Being in the Flow By Rev. Anthony Makar

A moment ago we witnessed something mesmerizing. It was performance poet Marlon Carey at a Ted Talk in Boston, rapping and rat-a-tat tatting through a piece about time:
Time is running out
There’s never enough time….
Our dismal existence is punching in, punching out
Serving time
Prisoners trapped inside the hourglass
Choking on the sandstorm of possibilities….
And, as he’s doing this, he’s solving a Rubik’s cube!
I’ve never solved one of those my whole life. And he’s doing it while banging out a complex poem!
I’m leaning in, mesmerized by the seemingly impossible thing happening before me. I’m trying to hang on to the rollercoaster twists and turns of his fast-spoken words, about time scarcity. I’m leaning in, and in super ironic fashion, I actually lose track of time, I dwell within a time-stands-still moment that does not feel scarce at all but is full and beautiful!
And I’ll bet a million dollars that he’s also in a time-stands-still place, as he’s performing. More irony, as with his words he laments how time is running out, but with his actions he is creating a space of time abundance.
Something you wouldn’t know, from just having seen the clip from earlier, is what he said to the Ted Talk audience there in Boston right before launching into his poem. He said, “Poetry needs to keep pushing…. We need to keep poetry innovative. I think we should push to a different level.” And so he does, with the Rubik’s cube thing.
He is stretching himself to the limit, as he does something that is valuable and meaningful for him, and he’s got the skills to do this difficult thing, and it all comes together in a moment that stills time for us his viewers, and for him, the performer.
It’s a perfect demonstration of what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [Me- high cheeks-send-me-high] coined a term for, back in 1975: “flow.” Moments of flow, he says, make up the best moments of our lives. Moments of flow, the science shows, strengthen our psychological resilience and well-being. The more you know about moments of flow, the more choice you have in how happy you are.
We want to know about being in the flow.
Or, as drummers would say, “getting in the groove.”
Or, as athletes would say, “getting in the zone.”
Or, as computer software developers would say, “getting wired in.”
Or, as some Buddhists would say, “getting Zen.”
Or, as some Christians would say, “feeling the peace that passes all understanding.”
“Grace” is another religious word for it.
What called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to the scientific study of flow was, originally, suffering. He had been taken prisoner in World War II. He witnessed the suffering surrounding him and within him. After the war, he saw how trauma had spoiled peacetime possibilities for people who had experienced everything taken away, and, now that it was given back, they couldn’t receive it again in full confidence of it lasting.
It is one of the oldest stories. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was launched on his career of exploring meaning in life, and the genuine nature of happiness, through suffering. It stretched him to the limit, but he met it with right effort to create meaning and purpose in life, after studying art and religion and philosophy and, eventually, becoming a psychologist.
How he defines flow–and any number of colleagues who have taken up the work with him–is as follows: it’s an experience of energized focus, when you are completely absorbed in what you are doing, and there is a sense of serenity and spaciousness, and you forget time, you forget hunger and thirst, and you would be doing what you are doing whether or not you were getting paid for it, whether or not you were getting other kinds of rewards, because what you are doing is intrinsically valuable, you feel one with value, one with meaning, one with joy.
It’s that old Zen joke about the monk who wanted a hot dog. He’s asked what he wants on it, and he says, “Make me one with everything.”
But we spiritual beings having a human experience: we can often lose track of the thread of grace. We think we need something to take us to meaning, but our thoughts get us lost.
Mary Oliver says it like this, in her poem “A Dream of Trees”:
There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.
There is a thing in me still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.
I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?
That’s the poem. The thing we think we need to take us into flow moments is
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
But then she says that “death is a little way from everywhere.” She says that moderation ruins art. Mild days don’t provoke music.
“If any find solution,” she says, “let him tell it.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t offer any solution, but he does offer an explanation.
What science shows is that if we lack a clear sense of values which we are actively pursuing, flow won’t come.
If we aren’t able to focus on the task, and we find ourselves constantly interrupted, flow won’t come.
If the task is too easy, and our skills way outmatch them, the result is not flow but boredom.
If the task is too difficult, and it outmatches our skills, the result is not flow but anxiety.
Flow emerges out of what is of value for us. Flow needs focus. And flow, as Mary Oliver makes plain, requires some sort of challenge that we can actively meet, with skills that are a good match.
Recognizing especially this last part, the speaker of her poem lets go of her dream of trees, her homesickness for moderation, and says,
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.
It’s the old story, again. It is Siddhartha Gautama witnessing the reality of aging, sickness, and death, and these blades of crisis sending him on a journey that transformed him into the Buddha.
It is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi witnessing the reality of a concentration camp and the trauma that postwar survivors lived with, and these blades of crisis sending him on a journey to understanding flow.
It is you and me, after last week’s attempted pipe bombings, and the murders at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. All the noxious hate.
Blades of crisis, sending us.
And all the blades of crisis that are part of our personal stories which never get announced in the news, but they fill up the rooms where we live.
“The times implore our true involvement.”
The central question for me, as I was reflecting on the relevance of flow to our lives, was about the skills we bring to the challenges of being spiritual beings having a human experience. I admit, there are so many other possible questions. Like, how often are we bumped out of potential experiences of flow because we are addicted to attention-robbers like our smart phones?
But the main question has to do with how difficult the blades of crisis can be, and how we can feel so undeveloped in the skills we use to face them, and thus the pervasive anxiety.
Did you know that game designers draw on flow theory, in order to create certain experiences in gamers intentionally? The focus is on creating an imbalance between challenge level and skill level. Relaxation games keep the challenge level significantly below the player’s skill level. And horror games keep challenges significantly above the player’s skill level, so there is a constant drumbeat of anxiety.
What can we do when our lives feel like horror games?
The dream of trees will not help us.
We must develop our internal skills, to reduce anxiety and balance things better.
I am glad that a single sermon doesn’t have to say everything. And I know you’re glad too, because then this sermon would go on for hours.
The single, all-purpose, internal coping skill I would have us explore right now (one among many) is suggested by the following guided meditation, written by acceptance and commitment therapist Caitlin Ferriter.
Imagine yourself sitting on a plane for an overnight flight. You have the whole row to yourself and think, “Perfect! I can stretch out and really get some sleep.” Then, just before the cabin door is closed, a young couple comes on board with a screaming baby. You think to yourself, “The poor people who have to sit next to them all night!” Just as that thought crosses your mind, you see the couple moving toward you. They’re seated next to you! You shuffle your stuff to make room for them, but in your head you’re saying “Nooooo!” They smile and thank you for helping them get to their seats, and all the while their baby is screaming.
They try everything to soothe him. They try the bottle, and that just makes him scream louder. They try his favorite toy, but he keeps screaming. What are your options here? You can spend the next eight hours giving them dirty looks, scoffing at their failed attempts to quiet their child, and letting them know that this kind of behavior is absolutely unacceptable on a plane. Alternatively, you could join them in trying to quiet the child: playing peekaboo, giving the child your phone to fiddle with—doing anything to shut the kid up. Or, you could choose to do what you would otherwise do on an overnight flight while taking in the sounds of that child as they are and recognizing that the child is doing exactly what children do—not wanting or liking the sounds the child is making, but also not needing the sounds not to be there. And all the while, you’re also noticing that no matter how long the child cries, he won’t cry forever, and that wanting him to quiet down will never be what’s needed to quiet him.
That’s the guided meditation.
Blades of crisis come like a baby’s screaming on an airplane, and the baby is right beside you, in your face.
You don’t want the sounds. You don’t like the sounds.
We are in a challenging place right now at UUCA, as we deal with the knowledge that we won’t be able to afford moving to our permanent location with just the 2.7 million dollars in hand. That baby is screaming, and we don’t like or want the sound.
But flow in this moment—even just a piece of flow—will be absolutely, utterly impossible for us if we are consumed by a need for the screams to not be there.
Spending our energies wanting the baby to shut up will never be what’s needed to quiet him.
The challenges in America right now.
The challenges in our personal lives.
The challenges in our move process here at UUCA.
Acceptance is the single, all-purpose internal coping skill that can help us, here and now, live out the old, old story of spiritual transformation in the face of suffering.
Life can truly be hard. And acceptance is a skill that releases energies to stretch ourselves to the limit to play the game of life above what we think we are capable of, in service to our values.
To push the envelope. To innovate. To surprise ourselves by doing something we never thought we were capable of.
Our version of banging out a complex poem while solving a Rubik’s cube!
That’s what I call rugged, real life, being in the flow.
“Who ever made music of a mild day?”