Monday, November 5, 2012

Joining the Flow of Life

Scott Bradley

In the previous post I quoted Chris Jochim ("Saying No to No Self") to the effect that Zhuangzi's mysticism is uniquely "intraworldly" and that this is exemplified in his advocacy for "joining the flow of life". Though it amounts to the same thing, I prefer this phrase to the one I have typically used, "going with the flow', if for no other reason than that it has yet to have found its way onto a bumper-sticker. This latter phrase seems to upset some for reasons that are not altogether clear to me, except that they have failed (perhaps for not having made the attempt) to understand what it means.

So what does it mean to "join the flow of life"? Jochim turns to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and I thought Nietzsche offered a spelling challenge!), who has done extensive inquiry into the nature of "flow", to answer this question. Jochim begins with what he finds helpful in C's and ends in a critique of how he differs from the perspective of Zhuangzi.

The experience of flow, C tells us, is "auotelic" (self-purposefully; having its end in itself). This is entirely in agreement with Zhuangzi who essentially sees every dao-ful activity as its own reward. "Virtue is its own reward", though seemingly platitudinous, sums up the Daoist relationship to every activity. Things done through letting them be done are enjoyed without the need of ulterior motives or any gain (ego-bolstering, merit, reputation). Flow is the experience of identifying so completely with an activity that one forgets one's self. The Cook Ding, the wheelwright and the bell-stand maker stories are examples of this experience in the Zhuangzi.

But these are definite activities, and though specific examples of flow, do not necessarily give the sense in which all of life might be lived as flow. And this is the heart of Zhuangzi's vision. If we imagine the life that we are as an artesian well, a spontaneous arising from we know not where, and simply become that overflowing without deliberate intention, goal-lessly, perhaps we can get an inkling of what it means. It is letting the life we are flow in and through us without mitigation, without our deliberate control.

And this is where Jochim takes C's understanding of flow to task. (It should be noted that C sees himself as an interpreter of Zhuangzi's flow.) Paradoxically, according to Jochim, C believes that though the experience of flow is one of momentarily losing one's sense of self, the exercise of flow requires that one engage in these experiences with a sense of purpose and control. In other words, though itself a moment of selflessness and wuwei, flow is something we do. Yet for Zhuangzi, joining the flow of life involves a complete release of apparent control over life; we let life live us, rather than us trying to live life.

Zhuangzi is of the opinion that our attempt to live life, to “add something to life”, is a major obstruction to a life lived in flow. But not only this, it is also a failure to recognize that we never were in control in any case; when you can give yourself life, you can claim control; otherwise, you are only fooling yourself.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

1 comment:

  1. very good post

    we can enter into the flow of life within us around us so simply

    one only has to accept the invitation


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