ARE YOU A FLOW ADDICT?

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

IPhone Addiction

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”.

Marina Abramovic is not having "fun" in her piece "The Artist is 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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TO KNOW FLOW OR NO FLOW?

A major focus in past posts has been the connection between being “present-alive-awake” and creativity in both art and spiritual practices.  The fact that being “present-alive-awake” is so often held up as something to attain, implies that it is somehow beyond the grasp of us mortals.  But, it that really true?  Look at the description below and see if you can think of times when you have experienced something like this.

             My mind isn’t wandering. I am not  thinking of something  

             else. I am  totally involved  in what I am doing. My body feels

              good. My concentration is like breathing; I never think of it.

 

Dr. C,

This description has been used in research looking into what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi calls the “flow experience”.  According to Dr. C.’s research  everyone has  experienced “flow” (sometimes referred to as “being in the zone”) at some point; usually while doing something we find interesting, fun and challenging; (skiing, surfing, dancing or gardening are activities where flow is commonly experienced).  Generally, during flow, we lose track of time and experience a “loss of reflective self-consciousness”.  During such times our internal dialogue drops away and there is a heighten awareness of our somatic and sensory “selves”.   In other words, we are temporarily “present-alive-awake” in such experiences.

What Dr. C calls the “flow experience” is best thought of as occurring along a continuum of experiences ranging from what Maslow called “peak experiences” to what Dr. C. later coined as “micro-flows” (e.g. during eating or having a pleasant conversation with someone).  In other words, there are different degrees of being “present-alive-awake”.  Also, Dr. C. recognized that some people (“autotelic personalities”) flow more often than others.  What this means is that the objective situation is not the sole determinate of whether flow happens or not; more important is the mental set of the actors in these situations.  And, this means that we all have the capacity to flow more often, in a wider variety of situations.

So what must a person bring to the situation in order to experience flow and be fully present?  Dr. C.’s research provides some suggestions.  Flow is most likely in situations where there is a balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and one’s own perceived skills. If one is overwhelmed by the demands of the activity, or is underwhelmed and bored by these demands, flow will not occur.

Now, think of some situations in your life where you have found yourself having thoughts that go something like this:  “ This is too hard…. I can’t handle this” or “This is so boring…. I wish I were doing_______”.  My guess is that you came up with more instances of this than you did of instances of where you have been fully in the present moment (i.e. flow).  I would also guess, that if asked to, you could come up with a list of things that you could or should  have done, internally and/or externally, to bring yourself more into the present moment in such situations.

We all have the capability to make  such flow-inducing adjustments in our everyday situations, but frequently do not.  Why?  Because in the “heat of the moment”, so to speak, we forget that we have the capacity to “redefine” or “reframe” the situation.  The solution?  Remembering to Remember.

For the artist, this means remembering how one’s creative process works.  Remembering that creative breakthroughs require going through boring and stressful periods of work, as Lehrer points out.   It means “trusting the process” and remembering that fighting the process (wanting things to be other than they are) simply leads to unnecessary and unproductive suffering, thus forestalling creative breakthroughs.  As one engages in artistic practice over time, this understanding gradually sets in, and one remembers to remember more often and thus is able to remain present at all stages of the creative process.  And, as I’ve suggested in the last post, this presence can be communicated to one’s audience

The main practice for most spiritual seekers is meditation which, at the most basic level, is a means of learning to catch yourself as you drift into thoughts which take you out of the present moment.   In other words it is  learning to pay attention.  By practicing this over and over again for years, the seeker gradually builds the “remembering muscles” that allow them to make adjustments, and exercise the flexibility (creativity) necessary  to redefine his or her life, momentary situation by momentary situation.

Like the artist’s process, mentioned in the paragraph above, the spiritual practioner is also trying to eliminate unnecessary suffering; the self –created suffering that results from trying to make one’s life unfold in ways other than it is naturally unfolding.  The spiritual seeker’s creativity is manifested in his ability to let go of expectations and allow his or her life to evolve in unscripted or unanticipated ways.

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Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t  resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow  naturally forward in whatever way they like.     Lao Tzu

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I ended my post entitled “Buddha as a Performance Artist”? by wondering why both creative and spiritual artists seek creative freedom by counterintuitively placing more and more restrictions on themselves.  By placing restrictions in one’s own path, the artist or spiritual seeker maintains the balance between challenges and skills that Dr. C. says is necessary to maintain flow. In order to be present, one must constantly redefine the situation in ways that keeps them challenged.  One way of thinking about this is they create situations where they must adopt “beginner’s mind”.

Furthermore committment to self-imposed obstacles provides a concrete way of becoming aware of the unbalance in one’s life.  By making committments or vows to act in a particular manner (see references to The Four Vow and Precepts in previous post)  provides fertile ground for exploring the nature of the discrepancies between demands and one’s inner resources that are preventing one from being “present-alive-awake”.  By making such commitments it is more difficult to get lost in throughts, dreams and fantasies of being anywhere other than where you are, doing what you are doing right now.

Commitment unlocks the doors of imagination, allows vision, and gives us the “right stuff” to turn our dreams into reality.
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PERFORMER-AUDIENCE COMMUNICATION

As a follow up to “Buddha as a Performance Artist?”, I was going to talk about the “flow experience” as a way of understanding why artists and spiritual seekers often impose restrictions on themselves.  But I received a comment on that article from my Zen teacher that made me decide to abandon my agenda of writing about flow and “go with the flow” instead.  Among other things, he wrote:

 I would like to suggest that it might be as important to be a performance audience. (You can see the whole comment in Discussion #2 of the FORUM).

Now, frankly I’m not altogether sure what he meant by this but decided to not worry so much about the intended meaning and riff off of this statement just to see where it went. Notice that the emphasis on the word “PLAY” in the description of this blog   If you listen in when young kids are playing together you will notice a lot of apparent “non-sequiturs” where one will pick up on what one says and responds spontaneously without being concerned whether he or she is sharing the same meanings as their playmates.  In play, the objective is simply to keep the play going and to have fun, which is actually one of the defining  charticteristic of “flow”.  So what follows is my response to Jiyu’s Roshi’s comments even thought I’m not sure what he meant or intended.

 

In the FORUM PAGE of this blogsite there is a rather long discussion about the place of meaning in art.  Artists may have a variety of meaningful intentions or inspirations in art (e.g. religious, political, comments on the art world etc.) or they may have none at all. However, it seems that the nature of communication in the arts is that we can never be sure that the artist’s meaning is shared isometrically by the audience (see examples in the FORUM).  However, I do believe that when an artist in any field is creating in the present moment, that some portion of the audience will share this experience; that is, witnessing that art can bring a person into the present moment  (i.e. to become more alive or awake, as suggested in the previous post).  What is the difference between those that do and those that do not?  All we can say is that those who do are willing and able to be transported, at least temporarily, into the present moment themselves.  Something about viewing or hearing the art piece moves them to share that state of mind with the artist, but they must be open to that happening.

Remember this quote from Marina Abramovic regarding those who sat across from her during her performance at MOMA?

Some of them are really open and you feel this incredible pain…….when they are sitting in the front of me, it’s not about me any more. It’s very soon, that I’m just mirror of their own self.

Those who had profound experiences in Marina’s presence were, for whatever reason, open to having such experiences, while others in the exact same situation were not.

The historical Buddha, who according to Robert Thurman, was the consumate “performance artist” supposedly held up a white flower during one of his meetings with his disciples.  One, Mahakasyapa, is said to have silently gazed at the flower and smiled.  The Buddha then acknowledge that Mahakasyapa had attained enlightenment; in other words he shared with the Buddha a profound experience of being present, alive and awake.

Who knows why this happened to Mayakasyapa and no one else.  Jiyu Roshi often says that the reason for Zen practice is to become enlightenment prone.  By consistently and persistently carrying out activities (chiefly meditation) that can provide temporary experience of being fully present, one prepares oneself for more permanent shifts in this direction.  Most likely Mahakasyapa had done the work necessary in order to be open to that shared experience with Buddha.  The Zen literature is full of similar stories about such “awakenings”.

 

Likewise, by engaging in artistic practices and/or opening oneself to art that requires”presence”, one can begin to see through the cultural and mental patterns that keep us from experiencing this on an ongoing basis.

It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing  if the audience is deaf. Walter Lippmann

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For a more in-depth and theorectical discussion of this topic click on the FORUM page in the menu at the top of this page.  Then scroll down to “Discussion #2″ 

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