Many people now refer to this as the flow state after the 1990 book Flow by University of Chicago psychologist Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi. But it doesn’t take a book or a fancy theory for you to know what I’m talking about: this is merely the sensation of being fully engrossed. Of your consciousness paying zero (or next to zero) attention to anything but the task immediately in front of you. In fact, this is the opposite of not paying attention, whether of the music in the background while cooking or of the road in front of you while driving. You are so sucked in you don’t even know it. You have been seduced. Whether its running, doing math, or reading a book, you and the thing have become one.
Unfortunately, we can’t be in the flow zone all the time. Here’s Csikszentmihaly’s roadmap to it.
It makes sense to me that the point(s) at which your level of skill meets the challenge perfectly matched for it requires your entire conscious awareness. Or rather, it consumes your conscious awareness through necessity, or maybe even than in that moment you temporarily experience complete ego-obliteration as you cease to exist and the activity ceases to exist and there is nothing but what maybe Heidegger would call “being-the-thingness.”
I mean, it could happen.
However you want to interpret it, the experience of total immersion is worth studying and momentarily focusing our attention on because it highlights a couple important concepts.
First, it’s a way to activate the undermentioned skill of metacognition, or thinking about our own thinking. Metacognition is the way by which we step outside of our normal thought processes in order to analyze them. For example, if I’m always spending money on little extravagances like eating out, going to the movies, and buying stuff that get me in trouble come rent time, then it would help me to identify the thought pattern behind that behavior: rationalizing a little purchase as not a big deal instead of seeing that all that fun adds up. And that’s only one example of the countless thought patterns in our cerebral CPUs that let us function in daily life.
Metacognition is important because it allows us to step back from our thought projects to critique and tweak them for health and productivity. Recognizing when you are or aren’t in the flow state is a way of practicing metacognition, as would be thinking about times when you’re in those other regions of the graph above. Solid metacognitive questions include: Why did I think about that in the way that I did? What logical steps did my thinking just take? Was I trying to rationalize a decision I emotionally wanted to make anyway? What are other ways of thinking about this, and why? What am I thinking right now?
No doubt you’ve asked yourself questions like this some time or another. (And now we have just become metacognitive about metacognition.) Just be careful about being metacognitive while actually in the flow state, because it’s liable to pull your attention away from the activity and snap you out of it.
Which is the second reason flow is worth recognizing (as in re-cognizing, or re-admitting to cognizance): the flow state is the optimal state for growth. You are using your skills at their highest levels by maximizing the challenge they can address. It requires every ounce of your awareness to the point that you aren’t even aware that you’re not aware of anything else (then your metacognition steps in and ruins the moment…). Point being, flow-state=growth, and on this blog we fiercely advocate continuous growth.
Wait, have you just become totally immersed in the idea of being totally immersed in something? Didja just get a little blip of egolessness there?
Maybe I’m being heady or cheeky but if you’re not into the self-referentialism let’s continue linearly to an example of flow that doesn’t take any thought and is pretty universal, and that is the idea of transcendence.
Transcendence penetrates you to your core. As with flow, there is egolessness, but it isn’t because you are lost in an activity, it’s because you’ve just been shocked into it by the immensity of the experience before you. Seeing Starry Night in person, or visiting the WWII Memorial in Washington DC, or standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon: these experiences will overpower you with the grandeur and mystery of creation (whether you want to interpret that through God or not). But we aren’t even necessarily talking about the majestic or spectacular, for transcendence can occur in a moment of seeming mundanity: an empty summer street at night, a flash of existentialism while in line at the store, that moment of silence where, unexpectedly, you notice the inextricable connectedness of every single thing. Joseph Campbell speaks of both the beautiful and the sublime, which can both take our breath away and make us experience the enormity of it all (and our relative insignificance in the soup) for different reasons:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I tell you, there’s another emotion associated with art which is not of the beautiful, but of the sublime. And what we call monsters can be seen as sublime. And they represent powers too great for the mere forms of life to survive. Prodigious expanse of space is sublime. This is a thing that the Buddhists know how to achieve in their temples. Particularly when I was in Kyoto, I was there for seven glorious months.
BILL MOYERS: In Japan.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, visiting some of the temple gardens. They are so designed that you’re experiencing something here, and then you break past a screen and a whole new horizon opens out. And somehow with the diminishment of your own ego, the consciousness expands. This is the experience of the sublime. Another experience of the sublime is not of tremendous space, but of tremendous energy and power. And I have known a couple of people who were in central Europe during the saturation bombings that were conducted over those cities, and there was the…you just have the experience of the sublime there.
BILL MOYERS: I once interviewed a veteran of the Second World War, and I was talking to him about his experience at the Battle of the Bulge, with the assault of the Germans about to succeed. And I said, “Well, as you look back on it, what was it?” And he said, “It was sublime.”
Transcendence is an experience beyond ourselves. It is the intersection of all possible eons, the weaving of all fabrics of matter. Transcendence is the experience of the everything, the mystery, the cosmos, the Divine, wrapped up in whatever neat package of physical and metaphysical phenomena that experience entails. Those phenomena are the words being used to communicate the idea: the oldest idea there is, an idea without limitation or necessity or explanation.
Transcendence is so powerful and recognized that it has its own philosophy. The old school Transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau, institutionalized these ideas into system focusing on the goodness of humanity and the harmony of nature. They valued intellect and adventure, but above all they valued direct experience, whether that be a couple of pints, a good book, an engrossing conversation, a wind-sucking hike, or a few months out in the woods.
The few times recently that I have experienced transcendence have been varied, but the two that inspired this blog come quickly to mind. The first is a movie that I saw recently, the title of which I’ll omit because I do not want your opinion of it to adulterate my point in any way, and it really doesn’t matter the movie, for any movie can be a transcendent experience if it is the proper key to fit into your person’s ethereal keyhole. Suffice it to say that this movie, like the best, contained human conflicts as old as the Earth, a varied collection of scenes that grab your chest with a warm or cold or sopping wet hand, and enough vitality and truth and mystery that it felt like it was bulging with it, like it extended into eternity before the title screen and after the ending credits.
Whew. The second experience is one I’ve mentioned earlier, one I have had often throughout my life, and that is of an empty, silent, clean, orange-lit summer street. This thing, so often covered with the hectic chaos of our obligation-driven days, becomes unburdened, unfettered, yet still so unyielding, so impenetrable, so permanent. And it’s just the two of you. It is like having a wordless conversation with a statue when the birds have flown away.
As egoless states of consciousness go, flow is more personal, individual, and local; transcendence is about enormity of scope and grandeur. If you’re interested in egolessness, there are many forms of meditation and levels of consciousness, and you can find roadmaps to those in books like The Meditative Mind by Daniel Goleman. And a last note on flow and transcendence: the gestalt is important. Without the everyday, clunky, fun-loving, attachment-obsessed, ego-driven consciousness we all know and love, we wouldn’t be able to recognize how special these alternatives are.