The experience of “flow” is strikingly reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s description of “great skill” achieved by Daoist sages such as carpenter P’ien and butcher Ting, the latter finding bliss in the art of chopping up ox carcasses by “going along with the Dao” of the ox. It is no coincidence that these blue-collar sages are situated on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy. They discover the Dao much more readily than Confucian scholars, who, according to Zhuangzi, are studying the “dregs of wisdom” in lifeless books and have lost touch with the world of concrete affairs.
Boy do I love that quote from Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi’s home page.
As someone who spent three years studying (and is still paying in installments for) a graduate degree in Critical Theory, I can tell you this: you might experience Flow inside a book if you are a scholar, but it’s no way to grow a tomato.*
I went to graduate school to make up for all the classes I skipped in college. I studied Studio Art in college, knowing I wanted to be a professional artist. I skipped a lot of classes that had nothing to do with making art so I could go to the studio and make more art. I was obsessed with Flow, but didn’t know it.
I went to graduate school after being a professional artist for several years because I was circling around a system of thought, making art that was sort of ‘about the process of making art,’ but didn’t have the intellectual rigor to flesh it out. I wanted articulation. I was looking right at a school of artsy hermeneutics** through the window.
Here’s the rub: when it came time to write my thesis, I had already circled all the way back around my original question and found the simplest, stupidest answer, which was that I should have been making art the whole time instead of thinking about the reasons for making art and what really constituted Art in the first place. If you really want to know more about that topic, I strongly suggest you begin with the work of Arthur Danto (analytical philosophy) or of course the seminal essay from Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
Defending your graduate thesis to a room full of people who have dedicated their lives to the scholarly study of art, history and philosophy is a tough sell when your thesis is basically an argument that the entire system of how we qualify Art through intellectualism is basically a corrupt and dead system. They were kind. I got a B+.
What does any of that have to do with tomatoes?
Flow. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. The living tomato as a Work of Art.
So you want to be an artist? Make art. Flow state will tell you when you are headed in the right direction. Flow state is also the reward. It goes like this: If you’re making art to be recognized for making art, you generally will not be making art, but something that points at an idea of art. If you are in a flow state during a process of creation, you probably are making something that is art.
Let the critics and philosophers do their job, and you do yours.
That’s the place where tomatoes and meditation meet – gardening for me is a flow state, much like the practice of making art. When I’m outside working on the yard, pulling weeds, sizing up the landscaping, moving rocks here and there, pruning trees and bushes, I’m “going along with the Dao” of whatever I’m tending to.
This is active meditation. This is flow. Hours pass by without being noticed. The sun has moved position, and it feels like no time has passed. The Monkey Mind has ceased chattering. Things pop: you start to hear individual bird calls, you note their patterns and movements; you have moments of pure calm, where you look up from the work and feel yourself standing where you are; your empathy open up and sees how things are growing, how they might need tending; you see things with different eyes.
Isn’t this a nice tomato?