This summer the Monterey Pop Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary. There was great music and much reminiscing about the performances of the original 1967 lineup featuring among others: Jefferson Airplane, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin), Eric Burdon and the Animals, Otis Redding, Simon & Garfunkel, The Mammas & The Pappas, and Steve Miller Band. But the talk of the three-day event in ’67 was the astonishing performance by Jimi Hendrix, fresh from touring in England, who was invited to appear after the organizers received a recommendation from the Beatles.
The venerable Rolling Stone called Jimi Hendrix the greatest guitarist of all time. In 2004/2005 they devoted two issues to their “100 Greatest Artists” list. Jimi Hendrix was designated #6, just behind Chuck Berry (5), The Rolling Stones (4), Elvis Presley (3), Bob Dylan (2), and The Beatles (1). The Experience Music Project, a $100 Million high-tech, interactive rock & roll museum, including a Jimi Hendrix Gallery, opened in 2000 in Seattle after receiving initial funding from Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. In 2013 PBS debuted Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’ as part of its American Masters series. Not bad for a musician whose mainstream career spanned a scant four years, until his death in 1970 at the age of 27 from an accidental overdose of barbiturates.
Hear My Train A Comin’
The PBS special about Jimi Hendrix featured interviews with those who knew him best from his childhood, to his days in the army as a paratrooper, to his touring with back-up bands on the Chitlin’ Circuit, through his move to England first as a solo act and then with The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and on to his breakout performance at the Monterey Pop Festival followed by Woodstock barely a year before his death.
Their portraits of Hendrix were understandably varied, but they agreed on three key points:
- When he was making music, on stage or off, Hendrix was creative, confident, and in complete control. When he wasn’t making music Hendrix was painfully shy and unsure of himself.
- He was rarely seen anywhere without his guitar.
- He played the guitar constantly…not only on stage or in the studio or while composing but also in the midst of even the most mundane daily activities such as having breakfast…he lived to play his guitar.
During a talk show interview he fielded the inevitable questions about fame, fortune, and his meteoric rise to worldwide notoriety. The essence of his replies amounted to: That stuff’s not important. I do it for the music. That is to say, he was doing it simply for the sake of doing it. That is what enabled this shy, reticent person to create sounds, styles, and performances never before heard or seen, and remain an inspiration to the generations of musicians who followed him.
“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high) is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is the former head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. He has been described as the world’s leading researcher on positive psychology. However, he best known for his notion of “flow” and his years of research, writing, and speaking on this subject.
In an interview with Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi described flow as “…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
In achieving a state of flow (A1, A4) the challenge of the task and the degree of skill of the person performing the task must be balanced and must be at a suitably high level. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur, and the result is boredom (A2) or anxiety (A3) respectively. If the challenge and the skill are both low and matched the result is boredom (A2).
By “optimal experience” Csikszentmihalyi is referring to instances of our feeling “…a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment, which we cherish for long and that becomes a landmark in our lives.” Optimal experiences typically are not passive, relaxing events. To the contrary, they most often occur while we are voluntarily pressing to our limits in pursuing a valued objective that is difficult to achieve.
A Path To Achieving A State Of Flow
The ability to achieve a state of flow is something that can be learned and ultimately internalized to the point it is an automatic or default mode response pattern when you encounter challenges. According to Csikszentmihalyi, you are most likely to experience a flow-state if:
- you encounter (or choose) a task you have a reasonable likelihood of completing,
- you are able to concentrate on what needs to be done,
- the task has clear goals,
- performing the task yields immediate feedback concerning progress/results,
- you act with a deep and effortless involvement that removes your attention from the concerns of everyday life,
- you experience a sense of control over your actions while performing the task,
- your self-concern disappears while you are engaged in performing the task,
- you have an altered sense of the duration of time while you are engaged, e.g., hours seem to pass in minutes, and you could be lost for hours in what seems like minutes.
You make choices about the first five elements. The next three elements will emerge as a result.
From Flow To Aha!
In The Organized Mind Daniel Levitin describes the neuroscience behind the typical mental pattern most of us follow in pursuing an insight to the resolution of a material problem.
- We focus all of the attention we can command on the problem as it appears or as we understand it, engaging the left-hemisphere of our brain (left prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate),
- we exhaust ourselves or choose to relax, and networks in our right-hemisphere take over,
- neurons in the right-hemisphere are better able to assemble information from a larger area that neurons in the left-hemisphere, thus right-hemisphere neurons are more likely to deliver the insight we seek,
- about second before the insight is realized, a burst of gamma wave occurs, binding together disparate neural networks, resulting in heretofore unrelated thoughts being recognized as a coherent new whole, i.e., the hoped for insight.
Neuroscientific research has established that flow-states activate the same left hemisphere regions described above. Also, the relaxed nature of a flow-state is conducive to engaging the right-hemisphere, as referenced in the second bullet point above. Achieving flow is a means of enhancing or accelerating the Immersion, Diversion, Incubation, Illumination process in our posting Not All Wandering Minds Are Lost, which tracks closely to Levitin’s description above.
Thus, achieving flow can be a path to your Aha!
- the connection that has always been there but heretofore unseen,
- the expression so unfamiliar it challenges us to reach beyond our grasp to find the distant connection that renders it meaningful,
- the surprise that transforms possibility into opportunity,
- the discovery so succinct, so fundamental, and so obvious in an instant after its articulation it elicits a lively “Of course…!”