If you've been reading much psychology recently, you've probably heard about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "Flow". Flow is characterized as a state of complete, undistracted immersion in skillful activity. Csikszentmihalyi (and often his subjects) regards such experiences as positive and fulfilling. Imagine the pianist completely immersed in a brilliant performance or a basketball player completely attuned to the events on the court, responding skillfully and spontaneously to every move. There's no denying that there's something cool about that!
(On the other hand, I'm not sure there's anything so intrinsically wonderful in being so immersed in driving or in your customary work -- two of the most common "flow" activities in ordinary life, according to Csikszentmihalyi -- that time flies by without your seeming to notice. The "flow" of data entry isn't maybe quite as romantic as the flow of the concert pianist.)
Standard interpretations of the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) -- most notably, that of A.C. Graham, but also of P.J. Ivanhoe and many others -- would make him the greatest early advocate of "flow": The life one should strive for, according to Graham's Zhuangzi, is one of spontaneous, skillful reactivity, like that of an artisan in the flow of his work.
The standard passage in support of this view is in Zhuangzi chapter 3, on the butcher cutting up an ox:
A butcher was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. Wherever his hand touched, wherever his shoulder leaned, wherever his foot stepped, wherever his knee pushed -- with a zip! with a whoosh! -- he handled his chopper with aplomb, and never skipped a beat. He moved in time to the Dance of the Mulberry Forest, and harmonized with the Head of the Line Symphony. Lord Wenhui said, "Ah, excellent, that technique can reach such heights!"
The butcher sheathed his chopper and responded, "What your servant values is the Way, which goes beyond technique. When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I couldn't see the whole ox. And now, I encounter them with spirit and don't look with my eyes. Sensible knowledge stops and spiritual desires proceed. I rely on the Heavenly patterns, strike in the big gaps, am guided by the large fissures, and follow what is inherently so. I never touch a ligament or tendon, much less do any heavy wrenching! A good butcher changes his chopper every year because he chips it. An average butcher changes it every month because he breaks it. There are spaces between those joints, and the edge of the blade has no thickness. If you use what has no thickness to go where there is space -- oh! there's plenty of extra room to play about in. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my chopper is still as though fresh from the grindstone.
"Still, when I get to a hard place, I see the difficulty and take breathless care. My gaze settles! My movements slow! I move the chopper slightly, and in a twinkling it's come apart, crumbling to the ground like a clod of earth! I stand holding my chopper and glance all around, dwelling on my accomplishment. Then I clean my chopper and put it away."
Lord Wenhui said, "Excellent! I have heard the words of butcher and learned how to care for life!" [Kjellberg trans., in Ivanhoe & Van Norden 2001/2005, p. 224-225]
Csikszentmihalyi cites this very passage in his 1990 book Flow. And how can one resist? Who'd have known butchery was so wonderful? (The butcher at the local Ralph's debones my trout: Whoosh! In a single fluid movement, all the bones are gone, a perfect skeleton in his hand. Now he's spiritually fulfilled!)
Setting aside the question of whether this is really spontaneous skillful activity, beyond words and conscious thought, or genuine flow -- maybe it is, but that might turn on nuances in interpreting the penultimate paragraph -- I have some doubts about the centrality this passage is often given in interpreting Zhuangzi's positive vision of life.
(1.) Although there are other passages celebrating skillful executing of mundane activities in the Zhuangzi, this is the only clear and substantial one in the Inner Chapters, the authentic core of the book.
(2.) In the Inner Chapters, Zhuangzi criticizes what might seem to be flowing, skillful activity at least as much as his praises it:
Zhuangzi said, "Haven't you seen a weasel? It bends down then rises up. It springs east and west, not worrying about heights or depths -- and lands in a snare or dies in a net. Now the yak is so big he looks like clouds hanging from Heaven. He sure can be big, but he can't catch mice. You have a big tree an are upset that you can't use it. Why not plant it by a nothing-at-all village in a wide empty waste? You could do nothing, dilly-dallying by its side, or nap, ho-hum, beneath it. It won't fall to any axe's chop and nothing will harm it. Since it isn't any use, what bad can happen to it?" [Kjellberg trans., p. 213]
This sounds almost like the opposite of the message of the butcher: The weasel has the skill of catching mice, but because it becomes completely absorbed in that activity, it loses track of the big picture and dies. And, indeed, isn't this exactly the danger of undistracted skillful activity? -- that one becomes so absorbed in it, so purely reactive to just a narrow range of pre-defined goals set by that activity, that one risks losing sight of the big picture, or of things one should be distracted by (including lunch, one's home life, or even the fire alarm)? Indeed, the context of the weasel example is Huizi's not knowing what to do with a huge gourd that resists the ordinary uses of gourds but invites unconventional uses. What would the butcher do with a 40-foot ox? Could he see past his usual methods and think instead of riding its shoulders through the impassable swamp?
The Way is lost in the glorification of right and wrong. The Way is lost in the completion of love. But are there such things as loss and completion? Or are there no such things as loss and completion? Loss and completion -- that's Master Bright Works playing his lute. No loss and no completion -- that's Master Bright Works not playing his lute. Bright Works playing his lute, Shi Kuang holding his baton, Huizi leaning on his desk: the knowledge of these three masters was almost perfect, and they passed their successes on to later years. What they liked they tried to set apart from other things. What they liked they tried to illuminate. But they only succeeded in illuminating the other things and so ended in the gloom of "hard and white" [that is, meaningless logical distinctions]. Their followers ended up tangled in the string of works and were incompete their whole lives. If this counts as completion, then we are all complete, too. If this doesn't count as completion, then none of us have ever been complete. So the torch of slippery doubt is what the sage steers by. Don't insist, but lodge in the usual: this is what I mean by throwing things open to the light. [Kjellberg trans., p. 218-219]
A difficult passage! But if anything is clear, it's that the Way is lost (if anything can be lost, if there is such a thing as loss) in the skillful activities of Master Bright Works on the lute, etc. There is no praise here of skillful activity as the secret of caring for life.
(Indeed maybe it's the commitment to caring about success and failure -- "right" and "wrong" -- that is the root of the problem. The Zhuangzi of Chapter 2 might not praise the butcher who takes pride in his accomplishment, and who presumably would be disappointed if he broke his knife and ruined the ox, or even became only an average butcher -- which most butchers must of course be.)
(3.) Zhuangzi (for example in the weasel passage) praises "doing nothing". Although the idea of doing nothing (wu wei) has received enormous attention in the secondary literature in classical Chinese philosophy and has come to seem to mean something very different from its surface meaning (something like spontaneous, skillful reactivity, in fact), I don't really see much of a textual basis for this in the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi. He seems simply to praise literally doing nothing (or very little), like the yak. To the extent Zhuangzi does, here and elsewhere, praise uselessness and doing nothing, that seems the opposite of praising skillful accomplishment.
So I think we must re-evaluate standard interpretations of Zhuangzi's view of skill. And, indeed, I think Zhuangzi contains the seeds of a critique of the idea of "flow" as a central aim of life.