One time disciples asked the Buddha what could be the best practice to lead them to the complete peace of mind. They thought they would have to go through various challenges believing only such hardship could bring them to a supreme state.
The Buddha’s answer, however, was counterintuitive. For example, one of the well-known Zen proverbs summarizes his answer as follows:
When you walk, walk; when you eat, eat; and when you sit, sit.
It sounds simple. So, we could easily imagine how the disciples reacted during those days. Perhaps, it was something like this: “Is that all? It’s so easy. When we walk, we walk. When we eat, we eat. When we sit, we sit!” The truth was they didn’t.
How about us? When we walk, do we truly walk? Perhaps, we don’t, either, because of what is so-called multitasking.
In this modern-day, a myth of multitasking productivity has made us insane. We believe doing many things at the same time can make us efficient and effective. All our modern technologies and devices support our hyper-productive lifestyles.
It’s true to some extent. Our modern-day achievements are unprecedented. We can see, even experience what’s happening all over the world in almost real-time. All knowledge of human achievements rests in a few clicks or taps away online. As everything is available, we believe we are already so effective and efficient.
Reflecting on the Buddha’s answer, perhaps we are not. We’ve never achieved the ideal state that the Buddha has expected since the days of his disciples.
When we walk, we cannot walk. When we eat, we cannot eat. When we sit, we cannot sit. We always fail. Why? Because our minds dictate us. When we walk, we don’t walk but think of something else. When we eat, we don’t eat but chat and read something else. When we sit, we don’t sit but regret about yesterday and worry about tomorrow.
We are always focusing on something else from one to another and back and forth as if doing one thing at a time is wasting time. We falsely believe multitasking is the key to our productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency. Whatever we do, we can’t tame ourselves with our actions at hand. Instead, our mind always brings us to somewhere irrelevant.
We cannot enter a state of flow.
In the state of flow, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we can focus on what we are doing now and here. Our action is no longer what we are doing. Instead, we are our actions. Both merge each other. We sense we are doing what we are doing. We feel what we are doing guides us, which diminishes the tyranny of our minds.
If we are lucky, we could enter this state of flow. What could be the conditions? How can we achieve this state? In principle, any activity can bring us the possibility of entering the state of flow, even such as walking, eating, and sitting. In his book, however, Csikszentmihalyi cited two activities to emphasize the conditions.
These rock climbing and surgery. Why did he cite these two?
Among various types of rock climbing, the most effective one should be solo climbing. In this activity, a climber has to climb alone with no help, such as safety ropes. The implication is that the climber has to be in a life and death situation. Her mistakes would be even lethal. If she fails, she will fall.
In this extreme circumstance, she can’t think of anything else but climbing right now and here. Her focus is on her feet, stepping at tiny tips on the rock, and on her hands holding them. This situation, however, should never scare her. She must be calm and confident. Otherwise, she would start trembling and could no longer control her body. She is 100% focusing on them. Her mind is 100% on them, climbing wholeheartedly. Not that she is climbing anymore, but that she is an act of climbing. She is in a state of flow.
Another example is surgery. If a doctor has to conduct heart surgery, for example, what would happen to this doctor? There are many things he should consider on the status of his patient with other doctors and staff for this operation at hand. His focus, however, is only one thing, which is his heart surgery. Other factors should never overwhelm him. He must be calm and confident. He believes he can do his best and get the best supports from everything and everyone with him. If he fails, his patient will die.
He is 100% focusing on his operation. His mind is 100% on it, conducting this heart surgery wholeheartedly. Not that he is operating surgery, but that he is an act of operation. He is in the state of flow.
These two cases are extreme. But we can learn some critical factors in the state of flow. Both activities are pretty complicated. Nobody would agree that both rock climbing and heart surgery are as simple as walking, eating, and sitting.
Despite such complexities, however, they focus on one thing at a time. They do one thing at a time. At the moment of here and now, the rock climber’s focus is 100% on her climbing, and the surgeon’s attention is 100% on his operation.
For both of them, indeed, when they walk, they walk.
It could remind us of the classic case of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara (Kannon) in Buddhism teachings. This compassionate Kannon was able to effortlessly control her thousand arms. It was because, despite the complexity of one thousand arms, the benevolent Kannon calmly and confidently focused on one arm at a time.
Complexity is an illusion and delusion. There is always one thing to do here and now. We see one thousand arms in the statue of Kannon. That is what we interpret her image in our limited minds. The truth is that her one arm cares each of us here and now, eternally. What we need is one arm only. Likewise, there are no such things as many Christs — Christ alone, which is love.
But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.1 Corinthians 8:6