This continues from Part 6 of our discussion of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s eight “characteristic dimensions of the flow experience” outlined in his book The Evolving Self.

#6 – Loss of self-consciousness, transcendence of ego boundaries, a sense of growth and of being part of some greater entity. 

These are not conditions for flow, but rather sensations people report to have when they are in flow – the pleasant consequences of being in this state.

These are very abstract concepts which are hard to describe in direct, unambiguous terms; they are labels we put on a range of deeply personal experiences that have certain features in common. But let’s take a moment to think about how each of these might appear in our swimming flow.


Loss of Self-Consciousness

When you are so absorbed in the task in front of you, when precision requires your full attention and intention behind each movement, you don’t have any room left to care about what others near you at the pool are doing or thinking. You become completely focused on the task rather than worrying about protecting your identity.

When the pilot (you) is so focused on flying the vessel well, there is no space left for the pilot to worry about herself in abstract ways. The moment becomes only about a body trying to work as smoothly as possible with water and gravity and this material simplicity is bliss for the mind. The rest of the social cares of life can fall to the side for a while.

There is no doubt that for many of us this is therapeutic. That precious hour or so in the water is hard work but of a kind which liberates our minds from the burdens of self-consciousness waiting outside.

By creating a temporary world where one can act with total commitment, flow provides as escape from the chaos of the quotidian… it is an escape forward into higher complexity, where one hone’s one’s potential by confronting new challenges. (p.184)


Transcendence of Ego

This is a great part of what the book The Evolving Self is about.

In our swimming context I see two escape routes from the ego:

  1. by focusing on aligning parts inside the body, helping them work more smoothly together, and
  2. by focusing on aligning that body with the natural forces outside it

This works in both directions because you realize that the body you pilot is a part of the natural environment it is trying to harmonize with. By zooming in you see inner parts that need to work together and by zooming out you see how your whole body fits into the larger system it is trying to move in. 

It is not about the mind conquering the body, making it a slave. It is not about the person conquering the water. It is about the mind realizing it is the body (not a separate entity), and the mind-body realizing it is an integral part of the environment it is swimming through, co-creating the next moment and its opportunities.

I (the ego) am learning to cooperate with my body, and my body is learning to cooperate with the water. The better I do this, the better it feels, and the easier I am able to move through the water. The “I” doesn’t need to be dominant over the body and over the water, over physics, over physiology – it just needs to understand and cooperate – really, it needs to let go.

This “lack of self-awareness” is sometimes interpreted to mean that people in flow simply tune out, that they are less conscious or focused. In fact, the opposite is true. Being less aware of oneself leaves more psychic energy to concentrate on what one is doing.


A Sense Of Growth

This is where it pays off to have the kaizen perspective soaked deeply into your bones – kaizen means you practicing looking for and taking an opportunity for improvement (growth) in any situation.

As I have written about before, you can always find a way to leave the pool a better swimmer than the one who entered. Perhaps you were able to focus and improve a split time or stroke count. Perhaps you were able to focus and improve some internal quality, making some movement feel better than before. But even if you were not able to make an improvement in performance, you can always make observations of your failures, mistakes and weaknesses to gain new understanding or insight or ideas for how to make your next practice even better.

Growth can happen in terms of physical strength. It can happen in terms of awareness. It can happen in terms of perspective. It can happen in terms of character. It can happen in terms of understanding. Failures can provide growth opportunity as much (if not more than) successes can. Look for what you can learn and apply to your next attempt.

If you are aware of all the ways in which you can extract some sort of growth benefit from many kinds of hardship, then you can tap into this aspect of flow even when practice doesn’t produce good external results.

Photo by Julian Svoboda on Unsplash

Being Part Of Some Greater Entity

For this statement to make sense, or for it to be practicable, it helps to understand ‘greater entity’ as the thing one step greater than what you consider your single, limited Self to be.

If you are mostly thinking of your Self as just the mind (temporarily located in your brain), which is separate from and superior to your body, then you might find this sense of inclusion to a greater entity in exploring the mind-body connection, realizing the brain extends through the whole body through the nervous system and therefore the mind extends through the whole body. The body becomes a wise partner rather than a stupid machine to control.

If you are thinking of your Self as the mind-body, then you might find this sense of inclusion by exploring your intimate relationship to the water. Water becomes a supportive partner rather than an hostile obstacle to overcome – almost as if water was sentient.

If you are thinking of your Self as an organism in the water (like a fish) then you might find this sense of inclusion by exploring your participation as an organism within a larger ecosystem – the other swimmers in the pool, the other creatures in the wild waterway. Swimming becomes something you do to promote well-being inside and around you, rather than merely a form of exercise or entertainment.

I think this could be taken in different valid directions and I described just one which makes sense to me. Likely, you could describe a different way of feeling a part of some greater entity.

One way to summarize this is that we need to have some meaning, some belief of importance for continually doing our swim practice – that meaning has to be tied to a moral purpose. That moral purpose is found when we look beyond the smallest unit we consider the Self to be, and consider the well-being of the members of the larger system we are a part of.

Through flow state, I can expand one more step to include my body into the meaning I place on my activity. I can expand to include my natural environment – the matter and forces. I can expand to include the people and other creatures around me. I can expand to include my ancestors and descendants. I can expand as far as my mind mind and language will allow.

OK. I realize this is getting pretty abstract, but these topics are not easy to describe because they are about images, ideas and sensations we each experience privately in our separate minds. It’s just a fact that while experiencing flow, all sorts of people in all kinds of activities report having a sense of being a part of some greater entity. I have attempted one way of describing how this might be so that you may have some ideas of what to look for to recognize this same feature in your own flow experience.


To read the other parts of this series

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