Welcome to Chapter Two of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Before I say more about Chapter 2: “The Anatomy of Consciousness,” I need to have an ‘honest planet’ moment with you regarding this book.
It’s dry. Tinder-dry. It’s a danger-to-the-residents-of-Colorado dry. But I promise to read every cotton-mouthed word of it in order to bring you my perspective on this important work, in honor of a guy whose name is pronounced “chick sent me high,” which sounds like a lyric from an 80’s hair band, and which, I am risking hubris to say, I can finally spell without looking at the book cover.
“…an individual can experience only so much. Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and quality of life.”
In this chapter, Csikszentmihalyi wants us to understand how consciousness works before giving us the personal growth goods on dialing up the joy. If you can wade through the “indecipherable academic jargon” (Yes! He admits it!), you’ll find the basis for a core life coaching belief: we have the ability to control our happiness by consciously choosing how we perceive the outside world.
Humans, with their nifty biological overlay of consciousness, can invent stuff that we haven’t seen or heard before. Now THAT’S handy, and separates us from the other critters with opposable thumbs. It’s not so handy when it’s used to spin up fearful scenarios of pain and loss that haven’t occurred yet, but I’d rather accept that tendency in order to be able to create something useful, beautiful, or inspiring.
You’ve heard people say that we create our own reality. In Csikszentmihalyi’s explanation, “Since for us outside events do not exist unless we are aware of them, consciousness corresponds to subjectively experienced reality.” In other words, what YOU see is what YOU get. In snowboarding, we call it “look there, go there,” indicating that wherever you focus your eyes, your body and snowboard will follow. Focus on the trees in your path, and someone will need to call the ski patrol on your behalf. Focus on the clear space between the obstacles, and you’ll sail right through.
Our brains have limits on what they can take in, so we naturally and continuously prioritize and judge the bucket-loads of stimuli that bombard us daily. Attention is the psychic energy we use to focus on what’s important to us.
We “create ourselves” based on how we direct our psychic energy.
Who decides what to focus that psychic energy on? Who’s making the decisions about the prioritization of information and the goals supported by that prioritized information? That would be The Self, which is the sum total of the elements of consciousness. But here’s the kicker—the self directs attention, and what we focus attention on determines the self, so we’ve got a circular structure here, with no beginning or end, so…
we get to choose where to start.
When we know what we want out of life, we direct our attention to the things that will bring us closer to what we want. When something interrupts our attention on getting what we really want, or distracts us from our goals, that psychic energy gets thrown into turmoil. We get annoyed when the phone interrupts us while we’re reading a favorite book. We can’t concentrate on our jobs when someone we love is ill. The interruption or the illness themselves come in to our consciousness as information, but it is the self that determines whether they are good things or bad things. If the interruption turns out to be a phone call telling us we won the lottery, our consciousness will judge it differently than if a bill collector is harassing us. If the loved one’s illness introduces us to the doctor that we eventually marry, what judgment do we assign to the illness?
GROWING WITH THE FLOW
As we spend more time in “flow,” where our psychic energy is focused on activities and thoughts that support our life’s purpose, we become more complex individuals, capable of both differentiating ourselves with our unique skills and talents, and integrating ourselves by connecting more fully with others. We grow in a balanced way, as we enjoy the journey of our lives, building the confidence that spurs us on to further develop our capabilities and fulfill our purpose.
- Shifting our perceptions is sometimes done in hindsight. Think of a time in your life when a “bad” thing happened. Now think of a “good” outcome that wouldn’t have happened without it. What did you learn that ultimately caused goodness to come your way?
- On the hero’s journey of your life, you’ve undoubtedly run into frustrating roadblocks. Can you think of a time in your life when you focused on the obstacles? What happened? What did your resistance to the obstacle’s presence feel like? Were there times when you were able allow the obstacles to exist, while focusing your attention on the space in-between? What happened? What did your ability to accept the presence of these obstacles feel like?
- We’ve all got a story about how someone or something did us wrong, and made us feel angry or sad. If it is, in fact, true that our consciousness gives us a choice of how we think and feel, how can you revise your perception of the story and shift your thoughts and feelings to neutral or positive? What positive outcomes were a result of the bad experience? Viktor Frankl is the poster child for finding happiness and meaning independent of outside circumstance–if you haven’t read Man’s Search for Meaning about his experience as a holocaust victim, get a copy immediately.