Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Csikszentmihalyi’

I have a done a few things well…

In Creativity, Family, Life, Memoir, Writers, Writing on June 24, 2009 at 12:41 pm
The Writer's Web.

The Writer’s Web.

I had a college literature professor, Colin Campbell, who likened writers to spiders. Colin would sit behind his desk, his eyes dancing behind his thick glasses, his face expressive and smiling, while with his fingers he would make itsy-bitsy spider motions, like one does for young children, and declare, “The spider makes its web from nothing more than what’s in its gut. It yanks the silk from its spinnerets and weaves it into spokes and spirals, making a design only it can envision. It’s the same for the writer. He works from what’s in his gut.” Colin’s hands would rotate as the spider climbed up the downspout. The image has stayed with me for years and the appeal, romance even, of making something from nothing other than raw being has a powerful hold on me. Anne Dillard says that the writer simply needs life to work, not experience necessarily.

I have done a few things well. I have raised good kids. I have successfully nurtured my marriage. I have had a good run at business; a good run at the arts; a good run at sports, at travel, at friendship. I have tried to not measure my successes by quantifying productivity or building bank accounts or accumulating land or cars. Indeed, I have no viable measure for success. I am not even sure of the notion of success and find this itself to be troubling. Ironically, I am full circle. I am in high school and wondering what exactly to do with this life. I have realized Csíkszentmihályi’s flow on a few hard-earned occasions and remember them vividly. But as the zen master also told me, one cannot seek yet must still find.

We are fond of saying, If I knew then what I know now. The odd thing is, I don’t think I have much to bring to that adage. I know more now than I knew in high school. That much is obvious. But there is no intrinsic value to that experience such that I would render things different given an opportunity to rewind the last forty years. To the contrary, I am certain I would take the same paths, read the same books, travel to the same places, marry the same wonderful woman and so on. Is experience completely lost on me? Is it all inert? Does wisdom completely escape me? Sometimes it appears that way–but, again, I don’t think I’m alone on this.

I have spun out of my gut a life-web. It has been a life not necessarily purpose driven which puts me at odds with conventional wisdom. I like being at odds with conventional wisdom. As a general course I disdain the conventional and go out of my way to avoid it. This makes me either an iconoclast or a curmudgeon, perhaps both, I don’t know. They are not mutually exclusive and both can be worn as a badge of honor, but that in and of itself negates each.

Thanks for reading,


“I was a haughty insufferable young man…”

In Life, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life on June 21, 2009 at 8:34 pm

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I was a haughty insufferable young man, intent upon a direction of which I was unsure. I am less intent these days and I have worked to lose the haughtiness, though I am still unsure as to where I am headed. A true north, presented as a reasonable and intelligent sensibility remains unknown, a shrouded mystery. Schopenhauer said that walking is arrested falling down. I am walking, and conscious that every step is taken in self-defense, taken to keep from collapsing. I have concluded that for me life holds only surprises and reveals nothing. I am in a poker game and am blind. I did not spring from the womb playing Mozart. I cannot do math. I have not experienced a particular urge to save the world or develop a vaccine or build an empire. I have no natural capacity for anything, as best I can tell. The writer in me struggles to spin my web, but that is the nature of the discipline. I work from my gut. In short, I exist, like, as best I can tell, many of us exist, without a clarifying direction or calling, most of the time not even cognizant that we even exist. I keep my eyes open and take notes. The best I’ve been able to do so far is string them together and search for patterns. At fifty-three I still search.

Driving through Ohio recently I realized how much I prefer straight lines. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, reminded me that hidden curves are, conversely, not to my liking. I want to see straight ahead as far as I can. I want my eye to sprint to the horizon. Maybe that is why so many of us are drawn to the ocean. The eye is unimpeded and the curvature of the earth is distant and not threatening. Yet, the only migraine I ever experienced occurred in Spain, on the Costa del Sol where the sun and the ocean and the expanse could not be escaped and in all direction intensity loomed. This was a painful thing to experience and all I take from it is an odd aversion to brilliance. A moth will singe its wings and die over a flame. And the search goes on.

I have rarely learned from the experience of others. Not to make a big thing of it, but perhaps this is vestige of being raised without siblings. I say this but have observed in my own children a tendency to experiential learning, at the risk of theoretical learning by observation. They, like me, are not keen on what Whitehead called inert ideas. They prefer the active.

Raised in the middle class midwest I grew desperate in high school for direction. What was I going to do with my life. Ron had his father’s insurance business and Rick wanted to be an engineer. Bill was joining the marines. I recall a school counselor asking me what I was interested in, perhaps my future could be discerned there. Everything and nothing. I remained interested in everything and yet nothing in particular. The counselor thought I should consider plumbing. The world always needs plumbing fixed.

The old TV show, Green Acres, was not far from the truth. In it, Eddie Albert plays a character who ditches the city, much to the dismay of his wife, and follows a calling to become a farmer. There is a phenomenon, I’m told a true forehead-slapping event, where middle-aged men suddenly realize they were meant to be farmers. I was told it to be like an awakening for some. I am reminded of Genesis: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” Painful toil holds no appeal for me. I don’t like gardening in any form. Despite growing up in corn country, farming was never a consideration, nor has it ever crept into the neighborhood of possibility. If something is going to grab me by the shoulders and shout out purposeful direction, it will not be to labor in the fields. Of that I am certain. Nor will it be to crawl under a kitchen sink and wrestle with pipes. Upon reflection, as a father of three, I realize that I did a poor job of parenting on this subject. It is hard to teach about that of which you know nothing, though all earnest parents endeavor to do so day in and day out. No, I am convinced that I was meant to be without a keel. I heard someone say recently that if you’re a doctor you’re only good at being a doctor. I don’t exactly know what she meant by this, but think it to be a warning of highly evolved singularity.

The 1954 movie Sabrina finds Audrey Hepburn as the daughter of a chauffeur. What is personally enduring about this movie is the portrait of the chauffeur father as reader. He explains to Sabrina that his career choice was intentional because it would afford him ample time to do what he most enjoyed, reading books. I am still amazed when I consider this idea–and not just the thought of it, of a life carved out of reading, but of a screenwriter even employing the motif. I have a friend who has climbed Mt. Everest and K2, as well as a host of other peaks. He spends a lot of time at elevation in a tent acclimatizing, manufacturing red blood cells. I once asked him how he entertains himself while waiting weeks before a summit push. He reads, he told me. He said that reading is a “zone activity” for him. He was referring to the notion of a mental state whereby a person is so fully immersed in what he is doing, in his case reading, that time ceases and energy is focused. You sometimes hear of “being in the zone,” or achieving a state of flow, in relation to sports. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has popularized the notion. He says that a state of flow is characterized by nine factors. They are:

  1. Clear and attainable goals
  2. A high degree of concentration
  3. A loss of self-consciousness
  4. A sense of fluidity of time
  5. Immediate feedback
  6. A balance between ability and challenge
  7. Personal control
  8. The intrinsic reward of the activity
  9. A sense of being absorbed in the activity

Water flows and that is why Csíkszentmihályi used the word to describe this state. His research found the word used repeatedly by people having experienced the condition. A zen master once told me that flow is akin to enlightenment, a state of consciousness where everything is at once realized yet not transformed. Or something to that effect. The point being, Sabrina’s father knew what he wanted and got it. I grew up not knowing what I wanted and got that too–the state of confusion. (I will resist using the anti-Flow word stagnation.) Yet we adapt and things usually workout, or so we hope. I find it interesting that my mountain climbing friend and Sabrina’s father both presumably found reading to be of such high order that it satisfied their very natures, as being in the zone suggests. I knew growing up that reading was important to me and to this day consider myself a reader first. But one must get off the sofa on occasion and climb a mountain. That is what stolid Midwesterners do. I find, of Csíkszentmihályi’s list, number 2, A high degree of concentration, to be the most appealing. I think number 7, Personal Control, the least inviting, though paradoxically control is most important to those who don’t have it. I have no idea what to make of that either.