Flow and Social Change

"Good" and "bad" are made by our minds; they are not innate to the things around us.  Although this might be surprising at first, it's actually very straightforward.  Take for example the fact that a Japanese person coming to the U.S. might find some of our streets very dirty and experience the litter as "bad," whereas an Indian person coming to the U.S. might experience those very same streets as quite clean and as "good."  Consider also that the last time you got a new job you may have thought it was very good, but after a while in that same position you experienced it as bad, and another job as being good.  Is our current government or economic climate bad or good?  Depending on whether you (often unconsciously) compare it to an even worse system, or to an ideal goal, you will experience the current situation it as bad or good.

Realizing this, experiencing everything as good is the goal of many "inner sciences" or contemplative traditions, including Buddhist meditation traditions, the ones with which I am most familiar.  Because of their focus on inner techniques to make oneself suffer much less and be happier, calmer, and more compassionate, many have debated the relationship between social activism - attempts to change external conditions which cause suffering - and contemplative practice.  As you can imagine, various Buddhists and non-Buddhists have responded to this question in various ways.  In my view however, the core of the debate is very simple: any teacher or contemplative tradition that advocates the achievement of "happiness independent of conditions" will always legitimately fall prey to criticisms that the contemplative practice neglects real external causes of suffering, or even reinforces those external causes.  For example, as Slavoj Zizek famously stated: "Although 'Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement." Moreover, this criticism will hold regardless of whether one's contemplative practice is considered "superficial" or "authentic."

But, so what? Whatever the external consequences of experiencing more of life as good, shouldn't we want it?  If a Brave New World comes to pass in which most people are slaves, but everyone is deeply happy, would that be bad?  You might have aesthetic, creative/economic, or other reasons why you would not want this world, but I doubt, as troubling as it feels, that there are good ethical arguments against it.

It's not a very attractive future to think about, luckily I think there are strong practical concerns that would make this unlikely.  Before we get to those though we have to offer an alternative to the idea of a "happiness independent of conditions." This idea is a farce, a static abstraction, and a violent, harmful one at that.  Such a goal is not only misleading, but is built on a degradation and devaluing of real life.  It says: "Look at my happiness, in which I'm standing apart, over here, independent of anything you're doing or that's going on.  My happiness is so great, nothing affects it." There are deeply ingrained tendencies in many spiritual traditions to view life in this way, and while mature and honest spiritual teachers and practitioners will offer an alternate interpretation, they may still be teaching and training within subtle versions of the framework.

A better description of enduring human joy and of seeing things as more and more good is closer to the concept of flow, which is often characterized by spontaneous responsiveness to stimuli and as being deeply fulfilling.  The deepest joys in life come from being in one's own flow more and more of the time.  The experience of anything as good is a symptom of flow.  Flow as a trait, rather than just a state, is not yet in the purview of modern psychology and performance studies, but it will be.  We should expand our concept of flow states to flow traits, and then to degrees and variations of flow - degrees of spontaneous responsiveness and innate fulfillment. 

Flow responds to the social change criticism because flow is defined inclusively of external and internal conditions.  Slavery is not likely to produce flow for many people.  Activities or lifestyles that are too hard for someone are not conducive to flow.  Similarly the social isolation and externally implemented shame that go along with being seen (or seeing oneself) as "lower class" are also not conducive to flow.  For most people to have a most deeply satisfying life, to achieve flow traits, it is necessary for many of us to have more opportunity, confidence, challenges, outlets for meaningful personal expression, and genuine experiences of usefulness than we currently experience.  Moreover, it is arrogant and incorrect to think that others' well being doesn't affect our own.  Enabling other people to find flow will enables more flow for you and vice versa, and at some point there will be a limit to your own enjoyment of life based on the lack of enjoyment of others.  In this movement towards greater fulfillment and expression we really are all in this together.

There is a relevant and interesting consequence for people seen (or who see themselves) as "higher class" too.  With too much privilege comes boredom, stagnancy, and suffocating comfort.  Flow only arises with challenge. Thus wealth and overabundance of opportunity, choice, information, and connections can deaden creativity and decrease the ability to make choices.  Flow address both ends of the social privilege spectrum simultaneously.

Challenges do not go away.  Experiencing everything as more good requires addressing our individual and collective problems.  They provide the impetus and the energy for our responsiveness.  As we come to live that more and more, more and more we will also be motivated to increase it for ourselves and others.  Doing so requires increasing opportunity, resources, connection, and perceived value for some and increasing challenge for others.  In this way, we'll create a much more vibrant and creative world for all of us.