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Resources Part 2: Finding Flow.

Thinking, thinking...

“Man’s maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

This week, and particularly yesterday, I’ve found myself thinking about three things: finding focus in my own work, my year and a half old daughter and her 4 month journey so far at a Montessori school, and (as of yesterday afternoon, tragically) Philip Seymour-Hoffman.

What do the three of them have in common? Well, I think that it has something to do with what Nietzsche says. The quotation above is one I stumbled across years ago and it’s resonated with me ever since.

My mother loves to tell the story of me, at the ripe old age of 6, heading down to the library with my “briefcase” to do my “work.” My briefcase was a square patent leather purse that looked enough like an attaché case for a 6 year old, and my work was writing lines and lines of “big people writing”, basically lots of lines of curlicues. Why I felt the need to do so is something I don’t quite understand, but there was something fundamentally satisfying about “getting to work.”

As the father of a little one myself, I’ve been thinking about those images of me at work and then watching her, even at 1 and a half, getting down to work herself. It might be something as simple as washing a potato in the sink with a brush, but she approaches it with powerful concentration and focus.

For the last couple of months, she’s been attending a local Montessori School in their infant community. I didn’t know much about Montessori other than that peers of mine growing up who went to a Montessori school “were different.” Seeing the changes she’s going through as a result of the way the adults — and her friends there — engage with her, I mentioned this Nietzsche quote to one of the teachers, a lovely man named Paul Pillai. He asked me if I’d come across the work of sociologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He most noted for having coined the term “Flow” as a way of describing what some have called “The Zone” or “Being In It”; namely that sense of being so engaged in an activity that time seems to stop and people achieve some of their most amazing feats. We most commonly talk about Flow when we speak of highly talented athletes.

I hadn’t heard of Csikszentmihalyi. So Paul graciously gave me a copy of Csikszentmihali’s “Finding Flow.” Though the initial connection was about what my daughter is going through as she learns and grows at Montessori, I was struck by how big an idea Flow is and its ramifications for us in our lives.

Without going into it too much, Csikszentmihalyi describes a Flow state arising out of an activity where the skills of the doer are equally matched by a challenge at hand; there is a clear goal and immediate and relevant feedback. The analogy he uses is of a skier descending a slope. The Goal is to get to the bottom quickly and efficiently; the skier will receive feedback on how he is progressing immediately based on his ability to stay on his feet and in control.

I grew up skiing, so the analogy resonated. But skiing is also a pretty rare and inaccessible sport due to cost and locale for most of planet earth. But the further I read, the more all encompassing the idea of finding Flow seems to me. Look at it like this:

We have enormous brains capable of some pretty phenomenal things. Michael Pollan, an amazing natural historian who has written extensively on food, argues that one of the biggest reasons we’ve got such large brains is so that we can figure out what exactly we should — and shouldn’t eat. It’s what he calls the Omnivore Dilemma (an amazing book you should definitely pick up for its own merits). But as we’ve evolved and those brains in their quest to solve that dilemma have freed huge parts of the global population from tending to crops and animals for their own sustenance because we’ve been able to invent and maintain amazing systems of agricultural manufacture and distribution. We’ve got pretty stable shelters and (in a lot of places, though not all by any means) social structures in place. This means we’ve got time for those massive brains to just sit and think.

Csikszentmihalyi describes thinking like this:

What we call thinking is also a process whereby psychic energy gets ordered. Emotions focus attention by mobilising the entire organism in an approach or avoidance mode. Goals do it by providing images of desired outcomes. Thoughts order attention by producing sequences of images that are related to each other in some meaningful way. (pages 25-26)

Psychic Energy (or mental energy if psychic sounds too much like tarot cards and incense for you) getting ordered. That’s thinking. The energy is there, in those huge heads of ours, it just needs a direction to go in, any direction.

Last night, the internet lit up in response to the loss of a tremendously talented actor, Philip Seymour-Hoffman. The gamut of reactions seems to run down this line: “It has come as quite a shock, he seemed so together, clearly he had demons that he wasn’t able to control and that have finally got the better of him.” A response from a friend on Facebook was one of the best. JD said: “[Hoffman] was able to put his demons on screen. But in the end they got the better of him.”

“Those demons.” It’s a terrible thing to think about someone being consumed by them, but I think “those demons” are a way picturing the energy we all need to expend, the steam for we all need to find an outlet. For actors, when they are acting, they pour themselves into the task of becoming someone else. The ferocity with which some actors attack that task is truly remarkable (think Brando back in the day, Heath Ledger more recently and Mr Hoffman as a truly terrifying bad guy in JJ Abrams’ Mission Impossible). But what do they do when the lights are off in the theatre or the film crew has gone home. Where do they direct that ferocity?

Drugs, drink, sex, TV, the internet, collecting antiques, reading comics, these are all ways of potentially scratching that existential itch, letting off that steam, ordering that psychic energy — finding a little bit of flow in everyday life. Each of those activities, no matter how sacred, profane or mundane, can hint at an “ecstatic” state where one forgets oneself and becomes totally immersed in the activity. But, when we’re not sure where and when that ecstatic or flow state can come from, life can feel arbitrary and difficult.

Csikszentmihalyi has spent an academic career trying to find out what flow is and what creates it so that we can understand it better. He is not a self help writer (and as you will have read from last week, I’m not a big fan of those kinds of writers anyway) but what he has to say about having goals to scratch that itch is profound for how we literally create ourselves.

Without a consistent set of goals it is hard to develop a coherent self. It is through the patterned investment of psychic energy provided by goals that one creates order in experience. This order, which manifests itself in predictable actions, emotions, and choices, in time becomes recognisable as a more or less unique self.

It is through goals that order our thinking and actions that we start to create who we are. Without the goals, we might well be like the party balloon that’s been inflated and then released before the end is tied off. We’d just zip about in random circles (making flatulent noises) until we flop uselessly on the ground.

He goes on to say:

When we choose to invest attention in a given task, we say that we have formed an intention, or set a goal for ourselves. How long and how intensely we stick to our goals is a function of our motivation. Therefore intentions, goals, and motivations are also manifestations of psychic negentropy [the opposite of psychic entropy, therefor a positive state of mental order].  They focus psychic energy, establish priorities, and thus create order in consciousness. Without them, mental processes become random, and feelings tend to deteriorate rapidly.

In a sense, goals aren’t just the purview of type A personalities and people with check lists ruling their every move in life. They are what we all must do to order the profound reservoirs of mental energy with which each of us as a human being is born. Failing to do so allows the demons to run riot, “to get the better of us.”

In the early days of my association with Montessori, I’m struck by how the approach focuses on treating children as beings with will and volition of their own, not just bundles of needs at which we should throw stimuli, toys and food at an insistent squawk. Instead, Montessori recognises that the search for Flow is a lifelong thing. We need to find a way to order that psychic energy from very early on. Giving children the space, means and tools to do “work” allows them to learn to order that energy from a very early age. If I could approach the work of making comics with the same focus with which my daughter approaches taking dried pasta out of a jar and putting it in another jar, I’d be finishing my next book by now.

I look back at that picture of me and realise that “the work” was both me putting on adult things to find out what that felt like. But it was also me looking for my own way of ordering my mental energy. As an adult, the avenue I’ve chosen is comics and art. I wonder what my daughter will choose, how she will create herself. And I hope that people of such prodigious and profound talent can find ways of ordering that psychic energy, of finding flow that don’t take them from us so tragically early as with Mr Hoffman.

Finally, lest as an illustrator, I let these posts become too wordy, here’s a quick sketch I did last week as I’m working my way through Adobe Illustrator tutorials and seeking to update my workflow from the horse and buggy model I’ve been using.

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