…Then Let It Flow

“While there appear to be considerable differences between individuals with regard to the conditions and tasks that are conducive to flow, the state itself is described in remarkably similar terms regardless of socioeconomic status, age, culture and ethnicity”

-“Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence”, Ullen et al 2012

Flow state is a known experience associated with positive feelings, a sense of timelessness, and a loss of conscious thought. But does that mean that if we have a sense of timelessness, positive feelings, and a loss of conscious thought, that we are in flow state? Is it possible that the attempts to reverse engineer this experience have missed the mark? Those who are strong proponents of flow state would like to distinguish between the negative sides and the positive sides and suggest that we can somehow separate the two. That one can perhaps live purposefully in pursuit of flow state, without losing themselves in that pursuit. Perhaps this is possible, or perhaps not. But in order to determine that, we would have to first understand what flow state actually is.

The experience of satori, or awakening, is referred to as the entry into principle, or noumenon, and the obliteration of the artificial inhibitions of intellect this produces gives the impression of mastery. There are many examples of people who have evinced extraordinary capabilities after experiencing satori, such as the ability to master an art without being taught, but there is considerable individual and conditional difference in this, and the confusion of awakening with enlightenment has always been an issue in Zen

-Thomas Cleary

In samurai Zen, the main problem produced by confusion of realization in principle and in fact is the notion that it is only necessary to stop thinking and to react automatically to be in accord with principle in fact. The result is an unconscious amorality that can be manipulated externally unaware of its aberrations.

The last line is particularly foreboding. Someone who focuses entirely on acting without thinking may be happier, more satisfied, and even more skilled at what they do. But without thinking, how can they recognize when they are being played like a fiddle?

For the samurai this probably was not an issue. Their entire code was focused on loyalty to their leaders, and servitude to the extent that they effectively worshiped the idea of dying in combat. They were acutely aware that they were merely tools of war, that their responsibility was to fight and die, and they embraced that role wholeheartedly.

The ideal “empty mind” state that the samurai spent their idle time chasing featured a suppression of conscious thought, and an alignment of body and mind which made activity seem effortless. These same features are also consistently associated with flow state. Moreover, both states appear to carry similar negative consequences which are rarely discussed in comparison to the discussion of their positive effects, and these consequences are a danger to the individual themselves. Flow state is Zen. But the experience alone is not equivalent to enlightenment.


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