Presence, Alignment & Flow

In discussing states of flow, I both draw upon and differ from the work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. I agree with his assertion that flow represents a “growth towards complexity.” I disagree with his assertion that flow requires a clear goal.

In fact, I don’t think the latter assertion is supported by many of the examples—often drawn from sports teams or jazz musicians—that Csikszentmihalyi uses. Is a point guard’s clear goal to win, play her best, score a lot of points, make some great assists, impress a significant other, impress the scouts? Is a trumpet player’s clear goal to play some awesome riffs, get a big paycheck, drink a lot of free beer, impress a significant other, be totally in sync with the rest of the group, try to hit that note that Satchmo made seem easy?

Rather than being clearly defined, I believe that the goal—or τέλος—should be meaningful. As a systemic goal, I think it should be open-ended and subject to ongoing revision. For example, can you plan for an upcoming chess game in minute detail? If you could predict each move your opponent is going to make, that would be tenable. (Or if, like Deep Blue, you could calculate pretty much every conceivable move.) Certainly you can prepare by studying your opponent (or likely opponents). And you can know that your general goal is to improve, or even to win. But finding your best move in each turn (and revising your strategy as you go) must take place in real time.

I believe that flow arises from very fine internal alignment of the system, along with incredibly acute awareness of the environment (which in turn allows the system to exquisitely align itself with external factors). This means that flow is cultivated by greater alignment.

Alignment has to do with dynamics, and therefore with feedback loops (both external and external). Again, sensitivity, openness, and presence are key prerequisites. An adjustment of filters or membranes also seems to contribute.

We function well because our mind filters out a lot of extraneous input, allowing us to focus on what matters. (People with ADD struggle because their sensory filters are so wide open.) But opening our filters wider can also be a gift. Opening our filters can happen in a number of ways.

More open membranes can be drug-induced, and can be related to a sense of euphoria. They can also be related to “peak,” “transcendental,” or “mystical” experiences—again involving euphoria. Flow is also equated with brain states such as those achieved in meditation, being in nature, etc.

Csikszentmihalyi says that flow depends upon (among other things) immediate feedback. I think this is true in the sense that more wide-open membranes increase sensitivity, which heightens feedback mechanisms and messages (often sensory, as with kinesthetic awareness in athletes or aural awareness in jazz musicians).

In spite of his insistence on clear goals, Csikszentmihalyi points out the creative and spontaneous nature of flow. This seems important to me. It supports the adoption of an open-ended, systemic approach to managing complex systems (which are directed to a τέλος that is nonetheless in continual flux).

Csikszentmihalyi’s observations are pertinent to both individuals and organizations, though I temper a number of his recommendations. In particular, Csikszentmihalyi’s emphases on the internal locus of control that is essential for flow experiences, and on the essentially playful nature of flow, seem to me extremely apt.

Both can be found in my metaphor of the surfer and the wave. That wave can crush you, but the surfer is able to tap into its power in a highly attuned way, and so “control” it to produce an exhilarating ride (a type of play). This is essentially what we try to do in applying epigenetic and complex-systems approaches to our personal and organizational lives.

Therefore, if we are successful in applying such approaches, we should experience increased and prolonged occasions of flow. We can then look back on those experiences and reflect on what brought them about (or brought them to an end). But, rather than aiming directly for flow, I advise focusing on greater internal and external alignment (which are enabled by increased sensitivity, which in turn depends on being truly and fully present). When all these are the case, the flow will come!

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