Saturday, July 24, 2010

Who Be You?

Cease striving and know that I am God...
Psalm 46:10a
Sree and I have been playing around with the notions of being verus doing. Most of us would distinguish who I am from what I do, at least we would say that we do. However, as we dig into what we mean by saying, I am not what I do, things get a little vague and mushy pretty quickly.

In Who Is You?, I suggested that each of us is in fact the net sum of all he does. In the context of this definition, doing:
  1. is not limited to occupation, but includes everything from breathing and sleeping to thinking and feeling to working and playing
  2. is never accidental, but always deliberate (whether we're paying attention or not)
  3. can completely change from moment to moment; past doing does not dictate current or future doing.
When contrasted with how most of us define who I am, the above definition can be quite empowering. Most of us see who we are as the net sum of genetics and experiences. At any moment who I am includes everything from the genes that make my hair blonde to my mom breaking her elbow taking a swing at me when I was five to what I ate for dinner last night. Who I am is this indiscernable yet deterministic mush of everything. We end up saying things like, "I don't know why I do that (indiscernable), I guess it's just who I am (deterministic)."

When we make who we are the net sum of our actions and make our actions all inclusive, deliberate, and non-deterministic, we empower ourselves to change who we are. Nothing is hidden (I can know why I do what I do) and nothing is predetermined (I can change it).

Nonetheless, simply viewing who I am as the net sum of what I do is somehow less than satisfying. There still must be a reason for the existence of the two verbs other than historical baggage.

How Do You Do?
This morning it occurred to me that the distinction we're looking for may lie in how I do what I do. We've talked before about epistemological (structured and ordered) thinking and ontological (stream of consciousness) thinking.

Some would describe epistemological thought as right-brained thinking and ontological thought as left-brained thinking. Ontological thought is what you do when you're in flow or in your zone and epistemological thought what you do when you're not. Epistemological thought is the manifestation of destination-oriented attitude and ontological thought, the manifestation of journey-oriented attitude.

In the strictest sense, all these distinctions (right versus left brain, flow versus non-flow, destination-orientation versus journey-orientation) could be defined as doing, but they're kind of a meta-doing: a doing that supersedes, spans and influences other doing. In particular, I like the notions of flow and what they might mean in regard to being.

Regarding flow, Wikipedia says:
Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.
Although musicians, writers, painters and athletes have been aware of flow (flowing, grooving, and being in the zone) for years, it's great to see that modern psychology is acknowledging, exploring and formalizing its understanding of flow.

Concentrated You
When you think about it, any task (any doing) can be done from within a mental state of flow or from without it (ebb?). Flowing completely recasts the experience of the doing (joy and rapture) and it substantially influences the outcome of doing. For me, flowing is concentrated being; it's the collecting of all the little bits of me and focusing them in the moment. I would stop short of "task at hand" because when you're flowing you seem to be unaware that there is a task at hand; the task at hand becomes almost an artifact of flow, not the focus of it.

I would go so far to say that flow defines intellect, it's the difference between idiot and genius. Imagine waking up in a campsite situated in middle of a large field surrounded by forests and mountains; the broadly defused predawn light renders everything about you indistinct and in a blue hue. Now imagine collecting all that light energy scattered from you to the horizon and concentrating it for a moment on a single object: a rock or a leaf or a twig. The concentration of so much energy would yield nothing short of a lazer. This is the intellectual effect of flow, the concentration of diffused and scattered mental energy into a focused beam of light.

Over the past few weeks, I've been working on a particularly interesting and challenging (read fun) problem regarding the interpretation of electrocardiogram data. I'd been working through it step by step in the manner that many engineers would work through it and I'd been having some success. But still, there was something nagging at me: something telling me that the way I was approaching the problem lacked certain aspects of system-ness.

Then the other night, I decided to go to bed early and not think about it anymore. Around 4:00AM I sat upright in bed and saw the problem completely worked out as if someone had drawn all the diagrams and formulas on a blackboard. The solution that I saw was nothing like that which I'd been working and it's going to take me weeks to implement it all, but there it was. It was a flow-based solution.

Flowing = Being
What's all this got to do with being? If I were going to draw a distinction between doing and being, I would say that doing has to do with the what of activity and being has to with the how of activity. Regardless of what you're doing, you can do it from a state of flow, a state of ebb, or somewhere between.

Ebbing is a state characterized by distraction, diffused energy and attention, and striving. It is goal-oriented and formally structured. Flowing is characterized by focus, concentrated energy and focus, and ease. It is process-oriented and organically structured. Who you are, who you're being, is simply a snapshot of where you are on the spectrum from ebbing to flowing.

In this model, there is a feedback loop from doing to being. There's no such thing as people who just flow and people who don't: you can do flow. However, I like the distinction between state (of mind, of body, of consciousness?) and action.

Anyway, that's the best I've got so far. What do you think?

Happy Saturday,

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