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.”
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.