Optimal experience is an end in itself… it is a self-contained activity, one that is not done with the expectation of some future benefit, the doing itself is the reward.
When experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present, instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain… The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one’s own powers.
Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self - consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
A crack in the comic egg, our self-world reality as Joseph Chilton Pearce describes, is ushered in by the sudden insight that the social-image or ego we thought was permanent is not. In a flash we discover that our social-image or ego is a defensive reflex triggered by anything that even remotely begs the question, “what will they think of me?”
Culture is fractural by nature, fractural being a pattern that repeats at every scale; be that parenting, church, school, scouts, athletics, political groups, nations, gangs, corporations, etc. Belonging is the universal pattern, the deep human need. The social image or ego is the way we prove to culture, at each scale, that we belong, and we do this by conforming, often at the expense of our authentic nature, continued growth and development. Because the need to belong is ever-present, the social image or ego is always switched on, except, as the saying goes, when we dance like no one is looking and sing like no one is listening. These rare moments create the cracks when our true, authentic nature flows.
Discovering that the ego or social image is not permanent, that it is only active sometimes, is an amazing, powerful insight, one of the most transformational, uplifting and freeing. What switches the ego on is being judged, compared, graded - not belonging. For many the tragic reality is that they cannot remember ever feeling anything else. They live in a perpetual state of not feeling safe. For them, the defensive ego is permanent, a permanent reflex that is. They always feel threatened because culture, in its various patterns, is always judging, grading and comparing. It wasn’t always that way.
There was a time, we call it the in-arms period, when mom and dad were the safe place, before they dawned their Star Wars monster faces. Feeling safe meant that one-hundred percent of our attention could be given freely to the present moment, learning and growth, as nature designed. Feeling safe, there was no need to siphon off a portion of that attention to defend ourselves. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes, “concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self - consciousness disappears.” When self-consciousness disappears, the social self or ego disappears.
When not feeling safe attention fragments. It splits with some attention meeting the challenge and the remainder defending against “what will they think of me?” The split implies inattention and this inattention evokes the social image or ego.
We are trying… to see if we cannot radically bring about a transformation of the mind. When you put that question, because you are serious, because you are intent, then you are aware of the whole process of the observer. Which means that you are totally attentive, completely attentive. And in that attention there is no border created by the center. When there is complete attention there is no observer. The observer comes into being only when, in that look, there is inattention which is distraction. We have put away the observer and therefore there is attention which may last a second; that is good enough. Don’t be greedy to have more. In that greed to have more you have already created the center, and then you are caught. In that attention there is no seeking at all. And therefore there is no effort. And the mind becomes extraordinarily alert, active…
PBS Broadcast, Ojai, California, 1966
Instead of justifying and defending the image, personal or cultural, which, at close observation, is a constellation of old imprinted reflexes, mistakenly reified, treated as an independent entity, we have a crack. Both the mystic and the researcher share: the key to dissolving the ego is attention. With complete attention there is no observer, returning the brain and perception to its natural order with its childlike entrained observation.
Try as we might the ego can’t negate the ego. It can’t transform or correct itself. Whenever the ego is active it is there, filtering, justifying, defending. In optimum states of learning and performance attention is complete, whole, not split or fragmented. Researchers calls this state Flow. The mystic calls it Silence or Emptiness (empty of the image-ego). Athletes call it The Zone. Children call it Play.
Can we sing, dance and live our life as if no one is looking? We can if we feel completely safe. Not feeling safe often implies the split. There may be, in fact, something in the moment that is frightening. Most often, the fear that reincarnates the ego-image is psychological. Our bond with the social community is threatened in some way or we expect or anticipate it will be, and this creates the image. The ideal is not to create the split in the first place. Once created, the antidote is complete attention, which negates the split. Recall Jean Liedloff’s observation:
We should never do anything to a child that will make him feel badly about himself. But we do this all the time. We do it with words and we do it with looks. We only know two ways to treat our children. One is the punishing/blaming: "you are very bad, go stand in the corner or I’ll spank you." The other is permissive: "that’s perfectly all right darling, if you want to walk on mother’s face, she doesn’t mind." We don’t know any other way.
There is another way. It is called information. If you thoroughly understand that children are innately social, then you understand that what they want is information. You don’t have to be angry to tell them what’s needed. You just let them know. The idea is not to blame, and not to praise, because both are insulting. Expect children to do the right thing. You then are being a clear model and there’s no conflict. It’s the way nature designed us to behave.
A simple example is spilled milk. With the punishing/blaming model, which serves culture and not true development, we say: “Look, you spilled the milk!” The you statement evokes and reinforces the image-ego. With the information model we say, “Oh my, look, the milk is spilling.” No blame or image is implied, rather, our attention is on natural consequences and this carries its own meaning. Very little or no explanation is needed. Instead of hierarchy, rank and authority, the adult and child are equal, examining the natural consequences of milk spilling, together.
The social-image or ego being inseparable from language and imagination it is doubtful that we can participate in a culture built on these forms without some kind of image. Replacing the punishment/blame model with information/inquiry changes, and fundamentally, the nature and quality of the image. Shame, humiliation, rejection and all the negative feelings associated with punishments, blame, and equally praise are not part of the image. We wear the image like a shirt (persona) but doing so does not evoke negative feelings, or positive for that matter. The image is simply a tool or symbol used to relate efficiently with culture.
The fact that cultures are built and sustained by negative images, blame and shame, force most to deal with these ego-images lifelong which express as addiction, aggression, depression, anxiety and with various therapies and so-called spiritual practices. In the end, however, there are only two states; when the social-image or ego is active and when it is not. Realizing that inattention is the ego’s playground, the ancients placed a premium on attention. Escaping the endless triggering of reflex feelings and images is impossible without undivided attention. The first step, therefore, is cultivating attention. Realizing that the ego emerges when attention splits various meditation practices encourage a return to undivided attention. (With this imperative in mind, it is important to note the steady rise of attention deficits and the role media and technology plays in this. At no time in history has the challenge to free human consciousness from its infatuation with ego been more difficult.)
Gaining some currency with attention, the next step is to use a strict form of logic and inquiry to question the past feelings and images we created while in the ego-image state. When the ego-image is active it naturally assumes that everyone else is an ego too and attributes to them all the negative qualities that egos share. These build up as reflexes and become part of our personal self-image and this collective is projected outwardly as culture. Nationalism and racism are clear examples.
Having cultivated the capacity for undivided, childlike attention and play, and having sorted out (negated) the false images and feelings we inflict on ourselves and others, we stand in a new paradigm of perception and consciousness. Rather than seeing our self as an isolated, selfish individual we see, and directly, that we are an interdependent part of the web-of-life and appreciate that every action sews either health and wellbeing for the entire web or dis-ease, which is no longer an option.
Being an idealist, it is conceivable that this personal-cultural-global transformation could take place in a single generation beginning first by simply replacing the punishing/blaming/praise model with shared information and inquiry and second with the insight that the social-image or ego we thought was permanent is not. Stepping into the crack this creates is like a child slipping under the circus tent where vast new worlds and undreamed possibilities abound at every turn. Transforming our personal-global culture. It can be done, one parent and one child at a time beginning, of course, with the adult-parent wiggling free. With this wiggle, everything changes. Without it, nothing changes.
“Egos exploiting egos is the source of all our problems.”