Friday, May 3: In the book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Matthieu Ricard talks about what he calls the state of “flow,” in which “the fact of being immersed in what we are doing counts for more than the end result.”
This flow depends on the amount of attention given to the lived experience. One is completely involved in an activity for its own sake and there’s a sense of transcending the ego and time.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Mario and I were having one of our rambling conversations and he noted that all of us spend our lives trying to fend off boredom. We all want to have something that truly absorbs us. Something challenging and enjoyable. We are afraid of being bored, of feeling like we have nothing that engages us for the long hours we spend in solitude.
I’ve been searching my whole life for something that could fully engage me. When I was in middle school, I spent all my free time reading novels about horses, writing stories about horses, leaping over jumps on imaginary horses through an obstacle course set up in the back yard, playing with marbles named after famous horses on a marble racetrack. It seems silly when I look back on it now, but at the time, I was happy and I loved every minute I spent engaged in these activities.
When it started feeling that these activities were too babyish and not “cool” enough for a teenage girl, I gave them up. Simultaneously, it became clear that my ultimate dream of actually owning a horse was certainly NOT going to come true.
In my teenage years, I didn’t have much to absorb me. I spent all my time hanging out with my friends, going to the beach, shopping, going to parties. I had a great time doing these things, but when I was alone I felt lost. I didn’t have anything to do with myself that fully engaged me except reading novels, which luckily has always provided me moments of pure enjoyment.
Later, in my married life, I had the luxury of staying home with my children for 15 years. Yet. Somehow, I lacked those maternal instincts that enabled me to enjoy spending countless hours sitting on the floor playing make-believe with them. I enjoyed limited activities: taking them outdoors to play on a playground with other children, or taking them for walks in a stroller, or swinging while holding them in my lap and reciting Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “The Swing.”
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside–
Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown–
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!
So many long and tedious hours, being a stay-at-home mom. You’d think a person would cherish all that time to simply be engaged with her children, but, truth be told, I didn’t. All I could do was to get through my duties with my children, interact with them as if they were miniature adults, and then wait for their nap time, so I could find a few precious minutes to try to figure out what I would like to do with my life.
During these long years, I explored many activities that I hoped would engage me. I made quilts. I spent hours in quilt stores collecting fabrics and quilt books, designing quilts, cutting the pieces, sewing them together, and then quilting them by hand. Eventually, I found parts of this hobby I didn’t enjoy. I liked designing and putting the fabrics together, but I didn’t enjoy the sewing part. I found it tedious and uncomfortable, sitting at a sewing machine for hours on end. Slowly, my interest dwindled.
Then I tried interior design. Since I had a knack for putting fabrics and colors together, I figured I could design the interiors of people’s houses. I took classes in interior design and even spent scores of hours at an architectural drafting board drawing plans, including electricity, plumbing, and lighting, for my dream house. I still have those blueprints today and am amazed every time I look at them. While still attending classes, I started a little interior design business. But, once again, I found there was a part of this business I didn’t like. I loved putting the fabrics and the whole design of a room together, but I didn’t like the sales part. I’ve never been comfortable with sales; I had discovered this from my years as a stockbroker when I had to make 20-25 cold calls a day.
Oh, all these futile attempts to find “flow” in my life. When it really hit me that interior design involved such a sales aspect, I moved next to trying to realize my lifelong dream of becoming a writer.
I have always dreamed of writing, so I started taking creative writing classes, both in poetry and short fiction, at Northern Virginia Community College. After taking all the creative writing classes I could take there, I took classes at George Mason University. During this time, I wrote numerous short stories and poems. I also began writing my novel, the first draft of which took me about 1 1/2 years. Several things happened during this time to throw me off track; one of these was that my husband lost his job after 25 years, and I had to go back to work at a financial services firm. I had never wanted to work in a banking-related field again, so I became very depressed. The first draft of my novel sat unedited on my computer for nearly 10 years.
For awhile I tried making jewelry. I had no intention to sell this jewelry; I just wanted to do something creative that would engage me. I did enjoy that for quite a while, until I got too busy working on my Master’s degree in International Commerce and Policy, in 2006.
Being a student has always engaged me. Whenever I have taken classes, whether in English, business administration, interior design, creative writing, or finally, my Master’s in International Commerce & Policy, I have experienced “flow.” I always knew that if I could be a student forever, I’d be perpetually happy.
In Happiness, Ricard says that “if we are to enter into flow, the task must monopolize all our attention and present a challenge commensurate with our abilities. If it’s too difficult, tension sets in, followed by anxiety; too easy, and we relax and are soon bored.”
“So long as the state lasts, there is a loss of reflective self-consciousness.” The alert subject becomes one with his action and ceases to observe himself.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “one can experience flow when undertaking the most mundane tasks, such as ironing or working on a production line. It all depends on how one experiences the passage of time. Conversely, without flow, virtually any activity will be tedious, if not downright unbearable.”
Flow can be both negative or positive, and this value depends on the motivation coloring the mind. For example, a burglar carrying out his plan or a gambler at a roulette table can also lose himself and all sense of time. Thus flow is only a tool, and “in order to have it make any improvement in the quality of our lives, it must be imbued with human qualities, such as altruism and wisdom.”
Yes, flow can be negative or positive, and I’ve experienced both in my life. One negative experience of flow in my life was through shopping. Addictive shopping. I could get lost for hours wandering through my favorite shops of anthropologie or South Moon Under. But this activity was not positive because shopping was just a fleeting distraction. There was no creative aspect to it and I was squandering a lot of time and money.
Flow’s “major contribution to the quality of life consists in endowing every momentary experience with value,” say Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Ricard adds that “it can be extremely valuable in helping us to appreciate every moment of existence and putting it to the most constructive use possible.”
It has only been in the last three years that I’ve discovered what I believe to be a positive “flow” in my life. I have had to learn how to be alone for hours and hours and to keep myself entertained.
I am not one to run off with random groups of other expats to go shopping in Muscat, or to gallivant around the country. I don’t like being thrown together with random people to go anywhere, to be honest. I like to pick the company I keep very carefully. So happening upon a few close friends, like Mario and a few others, has been a blessing. Since Mario and I both enjoy taking walks outside and taking pictures, we have really enjoyed our explorations together. When we are exploring Oman together, the hours speed by. We are fully engaged in the activity.
I actually found, once I became brave enough to travel alone, that I feel “flow” all the time when traveling. Talking a walk in a new land with my camera in hand, I feel suspended in time. While writing about my travel experiences later in my blog, I actually feel so fully engaged that hours pass without me even realizing it. This is what I believe to be “flow.” At the end of every evening, I have to force myself to go to bed; I feel there are never enough hours in the day for all the things I want to do. This, I believe, is one aspect of finding flow. Working on my novel gives me a similar feeling. I love this flow because it comes from within, from my own creative impulses. It satisfies some yearning I have to open myself up to others.
Ricard suggests that “contemplating the nature of the mind is a deep and fruitful experience combining relaxation and flow.”
This is where meditation comes in. I have been doing a meditation practice for several months now, but I admit in the last week, somehow I have let my practice slip by the wayside. I know when I practice time in silence, I do experience “flow.” This is the most valuable thing I can do for myself and I want to keep it as a priority in my life.
“A good life is one that is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” ~ Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi