Extensive training, extraordinary skill, intense discipline, good health, good rest, good diet. These are the pre-conditions that make that rare event possible for the best athletes: being “in the zone.”
In the 1970’s, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi developed a psychological description of what he called “flow state” describing an experience of being fully immersed in an activity while also being expansively conscious. Csíkszentmihályi called out eight characteristic descriptors of this state:
- Clear goals and feedback;
- A balance between skill and the challenge;
- Pure concentration on the task;
- Perfect merging between action and awareness;
- Loss of self-consciousness (but not self-awareness);
- Altered sense of time;
- A self-rewarding (autotelic) experience;
- Sense of potential control.
For the athlete, this expands into a full-body awareness in which experiences of pain and fatigue fall away. For the artist, this becomes a complete flow as the creative process overtakes ordinary human awareness. For a major intellectual undertaking, the mind expands to hold the whole of a vast cognitive structure and all its variations simultaneously.
But even for the most skilled and disciplined individuals, the zone is an elusive state.
“It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.” — Bill Russell of the Celtics, Second Wind
There is a particular liberation in the zone: a liberation from any mental limitation. We are so fully engaged with the reality of the moment that we penetrate the full scope of what is possible without the overhead of all the mental analysis that breaks ‘what is’ down into what might be, what can’t be, what should be, what should not happen. By direct perception of ‘what is,’ and a completely alive, conscious, apprehension of our fully engaged, fully connected experience as participant in this undifferentiated whole of ‘what is,’ we become (for a little while) free of the cognitive noise. We live through an integrated whole of our fluid participation in the flow of reality.
And then, at some point, we drop out of the zone.
We return to an experience in which we are one separate, labeled thing in a world of carefully categorized things. We return to our mental process of tracking the relationships between things, and breaking the undifferentiated flow down into concrete events all with causes and consequences.
One of the interesting things to note about this is that being in the zone is inherently easeful. We have more energy, less fatigue, more presence, less pain. It is generally a joyful, or at least profoundly satisfying, way of experiencing being alive. Our ordinary, cognitively-mediated experience, however, can involve quite a lot of suffering. It is exhausting. The aches and pains of our body and the disappointments of our un-met expectations draw our attention again and again.
Why is this flow-state so elusive? Once experienced, why would we ever leave?
Long-distance runner Christopher Bergland calls it “superfluidity” and describes it thusly:
“It is a state of performing with zero friction, zero viscosity, and superconductivity — it is a state of absolute harmony and endless energy. Superfluidity is to fluid performance as orgasm is to coitus — it is an episodic and ecstatic climax that strikes you like a lightning bolt when you are in a state of Flow.”
As experienced by athletes and artists the zone is specifically tied to a task. Csíkszentmihályi’s analysis makes this explicit in the first three descriptors: goals, task, challenge.
The task is complete, the goals achieved, the challenge met — and we fall out of flow state.
Extra-ordinary effort where discipline, focus, and skill meet a just-right challenge can, under the right conditions, induce this flow state. But that is not the only way!
The connection between “the zone” and spiritual practice has not gone unnoticed. From wikipedia (Flow, quoted May 23, 2018):
“For millennia, practitioners of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and later in Sufism have honed the discipline of overcoming the duality of self and object as a central feature of spiritual development. Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories around overcoming duality of self and object, tested and refined through spiritual practice instead of the systematic rigor and controls of modern science.”
We want our spiritual mysticism, of course. But this story gets relegated to similar scenarios of super-human discipline. Ascetics living on nothing but water and berries for decades in remote mountains. Monks chanting mantras or singing mass for years on end, living in celibacy, devoting all energies to prayer and austerity.
But what if you could discover flow state in everyday life?
Let’s face it, when you are running a world-class marathon, you are undertaking an immense personal achievement. When you are shopping for broccoli, you are not. “The zone” makes a certain kind of sense in the context of a monumental human undertaking. We can readily comprehend this story of mystical breakthroughs on the route to athletic, artistic, spiritual, or intellectual accomplishment. But abiding in this seemingly miraculous state while navigating the ordinary? How could that possibly work?
One thing the wikipedia authors quoted above do not detail is that there is a common thread between the religious traditions mentioned: a practice known as Tantra.
And Tantra, unlike all our common wisdom of the zone, does not tie flow state to the rarefied experience of a major undertaking. It invites ‘awakening’ into the everyday life as lived by the rest of us.
Tantra emerged from ancient folk religions of the Kashmir valley, drew on the best teachings of Buddhism, the religions we now call Hinduism (most notably the Shaivism tradition), as well as from Taoism, Jainism, and possibly some western influences as well. It fed back to those religions and also seems to have been a significant contributor to Sufism. Tantra was a “weaving” — a synthesis of effective practices and coherent teachings. It was a reform movement, opening religious practices to those outside the monasteries and the upper castes. And Tantra focussed, more than anything, on finding “the zone.”
How Does it Work?
The essence of Tantric practice is deceptively simple, and a complete opposite to the goal-oriented dynamics inherent in Csíkszentmihályi’s study: it is a radical letting-go of all goals. Through hundreds, even thousands, of variations of practices that invite a union of mind, body, emotions, sensory perception, and spiritual experience, Tantra opens us to the “expansive immersion” that those who have experienced the zone describe.
It sounds straightforward: release all expectations and judgements, shift into the place of perfect or pure consciousness, drop all outcome-oriented life approaches, and fully experience the present moment. But this requires an equal (if very differently employed) discipline as any other major undertaking in life.
Historically, Tantra was sometimes referred to as the “fast path” — but this should be understood in the context of a culture that traditionally considered the spiritual journey to be one that spanned hundreds or thousands of reincarnations. Tantra offered “awakening” to abiding experience of flow-state in this life.
Much like the great athlete, the Tantric practitioner requires dedication, discipline, and training. The difference is, we are training not for a particular athletic skill but for all of life itself. We are not seeking to win a competition, a game, overcome a challenge, create a great work of art — we are seeking to become fully alive in each and every moment of the most mundane reality.
The Zone and Sexual Experience
Bergman (the runner) has already noted the connection between flow state and sexuality. So did Tantra. Although historically, sexuality did not have quite the dominant role it has in what most people consider Tantra today, the connection has always been present.
In classical Tantra, there are many dimensions of spiritual practice within which sexuality plays a role. But the reason it has become so popular in contemporary, western adaptations of Tantra is that Western spirituality has no established tradition of sacred sexuality or sexual mysticism.
This presents a little bit of a conundrum. Much of what is called Tantra aims not at spiritual liberation or flow-state experiences, but rather to a very western “sanctification” of sexuality; deeper intimacy in relationship; healing sexual dysfunction, sexual trauma, or relationship trauma; or else it simply chases after peak sexual experiences.
Even in classical Tantra, none of these would be considered problematic, per se. Tantra is a system that emphasizes the perfection of what is, and living without judgement. So, taking the tools of Tantra and using them for self-improvement is, in fact, a perfectly Tantric thing to do. It just misses out on the potential of what the tools offer.
And, in fact, sexuality provides a superb lens through which to examine — and ultimately release — the mental patterns that lock us out of the zone. You probably already know this: when we are worried about pleasing our partner, or somehow failing to live up to our partner’s (or our own) expectations, sex becomes a head-game, and not at all fun. When inhibitions and shame leave us afraid of or even disgusted by our own desires, our sexuality can seem like a curse. When too much porn trains us to an audio/visual, two-dimensional experience of sex, separated from our bodies, pleasure is elusive. But when high on the cocktail of mutual infatuation, somehow all of that can fall away for a little while, and sex can dissolve our very sense of self; we can merge with the beloved in an almost mystical way, open to the awareness that all the world loves with our love.
What if that ego-less merging of self was not restricted to rare moments of enhanced brain chemistry? What if discovering your full freedom as a sexual being could be a template for discovering our freedom in all aspects of our life? What if those ephemeral experiences of genuine flow-state could expand out beyond the bedroom and into the highs, lows, and doldrums of everyday existence?
This is the true promise of that is often called “Tantric Sex.”
I Want This — Now What?
As with most other great challenges, this doesn’t come out of a book. Michael Jordan didn’t read a book on basketball. Picasso didn’t do a mail-order course on painting.
It turns out these practices cannot be effectively (or safely) taught in an article on the internet, or even in a comprehensive book. The ‘scriptures’ of classical Tantra were written in what is called ‘twilight language’ — intentionally cryptic. The poetry of these works was designed to reinforce for the student what has been learned in person, without exposing the casual reader to practices they may not be ready for.
Undertaking even ordinary challenges without proper training and supervision can be risky. You don’t run a marathon without training. Doing the most challenging yoga poses without professional instruction and oversight can be a recipe for injury. If untrained athletic effort is physically risky, unsupervised spiritual work is psychologically risky. When we undertake the process of escaping the entrapments of mind and ego, we create the circumstances for mental and emotional instability.
(Of course, if all you want is a better sex life, the books on sexual tantra are fairly safe… but don’t forget they came from a tradition described as the “path of great risk.”)
Despite the many books on Tantra, both from ancient times and contemporary how-to manuals, true liberation into flow state is discovered through personal experience. And for the vast majority of people this involves finding a teacher or community.
The awakening, whether gradual or sudden, requires application of the right tools in the right sequence, which is a uniquely personal process. A carefully offered correction, sometimes seemingly very minor, can make all the difference between years of diligent effort and sudden, surprising insight.
Existing in flow state without dissolving entirely is as much art as science, and having someone able to bring you back to center when awareness expands beyond all ordinary reality is sometimes greatly beneficial.
The good news is, when undertaken in a serious and diligent way with an experienced and responsible teacher, Tantra is surely one of the most fun ways of finding persistent flow-state awareness. And once we can abide in the zone for extended periods of time, everything gets more interesting. Navigating rush hour traffic? No problem. Negotiating with your teenage daughter? No problem. Trying to figure out whether salsa is in the ‘Hispanic’ aisle, or somewhere near the chips? Pure joy.
And… the sex…