Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece. ~ Nadia Boulanger
When I was a young boy I would spend hours and hours alone wandering through the wilderness. I lived in a beautiful countryside town, and to me the days would feel as though they were unfolding in a few brief moments.
I would become deeply absorbed in watching streams of water, observing ants go about their daily work, and collecting rocks that I felt attracted to. These were completely joyous moments where I felt in tune with all of life, and part of a divine, ecstatic connection with everything around me. It was in these moments that my individual sense of self was not present.
As I grew older I came across terms like “mystical” and “religious experiences” that seemed to describe other people who had experienced similar moments. A word I especially liked that was used by Christian mystics and that dates back to ancient Greece was “Kenosis“, which literally means “self-emptying“; where your will and “God’s will” becomes One.
In fact, the more I searched, the more I could find references to these mystical moments of self-emptying in all aspects of life.
An Athletes’ No-Mindedness
“Mushin No Shin” is a Zen Buddhists expression meaning “the mind without mind” and is referred to as the state of “no-mindness”. Well-trained Japanese martial artists simply call it “Mushin“, or, the state of mind that is necessary before entering combat. This is a state of mind that is not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion, and is thus open to everything.
In Karate they have a beautiful simile called “Mind Like Water” that is used to describe a position of perfect readiness. Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water react? It responds proportionately to the force and mass of the input – then it returns to its original calm state. It doesn’t overreact or under-react.
This experience of no-mind is not limited to Oriental athletes. In the West, we know it as “being in the zone“. World-class rower Craig Lambert does a wonderful job at describing this phenomenon in his biography:
Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax. Rowers have a word for this frictionless state: swing. . . . Recall the pure joy of riding on a backyard swing: an easy cycle of motion, the momentum coming from the swing itself. The swing carries us; we do not force it. We pump our legs to drive our arc higher, but gravity does most of the work. We are not so much swinging as being swung. The boat swings you. The shell wants to move fast: speed sings in its lines and nature. Our job is simply to work with the shell, to stop holding it back with our thrashing struggles to go faster. Trying too hard sabotages boat speed. Trying becomes striving and striving undoes itself. Social climbers strive to be aristocrats but their efforts prove them no such thing. Aristocrats do not strive; they have already arrived. Swing is a state of arrival.
Peak-Experiences: A Flow of Effortless Attending
Until psychologist Abraham Maslow published his work, the trans-personal and ecstatic states of harmonization – or interconnectedness between the self and reality- was generally thought of as a ‘supernatural’ experience, or was thought as being a mystical occurrence.
Through his work, Maslow attempted to “naturalize” these experiences as moments we are all capable of having. By incorporating them into his hierarchy of needs pyramid, Maslow knew peak-experiences were an essential element of our highest need in the pyramid: Self-Actualization.
Peak experiences are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy, mystical union and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events, and are accompanied by heightened senses of wonder, awe, or ecstasy due to a particular experience. Most of the peak experiences that occur in our world happen during athletic, artistic, religious, or nature orientated experiences. They can also happen during intimate moments with friends or family members, or during the emotional high you first feel when falling in love with someone. This too is a form of peak experience.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced six-cent-mihaly) has done more than anyone else in studying this state, which he calls “Flow“. Mihaly’s “Flow” shares many similar characteristics to Maslow’s Peak Experiences with a few exceptions. Flow is a state of mind, during which people become so involved in an activity that the world seems to fade away and nothing else seems to matter; time seems to fly by, focus becomes sharp, and people often experience a loss of self-consciousness.
Flow can happen while a person is having a peak experience, but not every experience of Flow will involve a Peak Experience. For example, you can Flow while becoming engrossed in a thrilling book or working on a passionate art project, or even while playing sport, but this type of Flow lacks the ‘ecstatic mystical union’ that comes with Kenosis, or with Peak Experiences.
To Flow is to quiet your mind and become One with the present moment, but a Peak Experiences allow you to catch a glimpse of your soul’s existence.
Cultivating a Love Affair With Life
Peak, Religious or Spiritual Experiences are impossible to convey to somebody who has never had them. To describe the spiritual, we often have to resort to metaphors, stories, imagery, archetypal descriptions and ‘sacred’ language. Regardless of this, there is a definite understanding by everybody involved in the research of these fields that there is such a thing as pure consciousness, something which we can all access when we alter our state of awareness through these various experiences.
These means of accessing pure consciousness range from spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, or nature observations, to ways that produce ecstatic and out-of-the-ordinary experiences, such as trance dancing, taking psychedelic drugs, psychological regression techniques, shamanic journeying, as well as sudden changes of perception produced by shock or Near Death Experiences.
Learning how to integrate Flow into our everyday activities doesn’t just help us with grounding ourselves in the present moment – it can also serve as a catalyst for Peak Experiences.
A few years ago while I was preparing my mentor Don Angel a cup of instant coffee, we began talking about the convenience of such an invention. In the flow of the conversation I added, “instant coffee is what’s wrong with humanity”.
There was something wrong about the preparation of the coffee, something that took away part of the charm of the experience. Life is primarily composed of mundane moments, and peak experiences are rare for most of us. If we can’t learn to enjoy and love these unexciting moments in our lives, such as the preparation of coffee, we will always live in a state of avoidance and frustration of them.
Preparing your tools to grind the coffee beans, choose the coffee, boil the water, setting the cups nicely on the table, finding the spoon and sugar, pouring the milk, running water into the kettle, and watching it exhale steam for a few seconds with patience and attention, is a perfect opportunity of developing a love affair with simply existing.
Instant coffee is only one example that embodies our insatiable need as a culture to keep on running, everywhere, nowhere, trying to find something that was inside of us all along.
Have you ever had any Peak Experiences? What activities allow you to enter the mental state of Flow most easily?