My past three posts constituted an overview of what has been my primary personal relationship with formal meditation. For the majority of the two and half decades I’ve spent practicing meditation I have stuck to the traditional and prescribed approach. Yet, along the way I’ve been exposed to and dabbled in other methods for entering altered states of consciousness. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I took much interest in them, my focus being on the deep dive into the Buddhist paradigm of mind training.
I first encountered the concept of flow through one of the advanced doctoral students in Wisconsin who was acting as a mentor for me while I went through the master’s program in mental health counseling. He was excited about the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who is credited with applying the term flow, and the idea of helping clients increase their experience of flow for promoting mental wellbeing.
Here is a description of what is meant by flow that I lifted from positivepsychology.com:
Psychological Flow captures the positive mental state of being completely absorbed, focused, and involved in your activities at a certain point in time, as well as deriving enjoyment from being engaged in that activity. Perhaps the Flow state, colloquially termed being ‘in the zone’, is best described by one of the participants interviewed in the earliest stages of ‘Flow research’ (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, 1988: 195):
“My mind isn’t wandering. I am not thinking of something else. I am totally involved in what I am doing. My body feels good. I don’t seem to hear anything. The world seems to be cut off from me. I am less aware of myself and my problems.”
At the time I thought, “that’s nice”, but I’m more interested in transforming the way I experience the world through how I conceptualize my place and purpose, how I respond to challenges in my personal relationships and so on. I looked at flow as a concept that revolved around an entirely hedonistic view of the world in which the route to happiness was in maximizing how much time you spent having fun rather than minimizing how much the challenges, losses, and traumas of life left you overwhelmed or out of control.
The recent revival in interest on the part of academic psychology and psychiatry in using psychedelics for treating mental health disorders has been a big catalyst driving me to challenge my assumptions about the superiority of Buddhist meditation for personal growth. Flow has nothing to do with psychedelics per say, but that movement begs a return to thinking about why and how altering our consciousness changes us. Basically, if these substances can actually heal a mental health disorder like post-traumatic stress or preoccupation with suicide, there must be something going on with altered states that I haven’t been paying attention to. It’s probably worth pointing out here, that even the hard core medical researchers are not claiming that psychedelics themselves are doing the healing directly, but that the states of consciousness that they afford, allow us to reconfigure our self and world conceptions in such a way as to heal.
Like being under the influence of psychedelics, the altered state of flow has the potential to support profound changes in how we do all the things that I had ascribed to Buddhist meditation by putting us into a place where we challenge our assumptions about ourselves and the world around us. Flow also brings a level of motivation and energy to our lives that helps support doing the hard work of personal growth.
I encourage my readers to explore this concept more fully by tuning into some recent work by Steven Kottler, author of Becoming Superman (among other works), which chronicles the research on flow and how to bring more of it into your life, and then co-authoring Stealing Fire along with Jamie Wheal which takes a high level view of the impact of how altered states of consciousness, particularly but not limited to flow at the group/social level can be used to address some of the biggest problems facing the world today.
I warn you, if you haven’t encountered these folks, be prepared for spending a long time in the YouTube rabbit hole, they’ve got a big presence in the social media blog/vlog world and are very stimulating to list