“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
Dogen Zenji 1200-1253
When I was young my grandmother took me to see a Chinese circus perform in Edinburgh. One of my favourite acts was the mysterious girl in the red cheongsam, emblazoned with dragons, who span plates on long bamboo poles. I became quite worried as the plates slowed down and looked as though they were about to topple to the ground and smash at any moment.
Only this never happened.
At what seemed to me to be the last possible moment, she would twirl the bamboo and the plates would be saved. This went on until she had about thirty plates spinning at the same time.
It seems clear that she was fully aware of what was happening, moment by moment, and then acted in exactly the required way, at exactly the right time, and in the right place.
Her concentration and attention were fully in the present moment, and at the same time aware of her goal. To keep the plates spinning while teasing her audience, keeping us on tenterhooks waiting for the mistake that never came. It was like a dance, no unnecessary or sudden movements. She seemed to float across the stage and arrive at exactly the right moment to apply a barely perceptible flick of the wrist that kept the plate safe against the pull of gravity. It was as if the plate, the bamboo pole and the spinner became one.
In modern parlance she would be described as being in a flow state. A state of consciousness where a person is completely absorbed in what they are doing.
This state is reminiscent of what is meant by “going with the flow”, described in the Tao. In the Tao it is often the working man who develops this ability most easily, unlike the Confucian scholars, who are too busy searching for the answers in ideas and books, and have lost touch with the reality of the everyday world.
Flow is experienced as if we have become one with whatever activity that we are undertaking, it is a sensation of optimal experience. In this sate of mind the person is completely immersed in an activity, with creative engagement, and intense focus and concentration. It is a state in which time passes without the person being fully aware of it.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into this state found that, when completely engaged in a challenging activity, people were happier and more upbeat. He believed that the more flow that we can achieve in our daily lives, then the greater our experience of happiness. Flow is a state that comes about when we are in conscious control of our lives and our minds, as opposed to being swept along by forces external to ourselves. The best moments in our lives occur when our body and mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to achieve something that is both difficult and worthwhile. In other words flow is something that we can make happen by our own behaviour and so have some control over how much of these optimal mood states we experience and can help ourselves to become happier.
Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” The activities are seen as rewarding in their own right and are often things that people will go to great lengths to be able to perform it.
There are several elements involved in a flow experience.
- There are clear indicators as to what is needed with every part of the activity.
- We receive immediate feedback on how we are performing.
- There is a close relationship between the skills needed to meet the challenge and our ability to perform them.
- The activity and sense of awareness are merged into one.
- Distractions are excluded from awareness by the depth of concentration.
- There is no concern about failure.
- Time awareness becomes distorted and can seem to pass rapidly. Like reading a good book before bed, only to find you have read on until three in the morning without noticing.
- There is no self consciousness.
- The activity is an end in itself, being done just for the sake of doing it. An autotelic activity.
There is no clear subjective experience of emotions, even positive ones. What is described is a mental state where conscious thought has been excluded and there is no interference from the mind.
The presence of flow is indicative of a state of mind where the self has been excluded, it is not “I” that is doing but the activity that is being done. The two have been merged into one. Like the Chinese performer spinning plates, when we carry out an action seamlessly and perfectly there is no need for guidance from either consciousness or emotion.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi highlighted five ways in which we can cultivate our ability to become autotelic.
- Setting ourselves tasks and goals which provide clear and immediate feedback.
- Allowing ourselves to become completely immersed in the activity.
- Paying attention to what is happening in the moment right now.
- Allowing ourselves to enjoy the immediate experience for its own sake.
- Using the right degree of skill for each activity.
There is a constant balance to be found between boredom, where the challenge is too easy, and anxiety, where the challenge is beyond our current skill level.
Flow states can be so pleasant that they become addictive. This can be seen where a kind of pseudo flow state is seen in young people playing video games. This can lead to the player entering into states where they will play for hours without a break.
Such a flow state can also be seen in meditation. The meditator can become so engrossed with the object of their mediation that they enter highly concentrated states that are pleasurable in their own right. These Dhyana states develop with increasing concentration and focus. they are also known as the absorptions.
Flow or spontaneous dhyana, is reminiscent of the state of mind that the Buddha recalled after training for many years to try and work out the answer to human suffering. He had learnt several different meditation systems, and had even tried the extreme ascetic lifestyle, but all to no avail. Then he remembered sitting under a tree when he was a young boy, concentrating on watching his father plough a field, and entering into a highly concentrated and focussed state. He wondered if this might be the answer, a state which he could perhaps use to understand the causes of human suffering. He sat down under a Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he had the answer or died trying.
In Buddhist meditation systems there is initially a focus on developing concentration (Samadhi, Samatha) , before using this focus to move on to develop insight. Mindfulness meditation is a powerful concentration technique as well as its other facets, the idea is to develop clarity and concentration by focussing on one thing, often the experience of the breath, to the exclusion of all else. Highly pleasurable absorption states can arise while meditating, and in many ways are the reward for practicing well, for some people this is enough.
People practice meditation for many reasons, some for relaxation, some for their health, and some for concentration and well being. As a Buddhist, I enjoy these states of mind when they arise, but they are not the aim of my mediation practice. I practice to develop a greater understanding of myself and hopefully the world. I am aware that my emotional states and beliefs influence how I chose to see the world and the events within it. To be able to change this I need to understand the various ideas I have picked up along the way, and the “emotional baggage” that I have collected as I have lived my life. Many of these ideas and beliefs are not based in reality, or the present, and it is through mediation that I come slowly to understand this and to gain more control over their expression in my daily life.
As described by Dogen, as we develop this knowledge about ourselves, the sense of self drops away, and we become able to see the world for what it is, rather that what we want it to be. We remove our thoughts and emotions from the equation and stop them from interfering with our perceptions of the world, so that we can live fully in the moment.
For me this is the route to true happiness.