The Role of Flow in Self-transcendence

Written by
Steven Kotler

The Role of Flow in Self-transcendence

Written by
Steven Kotler

The Role of Flow in Self-transcendence

Written by
Steven Kotler

There was a day when for the first time during surfing, I paddled fast, angling toward the wave, stroked and stood, and felt the board accelerate and pumped once and into my bottom turn - and then the world vanished.


There was no self, no other.


For an instant, I didn't know where I ended and the wave began.


This was an instant beyond the redemption I had hoped to find.


Surfing is a game of such instants.


The Japanese use the word aware to mean "transitory beauty," describing things that are staggeringly impactful and simultaneously vanishing.


There are dozens of surf terms that all fail at capturing this moment.


Longboarders, especially older ones, use the glide to mean "the psychotropic effect of nose-riding."


Tube hunters speak of being in the green room, which technically connotes the inside of a barrel, but truthfully refers to the feeling of being utterly, finally, fleetingly, awake.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a former University of Chicago psychologist and department chairman has made a career out of studying such instants.


In research, he found they exist not only in surfing or solely in athletics, but also in activities as wide-ranging as painting and chess playing, and heart surgery.


To describe such moments, athletes often use the term in the zone, while psychologists prefer a flow state.


Csikszentmihalyi defines this state as "being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter: 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."


He has found that the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.


When people are entrenched in such a state, as Csikszentmihalyi points out in his book Flow, "they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing."


In other words, time and space vanish, self vanishes and the Now swallows us whole.


If this sounds similar to the phrasing often used to describe so-called spiritual experiences that are not without reason.


In the years since Csikszentmihalyi did his research, scientists looking further into flow states and their relationship to spirituality have begun utilizing more advanced personality profiles like the Temperament and Character Inventory created by Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at the University of Washington.


Cloninger's TCI is one of the most widely respected and often utilized personality profiles, designed to consider not simply the psychological factors of personality but social, environmental, biological, and neurochemical components as well.


It comes with personality profiling with mathematical rigor that had long been missing from traditional psychological testing.


The TCI was also one of the first personality profiles to measure a trait known as self-transcendence. The term is used to describe spiritual feelings that are independent of traditional religiosity.


Self-transcendence is composed of three distinct but related components.


The first two components are known as transpersonal identification and mysticism, with transpersonal identification being a form of empathy writ large.


It's a willingness to identify not just with fellow humans but with plants and animals and even the planet itself.


Mysticism is pretty much what it sounds like: a measure of one's willingness to be interested in things that cannot be explained by rationale and reason.


The third component, and possibly the most important, is known as self-forgetfulness.


Those of us who are more self-forgetful have an easier time getting lost in the moment, being absorbed in art and music and sport, in achieving Csikszentmihalyi's flow state.


So, flow states are not just at the heart of much of human performance - but also a crucial component of our self-transcendence.

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