Presented February 3rd, 2019
Many winters ago in Hungary, a young man sits at his desk with a small rock he bought at the morning market. The man inspects the rock under his microscope, reading its history from its rugged edges, unearthing its secrets from the rock’s colourful veins.
It looks like a boring bit of rock, nothing to care about. But for the young man, the rock contains a whole new world. Hours fly by as the man studies his rock, losing all perception of time and self. When he finally lifts his head from the microscope, the sun has set. (from Psychology Today )
This rock loving man was the older brother of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Seeing his brother’s passion for geology helped lead him into naming and studying the concept of flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi grew up in Hungary during World War II. The war wrecked so many lives, death was everywhere, and the trauma lingered with survivors. For many, this history of trauma spoiled the happiness that should have come with peace and freedom.
Life was returning to health, but people were unable to feel happy, the trauma leaving them frightened that the good times would again dissolve into horror.
Out of Csikszentmihalyi’s experience of the on-going impact of war time suffering, he wondered about the nature of happiness. He remembered his older brother lost in the study of a rock and wondered why so few people could now experience this.
After hearing a talk by Carl Jung, who spoke about the lasting trauma of war, Csikszentmihalyi began to study psychology and ended up as a professor in the United States seeking to understand what makes humans happy.
Csikszentmihalyi looked at creative people – artists, composers, amateur athletes – trying to figure out why they were willing to devote their lives to work that rarely provided fame or fortune. The answer was meaning and happiness. They found their creative pursuits were meaningful and brought them great joy and satisfaction.
Part of the happiness arises from a state of flow.
This is an experience of energized focus where you are completely absorbed in what you are doing.
The task is exciting and effortless. You forget time, you forget yourself.
A composer says it is like his hand is moving by himself.
A downhill skier says she loses herself in the movement.
And when you come back to yourself, you feel happy.
Flow comes from doing something that you love and have some skill and knowledge in. The flow state arises when you know what you are doing but are facing a challenge – a stretch of your skills or new knowledge.
Csikszentmihalyi’s work suggests there is a flow channel – a river that exists between the banks of skills and challenge. When you are supported by your comfort levels – confident that you know what you are doing – but taking a new step that is just beyond your skills –
you can enter into flow.
Tasks that are too easy lead to boredom. Tasks that are too far beyond your skill level bring anxiety.
Flow is the river that lies between skills and challenge.
Indeed Csikszentmihalyi named this experience flow because in his research people would say things like “Oh, I am being carried by the river, I don’t have to think, I just do it, spontaneously, automatically’.
It’s pretty common these days to be told we only grow outside of our comfort zone – but the concept of flow suggests that we are happiest just beside our comfort zone – that we need a sense of confidence and control in order to grow.
We have to know how to swim – the knowledge, the skills – to be in the flow. This requires practice, trying and trying again to learn what we need to go deeper, we can be self conscious and awkward until we gain that understanding.
On the other side of the river’s flow, if you go too far beyond your comfort zone you end up stressed. When you are out of your depth, too far from the shore, you just end up treading water. Anxiety and stress prevent a sense of flow.
Flow is the sweet point when conditions are right.
There is a Taoist story of a wise elder who slips and falls into a river. The river is rapid and leads to a high waterfall. Neighbours see the elder slip and fall in the river, and gasp in fear. They rush down the steps to the bottom of the waterfall, calling out.
At the bottom of the falls, the elder emerges, and manages to get over to the bank. His neighbours help him out, asking how he survived such an experience.
The elder says “I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thought, I allowed myself to be shaped by the moment.
Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl.”
While I think you have to be a very wise Taoist elder to survive a waterfall, the story exemplifies flow as letting go of yourself to be shaped by the moment. To be in the swirl and go with it.
Flow is the river swirling between skills and challenge.
In flow, you use your skills to take you someplace new.
You dive in and flow with the river.
Csikszentmihalyi calls flow “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
So the river has to run through something you love to do. Without the passion, you won’t get lost in the experience.
Flow is an experience of immersion, of being in the moment, without a sense of time, while doing something you love.
Flow brings happiness.
May we all have a river to swim in.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes that part of being in the flow is losing the self in the experience. He notes that “Both a sense of time and emotional problems seem to disappear, and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence.”
An exhilarating feeling of transcendence. This sounds like a spiritual experience.
Which is surprising, as the concept of flow has been popularized by business psychologists as a theory of expertise, flow is for those who are the best of the best.
But if flow is about losing the self, letting go of personal concerns, and having an exhilarating feeling of transcendence, that’s a spiritual experience.
Flow may be less about expertise and more about the depth of experience.
Being in the flow is rare these days, in part because we live in a multi-tasking culture of distractions. It’s hard to be in flow when phones buzz and microwaves ding. You need uninterrupted time to get into the flow.
We also live in a culture of the new, always seeking new and better and best. Routines are seen as dull. We live more broadly then deeply. But flow arises from repetitive practice.
Spiritual communities like this one lift up the conditions for flow.
Flow needs time – time to focus and concentrate.
Being part of a chalice community offers you a chance to step outside of ordinary time – to remove oneself from schedules and distractions.
We are a reminder that there is more to life then the daily round. We also encourage regular spiritual practice.
Creating a consistent spiritual practice can help people move towards flow. A practice like yoga and mediation teaches us to focus on the present moment, to let go of distractions, to move into a greater state of relaxation.
It helps us to accept ourselves as we are, no matter our emotional state.
The spiritual exercise for this theme month of flow is to do yoga, and I encourage all of you to explore yoga or chair yoga however you can. We have our weekly Monday night yoga right here in the Great Hall, or there are many other options on-line and in the community.
Another path to flow is altruism, tending towards the needs of others. As people of the chalice, we acknowledge the interdependence of our lives, we work with love towards justice for all.
Offering our skills in the service of others, getting absorbed in organizing for change, or serving at a community kitchen, are ways to set ourselves aside.
Flow requires the ego to disappear for awhile, helping other people allows us to set aside our own priorities for a time. Altruism conditions us to switch the focus off of ourselves.
Experiencing flow in our lives is also an act of faith. It’s an act of faith in ourselves and the world.
In the story this morning, Miss Moon falls in love with the beauty of the paper flower tree carried by an old man. She is passionate about the paper flowers tied together on the bamboo tree, but can’t afford to buy any.
The old man, seeing her passion, generously gifts her the smallest paper flower – one with a bead seed – warning her it may not sprout.
She plants the seed, hopeful for a paper flower tree of her own.
It does not sprout. Until the old man returns to the village with a musical troupe.
The next morning, a glorious paper flower tree has sprouted from the seed.
This isn’t a moment of flow, but I think the story illustrates the connection between flow and faith.
Miss Moon plants her seed in good faith, enchanted by the vision of the paper flower tree.
She gives herself wholeheartedly to the idea that the bead seed will sprout. And it does in the end, through the generous actions of an old man, the other person willing to engage with her vision.
To take time for what you love, whether it sprouts into a paper tree or not, is an act of faith. You have to believe in what you are doing, whether anyone else does, whether it brings fame or fortune, and you have to stay with it.
If Miss Moon hadn’t cared so much, the idea of the paper flower tree would have been long forgotten when the old man returned to the village. But she kept the faith with her vision of beauty.
To experience being in the flow you have to keep the faith with the work you love, whether that is downhill skiing or paper flower trees. You have to keep faith that you matter, that if you find meaning and happiness in the activity, it is worth it.
Your joy is your joy.
Some of you may find a paper flower in your teal hymnal.
These are reminders to keep faith with yourself.
To find your paper flower tree of happiness.
To follow what you love, give it time and energy, and you may find yourself lost in the transcendent experience of flow.
An experience of energized focus.
Completely absorbed in what you are doing.
The task is exciting and effortless.
Forgetting time, you forget yourself.
May each of us have something that brings us happiness, that offers us the chance to lose ourselves in the creative, transcendent flow of life.
So Say We All.