Like jazz, life is a performing art. The liberated performance essential to artistic living is not about being on stage in front of critics; in particular, we do not fashion ourselves into objects for others’ pleasure. Thanks to the order established by the design phase of artistic living, liberated performance is not impulsive. And the heart of liberation is spiritual.
Freedom has two sides: freedom from and freedom to. Artistic living at its best is liberated from psychological hindrances; and it is free to engage wholeheartedly in the needed course of action. Artistic freedom is illustrated by a Swedish practice (a fartlek) used to train runners: they run not around a track, but at naturally varying velocities over hilly terrain, sprinting, charging up a hill, loping in a meadow. In general terms, this illustration suggests that when we intuit, feel, and follow in the movement of life, we let go of anxiety. The resulting freedom carries us beyond slavish engrossment in the desired goal.
And yet one kind important kind of peak experience of action, being in the zone, is not predicated on spiritual faith. This is an experience that the Creator has made available to everyone. Being in the zone has come to be known, thanks to the writing of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as “flow.” In the paradigm case, e.g., for an athlete or mountain climber, a person of high skill faces a high challenge, just at a level which calls forth one’s best. “The main dimensions of flow—intense involvement, deep concentration, clarity of goals and feedback, loss of a sense of time, lack of self-consciousness and transcendence of a sense of self, leading to an autotelic, that is, intrinsically rewarding experience—are recognized in more or less the same form by people the world over.” The goals are clear, so that the feedback one immediately receives enables one’s ongoing response to adjust to the continually updated situation. Referred to more commonly today as being “in the zone,” it is an experience of action free of stress.
It is to Csikszentmihaly’s credit that he envisages the possibility of an entire culture living continuously in flow. He writes:
Often what prompts the development of a civilization is not a change in objective conditions, but a conceptual reorganization that allows a group of people to recognize challenges where they did not see any before. . . . Such reconceptualizations, according to Toynbee, were the task of “creative minorities” within each culture. . . . The Occitan culture is . . . an example of that rare adaptation, a way of life that absorbs all the energies of its members in an enjoyable, fulfilling interaction. Work is just as enjoyable as leisure, and leisure is as meaningfully related to the rest of life as work is.
One person told me that the activity in which he experienced being in the zone was playing pinball. I wager that spirituality would indeed be required for flow to pervade the whole of life.
When have you experienced liberated and flowing action (whether or not it would fit the definition of “flow”)? Do you think that spirituality had anything to do with it?
Csikszentmihalyi and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi, eds. Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 365.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi, eds. Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 183, 185, 187.