“Flow”: The Chassidic Approach to Harnessing

By Ian Taylor, Wilmington, Delaware
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


I.  Understanding the Challenges of Divine Service

Chassidic philosophy speaks in uncompromising terms about how to truly serve G-d. Indeed the beginning student of Chassidus quickly learns to identify the phrase “kabbalat ohl malchut shamayim” (lit. “accepting the yoke of Heaven”), as a fundamental descriptor of how the Jewish people are expected to truly serve G-d. Such service, whether manifested through prayer, performance of good deeds, or abstinence from wrongful deeds, is described as so complete and total, that it is compared to the work of a slave. It is described as difficult, burdensome, and perhaps even painful.[1] With such a harsh standard of what constitutes true divine service, the Chassidic lifestyle can seem intimidating at best.

Even more troubling, the tireless servitude demanded of Chasidim is directed towards a G-d, who is seemingly so complete, perfect, transcendent, and ineffable, that the service itself seems pointless. What, after all, does it matter how intensely we serve G-d? Being that He is infinite and beyond comprehension, it seems that our sins cannot hurt Him, nor can our righteous deeds benefit Him. Daily life appears to affirm this: When we commit wrongdoing, there are no flashes of lightning or fire to punish us, and oftentimes even when we perform virtuous actions, we cannot see a positive result. When we pray, for example, we often cannot see the effective results of our prayer.[2] Indeed, given the degree of servitude required of the Jewish people, combined with its seeming ineffectiveness, the observant path can at times seem like the proverbial fate of Sisyphus: an eternal condemnation to role a massive boulder up a hill, only to have it role back down, day in, day out.

II.  Flow as an Approach to Meaningful Experience

The challenge of finding an inherent meaning in absurd circumstances is well encapsulated in the psychological concept of “flow”.  Identified in 1975 by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly

Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a mind state familiar to anyone who has performed music, painted a picture, or played a challenging sport; it is a mental experience of intense focus on the present moment. During flow, a person becomes so immersed and engaged in the activity at hand that normal mental-chatter and reflective self-consciousness subside altogether. Time itself seems to slow as the experience deepens, producing a unique and entirely intrinsic pleasure, termed the “autotelic experience” – that is, an experience which has a purpose in and of itself, independent of utilitarian factors. Importantly, Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that individuals who are able to regularly tap into autotelic experiences are better prepared to deal with hardships in life, for they can naturally find intrinsic value in seemingly meaningless conditions.[3]

In spite of its profundity, flow is morally neutral in the sense that it is neither good nor bad. Though flow is commonly associated with positive, creative experiences, Csikszentmihalyi himself writes that it can be present even when engaging in harmful activities such as building a bomb, manufacturing poison, or preparing for war.[4] At the milder end of the spectrum, the flow experience can manifest itself as mindless internet-surfing, addictive video-gaming, and television binge-watching. Though each of these activities share the same pleasurable characteristics of an autotelic experience, they also lack any truly deeper purpose. Despite embodying a “selfless” experience, they are ultimately “mindless”, remaining fundamentally rooted in individual desire and pleasure. Certainly, they are by no means the sort of activities that can beneficially transform the individual, much less the world. Clearly, it still remains to find an approach, which harnesses the flow state productively, utilizing its abnegation of ego and self to promote spiritual growth and universal transformation.

III.   Chassidic Parallels to Flow

Csikszentmihalyi’s description of flow, and the concerns he raises, should resonate well with the spiritually inclined. After all, many religions throughout the world make use of rituals, meditations, prayers, and other activities to promote a flow state. Thus, they engage the practitioner, softening the ego and awakening him or her to higher truths, beyond the limitations of self. Ideally, these egoless states should be transformative, rather than numbing. The Jewish religion has a similar approach, as its plethora of obligatory rites can equally be channeled into personal, immersive, and selfless experiences. Though use of flow as an egoless state presents opportunities for profound spiritual growth, simply being aware of it as a concept is not enough; we must learn to harness it properly.

To this end, Chassidus demonstrates a fascinating parallel between Jewish mysticism and the psychological concept of flow: In 1952 the Lubavitcher Rebbe delivered a ma’amar, a mystical discourse, entitled Lo T’hiyeh Mishekeilah, which presents divine service, including the intense service of kabbalat ohl, as an ongoing state of flow, albeit flow directed towards a higher purpose.[5] The ma’amar illustrates this concept by describing the lifestyle of an individual who is constantly driven at every second to serve G-d without consideration for personal aspirations, comfort levels, and the like. Most importantly, the ma’amar states that such a person’s service is so selfless, that it is independent even from the individual’s desire for spiritual feelings, such as love or awe of G-d, for such desires, though lofty, remain attached to the ego.[6] This description thus serves as both an inspirational and contemplative device, giving the reader a chance to theoretically comprehend how his or her life would look, were they to serve G-d with similar intensity.

Conceptually, this kind of service is emblematic of the flow state, because of a common focus on immersive experience, devoid of utilitarian or even personal considerations registering in the mind. When engaged in this state, people do not light Shabbat candles, put on tefillin, or celebrate holidays simply because they are fun, or even because they are spiritually inspirational. Rather, these activities can be pursued for the intrinsic meaning they posses as unquestionable desires of G-d.

Yet such immersive states of sustained divine service do not come without effort. Just as psychologists have demonstrated that true flow states require a certain degree of challenge, so too does the Rebbe indicate that immersive, intrinsically meaningful divine service cannot be attained without overcoming specific barriers. Specifically, he presents human self-awareness as the fundamental barrier to personal growth, self-transformation, and complete service of G-d.[7] Describing self-awareness as a primordial illness, endemic to humanity since the time of Creation, the Rebbe further underscores the universal severity of this problem, noting that it afflicts both wicked and righteous, secular and observant alike. Self-awareness, the Rebbe explains, represents a human disconnect from the divine, a state wherein personal aspirations, complacency, and mindless living limit life, alienating the finite human from an infinite G-d. Consequently, when people consign themselves to lives centered around individual ambitions, their inescapable sense of self-awareness can lead to a state of apathy and spiritual insensitivity, which pervades both emotion and intellect.[8]

IV.  Chassidic Methods for Entering Flow

To overcome this state of self-aware apathy, the Rebbe suggests a challenging, yet transformative process: determined, sustained practice of Jewish observance, combined with contemplation on the finite nature of human life. Regarding the first step, the Rebbe notes that observance must begin with kabbalat ohl, as described above, for he states that “a person cannot wait until he changes his essence [to begin serving G-d].” Without practice, a person has no hope of growing at all. Again, this parallels contemporary research on flow, which shows that selfless immersion in activities occurs best when an individual matches a sufficiently high degree of skill against a proportionally difficult challenge.[9] Thus, though the practice of kabbalat ohl is bound to be difficult, it cannot be skipped. Just as any athlete, artist, or performer must work hard to cultivate a skill, so too must a Jew cultivate selflessness through practice. For those who are newer to Judaism, this may entail the simple acceptance of a new Jewish commandment, such as putting on tefillin, keeping kosher, or lighting Shabbat candles; for those more experienced, it may entail focusing one’s concentration more intently during these activities. The point at each stage of practice is to reject complacency, constantly striving to confront new challenges and transcend one’s limitations.[10] And just as with any challenging practice, though mistakes are inevitable  (i.e. in the person’s untransformed “essence”), it is the degree of effort – the service itself – that matters most.[11]

The second step to overcoming the self, though it deviates somewhat from the traditional approach to cultivating flow, nevertheless provides an essential innovation that mitigates complacency and generates motivation to constantly pursue Jewish life. Here the Rebbe proposes that an individual contemplate his or her mortality, recognizing that human life is short and will ultimately end. This contemplation is intended to promote a sort of “crisis” – an abrupt realization that each moment of human life is infinitely important. Critically, reflection on mortality must not be morbid or depressing in nature. Indeed, when performed correctly, this meditation will empower the individual to embrace life with passion and energy. Practically, a person may contemplate that life, given its finiteness, is not to be wasted on mindless activities or materialistic vanities. Life must thus be dedicated at each moment towards connecting to the divine, the ultimate truth of existence.[12]

These two  steps thus work in harmony and support each other. On one hand, the physical activities of Jewish life, observed even when difficult, afford the practitioner a challenge, upon which he can continually improve. On the other hand, contemplation on the nature of human life reinforces a spiritual sense of urgency and motivation to practice even harder. As the individual’s skill gradually increases with diligent practice, he enables himself to enter a well-focused, sustained state of Chassidic flow. In this state, as in traditional flow, his mind is quiet and focused. He is free from reflective selfawareness and self-criticism, and the difficulties and burdens he once experienced are supplanted with an inherent meaning and purpose, no longer contingent on the desires of the self.

V.  Chassidic Flow Actualized

Fundamentally, this ma’amar shows that practice and contemplation are essential to utilizing the flow state effectively in service of G-d. Furthermore, it shows why this well harnessed flow truly leads to a constructive negation of the self. Chassidic flow is not about being the “best”. It is not about being the most pious, learned, holy, or wise. Such goals, however refined they may be, ultimately reflect self awareness. Thus they are undeniable barriers towards intrinsically meaningful divine service. Chassidic flow, like ordinary flow, possesses the unique quality of suppressing the self. Yet it is through tapping into Chassidic flow that a person finds meaning in observant life – even as they transcend their very own conceptions of meaning. In this state, neither the pleasures nor pains of Jewish practice matter, for the individual is so involved, that these mundane concerns become utterly irrelevant. His purpose in life is expressed in its fullest for he is connected to G-d alone.

[1] A thorough, emotionally intense description of the extent of kabbalat ohl is readily available in English in the following title:  Rabbi Schneersohn, Shalom DovBer. The Simple Servant. Translated by Rabbi Yosef Marcus. Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 2008.

[2] Though some Jewish obligations are readily understood (e.g. the prohibitions against killing, stealing, etc), others lack an obvious logical basis, and it can be difficult to understand why such actions matter at all.

[3] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Accessed February 23, 2016. https://www.scribd.com/read/163652512/Flow, 159-163.

[4] Csikszentmihalyi,  124-126.

[5] I have referenced an English translation of this discourse, relying on my own translation of the Hebrew where appropriate. All page citations correspond to this translation. The English translation is available under the following title: Rabbi Schneerson, Menachem Mendel. Full Devotion. Translated by Rabbi Zalman Abraham. Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 2010.

[6] Rabbi Schneerson, 64.

[7] The degree to which self-awareness is “good” or “bad” is a worthy debate beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, in this discourse, self-awareness is identified exclusively by the term “hergesh atzmo” (lit. “sense” or “feeling” of self), a Chassidic concept generally reserved for negative portrayals of self-awareness. The Rebbe further identifies it as an “illness”, indicating its negativity, at least as far as this discourse is concerned. See Rabbi Schneerson, 68.

[8] The discourse identifies emotional apathy and intellectual apathy by the terms “timtum ha’lev” and “timtum ha’moach” respectively (literally “dullness” of the heart and mind). As described in Tanya Ch. 29, these two mental states block an individual from spiritual sensitivity, preventing him from praying with feeling , or resisting negative impulses towards evil, etc. See Rabbi Wineberg, Levy, and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg, trans. Lessons in Tanya: The Tanya of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Edited by Uri Kaploun. Brooklyn, NY: Kehot, 2012.

[9] Schaeffer, Owen. Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow. Fairfield, IA: Human Factors International, 2013.

[10] See  Rabbi Schneersohn, The Simple Servant, p 58-64. Here the Rebbe Rashab notes that the obligations of kabbalat ohl are relative, requiring that an individual constantly strive to practice more than what he did before – not so much that he reach any sort of arbitrary “sum total” of divine service.

[11] Rabbi Schneerson, 66. The Rebbe notes specifically that even though a person may have failed on occasion to carry out Jewish observance, his perseverance will connect him to G-d in such a way as to effectively obviate these failures. The reader will perhaps recognize the contemporary aphorism: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

[12] Contemplations on mortality are prominent in many religions, particularly Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_mori). Jewish reflections on mortality are also explicitly specified, for example in Avot 3:1. It is my personal opinion that shying away from such reflections, such as out of fear of death, inevitably disconnects us from what makes life so valuable, thereby depriving us of an opportunity for genuine self reflection and personal growth. Nevertheless, as the Rebbe’s ma’amar demonstrates, the outcome of these meditations must be constructive, promoting growth and not sadness.