There are those states of deep absorption, where time disappears, where the body and its needs fade, where the mind is focused relentlessly on its task and where the whole being seems to surrender itself to the creative process. It feels natural, even unconscious, like a greater force is flowing through you. Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi , who interviewed many talented artists and athletes, named this experience ‘flow state’. This is where great ideas come from and where new neural pathways are defined. They are among the most satisfying experiences we can have.
Musicians love the flow state, and it often explains their dedication to their art. Music is a strong host to the flow. It makes more sense why when we consider the three essential elements of flow state: interest, skill and challenge. As our interest for an activity rises and so does our skill, the level of challenge must rise to meet it. Thus the regularity of flow state increases, pushing up skill levels, which need to be matched with greater degrees of challenge. As we get better, we become able to focus for longer, as long as we keep giving ourselves new challenges. If we don’t keep raising those bars, we risk to lose interest and to stop practicing altogether. Either you’re going forward, or you’re going backward, so to speak.
Since starting to practice the ancient Indian Classical vocal form called dhrupad in 2002, I have seen my capacity for full immersion and focus extend and become more regular. The periods of full focus never feel forced, or like they are driven by self- discipline. They are a reflection of my increasing levels of skill and challenge.
Classical Indian musicians are very aware of these conspiring elements of flow state. They pride themselves on periods of relentless focus and their music is notorious for its formal difficulty. The Persian Sufi poet, Amir Khusro, commented on the extreme difficulty of Indian music way back in the 12th century. Raga music works with an enormous range of modal variation (by far the richest in the world), as well as a mind boggling array of rhythmic meters. Old-school masters are highly demanding of harmonic precision and can articulate many microtonal pitch nuances. In addition, most of the music is improvised and its listeners expect to hear high levels of virtuosity. But it’s interesting to consider this level of technical challenge in terms of the relentless focus that traditional Indian musicians seek for. They sustain the rapture by constantly stepping out of their comfort zone and their skills rise with the challenge. But I wonder if the goal is really to get better, or to keep bringing on those delicious annihilations of the ego.
Let’s go back to a point that I may have glossed over: that flow states feel good. They are satisfying, cleansing and enlivening. They bring peak experience and a sense of integration. They dissolve time. They bring a sense of being carried by a greater force. They can leave us with feelings of gratitude and surrender. We are connected to source, or to ourselves. Let’s consider, for just a moment, that this is the true goal of being a musician. That getting better at what you do is merely a consequence, a mere side-effect of your love for heightened focus. In that light I can see the high technical difficulty in Indian Raga music, not so much as an ostentatious penchant for virtuosity, but as a means to harnessing the nourishing potential of those wonderful experiences we call Flow.