Archive for December 16th, 2013

Flow Chart--mihaly csikszentmihalyiI wrote the other day about my search for that intangible thing in my work, that quality that will set me off on a new path.  I’ve been thinking about it and what I think I am really looking for comes down to one word:  Flow.   There’s a famous book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ( please don’t ask me how to pronounce his name) that describes flow as a sense of being in the zone or in the groove, of being so totally immersed in the task before you that the external world is blocked out.  He describes it as being like playing jazz, where each action, thought and movement rises from the previous one.

He points out that this flow occurs when there is a balance between the level of the challenge and the skill of the person facing it.  Basically, this person is working at the far end of their skill level, pushing themselves to their boundaries in order to conquer the task before them.  There can be no thought other than that thing before them.  Total concentration and dedication.  I think of it in terms of a mountain climber facing a climb that seems at the far end of their limits, who must muster up all their knowledge and concentrate on each movement in order to scale the daunting peak before them.

I have known this feeling, this flow that he describes, in painting.  I have often described this feeling of immersion, of a level of concentration where each action leads to the next and time seems to fade into nothingness.  I don’t hear the music playing, don’t feel thirst or hunger, don’t think about other things that I need to do or things that might be worrying me.  When I have been in this state it seems so real and so concrete that it feels as though it is always right there and attainable.  It is intoxicating.

But it is not sustainable forever without creating new challenges.  One you have conquered one peak, you need a new one to face down.  Without this challenge, you are at a  comfortable plateau, something I have attempted to describe in the recent past.  Your skill exceeds the challenge and total immersion is not necessary.  While there is a level of needed concentration to simply maintain this elevation, there is also room for outside thoughts and concerns.  The once difficult task has become the normal course.  Comfortable.

And this is fine  and, as I have said before, most artists reach a comfortable level and settle in for the long  term at this high level.  But deep inside, at least for me at the moment, there is a gnawing feeling to find myself hanging  tenuously on a new, scary ascent, pushing my abilities to new levels.  Riding the flow of the thrill of this tunnel-like focus.

That’s where I find myself at the moment– at a plateau, looking up for a new peak to attack.

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