Doing Practice

Chris Brogan recently posted some thoughts in his Secret Show about Dr. Andrew Weill’s new book, Spontaneous Happiness. Dr. Weill (who is cool simply because his name is pronounced “vile”) talks in his book about the idea that our pursuit of happiness tends to come from a desire to achieve three states: pleasure, flow, and meaning.

It’s pretty easy to understand those three things. Pleasure is the easiest; sometimes all it takes to be happy is to do something that brings you pleasure, whether that’s listening to music or eating a sundae or doing P90X yoga (Ok, I lied about the last one; I don’t know anyone who likes P90X yoga).

Flow, on the other hand, is a little harder to describe, though a very smart man named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (another cool name) wrote an entire book about it. It’s easy to tell you what a flow state is: it’s what you were in that time you looked up and said “Wait…what time is it? How long was I doing that?” We go into flow states when we’re doing something so absorbing that it occupies all of our attention, and we forget to check the time or listen to the little mice in their blender jars (if that metaphor confuses you, you need to read further back in this blog!).

And meaning is, of course, relative, but it is necessary. It is the purpose, the desired result of your actions. Perhaps the meaning you need is to make your boss rich. Perhaps it’s to improve your own skill at something. Perhaps it’s to put food on your table. Whatever it is, when we’re doing something, we have to feel that there is a point to it, or we’re not going to be doing it very long.

But that’s not what I – or Chris, on the Secret Show – wanted to talk about.

Practical Practice

I can’t talk much more about the book because I haven’t finished it yet, but what Chris brings up was much more interesting to me. He points out:

“You need states outside of pleasure, flow, and meaning, as well. You need “now.” You need the state of “doing.”

The state of “doing” is actually performing the actions necessary to achieve those other three states. Like him, I feel this can be an often-overlooked step in the process of trying to live a more fulfilling life. You find something that you don’t like doing – that doesn’t bring you pleasure – and suddenly you’ve got the perfect rationalization to put it off or not do it entirely. Or , as Chris put it:

Flow is great because that’s when you’re doing the work that feels like the best work, but if you’re not doing the work that pays the bills, or the work that supports the states of flow, then there’s no likelihood that you’ll get where you need to go.

He brings up other examples, using the valuable lesson of the oxygen mask as a metaphor: you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others, no matter how “meaningful” your self-sacrifice may feel.

Boring Is As Boring Does

Let’s say you’ve been engaged in the flow of cooking a brilliant meal for your family, and you’re basking in the pleasure of gustatory delight, that happy buzz as your brain re-engages the world, and the satisfaction of providing nourishment for those you care about.

Then you realize: there’s a huge stack of dishes.

The shallow end of the reasoning process is: I don’t like doing dishes. Therefore, the proper spiritual practice would be to not do them, as that would not provide me pleasure, flow, or meaning!

Chris’ comment takes us a bit deeper, saying that we put the dishes into that state of “doing” that enables us to enjoy the triple pleasures of meal creation and consumption again at another time without odor or botulism to detract from the experience.

I would like to take it a step further: I don’t think you have to resign yourself to being bored doing the dishes. Instead, turn the act of doing dishes into a meaningful experience. I know whereof I speak; I’ve worked many a back kitchen as a dishwasher, and there can certainly be a flow in gracefully transforming the surfaces from soiled to pristine. You can make beautiful amazing music as you sing (with or, if you’re brave, without an ipod). Make it a community experience, with the many hands that ate the food making light work of the dishes. Or take the time to invite one intimate person with you, and turn the task of doing the dishes into a shared moment of personal attention.

See what I mean? Practice doing, but don’t just make it “getting to done.” The journey matters regardless of the destination. So next time you’re bored…take a look around at what you might be missing.

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