Readings on Flow

Readings on Flow

“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” Rainer Maria Rilke

“Faith does not need to push the river because faith is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing. We are in it.” Richard Rohr

We have glamorized the way of the warrior for millennia. We have identified it as the supreme test and example of courage, strength, duty, generosity, and manhood. If I turn from the way of the warrior, where am I to seek those qualities? What way have I to go?
Lao Tzu says: the way of water.
The weakest, most yielding thing in the world, as he calls it, water chooses the lowest path, not the high road. It gives way to anything harder than itself, offers no resistance, flows around obstacles, accepts whatever comes to it, lets itself be used and divided and defiled, yet continues to be itself and to go always in the direction it must go. The tides of the oceans obey the Moon while the great currents of the open sea keep on their ways beneath. Water deeply at rest is yet always in motion; the stillest lake is constantly, invisibly transformed into vapor, rising in the air. A river can be dammed and diverted, yet its water is incompressible: it will not go where there is not room for it. A river can be so drained for human uses that it never reaches the sea, yet in all those bypaths and usages its water remains itself and pursues its course, flowing down and on, above ground or underground, breathing itself out into the air in evaporation, rising in mist, fog, cloud, returning to earth as rain, refilling the sea.
Water doesn’t have only one way. It has infinite ways, it takes whatever way it can, it is utterly opportunistic, and all life on Earth depends on this passive, yielding, uncertain, adaptable, changeable element….
The flow of a river is a model for me of courage that can keep me going — carry me through the bad places, the bad times. A courage that is compliant by choice and uses force only when compelled, always seeking the best way, the easiest way, but if not finding any easy way still, always, going on.
Ursula K Le Guin

This distinction that I am making between purpose and meaning isn’t always carefully maintained in our everyday language and thought. In fact, we could avoid a good deal of confusion in our lives if we did pay attention to the distinction. It takes only a minimum of awareness to realize that our inner attitude when striving to achieve a purpose, a concrete task, is clearly different from the attitude we assume when something strikes us as especially meaningful.
With purposes, we must be active and in control. We must, as we say, “take the reins,” “take things in hand,” “keep matters under control,” and utilize circumstances like tools that serve our aims. The idiomatic expressions we use are symptomatic of goal-oriented, useful activity, and the whole of modern life tends to be thus purpose-oriented.
But matters are different when we deal with meaning. Here it is not a matter of using, but of savoring the world around us. In the idioms we use that relate to meaning, we depict ourselves as more passive than active: “It did something to me”; “it touched me deeply”; “it moved me.” Of course, I do not want to play off purpose against meaning, or activity against passivity. It is merely a matter of trying to adjust the balance in our hyperactive, purpose-ridden society. We distinguish between purpose and meaning not in order to separate the two, but in order to unite them. Our goal is to let meaning flow into our purposeful activities by fusing activity and passivity into genuine responsiveness.
Brother David Steindl Rast

Most of us have had a heightened and radical experience where time slows down, specific details are enhanced, and self vanishes. This is what some top athletes describe as being “in the zone.” In these amplified moments of consciousness, we make connections we had missed before, hatch breakthroughs to problems that have been stumping us and push the limits of what’s possible for human performance.
I’ve felt it hundreds of times after several hours in front of an Avid while editing my films — but I never knew there was a name for it. It’s when I put enough time in that the gifts start coming. It’s a transcendent feeling, as if I have to race to physically manifest the ideas and connections that are flowing through me. I become a conduit as puzzle pieces fly into place.
Ondl Timoner

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. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last blockon a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

A request for concentration isn’t always answered, but people engaged in many disciplines have found ways to invite it in. Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.
However it is brought into being, true concentration appears — paradoxically — at the moment willed effort drops away. It is then that a person enters what scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as “flow” and Zen calls “effortless effort”. At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present — a feeling of joy, or even grief — but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself…
Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration — expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is.
Jane Hirshfield

The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union; the heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity. . . . Creativity is an experience — to my eye, a spiritual experience. It does not matter which way you think of it: creativity leading to spirituality or spirituality leading to creativity. In fact, I do not make a distinction between the two. In the face of such experience, the whole question of belief is rendered obsolete. As Carl Jung answered the question of belief late in his life, “I don’t believe; I know.”
Julia Cameron

The feeling of flow is a glorious one; we’re in the zone; firing on all cylinders and making mincemeat of whatever it is that we’ve turned our attention to. It feels glorious because there is an effortlessness, an inner power and a sense that we’re swimming with the tide – after all, we all know how exhausting it is to swim against it.
When it comes to how we operate through life, it’s as if we demand a robotic-ness of ourselves. We yearn to be in that magical flow-zone, we try our best to recreate the conditions and we place importance on our output and productivity, buzzing from one thing to the next. And the next. And the next. And so it goes.
Yet all around us, in nature, there are examples of the elegant marriage between ebb and flow. If the flow is astounding in its power, beauty, and vibrancy, then we’ve got the ebb to thank for that. You see, the power of the flow lies in the humble ebb; they co-exist – if we want to flow, we must also ebb.
A wave must retreat before it can surge forward. A daffodil bulb regenerates before it sprinkles our landscapes with yellow cheer.  When we create spots of quietude, we make space for restoration, regeneration and rest.  The flow will be all the more magnificent for it.
Jayne Hardy

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad)

A Woman in harmony with her spirit
is like a river flowing.
She goes where she will without pretense and arrives at her destination
prepared to be herself
and only herself ”
Maya Angelou

“Today again I am hardly myself/It happens over and over./It is heaven-sent./It flows through me like the blue wave.” Mary Oliver

“If a subject excites us, if it stirs our deepest curiosity, or if we have to learn because the stakes are high, we pay much more attention.” Robert Greene

“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Longer Texts

This short essay from Aeon Magazine considers how letting the mind wander aids creativity.

A taoist exploration of flow from the Uplift Connect site.

A summary of Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s concept of flow.


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