Filed in Science

The Transcendent Imperative

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.”

Andrew Cooper

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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.

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Jakela's picture

I hope his book is better edited than this endless piece.

jackelope65's picture

This is avery thought provoking discussion. Flow can not be judged from the outside and I do not believe that the flow experienced by a Trappist monk is inherently better than from the flow required to pitch a perfect baseball game. I have experienced flow running/walking in nature, surfing, playing tennis, studying & reading, meditating and so forth, but I would not rate one 'better' than the other. After all the post meditation state may be as important and beneficial as meditative absorption, which, to me, seems the point. But I do agree that flow during knowingly unethical behaviours may not prove to be of much benefit in the long run. Further increasing complexity may or may not be the eventual outcome of evolution when sometimes the change is "cooperation within a species" as Darwin stated. Often when solutions become too complex, we are just missing the point. Though I'm not necessarily convinced of any role science may have to play in proving or disproving God; God may just be totally different than anything we could imagine. Scientism is a mistake as science is deeply lost in the questions that it produces and can only be measured in the technological advances/problems that arise from its evolution. We do not even know, very basically, if we discover or invent math and science. I really enjoyed the complex issues stemming from this article and will look forward to exploring Csikszentmihalyi's research and literature further. After all, I have very little certainty on these subjects. Thank you.

kentc33's picture

I'm wondering just what the word "God" refers to for you?

Dominic Gomez's picture

re: Miller's "Faith is make-believe." In Buddhism faith equals daily life.

Kesho's picture

The best line for me was "leave room for mystery"...as we "just sit" our instructions from the Buddha. Thanks you Andrew Cooper. As an academic letting go of the scientific-rational thinking and reaching for something more....this is very satisfying.....

mralexander99's picture

Is this really "Much ado about nothing?"…or is it "Much ado about everything?"

sschroll's picture

Thank you for this article. Clarified some important issues and stirred life inside.

janetmartha's picture

Mucho ruido, pocas nueces.

sschroll's picture

Aramos, dijo el mosquito !!!