What is Flow?

Medeski, Martin & Wood | Legends of Flow

Medeski, Martin & Wood | Legends of Flow

It seems as though the life philosophy de jour is Flow, the practice of being completely present during a specific activity.  Performing at such a high level without even trying, to write the script as you go, no notes are off beat or miscued, creating a new way.

Flow is also related to happiness...just flow, be happy.

The Music of ‘Flow’


Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, coined in 1969, he defined "flow" as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”

Being in flow can be applied to any context, doing any activity that offers its own rewards, whether playing a grandmaster chess match, performing in the N.B.A. playoffs, listening to music at home, or performing heart surgery. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow charts are insightful and instructive about how to maintain flow during an extended activity: first, one achieves a balance between ability and level of difficulty, then one increases difficulty as ability grows.

Flow has been used to describe people in the act of composing, as well as audiences listening to music, but had never been used to structure a musical composition.

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How to Not Try

Trying too hard can be counterproductive and unattractive. Use your brain's cognitive control regions to shut down your brain's cognitive control regions.

By James Hamblin

Trying hasn't gone out of style. It was never in style. Cool is in style, and cool means moving through the world at once effortlessly and effectively.

Woven into most of our natures is a cumbersome desire to be accepted and liked. At odds with that is the equally natural tendency to be turned off by people who wear that desire on their sleeves. If you, like me, essentially reek of effort in all that you do, such that people can sense it blocks away, and it makes you unattractive socially and intellectually, and it makes babies cry, can you practice and learn to cultivate a genuinely spontaneous approach to life? Is it possible to be deliberately less deliberate?

You could boil down the different strategies for "trying not to try" into four basic ones. It really is a tension, not just a trick of language or something, because you’re essentially trying to use your cognitive control regions to shut down your cognitive control regions. So that’s the trick. The first strategy is the Confucian strategy, which is “try really hard for a long time.” And to boil that down, it’s essentially if you train hard enough, eventually it become second nature and then you don’t need to worry about it anymore. Applying that to improv, maybe it would be, you do train a lot and have your little schticks that you’ve built up and you’ve watched other people do it, and you’ve tried it lots of times, and kind of not done so well, so you get to the point where you sort of internalize timing, or how to play off another person so that you can start doing it in a spontaneous way.

The second strategy, the Laozian strategy and Taoist strategy I view as a kind of corrective. Basically, the Taoists thought that Confucius had it all wrong; that if you trained in wu-wei, you would never really be in wu-wei. You’d just turn into kind of a hypocrite—someone who went through the motions. Apply that to improv or theater. If you’re overly manneristic or rely too much on tricks or stock things, you’re stiff or not able to change when things change, what you need to do is—the images that Laozi uses are things like returning to being like a child or being like the uncarved block. So, essentially he’s arguing that you basically need to stop doing anything and shut down your conscious mind completely.

Then you’ve got the third strategy, which is Mencius. So he’s a later Confucian and he’s trying to go the in-between route. He’s saying, look, we’ve got these spontaneous tendencies inside of us, we basically have the potential for wu-wei inside of us, but we need to cultivate it in a gentle way. His metaphor is agriculture. So, kind of like a farmer cultivating these sprouts and helping them get stronger. So I think that his strategy really applies to things where we do have tendencies that are helping us out and going in the right way, but we do need to do some work to strengthen them or expand them in some way.

The example I use for things like that is empathy. We do have a kind of innate empathy that doesn’t need working on. We see the puppy in the window and we feel bad. We have isolated instances of empathy, but we’re not very good at extending them in a consistent manner. So, we see the puppy and feel bad, but we walk right by the homeless guy and don’t notice him. So the Mencian strategy, I think, really applies more in cases where whatever it is we’re trying to get spontaneous at, we have the kind of seeds or sprouts of that within us, but we need to do a little work to extend them.

Then, the last strategy is the Zhuangzi strategy, which is another Taoist. He’s arguing a little bit like Laozi in that the problem is trying. So, essentially, the Chinese keep swinging back and forth between trying and not-trying strategies, but all of them are slightly different. With Zhuangzi, his dominant metaphor is emptiness, so, you make your mind empty, and if you can do that, then you’re open to the situation and you let the situation dictate your movements. And when you can do that—another big metaphor is “losing the self”—there’s no more you; you’re just being motivated by what is going on around you. The Zhuangzian approach is very appropriate for performers and athletes. It seems really in improv, that the key would be to just be tenuous. Be empty, to use a Zhuangzian metaphor, and just let the people you’re working with and the way the scene is going decide what your next move is going to be.

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