May 20, 2015

Hacking Enlightenment with Flow States.


“The self expands through acts of self forgetfulness.”
~ Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

Let’s be clear, any notion of hacking enlightenment may require a radical departure from some traditionalist views regarding achieving or experiencing states as slippery as samadhi or satori.

We don’t live in an era where we’re afforded a lifetime to figure it out, anyway, so we may as well get on with it and transform ourselves and the world, already.

A good place to start is with forgetting ourselves so that we can remember our Self.

“Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha.”
~ Patanjali

In the above definition, Patanjali states that yoga is the cessation of the turnings of the mind, the silencing of the mental chatter. Insight into the true nature of reality requires discipline, patience, clarity and temporarily suspending our filter, better known as our personality and/or ego. So, only when we’ve gotten out of our own way can we find the Way.

The allure of practices like yoga, internal martial arts and meditation are that they provide a framework for turning off the constant wanderings of the mind so that we can taste the divine. In the West, particularly, this becomes a challenge when we’re bombarded with so many things competing for our attention, especially when we have mouths to feed and bills to pay.

The harsh reality for many on the path is that we’re stuck between two worlds, one that requires stillness and ease, and another that demands action and assertiveness. Sometimes it seems like our only options are to run away from it all, go off-grid and meditate in a cave, or to abandon our pursuits and plunge into the grind of modernity. For the Bodhisattva in us, neither of those seems like a viable option.

We, therefore, need some fresh perspective.

We need a shortcut to self-actualization.

The inside joke that all these seers and mystics, saints and sages, attempted to convey is that we’ve had the access all along, and simply forgot to notice. Not only that, but we also experience micro-doses of peak states all the time. Creating a shortcut is simply a matter of reorienting ourselves to the fact that humans are hard-wired for transcendence.

And now we have the science to prove it, so there’s really no excuse.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is a world-renowned psychologist who has dedicated his life to studying happiness and creativity. Throughout his years of research and interviews with people from all walks of life, he discovered that those who felt the most fulfilled are the ones who commonly experience what he terms flow.

Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel great and perform our greatest. They occur when we are in the zone, experience runner’s high, and our sense of “self vanishes, time slows down, and action and awareness merge” Sound familiar? It’s the way of wei wu wei.

In flow, a phenomenon called transient hypofrontality occurs where parts of the prefrontal cortex quiet down and the subconscious mind becomes the information processor. Additionally, a waterfall of potent chemicals —norepinephrine, dopamine, nitric oxide, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin—flood the system to create a blissful euphoria, a high like no other on the planet.

In short, flow provides fresh insight into mindfulness traditions by creating a scientific basis for peak states of consciousness.

Not until recent advances in brain imaging technology and other self-quantifying applications have researchers been able to identify and map flow in real time. Most recently, it has been conducted with extreme sports athletes like 120-foot wave surfers and snowboarders hiking Mt. Everest. These guys test the limits of their humanity by putting life and limb on the line to achieve incredible feats of athleticism, in many ways shattering paradigms of what’s thought to be possible.

All of the research proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that flow states induce near-exponential growth in human performance, meaning quantum leaps in learning, creativity, motivation, willpower, pattern recognition and lateral thinking.

But not all of us spend our free time flirting with our own demise. Since most of us don’t fall into the X-Games category, the big question (of the ages) has been, how do we translate flow into everyday living? Now that we have a modern map, how do we apply it?  Also, for the spiritual aspirant in us, how can flow states be leveraged to catalyze “enlightened” states of consciousness?

Here are some ideas:

1. Pay attention to your breath. Relaxation is the doorway to flow, and breath awareness is key to relaxation.  You don’t have to be seated on a cushion practicing pranayama (breath extension) or out for a run for this, either. Focus on your breathing when you’re walking to work, washing the dishes, making the bed, and other simple tasks that require little concentration.

2. Use your expertise as an experiment. If you have an area of mastery, chances are guaranteed that you’ve already experienced flow many times over. See how quickly you can get “in the zone” with your work or your passion, and take note. Repeat. Flow is subjective, and personal. In yoga, you have to find your own way into dhyana (meditation). The same goes with flow. What turns you on? How do you get there?

3. Challenge yourself on a regular basis. Step out of your routines. Acquire a new skill. Step into your discomfort zone. Flow occurs when you find the sweet spot between challenge and ability. If it’s too easy, you’ll get bored. If it’s too hard, you’ll become anxious and stressed. Flirt with your growth edge. Be your version of adventurous and put something on the line, and do it often.

4. Context matters. Always. Mastery of something requires intense focus and integration over a long period of time. Wisdom is gained through discipline and direct experience. Flow cuts the time to expertise in half. Literally. Choose a context, structure your life around it, and flow with it.

5. Respect the cycle. Like all things in nature, flow is cyclical. The peak states never last forever. At some point we need to come back down. Flow releases a potent alchemical cocktail of happy hormones that need to be replenished, so the body needs time to recharge. The down time is the best time for integrating our experience and committing it to long-term memory.

6. Self-quantify. View your life as a laboratory. Track your experience. Keep a journal. Utilize technology to provide instant feedback mechanisms or to simulate and streamline your experience. Document what works and what doesn’t. Take an active role in noticing the small things that create the bigger picture of your life. Tweak things. Make adjustments. Smooth out the edges and refine yourself.

Concerning enlightenment, as far as I understand, we become fully realized by cultivating and integrating peak experience through mindful right action and selfless service in contribution to others. Essentially, we embody flow and use it to create a better world, starting with ourselves and our immediate circumstances.

Most flow states last anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours. There is an exception, however, that sheds new light on divinely influential individuals like Mother Theresa and Gandhi. Altruistic flow occurs when people have peak experience in service to others, and it lasts up to a couple of days. It suggests a kind of chronic state of flow, and shows that it is scientifically possible to remain in a peak state of consciousness for extended periods of time.

In this case, the application of knowledge is power. By generating more flow in our lives, we have the ability to effect massive transformation, not only in our personal sphere, but in the wider circles of humanity that are in need of radical shifts toward wholeness and peace.

So, what’s your flow?




3 Ways to Enlightenment.


Author: Kevin Matthews

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Hartwig HKD

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