We find joy when we lose the self in activity, in those good things that are outside ourselves: making art, doing science, playing sports, educating the young, or caring for the old and disabled. Joy is nature’s way of telling us that we are fulfilling our nature…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join George Stanciu as he explores the joys of human nature. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Even a cursory glance at the interior life reveals that our thinking is scattered, that we are half-asleep, carried along by habit. A student sitting in a college classroom may appear engaged in the lecture, but is taking notes mechanically and thinking of tomorrow night’s date. An office worker fires off stock answers to e-mail queries while contemplating the upcoming weekend filled with shopping and entertainment. A businessman being outfitted with new Nike golf apparel worries how his clients will view his swing.
Each one of us has a non-stop monologue going on in his or her head. The inner monologue seems to be universal, although its content and intensity probably varies with culture. Many traditional meditation practices, such as “watching” the breath and reciting a mantra, are spiritual techniques to stop the inner monologue. In contrast to a genuine dialogue, an inner monologue is unfocused, disconnected, and never arrives anywhere. Although an inner monologue is pointless, its tone reveals whether a person is chronically angry, complaining, self-pitying, righteous, or argumentative.
I suspect from my experience that an American alone in nature carries on an inner monologue that mindlessly jumps by association from thought to thought. My incessant, internal jabbering is absolutely stupid and is of no conceivable interest to anyone. Like a monkey swinging from one tree to the next in a tropical forest, my mind leaps insanely from one topic to another. I even find it boring. Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible to shut it off, to be interiorly silent. Yet, without interior silence, I cannot really hear other persons, experience nature, or encounter the innermost depths of my being.
All of us have had rare occasions where our inner monologue is turned off for a moment. A friend of mine told me about her vivid memory of playing third base in the seventh grade forty years ago. She heard the crack of the bat, and a line drive headed toward her traveling at least sixty miles an hour. To her, however, the ball moved so slowly that she watched the gradual rotation of the seams with fascination, and, of course, her gloved hand effortlessly caught the ball.
Another woman told me that she thought it impossible for any person to turn off his or her inner monologue. Then, one afternoon while walking in the woods with her husband, suddenly she was not preoccupied with the usual problems that cluttered up her mind. For a moment, she experienced the landscape, the wind, and the rhythm of walking. “It’s wonderful!” she exclaimed to her husband, and the inner silence ended.
Several summers ago, I did some extensive mountain running in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I remember running down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, gliding from rock to rock at breakneck speed. One misstep and I could have broken an ankle or a leg. But that thought never entered my mind; I was without fear and totally confident. Entirely focused on what I was doing, the rocks stood out in bold relief. The varied shapes amazed me, and I marveled at the sea-foam green and bright yellow lichens on the rocks as they flew by me. I was so immersed in what I was doing that I was not a detached spectator, chattering away inside of my usual imaginary bubble. I was a person “lost” in union and in harmony with the rocks. On those rare occasions when the isolated self gives way to the loss of self, we become fully alive and life needs no justification, for to be alive is joyful.
My experience of mountain running, of being totally absorbed in an activity, is called “in the zone” by athletes and “flow” by psychologists. Flow is the experience of performing an activity at an optimal level, characterized by effortlessness and intense focus on the present; the self disappears, and the person becomes the performance. Rock climbers, surgeons, dancers, musicians, writers, chess players, mathematicians, indeed, actors in any field can lose the self, become the activity, and thereby experience flow.
Musician Barry Green observes that soloists, orchestral players, young students, and seasoned sessions players, alike, have experienced that “unique suspended moment when you actually become the emotional or sensory quality of the music—the colors, the water, the love.” An expert rock climber describes the same experience: “You are so involved in what you are doing [that] you aren’t thinking of yourself as separate from the immediate activity…. You don’t see yourself as separate from what you are doing.” A dancer says at times she becomes the dance: “Your concentration is very complete. Your mind isn’t wandering, you are not thinking of something else; you are totally involved in what you are doing.”
Flow is not confined to specialized activities that require years to master. Any person can become lost in an everyday activity. A mother recounts the flow that takes place when she and her young daughter take turns reading to each other. “She reads to me, and I read to her, and that’s a time when I sort of lose touch with the rest of the world, I’m totally absorbed in what I’m doing.” Many fiction readers enter into an imaginary world so completely that they become the characters and the world around them recedes. Or even more simply, my friend, mentioned earlier, while walking in the woods with her husband experienced flow; she became one with the wind, rocks, and the trees when her inner monologue ceased momentarily.
In flow, our usual scattered attention disappears and the mind becomes intensely focused, totally aware of the present. Such a concentration of attention Buddhists call “one-pointedness,” meaning an interior state where all mental faculties are unified and directed toward one action, say sweeping the pebbles from a shrine, releasing an arrow from a bow, or sitting in meditation. For a tennis player, only the ball and the opponent exist; for a chess player, everything is excluded by the strategy of the game.
When a person is completely in the present, not reflecting upon the past or worrying about the future, the senses are heightened: vision is amazingly vivid, and hearing registers the subtlest changes in pitch and intensity. A violinist feels the tiniest movements of her fingers that produce palpable sounds. The music, her hands and fingers, her mind, all move of their own accord in complete harmony. For rock climber Doug Robinson, “To climb with intense concentration is to shut out the world, which, when it reappears, will be as a fresh experience, strange and wonderful in its newness.” The great rock climber Yvon Chouinard describes how on ascent up El Capitan’s Muir Wall he saw as if for the first time: “Each individual crystal in the granite stood out in bold relief. The varied shapes of the clouds never ceased to attract our attention. For the first time, we noticed tiny bugs that were all over the walls, so tiny that they were barely noticeable. While belaying, I stared at one for fifteen minutes, watching him move and admiring his brilliant red color.” Unlike our habitual looking without seeing, looking with real vision reveals the overwhelming beauty of mundane objects—clouds, snow, and granite.
Being in the present distorts a person’s sense of time. If I am driving a car headed for a crash, I am not in the zone, yet I am suddenly in the present and totally aware of what is happening; time slows down so much that later I describe my experience as if it had happened in slow motion. A figure skater typically reports that a triple Axel that in clock time took several seconds to execute but in subjective time lasted three times longer or more. The opposite distortion of time also occurs. For a chess player or a novel reader, two hours may seem like two minutes.
For virtually every performer, flow is a desirable state to be in. Personal problems vanish, the fear of failure disappears, mental clarity results, effortless performance happens, and joy ensues. The activity, then, becomes an end in itself. The desire for fame, public adulation, and even victory—in effect, all distractions from the marketplace and social life—disappear. The basketball great Bill Russell confesses that for him superb play took precedence over the desire for victory. Those perfect moments in basketball “were sweet when they came, and the hope that one would come was one of my strongest motivations for walking out there. Sometimes the feeling would last all the way to the end of the game, and when that happened, I never cared who won… On the five or ten occasions when the game ended at that special level, I literally did not care who had won. If we lost, I’d still be as free and high as a sky hawk.”
The ancient Chinese sage Chuang Tzu taught that the desire to win a prize often ruins the skill of a contestant:
When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets—
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting—
And the need to win drains him of power.
Whether we recognize it or not, flow confirms our spiritual nature. When we become an object or an activity, comparative religion scholar Toshihiko Izutsu avows, “Zen may be said to be already realized, whether one calls it Zen or not. Zen, however, requires that one should be in exactly the same state with regard to everything… One should become a bamboo. One should become a mountain. One should become the sound of a bell. That is what Zen means by the expression: ‘seeing into the nature of things.’” Eknath Easwaran, a disciple of Gandhi and the critically acclaimed translator of the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Dhammapada, concludes after years of meditation and study that “the goal of all spiritual seeking is to live in a state of self-forgetfulness permanently.”
Silence and self-forgetfulness are at the heart of Christian mysticism. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite reports, apparently from his own experience, that “the higher we soar in contemplation the more limited become our expressions of that which is purely intelligible; even as now, when plunging into the Darkness that is above the intellect, we pass not merely into brevity of speech, but even into absolute silence of thoughts and of words.”
Not surprisingly, then, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his coworkers have documented through extensive interviews that the best moments in life occur when “people become so involved in what they are doing that… they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.”
In an informal survey I conducted, colleagues and acquaintances told me that the greatest joy in their lives occurred when they became lost in something outside themselves, in performing a Mozart piano sonata, in following the elegance of a mathematical demonstration, in seeing the beauty of the Canyonlands, or in helping a young child learn to walk. Joy is nature’s way of telling us that we are fulfilling our nature. We find joy when we forget ourselves through knowing and loving those good things that are outside ourselves.
When we were children, flow was a common experience because we were unself-conscious learners not afraid to fail. Later in school, we experienced failure as painful, for it brought bad grades from the teacher and sometimes laughter from fellow students. My first Spanish teacher, Señora Reverie de Escobedo, a wise woman, told me that her first goal in teaching a foreign language to adult learners was to undo the self-consciousness and fear of failure formed by years of prior schooling. Most of us have learned to see ourselves through the eyes of ever-critical onlookers, whether they are actually there or not. Before we act or speak, we first have to judge our actions or speech as we think others will. Some of us mentally rehearse everything we say, for our words have to be perfect; under such circumstances, we cannot act naturally or spontaneously.
After early childhood, we may have learned to play the piano so well that we could render a Mozart sonata flawlessly, yet not achieve an effortless, egoless performance. Optimal performance does require previous discipline and hard work, yet transcends habit and steps beyond the technically correct to the sublime.
Paradoxically, the universal course of our lives seems to move from aliveness and flow to habit and deadness to aliveness and flow, a strange trajectory that begins with the naïve child free from social conditioning and ends with the sophisticated adult freed from mindless habit and an overriding desire for success. If we accede to the obvious truth that life is activity, then the highest human activity is the flow that results from making art, doing science, playing sports, educating the young, or caring for the old and disabled, from losing the self in an activity.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in May 2017.
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 Doug Robinson, “The Climber as Visionary,” Ascent 9, (1969): 8.
 Yvon Chouinard, quoted by Doug Robinson, “The Climber as Visionary,” Ascent 9, (1969): 6.
 Eknath Easwaran, Original Goodness: Eknath Easwaran on the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2014), p. 74.
 Csilszentmihalyi, Flow, p. 53.