and it’s a thousand times better than advice. They don’t need your advice. They’re learning with the ingenuity of their souls, which is infinite. And all you have to do is stand next to them when they’re drowning and go, “You can do this. I’m right here. Been through it myself. I know you can do it. I’m so proud of you. You’re learning so much,” because they are, never more than when we’re drowning are we learning.

Okay, Disenlightened says, “How do you help clients reset the beliefs that things don’t flow easily or in their favor?” It’s really simple. What we put our attention on grows. So like driving into New York today, Ro and I were going over everything that’s gone right for us since we met each other. And by the time we got to Manhattan, we were like, “Ah, we could do anything” because so much has gone right. If we made a list of the things that went wrong, it probably would be 10 times longer because everything…

We did this podcast together and I love doing it. We worked on that thing for years before we started actually putting it out in the world. And even then, we weren’t thrilled with it. But we tried and failed a thousand times for every podcast we actually put out there. That’s okay. It’s working. We were drowning and then we floated and then we kept sipping the air, and then we got to a place where we could swim, and then we were paddling around and it was all much, much easier. And now we trust that we could sit down on those microphones and pretty much go where we want to go.

So yeah, just keep your attention on what’s gone right already. The very fact that you were born breathing is a miracle. Do you know how many things had to go right for you to be born breathing, for you to live this long? It’s freaking mind blowing. There’s so much that’s gone, right? Just keep focusing on it.

All right. Dr. Jayden says, “How do you learn to trust yourself?” Well, the first thing you have to do is be trustworthy. If you want your deep self to trust you, then tell the truth. Don’t make promises to it that you don’t keep. If you say, “I’m going to do self care and have a bubble bath today,” and then you don’t do it, you’re a liar and your inner self will not trust you. If you say, “I believe that I can write a novel,” and you don’t sit down and write it, yourself will stop trusting you as much. It’s like a little kid whose parent keeps saying… Say you’ve got a distanced parent who keeps saying, “I’ll be coming to play with you, Billy” and then work always interferes, yourself will sort of start to wilt because of the broken promises.

So take your promises to yourself and your self-care and all those things as seriously as you would if either a small child who needed you was there or the biggest celebrity you can think of was there, or the Pope was there. Whoever you really respect and would not break a promise to, you become that person to yourself, and then you know you’re trustworthy and you start to trust yourself. And furthermore, things start to bear out. You start to notice what feels true, what feels false. When you go with what feels false, yourself will not trust you because you knew it felt false and you went there. Stop it. If you know something’s false, don’t go there. Go with the truth, go with your integrity, become trustworthy, and then you will know to trust yourself.

City Lotus says, “How can we do admin work while applying this philosophy?” You think the river doesn’t carry the admin work as well? Oh my goodness, it does. Yeah. I mean, first of all, there are some people who love making spreadsheets. I have a daughter who loves making spreadsheets. I don’t know who the mother is because that’s weird. Love you. Love you, Ellie. But for some people, admin, things like spreadsheets feel good. Even for those of us who don’t like it, if we’re drowning in admin and we relax and let it start to flow and feel for the hand on our backs, the admin gets easier. Relaxation makes everything come to the left hemisphere of the brain more easily.

This is the challenge, to stay in the calm of your right hemisphere while doing left hemisphere work. And you do that with really, really kind self-talk, a lot of deep breathing, which brings down your amygdala, right? It teaches the body to come out of fight or flight. Lots of deep breathing while you float down the river and trust that it’s all going to float along with you one way or the other. I have messed up more admin in my life than I can even describe. And here we are.

All right, Pawn65 says, “What if you can’t float?” Then you must have floating lessons, and that’s what we’re doing here. The way you float is to stop trying and go lie down on your bed. Lie flat, it’s a big social movement in China called the Lie Flat Movement with which I deeply identify, and just see how minimum a day can be. Eat what’s in the house, feed your kids what’s in the house, get through the day, get through the day until you have a little more energy and then float to the next place. So it’s about bringing yourself down to minimum and then seeing how little it takes to get through this 10 minutes and this 10 minutes and this 10 minutes. You can string that together into a lot of minutes. I did a lot of floating when my older children were little, like months of floating. Do I regret it? I didn’t really have any other choice, so I’m going to forgive myself for it. But boy did I learn that you can float for a long time.

All right, Christina Gusman says, “I have stage four cancer. How do I keep hope?” Well, that’s the big drowning, isn’t it? That is, we’re all dying. We’re all dying. As Anne Lamott says, “We’re all terminal on this bus,” and you can see death as the great specter or you can see death as the great opener, as the great savior. So the very fact that we drown when we’re in these physical bodies and these physical circumstances tells us that we are fighting an environment that isn’t actually our native element. That this is heavier and more difficult than we were built to survive. We ultimately won’t survive it. But every single second we’re alive, even when we’re drowning, we can feel for the hand on our backs and we can decide to trust it. So go limp. Stop trying, you know “Fight the cancer.”

I had a friend who died of cancer who’s like, “I don’t want to fight it. I want to go with it.” So Christina, if you want to fight it, you fight like a maniac. But if you don’t want to fight, don’t let anyone tell you you have to. When you start to relax into that process, the radiance that can come into you as you start to let go of everything you’ve been told to fight for, you become the great light of the universe as that process goes forward.

When I’m there… I had another friend who died of cancer who was like, “Shut the F up, Martha. You don’t know. You’re not the one that’s happening to.”

You’re right. I’m not the one that’s happening to, but I’ve felt that hand on my back over and over and over. It has physically saved my life a couple of times, like physically, miraculously saved my life. I have seen miracles happen. I have met a person who literally went into a terminal coma with cancer, then had a near death experience came out of it and was cancer free in nine days. There are no rules. There are no rules in this physical experience that we as spiritual beings are having.

But Christina, I know that if you get still and you get calm and you let yourself float and you trust this river to take you, you’re going to feel the hand on your back. You’re going to feel that the river is spirit. The river is not matter. Matter doesn’t get through, but spirit becomes the river. You cannot drown, not in your essence because you are the flow of spirit. I love you. I am so sorry this is happening to you, and everybody else. It’s going to happen to us too or something very much like it.

So Amy says, “How do you build a floating practice? How do you communicate to your beloveds how to float? Do you have floating circles? How do you quiet culture screaming to be heard?” Yeah, it wants us to fight. It wants us to kick, It wants us to swim. Amy, it strikes me that as you take in this concept, you’re saying build a floating practice, communicate to your beloveds, how to float. Have a floating circle. The river is already taking you. So as you float, you’re already filling up with ideas about how to make it work better, how to make the river a more benevolent place, how to feel safer, how to make other people feel safer.

I have this image of those water, those movies they used to make in the old days where all these water, these swimming women would get in a circle and join hands and kick their legs out. It was like synchronized swimming, only there were like 20 people. I thought about a floating circle. Everybody holding hands, everybody floating, everybody kicking up a leg. I think that’s awesome. We’re kind of a floating circle right now. So everybody right in this minute, like in this red hot minute right now that you’re hearing this, relax in your life. Stop trying for a minute. A minute, I’m asking for one minute. Stop trying. Sip the oxygen you can get. Float. Trust that whatever’s happening to you, it’s going to work out fine. It’s going to work out fine. Feel each other’s hands in the water and all of us floating downstream together on this river of spirit that is our essence. Having this strange little eddy of experience that we call material form.

God, we just did it. We just did a floating circle. If it can get you through one minute, it can get you through 10 minutes. And if it can get you through 10 minutes, it can get you through anything. So thank you for sticking here with me while I scrambled to put up my equipment, because I was still swimming. I wasn’t drowning. And I love you. And I’m so glad that you were here to be in my floating circle today. I can’t wait to see you again here on the gathering room. Bye.

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