How Finding Creative Flow Changes Our Sense of Self
Plus, a new book on music and performance anxiety.
We’re in those heady few weeks of Fall before time catches up with us. Right after school starts, when the trees are still heavy and green, the sweet cool air still feels like an infusion of potential. The end-of-year intensity is far away. We still have time to do whatever it was we meant to do this year.
Still, there’s some urgency. Our minds may be in denial, but our bodies know that the days will speed up soon, and the foliage will change from colorful to gone in weeks. This sliver of a season is like being at the top of a slide, simultaneously a beginning and an end.
The urge to bend time so that it mirrors our desires is unavoidable and almost always maddening. The more conscious we are of the minutes and hours, the more it feels like time controls us. I sometimes think all the productivity guides are paralytics, not catalysts because they direct our attention away from the doing to the quantifying. Maybe this is why Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote that we crave timelessness, those stretches when we are so absorbed in something that our worrying selves disappear.
In her gorgeously written new memoir, “Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Science of Time,” violinist Natalie Hodges writes about time both lost and found:
“Music itself embodies time, shaping our sense of its passage through patterns of rhythm and harmony, melody and form,” she says.
It’s a startlingly original reflection and yet makes absolute sense. To perform any piece of music is to “immerse yourself in its time,” writes Hodges. She says her experience performing reveals “how susceptible time is to our conscious perception, as much as the other way around.” Hodges explains that she got nervous about making a mistake while playing, that immersion became impossible:
“In my mind, the flow was ruined, as though the waves of sound, flowing along in their currents, had suddenly crashed against a mighty dam they couldn’t overcome. Everything afterward felt self-conscious—I couldn’t get back into the time of the music.”
That idea of creative and performative flow isn’t new, but I love how Hodges describes that time-out-of-time feeling when we forget to eat or check email; we just are in the work. There’s lots of research to indicate that the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for self-reflective consciousness and memory, downshifts during periods of flow when people are completely engaged in an activity. We literally lose ourselves.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who wrote the book on creative flow, likened it to profound satisfaction, or what the Greeks called ecstasy, which meant to “stand to the side” of something or be outside your usual routines. Csikszentmihalyi said this escape from time was like “stepping into an alternative reality.” Of course, creative flow can’t be turned on and off like a switch. He says the trick is to figure out the optimal intersection of acquired skills and stimulating challenges. Though I wonder if we have less flow now because our attention is diluted in our pinging, clanging digital world.
Time lost to Twitter has to be the evil twin of creative flow–hours disappear, but there’s no ecstasy to show for them.
It might be the journalist in me, but I think that throwing yourself into the details of almost anything or anyone can lead to a meaningful, if not transformative, state of flow. Parents are obsessed with every physical detail of their new babies. Each tiny development is fascinating, and hence time is transformed. Time with kids is simultaneously immersive, interminable, and dizzyingly brief. Days fall through your fingers like sugar. We focus so tightly on our children because of our overwhelming evolutionary interest in those specific little beings. But it’s similar to any new love. We get a personal Ph.D. in the people and places we adore or hate.
Our physiological clocks are also pretty stubborn and often out of date. Hodges writes that when she sees the sun getting lower in the sky, she reflexively starts doing the math to see if she has enough time to fit in her five hours of daily violin practice. But the wild thing is that thinks about time that way even when she hasn’t played in months. Meanwhile, a friend of mine who moved from Europe to Australia was thrown off by her May birthday because the season down under was Fall, but her body memory demanded Spring.
In the Northern hemisphere, the sun gets fat and low this time of year. The sideways light makes Brooklyn’s wrought iron railings all glowy and dramatic. I don’t have to look at a calendar to know that the September Equinox is next week. After that, we’ll lose a little more light every day until the Winter Solstice on December 21st. It’s not lost time, but to some of us, lost light feels like lost time.
Winter brings with it some heavy memories for my family. So, for these warm early Fall days, I don’t want timeless flow. I want to wrap my arms tight around this brief, bright interlude of a season and then let each minute go slowly, with awareness and care.
Well hello! I’m so happy you’re here. This week, thoughts on time and timelessness, plus wisdom from physicist Carlo Rovelli and others. If you love It’s Not Just You, forward it to a friend. And if you’re not a subscriber, sign up for free here.
•Tips on cultivating creative flow, plus Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TEDTalk explaining how it works.
Something lovely from Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time:
Time is a strange thing.
When we don't need it, it is nothing.
Then, suddenly, there is nothing else.
It is everywhere around us. Also within us.
It seeps into our faces.
It seeps into the mirror, runs through my temples...
Between you and I it runs silently, like an hourglass.
Oh, Quin Quin.
Sometimes I feel it flowing inexorably.
Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night
and stop all the clocks...
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Can we ever really experience our planet’s rotational speed of 1, 040 mph or our orbital speed to nowhere at 66, 660 mph? Yet we use this speed to measure our days and years. Each day we see our planet’s rotation on its axis and the seasons remind us of our journey around the sun. Once in a while, through sacred ritual or through deep play, we can feel a continuous present, outside of our space-time. This timelessness helps us to temporarily forget that you and I are time’s arrow, shot from birth’s bow, flying in only one direction until we abruptly stop. It’s all so mysterious to me. Your post reminds me of time’s mystery. Thank you