Friday, January 9, 2015


A couple of weeks ago in Post #69, I talked about tapping into the subconscious when you do any kind of creative activity: painting, composing, writing.  I called it my Alpha state. Little did I know that there’s a whole field of mind research on the subject that has been going on for at least 40 years. Over the holidays, I ran into a scientist friend who reads my blog. “You’re talking about ‘Flow ” he said. “There’s lots of interest in Flow.’ ” It turns out that someone called Mihaly Csikszentmihaly has been researching the concept (which he named “Flow”) since the mid 1970s. He called it that because many of the people he interviewed described their flow experience as a metaphor for a water current that carried them along. While I had never heard of Csikszentmihaly (who would forget that name?) other scientists I knew were aware of his work.

 Of course, in one form or another, knowledge of Flow has existed for thousands of years, primarily in eastern religions (remember Wu Wei?) It also turns up in the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism and Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita. Wikipedia reports that Michelangelo may have been in a flow state when he painted the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, working uninterrupted for days at a time.

Csikzentmihaly has turned the subject into a scientific study and in the process (in my way of looking at it) has overanalyzed it, taken all the juice out of it. Even the Wikopedia summary is deadly and almost “anti-creative.” But, what the hell, that’s what academics do for a living. His work is currently of interest as a means of improving performance in many diverse areas including sports, computer programming, business, even stand-up comedy. (I’m with him on that one!) Musicians call it being “in the groove.”

From my point of view as a painter, I now realize that my best work was done in a flow state, when my conscious, critical mind was suspended and my drawing or painting hand acted spontaneously. I need peace of mind to access flow, which is why I find it hard to paint when I’m preoccupied with a life problem. I also need quiet, no distractions and have never been able to work in a studio situation with other artists around me. I tend to be gregarious and can’t talk and paint at the same time. I can look at a painting I did decades ago and know if I was in the proper state of mind or not. The good stuff just rolled out.

Many years ago, I read a biography of Philip Guston, a fairly well-known abstract expressionist painter in the 1950s. Because he never achieved great success in his early years, he never had to battle the negative effects of notoriety and was able to continue to grow as an artist until well into old age. In fact, he did his best work- powerful expressionist paintings- towards the end of his life. His daughter, who wrote the bio, described how he tyrannically abused his wife and children, forcing them to be absolutely silent while he was working in his studio. No phone calls, no visitors, no slammed doors, nothing that would disturb him in the slightest way. I always thought of him as a monster, an abusive spouse and father. Now I realize he was just an artist, protecting his Flow. 


  1. Finally !.....nice to see the change in the left-side margin image !
    Note: your time-frame "clock" is 3-hours off-slow.

  2. Renée – What Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow” in his University of Chicago seminars I’ve known as “zone.” It’s when everything goes right when solving a specific problem.

    Bob Callahan as “anonymous”