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Daoist Philosophy of Flow

According to the Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, when we are deeply involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state called “flow.” One may find still greater happiness experiencing “flow” in working towards long-term, meaningful goals.   The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi proposes that happiness is nothing but wuwei (no contrived action) that is, using one’s natural abilities and intuition to flow with one’s environment.  When one is fully engaged with what one is doing, one begins to act effortlessly, and one’s whole mindset changes from that of fear and avoidance to that of engagement and openness.

Perhaps the most obvious connection between the modern concept of Flow and Zhuangzi is found in his description of skilled artisans such as butchers and cicada-catchers, whom we could call “blue collar sages.” One of the most celebrated examples recounts the virtuosity of butcher Ting.  Ting is cutting up an ox for his Master Wen-Hui, and his activity is described in the following way:

At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee--zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music (The Collected Works of Chuang Tsu, trans. Burton Watson 1986, p.50)

When Ting is asked by his Master how he could achieve such skill, Ting responds:

What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill.  When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself.  After three years I no longer saw the whole ox.  And now-- now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.

Ting goes on to explain how this state of mastery is achieved:

However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until-- flop!  the whole thing comes apart like a cloud of earth crumbling to the ground.  I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.


Here we see all the elements of the Flow described quite succinctly.  Ting has a clearly defined goal in mind: to chop the ox carcass with a minimum of effort and least wear and tear on his cleaver.  He is completely immersed in the activity of butchering with no space in mind for any other thought or feeling.  Ting describes the stages he went through in order to achieve mastery of his skill.  The attitude that binds these stages as a thread is single-minded focus and intention.  The allusions to rhythmic movement and dance clearly indicate that he is going through an ecstatic experience.  And at the end of the activity he describes himself as "completely satisfied." Ting's reference to “a complicated place" indicates that the Flow state is achieved only after facing increasing challenge and the development of new skills.

Zhuangzi intimates that the Flow-like experience can extend beyond the specific act of butchering to become a continuous state (this is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of the “autotelic personality”).  After Master Wen-Hui hears Ting's explanation, he proclaims, "I have heard the words of Butcher Ting and have learned how to care for life."  It is obvious to Wen-Hui that Ting is not just giving us a recipe for how to butcher an ox: he is giving us a recipe for life itself.  This idea of Flow as a kind of “caring for life” is a major theme in Robert Pirsig's popular work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for example when he writes, "When you're not dominated by feelings of separateness from what you're working on, then you can be said to "care" about what you're doing.  That is what caring really is: a feeling of identification with what one's doing."   Zhuangzi uses the metaphor of the “mirror” to explain this: by removing the interference of the self, your mind becomes a perfect reflection of the concrete situation you are in.

While Zhuangzi can legitimately be taken to be a precursor of the modern concept of Flow, it is equally important to note some of the differences.  Csikszentmihalyi prefers to use the language of “control:” the ego learns to master the external world in the conquest of a challenging skill.  Zhuangzi on the other hand uses the language of “letting be” (wu wei): one learns not to interfere with the Way of things.   We believe, however, that these two different perspectives are complementary aspects of the Flow experience.  While Csikszentmihalyi draws attention to the strength and control that is achieved within Flow, or its Yang aspect, Zhuangzi points to the effortlessness of the state, its Yin aspect.