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At a time when our spiritual traditions struggle to remain relevant in a culture dominated by scientific materialism, Andrew Cooper considers the pros and cons of a new religious model based on the psychology of “flow.”
The truth is that the more ourselves we are,
the less self is in us.
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.