When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I teach Flow Arts. That’s much is easy. The hard part comes about three seconds later, when my well intentioned interlocutor inevitably insist that I define my terms.
What is Flow Arts? It’s a question that has been posed to me countless times. As one of the co-founders of Flow Temple (along with Burning dan), I’m often asked to explain why so many fully grown adults suddenly seem to be rediscovering the magic of playing with a certain class of toys. The answer turns out to be complex and involved, but it’s ultimately intuitive at the core. Which is actually a fairly decent description of Flow Arts itself, now that I come to think about it.
According to the propaganda on our website Flow Arts is a meditation and self transformation practice that improves patience, balance, confidence, dexterity, focus, coordination and self-esteem. It’s also a fun and sexy performance art. All of this is true, and more. Or not. It’s one of those things where what you get out of it is largely dependent upon what you bring to it in the first place. Some people spin for years and only have an increasingly sophisticated bag of tricks to show for it. Which is a noble and worthy accomplishment, don’t get me wrong! On the other hand, some practitioners experience it as a sort of an integrated physio-energetic practice like yoga or like martial arts, (but with less martial and more art). I’ve seen several of my beginning poi students turn their whole world around in just six weeks, simply by getting in touch with their minds and bodies, and by applying the profound insights gleaned from their practice to surprisingly diverse aspects of their daily lives.
At Flow Temple our focus is on flow, not tricks. It’s sort of a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. Both methods work, and of course they can be (and always essentially are, to some extent) used in combination. If you just stand there and do a bunch of basic moves over and over, you will eventually find yourself immersed in the flow almost by accident. On the other hand, if you start out cultivating your flow from day one, most of the basic tricks will tend to manifest and unfold themselves quite naturally in the course of your instinctive and/or methodical exploration.
So what is flow? Now there’s a fun one. Now we’re getting to the good part! Which, typically enough, turns out to be somewhat challenging to describe.
Flow is obviously not unique to Flow Arts. In fact the movement as a whole only started using that term relatively recently, as the practice has evolved in that direction over a number of years. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience defines flow as a state in which “action and awareness are merged”. Flow is the state of relaxed responsive focus that you feel when you’re “in the zone” and ready for anything. Flow is what happens when your body, mind, and spirit are in dynamic balance and the Now is so compelling that everything else fades away. Ego and fear dissolve in the perfect moment, time slows down, and whatever you’re doing becomes a meditation.
The basic principles that apply to objects in motion turn out to be fairly universal, and a deeper understanding of these principles helps us to to operate much more flowfully in our daily lives. In almost every scenario, for instance, there is effort needed to accomplish our goals, and close examination will usually reveal that a light touch at the right time will redirect the relevant momentum much more efficiently than roughly yanking the whole situation out of it’s given trajectory. Insights of this nature come up constantly in the course of our exploration; so much so that it sometimes makes a stick or a sock with a water balloon in it seem like some kind of a magical teaching tool.
Part of what Flow Arts does, at least in our experience, is extend the time that the practitioner is capable of paying attention from about a second and a half to almost a full three seconds. And that makes all the difference in the world! There are very few manipulations that take more than three seconds to complete, and if you can stay focused for that long, it turns out that you can accomplish almost anything you desire. Flow Arts does not require an enormous amount of strength or agility, and though it rewards natural talent, most of it’s principle techniques can be mastered by anyone with a good attitude and a willingness to devote some time and patience to an engaging enterprise.
Fortunately, this is not hard to convince people to do, because Flow Arts is rather addictive. It’s the only system of meditation I’ve ever found that starts paying off right away. I think it has something to do with the way the human brain responds to intermittent reward. It’s the same reason why so many people are addicted to gambling. We’re programmed to respond with interest and enthusiasm when we succeed at a task in which the outcome is uncertain right up until the last moment. When we successfully accomplish a new move, our brains supply us with a big dose of happy juice that’s designed by nature to keep us coming back for more.
And more is easy to get, because the possibilities are virtually limitless! It’s like playing a musical instrument. Even if you work at it every day for the rest of your life, you’ll never bottom out. You’ll never run out of the infinitely precious commodity of something that you can almost-but-not-quite do, and that you could almost certainly learn to do in an hour if you buckled down and tried real hard. One side effect of this, if you do it a lot, is that you artificially inflate the percentage of encountered challenges at which you are able to succeed simply by applying patience and intelligence to the task at hand. Imagine what your life would be like if you were more instinctively confident that this was true!
Flow Arts gently teaches you to celebrate your triumphs and to persevere in the face of frustration. It teaches you about how you learn as an individual, and if you’re lucky and persistent you may even learn to love to learn again, as we all naturally did when we were very young. At Flow Temple we make a big deal out of all of out little victories, because we find that a high-five or a rousing cheer from across the room literally helps to lock in the successful sequence. When we drop our props or smack ourselves in the face, it simply triggers a reminder to return our consciousness to our breath, to focus our minds, and to try it again more slowly. It’s not possible to mess up when you’re practicing. Practice is perfect, always. We find that we learn as much from our mistakes as we do from our successes, anyway.
One of the things that makes Flow Arts such a terrific practice in general is it’s amazing versatility. When I need an endorphin boost, spinning is a quick chi-up. When I’m bubbling over with excess energy it can also be the perfect chill down. When I need to focus myself, I can attempt the most challenging move that I know, or I can simply concentrate on trying to do an easy move perfectly. On the other hand, if my brain needs a break I can just trance out and spin on automatic pilot for a while. It’s grounding and invigorating at the same time. And there’s a whole lot of room for personal style! Everybody does it a little bit differently. Burning dan could famously look out across Burning Man and tell you who all was spinning at what camp, just by observing the distinctive geometries traced out by the tiny balls of distant fire.
There’s till plenty of room left for making novel discoveries, too! Beginners come up with new moves all the time. Flow Arts rewards what Zen calls “beginners mind”, and it’s important to maintain an attitude of exploratory inquiry as your practice develops. It can be easy for intermediate students to fall into the habit of just doing the tricks that they know; but I’m always encouraging people to lean into their challenges, because that’s where the good stuff happens. I often find myself deeply moved and inspired by watching beginners, because unlike many of us who sometimes imagine that we know what we’re doing, beginners are always trying new things and pushing themselves to play at the very edge of their ability. I have found the Flow Arts community at large to be exceptionally welcoming to folks who are just starting out. Everybody was once a beginner, and established spinners tend to be enthusiastic about what they do, and most are quite eager to help novices find their flow.
Sometimes when people asked dan what he did, he would tell them that he was trying to save the world by spinning socks around. And then they’d look at him funny. Sure. He was kind of serious about it, though. Or if not exactly serious, then at least sincere. Flow Arts is good for you. It builds up the connections between the hemispheres of your brain. (Which is one of my pet theories about why it tends to make it’s practitioners so much more well-integrated all around.) It makes you smarter. It really does. It makes you more patient with yourself, too. It fills you full of endorphins without being especially dangerous or making you feel all crappy the next day. It moves your body and it stills your mind. It teaches you how to react in bullet time. It makes you more Force-sensitive. It makes you better at everything that you do. And most important of all, it teaches you how to play. Or rather, it reinforces the state of open engaged receptivity that that is at the root of play, and ultimately at the root of everything that’s awesome.by