Tag Archives: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

what is spiritual for me is what is deeply rooted in my erotic body

Yesterday, I got to have a conversation with my friend Emily about what we do at Writing Ourselves Whole. Emily is a seminary student, and wanted to talk some about the interweave of survival, desire, and spirituality. It was a very interesting hour and a half! What does spirituality have to do with writing about sex (or writing about anything), particularly for sexual trauma survivors?

My definition of the erotic is quite expansive, thanks to Audre Lorde. In her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” she writes, “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling […] a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Over the years, I have come to describe the erotic, as Lorde does: embodied and “creative energy empowered.”

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, writes about this idea of “flow,” that state of being in which one is wholly absorbed in an activity or situation. Mindful creative engagement (such as a freewriting practice) connects us to our flow, to that place where we are fully engaged in what we’re doing, where we’re open to new ideas and we trust our instincts, all of which are markers of transformative practice.

Flow is an experience of embodied and creative energy empowered; when we are in flow, we are in touch with our erotic selves – by which I mean our wholly creative, embodied, and intuitive selves. What I encourage, particularly in sexual assault survivors writing groups, is that writers practice listening to the pull of their own writing, that they practice trusting their intuition and creative instincts, in order to rebuild the frayed relationship with the core of themselves, with the intuition that we both needed to listen to and needed to ignore if we wanted to survive.

Survival, is, of course, a deeply creative act — particularly active survival, when we are just trying to stay alive and as whole as possible under the onslaught of someone’s violence. But when we are actively surviving trauma, we are not able to attend fully to our instincts or our embodied creative selves: we armor up, we put parts of ourselves away, we shut down internal access to our bodies, we work to forget rather than know, we try to make very little of ourselves available for hurting. We, metaphorically and sometimes literally, roll ourselves into a ball like the pillbug, trying to protect as much of our soft stuff as we can. The process of healing is the process of releasing ourselves wholly back into the world, unrolling, exposing our soft parts again, trusting that we can do so and will not die. This process can take years — for me, it’s taken twenty, and I’m certainly not done yet, I hope. Writing practice has been my steady companion while I’ve worked to unfurling; and as I type these words now, I see a matter-of-fact difference: when I was first beginning to write as a way to heal, I took my notebook to a cafe and hunched down over it, writing as messily as possible, so that I could hide myself and my words. Now I sit straight up in front of a computer, typing words that anyone could read if they looked over my shoulder. It’s no little miracle, this transformation, the possibility of this opening and openness, is what is true.

For me, what is spiritual is what is deeply rooted in my erotic body: my connected body, my complicated and desiring body, my whole body. I do not experience a sense of connection with other until I am able to have a sense of connection within myself.

When I am engaged in any work or task in which my creative energy is embodied and empowered, I am able to open out to the possibility of connectedness with others — with nature, with people, with the whole messy mystery of the world. For me, spirituality is interwoven with the erotic — with the sense of deep desire to undo the isolation that was necessary for my survival and know and connect with all of myself, as well as the world and community around me.

It took a long time for me to even conceive of being connected to such a thing as flow; the very fact that I can imagine allowing most of myself to concentrate my consciousness on a task at hand (rather than keeping psychic watch and hyper-vigilant for any possible coming attack)  is a mark of healing.

In that same essay, Audre Lorde also writes, “[O]nce we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of.” During our experience of trauma, and in the immediate aftermath, many of us who are survivors expended a lot of energy trying to keep ourselves from feeling. I don’t know about you, but for me, there was no safety in joy, no safety in expansiveness. What was safe was held in, armored, tightly bound up. Through practices like freewriting, walking, dancing, I began to trust it when joy would creep into my skin — I began to trust that the joy would not be immediately taken away, or used against me. Over years, thousands of hours writing, and maybe millions of words in notebooks, I found myself able to trust the voice of my erotic self — my empowered and embodied creative self. If I think of a spiritual self, that’s her. The words she has to offer me are hard won and pulled up straight for the psyche; I write them down and follow where she wants me to go. This is my spiritual practice. It’s the only one I really know.

why it matters to write fiction in the middle of a busy work day

kitties are always in flow...

I still have a houseful of apples — and a freezerful, now, of applesauce packages. The goal for this weekend is to get a couple-three pies into the freezer before I leave for the east coast. Anyone have a good (aka flaky!) gluten-free pie crust recipe?

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So, yesterday I got to talk with Jianda Monique, who does the Lesbian Relationships podcast on BlogTalkRadio, about transformative writing and about the social-change possibilities of writing freely in community and about AWA and the power of a regular writing practice and the workshops and the erotic reading circle. (check out the mp3 of our talk!) At one point, I thought to myself, maybe I should stop talking about this thing (whatever it was) and we can get to some more of her questions; we must have about a half-hour yet, still. I opened the little clock on my computer and it said we only had 8 more minutes! I nearly burst out laughing — how’d that happen? We only got through about an eighth of the great list of questions that Jianda had come up with; I hope I get to talk with her again! (Check out her other shows, too!)

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This morning I’m thinking about the workshops at UCSF, with the Medical Education staff. Our first round of 8 weeks just finished last week, and we’ll start another round next month. What I want to talk about is why it matters to write fiction in the middle of a busy work day. (That is, assuming that writing fiction isn’t your work!)

I mentioned this idea of flow here before. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has several books he’s written about this concept. Flow is a sort of optimal experience that we move into when we are fully engaged in the task at hand (so much so even that we lose track of time), when we both have the skills for the task and are challenged to stretch somewhat to keep doing it, when we have time enough for the task and are able to concentrate on it, when we have clear goals for the task and receive feedback about our progress (either from the task or from outside others). Csikszentmihalyi calls these experiences autotelic: a self-contained activity, one that is an end in itself, that is worth doing because it is so enjoyable and engaging.

I often feel this experience of ‘flow’ when I am freewriting about something important to me (a story I’m working on or that I’m trying to find language for, for example): I will lose track of time, I have the skills necessary for the task and am constantly also having to reach for just there right words (which are, of course, forever just beyond my grasp), I have a clear goal (the story, the telling) and get feedback from the page (amount written, progress) and also from my internal sense of whether I’ve gotten it ‘right’ — I have also experienced this ‘flow’ when working on computer programs, playing around in html, gardening, reading, cooking…

I sometimes experience this ‘flow’ at my day job: when I can cut out the distractions (email, say, or other interruptions) long enough to fully focus on a learning and mastering a new database task, or when I can figure out how to accomplish something that would otherwise be tedious and mindless in a faster, more interesting way (say, only using keyboard shortcuts, or with as few mouse clicks as possible).

But often flow is hard to attain at work: we are, many of us, pulled in lots of different directions at every moment. Multi-tasking has been elevated to a necessity. We have lots of irons in the fire and every one needs tending right now — so we are frazzled and unsatisfied, often, at the end of the day, rather than satisfied with tasks successfully accomplished.

My vision for this workshop with the Medical Education staff is multi-fold (of course, with the multi-tasking still!), but one piece is to give us each one hour in the day when we can focus on one task: first we write about something that has absolutely nothing to do with our day jobs — we push into our imaginations, our creative selves. I’d like us to be able to play with words, instead of fighting against them, for a bit. Then we share our words with one another (if we want!) and receive feedback about what others liked. We leave the hour with a sense of accomplishment, I think: having created a new piece of writing that people honestly appreciated, and having gotten to really appreciate our coworkers for their work (instead of being irritated with coworkers for how they didn’t do this or that like we needed them to do so that we could do that or the other thing, which is so often the even-slightly-antagonistic undertone/culture at many offices, even if you like your coworkers!) —

in short, we get to experience flow for about an hour. And having experienced it for that hour, I think, we are more likely to want to experience it more often — and so we might begin to make changes to our workday (maybe clearing out time to be uninterrupted, maybe turning off our email and only checking it at scheduled intervals) so that this big part of our life is more satisfying for us, more enjoyable. That, I think, transforms us as folks at work, and as folks in other relationships (again, those ripple effects I was talking about yesterday with Jianda), transforms the possibilities of our lives, has us asking for, and believing we can attain, what will make us happiest.

So, yes, writing fiction (or freewriting nonfiction) at work — even and most especially in the middle of a busy work day! — can make a big difference in your other work. Can you take 15 minutes today for some freewriting?

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Yesterday Jianda asked for some initial prompts that I offer to new writers, and I  talked about an open-ended, open-hearted writing practice (which I also think is important!) — but here are some more specific ideas:

– Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and reach out your hands. Let one hand fall onto an object at your desk or writing area (wherever you are). Let that object, whatever you touch (book, keyboard, stone, phone, whatever it is) be your starting place — you might begin by describing the object, and then follow your writing wherever it wants to go.

– a variation on this is to choose a office supply on your desk, write for five minutes about what it is and does, and then write for five more minutes about what it wishes it were, what it wishes it could do. (We did this one at the first meeting of the MedEd writers, and it was great fun!)

– Take 10 minutes to write about your 11th birthday (and remember: you can write however you’re drawn to write about any prompt! if your response is, like mine would be, goddamnit, Jen, I can’t remember that!, then start from there!)

You’re fierce today, and every day, even in (and maybe most especially in, right?) your most frightened, wounded places. You were fierce yesterday, too, and I’m grateful for your presence and your words. Thank you for your words.