Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pondering the Flow

Any stylist in any of the creative arts will readily understand what the phrase "going with the flow" means.  Etymologically it means to act as others are acting without giving it a second thought.  However, the flow I am referring to here in my title is the flow of energy we get when we are doing something intuitive  and spontaneous which is from the heart. I began writing when I was a young student at college.  Of course, I had written many essays in English and Irish, and even some in French during my secondary school years at Scoil Uí Chonaill here in Dublin.  However, when I got to Mater Dei Institute of Education I was very fortunate to have done English Literature and Language.  For essays and creative writing, called by the pretentious title "Rhetorical Composition", I was fortunate to have an old Holy Ghost Priest called Barney Kelly or Brian Ó Ceallaigh who had two doctorates, a D.D. and a D.Litt.  Brian used give us theological books to review and he'd embellish our efforts a little and get them published in theological journals under our very own names.  I loved the thrill of seeing my name in print.  Under Brian's tuition the writing bug began for me, and I have never ceased writing since.  This man taught me how to write clearly and with structure.  One of my favourite comments I ever received on an English exercise I got from Brian: "Stilted, but ease will come with time!"  Brilliant, succinct and so true.  I took his words to heart and kept writing.  The ease - or the flow - did come, or to put it another way I began to swim with the tide or to go with the very flow of my own creative energy in creating my very own style.  When I tapped into this flow of energy the words began to behave for me.  A new music began to sing in my heart, and this music transformed itself into words on the page.

However, there are times we do need to stand back and look at the work done.  We need to stand back and ponder what we have created.  All artists need to do this in order to discover the secrets that have led them thus or thus, this way or that.  Indeed, I would argue that all creative people whether they belong to the arts or not need to do so also.  Under this umbrella I would count business men and scientists and engineers and all who value thought in all its cultural manifestations.  We need to at least be able to  analyse what we have done.  In the words of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives (1956, believe it or not) we need to be able to analyse, synthesise and evaluate all we do at a cognitive level.  These are all higher order activities based on lesser educational objectives like application, comprehension and remembering

I remember once an old colleague of mine called Richard Heneghan telling me that he had liked a piece of I written for the Union journal because he said simply "it flowed."  Recently another colleague complimented me on doing Master of Ceremonies at the graduation of our sixth years with the words "You were on a roll!"  Going with our internal flow of energy and being on a roll are one and the same thing.  As the great French scientist and writer Buffon said of style - and I believe one could say the same of flow - and his definition has never been bettered: "Le style c'est l'homme meme".  In other words style mirrors the character of the writer.  Flow and roll mirror our personality - they reflect the way we really are in ourselves. See the following link for my previous comments on this topic: Buffon and Style.

Anyway, I wish to mention flow with respect to psychology and personal development here.  With this in mind I wish to refer to a book called Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (What a mouthful of a name.  Apologies, Mihaly, we Westerners are stumped by languages outside the Romantic mould.   I am informed that the surname is pronounced Chick-sent-me-hi.)  Anyhow Mihaly is our flow guru or our "on a roll" expert.  Other colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be on the ball, in the zone, or in the groove.

We all intuitively know when we are "on a roll" or "in the groove" or "going with our own internal flow."  This is when we experience being fully immersed in what we are doing, being fully energized by our situation or being totally involved and fully focused.  For me personally I feel as if there is a power working through me or rather an energy into which I tap.  Therefore, it is easy to see why this  overpowering feeling is called by the term "flow" because it's as if a power were flowing through you and you are the instrument or conduit of it.  The WIKI gives a different etymology for "going with the flow" than I understand it here in Ireland.  It renders the meaning of this phrase as literally meaning "to conform."  My understanding of the phrase id different from this etymological understanding.  "To go with the flow" for me means "to go with my own personal internal flow of energy."  That how I will use the phrase here.  For me it means anything but conformity.  It embraces creativity and spontaneity in their essential and pure states.

The WIKI puts it thus:

Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.  See WIKI Article

Among the components of Flow, Mihaly (I am using his Christian name for handiness) lists the following: concentrating and focusing on the matter at hand, a loss of self-consciousness, a sense of personal control over the occasion or event, and a merging of action and awareness.  I have noted these particular ones I have listed here when I act as M.C. for any official activity at school.  I become so involved in the occasion at hand that I lose all self-consciousness and I do feel a distinct sense of fusing or merging with the occasion as it were - my actions and my awareness in Mihaly's words do merge.  And certainly I also feel a sense of control over the event but not in the sense of an authoritarian or autocratic control - rather the control of a lover over his or her beloved when they make love.  That's the nearest analogy I can come up with here.

And so what are the lessons we are to learn from Mihaly's Flow?  In the first place I believe he is indirectly telling us not to waste our time in the pursuit of happiness.  I have already adverted to Ivor Browne on this very point already at this link: Browne on Happiness.  Rather Mihaly is recommending that we should become really aware of what activities make us really happy, that is those activities that set up that power or flow or energy in us or those activities that make us feel powerful and true to and in ourselves and then do more of those things.  Happiness, then, does not become an objective but rather a task of awareness, a tapping into what is naturally and essentially alive in us already.

Above the flow of water on the Carrowbeg River Westport, Mayo, March 2007

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