When presented with the task of learning a new skill for the very first time, it is likely that we will need to take aspects of it slowly, or reduce the variables in order to find the most efficient path. Analysing the best approach and discarding what is unnecessary determines a way forward, building a foundation for practice and repetition. These early stages of observation and ‘pruning’ are important, as we look to reduce effort in order to gather focus.
At its highest level of mastery, this focussed state has been the practice of Indigenous peoples and Eastern spiritualities for thousands of years, presented in the West scientifically, through the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the late 20th century. In his work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly described ‘flow state’ in systematic detail, suggesting there were nine fundamentals that contributed to this ‘highly focused mental state’.
Observing that people seemed to be at their happiest when they were ‘intrinsically motivated’, Mihaly also noted that individuals in this state were deeply immersed into a ‘great absorption’; oblivious to all else. Such high levels of concentration were one of the contributing factors to this flow state, which included challenge to skill balance, the paradox of control, time transformed, loss of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and clear feedback and finally the autotelic experience. These fundamentals not only contributed to a state of flow, they appeared to determine an individuals ‘optimal experience’; in parallel with what we might also consider ‘mastery’.
These factors of flow state have been applied and investigated across diverse fields; not only including peak performance based areas such as professional sports or the performing arts for example, but also more directly within neuroscience. In his six-part series The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman gave an example of ‘flow state’ working together with world record holder Austin Neber.
Providing images through an EEG, Eagleman was able to demonstrate two different neurological states (his brain and that of Austin’s) performing a task that required the same set of skills. Holding the world record for cup-stacking, Austin had originally practiced for about three or four hours each day when he began to coordinate the cups. At that time his fastest stack was two and a half minutes. Approximately two years later, through practice, he had reduced that time to five seconds. From observation, the speed and complexity with which Austin needed to complete the cycle suggested that he would be experiencing a certain amount of pressure, and that his brain was surely working overtime. However, the picture of his brain during the task was ‘rest-like’, holding a quiet glow, without any sign of pressure or heightened activity. In contrast, as Eagleman cycled through the cups as a novice, his brain certainly did light up, in order to begin the initial steps of mastering the skill and ‘orchestrating the changes across the vast seas of the brain’. Despite his age, life experience of many other skills, pre-knowledge of the task involved, a high level of education in his chosen field etc, Eagleman’s brain still needed to work through the process as Austin had, in order to eventuate ‘optimal experience’ (Mihaly).
Mastery is not just for a chosen few. Starting where we are with what we have, and keeping the challenge within measure of our present skill level (Mihaly), it is possible to encourage our artistic passions, or surely any endeavours of which we are passionate, to great heights of skill.
It is the small actions, taken with awareness, that make the pathway forward. The merging of action and awareness (Mihaly) is the ideal point from which to practice, as development can not take place through repetition alone. What is needed in addition to the movement is a watchful inner eye, a certain vitality, at each moment. In Martha Graham’s words: ‘All that is important in movement is the single moment…make the moment important, vital, and worth living. Dont let it slip away unnoticed and unused’. Moving incrementally, maintaining balance within each moment, we ‘carve the skill into the structure of our neurons’ (Eagleman, 2016)
In the end, perhaps mastery is more about that intense vitality and the serenity of the optimal experience than it is about perfection. Maybe Salavador Dali’s dry observation: ‘have no fear of perfection, youll never reach it anyway’ said it best or at least offered a certain antidote to the potential paralysis that the quest for perfection brings. It is likely that perfection is an illusion after all, as even the most skilled dont claim the finish line, but are motivated to frequently adjust (albeit subtly) an aspect of their artistry. Picasso insisted that he continued to ‘do that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it’, despite his status as pioneer and one of the most extraordinary artists of the 20th century. That kind of perspective brings the freedom to break down limitations, making room for failure, flaws, the crooked, the vulnerable, the unshapely, the unknown, the disaster; the creative chaos. Within the chaos is fertility (Nin), and despite the paradox, it could be the very place where we ‘give birth to a dancing star’ (Neitzche).