By Mr. Furious
“…It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”
“The psychic entropy peculiar to the human condition involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish and feeling able to accomplish more than what conditions allow.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
I visibly waffled on several occasions when attempting to begin this article. Literally. I sat down on the couch with my laptop, ready to begin the process of typing this stupid, god-forsaken thing, and I physically shuddered. Each time. And, each time, Missus Furious would gaze at me cock-eyed and ask what the fuck my problem was.
“Nothing,” I’d mumble. “Nothing at all.”
“Ok?” She’d say, skeptically. “But why do you keep doing that?”
“Having seizures or whatever it is you’re doing over there. Are you alright?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“YOU KEEP SHAKING.”
At that point I just shrugged and shook my head as if she were crazy.
This is what it’s like living with someone as mercilessly moronic as myself.
Anyhow, I did have several episodes of trembling. For a couple of reasons.
• • •
One: The thought of having to type Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s name a half-dozen or so times made me ill. This sounds like such a minor inconvenience that I must be making it up. But I’m not. You’re reading the work of the type of person who, when trying to watch Rey Mysterio highlights on youtube and an ad pops up, and the button in the corner of the ad says “you can skip this ad in 13 seconds,” I usually just close up the entire browser, get off the computer and go make peanut butter sandwiches or something, instead of waiting the 13 seconds.
Two: There are enough subtleties and nuances to both Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas and my own arguments, that I’m worried a fair number of potential readers are going to miss them. And, as a writer, I feel that if people misunderstand and/or don’t fully comprehend what is going on, it’s my fault, not the reader’s. So I spend an inordinate and irrational amount of time in the midsts of a neurotic episode because I’m convinced I’m not a good enough writer (or thinker) to make some of my ideas clear.
Regardless of how I feel—and regardless of my concerns—here I am. And since I’ve already buried the lede this far, let me just come out and tell you what my thesis is for the rest of the article: that so-called “flow” states are much more easily accessed—and most commonly experienced—when one is being a lazy fuck.
• • •
First off, even though Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow is one of the most popular and discussed ideas produced by psychology in the past 50 years or so, not everybody’s familiar with it. So we have to at least touch on what Flow is. Csikszentmihalyi himself describes the experience of flow as consisting of 6 components, which are:
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
All of which sounds incredibly reasonable and probably accurate. My issue is really with how Csikszentmihalyi argues we induce flow states, mostly because Csikszentmihalyi spends a good portion of the his book on the topic—inconceivably entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience—discussing his belief that Flow experiences must be stimulated by activities that provide just the right amount of challenge, i.e. not challenging to the point of making one frustrated, but not so devoid of challenge that one finds the activity boring.
Again, this assertion sounds rather reasonable. And it is. But Csikszentmihalyi then expounds on that idea to insist that one cannot be in a passive or lazy mind if one hopes to initiate states of Flow.
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (emphasis mine)
He gives, as support to this idea, the example of a European woman who is a scholar and business magnate. She constantly travels, owns a number of homes around the world, is ceaselessly attending business meetings or conferences or concerts. She is so busy and opposed to leisure time that she expects her chauffeur to attend the local art museums in whatever town she finds herself in and give her a run-down of sorts on how the art museum was. To me she sounds insufferable and her life sounds exhausting. The importance of discussing this concept of Flow, as even Csikszentmihalyi admits, is that Flow states are supposed to make us happy. The inability to sit still and enjoy life for being life doesn’t sound like happiness to me. It sounds like distraction.
Either way, the philosopher and author Ed Slingerland agrees. In his book, Trying Not to Try, he takes the concept of Flow and expands and—in my opinion—improves on Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas. Slingerland makes the connection between Flow states and the Chinese philosophical concept of Wu Wei. Wu Wei is typically translated (with numerous, but less influential, exceptions) as “non-action,” “non-doing,” or “actionless action.” There is not really an English equivalent. Anyhow, Slingerland makes a rather convincing argument that Flow states are essentially states of Wu Wei.
This is important, because—even though I disagree with a number of assertions in Slingerland’s book—Slingerland is able to recognize that it’s not effort that is necessary to initiate episodes of Flow, it is a lack of effort that activates such states. Hence the title his book, Trying Not to Try.
Slingerland, though, still has his own aversion to coming out and saying that it’s a certain kind of laziness that induces Flow/Wu Wei states. Most writers who attempt to expound on the concept of Wu Wei exhibit this bizarre anxiety.
• • •
I’ve already written a bit about the virtues of laziness, and I want to emphasize that there’s a big difference between boredom and laziness, two concepts which I think a lot of people conflate. I also want to reiterate a major point from that initial essay of mine, which is: that a healthy laziness (as opposed to an unhealthy laziness, which does exist) is merely the spontaneous act of doing whatever seems most enjoyable to a person at a given moment. For example, a few people I know insist that I’m not lazy because I work 50-plus hours each week and yet I still find time to write and work-out and such things. But I genuinely enjoy writing and exercise. And typically when I am engaging in such activities, I am doing so at times when they’re so enjoyable that they are not taking much actual effort to complete. My 50 hours of work each week are really the only parts of my life that take any kind of effort — well, that and when my wife puts me to work doing some kind of tedious work around the house (for me, although many people like DIY projects). The opposite of laziness is “working hard.” But I think work only becomes hard when we’re not interested in doing it. I have to work hard at work because there are literally thousands of other things I’d rather spend my life doing.
This is my definition of laziness: the doing of things that are enjoyable at times when they are enjoyable. There were times when I was in school that writing was not enjoyable and was full of effort. Even in my series of essays for Disinfo, I believe a keen (or maybe not so keen in some instances) eye can spot those essays that weren’t all that enjoyable to write. They’re full of real effort. I’m the rare writer who believes that one should only write when inspired, and the fact that so many writers force themselves to write is why I find so many novels so unreadable.
All of which is sort of besides the point. The main idea here is that a healthy laziness is being spontaneous and doing enjoyable things at times when they are enjoyable. Sometimes activities we find to be enjoyable aren’t going to be enjoyable (for any of a myriad of reasons) and we shouldn’t do those usually enjoyable things at those times.
If we follow this advice, I believe we will find ourselves to be more often in states of Flow/Wu Wei. I know this is true for me when I write when I feel like writing, when I work-out when I feel like working out, when I socialize when I feel like socializing. I have Flow/Wu Wei watering my garden in cool summer evenings. I have felt it drinking green tea under a full moon while sitting on a rocking chair in my backyard. I have felt it on long walks after work with Missus Furious. I have even felt it lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling while daydreaming about being interviewed by Charlie Rose or about being able to eventually, one day, do a one-armed pull-up. And so on.
Most of those activities don’t meet Csikszentmihalyi’s requirement that flow states must present some kind of challenge, nor did I have to work hard to attain any of those states, contrary to his assertions. Believe me, for example, when I say that it literally takes no effort to imagine one’s self explaining pretentiously to Charlie Rose why one’s novel about drunk college kids puking on each other is really an analog for certain aspects of Taoist philosophy.
What those activities did meet, though, were my requirements: activities should be done when they feel enjoyable to do so.
• • •
Both Csikszentmihalyi and Slingerland recognized that Flow/Wu Wei states are instigated when we are doing things for their own sake. When we sew because we like the act of sewing, not because we’re all that interested in making a beautiful dress. When we cook because we enjoy the process of cooking, not because we’re all that interested in the resulting meal. When we play basketball not because we really want to win, but because playing basketball is fun.
The results of such activities may be rewarding too. Creating a beautiful dress, eating a tasty meal, and winning a basketball game certainly feel good. But there’s a difference, say, between Michael Jordan, who played basketball to feed his own ego, and a person who plays basketball because the activity of playing basketball is enjoyable in and of itself, regardless of outcome. Primarily, Michael Jordan’s efforts were effortful, whereas the other person’s was actually an act of spontaneity, or laziness, as I define it. And if you need proof that one form of playing basketball is superior to the other, all you need to do is look at Jordan or, say, Kobe Bryant, and observe how happy or fulfilled those two are, despite their numerous championships and accomplishments in the sport of basketball.
What Slingerland and Csikszentmihalyi neglect, though, is that the only way to do something for its own sake is to not give a shit about it, at least in the traditional ways we give a shit about things. What I’m talking about is being apathetic about results. If we don’t care about winning the basketball game, then our attention is focused only the joys of playing the game itself. If we’re not concerned about results, then we can focus on the joys of the process, which is where we can be lazy and in which we make ourselves available to Flow/Wu-Wei.
Note: It is inherent in the word “Flow” that a process is occurring. A river cannot flow, for example, once it has reached its end result of entering the ocean or of having been dried up. One can flow making a hamburger or eating a hamburger, but one cannot flow when the hamburger is simply sitting on the plate after the process of having been made, or when it is done being consumed. One can flow playing a game of basketball, but not when one has finished playing and has “won” or “lost” the game. One can flow when sewing a dress, but not when the dress is completed. If this is true for sewing and cooking and playing basketball, how much truer is it for the act (the process) of living life itself?
For if we work too hard, place too much effort in a search for results, instead of simply living life for life’s sake, we close ourselves off from opportunities for experiencing Flow/Wu Wei. And when we spend our lives struggling, striving, working, being effortful for some sort of ultimately meaningless result, we miss all that is enjoyable and worth experiencing… except when we’re in the mood to be effortful.
I’ll end this thing with a long-ish quote from Chuang Tzu via Slingerland that sums all of this up–even though Slingerland doesn’t seem to realize the depth and profundity of just what Chuang Tzu was saying, for Slingerland doesn’t quite recognize the connection between “spontaneity” and “laziness.”
Per Chuang Tzu:
When people are asleep, their spirits wander off; when they are awake, their bodies are like an open door, so that everything they touch becomes an entanglement. Day after day they use their minds to stir up trouble; they become boastful, sneaky, secretive. They are consumed with anxiety over trivial matters but remain arrogantly oblivious to the things truly worth fearing. Their words fly from their mouths like crossbow bolts, so sure are they that they know right from wrong. They cling to their positions as though they had sworn an oath, so sure are they of victory. Their gradual decline is like autumn fading into winter—this is how they dwindle day by day. They drown in what they do—you cannot make them turn back. They begin to suffocate, as though sealed up in a box—this is how they decline into senility. And as their minds approach death, nothing can cause them to turn back toward the light.