The Cosmic Flow of Traffic

The deed there is, but no doer thereof.

-- The Buddha

I learned everything I need to know about flow from a bus driver. “Flow” is a psychological term describing a state of mind in which a person is completely absorbed in the activity of the moment and is operating at peak efficiency. The term is frequently used in connection with athletes who are said to be “in the zone.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist most closely associated with the concept of flow, did his initial research by studying artists who became so immersed in their work that they forgot to eat or sleep. We usually associate the term with highly skilled individuals of some sort, but it can apply to almost anyone, even the driver of the commuter bus I took to work decades ago.

Apart from a few highly visible star performers, it is not easy to tell if someone is in the zone, because you can’t get inside their heads to see what their state of mind is. With bus drivers, it is especially difficult to tell, because the better they are at their jobs, the less noticeable their actions. The bad drivers are the ones you notice because of all their sudden stops and starts and swerves, while their defenseless passengers are flung about like dice in a cup. These drivers can’t seem to blend smoothly into the flow of traffic.

In the few years I rode the commuter bus to work, I had plenty of exposure to bad or indifferent drivers. They weren’t reckless, but neither did they drive with any sense of ease or grace. You could argue that driving in heavy rush hour traffic is hardly the most promising occasion for virtuosity behind the wheel. But I maintain this is precisely the circumstance to bring out the best in the best.

For commuters who have become inured to being flung about like dice in a cup, the most noticeable thing about a driver who is in the flow is what you don’t notice. You are no longer being jostled. I am reminded by Sherlock Holmes’ famous exchange with a police inspector in A. Conan Doyle’s detective story, “Silver Blaze.” “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" the inspector asks Holmes in a case. Holmes responds, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." The inspector replies, "The dog did nothing in the night-time." Holmes informs him: "That was the curious incident.” In the case of passengers used to being jostled on a commuter bus, it may take a while to notice the bus is now gliding through rush-hour traffic like a boat in still waters.

The drivers assigned to my bus route were rotated periodically, so you could compare skills. They drove the same route every day under varying traffic conditions, stopping periodically to take on or discharge passengers and having to insert a large vehicle smoothly into the flow of traffic. Small differences in ability could make a big difference in the smoothness of the ride. The driver who was genuinely in the flow seemed to maneuver effortlessly in traffic, maintaining a friendly banter with his passengers the whole while without removing his attention from the road.

Being in the flow requires baseline skill in whatever task you have undertaken, so you don’t have to think about what you are doing. Not thinking about what you are doing – certainly not thinking about yourself doing it – is the essence of flow. You are like an actor who brings such focus and concentration to his role that he loses himself entirely in the part. There is not even a sense of an actor apart from the action. When you are in the flow, you may have a sense that the world around you is marvelously responsive to your actions, but you can just as easily say your actions are marvelously responsive to the world around you. Think of flow as a kind of dance. “How do we know the dancer from the dance?” William Butler Yeats wrote in the final line of his poem, “Among School Children.” When the music stops, there is no longer a dance – but then neither is there anyone who can still be called a dancer. When you are out on life’s dance floor, I have found you are less likely to get your toes stepped on if you follow rather than try to lead. Then you must listen for the music.

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