Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Evolving Self

What better time than the beginning of a new year to revisit a favourite book - The Evolving Self by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I was introduced to his theory of "Flow" in a university class (The Anthropology of Play) many years ago, and continued to incorporate his concepts throughout the rest of my academic studies. On a personal level his writings resonate strongly, including his discussion of "entropy" (which he describes as "the state of confusion and inability to act that occurs in consciousness when one's goals are frustrated, and the consequent negative emotions one feels.") I was reminded of this kind of entropy over Christmas, when instead of enjoying the time off as I had anticipated, I found myself slipping into an emotional abyss, ruminating about things like problems in my relationship, and financial challenges, instead of being thankful for all that I do have, and using the time in more productive and enjoyable ways. What is it that makes us turn negative? Czikszentmihalyi discusses the mechanics of the mind that create this tendency, as well as our innate need for complexity and growth, and how developing these capacities are a necessity on both an individual and societal level if we are to further "evolve."
We need balance. We need both challenges and successes. I would say it's sadly obvious that in general, as individuals and as a society we are quite badly off-balance. Overwork, stress, long hours on computers or in front of televisions... And I too well understand how difficult it is to maintain any balance when, by the end of the day, after work, commute, meal preparation and other chores - and hopefully some quality time with family or friends - it is often impossible to do anything other than collapse in exhaustion in the hopes of resting adequately to be able to do it all again tomorrow. I get so frustrated with this life. Add to the mix any kind of health problem - especially the chronic kind - and all hopes for further "evolving" feel pretty much shot. So, we live for the weekend, the next vacation, or finally retirement - but as my recent experience proved, often these breaks from routine are not able to provide the renewal or the escape we desire - leaving us feeling like even more of a failure.
Wow! What a negative perspective! And so I spend years studying psychology, sociology, spirituality trying to figure it all out; I think maybe it's because I'm creative, or a Capricorn, or a depressed/anxious personality type; too highly sensitive; too introverted; or just born into the wrong culture/time in history etc etc. Perhaps it is a combination of all of the above. I think that life as we know it has become so unnatural that it excuses the need for antidepressants or natural medications to try to help us get back on track and tolerate our daily realities. I understand better why people depend on alcohol and other substances to numb or escape themselves. There are periods of time where I really do give up and just keep my nose to the grindstone, when it seems the only thing to do is keep moving forward, even if it feels more like walking on a treadmill, going nowhere.
What a relief to occasionally pull myself out of the stupor, and delve back into something as refreshing and inspiring as a book that reminds us of our potential - our duty even - to progress and grow into something more.

1 comment:

  1. addendum: upon posting, I read my weekly horoscope:

    Week beginning January 5
    Copyright 2011, 2012 by Rob Brezsny
    Grammar key: Asterisks equal *italics*

    CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): Happiness isn't a state you acquire by
    luck. It takes hard work and relentless concentration. You have to rise up
    and rebel against the nonstop flood of trivial chaos and meaningless
    events you're invited to wallow in. You have to overcome the hard-core
    cultural conditioning that tempts you to assume that suffering is normal
    and the world is a hostile place. It's really quite unnatural to train yourself
    to be peaceful and mindful; it's essentially a great rebellion against an
    unacknowledged taboo. Here's the good news: 2012 will be an excellent
    time for you to do this work.