The truth is that the more ourselves we are,
the less self is in us.
—Meister Eckhart

In a glowing passage from Anna Karenina, Tolstoy describes an experience of self-transcendence with such color and detail that one feels its living quality as though from the inside. Oppressed by worry, the ruminative Konstantin Levin decides one day to work in the fields alongside the peasants, a highly unusual thing for a landowner, even one as eccentric as Levin, to do. Although unaccustomed to the hard physical labor, Levin eventually falls into a rhythm that washes away extraneous thoughts and brings his senses to life.

The grass cut with a juicy sound and fell in high, fragrant rows. On the short rows the mowers bunched together, their tin dippers rattling, their scythes ringing when they touched, the whetstones whistling upon the blades, and their good-humored voices resounding as they urged each other on.

In time Levin so loses himself in the work that it discloses to him a kind of state of grace.

The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when it was not his arms which swung the scythe but the scythe seemed to mow of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without a thought being given to it, the work did itself regularly and carefully. These were the most blessed moments.

Such blessed moments are, one might say, a kind of touchstone in Buddhist, and especially Zen, spirituality. When the world is experienced, as the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen writes, “with the whole of one’s body and mind,” the senses are joined, the self is opened, and life displays an intrinsic and unitive richness. In a famous passage from Genjokoan, Dogen writes:

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.

But how does one forget the self? Certainly not by trying. That would be like trying not to think of a white elephant: the more you try, the more insistent the thought becomes. One forgets the self, Zen teachers say, by becoming one with the task at hand. At such moments, released from the burdens of selfhood, one glimpses, however briefly, a state of spiritual wholeness that underlies and supports one’s everyday consciousness.

The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”) has, for more than three decades, devoted himself to the patient and rigorous study of the kind of blessed moments that Tolstoy describes. In 1963 as part of his research for his doctoral dissertation on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi spent hundreds of hours observing artists at work and interviewing them about the nature of their experience. He became intrigued by how they became totally immersed in their labors. In time he realized that it was the activity itself—the work of painting-and not, as he had thought, the anticipation of its outcome, that so enthralled his subjects. The work was worth doing—though often not consciously—for the sake of simply doing it.

flow zen buddhism
Four Nesting Spirals, Second Version, 2000, enamel on aluminum, 2-1/16 x 22-11/16 inches, © James Siena, Courtesy of Pacewildenstein

The observation that people do things for no other reason than that they bring enjoyment is hardly earth-shattering. But its simplicity can obscure the richness of its implications. For Csikszentmihalyi, it pointed directly to the deep and elusive question of human happiness. What, he wondered, do people feel when they are most happy? Why do certain activities bring enjoyment and others do not? What can we do to enhance our capacities to find enjoyment throughout the events of daily life? After receiving his doctorate, Csikszentmihalyi eventually joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he was able to pursue these questions systematically and thoroughly.

In the course of his investigations, he identified a dimension of human experience that is common to people the world over. Elderly Korean women, Japanese teenage motorcycle-gang members, Navajo shepherds, assembly line workers in Chicago, artists, athletes, surgeons—all described the experience in essentially the same words. Its characteristics include joy, deep concentration, emotional buoyancy, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self-consciousness, and self-transcendence. Employing an image used frequently by his subjects, Csikszentmihalyi named this optimal human experience flow.

Based on their research into flow, Csikszentmihalyi and his associates over the years produced dozens of articles for scholarly journals. In the late 1980s, he gathered twenty-five years’ worth of findings on the subject and presented it in a form accessible to the lay reader. The resulting book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, was released in 1990 and was an immediate and critically acclaimed national bestseller.

Flow abounds with rich accounts, culled from the author’s research, of the experience in question. Some of the accounts are highly dramatic; others are noteworthy for their ordinariness. But whatever the case, these curious moments of inner freedom entail a “merging of action and awareness,” and it is this unified consciousness that Csikszentmihalyi regards as “the most telling aspect of the flow experience.”

As Csikszentmihalyi himself is the first to point out, the “discovery” of flow is not a discovery at all, “for people have been aware of it since the dawn of time.” Indeed, the idea that, in the words of T. E. Lawrence, “happiness is absorption” is so consistent a theme in discourse on the inner life that one might well say that the condition it names is a primary feature of human nature.

Absorption in a task frees up psychic energy that would otherwise be constrained by the myriad concerns and perceptual habits of the quotidian ego. This brings a sense of enjoyment and a more vital relationship to the world. Whether the experience is felt as a moment of simple clarity or an epiphany that rattles one to the core of one’s being, whether it occurs while deep in meditation or while pruning the roses, the principle—that happiness is absorption—is the same. Although we humans have devised countless means for eliciting self-transcendence, the impulse toward that experience is a constant. We are, it seems, possessed of a transcendent imperative.

Granted, there are important distinctions to uphold here. The experience of a Trappist monk lost in contemplative prayer and that of a pitcher focused on keeping his sinker low and outside can hardly be called identical. But self-forgetting concentration—the merging of action and awareness—is an essential ingredient to the experience of each. It is the precondition-the noetic springboard, if you will—from which they move forth toward their very different objectives.

It is common when discussing transcendent experience to portray the self, the ego, as some kind of villain, or at least a bad sport. But the Freudian mythology puts the matter better. For Freud, the ego was a tragic figure, at once the reality principle and the seat of anxiety. Being saddled with the responsibility of mediating conflicting demands, controlling instinctive impulses, withstanding the superego’s perfectionist recriminations, and negotiating the endless travails on the path of life is no picnic, even in the best of circumstances. And the best of circumstances never really obtain anyway.

Like any conscious entity, the self seeks to maintain and enhance its existence, yet that very existence is a burden from which it craves relief. It’s enough to drive one to drink, literally. Indeed, it was in recognition of this state of affairs that Freud called alcohol the “universal solvent” for the anxious ego. Jung, as was his way, carried Freud’s insight further, into the realm of religion, by locating in the roots of alcoholism a distorted expression of an innate spiritual impulse.

Alcohol is, of course, but one of many ways one might seek to circumvent the vicissitudes of selfhood through the dulling of consciousness. But freedom from the self comes not through the dulling of consciousness but through its refinement, not through dissolving the ego but through moving beyond it. And for this, any activity, in theory at least, will do; any activity can occasion the providential disclosure that the egoic self is but a small part of who one is and that to live entirely within its familiar confines is to experience only a small part of the life one is given. Just as we need a strong sense of self to function well, so do we need freedom from the self to function freely.

Throughout human history, religion has been the primary repository of the wisdom of self-transcendence. Religion has provided not only the ritual forms for eliciting transcendence but also the conceptual and social contexts in which such experiences are given rich elaboration and tied to a virtuous and purposeful life. But while the transcendent imperative has always been an essential concern of religion, it has never been exclusively defined by religion. It is something that is religious in itself. Indeed, for adherents of the world’s esoteric traditions—Christian mystics or Islamic Sufis, Buddhist meditators or Hindu yogis—the transcendent imperative is the foundation upon which the doctrines and institutions of religion must rest, the inner core around which they must cohere.

Today, more than at any other time, we have greater and more ready access to humankind’s rich and diverse legacy of wisdom about what Aristotle called the “virtuous activity of the soul.” But such wisdom cannot truly be said to be cumulative; neither is it easily passed from one culture to another. Its expression must be worked out in accordance with the particulars of the cultural and historical milieu in which, inevitably, it is embedded. If wisdom about the the means and meaning of transcendent experience is to remain vital, if it is to address, as it must, our deepest sensibilities, the body of insights developed in one cultural context must, as conditions change, be adapted to the exigencies of another.

Our traditions need, from time to time, to be revitalized. During periods when changes in our world and worldview are especially profound, that need becomes more acute. The religious historian Karen Armstrong writes that, when traditions cease to address adequately a society’s spiritual needs, people will find “new ways of being religious.” It is in our nature to pursue and, just as important, confer meaning upon the transcendent imperative. But as Armstrong and others have observed, we in the modern period have yet to articulate comprehensively a religious approach that is equal to and definitive of the unique challenges of our times.

Today, science has replaced the traditional cosmologies with an indifferent universe, and social systems and institutions have been shown to be the creation of human beings and not expressions of divine will or natural order. We postmoderns, having experienced what Saul Bellow calls “a housecleaning of belief,” cannot rely on the certainties of the past, for most of them have lost their power. But, if we wish to live full and good lives, neither can we ignore the wisdom that the past affords. These are the two horns of the dilemma upon which modern religious consciousness is perched.

It is against this backdrop that Csikszentmihalyi’s work is most instructive, both for its merits and its shortcomings. His is an attempt to find through science a basis for a virtuous and purposeful life. Using the tools of science, Csikszentmihalyi abstracts an essential and defining human experience—flow—from the countless activities that elicited it. In addition, he discerns the conditions, internal and external, that are most likely to give rise to the experience and the factors that obstruct it. Further, he interprets his findings in such a way as to address convincingly the place of flow in matters of meaning, value, and purpose in human affairs. Toward this latter end, he seeks to affirm and to integrate the wisdom of the past with “our most trustworthy mirror of reality”—that is, with scientific knowledge. He is trying, one might say, to work out a response to the problem of modernity T. S. Eliot poses in The Rock: to find the knowledge that is lost in information, and to find the wisdom that is lost in knowledge. And like Eliot, Csikszentmihalyi’s ultimate concern is perennial and, in a generic sense, religious: to find that secret life that is lost amid the concerns of living.

flow zen buddhism
Floppy Recursive Combs, James Siena, 2004, wood engraving, 5 x 4 inches, paper size 12 x 10 inches, edition of 60. Printed by Pace Editions Ink; Published by Pace Editions, Inc.

As with any worthy scientific endeavor, as work on flow proceeded, new questions arose, two of which were particularly significant. The first was moral. Optimal experience is morally neutral. In applying his skills to a challenging break-in, a burglar is likely to experience flow, as is a grifter working out the details of an elaborate con or an assassin taking aim at an unsuspecting victim. Adolf Eichmann, writes Csikszentmihalyi, “probably experienced flow as he shuffled the intricate schedules of trains, making certain that the scarce rolling stock was available where needed, and that the bodies were transported at the least expense. He never seemed to ask whether what he was asked to do was right or wrong. As long as he followed orders, his consciousness was in harmony.”

The second problem followed from just this point. This is the problem of meaning. One might experience a high degree of flow in one of life’s domains and yet be hopelessly boorish in every other. One need only pick up a newspaper or open a book to be made aware of artists, athletes, intellectuals, and other persons of accomplishment whose virtuous activity fails to extend beyond the parameters of their chosen field of expertise. This calls to mind a caution, often a criticism, arising from within religion, which has long been aimed at those who pursue gnosis, or transcendent knowledge. For mystics, yogis, and contemplatives of any stripe, single-minded focus on the transcendent imperative can become so compelling a force that those garden-variety virtues that make for an ethically sound life suffer by neglect.

For the Stoic philosophers of antiquity, no virtue could stand alone. Each virtue needed others to be complete. The term for this was antakolouthia, or the mutual entailment of virtues, and we might well apply this notion to optimal experience. To realize its potential as a virtuous activity of the soul, flow must be experienced wisely and in connection with other traits of a positive character. But to make wise choices, one must have faith in a framework that gives purpose and coherence to individual acts and decisions.

To place optimal experience in a meaningful and moral context, Csikszentmihalyi turned to the idea of evolutionary complexity. Complexity, he believes, can serve as the foundation for a viable faith at a time when the traditional religious frameworks no longer can. In his 1993 book The Evolving Self, he writes, “Understanding how evolution works, and what role we may play in it, provides a direction and purpose that otherwise is lacking in this secular, desacralized world.”

Csikszentmihalyi subscribes to the view held by many, but hardly all, evolutionary thinkers that evolution proceeds in the direction of increasing complexity—that is, toward continuous differentiation and integration—and that the realization of complexity is, therefore, the benchmark for measuring evolutionary success.

Differentiation refers to the degree to which a system (i.e., an organ such as the brain, or an individual, a family, a corporation, a culture, or humanity as a whole) is composed of parts that differ in structure or function from one another. Integration refers to the extent to which the different parts communicate and enhance one another’s goals. A system that is more differentiated and integrated than another is said to be more complex.

Both these tendencies are evident in optimal experience. Finding new challenges, developing new skills and refining old ones, opening oneself to novel experiences—these are all differentiating functions. Through them, different aspects of one’s being, and one’s very individuality, are given expression and definition. The incorporation of skills and experiences into the wholeness of one’s being brings order to consciousness and harmony to actions—that is, it enhances integration. Given this, the enjoyment that flow brings can be thought of as the manifestation in experience of our evolutionary predilection for complexity.

The development of complex structures—whether biological, psychological, or social—takes place against the backdrop of entropy, the tendency of any and all systems to decay and dissolve into randomness. To maintain order and harmony, a system must appropriate and expend tremendous energy. Speaking in more human terms, the virtuous activity of the soul must be attended to if it is to flourish.

It is precisely because complexity is so tenuous that its cultivation and sustainment can serve as a meaningful basis for ethical action. For Csikszentmihalyi, this means that the ethics of flow require that it not be pursued solely as an isolated, individual event but as something that enhances complexity throughout one’s life and extends through the expanding circles of one’s relatedness with the larger world. Csikszentmihalyi’s idea that through flow one can become an active participant in the great unfolding drama of evolution recalls Aristotle’s word for the well-lived life: eudaimonia, the state of being both content within oneself and blessed in one’s relation with the divine.

With The Evolving Self, Csikszentmihalyi joined the tradition of “grand theorists”—those thinkers who attempt to work out a comprehensive understanding of human nature and human goals that is grounded in the very structure of life. More specifically, he joined with those grand theorists—from Henri Bergson to Teilhard de Chardin to Ken Wilber—who see in evolution the basis for an epic narrative infused with religious significance, one capable of speaking to the contemporary world in a manner akin to how the mythical cosmologies and histories spoke to human beings of the past.

In today’s disorienting and pluralistic climate of ideas, grand theorizing is a bold, sometimes even noble, intellectual endeavor. But the world is not a particularly hospitable place for such efforts. At a time when the scope of our knowledge about the world constantly undermines those certainties to which the more provincial past was much kinder, grand theories are intellectual Titanics, unwieldy things that are difficult to keep afloat, so to speak. We don’t need Jacques Derrida and his deconstructionist Horsemen of the Apocalypse to point out the failings of Marxism, pychoanalysis, church doctrine, and other total systems. They deconstruct right before our eyes. The problem is not that we don’t long for or need a unifying vision. We do. The problem is that they keep sinking.

Still, as grand theories go, Csikazentmihalyi’s is an impressive one. It manages to be bold without being arrogant. Its breadth and flexibility allow it to contain and valorize a wide range of human insight and experience, something sorely needed in our multi-worldview world. It is able to both affirm and challenge traditional forms of knowledge and praxis. And while it may lack the speculative daring of a visionary like Teilhard, its open-endedness and level-headedness lend to it the capacity for virtually endless application. Nevertheless, for all their merits, to say nothing of scholarly panache, Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas are not immune to the problems that seem inevitably to accrue to grand theories.

In attempting to subsume so much information under a single explanatory scheme, grand theories give short shrift to much of the rich detail of human experience. Important distinctions get blurred, or lost altogether, as symbols, ideas, and practices are removed from the organic context in which they are rooted and then cut to fit the designs of a newly minted one. Viewing, say, Zen Buddhism through the conceptual lens of flow and complexity might prove most valuable; still, it is a far cry from understanding Zen from within its native framework.

Mythic consciousness demands that sacred things be approached not with the distance of disinterested scrutiny but in a spirit of faith. Otherwise, the gods depart.

Another problem has to do with the nature of scientific knowledge itself. A Haitian adage says, “When the anthropologists arrive, the gods depart.” Science is our world’s most powerful form of knowledge, but despite its pretensions to the contrary, it is not impartial, nor is it free from the values of the culture from which it emerged. Science is an epistemic stance, one that makes possible certain types of reflection and knowledge even as it ignores others. As a mode of understanding the world, science places primary value on explanatory knowledge. This is quite inimical to a mythic stance, which holds that the world is disclosed most meaningfully in its mystery. Mythic consciousness demands that certain things—sacred things—be approached not with the distance of disinterested scrutiny but in a spirit of faith. Otherwise, the gods depart.

Then, too, there is the thorny issue of direction in evolution. The late Stephen Jay Gould, who was perhaps America’s most eminent evolutionary thinker, pointed out that, beginning with Darwin himself, evolutionists have distinguished between the fact that evolution has occurred and the theories advanced about how it has occurred. Gould himself rejected the idea that evolution possesses a sensible directionality leading toward complexity, dismissing such notions as “spin-doctored” views designed to bolster our sense of human importance: there is no directionality, in other words, just adaptation.

The issue is, for now, not resolvable, and in fact, it may stay that way. Complexity seems to be a sound and elegant interpretation of what we know, but accepting it or rejecting it is a choice. In this regard, then, it is, ironically, a kind of faith. And if we set aside arguments about competing theories of evolution, the power of the idea remains, for evolution is the modern creation story.

The story of who we are and the story of what the universe is are bound together.

We humans, being the story-telling creatures we are, live and make sense of the world by means of the stories we tell about it. In placing flow within the context of evolution, Csikszentmihalyi is following a tradition, going back to prehistory, of linking human purpose to the larger designs of the cosmos. Thus the story of who we are and the story of what the universe is are bound together. But the fit is still a bit uneasy.

The seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal was, it has been said, the first in the West to recognize the severity of the religious implications of the then-emerging scientific-rationalistic worldview. He wrote of the dread endemic to a world from which God was now hidden and which was thus emptied of meaning. In such a world, religious faith was a kind of wager, a leap into the unknown. But, Pascal asserted, having made that leap, an individual would find that his or her faith would, in turn, be ratified. However different our world may be from Pascal’s, his wager is still our own.

The tension between the scientific and religious descriptions of the world is still acute. Science and religion are still far from having worked out their troubled relationship, and the question remains whether and how they can. For some in both camps, the answer is that no rapprochement is possible, as the two ways of seeing the world are believed to be simply incompatible and incommensurate. Others suggest a kind of division of labor, in which each addresses a separate set of concerns. Some believe we can, and must, find our way to a broad synthesis, something new and whole, built on, yet fundamentally different from, what has come before. This last, perhaps the great intellectual and spiritual challenge of our time, is surely a resolution devoutly to be wished. But we have a long way to go.

Traditional religious mythologies imbued life with coherence and human activity with significance. But we now know that the truths they expressed were, at least for the most part, not literal but metaphoric. Truth in science is something quite different. Its objective is to explain the world, not to confer meaning upon it. The power of science comes from its adherence to fact; engendering resonant symbolic experience is simply not its concern. Given the constraints it necessarily places on imaginative activity, one must wonder whether science is, in itself, a sufficient basis for a rich and compelling narrative of human purpose.

Throughout history, human beings have understood the transcendent imperative in a manner that reflected their own deepest and most characteristic experience of themselves and their world. For us, living as we do at a time when the truth of plurality outweighs the truth-claims of any specific point of view, religion, if it is to avoid the pull of regressively contrived certainty, must be, in key ways, different in character from how it was for those of earlier periods. For us, religion must be consonant with science—“our most trustworthy mirror of reality”—but not defined by it. The key issues in religious life no longer revolve around the particular faith one holds but how one holds one’s faith.

I am reminded here of a passage from the philosopher David Miller’s fine book Gods and Games: Toward a Theology of Play. For Miller, religious faith is something distinct from belief, something that need not correspond to actual fact:

Faith is being seized, being gripped by a pattern of meaning that affects one’s life pattern, that becomes a paradigm for the way one sees the world. . . . Faith is make-believe. It is playing as if it were true. It is not that the religious story is not true. It is simply that questions of truth are irrelevant while in the midst of make-believe, while in the midst of faith.

It is something of a truism to say that religion must accommodate science. But perhaps science must in turn accommodate religion. For if science is to serve religious ends—that is, if it is to teach us not just how things work but what meaning and purpose they hold—then it must partake of religious means. It must, in other words, entail active and vital faith. Given this, the need to understand the transcendent imperative anew and the fact that strong arguments exist both for and against evolutionary complexity are for the best. For faith must ripen through uncertainty and doubt. It must open us to something larger than our concepts, for these arise from within the limits of the self. Faith must, in the end, leave room for mystery.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .