I sent a good friend a copy of my Room Twelve. He thanked me for it and said, ‘I already dipped in – and it is as WONDERFUL as all the others…’ He asked, ‘How do you do it?’ while suggesting that it was a silly, unworthy and unanswerable question…
HOW DO I DO IT? prompts the question I frequently ask myself WHY DO I DO IT? What’s the point of all this writing?
My friend’s question brought me up short which makes it one of those questions which are so good that they ought not to be transformed into what is likely to be a lesser answer – just left dangling by a golden thread from some invisible place-holder high in the sky; but answer I am driven to make on this occasion for my own sake. Coincidentally (no such thing), at the same time as this my son wrote and quoted from Rollo May’s The Courage to Create:-
It is absurd to think of artists simply as ‘painting nature’, as though they were only anachronistic photographers of trees and lakes and mountains. For them, nature is a medium, a language by which they reveal their world. What genuine painters do is to reveal the underlying psychological and spiritual conditions of their relationship to their world; thus in the works of a great painter we have a reflection of the emotional and spiritual condition of human beings in that period of history.
Rollo May, says my son, goes on to précis the life and work of Picasso and relate it to the times and events of the period in which his work was created. He makes links and connections to illustrate how his work reflects events. He says that genuine painters ‘…have the power to reveal the underlying meaning of any period precisely because the essence of art is the powerful and alive encounter between artist and his or her world…’
Likewise, genuine musicalisers and wordsmithers – they engage encounters with things. It’s all about an open ENCOUNTER, expressed in various ways, with the world just as one discovers it, takes the covers off to become free of all preconceptions and hangups. In musical composition the notes themselves are the thing, not the theory; in poeticising the experience is all, never mind the conventional formal structures of poetry; in painting & construction, paint & material substances are all you need to focus on, not whether you think you can draw or not.
When he read the following on ENCOUNTER in Rollo May, my son thought of the American painter Joan Mitchell,:-
The first thing we notice in a creative act is that it is an encounter. Artists encounter the landscape they propose to paint – they look at it, observe it from this angle and that. They are, as we say, absorbed in it. Or, in the case of abstract painters, the encounter may be with an idea, an inner vision, that in turn may be led off by the brilliant colors on the palette or the inviting rough whiteness of the canvas. The paint, the canvas, and the other materials then become a secondary part of this encounter; they are the language of it, the media, as we rightly put it…
I take it that the whole of existence is an encounter. Rightly conceived, that’s all life is, or what it should naturally be without all the words & actions that we generate. A pure encounter with stars & newts, mountains & nasturtium flowers, street sounds & internal rumblings, the flaky bark of silver birches & pimples on the nose. But people think they’ve got to keep rabbiting on about it, dissecting, categorising, cutting it up into a multitude of prize-winning -isms; the urge to do this misses the point of the simple ENCOUNTER which delivers up what Gurdjieff calls ‘pure impressions’. Getting hung up on analysis creates a block to just doing, distorts things into normative shapes, contorting a product into what people think they ought to be doing according to some inherited formula they choose to perpetuate. Or they operate out of personal agendas, the craven desire to make fame & fortune; they cease encountering things as they are; other things intervene.
Making a personal plan to create something out of an encounter is, of course, OK and, for the existentially driven, more or less inevitable. But, to preserve the energy of a pure encounter, one must choose always to come back to a Beginner’s Mind approach to its original manifestation.
Encounter comes (or should come) without preconceptions, in Beginner’s Mind. Otherwise it’s not ‘encounter’ but a ‘filtering’. Filtering through the gauze of belief and presupposition. How does one get into Beginner’s Mind? How does one set acquired beliefs to one side?
And so I come back to the question WHY DO I KEEP ON DOING ALL THIS WRITING?
What’s the point of it? It’s not as it was with Professor Joad who says he wrote many books and lectured to stave off boredom – I really have no idea what boredom might be.
Nor is it something feeble like ‘happiness’ – I don’t know quite what that is either. On the other hand there is a being wrapped up or immersed in something so absorbing that it takes you over or takes you out of yourself into a world beyond somewhere, a ‘transport of delight’, a being ‘surprised by joy…’ (Wordsworth & CSLewis)
Perhaps I get a joyful satisfaction from the mere idea of grinding things down into words, steam-rollering ideas into book-length word-pancakes. So many things still to come to terms with, so much still to sort out. So many musical notes still to string together; paint dribbles to organise. ‘Happiness’ is such a puny word to describe all this.
Gurdjieff started by asking the question – what is the point of our being here? How is it that I’m sitting here scribbling long after dark in early spring 2019? At the fagend of millions of years of human development that’s thrown me up high & dry with all this unsortable and unexpected stuff.
Why do I keep going when soon, as is pretty obvious, the millions of years I’m heir to will suddenly come to a stop? Then millions of years without encountering anything.
Why? Because it just seems to me that it’s what this short life’s about – an ENCOUNTER with all the things that just require expression, a putting into some kind of order – musical notes, patterns of seeing, patterns of words & phrases.
How? Allowing one thing to lead to another in an endless flow; binary oppositions require resolution; never the same thing two moments running; no day the same as the last; no page repeating the same old thing; cross references & reminders; constant novelty; the sounds that pass in the night; chaffinches in the morning.
Professor Joad seemed to associate his sense of flow with what for me is the simplistic notion of ‘being happy’, attributing his ‘happiness’ to having seen through what he calls ‘the catches of life’ which destroy one’s perspective. They are for him:-
• The distraction he calls LOVE. He had a string of mistresses questing for the desirability of a Venus, the virtues of a Madonna, the intelligence of an Athena and the practical ability of a first rate housewife. A doomed quest based on his own projected ideals!
• Ideals that get in the way of progress – there is nothing better on the other side of the fence or even beyond the horizon; you just have to keep going with what you have in front of you.
• Beauty – the quest for it – something we imagine comes from a different realm of being. The moon on a summer’s night does not ride the clouds with any message for us. It’s all invention, projection of feelings on to a universal scale.
• The Pursuit of Pleasure (& fun) – no good pursuing such a will o’the wisp – great satisfaction must creep up on you, you must be surprised by that which can’t be sought, a song that comes from nowhere…
The ‘catches of life’ get in the way of pristine encounter and obstruct the passage of flow.
In his personal anthology Pieces of Mind, Joad asserts that there is a general ‘need for belief’. But it could be argued that any kind of ‘belief’ obstructs flow. It’s another ‘catch of life’. When you imagine you believe one thing it prevents you from entertaining other beliefs; the whole circuit of a belief system is, in any case, a complex structure of flimsiness that gets in the way of Being. What is belief but something plastered on to Being when you’re at a loss?
ENCOUNTER AND FLOW
Many things can be reframed as varieties of FLOW:-
• Natural flow – ordinary consciousness or Big C Consciousness (singular focus)
• Concentrated flow – deliberately setting things up (eg the night before…)
• Variety of flow focus – art (viewing/doing), music (listening/making), words (manipulating/reading)
• Flowing into choices of flow activities
• Flow Themes – bees in the bonnet
• Flow of mind/body system
• Flow of time
• Flow of ideas once you are possessed of them.
• Humanity is flow – disrupted by anti-human beliefs, vested interests, money agendas, capitalism
• Generational flow
• Group flow
What gets in the way of flow?
Exterior things (A Influences)
people on their mobiles
other people’s requirements
noise from outside
bomber-planes destroying the peace of a country garden
political & religious mantras
Flow is disrupted either by fragmentation of attention or by excessive rigidity of attention. Simply noticing how this happens, both extremes, taking account of them, can help to return one to the original flow state. Flexibility of attention leads to easy restructuring of experience so that one develops one’s own purposes. It requires something like this:
It’s not necessary to have any kind of ‘belief’ in this system – it just happens. It’s not my belief that makes it work – it just does work when you choose to follow the circuit.
Bertrand Russell: ‘Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies – I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects, the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection…’ Just the way it was for him.
In his masterwork Flow, though in my view he erroneously subtitles it The Psychology of Happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi quotes Bertrand Russell as an example of an ‘autotelic personality’. The word ‘autotelic’ comes from the Ancient Greek literally meaning ‘self-purposive’. Csikszentmihalyi defines it thus:-
An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they depend less on external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life of routines. They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.
It’s obviously a question of upbringing & education but Csikszentmihalyi recommends ways of becoming ‘autotelic’ by mastering the following process which I have made into a system because that, for me, is a very good way of transforming what appears densely hidden in prose into a joined up flow of otherwise discrete items – learning to extract systemic thinking from mishmash helps to make you ‘autotelic’, should you choose to wish it on yourself! This is my contribution to the idea of getting into flow: a system flows round & round; it can be set up against what HGWells called ‘the thumb & finger method of thought’ counting first, second, third and so on which suggests an unflowing serial order rather than unified process. (Salvaging Civilisation p 178)
This would also be a way of transforming apparently hopeless situations into a state of flow. People in Concentration Camps devised all kinds of survival strategies using this kind of process (or system). Difficult to think of being in a more hopeless situation than that!
So many different bits of human activity can be reinterpreted as ‘flow’; simply redefining what you already do in terms of flow can be consciously used to create an autotelic self.
Any physical act can be seen as a potential flow state when the following system is attached to it:-
One’s skills can be made adequate to any challenge, goal-directed, rule-bound, with feedback & focus so there’s no attention left over to give room to think about what’s irrelevant or worry about problems, all sense of time passing goes. Even alienating professional ‘work’, or any similarly repetitive sequences, like doing the washing up, or mending fences, can be converted to a state of flow by following this system. There’s a letting go of self in realising one’s connection with externals – Zen centring applies.
Gurdjieff’s External Considering, looking outside yourself as opposed to internal rummaging also applies. Listening to complex classical music and playing it, specially improvising, will do the trick. Food preparation and sensitive eating gets you into a flow state. Regularly remembering and ordering the past, its minute detail is good for the same purpose.
Constantly playing with ideas. Going on Adventures of Ideas, living with the idea of having a portable self-contained world within the mind. Varela talks about the internal system being a ‘portable laboratory’. Constant experiments, an internal symbolic system, always being a learner – useful to ask the question: What have I learned today? Modelling on excellence becomes the machinery for imposing harmony on chaos: excellence in great music & novels, architecture, art, poetry, drama, dance, philosophy:-
Professor Joad complained that ‘on a rough estimate over half of what passes for philosophy is unreadable. In popularising what he regarded as the essence of philosophy in one of the Teach Yourself series he defines it as ‘a record of the soul’s adventures in the cosmos… [those who] find enjoyment in the pursuit of mental & spiritual adventure… are philosophers’. This is a view that sank into extreme disrepute in the 20th Century – the dead professional philosopher down our village would have poured scorn on it – but it clearly fits the flow model.
Joad supports the idea that reading philosophy is an active process; I convert the smooth prose where he advocates a way of coming to terms with a philosophical text into a system thus:-
Looked at like that, anything you read becomes a way of getting you into flow. This system can quite easily be converted into a flow way of looking at any relationship, friend, family, group.
Being alone when you don’t have to bother to think about other people is a good way of practising being in a flow state. Csikszentmihalyi writes: ‘a person who rarely [never] gets bored, who does not constantly need a favourable external environment to enjoy the moment has passed the test for having achieved a creative life…’
But ‘flow’ will not happen when you can’t see the way forward. The Tory plan for creating chaos (https://colinblundell.com/2013/06/10/rule-by-chaos/2005) was a way to befuddle the populace and render them incapable of coming to terms with the underhand things they were planning to do, like reversing all the benefits that come out of the Welfare State. People are reduced to survival level which gives them no sense of communal purpose and no time to protest. The first step towards flow in the body/mind system is the clear definition of purpose.
This is all about making meaning for oneself and for those with whom one is associated, bringing order to the chaotic contents of the mind – as inside so outside. With the clear expression of intentionality, and a growing harmony in consciousness, all life becomes flow. One no longer wastes energy on doubt, regret, guilt, fear.
It’s quite difficult for anybody who contemplates the future of civilisation to avoid identifying with the current Brexit farce and therefore being distracted by what serves as a potent symbol for chaos in the mind. The frequent statement ‘the public just want us to get on with it’ is no answer – it skilfully avoids a proper intellectual confrontation with the issues; there is no purpose in what’s going on; there was no initial clarity about the purpose of voting either to leave the EU or remain there. Those hell-bent on quitting because of their belief in establishing the endless rule of the oligarchs persist in linguistic prestidigitation to fool an already confused public.
How does one cultivate purpose and resolve?