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.
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.
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
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.