Zen and the pursuit of the elusive flow state


Silk’s Post #52 – Oh, to go with the flow. To romp across the page, fingers flying, the newborn words of a first draft pouring forth in a gush of wild abandon. Time stands still and creativity travels at the speed of light. This is the holy grail. This is nirvana. This is the writing drug.

This is the opposite of what I feel when I face the dreaded blank page at the “getting started” stage, distracted by my keen awareness of time racing by and creativity standing still. And with my lousy, undisciplined writing habits over the past year, the problem has become chronic because I’m constantly “getting started” over and over again.

Some call it writer’s block, but that cliché illuminates nothing. It makes the anti-flow state sound like something one can just hop over, like a tree fallen across the road. Writer and productivity coach Hillary Rettig has given it an amusingly tactile new name: the spaghetti snarl. She envisions it as a tangled up mess of counterproductive influences which can be unsnarled strand by strand, rather than a monolithic brick wall that the hapless writer must painfully fling herself against in hopes of a creative breakthrough. The knot may be composed of such inhibitors as perfectionism, ambivalence, time constraints, resource constraints, ineffective work processes, unhealed traumatic rejections and a disempowering context.

Yeah, I think I have all of those.

But rather than focus on that plate of psychological snakes, I want to skip right to the topic of how to pursue, capture, and ride the elusive flow state. First: what is it, exactly?

The UBC Visual Cognition Lab has a flow state research project in the works. According to the project description:

Flow corresponds to a mental state that appears when a person is fully immersed in a challenging task performed without effort. This phenomenon shares with meditative states several characteristics such as a feeling of joy, a modification of self-perception and a distorted sense of time. Despite the rich description in the literature next to nothing is known about the mechanisms that give rise to the flow state.”

flow modelFlow was first described by a Hungarian born psychology researcher named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who became interested in the way artists get “lost in their work.”

He even developed a flow model diagram, which is about as easy to understand as his name is to pronounce. While flow can happen during any engaging activity, it is said to be particularly associated with writing. Anxiety, boredom, ego and impatience are often cited as the enemies of flow. Autotelic personalities (people who are internally driven rather than seekers of external rewards) experience flow more easily than the rest of us.

According to psychologist and popular writer Daniel Goleman in his book The Meditative Mind, the key elements of flow are:

  1. the merging of action and awareness in sustained concentration on the task at hand,
  2. the focusing of attention in a pure involvement without concern for outcome,
  3. self-forgetfulness with heightened awareness of the activity,
  4. skills adequate to meet the environmental demand, and
  5. clarity regarding situational cues and appropriate response.

I find the language of psychology a bit too clinical to be inspiring. But fortunately, there is a  motherlode of insights about the fabled flow state, written by true experts: writers themselves.

I spent several days of my summer sailing adventure reading Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. What a wild, wise, weird cat he was. Bradbury’s brain seemed to be   wired differently than ordinary people’s, or maybe he was just in a permanent flow state.

Bradbury nails the “Joy of Writing” in his opening:

“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see his gusto.”

Don’t you feel energized just reading those words? Don’t you love (and perhaps envy) a writer who begins an essay on writing with a couple of one-word sentences? Now that’s a perfect example of show-don’t-tell. Here’s another excerpt from one of his exuberant essays:

“Run fast, stand still. This, the lesson from lizards. For all writers. Observe almost any survival creature, you see the same. Jump, run, freeze. In the ability to flick like an eyelash, crack like a whip, vanish like steam, here this instant, gone the next – life teems the earth. And when that life is not rushing to escape, it is playing statues to do the same. See the hummingbird, there, not there. As thought arises and blinks off, so this thing of summer vapour; the clearing of a cosmic throat, the fall of a leaf. And where it was – a whisper.zen

“What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”

This is no essay. This is poetry. Ray Bradbury boasted that from the age of 12 on he wrote at least 1,000 words every day. That would mean that by the time he shuffled off this mortal coil in 2012 and took his rightful place in writers’ heaven, he would have written 28,835,000 words. That’s one prodigious flow state. And his deliberate choice of the word Zen in the title of this book’s final essay, which became the title of this anthology, is an interesting one, considering Bradbury was no Zen Buddhist and claims he knew nothing of Zen until a few weeks before he wrote the essay.

“I selected the [above] title, quite obviously, for its shock value,” he opens. “The old sideshow Medicine Men who traveled about our country used calliope, drum and Blackfoot Indian, to insure open-mouthed attention. I hope I will be forgiven for using Zen in much the same way …”

Yet, even Bradbury’s essays contain plot twists. His prescription for achieving zest and gusto in writing boils down to this: Work, Relaxation, and Don’t Think. It’s the Bradbury version of Zen principles that aid focus and creativity: awareness, practice, patience and present-moment focus. In most expressions of Zen, this comes out sounding like the tinkling of Tibetan chimes in a light zephyr. When Bradbury writes it, it comes out sounding like the pealing of a big bell carried on a bracing gust of breeze.

Many prescriptions for getting into the flow state come out sounding  Zen-like, either overtly or under the skin. Some writing advice-givers recommend half an hour of Zen meditation as a portal to deep concentration. Others suggest warming up with a few minutes of “free writing” to clear the mind of clutter and self-criticism. Brenda Ueland’s 1938 classic book on Art, Independence and Spirit, If You Want to Write, is one long coaching session on how to cultivate one’s writing flow in the quest to “be Bold, be Free, be Truthful”. Dorothea Brande counsels us to, “Hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm”. Maxwell Perkins tells us, “You have to throw yourself away when you write.”

Ray Bradbury has earned the last word about his path to the Zen-like flow state through Work, Relaxation and Don’t Think:

“Now, have I sounded like a cultist of some sort? A yogi feeding on kumquats, grapenuts and almonds here beneath the banyan tree? Let me assure you I speak of all these things only because they have worked for me for 50 years. And I think they might work for you. The true test is in the doing.

Be pragmatic, then. If you’re not happy with the way your writing has gone, you might give my method a try.

If you do, I think you might easily find a new definition for Work.

And the word is Love.”

1 thought on “Zen and the pursuit of the elusive flow state

  1. I love this post, Silk, for several reasons. First, your own style is almost Zen-like, keeping with the topic. Well done! Secondly, I can see the lure in Bradbury’s organic approach and might be tempted to apply it to my own writing: the ‘zest and gusto’, the ‘throwing yourself away when you write’, the ‘flow’, all seem to make sense. But how does it fit with outlining? I would be interested to learn if Bradbury and others that you mention in the post are outliners. Because, if you choose to outline, how do you manage to “hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm”?

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