I first encountered the concept of “flow” more than 40 years ago at a summer ceramics workshop in California. One of the instructors tried to explain what happened in that moment of creativity at the potter’s wheel when we felt excited and calm at the same time, and when everything was going so exactly as it should that it seemed we were merely observers or instruments of creation – that something else was working through us and we ended up making something better than we thought we ever could.
He explained it as being in the perfect confluence or flow of skill and challenge, where we had sufficient ability to perform a task at a high degree of skill, but we also were pushing the edge of that skill to attempt something maybe beyond our reach…but also maybe not. If we were to use any other word than “flow” for this state of being, he suggested, that word might be “happiness.”
I recently came across this terrific TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that reminded me of that first encounter with flow so many years ago.
I was also reminded that it isn’t just in the arts that human creativity can exceed its own expectations and produce both euphoria and real accomplishment. In his talk, Csikszentmihalyi recounts the experience of ice skaters, mathematicians and scientists as well as poets and artists describing what it is like being in “flow.”
He also suggests that “ecstasy” is another word for this experience. Although we have given this word extreme emotional, even sexual overtones, taken as it is from the Greek “ekstasis.” it means to be put out of one’s place, distracted, as in a trance. Creativity as an out-of body experience. That’s about right.