Flowing in Daily Life

In Zen in the Art of Archery, Herrigel describes how he approached a Zen master with his desire to learn Zen. Zen is a serious philosophy of life. Many people would categorize it as a religion (though I do not). But the Zen master taught Herrigel archery!

The ultimate goal wasn’t good archery. The Zen master was teaching Herrigel how to use his Inferential System, so that he could use it in real life. Similarly, I do hope you learn to be more effective at sports, arts, and crafts, and I hope you learn to better enjoy your vacations and games. But what matters most is that you bring the power of joy of flow to the activities of your daily life.

Flowing in Daily Life

I taught flow to three different classes. In doing so, I learned a lot from my students. I learned from observing them, from listening to their comments and criticisms, and from their stories. One of my learning experiences was that flow could be effective in daily life. You have to remember that flow is mostly discussed as being done in sports, crafts, arts, and maybe games. When I first taught, I added vacationing to this list. So I had flowing for effectiveness (in sports, crafts, and arts) and flowing for enjoyment (in vacationing). Saying that activities were conducive to flow implies meant the other activities of daily are not conducive to flow, and that flow was a technique to occasionally use for particular activities. I accepted that.

Apparently I did not communicate this very well to the students in my first class. I asked them to trying flowing and describe their experience. Some of them flowed in activities that -- at least theoretically -- were not conducive to flow.

For example, Veronica Lynn regularly swam. Normally, her goal was to perform a set of exercises. One day she tried flowing "for effectiveness". She reported, “One weekend I asked myself what I wanted to do and I chose to go to the gym and swim. When I got to the pool I selected the first alternative of what exercise I should do first. After a while of continuing this ‘flowing’ I had realized that I had completed double the time swimming I normally accomplished when not flowing. I had also enjoyed this time more.”

Both Csikszentmihalyi and Chuang Tzu mention swimming as a flow activity. But their notion is that flow would lead to swimming faster or more efficiently. Veronica used flow to decide what and when to swim. Instead, of being more skillful, she was more productive -- she swam farther. Her swimming was also more enjoyable, even though enjoyment was not a goal.

Then Veronica tried swimming again, but this time enjoyment was her goal. “I got into the pool and asked myself again ‘What do I want to do?’ except this time I didn’t put the restriction on myself of having to do only exercising.” She then mixed her exercises with fun activities, choosing some of the time to do exercises even though the goal was to have fun. She reported, “When doing this I found that I did more exercising and more repetitions that I did when my goal was effectiveness. I also found that I was having a lot more fun and I swam about triple the length of when I did not flow.”

Exercise has a reputation as being unenjoyable. Most people would expect that, if their goal was enjoyment, they would not exercise at all. But when Veronica chose enjoyment as a goal, she exercised more!

Another student told me he was going to try flowing when he visited his mother. He reported loving his mother but not getting along with her. I didn’t say anything to him, but I thought he was choosing a poor situation for flow. First, talking to Mom is not a traditional flow activity. Second, if he had negative feelings towards his mother, flow would seem to be very dangerous -- “doing what you want” doesn’t sound like a good strategy for a sensitive social situation. Shouldn’t he carefully assess what he was going to say before saying it? Shouldn’t he check and edit to make sure he doesn’t say something he doesn’t want to say? Nonetheless, he reported that the visit was very successful, and he stayed up late into the night talking to his mother.

In traditional flow activities, there is an obvious goal, such as winning at tennis. But what was this student's goal? I don’t think he had a particular goal in mind. If he did, I am not sure what is was. Instead, he just flowed. It wasn’t the traditional flowing for enjoyment -- he apparently enjoyed the conversation, but he also accomplished something very important.

These students had taught me that flow could be used in the activities of daily life. Well, that made a lot of sense. If flow is effective, creative, and enjoyable, why not use it as often as possible? So I tried flowing all of the time -- while teaching, while playing with children, in how I relate to other people, and in how I spent my free time. It wasn’t always easy.It wasn’t always effective. But, it was more effective than anything else I have tried, and it was surprisingly enjoyable. I still use flow as much as possible.

Other Advocates of Flow in Daily Life

Others that have advocated flowing in daily life include Takuan, a 17th century Japanese Zen master; Bankei, another 17th century Japanese Zen Buddhist; and Chuang Tzu, a Chinese Taoist in the 4th century B.C. Watson (1964, p.6) wrote this about Chuang Tzu's ideal person:

“He [the ideal person] maintains a state that Chuang Tzu refers to as wu-wei, or inaction, meaning by this term not a forced quietude, but a course of action that is not founded upon any purposeful motives or gain or striving. In such a state, all human actions become as spontaneous and mindless as those of the natural world. Man becomes one with Nature, or Heaven, as Chuang Tzu calls it, and merges himself with Tao, or the Way, the underlying unity that embraces man, Nature, and all that is in the universe.

To describe this mindless, purposeless mode of life, Chuang Tzu turns most often to the analogy of the artist or craftsman. The skilled woodcarver, the skilled butcher, the skilled swimmer does not ponder or ratiocinate on the course of action he should take; his skill has become so much a part of him that he merely acts instinctively and spontaneously and, without knowing why, achieves success. Again, Chuang Tzu implies the metaphor of a totally free and purposeless journey, using the word yu (to wander, or a wandering) to designate the way in which the enlightened man wanders through all of creation, enjoying its delights without ever becoming attached to any one part of it.”

Seung Sahn (1976, 1987) is a modern Buddhist advocating flow. Seung Sahn’s term is no mind. Seung Sahn also advocates not “checking”, meaning that actions should not be consciously evaluated after being constructed. Instead, just do it.

I once attended a talk by Seung Sahn. He described the various paths to enlightenment, such as love, action, and service. The problem was, I seek knowledge and understanding through thinking. This was not one of the paths he mentioned. Furthermore, my emphasis on thinking and knowledge contradicted his proscriptions against conscious thought. After his talk, I approached him and confessed to seeking understanding through thinking. I thought he would say that I should abandon my attempts to think. He looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t check.”

Awesome. "Checking" is worrying that you are doing the right thing. It is one of the things to avoid when you are flowing. But Seung Sahn was telling me not to check for the basic question of what goal to follow in my life. In retrospect, I don’t think he was saying my search for knowledge was the theoretically optimal path. Instead, he was saying it was my path, and therefore I should follow it, to find out where it led. Checking was just useless conscious thinking that would only slow and confuse my journey. And I am pretty sure he was right. Basically, you can't follow someone else's path -- you either follow your own path, or you stand still.

Why Flow Works in Daily Life

You can try to ignore your Inferential System in your daily life. But your Inferential System is too powerful to profitably ignore -- you won’t be creative and your actions won’t be effective. Furthermore, your Inferential System is important to your happiness. If you ignore it, you won’t be that happy, and you won’t know why. Therefore, to be effective and happy in your life, you have to use your Inferential System.

Anyway, your Inferential System can’t be ignored. If you try to ignore it, you’ll just end up fighting with it. When you start fighting with your Inferential System, you’ll be even less effective and happy.

So, given that you are going to use your Inferential System, and you need to use your Inferential System, why not flow? Flow optimizes the functioning of your Inferential System, and daily flow brings this optimal functioning to your daily life. These advantages include creativity, speed, effectiveness, and enjoyment.

Your Inferential System has privileged access to a lot of information useful in daily life. Many students try to keep learning when their interest flags. But I think a lack of interest is a sign that learning is not occurring. (To me more precise, that learning of mental models, discussed in the final section of this, is not occurring.) So stopping when your interest wanes is a good strategy. Similarly, Chapter 3 discussed the advantages of incubation -- setting aside a problem for a moment. How do you know when to set aside a problem? How do you know when to go back to it? As far as I know, you let your desires be your guide -- you want to set the problem aside and you want to get back to it.

Other Advantages

Flowing in daily life has several side benefits. First, I think flowing helps you develop a sense of self. It is unlikely that your sense of self consists of knowledge about your conscious mind. Instead, it is knowledge about what you like, and your likes come from your Inferential System. So flow lets you explore yourself. Also, when you do what you want, with full awareness, you are being yourself; following instructions will not produce a strong sense of self.

Second, when people flow, they seem less likely to experience regret. For example, in my first flow vacation, I spent the night sleeping in my car. This was uncomfortable enough that I never tried it again. However, I don’t regret sleeping in the car. In contrast, once when I had to fly, I scheduled my flight for overnight, just to save money. I wasn’t flowing, I was being logical. The plane was uncomfortable and I did regret that decision.

One student tried flowing during one of my tests. The result was disastrous-he had always received A’s on my tests, but for that test he received a C. (The problem was that he was being creative, rather than demonstrating what he knew.) But he reported no regret about having tried to flow. Of course, if you intentionally do something wrong that unfairly hurts other people, you should experience regret. Hopefully flow will not lead you to this. But people sometimes experience regret even when they had good intentions. Flow seems to avoid this.

Third, flow increases your spontaneity. Being spontaneous means that you react quickly to the immediate situation, and flow allows quick reactions. In social settings, spontaneous reactions are usually perceived as more honest and genuine, with good reason: When people react to a situation spontaneously, they are usually giving their true reaction. On the other hand, when people want to hide what they really feel or think, they have to consider and evaluate their response, hence they are not spontaneous. Therefore, spontaneous actions are more likely to reflect a person’s true feelings and thoughts.

Fourth, flow increases your ability to handle new or unexpected situations. If you are afraid of the unexpected, you will be anxious. Most people try to relieve their anxiety by increasing their planning, imagining everything that might arise. But you can never eliminate the possibility that something unexpected will happen. As far as I know, the only solution for this anxiety is confidence that you can handle the unexpected. Flow gives you this practice. You are not planning ahead, you are treating every situation like it is new. Some situations will seem newer than others, but you learn to deal with the situations as they occur. This skill serves you well in new or unexpected situations.