You are skiing down a mountain trail in Aspen, Colo. -- one of the expert diamond slopes, with the awe-inspiring snow-capped Rockies in your view. Though you have skied down this slope before, you have never been able to "dominate" it -- until now. You begin to hit your stride, striking every mogul perfectly, effortlessly. Your actions seem frozen in time and every little sound becomes more intense -- the crisp slap of your skis against the powder, the scrunch of your knees, and your rhythmic breathing. You are flowing down the slope, and later you might even describe yourself as having become "one with the mountain." All those years of training and struggling, taking ski lessons and tumbling into the woods, are now finally justified. You have had, quite literally, a peak experience.
If it is not skiing, you may have had similar experiences in other activities -- some other challenging exercise, working on a difficult project, or even in simpler exercises like reading or an intense conversation with a friend. These are moments in which your mind becomes so entirely absorbed in the activity that you "forget yourself" and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now (athletes often describe this as "being in the zone"). This type of experience has become the focus of much research in recent years by positive psychologists. Indeed, the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has even given it a name for an objective condition: "Flow."
In order for a flow state to occur, you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable (intrinsically motivating), and it must require skill and be challenging (but not too challenging) with clear goals towards success. You should feel as though you have control and receive immediate feedback with room for growth. Interestingly, a flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion -- a complete loss of self-consciousness. However, in retrospect, the flow activity may be described as enjoyable and even exhilarating! A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that flow is highly correlated with happiness, both subjective and psychological well-being (Cziksentmihalyi, M. 1997, p. 31; Csikszentmihalyi, M. and J. Hunter, 2003, pp. 185-199). Furthermore, it has been found that people who experience a lot of flow in their daily lives also develop other positive traits, such as high concentration, high self-esteem, and even greater health (Hektner, 1996, recounted in Cziksentmihalyi, 1997, pp. 116-125).
One of the fascinating parallels between science and philosophy concerns how this concept has been anticipated by the Chinese philosopher and provocateur Zhuangzi. According to Zhuangzi, the "ultimate happiness" (zhi le) is gained when we have learned to "let go," engaging in activities for their own sakes without any ulterior motives. In such a state all human actions become spontaneous and fresh, childlike in their intensity. On the highest level we transcend our egos and merge with the Dao, or the way, the underlying unity that embraces all things in the Universe.
Zhuangzi's typical examples of people who have achieved this state are artisans, butchers and craftsmen -- you might call them "blue collar sages." One of the most celebrated examples recounts the virtuosity of butcher Ting. Ting is cutting up an ox for his Master Wen-Hui, and his activity is described in the following way:
At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee -- zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music (The Collected Works of Chuang Tsu, trans. Burton Watson 1986, p.50)
When Ting is asked by his Master how he could achieve such skill, Ting responds:
What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now -- now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.
Ting goes on to explain how this state of mastery is achieved:
However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until -- flop! the whole thing comes apart like a cloud of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.
Here we see all the elements of the flow described quite succinctly. Ting has a clearly defined goal in mind: to chop the ox carcass with minimum effort and least wear and tear on his cleaver. He is completely immersed in the activity of butchering with no space in mind for any other thought or feeling. Ting describes the stages he went through in order to achieve mastery of his skill. The attitude that binds these stages as a thread is single-minded focus and intention. The allusions to rhythmic movement and dance clearly indicate that he is going through an ecstatic experience. And at the end of the activity he describes himself as "completely satisfied." Ting's reference to "a complicated place" indicates that the flow state is achieved only after facing increasing challenge and the development of new skills.
Zhuangzi intimates that the flow-like experience can extend beyond the specific act of butchering to become a continuous state (this is similar to Csikszentmihalyi's concept of the "autotelic personality"). After Master Wen-Hui hears Ting's explanation, he proclaims, "I have heard the words of Butcher Ting and have learned how to care for life." It is obvious to Wen-Hui that Ting is not just giving us a recipe for how to butcher an ox: he is giving us a recipe for life itself. This idea of flow as a kind of "caring for life" is a major theme in Robert Pirsig's popular work "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," for example when he writes, "When you're not dominated by feelings of separateness from what you're working on, then you can be said to 'care' about what you're doing. That is what caring really is: a feeling of identification with what one's doing." Zhuangzi uses the metaphor of the "mirror" to explain this: by removing the interference of the self, your mind becomes a perfect reflection of the concrete situation you are in.
It shouldn't be surprising that there are such strong links between contemporary psychology and Asian philosophy. While much of western science has been devoted to technologies that manipulate the external world, eastern thinkers have mainly focused on inner technologies, cataloging the different states of mind and how the most optimal state can be achieved. Zhuangzi's ultimate happiness, however, does not involve a distinction between the inner and the outer. In the state of flow with the Dao there is no "me" and there is no "it." There is only the reality of lived experience, the concrete activity itself. And so we see in Zhuangzi one of the great paradoxes of happiness: the more one seeks it, the more elusive it is. Seeking happiness obviously puts it at a distance from us, and thus makes it harder to achieve. But when we give up our chase after happiness and focus rather on specific activities and purposes, happiness is achieved as a result.
While Zhuangzi can legitimately be taken to be a precursor of the modern concept of flow, it is equally important to note some of the differences. Csikszentmihalyi prefers to use the language of "control:" the ego learns to master the external world in the conquest of a challenging skill. Zhuangzi on the other hand uses the language of "letting be" (wu wei): one learns not to interfere with the way of things. I believe, however, that these two different perspectives are complementary aspects of the flow experience. While Csikszentmihalyi draws attention to the strength and control that is achieved within flow, or its Yang aspect, Zhuangzi points to the effortlessness of the state, its Yin aspect.
To take our ski example once again, the experience of flowing down the mountain can be described as "being in total control" and "dominating the mountain" or as "effortless" and "being one with the mountain." The equal validity of these perspectives is what makes the flow experience so unique: at the same time that one is in complete control, one doesn't feel that one is "doing" anything at all. While the self is becoming "stronger" as a result, there is no experience of a "separate self." And while a lot of effort is initially invested to reach such a state, it will not be achieved unless one eventually learns to "let go" and trust one's natural ability. Just as one quality naturally leads to its opposite, as Winter leads to Spring and Summer, the quality of flow involves the mutual interplay of focus and release, effort and effortlessness. In this sense, then, flow can truly be seen as an experience of the Dao which is the harmony of these opposing qualities.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) "Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life"(Basic Books, New York).
Csikszentmihalyi, M. and J. Hunter (2003). "Happiness in everyday life: the uses of experience sampling." Journal of Happiness Studies, 4, 2, pp.185-199
Hektner, J.M. (1996). "Exploring optimal personality development: A longitudinal study of adolescents." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago
Watson,B. trans. (1964) "Chuang Tzu, basic writings." New York: Columbia University Press.