How to Get into a Creative “Flow State”: A Short Masterclass

Is “flow state” the new mindfulness? The phrase has gained a lot of currency lately. You may have heard it spoken of in rarified terms that sound like you have to be a full-time artist, professional athlete, or Albert Einstein to access it. On the other hand, we have award-winning journalist, human performance expert, and Flow Research Collective founder Steven Kotler explaining in a video that we featured recently how to achieve a flow state on command. So, does flow require a little or a lot of us? It requires, first and foremost, a shift in consciousness.

In the field of positive psychology, flow is most associated with theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose Creativity: Flow the Psychology of Discovery and Invention provided key contemporary insights into the idea. For Csikszentmihalyi, directing our activity toward material notions of security sets us up for disappointment. Flow states are best understood as actualized creativity we can manifest in almost any conditions: we can be “happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside,’ just by changing the contents of consciousness,” he said.

For Taoists, flow means according with the nature of things as they are, which takes a lot of keeping still and letting be. Goethe used the phrase “effortless effort” to describe creative flow. Kotler’s definition is a bit more operational: Flow, he says in his Mindvalley talk above, is an “optimalized state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best.” One thing all notions of flow seem to share is a belief in the importance of what Kotler calls “non-time,” or what the Taoist calls “the doing of non-doing,” a pleasurable resting state without distraction. (Kotler takes his “non-time” between 4 and 7:30 in the morning.)

Kotler himself arrived at the flow state “through an unusual door” — which he illustrates in his talk with an MRI of a skull in profile and list titled “The Cost of Doing Business.” For an ambitious freelance journalist, that meant “2 fractured kneecaps, 2 shattered arms, 1 snapped wrist, 2 mangled ankles,” and the list goes on (including 5 concussions): a description of injuries incurred while following extreme athletes around the world. What he saw, he says, were people who had everything going against them — little education, little natural ability, and histories of “destroyed homes.”

The athletes he followed were traumatized people who would not necessarily be candidates for world-changing innovation. Yet here they were, “extending the limits of kinesthetic possibility” — doing the previously impossible by achieving flow states. Kotler’s descriptions of flow are often very Yang, we might say, focusing on “peak performance” and favoring sports examples. But his claims for flow also sound like deeply healing medicine. He talks about “triggering” flow states to “overcome PTSD, addiction, and heartbreak.” Like Csikszentmihalyi, he saw firsthand how flow states can heal trauma.

We can achieve this “altered state of consciousness” by surfing or skydiving. We can also achieve it while solving equations, translating foreign languages, or knitting scarves. As Csikszentmihalyi points out, it is not the content of an experience — or the expense in airline tickets and broken bones — that matters so much as our state of absorption in activities we love and practice regularly, which take us away from thoughts about our ever-present problems and open up the space for possibility.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Aldous Huxley to George Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

In 1949, George Orwell received a curious letter from his former high school French teacher.

Orwell had just published his groundbreaking book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which received glowing reviews from just about every corner of the English-speaking world. His French teacher, as it happens, was none other than Aldous Huxley who taught at Eton for a spell before writing Brave New World (1931), the other great 20th century dystopian novel.

Huxley starts off the letter praising the book, describing it as “profoundly important.” He continues, “The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.”

Then Huxley switches gears and criticizes the book, writing, “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.” (Listen to him read a dramatized version of the book here.)

Basically while praising Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley argues that his version of the future was more likely to come to pass.

In Huxley’s seemingly dystopic World State, the elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Orwell’s Oceania, on the other hand, keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. At first blush, they might seem like they are diametrically opposed but, in fact, an Orwellian world and a Huxleyan one are simply two different modes of oppression.

Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state. While Huxley might make you look askance at The Bachelor or Facebook, Orwell makes you recoil in horror at the government throwing around phrases like “enhanced interrogation” and “surgical drone strikes.”

You can read Huxley’s full letter below.

Wrightwood. Cal.

21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

via Letters of Note

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March, 2015.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Watch Two Courses by Beloved Yale Historian John Merriman (RIP): “France Since 1871” and “European Civilization, 1648 to 1945”

On May 22, historian John Merriman died at the age of 75. A professor at Yale since 1973, Merriman became an “early practitioner of the history ‘from the ground up, that swept academic study in the 1970s,” notes an obituary in Yale News. There, historian Alice Kaplan adds: “John Merriman became our greatest historian of the French left and its repression, of the Communards, the Anarchists, and the French police, whose experiences he brought to life in books and lectures informed by his work in archives in every region of France…”

The New York Times remembers him as “a rumpled figure who used his storytelling gifts to animate his lectures on French and European history.” And they recall how author Ta-Nehisi Coates “watched some of Professor Merriman’s recorded lectures online and described him … as a ‘kind of freestyle rapper’ who riffed off his material — anecdotes, quotes and observations — and ‘had this weird ability to inhabit the history.'”

You, too, can watch his lectures online. A number of years ago, Merriman made two of his beloved courses, “France Since 1871” (top) and “European Civilization, 1648 to 1945” (below) available on Yale Open Courses. If you click on the preceding links, you can find the syllabus and books for each course. These courses are permanently listed in our collection of Free Online History Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Susan Sontag’s Commencement Address Advice: “Pay Attention. It Connects You With Others. It Makes You Eager. Stay Eager.”

Image by Lynn Gilbert, via Wikimedia Commons

“The times we live in are indeed alarming. It is a time of the most appalling escalation of violence — violence to the environment, both ‘nature’ and ‘culture’; violence to all living beings.” But “it is also a time of a vertiginous drop in cultural standards, of virulent anti-intellectualism, and of triumphant mediocrity.” You may, at this point, already find yourself in agreement with these words. But they’re the words of Susan Sontag, now seventeen years dead, and as such can’t actually be describing our present moment. In fact she spoke them in, and about, 1983, during her first commencement address at Wellesley College.

Characteristically unsparing, Sontag extended her charge of mediocrity even to “the educational system that you have just passed through, or has passed you through.” In her view, “trivializing standards, using as their justification the ideal of democracy, have made the very idea of a serious humanist education virtually unintelligible to most people.” If it is to happen at all, resistance to this mediocrity must happen at the level of the individual. “Perhaps the most useful suggestion I can make on the day when most of you are ceasing to be students,” Sontag says, “is that you go on being students — for the rest of your lives. Don’t move to a mental slum.”

This point returned, somewhat altered, in Sontag’s last commencement address, delivered twenty years later at Vassar College. “Try not to live in a linguistic slum,” she advised the class of 2003. Indeed, “try to imagine at least once a day that you are not an American,” or “that you belong to the vast, the overwhelming majority of people on this planet who don’t have passports, don’t live in dwellings equipped with both refrigerators and telephones, who have never even once flown in a plane.” Though celebrated primarily as a critic, Sontag was also a novelist, and like Vladimir Nabokov understood full well the necessity of imagination to a proper intellectual life.

Elsewhere in her Vassar address, Sontag also makes the highly Nabokovian point that “no book is worth reading that isn’t worth re-reading.” Though the full text of the speech isn’t online, you’ll find these and other choice quotes from it at Vassar Quarterly. Sontag’s key theme seems to have been attention. “Pay attention,” she says in a passage still circulated on social media today. “It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager. (Two years later, David Foster Wallace would make a similar point about being ” “conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to” in his famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.)

When we develop and retain the habit of paying attention, we see things others don’t, especially those truths that run counter even to our own professed beliefs. “Our society does not censor as totalitarian societies do; on the contrary, our society promises liberty, self-fulfillment, and self-expression,” Sontag says. But pay attention, and you’ll notice that “many features of our so-called culture have as their goal and result the reduction of our mental life, or our mental operation; and this is precisely, I would argue, what censorship is about.” Nearly two decades have passed since Sontag said this, and as she might have expected, we tune out at greater peril than ever.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Italian Advice on How to Live the Good Life: Cigarettes, Tomatoes, and Other Picturesque Small Pleasures

“I guess everybody’s got a dream and we’re all hoping to see it come true,” muses Giovanni Mimmo Mancusou, a philosophical native of Calabria, the lovely, sun-drenched region forming the toe of Italy’s boot, above. “A dream coming true is better than just a dream.”

Filmmakers Jan Vrhovnik and Ana Kerin were scouting for subjects to embody “the very essence of nostalgia” when they chanced upon Mancusou in a corner shop.

A lucky encounter! Not every non-actor – or for that matter, actor – is as comfortable on film as the laidback Mancusou.

(Vrhovnik has said that he invariably serves as his own camera operator when working with non-actors, because of the potential for intimacy and intuitive approach that such proximity affords.)

Mancusou, an advocate for simple pleasures, also appears to be quite fit, which makes us wonder why the film’s description on NOWNESS doubles down on adjectives like “aging”, “older” and most confusingly, “wisened.”

Merriam-Webster defines “wizened” with a z as “dry, shrunken, and wrinkled often as a result of aging or of failing vitality” … and “wisened” not at all.

Perhaps NOWNESS meant wise?

We find ourselves craving a lot more context.

Mancusou has clearly cultivated an ability to savor the hell out of a ripe tomato, his picturesque surroundings, and his ciggies.

“Serenity, joy, ecstasy” is embroidered across the back of his ball cap.

His manner of expressing himself does lend itself to a “poetic thought piece”, as the filmmakers note, but might that not be a symptom of struggling to communicate abstract thoughts in a foreign tongue?

We really would love to know more about this charming guy… his family situation, what he does to make ends meet, his actual age.

Home movies accompany his nostalgic reverie, but did he provide this footage to his new friends?

Did they hunt it down on ebay? It definitely fits the vibe, but is the man with the eyebrows Mancusou at an earlier age?

Our star pulls up to a small petrol station, declares, “All right, here we go,” and the next frame shows him wearing a headlamp and magnifier as he peers into the workings of a pocket watch:

Time out of mechanical. It’s magic.

Is this a hobby? A profession? Does he repair watches in a darkened gas station?

The filmmakers aren’t saying and the blurred background offers no clues either. Curse you, depth of field!

We’re not even given his home coordinates.

The film, part of the NOWNESS series Portrait of a Place, is titled Paradiso, and there is indeed a village so named adjacent to the town of Belvedere Marittimo, but according to census data we found on line, it has only 14 residents, 7 male.

If that’s where Mancusou lives, he’s either 45-49, 65-69, 70-74, or one of two fellows over age 74…and now we’re really curious about his neighbors, too.

No shade to Signor Mancuso, but we’re glad to know we’re not the only viewers left unsatisfied by this portrait’s lack of depth.

One commenter who chafed at the lack of specificity (“this video is a random portrait of basically anyone in the world that is happy with the little he has”) suggested the omissions contribute to an Italian stereotype familiar from pasta sauce commercials:

People in Italy actually work and have ambitions you know? And often are very well-educated and hard-working. The perspective of Italy that you have comes from the American media and Italian post-war neorealism. Indeed, Oscar-winning Italian people complained about the fact that what the media wants is seeing Italians wearing tank tops doing nothing if not mafia or smelling the roses.

Watch more entries in the NOWNESS Portrait of a Place series here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.


Finding Purpose & Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most–A Free Online Course from the University of Michigan

From the University of Michigan comes a course for our disorienting times–Finding Purpose and Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most. Taught by Vic Strecher, a professor in the Schools of Public Health and Medicine, the course promises students this:

In this course, you’ll learn how science, philosophy and practice all play a role in both finding your purpose and living a purposeful life. You will hear from historical figures and individuals about their journeys to finding and living a purposeful life, and will walk through different exercises to help you find out what matters most to you so you can live a purposeful life.

By the end of the course, students will:

1. Understand that having a strong purpose in life is an essential element of human well-being.
2. Know how self-transcending purpose positively affects well-being.
3. Be able to create a purpose for your life (don’t be intimidated, this is different from creating “the purpose” for your life).
4. Apply personal approaches and skills to self-change and become and stay connected to your purpose every day.

To take the course for free, selection the Audit Only option available upon registration.

Finding Purpose and Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most will be added to our list: 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Anyone interested can watch Vic Strecher’s TED Talk here.

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And if you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

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U2’s Bono & the Edge Give Surprise Concert in Kyiv Metro/Bomb Shelter: “Stand by Me,” “Angel of Harlem,” and “With or Without You”

Volodymyr Zelenskyy invited U2 to perform in Kyiv as a show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people. And they showed up, playing an improvised acoustic set in a Kyiv Metro station, which now doubles as a bomb shelter. Above you can watch Bono and the Edge perform “Stand by Me,” “Angel of Harlem,” and “With or Without You.” At points, they’re joined by members of the Ukrainian band Antytila.


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A Creative Animation Documents What Happened When a 1970s Self-Help Seminar Turned Into a Nightmare (NSFW)

Self-improvement is a wonderful thing, and we obviously embrace the idea here at Open Culture. But corporate leadership trainings and self-help seminars can often serve to break people down rather than build them up. The cult-like mentality one finds in such environs should not surprise us: 1 in 5 business leaders have “psychopathic tendencies”; many self-help gurus actually do become — or start out as — narcissistic cult leaders. In the short film above by filmmaker Joey Izzo we see one corporate leadership training course that immediately devolved into a nightmarish scene of abuse and humiliation.

Based on an interview with Gene Church — a participant in the 1970 four-day leadership seminar in Palo Alto, California — the film mixes animation, photography, and dramatic recreations filmed in 16mm, portraying “an unconventional Mind Dynamics class where participants were forced to find a ‘moment of truth’ through a number of degrading and often violent acts,” writes Rob Munday at Short of the Week.

Participants of the men-only encounter group each paid $1000 for the privilege. All of them were distributers of a cosmetics brand called Holiday Magic, owned by William Penn Patrick, a multimillionaire John Bircher who unsuccessfully ran as a Republican for governor of California and who owned both Mind Dynamics and a corporate training company called Leadership Dynamics Institute.

Patrick offered his seminars both “for his people” and “whoever wanted to come,” says Church, and aimed to teach them “how to be successful, how to be a better husband, father, leader parent, on and on and on.” Overpromising seems to be a hallmark of fraudulent self-improvement courses, and this one was no different. What set it apart is the degree to which the participants voluntarily subjected themselves to what Church’s roommate at his hotel called “a rather rough four days.” As they would learn, the true purpose of the course was to force its students to find their “moment of truth” through various forms of beating and torture. One man was placed in a coffin, beaten severely, then locked in overnight; one was placed in a cage; one tied to a cross. These are just some of the horrors, according to the film.

Like some kind of sadistic Milgram experiment gone totally off the rails, the program enlisted all of the participants to administer beatings to each other and prevent each from leaving. And like the Milgram experiment, the Mind Dynamics seminar stands as one of many object lessons in “the perils of obedience.” There are many more examples of dark descents into cultish abuse in the self help world. Writer C.L. Taylor tells the more recent story of self-help businessman James Arthur Ray, who in 2011 was convicted of “three counts of negligent homicide when three people died during one of his ‘new age’ retreats.” These involved “sleep deprivation, fire walking, fasting, board breaking and arrow breaking,” and a sweat lodge ceremony that turned deadly.

The fact that people are often willing to relinquish their autonomy in order grow as individuals says a great deal about the amount of help people perceive they need and the degree to which human beings can be manipulated by charismatic leaders. In most cases, those leaders have no business giving advice in the first place. As one former self-help “expert,” Michelle Goodman (who found herself pushed into the arena by her publisher) admits, “the dirty little secret of those in the advice business is that we wind up teaching others the lessons we most need to learn ourselves.” Her advice to those who came to her with problems she couldn’t realistically solve: “You should really talk to a qualified professional about that.” To learn more about Church’s harrowing experience with Mind Dynamics, read his book The Pit: A Group Encounter Defiled.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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