Why Zen Is Not the Same as “Flow”

A Commentary on Nancy Mujo Baker’s Opening to Oneness

There is much to recommend Nancy Mujo Baker’s new book on the Zen Precepts, Opening to Oneness. And there are some things to be concerned about. In this, the first of two posts, I’ll share my concern that students may be misled about what Zen teaches about “oneness” and “suchness.”

To begin with the positive, in Chapter 14 Baker beautifully describes an incident of “experiencing suchness.” In a state of absolute receptivity, she writes, “I project absolutely nothing onto something else, it is allowed to reveal itself in its suchness…I remember a toaster ‘leaping out’ during a silent retreat” (p. 163). 

This, I would agree, is a glimpse of the generative emptiness from which all forms come forth. At such a moment, something other than me (one of Dogen’s “myriad things”)—a sound, an object, a word—suddenly escapes our self-centered projections. Our habitual way of seeing a toaster, for example, is in the light of our “project” of preparing breakfast. In a moment of awakening, in contrast, the toaster momentarily becomes vivid and present and itself in a way that we have never seen before. And in experiencing the “suchness” of that toaster, we get to see ourselves in proper perspective. No longer the center of my own little universe, I notice that both the toaster and “I” are manifestations of one absolute.

While we may later describe it  as “an experience I had,” that language isn’t quite right. In the moment, we could equally well say that the toaster experienced me. As Baker notes, the “experience” simply doesn’t fit in our conceptual schemes. We can only remember and express afterwards the external circumstances of the event, not its transformative content (p. 163).

And she describes other experiences. In the chapter on “Different Kinds of Oneness,” Baker gives an example of a student, sitting in a library study room, not being able to “get into” a book they are supposed to be studying. She contrasts this with the experience of finding the book totally absorbing (p. 143). When we are absorbed in reading we lose some of our normal self-consciousness. The separateness of the book and ourselves, as physical objects, fades into the background. The room and the chair disappear, and we may become unaware of the passage of time. 

Such a state of absorption, it seems to me, is what psychologists call “flow.” As described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a flow state is characterized by complete concentration and the loss of self-consciousness. The activity is perceived as rewarding and (even though difficult, in an objective sense) effortless, and our sense of time passing may bear little resemblance to clock time. We like flow. We may find it (occasionally) in mental activity, such as reading, or in practicing arts, crafts, or sports. In addition to being absorbed in a book, Baker also mentions other examples of unselfconscious concentration such as “skiing down a dangerous slope.” (p. 170). 

Now here is my concern: While the book is not about these states per se, but about the precepts, students using it will likely take from it hints about Zen in general. One thing students might “learn” is that no-self in the Zen sense (the toaster “leaping out”) is the same as a flow state (being absorbed in reading or skiing). Baker calls all of these “100 percent being myself” (p. 163 170-1). They are all said to be examples of Dogen’s “total experience of a single thing” (143, 149) and dropping off of body and mind (170). But are these the same thing?

I think not. It seems to me that the toaster story is about the experience of no-self in the Zen sense (above), while the others are about a mere lack of self-consciousness in a psychological sense. Let’s look at a couple major differences between these. 

First, a flow state, being a state of extreme concentration, tends to make one out-of-touch with one’s larger surroundings. As one skis down the slope, the sky and trees are no more than blurs in one’s peripheral vision. We’ve focused narrowly on one thing. Because of this, flow makes us hard to interrupt. The fire alarm goes off in the library, and it takes us some moments to “get our head out of the book” in which we’ve been absorbed. Only then might we notice that the study room has become hazy with smoke.

Zen, on the other hand, should make us more attuned to the world around us. After the filters created by our self-centered projections have thinned a bit, we tend to get better at attending to our situation. We don’t focus on the toaster so much as the toaster leaps out at us. While we teach beginning Zen students to practice concentration on the cushion, in the more advanced practice of shikantaza or “just sitting” we drop concentration in favor of radical receptivity to whatever is arising. We become easier to interrupt–more ready to put down whatever personal project we’ve been pursuing in order to respond to the need at hand. We smell smoke, and we immediately put down our book and run to the nearest fire alarm box.

The second distinction is that flow states have no necessary spiritual or ethical content. Nor do they give reliable guidance for life. They are just passing psychological phenomena. Csikszentmihalyi himself noted that the energy involved is ethically neutral: “while flow is a powerful motivator, it does not guarantee virtue… [it] can be used for both positive and destructive ends.” Later research has confirmed that excessive risk-taking and even the killing of other people may generate flow states. Flow also plays a big role in addiction to gambling and computer gaming. The book we find so absorbing could be Mein Kampf.

Zen, in contrast, is a spiritual practice for life. While our moments of clear seeing may be incredibly brief and infrequent, we are encouraged to be diligent in thoroughly integrating these insights into every part of our life. Continued study and practice with the ethical Precepts cannot be neglected. Whether we cause harm or good matters

Is there overlap between flow states and Zen? Yes, and these can be for good or ill. Two examples come to my mind. 

The first is samadhi, which I think can be well-characterized as a flow state that happens during zazen. It is a state of bliss and peace. Experienced as a temporary state of refreshment during a long, hard sesshin, samadhi can usefully support our practice. But attach to it as a state we want to achieve, and samadhi becomes another trap. Zen teachers talk about “samadhi junkies” the same way people interested in flow talk about “bliss junkies.” Samadhi should not be confused with awakening. 

The second is Zen arts, such as calligraphy, archery, or tea ceremony. The concentration practices and mental discipline taught as a part of Zen can be useful in perfecting such skills. One may learn to “lose oneself” in the activity. Just so, 13th-century Japanese Samurai found that Zen could train them to feel at one with their swords. (They also distorted the notion that in the realm of the absolute “there is no killing or being killed” to mean that they weren’t really taking lives.) Perfection of skills may simply lead to more efficiency in causing harm.

My concern is that a reader of Opening to Oneness may confuse their previous or current flow experiences with Zen awakening, and never be motivated to investigate further. But there is so much more!  Or they may (as I secretly did) come into Zen thinking that life as a Zen practitioner should eventually become a state of continuous flow and ease. We might imagine that the Roshi must be untroubled by the kinds of uncertainty and regret that trouble the rest of us humans. Getting over that fantasy is hard enough without a Zen authority seemingly equating flow experiences with spiritual awakening. Our lives hold both nirvana and samsara, and it’s so much better to face the whole package!

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

One thought on “Why Zen Is Not the Same as “Flow””

  1. High concentration states can vary widely in what percentage of our whole experience is included. At one end are states like Jhana in which almost everything is excluded. On the end are open awareness states like mindfulness or perhaps zen. Flow states might land somewhere in the middle. Some aspects of our context are taken in and others are filtered out. All states include somethings and exclude others.


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