Enlightenment Vocabulary Revisited

Written by Philip Walter on Jul 4 at 7:52 am in iSPIRITself, weMINDculture

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Binary Half

This is a lengthy response to a comment from one of my readers, Duff. His comment was to my recent post about creating a new vocabulary of enlightenment, and my response simply became too long to post as another comment. Here is the original comment:

Flow is certainly related to enlightenment, but I’m not sure that it is equivalent to it. Flow as defined by MC Flow is a high-energy state where the exterior demands of the environment perfectly match the abilities of the person in it. I wrestle with how to integrate this understanding with low-energy states where there are little-to-no exterior demands at all, for example when sitting in meditation.
There is also a conception of equanimity regardless of state that I find an important piece of the puzzle. Since all states, including flow states and other spiritual experiences are temporary (subject to impermanence), they cannot be the ultimate aim, for all temporary experience has an unsatisfactoriness to it. In addition, one can develop craving for such states and aversion to “ordinary” states such as doing one’s taxes, or going to work in the morning. I think you are seeing this when you talk about not being interested in ascendancy or transcendency.
But then what is enlightenment? A spiritual attitude of equanimity with all things? And the dialogue goes on….

First, thanks for your thoughtful comment, Duff. Do keep them coming. As for my response, I’m not really familiar with MC Flow, though I sampled a bit of her music and found is quite compelling. My understanding of flow comes from another MC – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that 5 times fast!), and my own experience. Flow, from Mihaly’s book, is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” That seems to apply to a large number of low-energy experiences. I can’t help but think of many a yogi expensing the high cost of isolation for the sheer sake of meditation.

MC Flow’s definition does correspond with Mihaly’s in that they both assert the demands of the activity must match the abilities of the practitioner. Flow activities challenge our current abilities without frustrating our intellect, they provide goals, and offer immediate feedback. Through this loop, we continue to “get better” at the activity. Often, as you suggest, we might stray into compulsion, or craving for such states or activities. We might dislike other activities. This is the nature of things, and only proper perspective can help us with this.

Getting back to the flow experience, I must say that I have many experiences of flow while engaged in low-energy activities. I find myself lost in total bliss while reading, while editing a great video project, and while writing. Those are all based on external stimuli, of course, but I feel the loss of temporal understanding associated with flow and absolute enjoyment while practicing yoga and meditation as well, both of which are largely based on the internal landscape.

In Mihaly’s book, he talks about mastery. The nature of the flow experience is to feel challenged by an experience and persevere in it, basking in a pure enjoyment. What happens is that not only do you become physically more able to perform the activity (whether you’re becoming more comfortable sitting in meditation for long periods or better at saving a few steps for overtime in a basketball game), but you’re also pushing your consciousness to a higher level. This means that we move from a place of psychic entropy to increasing order or complexity. In Mihaly’s words, “ optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life – that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.”

This brings me to your point about my not being interested about ascendency or transcendency. You are certainly right in that I tend toward the pagan or Dionysian, but I certainly have my moments of austerity as well. I love to watch my breath. My yoga is something I look forward to at least as much as my wine. Either way, though, I’m interested in “participation” as Mihaly said. I’m interested in engagement, whether it’s engagement in stillness or in whirling like a dervish, it’s still engagement. When we’re engaged (as in the flow of optimal experience described in Mihaly’s book), the ego is transcended (whether we’re into transcendency or not). The ego is constantly checking the clock, looking for ways to avoid its own death, and make itself out to be more than it is. When we’re engaged in the flow, none of that matters.

So, is flow enlightenment? Maybe. But like you say, Duff, the flow experience in and of itself is transitory. So I’m more inclined to see enlightenment in terms of proper perspective, or even “equanimity with all things.” I certainly think equanimity is important, but equanimity only comes through cultivation of proper perspective, through a deep understanding of context.

At the same time, I hesitate to take passion out of the equation here. I feel that’s an integral part of engagement – and enlightenment. One of the Niyamas (the second limb of Patanjali’s yogasutras), is Tapas, and while it is often translated as discipline, others interpret it as passion. Either way, the results are focus and dedication, which I think anyone would agree are important on the path to spiritual peace, equanimity, enlightenment, what have you.

And on goes the conversation. Thanks again, Duff, for your thoughtful comment. We’d love to hear other thoughts on this subject from any of y’all. The more the merrier. Also, please subscribe to my blog via e-mail or rss so you don’t miss another informative mind-body-spirit fitness article.

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