Flow, Gratitude, and Jewish Prayer

In 1990, Mihaly Csikaszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychology professor, described a mental state he calls flow, which all of us have experienced, though most of us don’t feel it very often.  This feeling is also called being in the zone by athletes or in the groove by musicians.  It is the feeling you get when you are so deeply engaged in a task for its own sake that time falls away, the rest of the world fades out, your ego disappears, and you perform at a challenging level with such focus that it feels almost effortless.  This state can be reached in almost any discipline – but it usually only happens in an activity that you enjoy and are fairly skilled at performing.

One interesting thing about reaching this state is that you can’t get there right away.  If you are a musician, you don’t get to experience flow without putting in the many hours of practicing fairly boring, foundational skills like scales or fingering or proper posture.  As the famous bass player Victor Wooten says, “you can’t hold no groove if you ain’t got no pocket.”  He means if you want to be able to play music, you first have to practice music.  Here the word play, which we also often use for athletic endeavors, doesn’t just denote frivolous childhood games – it means engaging in creative, generative, challenging activity with grace and skill.

During the Thanksgiving holiday we will spend time expressing gratitude, and Judaism has wisdom to offer on this topic.  One of my favorite ideas about the deep importance of gratitude comes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism”:

“Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.”

In this quote, Heschel warns us that taking things for granted (failing to feel or express gratitude) launches us down the wrong path in no uncertain terms.  He is answering the question, “What is religion good for?” by explaining that connecting with the divine is about holding on to our ability to look around us and see holiness every day.  Engaging in such practice is what many of the Rabbinic rituals are designed to help us do.  Blessings over food help us not take sustenance for granted.  Blessing our children weekly on Shabbat helps us recognize how lucky we are to be able to spend time as a family.

We all understand that gaining foundational skills in basketball or playing piano requires practice, and we are willing to make sure that our children engage in that practice regularly, even when they may find it boring or meaningless, because we know that eventually it will offer them the opportunity to engage in an activity in the joyful state of flow.  Practice scales or free throws for ten minutes each day and eventually these skills will be in your toolbox when you are ready to truly play.  Why don’t we understand that the same is true for prayer, or for the practice of feeling and expressing gratitude?  Do we really believe that our children will be able to experience joy and flow in spiritual pursuits without first spending time learning and mastering the underlying scales or free throws?  Or perhaps have we ourselves found the practice so rote, meaningless, and boring that we rejected it out of hand because it didn’t provide the immediate satisfaction we know intuitively we would like to find in religious rituals.

I don’t think it is possible to spend the whole year taking things for granted and then expect to feel comfortable or happy expressing gratitude once in a while (like on Thanksgiving).  How could that expression or feeling be anything other than the equivalent of someone who never took piano lessons sitting down at the piano, then getting frustrated and blaming the instrument for their inability to play it?

In Jewish prayer, we balance the two complementary concepts of kevah (fixed, routine, rote, practice) and kavanah (spiritual intention, flow).  We acknowledge that getting into the state of flow in our prayer takes a real commitment to regular practice — which is one of the reasons we focus on action before belief in Judaism, because we know that you have to engage in the practice before it truly takes on personal meaning.  This is one of the reasons that we begin each day at Gesher with the practice of prayer.  No person feels deeply spiritual every time they pray – just like no person feels flow every time they step onto the basketball court.  That’s not the point – the point is to keep playing (or praying) to make it possible to be ready for those times when we are lucky enough to get in the groove.

Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you find moments of true gratitude to share during the coming days.  If you miss the first couple of free throws or your scales don’t sound quite right…don’t give up – keep practicing!

Kol tuv (all the best),