Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Flow: An Overview

Flow is another wood doodle that has had a fundamental impact on my life.  This psychic reality was discerned by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-me-hy-ee) a famous Hungarian psychologist.  My word doodles on Karma, Being, and Lifeworld have been hybrid posts.  I have cherry-picked sometimes disassociated ideas to give my intimate perspective on these aspects of my spirituality.

With Flow it is different.  I do not take this and disregard that.  I do not fuse otherwise unlinked ideas together.  With Dr. C's brilliant work I take it hook, line, and sinker (watch his TED talk here).  Flow is an insightful psychological discovery and I would not change a single sentence in the four books Dr. C has written so far regarding Flow.  Flow is as close to a perfect understanding of how to get the most out of existence as I have come across in my lifetime of philosophical and spiritual questing.

Placed in terms of my spiritual path, Flow is a orchestrated mode of Lifeworld.  It is developed through specific discipline and techniques as outlined repeatedly in Dr. C's work.  Once established, Flow is "optimal experience" which allows for a more creative, focused, and rewarding life.  Sounds too good to be true or maybe like some new age mumbo-jumbo or maybe some naive religious project.  But it is none of these things.

Flow is a psychological condition that human beings have stumbled in to and out of perhaps since the pre-dawn of civilization.  Dr. C merely uncovered its existence through years of interviews with normal, unexceptional human beings from cultures all over the world.  He found specific characteristics of experience that unify humanity and then he translated these characteristics into mental habits and techniques designed to enhance the possibility of optimal experience.

"The key element of an optimal experience is that is an end in itself.  Even if it is undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.  The term 'autotelic' derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal.  It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done without the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward." (page 67)

"The flow experience, like everything else, is not 'good' in an absolute sense.  It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful;  it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.  But whether the consequence of any particular instance of flow is good in a larger sense needs to be discussed and evaluated in terms of more inclusive social criteria.  The same is true, however, of all human activities, whether science, religion, or politics." (page 70)

"Although a self-conscious person is in many respects different from a self-centered one, neither is in enough control of psychic energy to enter easily into flow experience.  Both lack the attentional fluidity needed to relate to activities for their own sake;  too much psychic energy is wrapped up in the self, and free attention is rigidly guided by its needs.  Under these conditions it is difficult to become interested in intrinsic goals, to lose oneself in an activity that offers no rewards outside of interaction itself." (page 85)

"The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity.  Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.  Some critics, however, prefer to stress the differences between flow and Yoga.  Their main divergence is that, whereas flow attempts to fortify the self, the goal of Yoga and many other Eastern techniques is to abolish it." (page 105)

"The 'autotelic self' is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony.  A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self.  The term literally means 'a self that has self-contained goals,' and it reflects the idea that such an individual has relatively few goals that do not originate from within the self.  For most people, goals are shaped directly by biological needs and social conventions, and therefore their origin is outside the self.  For an autotelic person, the primary goals emerge from experience evaluated in consciousness, and therefore from the self proper." (page 207)

Dr. C offers several specific techniques or habits that will assist with creating the experience of Flow.  These include the pop psychology recommendation of setting goals for your life and monitoring the feedback life gives you in pursuit of goals.  Nothing novel there.  But, in its essence, Flow is about becoming immersed in whatever activity you involve yourself, learning to control your attention and focusing on matters at hand.  Pay attention to what is happening to you within your activity, have a sustained involvement with it.  When you engage in the immediacy of experience you can also experience joy or at least an enjoyment in what you are doing.

"To achieve this control, however, requires determination and discipline.  Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic, lotus-eating approach to life.  A relaxed, laissez-faire attitude is not a sufficient defense against chaos....to be able to transform random events into flow, one must develop skills that stretch capacities, that make one become more than one is.

"...it is not sufficient to learn merely how to control moment-by-moment states of consciousness.  It is also necessary to have an overall context of goals for events of everyday life to make sense.  If a person moves from one flow activity to another without a connecting order, it will be difficult at the end of one's life to look back on the years and find meaning in what has happened." (page 213)

"It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual.  But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning." (page 215)

"The most promising faith for the future might be based on the realization that the entire universe is a system related by common laws and that it makes no sense to impose our dreams and desires on nature without taking them into account." (page 240)

The preceding are all taken from the original 1990 groundbreaking book, Flow.  The next series of quotes come from the third book (1997), Finding Flow. It identifies a part of Flow with which I rationally agree but do not intimately exhibit well.

"A person who achieves contentment by withdrawing from the world to 'cultivate his own garden,' like Voltaire's Candide, cannot be said to lead an excellent life.  Without dreams, without risks, only a trivial semblance of living can be achieved." (page 22)

But I definitely relate to this passage in an intimate way.

"It is easier to enter flow through games such as chess, tennis, or poker, because they have goals and rules for action that make it possible for the player to act without questioning what should be done, and how." (page 29)

"It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.  When we are in flow, we are not happy, because to experience happiness we must focus on out inner states, and that would take away attention from the task at hand." (page 32)

"...in the last analysis it is not the external conditions that count, but what we make of them.  It is perfectly possible to be happy doing housework with nobody around, to be motivated when working, to concentrate when talking to a child.  In other words, the excellence of daily life finally depends not on what we do, but on how we do it."  (page 47)

"...work is much more like a game than most other things we do during the day.  It usually has clear goals and rules of performance.  It provides feedback either in the form of knowing that one has finished a job well done, in terms of measurable sales, or through an evaluation by one's supervisor.  A job usually encourages concentration and prevents distractions;  it also allows a variable amount of control, and - at least ideally - it's difficulties match the worker's skills."  (page 59)

"Highly productive and creative artists, entrepreneurs, statesmen, and scientists tend to experience their jobs like our hunting ancestors did theirs - as completely integrated with the rest of their lives." (page 61)

"But just free time with nothing specific to engage one's attention provides the opposite of flow: psychic entropy, where one feels listless and apathetic." (page 66)

"And if society becomes too dependent on entertainment, it is likely that there will be less psychic energy left to cope creatively with the technological and economic challenges that will inevitably arise." (page 76)

"Without a burning curiosity, a lively interest, we are unlikely to persevere long to make a significant new contribution.  This kind of interest is rarely only intellectual in nature.  It is usually rooted in deep feelings, in memorable experiences that need some sort of resolution - a resolution that can be achieved only by a new artistic expression or a new way of understanding." (page 87)

"If there is one quality distinguishes autotelic individuals, it is that their psychic energy seems inexhaustible.  Even thought they have no greater attentional capacity than anyone else, they pay more attention to what happens around them, they notice more, and they are willing to invest more attention in things for their own sake without expecting an immediate return." (page 123)

I find that my psychic energy is in fact exhaustible.  Despite yoga, despite being engaged with life, despite moments of precious solitude, I reach a point where I do not care anymore.  We all do at some point, in my opinion.  But that does not mean my exhaustion is healthy.  On the contrary, it probably is worthless.  Nevertheless, I often am surprised to find that I am able to feel Flow.  So there is hope.

"The important point is that the interest be disinterested;  in other words, that it not be entirely at the service of one's own agenda.  Only if attention is to a certain extent free of personal goals and ambitions do we have a chance of apprehending reality on its own terms." (page 125)

"Even the most routine tasks, like washing the dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.  The next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks the we don't like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don't do often enough because it is too much trouble." (page 127)

"This attitude toward one's choices is well expressed in the concept of amor fati - or love of fate - a central concept in Nietzsche's philosophy."(page 138)

I need not note my high level of sympathy for the philosophical work of Frederich Nietzsche.  The connections between the autotelic self and Nietzsche's "free-spirit" and "overman" are numerous, perhaps relating to each other in the manner Flow relates with eastern spirituality.  The second book, Creativity (and the longest at over 360 pages, revealing the importance of the creative self within the Flow experience, copyright 1996) contains the following quotes.

"First of all, when we are in flow, we do not usually feel happy - for the simple reason that in flow we feel only what is relevant to the activity.  Happiness is a distraction....It is only after we get out of flow, at the end of a session or a moment of distraction within it, that we might indulge in feeling happy." (page 123)

"...what matters most is that we shape the immediate surroundings, activities, and schedules so as to feel in harmony with the small segment of the universe where we happen to be located.  It is nice if this ovation is as fetching as a villa on Lake Como;  it is a far greater challenge when fate throws you into a Siberian gulag.  At either extreme, what counts is for consciousness to find ways to adapt it rhythms to what is outside and, to a certain extent, to transform what it encounters outside to it own rhythms.  Being in tune with place and time, we experience the reality of our unique existence and its relationship to the cosmos.  And from this knowledge original thoughts and original actions follow with greater ease."  (page 146)

"The argument so far has tried to establish two points: that creativity is necessary for human survival in a future where the human species plays a meaningful role and that the results of creativity tend to have undesirable side effects.  If one accepts these conclusions, it follows that human well-being hinges on two factors: the ability to increase creativity and the ability to develop ways to evaluate the impact of new creative ideas."  (page 322)

"Interest and curiosity tend to be stimulated by positive experiences with family, by a supportive emotional environment, by a rich cultural heritage, by exposure to many opportunities, and by high expectations.  In contrast, perseverance seems to develop as a response to a precarious emotional environment, a dysfunctional family, solitude, a feeling of rejection and marginality.  Most people experience either one of the other of these early environments, but not both of them.  However, creative individuals seem more likely to have been exposed to both circumstances."  (page 327)

To foster the creativity within you, Dr. C recommends that you wake up every morning with a specific goal to look forward to.  Do your best because if you do anything well, it becomes enjoyable.  To keep enjoying something over a longer period of time you need to increase its complexity.  To accommodate complexity you must take charge of your schedule, find out what time of day and under what conditions you are most creative.  Make time for reflection and relaxation.  Shape your space as much as possible, make yourself comfortable.  Find out what you like to do and hate to do within life.  Start doing more of what you love, less of what you hate.  That may seem glaringly obvious but it is nevertheless more difficult that you might at first realize.

In 2003 Dr. C wrote a book on how Flow applies to the business world, Good Business.  In it he reiterates all the research conducted on the Flow experience.  He stresses that Flow is an active discipline that applies to the world of work.  Specifically: "Flow occurs when both challenges and skills are high and equal to each other." (page 44). Again, Flow is not something that passively happens.  It requires situations that place demands upon our abilities, but it equally requires that our abilities be fully engaged and adequate to the complexity of the matters at hand.  For this reason, we must develop our abilities and take on more complex challenges throughout our lives.  Flow is not about creating simplicity, rather it is about mastering fresh complexity.  This is another Flow aspect I could apply better in my life.  My tendency is toward a Thoreau-like simplification.

Dr. C is emphatic that Flow is not a state of experience that is constant for the individual.  "Clearly, it would be impossible to be in flow all the time, for the rhythms of life do not allow it.  We have to rest, to spend time doing in glamorous tasks like mopping the floor or taking showers.  We need to relax.  There will always be threats that place us in jeopardy. Nevertheless, there is also enormous room for improvement in how often we can access flow.  According to surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization in the United States and similar firms in Europe, between 15 percent and 20 percent of adults never seem to experience flow, while a comparable number claim to experience it every day.  The other 60 percent to 70 percent report being intensely involved in what they do anywhere from once every few months to at least once a week." (page 75)

As Flow applies to work, you discover a means for acting effectively in the monetary world.  For this to happen you must "know" yourself in a business sense rather than a philosophical sense.  By business sense Dr. C means: "Knowing oneself is not so much a question of discovering what is present in one's self, but rather creating who one wants to be." (page 169). "Anything that we can do well, that we enjoy doing, and that there is a demand for, is worth taking seriously as a skill to develop." (page 173) "To know oneself is the first step toward making flow a part of one's entire life.  But just as there is no free lunch in the material economy, nothing comes free in the psychic one.  If one is not willing to invest psychic energy in the internal reality of consciousness, and instead squanders it chasing external rewards, one loses mastery of one's life, and ends up becoming a puppet of circumstances." (page 188)

It will be obvious to long-time readers that I live my life with a tendency toward solitude and simplicity which Dr. C would say impoverishes my experience to some degree.  I am creating less than optimal conditions for living.  This is an area where I could improve my life from the perspective of Flow.  Just because I respect Dr. C's work doesn't mean I follow it entirely.  But I need to be more aware of these opportunities for involvement and work on not being so disengaged in some respects.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that Flow is a mode of Lifeworld.  As such it is not a word doodle on the scale and magnitude of Karma or Being.  It is an intimate word doodle and, therefore, probably does not exist outside of higher animal cognition.  The universe is indifferent to Flow.  It does not take Flow into account in its workings and Flow makes no impact on Karma in a macro-physical sense.  It is trivial from that perspective.

But from within human experience, in the micro-physical Karmic sense, Flow is massive. The Lifeworld is large from a psychic perspective.  Flow is an entire mode of Lifeworld.  And the nurturing of optimal experience through the appreciation of the autotelic self is fundamental to achieving a more enjoyable life regardless of the haphazard whims of the universe.

Late Note;  A few days later I came upon this video blog regarding Flow.

1 comment:

Kanchan Burathoki said...

Dear Keith,
I am writing to you from PARSE Journal (parsejournal.com) based here in Sweden to request permission to use a photograph on this page for our upcoming journal issue, to be released in June 2016. The photograph is this one: A licensed copyist at the National Gallery continues her study of a Vincent van Gogh self-portrait. I couldn't find your contact address, which is why I am writing here. I would be very grateful if you could write to me at this address: parse(at)konst.gu.se and I can provide you with more information.
Kanchan Burathoki
PARSE Journal