Flow In The Mind | Walking in Flow


Optimal experiences do not come exclusively through the senses. Some of the best experiences of our lives are generated inside the mind, triggered by information that challenges us to think (reading, writing, creating scientific theories, solving metal puzzles, interpreting musical notation, analyzing art, etc) “These activities are primarily symbolic in nature, in that they depend on natural languages, mathematics, or some other abstract notation system like a computer language to achieve their ordering effects in the mind.” (118)


“It is useless to remember facts unless they fit into patterns, unless one finds likenesses and regularities among them. The simplest ordering system is to give names to things; the words we invent transform discrete events into universal categories. The power of the word is immense. . . . The building blocks of most symbol systems, words make abstract thinking possible and increase the mind’s capacity to store the stimuli it has attended to. Without systems for ordering information, even the clearest memory will find consciousness in a state of chaos. After names came numbers and concepts, and then the primary rules for combining them in predictable ways. By the sixth century BC, Pythagoras and his students had embarked on the immense ordering task that attempted to find common numerical laws binding together astronomy, geometry, music, and arithmetic. Not surprisingly, their work was difficult to distinguish from religion, since it tried to accomplish similar goals: to find a way of expressing the structure of the universe. . . . Besides stories and riddles all civilizations gradually developed more systematic rules for combining information, in the form of geometric representations and formal proofs. With the help of such formulas it became possible to describe the movement of the stars, predict precisely seasonal cycles, and accurately map the earth. Abstract knowledge, and finally what we know as experimental science, grew out of these rules.


It is important to stress here a fact that is all too often lost sight of: philosophy and science were invented and flourished because thinking is pleasurable. If thinkers did not enjoy the sense of order that the use of syllogisms and numbers creates in consciousness, it is very unlikely that now we would have the disciplines of mathematics and physics. This claim, however, flies in the face of most current theories of cultural development. . . . [where] every creative step is interpreted as the product of extrinsic forces, whether they be wars, demographic pressures, territorial ambitions, market conditions, technological necessity, or the struggle for class supremacy. External forces are very important in determining which new ideas will be selected from among the many available; but they cannot explain their production. . . . Great thinkers have always been motivated by the enjoyment of thinking rather than by the material rewards that could be gained by it. ” (125-126).


“To enjoy a mental activity, one must meet the same conditions that make physical activities enjoyable. There must be skill in a symbolic domain; there have to be rules, a goal, and a way of obtaining feedback. One must be able to concentrate and interact with the opportunities at a level commensurate with one’s skills.


In reality, to achieve such an ordered mental condition is not as easy as it sounds. Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos. Without training, and without an object in the external world that demands attention, people are unable to focus their thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time. . . . Entropy is the normal state of consciousness--a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.


To avoid this condition, people are naturally eager to fill their minds with whatever information is readily available, as long as it distracts attention from turning inward and dwelling on negative feelings. This explains why such a huge proportion of time is invested in watching television, despite the fact that it is very rarely enjoyed. . . . While people watch television, they need not fear that their drifting minds will force them to face disturbing personal problems. It is understandable that, once one develops this strategy for overcoming psychic entropy, to give up the habit becomes almost impossible.” (118-120)



People without an internalized symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers, and exploited by anyone who has something to sell. If we have become dependent on television, on drugs, and on facile calls to political or religious salvation, it is because we have so little to fall back on, so few internal rules to keep our mind from being taken over by those who claim to have the answers. (128)


The better route for avoiding chaos in consciousness, of course, is through habits that give control over mental processes to the individual, rather than to some external source of stimulation.. . . To acquire such habits requires practice, however, and the kind of goals and rules that are inherent in flow activities. For instance, one of the simplest ways to use the mind is daydreaming: playing out some sequence of events as mental images. But even this apparently easy way to order thought is beyond the range of many people. . . . daydreaming is a skill that many children never learn to use. Yet daydreaming not only helps create emotional order by compensating in imagination for unpleasant reality--as when a person can reduce frustration and aggression against someone who has caused injury by visualizing a situation in which the aggressor is punished--but it also allows children (and adults) to rehearse imaginary situations so that the best strategy for confronting them may be adopted, alternative options considered, unanticipated consequences discovered--all results that help increase the complexity of consciousness. And, of course, when used with skill, daydreaming can be very enjoyable.” (120)


“The point is that playing with ideas is extremely exhilarating. Not only philosophy but the emergence of new scientific ideas is fueled by the enjoyment one obtains from creating a new way to describe reality. . . . When a person has learned a symbolic system well enough to use it, she has established a portable, self-contained world within the mind.” (127)


“Just as the use of the limbs and of the senses is available to everyone without regard to sex, race, education, or social class, so too the uses of memory, of language, of logic, of the rules of causation are also accessible to anyone who desires to take control of the mind. Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom. But a person who forgoes the use of his symbolic skills is never really free. His thinking will be directed by the opinions of his neighbors, by the editorials in the papers, and by the appeals of television. He will be at the mercy of “experts.” Ideally, the end of extrinsically applied education should be the start of an education that is motivated intrinsically. At that point the goal of studying is no longer to make the grade, earn a diploma, and find a good job. Rather, it is to understand what is happening around one, to develop a personally meaningful sense of what one’s experience is all about. From that will come the profound joy of the thinker.” (141-142)



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