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Making Meaning, part II: Finding Flow
On Bringing Value to the World
I was on an island in the Willamette river, an island uninhabited but for the occasional kayaker or paddleboarder who stopped in to take a break from being on the water. Today I was a paddleboarder. This day, as most days, I had with me a sheaf of papers, printouts of essays and other writing that I was working on, or had once been working on. I sat down on a sunny rock, my bare feet dug into the sand, and took out a pen. I opened to a piece from months ago, a piece I had almost forgotten, and fell in: I found clarity where I had been unsure, I found glitches where things had once felt smooth, but mostly, I found flow. I was so enmeshed for so long, that when next I looked up, my paddleboard was just beginning to lose its grip on the land, as the tide had been coming in while I sat, focused utterly elsewhere.
To write is an act of creation, but it is also an act of loss, of letting go. The writer loses herself and the surrounding world, in order that she might become receptive to the words on the page, their cadence and their sound, the text and the subtext. Ultimately, a piece of writing will hopefully emerge, but in the meantime, there is a joy in the very act of creation.
There is a word for the state that a person enters, in which they are their most fluid self, their best self, making the most meaning that they can in the world—that word is flow. Total engagement with a challenge, the loss of sense of time, synchrony between action and awareness that feels effortless—this is flow. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pioneer in the research of flow, observed in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile…. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
It feels both like a free fall, and a lifting up, towards a plane of greater understanding. The goal is not ease—the goal cannot be ease—but ease is indeed part of what arrives, along with confidence, when you are in your element, when you have achieved flow.
Flow can be found in so many things: Teaching, carving, exploring. Healing, writing, making right. Unearthing, interpreting, speaking truth. What is common between them is an exhilaration in the engagement, the challenge, and no guarantee of success. Whatever the action with which you flow, you will surely find meaning.
In the moment, an anticipated rush of sugar, or of dopamine, or sinking into a couch to be entertained by a screen, can seem like the best thing in the world. But it is not those moments that we remember, and it is not those moments that we treasure. They are not rich with meaning. Fleeting, easy satisfaction does not a meaningful life make. Satisfaction interspersed with striving—some of which is achieved, other of which is just out of reach—that does create meaning.
Finding flow, knowing how to slip into it, or just being open to it when it arrives, provides a gateway to meaning. Flow reveals deep competence, true skill. That competence, that skill—in that is the meaning that we seek. And many of us, having glimpsed flow, chase it. Call it passion, if you prefer, or creative expression, or analytical insight, or athletic depth, or meditative stillness.
Here are the words of my friend Drew Schneidler, elicited when I asked him about his experiences being in the zone, knowing that he is, among many other things, a carver, and a thinker, and a fisherman:
Around midmorning, with a steely winter light filtering through the overhanging trees, I make my cast quartered across and down river – after hundreds already made that day – and take a step downstream. My fly sinks a bit, perhaps two or three feet, before beginning its swing across the current. I had caught nothing that day, and had no reason to believe that was about to change. And yet, this cast, this swing, felt different. There was an anticipation to it, a power, and I prepared. After years of experience, I knew this feeling, I knew that something was about to happen. The fish, when it was over, was a wild steelhead, about fifteen pounds and chrome-bright, having come up from the ocean within the last day or two.
Anyone who has dedicated themselves to fishing is likely to be familiar with this strange sense of clairvoyance. A feeling of knowing, without conscious analysis, what is about to happen. It is easy to dismiss these experiences as positivity bias, one offs that we tend to remember while we forget our failures, and indeed that is a possibility. Another possibility though, is that these moments are a product of a convergence between total immersion and expertise. Moments of synchronicity with nature that yield phenomenal powers of prediction. A beautiful and poignant melding that those who are lucky enough to experience, carry with them through life as moments of immense meaning.
I do not fish, but there is a universality revealed in Drew’s experience. I have been a ceramicist, working mostly on the wheel, where your hands play not just with the tactile richness of the clay, but also with the tug of physics. The appeal for me, of working with clay on the wheel, of hand-thrown pots, can be described as the interface of art and science—of experimenting with glaze chemistries and still being surprised when the kiln is first opened; of using a new clay body and having it respond in a new way under my hands; of knowing what looks and feels “right” in a finished piece, even if I do not exactly have the words for why. I can lose myself in the craft—in wedging the clay and centering it on the wheel and opening and pulling it into a bowl or a mug or a vase; in taking a leather hard piece from the shelf and inverting it to trim it, letting the shape that it will become reveal itself on the wheel, with my tools, and in my hands. In this activity a person can spend hours, the repetition a balm, the distinctions between each piece, even each ball of clay pulled from the same batch, a reminder that even in our similarities, we hold difference. In the timelessness there is flow.
Sometimes flow abandons us. The ideas don’t come, the body feels mired, the brain chaotic, colors are muted and visions inarticulate. When flow abandons us for long periods, we say that we are stuck.
The blinking cursor on the blank screen. The blank canvas or the untouched stone. The conversation that leaves you dull. One theme in common to many instances of stuckness is the blankness. There is no there there. It is not even clear what is missing. It is just that there is nothing much to see or do.
In his classic philosophical treatise, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig provides words of wisdom on what drives “unstuckness.” They are these: creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination.
How does one access these states, though? I posit, as the examples thus far attest, that it is easier to do so as a fully present being—physically, psychologically, intellectually—and with direct experience. Consider how you know about speed, for instance. When driving on a warm Spring day with the windows open, you can understand how fast you are going by feeling the wind in and around the car; by recognizing the road’s surface and cant and your car’s responsiveness to it; by observing other vehicles and how they are moving, and how they respond to you. Or you can read the number on the speedometer. The first provides an understanding of speed that is embodied and holistic; the second way of knowing how fast you are going, in contrast, is a much thinner kind of knowledge. That number that you glean from a glance at the speedometer tells you something, but it is both far less meaningful than having an embodied sense of speed, and far easier to communicate when you get pulled over.
This is, in part, why reading about Istanbul, or looking at pictures, does not prepare you for the experience of walking along the Bosphorus and in winding cobbled streets, smelling the kebab, being invited in by kind strangers to join them for apple tea. Similarly, reading about the rainforest, watching documentaries that are well researched and beautifully shot, does not prepare you for the experience of having toucans fly overhead in the understory, the deep beat of their wings a slow rhythm in the jangled cacophony. The rainforest documentary does not prepare you for the red eye shine of spiders at night, the suction of deep mud on your boots, the deep dark green of it all.
Strangely, it is also true that actually being in the rainforest does not fully prepare you for being in the rainforest, by which I mean, the experience is never the same twice. That is part of why it is so alluring to some of us, because it constantly presents new and different challenges and potentials. It—like all nature, like any complex, uncontrollable system—provides access to unstuckness.
Becoming unstuck is difficult, sometimes impossible. Approaching the problem from a different vantage point, two additional things that help us become unstuck, which are difficult to come by in many modern settings, are time and space.
We all need a room of our own, at least metaphorically. Virginia Woolf was correct to identify having one’s own space as imperative to the creative process. We need space in which we can be, with our thoughts and, yes, our things, into which nobody unexpected will come without explicit invitation.
And we also need time: uninterrupted periods of time, in which nobody can call you to their attention; and you do not feel constrained by your own to do list. Many creators work before or after their shifts at work, carving out sacred space in each day in which nobody is allowed to intrude. The siren song of notifications, or of anything else that might be lurking on that phone, is so strong. But this is not a rock and a hard place that we are between—this is no Scylla and Charybdis. No. We are trapped between our short-term interests and our long-term ones. We enjoy junk entertainment, junk food, junk sex, junk everything. It all feels so good. Sinking into that couch, one hand in a bag of salty crunchy goodness, the other on a remote that promises infinite regress—it feels good. But it is not memorable. Just as people on their deathbed do not say that they wished that they had spent more time at work, less time with their family; so too do people never wish that they had spent more time on their phones, checking their notifications, participating in the soap opera drama of social media. It gets our attention. This much is true. But so much of what gets our attention is not worthy of our time.
We need to take back our time, which requires taking back our attention. You will know you have it when you find flow.
Some of us find meaning in creation—of building things that have never existed before, be they made of words or pigment or wood. Some of us find meaning in exploration and discovery—of finding new places, or new ways of looking at known places; of looking so close, or so far, that we see things that have not been seen before. Some of us find meaning in healing, in touch and insight that results in betterment, which allows the person on the receiving end to become more functional. Others in helping in other ways, or in elucidating—in teaching, for instance. Others in communication or interpretation, in building teams, or in leading them.
One of many things that I have learned from reading Matthew Crawford’s work (which I highly recommend doing), is that Nietzsche had thoughts about joy. In Nietzsche’s framework, joy is the feeling of your power increasing. You could take this the wrong way, of course, and imagine that power is always unearned and zero sum, such that any increase in power comes at someone else’s expense. Or you could recognize that power comes in many forms, one of which is mastery. As we become expert—in creation or discovery, in helping or healing, in communicating or leading—we gain power. That power is revealed in flow, and in joy.
We can find meaning both by breaking free of the regressive bonds of the past, and by resisting the insidious forces of modernity. But we are not our best selves by identifying what we oppose; rather we should enjoy the best parts of our past, and anticipate the most wonderful things yet to come. One person’s expertise may be in crafting beautiful things—an ancient activity. Another person’s expertise may be in discovering a way to produce energy efficiently and safely—a modern activity. Finding flow increases our power and provides us joy. Here then, is meaning that all humans can access.
Crawford, M.B., 2015. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Cussins, A., 2002. Experience, thought and activity. Essays on nonconceptual content, pp.147-163.
Geertz, C., 1973. Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. In: The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, pp 3-30.
Kotler, S. and Wheal, J., 2017. Stealing fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and maverick scientists are revolutionizing the way we live and work. HarperCollins.
Pirsig, R.M., 1974. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Random House.
Woolf, V. 1929. A Room of One’s Own. Republished in 1989 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, with a 1981 foreword by Mary Gordon.
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Full disclosure: I wrote this, in part, while sitting outside in the sun after an early morning paddleboard on the Willamette river. But in this moment, I was also eating one of the most delicious donuts that I have ever had. The sugar hit, which I had anticipated with pleasure, is short-term and rewarding, while not affording the kinds of deep rewards that this essay is mostly concerned with. In this case, the short-term pleasure was also exquisitely lemony.
The notion of embodied knowledge being thicker than that gleaned from an instrument is from The World Beyond Your Head, but also has an analogy in Clifford Geertz’s anthropological distinction between thick and thin description, first (I think) elucidated in his 1973 essay, Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture.