“Knowing oneself is not so much a question of discovering what is present in one’s self,
but rather the creation of who one wants to be.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Simply stated, because inner workings of flow are actually the active ingredients that spawn the feeling of unity. Across the board, people have reported the feeling of unity through different stories and narration.
By pulling all the testimonials together and running a background concept check, one comes to inevitable conclusion: if we want to achieve unity of humanity, we must achieve feeling of unity within the individual. And that is exactly what flow does ... create a feeling of intra-interpersonal (universal) unity and inner contentment in an individual.
“Unity,” Newberg explains, “is the feeling of being one with everything. It’s a foundational notion in pretty much every religious tradition. There are thousands of depictions of the experience. And if you read through them, you’ll find that people often describe unity as more ‘fundamentally real’ than anything else they’ve ever experienced. More real than reality.
“It’s an efficiency exchange,” he explains. “During ecstatic prayer or meditation, energy normally used for drawing the boundary of self gets reallocated for attention. When this happens, we can no longer distinguish self from other. At that moment, as far as the brain can tell, you are one with everything.”
Consider that most paradigms have lengthy recipes for encountering the altered states. Hundreds of ingredients: what to eat, what to wear, whom to marry, how to act, what to believe, and, of course, what kind of spiritual practices to perform. But out of that entire list, there’s only a fraction of “active ingredients” that reliably impact brain function and alter consciousness.
In finding biology beneath spirituality, Newberg helped bridge the gap between science and religion. For the first time, mystical experiences were understood not as a symptom of mental illness or divine intervention, but rather as the by-product of normal brain function.
Almost overnight, an area once off-limits to researchers opened for exploration. It was the birth of the field known as neurotheology—the application of the tools of modern brain science to the study of religious experience. And unity is only the first in a long series of those experiences that researchers have now decoded.
Neurotheology lets us validate which ingredients actually make a difference. In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other.
Certainly, atheists have used the fact that there’s neuronal function beneath mystical experience to claim that spirituality is merely a trick of the brain. But neurotheology takes a faith-neutral position. All this work proves is that these experiences are biologically mediated. If you’re a believer, it offers a deeper understanding of divine methods. If you’re a nonbeliever, it provides another consciousness-altering tool upon which to draw.
Flow - the most desirable state you want to be in
We can trace our origins and the molecules in our body back to the stars in which they were created and see that we are all connected. Over billions of years, these molecules configured themselves into complex units that we call human beings.
These units are like cells in the body of humanity, wired to evolve and move it forward. This is why we have a deep desire to find meaning, to find an existential equilibrium.
Evolution has fundamentally programmed us so that we want our beliefs to align with reality. Flow is, in a sense, the prime directive of our consciousness. We must value it as such if we want to break free from the clutches of hollow reward mechanisms.
Evolution has put the feedback loop of experience in control of our brain and while we intuitively navigate reality with the compass of our reward system, we can change how this system operates.
This is what happens in paradigm shifts or identity crises,
the reward system shifts its dominant focus.
It’s easy to think in absurd stereotypes when we imagine a person primarily driven by flow, but for human beings, it would only be illogical to suppress emotions or disregard human needs. Instead, what is logical for humans is to act in ways that are most efficient for the benefit of ourselves and of humanity.
Part of the reasons why meditation and mindfulness practices have scientifically measureable health and psychological benefits is precisely because they somewhat disconnect us from attachments that constantly take up mental energy and generate dissonance.
They also shift the brain’s activity from its Default Mode Network to what is called the Task-Positive Network and it allows us to more easily be selfless, clear-headed and focused.
The simple act of intently putting focus on our breathing throughout the day is enough to make this happen. It creates an awareness that is often described as ‘being in the present’ or being in a state of flow, wherein rather than identifying with our thoughts, we become an observer of them and are much more inclined to follow reason over impulse.
We become more capable of adjusting our beliefs and making conscious choices that rewire our brain’s reward system. We can observe improvements in how, over the centuries, common subconscious core values have shifted away from things like superstition.
We are at a point in history, where our culture is finding common ground in simply valuing flow as the core value.
Flow - essential part of every human culture
Anthropologists have amply documented the fact that cultures differ in thousands of ways. However, most of the differences seem to concern details in the expression of fundamental underlying similarities.
The experience of flow is universal and it has been reported to occur across different classes, genders, ages, cultures and it can be experienced in many types of activities. Optimal experiences are described in the same way by men and women, by young people and old, regardless of cultural differences.
It was reported in essentially the same words by old women from Korea, by adults in Thailand and India, by teenagers in Tokyo, by Navajo shepherds, by farmers in the Italian Alps, and by workers on the assembly line in Chicago.
Plato described Flow ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence.
In their own ways, with differing languages, techniques, and applications, every one of these groups has been quietly seeking the same thing: the flow.
It has been described in many cultures in the past, including the Hindu Mahabaratas and Daoist texts in China. There is also an old saying in Japan, which appears to indicate the flow experienced while riding a horse, according to Iwata: “Anjyo hito naku, anka uma nashi.” This means riding a horse so skillfully that it appears as if man and horse have become one.
Considering these descriptions of flow gathered from all over the world, comparison of flow and its accompanying psychological phenomena across cultures may reveal both the basic universality of a central human experience, as well as the ways in which different cultural histories and experiences have resulted in emphasizing different aspects of the common experience.
Perhaps the clearest examples of what all humans share psychologically, regardless of culture, are basic emotions. What we call fear, disgust, anger, or embarrassment are present across the globe and lead to avoidant behavior. Positive states like joy, curiosity, or amusement are also universally present, and are generally sought after.
We focus on one such positive experiential state that appears to have played an important role in human evolution. It is the state in which a person becomes engaged in what he or she is doing to such an extent that all his attention becomes focused on the task and the rest of the world—with all of its problems and possibilities—no longer attracts attention.
“It felt like I was being carried by the current of a river”.
There is no attention left over to think about the past, or the future—all of the psychic resources are employed in experiencing the present. Usually after people experience this state they feel that they have lived life at its fullest, and they desire to repeat the experience again and again.
This is an experiential state that has been recognized in many cultures, has been given many names, and has been interpreted in various ways.
As soon as a person reads or hears about flow, the obvious response is: “Yes, of course. It’s something I always knew … I just did not have a name for it.”
“There were about half a dozen traits that people mentioned when describing this feeling. First, that their concentration was completely focused on what they were doing. Very few distractions entered the mind. After a while, the depth of concentration became so intense that the person felt he or she had become one with the activity; there was no longer a separation between the
person and what he/she was doing, but the two had become one.
Concerns about other aspects of life did not enter the mind; the past disappeared temporarily, and so did the future. As the person became increasingly immersed in the activity—the dancer in the dance, the thinker in his thoughts—there was less room in the mind to notice or think about anything else that was not relevant to the activity.
The awareness of time disappeared; the sense of the ego became weaker, so that the person no longer worried what others thought about him/her, or whether he/she would succeed or fail. This feeling is what we call experience of flow; and it appeared that this was such a great feeling that people would seek it out even when no other rewards or goals motivated them (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 1975/2000).”
These variations on the basic experiential theme are to be expected, and they present no particular theoretical problem, as long as the experience reported is phenomenologically equivalent across local variations.
If Korean women report the same quality of experience when reading as a Navajo shepherd reports when riding after his sheep, or Japanese teenagers report when riding in a bosozoku run, then we can reasonably assume that flow is a basic human experience that, like eating, having sex, or resting after effort, is very similar across time, place, or cultural context.
But why does such an experience exist? Why do people enjoy and cherish times when they have to use their physical or psychic resources to master a difficult challenge? After all, universal characteristics of human behavior that are enjoyable—such as eating, sex, resting—provide basic survival advantages to the species.
If our brain had not developed a connection between pleasurable sensations and the processes of feeding, procreation, and rest, the human species would have ceased to exist long ago.