The Rise of Superman: Finding Your Flow

What Sports and Science Says About Superconsciousness

From The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance http://riseofsuperman.com/
From The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance http://riseofsuperman.com/

Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, total absorption, says science journalist Steven Kotler about his new book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance and author of West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origin of Belief. In flow, Kotler says, you get so sucked totally into the task or moment at hand that everything else disappears from your consciousness. Sounds like meditation to me, or what the goal or aim of meditation is supposed to be. Not convinced? Read on and you will discover what scientists and Kotler call flow is essentially a transcendent state of consciousness.

Characteristics of the flow state, include:

Timelessness: You get lost in a “zone”. Hours pass. Time dilates. You may feel as though time stops, but you are aware and can link past, present, future into one. Your sense of self vanishes. Your inner critic goes away.

Peak performance: Body and mind unite effortlessly. Your performance in the flow state pushes your physical and mental boundaries beyond what you previously thought possible. You obtain a sense of liberation, freedom.

Heightened awareness: You are laser focused, effortlessly. You have super awareness and may experience the remnants as bliss or heightened awareness for several days after your flow experience.

The Voice (of intuition): In flow state, you hear a “voice”. That voice comes to you as thoughts, sounds, and images. These voices guide you, give you creative ideas, direct your actions effortlessly. Kotler shares in an interview with The Accidental Creative podcast, that when he was writing a book, he hit a wall and stopped writing for months. But later, when he resumed his writing he felt the last 200 pages were “dictated” to him in a flow state. Similar “dictation” appears with Neale Donald Walsch, author of Conversations with God. Walsch claims god converses and writes through him.

Neurochemistry and The Flow of Meditation

Dustin Ray  "D-Ray" - surfing-cayucos-ca-pier-1-2-07_056 AZHIAZIAM, photo by mikebaird on Flickr
Dustin Ray “D-Ray” – surfing-cayucos-ca-pier-1-2-07_056 AZHIAZIAM, photo by mikebaird on Flickr

Science can show the neurochemistry of “flow”. (You can learn about flow and the brain chemicals involved here). In ordinary consciousness, when you are not in the flow state, your brain uses it’s local area network or prefrontal cortex. This is the “logical” or standard operating system of the brain. In flow, our brain makes network connections beyond the prefrontal cortex, accesses unconscious data, makes novel links with memories, and then new pathways or insights emerge. Intuitions. Certain chemicals, like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, are released in the brain.

Scientists call the timelessness experienced by a person in flow states the “elongated now” or the “deep now”. Interestingly, mindfulness or focusing in the present moment is an experience sought by millions of modern Yogis, Buddhists, and New Agers.

The characteristics of “flow” fit nicely with descriptions of superconsciousness that Paramahansa Yogananda, a famous modern yogi, writes about in his Autobiography of a Yogi. The yogis seek heightened awareness or superconsciousness, hearing “the voice” of intuition, and experiencing a transcendent timeless bliss. There are uncanny similarities between the characteristics and neurochemistry of “flow” and what the yogis say they experience in meditation as superconsciousness, bliss, god or soul.

Supermen Flow With Superconsciousness

Wonder Woman 02, photo by bbaltimore on Flickr
Wonder Woman 02, photo by bbaltimore on Flickr

Yoga meditation may be one way to achieve flow states, or, as Yogananda calls it, superconsciousness. “Supermen–those who live in the superconscious state–use their intuition in everything they do”, wrote Yogananda. We also can experience intuition and the characteristics of “flow” or superconsciousness through the practice of sports, art, or work. It’s not what we do, but how we do it. (See my blog post on Hacking The Flow).

Questions for readers: Do you have rituals to cultivate your intuition or creativity? In moments of heightened awareness, do you “hear” an inner voice?

Works Cited

The Accidental Creative. Creativity, Innovation, and Doing Brilliant Work. Podcast: Steven Kotler on Achieving “Flow”, published, Mar 13, 2014. Web.

Art of Manliness Podcast Episode #58: Rise of Superman and Flow Hacking With Steven Kotler. 22 Feb 2014. Web.

Kotler, Steven. Website. http://www.stevenkotler.com/ 18 Mar 2014. Web.

Yogananda, Paramahansa. “How To Develop Creative Intuition”. Self-Realization Fellowship Lesson #77. Self-Realization Fellowship Lessons. Los Angeles: CA.

Creator of Skeptic Meditations
7 comments
  1. Actually, my 18,000 hours of meditation practice over 40 years, combined with looking at much of the meditation literature, suggests that flow and certain kinds of meditation are actually counter to each other.

    Flow often involves relaxed alpha, while mindfulness and concentrative practices generally reduce alpha.

    Flow often involves increases in activity in parts of the medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) and decreases in other parts, while mindfulness appears to decrease activity in the mPFC across the board.

    Neither mindfulness nor flow is “transcendental” in the sense that we TMers mean because while there’s some minor reduction in mental activity (verbal narrative) during both flow and during midnfulness, there’s also increases in activity in the brain associated with other kinds of mental activity, having to do with perception in at least one area, as well as heightened activity in areas having to do with motor control, paying attention, etc.

    The silence that results from long-term practice of mindfulness and focused attention practices results from chaining the “monkey mind” -a reorganization of normal resting into a state where normal mind-wandering has begun to be replaced by a never-wandering mind.

    The silence that results, often even in TMers with only a few seconds or days of experience, is that of a tame monkey following an attractive object of attention into a state of simple rest where the compulsion to think a thought, induced by past experience interfering with the present, has at least temporarily subsided, which allows the nervous system to begin to resolve the imbalances that the experience has created that prevent this silence from being the norm, rather than something unusual and remarkable. Most remarkable about this state is how mundane it is: the EEG of mind-wandering is at its highest levels, but the spectral power of the frequencies associated with actually *doing* something during this “wandering” have subsided towards zero.

    For an enlightened person, “flow” has given way to something far more profound: perfect “beginner’s luck.”

  2. Hi Lawson: Thanks for sharing your personal experiences and observations. I’m intrigued, yet don’t find any compelling reasons or evidence that “suggests” as you say flow states and meditation are really contrary in “principle” to the purposes people often seek meditation or flow states. My premise that flow states are transcendent personal experiences is to draw comparisons with why some meditators may be motivated to practice meditation and show that these states are not necessarily unique to sitting in silent meditation. Your last sentence seems to suggest some mystery to enlightenment or the enlightened person. What or who is this “enlightened person” you refer to? I totally agree that personal experiences can be and often are enlightening to ourselves. But I don’t see any convincing evidence that “enlightenment” is an objective state. Meditation and flow states are subjective, no? But, sometimes a meditator or flow experiencer transforms or transfers their subjective experience into objective action, maybe through sports, writing, or philanthropic works.

  3. What I said was:

    “Actually, my 18,000 hours of meditation practice over 40 years, combined with looking at much of the meditation literature, suggests that flow and certain kinds of meditation are actually counter to each other.”

    Flow states are correlated with higher levels of alpha EEG. Mindfulness practices are correlated with LOWER levels of alpha EEG.

    And there’s a simple definition of enlightenment that allows scientific research to be published on people claiming to be in the state: the physiological changes during TM become sufficiently well-established as a trait outside of TM practice that people start reporting some degree of “pure consciousness” as a background trait outside of TN practice, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Research on people reporting that they are in this situation for at least one year has been published.

    A discussion of this research is found a review article that Fred Travis [Maharishi University of Management] published in the Annals of the Academy of Sciences of New York in December of last year:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.12316/full
    Transcendental experiences during meditation

    When I said “flow” has given way to something far more profound: perfect “beginner’s luck,” in enlightened people, I meant that in an enlightened person, ANY action occurs without participation by the Self, which only watches, and so, in a very real sense, all actions, whether highly practiced, or being done for teh very first time, are being done in a state where the action “just happens” spontaneously, without attempts to make it happen. By definition, the “Self” of an enlightened person doesn’t do anything, ever, and the physical activity in the brain required to allow this permanent self to be noticed, are there all the time, so everything that happens is just “beginner’s luck.” Of course, there’s a continuum of changes that take place in the brain even after the dawn of the first stage of enlightenment described in Fred’s paper: the EEG during activity continues to become more similar to the EEG of pure consciousness indefinitely, and the EEG during the pure consciousness state likely becomes more refined, so there’s a moving target for the EEG outside of meditation to converge upon.

    ‘”Perfect” beginner’s luck’ was probably not appropriate. ‘”Permanent” beginner’s luck, in the direction of perfection,” is probably more accurate.

    Here’s links to some of the papers that Fred discusses in the review:

    Breath Suspension During the Transcendental Meditation Technique
    http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/44/2/133.full.pdf

    Electrophysiologic Characteristics of Respiratory Suspension Periods Occurring During the Practice of the Transcendental Meditation Program
    http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/46/3/267.full.pdf)

    Autonomic patterns during respiratory suspensions: Possible markers of Transcendental Consciousness
    http://www.totalbrain.ch/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/transcendental-consciousness.pdf

  4. By the way, here’s an interesting video of the EEG during TM (part of a presentation about a seminar the speaker will be conducting to train TM teachers in how to give live demos of the EEG during TM practice when they give introductory lectures on TM to prospective students).

    Someone who is enlightened TM-wise, has such EEG outside of meditation, especially the pre-frontal coherent alpha EEG, which corresponds to a persistent sense of self without any qualities other than watchfulness, called “Cosmic Consciousness” or _turiyatita_ in TM Speak.

    You could extrapolate to higher states of enlightenment, where the brief periods of “global brain functioning” in all frequencies shown in the last part of the video, would become persistent in all circumstances, which would explain the alleged perception that everything (thoughts, words, actions, intuitions, sensory perceptions, etc) is Self. In fact, you could see how it would be impossible for such an enlightened person NOT to perceive any THING or things as Self. It has become fundamental to how their brain operates and the phenomenon that arises as “experience” of “Self” occurs before any more localized phenomenon that would correspond to perception of an object of attention such as a thought or emotion or even memory -recall the traditional claim that one realizes that one was always enlightened, but just never noticed it…

    The “AIC” that the speaker refers to is the “Invincible America Course,” where participants practice TM and the TM-SIdhis techniques in a group for 7 hours a day, 7 days a week for years at a time, in order to bring about world peace. (It’s possible to get paid $700/month to participate in this program).

    The TM-Sidhis are supposed to train the brain to maintain a pure consciousness state while remaining active in some way and early research showed that gamma and beta EEG became more coherent, as well as alpha, during these practices, so its interesting that the AIC participant’s TM practice shows the enhanced beta and gamma EEG coherence -the brain gets trained to maintain coherence gained from non-TM, *during* TM, in this case.

  5. darrnit.

    Embedding and direct linking show a different video.

  6. Lawson: Your comment posts seem to me to be advertisements for Transcendental Meditation (TM). For the time being, I’ve decided to leave your comments up, and give you a final opportunity for your full disclosure.

    What exactly is your “interest” in Transcendental Meditation and/or the Maharishi University, or your affiliations with these or any derivative TM programs? Even stock brokers declare any conflicts of interest before they taut their stock recommendations on TV. Certainly, we can request as much or more from you, a man who seems to be interested in higher consciousness.

    Sorry, posting links to research by the Maharishi University and studies about Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, his University or affiliates, is no longer acceptable here on this site. Doing this is like asking us to try to take seriously a Catholic University or priests with PHDs claiming that prayer is effective in healing the body, or, that ingesting a communion wafer is the symbolic body of Christ. Why would we give much credibility to Religious Universities and Clergy with PhDs to provide us with EEGs or brain scans as solid evidence, without other outside, credible scientists corroborations? There’s such as thing as conflict of interest. This is your final chance to demonstrate you are willing to disclose yours and be straight about what your interests are in promoting TM.

  7. I don’t work for anyone. I don’t get paid money by any one for anything. I don’t live in Fairfield, Iowa, but in Tucson, Arizona. I’m friends with many long-term TMers including many of the researchers because I’ve been practicing TM for 40 years, which makes me a rare person. Most people who have been meditating as long as me ended up as TM teachers, I suspect, but I am not trained as such (I took the preliminary class to become a TM teacher but that was a few week class while TM teacher training is 5 months, in-residence). I don’t get kickbacks, I don’t get service-in-kind, I don’t get any compensation of any kind. In fact, I would say that the TM organization’s attitude towards me is very much like your attitude towards me: “odd person.”

    And you can ignore any research you care to, but while its true that any and all research put out by the TM university in Iowa about TM can be seen as advertising for TM (duh), the fact is that the research is considered acceptable at least in the hypertension field.

    But again, you are correct that research published by the TM school in Iowa is meant to encourage people to learn TM. However, understand that the way they do this (as far as I can tell), is to conduct private pilot projects, and when they find something where TM has an effect, they start applying for grant money to do larger, publicly funded projects. In order to make their research more acceptable, they get people from other institutions to publish with them. In the case of Robert Schneider’s project, the data collection was done at the University of Wisconsin.

    Sometimes the data can only be collected at the TM school, as TM practitioners with 30+ years experience are common where teh school is, and exceedingly rare elsewhere.

    That last video I linked to (sorry about the first 2, I didn’t realize how youtube playlist links worked), is exceedingly interesting, but I can understand why you don’t think its worth watching.

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