All Commentary
Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Freedom and Flow

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
—Lao Tzu
The tree is a symbol of life across cultures. In Buddhism the tree of life is the universe itself. “It is rooted in the supporting darkness,” writes Joseph Campbell, “the golden sun bird perches on its peak; a spring, the inexhaustible well, bubbles at its foot.”
The tree is more than symbolic. From trees we get oxygen, which we take into our bodies from one moment to the next, breath by breath. Our lungs, too, have trunks and branches. Our vascular systems carry oxygen to cells. Like the trees, we are alive. And when we exhale we return the favor. Everything that lives flows.

But as human beings, we are more than just alive. We are seekers and strivers. We too need to flow. So we develop human flow systems—economies, societies, and communities. And in a way these also live and die. It turns out that flow—quite literally—is the essence of life. 

Our human flow systems evolve just like vascular systems. These systems, teeming with seekers and strivers, function neither according to “fairness” nor according to the plans of elites. They function according to flow. And flow systems are nature’s design, with each of us on a kind of heroic quest within a current of others on similar journeys.

How does the hero’s quest culminate? Campbell writes,

The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world. The miracle of this flow may be represented in physical terms as a circulation of food substance, dynamically as a streaming of energy, or spiritually as a manifestation of grace.

Toward what exactly are we flowing? 

There are billions of answers to this question, perhaps, but each seeker and striver is not just an errant atom on a search for something elusive. We’re in this together. We are creatures of community. Notwithstanding the misguided statism of so-called “communitarians,” freedom is essential for community. And community, like economy and the rule of law, provides the channels of human flow.

If we’re always on that quest, fulfillment has to be found on the way, too. We’re not just flowing toward something, but we’re also always in the process of flowing—that is, becoming, doing, and being. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulated one of the keys to an individual’s happiness, which he calls “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi says “a good life consists of more than simply the totality of enjoyable experiences. It must also have a meaningful pattern, a trajectory of growth that results in the development of increasing emotional, cognitive, and social complexity.”

And the individual’s state of flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is

a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear clues as to how one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.
This is how it’s possible for free people to both live to work and work to live without always dreading Monday. 
So what’s the first step on our quest? I can’t resist one more quote from Csikszentmihalyi:
To know oneself is the first step toward making flow a part of one's entire life. But just as there is no free lunch in the material economy, nothing comes free in the psychic one. If one is not willing to invest psychic energy in the internal reality of consciousness, and instead squanders it in chasing external rewards, one loses mastery of one's life, and ends up becoming a puppet of circumstances.
This is how we can participate in the creation of something larger than ourselves, the realization of which may occur in the future. This is how we find happiness in that great flowering of our existence.
With an understanding of flow—both in the sense of the world around us and in the sense of the self right now—we will come to see that freedom and flow are two branches of the same beautiful tree. 


Zachary Caceres says the emergent order within and around us—and the fact that wholes are frequently more than the sums of their parts—is evidence of the fundamentally creative nature of the universe. 
A clenched fist is effective for coercing, restraining, and penalizing others. But it cannot create, Gary Galles explains. 
Cultures evolve in a process of entrepreneurial discovery. State interference, says Mike Reid, often has tragic results.
Bitcoin is a revolutionary example of entrepreneurial awareness solving the problems caused by the State. Jeffrey Tucker is cashing in. 

Do we in fact have the right to be left alone? The philosopher and the lawyer may have different answers to that question. But in day-to-day affairs, says Karl Borden, the lawyer's answer determines our practical independence.

A favorite bourbon reminds Lenore Ealy of the vast realm of human activity that does not always fit neatly into economic analysis.

In order to tell if a transition to democracy is a good option for any country, says Brad Taylor, we first need an unbiased understanding of democracy that takes note of its possible failures. 

Wendy McElroy explains why bad laws, and not potential employers, should be the focus of equal-opportunity lawsuits.

Our columnists have been in the flow this month. Sarah Skwire explores how poetry explains the interplay between rules and experiment; Lawrence Reed recalls a Treasury secretary we should treasure; Sandy Ikeda says the freedom to attain spectacular successes requires some tolerance for failure; Andrew Heaton doesn’t think everyone should be forced to pay artists so they can quit their day jobs; and Michael Nolan explains that Flight prescribes something considerably more questionable than a little hair of the dog.

—The Editors

  • The Freeman is the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education and one of the oldest and most respected journals of liberty in America. For more than 50 years it has uncompromisingly defended the ideals of the free society.