“…It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”
“The psychic entropy peculiar to the human condition involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish and feeling able to accomplish more than what conditions allow.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
I visibly waffled on several occasions when attempting to begin this article. Literally. I sat down on the couch with my laptop, ready to begin the process of typing this stupid, god-forsaken thing, and I physically shuddered. Each time. And, each time, Missus Furious would gaze at me cock-eyed and ask what the fuck my problem was.
“Nothing,” I’d mumble. “Nothing at all.”
“Ok?” She’d say, skeptically. “But why do you keep doing that?”
“Having seizures or whatever it is you’re doing over there. Are you alright?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“YOU KEEP SHAKING.”
At that point I just shrugged and shook my head as if she were crazy.
This is what it’s like living with someone as mercilessly moronic as myself.
Anyhow, I did have several episodes of trembling. For a couple of reasons.
• • •
One: The thought of having to type Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s name a half-dozen or so times made me ill. This sounds like such a minor inconvenience that I must be making it up. But I’m not. You’re reading the work of the type of person who, when trying to watch Rey Mysterio highlights on youtube and an ad pops up, and the button in the corner of the ad says “you can skip this ad in 13 seconds,” I usually just close up the entire browser, get off the computer and go make peanut butter sandwiches or something, instead of waiting the 13 seconds.
Two: There are enough subtleties and nuances to both Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas and my own arguments, that I’m worried a fair number of potential readers are going to miss them. And, as a writer, I feel that if people misunderstand and/or don’t fully comprehend what is going on, it’s my fault, not the reader’s. So I spend an inordinate and irrational amount of time in the midsts of a neurotic episode because I’m convinced I’m not a good enough writer (or thinker) to make some of my ideas clear.
Regardless of how I feel—and regardless of my concerns—here I am. And since I’ve already buried the lede this far, let me just come out and tell you what my thesis is for the rest of the article: that so-called “flow” states are much more easily accessed—and most commonly experienced—when one is being a lazy fuck.
• • •
First off, even though Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow is one of the most popular and discussed ideas produced by psychology in the past 50 years or so, not everybody’s familiar with it. So we have to at least touch on what Flow is. Csikszentmihalyi himself describes the experience of flow as consisting of 6 components, which are:
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
All of which sounds incredibly reasonable and probably accurate. My issue is really with how Csikszentmihalyi argues we induce flow states, mostly because Csikszentmihalyi spends a good portion of the his book on the topic—inconceivably entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience—discussing his belief that Flow experiences must be stimulated by activities that provide just the right amount of challenge, i.e. not challenging to the point of making one frustrated, but not so devoid of challenge that one finds the activity boring.
Again, this assertion sounds rather reasonable. And it is. But Csikszentmihalyi then expounds on that idea to insist that one cannot be in a passive or lazy mind if one hopes to initiate states of Flow.
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (emphasis mine)
He gives, as support to this idea, the example of a European woman who is a scholar and business magnate. She constantly travels, owns a number of homes around the world, is ceaselessly attending business meetings or conferences or concerts. She is so busy and opposed to leisure time that she expects her chauffeur to attend the local art museums in whatever town she finds herself in and give her a run-down of sorts on how the art museum was. To me she sounds insufferable and her life sounds exhausting. The importance of discussing this concept of Flow, as even Csikszentmihalyi admits, is that Flow states are supposed to make us happy. The inability to sit still and enjoy life for being life doesn’t sound like happiness to me. It sounds like distraction.
Either way, the philosopher and author Ed Slingerland agrees. In his book, Trying Not to Try, he takes the concept of Flow and expands and—in my opinion—improves on Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas. Slingerland makes the connection between Flow states and the Chinese philosophical concept of Wu Wei. Wu Wei is typically translated (with numerous, but less influential, exceptions) as “non-action,” “non-doing,” or “actionless action.” There is not really an English equivalent. Anyhow, Slingerland makes a rather convincing argument that Flow states are essentially states of Wu Wei.
This is important, because—even though I disagree with a number of assertions in Slingerland’s book—Slingerland is able to recognize that it’s not effort that is necessary to initiate episodes of Flow, it is a lack of effort that activates such states. Hence the title his book, Trying Not to Try.
Slingerland, though, still has his own aversion to coming out and saying that it’s a certain kind of laziness that induces Flow/Wu Wei states. Most writers who attempt to expound on the concept of Wu Wei exhibit this bizarre anxiety.
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