Karma-Yoga and Flow

There are strong parallels between the modern theory of “flow” as the state of optimal happiness, and Hindu philosophical inquiries into the human condition and what it means to be at peace. 

I recently started reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), a book by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that analyzes the state of mind that one has when one is deeply immersed in one’s work, and achieves a high (arguably the highest) level of satisfaction with life.  This state of mind is called “flow”, and has increasingly been the object of scientific inquiry over the past few decades.

What is important to note is that the idea of the flow state is not a recent innovation; indeed, the primary thing that stuck out to me when reading the introduction and the first couple of chapters is the strong parallels that Flow has with Hindu philosophy, and the arguments put forward in sacred Hindu texts such as The Bhagavad Gita.

Examine the following passage from The Gita:

Your duty is to work, not to reap the fruits of work.  Do not seek rewards, but do not love laziness either.  Be steady in Yoga, do whatever you must do; give up attachment, be indifferent to failure and success.  This stability is Yoga.

Selfish work is inferior to the work of a balanced, uncoveting mind; shelter yourself in this mental stability.  Harassed are the seekers of the fruits of action.  With this mental poise you will release yourself from good deeds and ill deeds.  Devote yourself to this Yoga: it is the secret of success in work.

The steadfast in wisdom, the steadfast of mind, giving up the fruits of action, achieve the perfect state.  When your mind is no longer obscured by desire, repose will come to you concerning what is heard and what is yet to be heard.  When your mind, so long whirled in conflicting thought, achieves poise, and steadies itself in itself, you will have realized Yoga. (II: 47-53)

This description of yoga might confuse those who have only been exposed to the colonized version of yoga (that is, yoga as a simple series of stretching exercises that is stripped of all philosophical meaning).  Indeed, yoga is an immensely complex set of practices that is central to Hinduism; it is the methodology by which one attains a permanent peace of mind, a bedrock of serenity within the physical and emotional storms of life.  In particular, what The Gita is mostly referencing here is karma-yoga: the yoga of action, the idea that one can be liberated from inner turmoil through a constant, but detached, immersion in productive work.

What the above passage argues–that the path to peace is through the abolition of desire, and a detachment from receiving rewards for one’s actions–is remarkably similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s description of how to achieve the highest levels of consciousness:

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness.  This happens when psychic energy–or attention–is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action.  The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.  These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives. (6)

Simply put, both Flow and The Gita argue that in order to find true inner peace, we must practice and master the art of enjoying the process of work itself, rather than the end goal.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that we completely forget the end goals, and the effects of our work on society; but that we cease to be affected by the way people respond to our work.  We must be serene even if we are ignored or rejected by other people; we must not place our ability to be happy and find joy in life on expecting other people to validate our being, or to find happiness in the acquisition of material goods and luxurious symbols that we believe raises our status in the eyes of our peers.  Fame, power, wealth: all are desires which can never be fulfilled, and which distract one’s attention from the satisfaction and joy that comes from focusing on the present.

In the end, it is through a constant engagement with creative, productive work that brings us moksha: the permanent peace of mind that we all seek.

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