The watchers

A flaneur is a person who walks through a city observing life rather than partaking of it, and I think to some degree all writers and indeed artists in general are flaneurs. We do seem to be a little separate from others, watching without joining in. Even when we do join in there is part of us that is always watching.

I don’t know if other people feel that way or if they are entirely immersed in the experience in ways I don’t understand. That feeling of being fully immersed only comes to me when I’m working alone—the flow state where ego is lost and you have no real awareness of yourself.

I used to feel this flow state when I was practicing martial arts, but rarely when I was actively engaged with another martial artist. For example, I would feel flow when I was practicing forms by myself but not when I was sparring with someone else.

I could often go into a state of focused concentration so that I could anticipate what my sparring partner would do next, but I never blocked out the outside world in these matches. I was always aware of the teacher or the referee, I always knew where the ring was even if it was just taped lines on the ground. I could tune out noises from the crowd since I didn’t need to hear them but it wasn’t the same loss of self that I think of as making up flow.

When I am engaged with other people there is always a very strong component of observation occurring. Even when I’m laughing, I’m aware that I’m laughing. I suspect other people can experience flow in just such a situation—my daughter, who is very extroverted, seems to experience flow in her interactions with others.

But while I think it would be nice to experience flow with others, I also value the observation. I don’t think standing on the sidelines is such an awful place to be. After all, you can see the whole playing field from there, and watch everything that’s happening. As my own experience in martial arts has taught me, when I am intensely focused (whether this is a flow state or not) I am not seeing or hearing or experiencing anything other than what is right in front of me. That’s a very limited view of life.

If life is a martial arts tournament, there’s a lot more to it than just the match I’m currently trying to win. But only people on the sidelines can understand what the whole of the tournament is.