“The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing.” – Shunryu Suzuki
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the pioneers of the scientific study of happiness, discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during a state of consciousness called Flow. In this state they are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity which involves their creative abilities. During this “optimal experience” they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”
As an artist who had dabbled in painting himself, Csikszentmihalyi started his initial observations and studies on artists and creative types. He noted that the act of creating seemed at times more important than the finished work itself and he was fascinated by what he called the “flow” state, in which the person is completely immersed in an activity with intense focus and creative engagement. He set his life’s work to scientifically identify the different elements involved in achieving such a state.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
The experience of “flow” is strikingly reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s description of “great skill” achieved by Daoist sages such as carpenter P’ien and butcher Ting, the latter finding bliss in the art of chopping up ox carcasses by “going along with the Dao” of the ox. It is no coincidence that these blue-collar sages are situated on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy. They discover the Dao much more readily than Confucian scholars, who, according to Zhuangzi, are studying the “dregs of wisdom” in lifeless books and have lost touch with the world of concrete affairs.
“Flow is a source of psychic energy in that it focuses attention and motivates action. Like other forms of energy, it is neutral-it can be used for constructive or destructive purposes. Fire can be used to warm us up on a cold night or it can be used to burn down the house. The same is true of electricity or nuclear energy. Making energy available for human use is an important accomplishment, but learning how to use it well is at least as essential. Thus in creating a good life it is not enough to strive for enjoyable goals, but also to choose goals that will reduce the sum total of entropy in the world.”