Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Evolving Self by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Every man has a mob self and an individual self, in varying proportions.

~D.H. Lawrence

The words "I am" are potent words; be careful what you hitch them to. The thing you're claiming has a way of reaching back and claiming you.

~A.L. Kitselman

Up to a point a man's life is shaped by environment, heredity, and movements and changes in the world about him. Then there comes a time when it lies within his grasp to shape the clay of his life into the sort of thing he wishes to be. Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune, or the quirks of fate. Everyone has it within his power to say, "This I am today; that I will be tomorrow."

~Louis L'Amour

Welcome to Brooklyn Public Library’s online discussion of Csikszentmihalyi’s The Evolving Self. The book is a sequel to the author’s bestselling Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in which a radical theory of happiness is proposed. After years of systematic, in-depth and cross-cultural research for Flow, Csikszentmihalyi, who is arguably one of the greatest psychologists in the world today, concluded that what makes people truly happy has not much to do with sex, wealth and power, but to be actively involved in a difficult enterprise or an activity which “stretches physical and mental capacities.” In other words, the habit of taking up increasingly complex and new challenges on regular basis, is the key to genuine happiness. Being whole heartedly involved in such activities for some length of time, may then lead to a “rare state of consciousness” which he terms as flow, and suggests that this state can conquer anxieties of everyday life and make life worth living.

But perhaps an unexamined Self is not worth evolving. The variety of definitions and discourses about this thing called Self are as old as the beginnings of time. Human beings have attempted to solve this mystery with innumerable mythologies, vanities, fantasies, superstitions, delusions, religions, arts, philosophies and now sciences.

One wonders, what is so true and so new that Csikszentmihalyi has discovered about the nature of Self, which can stand the test of time and reason across cultures? We shall see.

Please join us for a month long exploration of the old and the new discourse about Self and its evolution, and whether or not such articulations are coherent, and correspond to reality, and lend themselves to sound and valid verification. After all, we have to define Self objectively and collaboratively before we can embark upon its evolution--an evolution which could be meaningful to individual and the collective. But, in an important sense, can human beings face some aspects of their real selves? "Every man has reminiscences," wrote Dostoevsky in Notes from the Underground, "which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind."

But for how long can one be in denial of such darkness inherent in human nature--not only at an individual level but the collective as well. The known record of human history is but a collective biography of humanity. Violent history of the 20th century--which has so much to do with tribal identities--alone should make our species shudder with horror and disbelief about forces (conscious and unconscious) at work in human mind and human cultures. But perhaps the processes of defining, exploring and evaluating the nature of Self might have some far reaching implications, not only for the growth of the individual but also for the future of our species, which currently spends more on weapons than education worldwide.

The stakes are high indeed as the struggle for scarce and strategic resources is going to become more ferocious with unprecedented increase in population and pandemonium on the planet. Can human beings fundamentally change the way they have been thinking, feeling and behaving, parenting, preaching and politicking for millennia? Is propensity for violence and vanity so hard wired in the human brain that common sense, good will, religion and education have repeatedly failed us in every generation? For war and preparation for war have been constants of human history and continue to be so in modernity. Every individual, regardless of what group or nation they belong to, needs to ask this question about the nature and evolution of Self and take full responsibility for evolving its highest potentials. For it is not impossibilities which cause us the deepest despair, but potentialities that we have failed to realize. As an Indian proverb has it: “There is nothing noble about being superior to some other person. The true nobility is in being superior to your own previous self.”


Anonymous said...

The problem is that the current society emphasizes thinking only of oneself as opposed to bettering oneself to improve the general good of society. Look at Enron, AIG, the banking & automobile industries. Thousands of foreclosures, people walking away from their houses, the environment destroyed by fossil fuels when car makers could have developed alternative fuel methods decades ago.

The fact that we will all be paying for this mess out of pocket and praying the the melting ice flows don't flood our cities may drive us to some self-examination.

Anonymous said...

What if the nature of the evolving self includes the dissolution of the material infrastructute as we know it? Maybe this particular cycle of gluttony has reached its limit, having given us what it was here to bring? Yes, a lifestyle, a manner of being, a set of values and assumptions may suffer a devestating, painful and even prolonged death.

Each one of us can ask, am I one that can be patient and respond flexibly within the chaos?

Eventually we may see the soft, green shoots of a new infrastrusture gradually break through the surface of awareness--revealed to the eyes that can see it.

Isn't this the pattern of evolving humanity? A new lifestyle, manner of being, and set of values emerging from our past experiences and the opportunties of this moment.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the evolution of the American self involves the destruction of the climate, the deaths of many innocent animals, and numerous negative effects on populations around the world who had the bad luck not to be born American.

Somehow, tying all of this to the evolution of a bamboo-like new self doesn't make it any better. The previous poster is just trying to sugarcoat disaster.

Anonymous said...

I respect your point-of-view and don't disagree that we are now and may continue to experience devestating, painful and prolonged distruction in its many forms as a consequence of a dominant hyper-materialistic value system. No sugar-coating on that.

And this value system is not limited to the USA/western world--we see how it has been adopted by many countries/cultures through out the world. Our collective lesson? Maybe to see this just as it is, take a sober and steady look?

Evolutionary movement is not necessarily safe, comfortable, and without disaster.

So how do we meet all of this and live to see the transition to a new form? My suggestion is flexibility.

Anonymous said...

The current economic and ecological crisis worldwide is result of individual moral values of unadulterated hedonism and outright Machiavellianism, not to mention institutional blindspots and incompetencies. If everything is connected to everything else in this world, then one has to apply multiple perspectives and cross-disciplinary knowledge to understand what happened. Flexibility, or in other words, pluralism, as it applies to interpretation of facts, is also called for, in addition to behavioral flexibiltiy. Individuals who thought that wealth and money are the highest goods to seek in life, even if the results are disastrous for the majority have to be held responsible and their development deconstructed. The collusion of financial elite worldwide might be one relevant factor in the current chaos. Where have been the great institutions, the supposed hallmarks of civilization, while this crisis was in the making? Maybe its time, not just to rethink individual growth and evolution, but also to re-evaluate mission and quality of education, politics, religion, government, law and media worldwide. Now it doesn't just take a village, it takes a global village.

Anonymous said...

According to the author research, artists can get lost in what they are doing, and loose concern for anything else except the activity, when they are supposedly in Flow. Well maybe so do the con-artists who have landed us all in such chaos. Do the indivudals have to evolve first before the institutions would or vice versa? Maybe we are in the domain of a paradox.

Nomi said...

It might not be a real chicken and egg kind of paradox between institution or individual. Csikszentmihalyi quotes the renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee who researched about the rise and fall of great civilizations. According to Toynbee, a vital culture is always the product of a small "creative minority" and rarely a product of the masses, be it Renaissance Florence, Pharonic Egypt, Hans China, 19th century Paris or spread of Christianity or Islam. Such relatively small creative minorities were characterized by individuals with unusual skills and extraordinary visions of a Buddha or a Christ or a Bismarck.

Anonymous said...

Con-artists might fear getting caught or feel guilt which might not be a genuine Flow state. When we look at the attributes of people who feel most positive about their lives, they tend to possess a set of common attributes such as knowing clearly what they have to do, getting feedback on what they are doing, and being able to match their abilities with the opportunities for action so that skills and challenges are in balance. When these attributes are present, people begin to concentrate very highly and enjoy the activity. As a result they forget the problems of everyday life, and they seem to step into a kind of alternative reality. That consolidation of characteristics is what is called the "flow experience."

Anonymous said...

Creative Minority idea seems no different from another argument for elitism or God's or King's favorites. Some disguises of this argument are also used in literary canon debates. Equality of opportunity exists only on paper the world over. Incarceration rates and school stats and standardised tests show us who gets a real chance to evolve themselves. Power, not the creative minority is the final arbiter. In fact, creative minority serves the power elite in more ways than can be imagined.

Anonymous said...

Look at Iceland. Well-know for an extremely literate, artistic & creative society.The banking melt-down affected Iceland more than any other country.

Nomi said...

Anonymous wrote 5:02 PM: "Creative Minority idea seems no different from another argument for elitism or God's or King's favorites. Some disguises of this argument are also used in literary canon debates. Equality of opportunity exists only on paper the world over."

This is an interesting interpretation but only partly true, and therefore should be held lightly with some respect for complexity and surprise in affairs human. It certainly does not ring true all the time or in every case and in all situations. Reality is nothing if not paradoxical. But to oppose “elitist” interpretations of history is akin to denying obvious individual differences among people. Csikszentmihalyi also adds that it may be a politically correct attitude at certain times but it is not corroborated by the evidence from history, findings of science, and facts of everyday life. The glory of the Renaissance Florence was certainly the conscious achievement of a few merchant banking families highly motivated on creating an international financial network and on making their city the most beautiful in the land.

However, the author also points out that creative minorities do sometimes arise from the least privileged strata of the society. Their achievement is due, at least in the initial stages, to personal vision, individual merit and group commitment rather than an inherited status or economic or cultural advantage. He gives the example of the disciples and apostles responsible for the spread of Christianity, who were fishermen, tax collectors, and other “insignificant members” of a backward province of the Roman Empire.

He also suggests that arenas of science and art are elitist endeavors in that a small creative minority sets the agenda and determines priorities. Yet science and arts also tend to be meritocracies as the most talented, intelligent, creative and hard working individuals emerge and make their mark and flourish. Humble beginnings are no impediment to achieving excellence or excuse for not making the effort. It is more true in America than any where else in the world. And President Barack Obama would certainly agree.

Anonymous said...

Christianity served as a way to keep the masses relatively conteneted - they would receive their reward in heaven. It is only when the Emperor Constantine adopted it and used his power to enforce it that the religion had a significant effect on society. The Albigensians were wiped out by the King of France and the pope, breaking the power of the southern France lands forever.The poor may start a movement but ultimately it needs the sanctification of the powerful to succeed.

Anonymous said...

The idea of flow is not a new one and the actions that come from such, existed before the idea itself. What is new seems to be the need to re-establish it for new generations, in need of guidance to the 'higher self'. Modern society has created people who cannot do what is expected of them but if you tell them it is a game they want to have a go. Unfortunately this game now competes with all the other games and nobody cares it's real - in the flow.

Anonymous said...

Indeed the idea of the "higher self" is not new. Mystical dimensions of all great religions have embodied it in one form or another. But in the contemporary Western civilization, what is considered a "higher self" is the attainment of logical reasoning and critical thinking. That is just one aspect of an evolved self, and a minor one at that. In this book, the higher self has more to do with consciously evolving creative and transcendental potentials, which have less to do with logical thinking and more to do with connecting with the deeper dimensions of the self. How to connect with that deeper inner dimension is a mystery which is unique from person to person, and perhaps needs a lot of passion, and a hit and trial process. Some seeking soul might resonate with hatha yoga, some with jnana, and another with bhakti, and so on. Different folks, different strokes. Breath in, breath out. One day your yoga might take your breath away. And the cosmos will never be the same again.

Anonymous said...

Don't critical and logical thinking have a place in understanding the transcendental dimension? There are so many competing versions of metaphysics which deal with fundamental questions which have not been adequately dealt with science. The last post mentions all sorts of yogas but that is mostly a Hindu perspective. Other wisdom traditions have offered a variety of ways of connecting with the deeper Self within. Besides, the Evolved Self is not always dependent upon doing a particular yoga. The history of humanity is not without sages and saints who had spontaneous experience of the transcendental realm without even trying. Ramana Maharishi is one such soul. And there are many others in all traditions.