In the last post “Know Flow or No Flow?”, I looked at the characteristics of what is called the “flow experience” and equated it with being fully “present-alive-awake”. Both in the arts and in various spiritual traditions, “being fully present” is held out as a desirable goal. As I said in that post, we all know what it is like to flow and be in the present moment. However, most of us can be in the present moment only when we are in certain situations, carrying out specific activities. Since we have all had some experiences of being present-alive-awake, we all have the capacity to be this way more often and in a broader range of situations in our lives. Whether we are talking about the conventional arts or the “spiritual arts”, I believe this is a process of increasing one’s “creativity”. This and several future posts will look at this creative process.
Most people seek out those activities or situations where they flow and avoid those where they don’t. So a person who flows while skiing, for example, may become a “skier” meaning that he or she will try to ski as much as possible. There is nothing inherently wrong with this but it can lead an unbalanced life organized around one’s flow activities.
A person who can only be present while, skiing, is likely to become a “ski fanatic” and will spend enormous time and energy trying to repeat the feeling of past skiing-flow experiences. As they gets more proficient , they will need to find more and more challenging slopes to avoid boredom and experience flow. Such a skiing fanatic is likely to be miserable when he or she is not skiing and spend much of their time dreaming about past skiing experiences as well as fantasizing about future experiences. This means, that when they are not skiing they are no where close to being “in the moment”.
More importantly, they are not likely to develop other skills or interests that can provide the “fun” found in skiing, which makes them all the more “addicted” to skiing. In other words, they suffer when they are not skiing and this fuels even greater need to ski. In addition, they are likely to make life miserable for those around them (e.g.. the “ski widow”).
I believe that what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi (Dr. C.) calls “autotelic or flow personalities” have the capacity to flow in a wide variety of situations and activities and
thus are not dependent on any single one to experience flow. But, I do not think that such individuals are always “high” or “having fun” as the literature on flow might suggest. In the last post I found it useful to link the concept of “flow” to the concept of “being present-alive-awake”, but we need to be careful of taking this similarity too far.
Most have us are able to be fully present when we are in situations where we are having fun. But, I believe that it is also possible to be present in situations which are not characterized as being “fun”. We can do this, but usually we can we just don’t want to. There is plenty of evidence, for instance, that people can become fully present while experiencing physical pain or danger and become addicted. The “addiction” that some military people develop to combat and sadomasochistic relationships are a couple of extreme examples that come to mind. However, generally, in situations which we define as “not fun”, we are absorbed in our thoughts; thoughts of how to get out of that situation and thoughts about what we would rather be doing etc. In other words we are anything but “present”.
But, it is not just these negative extremes that are likely to dampen our “presence”. Most of us, most of the time, are somewhere in-between having fun and non-fun and find these times to be anything but flow-inducing. I believe that this is where what Dr. C. calls the “autotelic personality” is able to be more present more often than the general population. They have the creative skills to define whatever situations they find themselves in ways that allow them to be “present-alive-awake”.
Creativity is basically the ability to look at things in a new way. This, I believe is what distinguishes what Dr. C. calls “autotelic personalities” from others. They have the capacity to redefine or reframe situations they face in ways that provide for a greater balance between the “perceived demands” and their “resources or skills” (see Know Flow or No Flow?).
The term “autotelic” refers to the process of doing something for it’s own sake, that is doing something because it is “intrinsically” rewarding rather than “extrinsically” rewarding. This suggests that the “autotelic personality” then is capable of being fully present in situations that they, according to their definition, (importantly, not others definitions) are able to find rewarding. This implies that such individuals are capable of casting off conventional understandings of situations and provide a personalized meaning of what is demanded and what is required to be “successful”. To me this is the essence of “creativity”.
The outcome may be a great piece of art or a solution to a societal problem but for the person in question the reward is being “present-alive-awake”. And, as I suggested in my post called “Performer-Audience Communication”, others can be positively affected by such creativity because it reminds them that they too can be “present-alive-awake”.
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