Get into the flow
The wisdom of Zao Gongen
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about the state of creative flow. What flow is, in a nutshell, is the state of oneness that you get when you are completely immersed in the “now” of an experience, whether it’s writing, hiking, surfing, martial arts, or painting. According to Csikszentmihalyi:
“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”
I’ve always encouraged my design team to do something beyond their day job. Yes, work is of paramount importance, for learning, growing professionally and of course paying for rent, healthcare and groceries but I’ve found that if you are only immersed in the day job, and come to identify who you are by only your title and brand association to the company, you will be at risk for losing who you truly are. Also, the more an employee exercises creative work beyond the glow of the RGB screen, the better. Many of my team focus on meditation, music, ceramics, baking, yoga and martial arts before and after work. I write in the early mornings and paint at night before bed (when I’m working on a series). Your perspective broadens and your sense of self deepens when doing work that is not directly for monetary return but for being in the creative moment. This reduces anxiety and, looked at from a business value proposition, you get a much more focused and effective employee in the office.
Zao Gongen is a painting I did about a year ago on commission for a Shugendō mountain monk in Nara, Japan named Matsubayashi Tetsuji. It was an honor to be asked to depict the sacred image of their most powerful deity, who is portrayed as having blue skin, upturned fangs, holding a Vajra in one hand and making the sword mudra in his other. The multiplicity of influences in the figure were indicative of the syncretic nature of the 1300 year old belief system, drawing in equal parts from Zen Buddhism, Taoism and indigenous Shinto. The process of creating this image required that I draw and paint every night, after dinner. My wife set up a larger space for me to paint in the living room and even after a long day at work, when I really didn’t want to do anything that required energy, I’d stand before the canvas, put on some Led Zeppelin and then the fatigue immediately went away. Hours would go by and I’d be standing in the room, late at night, and realize that my back was aching and that it was 2 am. I soon learned to time-box my work so I didn’t go until all hours of the night and I found that limiting myself to only a couple of hours counterintuitively allowed me to immediately get into the necessary state of flow to do the work.
Making any act into a “non-thinking” habit allows you to just step into the process without allowing negative, energy-sapping thoughts to weigh you down.
Zao Gongen may look fierce but he’s on your side — his wrathful mien is meant to vanquish evil thoughts and actions. The fire surrounding him represents the burning away of all desire, the dissipation of all passion and the conquering of evil. I consider Zao Gongen my personal Duende, Federico García Lorca’s powerful spirit of evocation: the fire of Flamenco, smoke, the night and music that consumes you while battling the canvas, one stroke creating a line and the next stroke obliterating it with a wash of crimson, over and over, until all that is left on the surface is the final painting of many, built on the stratum of layers of colors and sweat; bands of igneous, silt, sand, swamp, dune and lava still pulsing just beneath the surface, radiating out its history, unseen but felt.
The painting now resides in Japan but I’m often reminded of the state of flow whenever I think about him. And then I get up and make something.
Here’s the final painting (also the image in this post).
What I’m reading/read:
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, the brilliant Japanese-British author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.
A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence by Kartik Hosanagar
The Survival of Iggy Pop by Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker
What I’m listening to:
Norman F*****g Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey
∑(No,12k,Lg,17Mif) New Order + Liam Gillick: So it goes... New Order live at MIF
Threads by Cheryl Crow
Design Matters by Debbie Millman
Sean Lennon interview with Marc Maron
World Air Current with Taro Hakase (in Japanese)