finding flow

Many lives are disrupted by tragic accidents, and even the most fortunate are subjected to stresses of various kinds. Yet such blows do not necessarily diminish happiness. It is how people respond to stress that determines whether they will profit from misfortune or be miserable.

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

I rarely read something and think, “Hey, I could’ve written that.” But that was my immediate reaction upon reaching page 7 of  Flow. Csikszentmihalyi has spent much of his career exploring this concept, “the process of achieving happiness through control over one’s inner life.” A more mercenary author would have likely named this book 10 Steps to Happiness, creating a “how to” manual that (falsely) promised a roadmap to achieving flow. But Csikszentmihalyi rejects that approach, instead summarizing years of psychological research in a readable, entertaining format to explain the science behind why some people can find flow (and by extension, happiness) while others can’t.

As someone who survived a traumatic accident in my late 20’s, I found Chapter 9 – “Cheating Chaos” – particularly compelling. In it, he describes the reactions of people trying to rebound from life-altering disabilities like paraplegia and blindness. Again and again, the words on the page mapped so perfectly to my own experience that it felt like I was the one being described. For example, a man paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident describes the experience as “like being born again.”

I had to learn from scratch everything I used to know, but in a different way. I had to learn to dress myself, to use my head better. I had to become part of the environment and use it without trying to control it. … It took commitment, willpower, and patience.

A woman who lost her sight at age 12 states that “it made me mature in ways that I could never have become even with a college degree … for instance, problems no longer affect me with the pathos they used to, and the way that they affect so many of my peers.”

Csiksgentmihalyi asks, “[h]ow does it comes about that the same blow will destroy one person, while another will transform it into inner order?” The answer, he posits, is what psychologists call “coping ability” or “coping style.” He continues:

The ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it is a very rare gift. Those who possess it are called “survivors,” and are said to have “resilience,” or “courage.”

But why certain people can do this and others can’t isn’t widely understood. Csikszentmihalyi hypothesizes that positive transformations from negative events share three characteristics.

First, people in these situations believe that they can control their destiny. Interestingly, however, “they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.”

Second, these individuals tend not to focus obsessively on themselves, but rather, direct their attention on the world around them. “They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead, their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings.”

Third, people who positively cope with life-changing events “focus on the entire situation, including oneself, to discover whether alternative goals may not be more appropriate, and thus different solutions possible.”

*   *   *

When I consider my rehabilitation from limb loss and the three characteristics described by Csikszentmihalyi, the parallels are startling.

1: belief that you can control your destiny

As I’ve written about before, when doctors told me post-surgically that I would be able to walk with a cane within 6 months of my amputation, I rejected their estimates out of hand. I didn’t do this because I believed I was better than other above-knee amputees or because I had a built-in sense of superiority. In fact, I had no frame of reference whatsoever for making any estimate about when I’d be able to walk independently.

But I did believe that I could directly influence that timeline by focusing intensely on each element of my rehabilitation in an aggressive, positive way. I set small goals – i.e., I’m going to be home before Christmas – that I could achieve, over and over. This mindset forced me to put questions like, “why me?” in the background – I had a deadline to beat.

2: focus on the world around you

While I was admittedly self-obsessed in many ways after my surgery – How do I look? What will others think about me? – navigating the world first with crutches and then with a prosthesis forced me to look at my immediate environment in a completely different way than I ever had before. On crutches, a wet tile floor meant something completely different than it had when I walked over it with two shoes. (As I found out, violently, upon my first trip outside my house after returning home post-accident.) On a prosthesis, a slight uphill or downhill completely changed my walking dynamics, forcing me to monitor what lay ahead of me with careful consideration.

The world around me necessarily narrowed to those things that could threaten my stability and gait.

3. find new solutions

Before I even left inpatient rehab, I learned that something as simple as making a sandwich while using crutches required a different way of thinking than two-legged sandwich making. I had to think strategically if I didn’t want to drop a jar of peanut butter or if I aspired to pull multiple items out of the refrigerator simultaneously.

And I’ll never forget the afternoon when, unable to drag a large broken tree branch on my back lawn into the woods, I figured out a novel workaround that I never would have (had to) consider with two legs. I placed one end of the broken branch into the “V” formed by diverging branches of another tree and proceeded to step on it with all of my weight until it snapped into two smaller branches that I could more easily carry. The sense of achievement I felt from solving this combined mental/physical problem gave me as much pride as many key “professional” successes I’ve had over the last 17 years.

conclusion

In the end, what makes Flow such a compelling read is its hypothesis that we possess the capacity to actively control how we perceive and respond to events around us. Shortly after losing my leg, I spoke to a group of teenagers on a religious retreat, and I remember saying, “Life is going to kick you in the teeth eventually. You can’t prevent that. It’s how you respond to it that defines who you are.” That’s not a novel or earth shattering concept. But I find it somewhat ironic that it took me roughly 15 years to find an explanation of why I see the world that way.

 

further proof that less is more

We can all agree that I already spend a dangerous amount of time living in my own head. For proof of this, read every other post I’ve ever written. So my decision to systematically and consistently devote even more time to the space between my ears should probably trigger alarm bells.

For years I’ve sporadically tried to achieve some degree of enlightenment by meditating. But, kind of like running (up until last year), it never stuck.

Most of my earlier failed attempts arose out of guidance delivered by Buddhist monks in various books on the subject. To the extent that they delivered “instructions” on how to meditate, they focused much more on the broader spiritual context within which meditation traditionally occurs than the actual ins and outs of how to do it.

My other notable unsuccessful meditation effort occurred at a local Buddhist center that I went to for maybe a month about a decade ago. The people there were lovely, but the particular meditation methodology seemed just as dogmatic as the Christian services I had rejected in my youth. To me, the wonderful thing (in theory) about Buddhism was the absence of dogma, of rigid structure, and the reliance on individual experience to verify the nature of what is “real.”

But the most unnerving part of this group experience was the amount of time we meditated about (worshipped?) the lineage master for this particular center who – I’m embarrassed to say – was one of the strangest looking men I’ve ever laid eyes on. (His picture appeared on the front of all of his books.) Every time we went through the various steps of referencing him during the weekly meetings, my brain would revolt because I couldn’t conceive of someone who looked that goofy leading anything, much less a flock of (seemingly) intelligent human followers. I clearly wasn’t evolved enough yet, spiritually speaking.

As a result, I’ve spent the last decade or so generally aware of what meditation is but having no discipline or ability to actually do it. It’s therefore ironic that after a decade of also having no discipline or ability to run long distances on a regular basis, the avenue to meditation reopened to me last month. After completing the San Diego Triathlon Challenge in October, I found myself unable to run as a result of a foot injury I sustained the week before the race. All of a sudden, my early mornings no longer included 30-60 minutes of physical activity. Looking to fill the void, I searched amazon.com for basic “how-to” books on meditation, hoping I’d stumble across a text that did a better job of explaining it than what I’d found over the previous 10-15 years.

It was the “bonus teaser” that snagged me. As I read quickly through it on my Kindle, I realized that I had found a book about meditation that was decidedly secular in its language and approach. But the author was a former Buddhist monk. Since I’m a secular Buddhist (if that’s possible), this seemed like a good sign.

The second reason that I rushed towards the teaser like a moth to light was the author’s name: Andy Puddicombe. Puddicombe? At first I wondered whether this was a nom de plume, as it seemed so impossibly English that I half expected Winnie the Pooh and Tigger illustrations to adorn the book’s pages. But then I realized that no one would make up a name like that. It reminded me of Stephen Colbert’s Election Night coverage lamenting Barack Obama’s win:

You could’ve gone with that nice Romney boy. What was his name? Mitt? No that can’t be right, Mitt’s not a name.

After reading the teaser and deciding that something devoid of mysticism, chakras, historical explanations of Siddhartha, and penned by a man named Puddicombe was too enticing to reject, I purchased the full book: Get Some Headspace: 10 minutes can make all the difference. After blasting through it in a few hours, I followed its links to Puddicombe’s website, which includes an iPhone app that allowed me to follow his simple, non-religious, guided meditations. I learned two things from this.

First, if you’re going to lead people through meditations via audio, it’s really helpful to have an English accent. It sounds sophisticated and soothing. If Puddicombe hailed from Brooklyn, this whole endeavor would fall flat on its face. Second, I began to see that my physical and emotional balance were both slightly off.

I realized that when I sit in a chair while wearing my prosthesis, both feet flat on the floor, I still rest my weight more heavily on my sound side than my prosthesis. I learned that I actively apply pressure on the ball of my sound foot to stabilize myself when sitting rather than balancing weight equally on the heel and toe. I discovered that if I meditate while not wearing my prosthesis that these imbalances become more pronounced. Having lived with one leg for nearly 16 years now, discovering something new about something I do the majority of every day (sit in a char) came as a minor revelation. I also started to see how I constantly and reflexively react to stimuli without thinking or understanding why that’s the case.

Puddicombe asks people to begin by taking just 10 minutes a day for 10 days. Then 15 minutes a day for 15 days. I’ve now completed Day 6 of the 20 minutes/20 days section, meaning I’ve finished a total of 31 sessions and have 334 days left on my “Headspace Journey.” (All stats courtesy of the very good Headspace app.) I find myself waking up early to dive into my 20 minutes and feeling calmer and more centered afterwards.

I began running again 18 months ago not to finish races or log fast times, but rather, to simply become more healthy. This was a sea change in my approach to physical activity. When running temporarily disappeared from my life due to injury I found Puddicombe and meditation and embraced it not as a potential path to enlightenment (as I had in the past), but rather, as a way of becoming incrementally more self-aware. It seems to me, at least in these two instances, that the less I try to achieve, the further along I get.

the weakness that binds

I was on a business trip last December when I had a conversation with someone who was researching the future of health care. The discussion turned to prosthetics, and I mentioned that many prosthetic facilities in the U.S. employed people with limb loss/limb difference for two reasons.

First, some people with LL/D understandably gravitate to jobs that allow them to assist others who confront the same issues they do. Second, and no less important, owners of these businesses recognize that having someone in the building who can “relate” to the clientele is an intelligent business strategy. And the reason for that is that people with LL/D have no problem saying to their able-bodied peers (including their often able-bodied prosthetists), “You don’t live with this, so you can’t understand my problem.” Putting someone with LL/D on the front lines of a prosthetic facility helps to bridge that gap, and allows patients to feel like their stories are being heard by someone who truly understands them.

I then shared with this person that the basic pattern of person-with-LL/D-to-person with-LL/D interactions in prosthetic facilities almost always involves the individuals sharing their respective stories of how they wound up across from each other. I noted that there was always something inexplicably powerful about this information exchange. And at his request, I then told him how I had lost my leg.

There was a brief lull in our conversation when I finished, and the researcher looked at me intently, sizing up the words that, surprisingly, came out of his mouth next. “You know,” he began, “I’m a recovering alcoholic.” And he then proceeded to tell his story. Besides surprising the hell out of me – this man was a casual acquaintance whom I had spoken to for probably no more than an hour or two before he disclosed this fact – it confirmed my belief in the power of stories. And it led to the unsolicited but happy result (since I had nothing new to read) that he recommended a book that he had found particularly useful as he dealt with his addiction.

Thanks to the wonder of e-books, I downloaded The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning that night. And several of the concepts written about by the authors, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, echo themes that I’ve discussed at various times (and in various ways) in less is more: the power of stories; finding what it is that connects people; and the search for spirituality.

Finding parallels between a book about AA and people with LL/D could lead to two basic (and likely heated) misunderstandings, so let me try to defuse those up front:

  1. In no way am I comparing alcoholism/substance abuse to LL/D; nor am I
  2. suggesting that people with LL/D are “imperfect” when compared to their able-bodied brethren.

With that clarification in mind, what does a book about recovery and AA have to do with LL/D?

Kurtz and Ketcham begin by observing that stories, so long a part of human history, have declined in importance in the modern era: “the news of the day and the problems of the hour” have drowned out everything else. Though written before the true rise of a wired world – in 1992 when the book was published, college students like me unfathomably didn’t have cell phones and our sophisticated Apple computers had two central purposes: word processing, and Lode Runner – The Spirituality of Imperfection anticipated it.

Especially today, with information just a Google or Wikipedia search away, we engage in a never-ending search for answers. And we can find them so quickly and easily. My wife frequently jokes that I’m a cyber-stalker as I search the IMDB website for actors whose faces I recognize from another movie than the one I’m watching on TV. Spitting out answers to these kinds of questions, the internet has increasingly become an extension of our own memory banks.

But when confronted with more complex issues, it’s a less useful tool, as “the demand for answers crowds out patience – and perhaps, especially, patience with mystery, with that which we cannot control.” In particular, Kurtz and Ketcham contend that experiential learning – knowledge that can be gained only by living life – constitutes the only way we can find spirituality:

“Spirituality hears and understands the pain in these questions, but its wisdom knows better than to attempt an ‘answer.’ Some answers we can only find: they are never ‘given.’” [emphasis mine] . . . Especially in a spirituality of imperfection, a spirituality of not having all the answers, stories convey the mystery and the miracle – the adventure – of being alive.”

The mystery and the miracle – the adventure – of being alive: that’s the unconscious driver that compels the man in his 60’s at my prosthetist’s office to ask me “How did you lose it?” Because whenever he asks that question, he already know the possible answers: (1) trauma; (2) diabetes/dysvascular disease; (3) cancer/other disease; or (4) congenital anomaly. The man doesn’t really want to know that it was trauma vs. cancer – he wants to know the story behind the cause, as it gives him a narrative that has meaning. You can’t Google the answer to that question.

So what does a spirituality of imperfection rest on? According to Kurtz and Ketcham, our fundamental “flawedness,” our pain, and our lack of control.

One moment I’m walking into an intersection. The next, I’m staring at a gaping, stapled wound holding together what’s left of my leg. The fact that I couldn’t will that not to happen, that I couldn’t ultimately control what happened to me compelled an examination of what my life had unexpectedly become. I needed to understand why I was still alive and how I would cope with my suddenly less-than-100%-capable body.  And I knew that the glib, pithy answers that would have come pouring out of my mouth before my accident now rang hollow.  (Accepting this lack of control leads to the concept of “surrender” that is so integral to AA.)

Shortly after returning home from the hospital, I received a card from a high school classmate who helpfully opined, “Remember, everything happens for a reason.” If I could have hopped to her place of employment and strangled her I would have. Clearly, she didn’t mean to activate a murderous rage when she penned those words, but what triggered me was the implicit meaning behind them: “you don’t understand why it happened, but it’s part of a bigger plan that God has laid out for you.”

Alternatively, a spirituality of imperfection, argue Kurtz and Ketcham, focuses not on “sweetness and light,” but rather, “understands that tragedy and despair are inherent in the experience of essentially imperfect beings.” They therefore declare it, “above all, a realistic spirituality.”

As a person who grew up without any strong religious beliefs and an abiding skepticism of any faith-based conclusions, an experiential concept of spirituality makes sense. Observe the way the world actually works. Pay attention to the things – especially the bad – that happen to you, and accept that the negative cannot be walled off or denied. Don’t bathe tragedy and despair in the warm light of a larger plan or destiny that glosses over the resulting pain. Actually experience it.

Selling the concept that tragedy and despair are our inherent destiny isn’t likely to lead to a rush of converts. What possible reason could there be to embrace a philosophy that’s so obviously a downer? The answer, say Kurtz and Ketcham, lies in the fact that this is what allows us to meaningfully connect to other human beings:

“From the central act of confronting the truth of one’s own weakness began the development of that characteristic most admired by [the] earliest saints – the sense of compassion, the recognition that others’ weaknesses render them not different from but like to oneself. [emphasis added]

I said earlier that the man at my prosthetist’s office wants to know my story because it provides him a narrative that has meaning. The meaning it provides is connection. It’s the creation of a community of people who understand that they share something fundamental. (It’s this reality that not-so-coincidentally also leads to the aforementioned practice of savvy prosthetic business owners employing people with LL/D in their facilities.)

And the act of telling one’s story is transformative both for the teller and the recipient, claim Kurtz and Ketcham, because “[a]ll ‘community’ begins in listening,” “to listen to others in such a way that we are willing to surrender our own world view.”

In this way, a community of storytellers and listeners collaboratively re-map their world so that it makes sense. Imagine (or remember) the disconnection that LL/D imposes on people living with it relative to their peers. And then consider the following passage:

“Through the practice of hearing and telling stories, we discover and slowly learn to use a new ‘map,’ a map that is more ‘right’ because it is more useful for our purposes. Using the map gives some sense of place, of how things are located and how they fit; and this flows into a developing sense of how we fit, of self as ‘fitting’ . . . fitting into some meaningful whole. That ‘meaningful whole’ is twofold: It involves first our relationships, for that is our name for our ‘fittings,’ but it also involves and, indeed, is our very identity – who we are. In a very real sense, we are defined by our relationships, our connections with all reality; what happens in the re-mapping of storylistening and storytelling is that in telling our own story, we come to own the story that we tell.

In simple terms, by telling our story and having others listen to it, we become comfortable in our own skin. And that connection comes not from regaling people with tales of our triumphs and superhuman strength, but rather, by sharing our weaknesses and imperfections.

I’ve attended breakout sessions at the Amputee Coalition’s annual conference where grown men are reduced to tears while telling their stories. And they emerge from that experience not embarrassed or weakened, but rather, relieved and strengthened. That happens because they are, in a community setting, taking ownership of their own story, defining who they are in their own words, instead of letting others (either in fact or in the storyteller’s imagination) create a narrative about the objectified “handicapped person.”

But, as Kurtz and Ketcham point out, “community requires more than the sharing of stories – true community requires the discovery of a story that is shared.” For example, when I tell my story to someone who is able-bodied, their reaction usually runs along one of the following lines: (1) you seem to be getting along well [read, better than I would think a cripple could get along]; (2) to have survived that and seeing you stand here today is inspirational/heroic/[insert other cliché that causes discomfort and embarrassment here]; or (3) I can’t imagine going through that myself.

Tell the same story to another individual with LL/D, however, and I often get silence, nods of understanding, or general statements of acknowledgement that, to a casual observer, might appear callous or vapid (e.g., “That’s a bitch.”) It’s not that people with LL/D are unfeeling or less capable of expression than their able-bodied peers; it’s that they understand the story viscerally, in a way that defies intellectualization. Because we have, literally, walked the same path, we have the same story (albeit, each one has its own uniquely personal contours).

Critics (and I, in my previous life) might criticize the authors’ ultimate conclusion as, alternately, New Age drivel, Liberal hooey, or hopelessly naïve:

“Once we accept the common denominator of our own imperfection, once we begin to put into practice the belief that imperfection is the reality we have most in common with all other people, then the defenses that deceive us begin to fall away, and we can begin to see ourselves and others as we all really are.”

While this kind of language does reflexively trigger those reactions from me at first, when I place it in the context of my actual experience with LL/D, it has a resonance that I can’t easily ignore. And as an individual who now, more than ever, wants people to look past the things that separate us – obvious things like a prosthesis, or religion, or nationality – bridging that gap by acknowledging our imperfections – everyone’s imperfections – seems less like a New Age dream, and more like a modern necessity.

The Spirituality of Imperfection (304 pp)

by Ernest Kurtz, Ph.D., and Katherine Ketchum

Bantam Books, © 1992