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Self-Transcendence: Flow, Spirituality, Inner Peace, and Doing the Best We Can With What We've Got

“The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. ” ― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

John and I do a lot of our thinking and chatting in the early morning before we officially throw off the covers and face the day. This morning, our topic was about getting into flow; it's the opposite of being in the doldrums (which I discussed in the previous blog).

Years ago we used different terminology. We spoke of “being in the in the zone." My husband would say, "Hey, you were in the zone," when I played a game of tennis beyond my normal skill level...and it seemed easy. I was totally absorbed in just playing tennis. Then along came psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 70s with the term "flow" or "flow state" as a way of naming the the experience of optimal functioning which seems effortless. One is totally focused on what they are doing.

When we are in flow, our focus is so intense that we aren’t worried about anything, we are not self-conscious; we love doing whatever we are doing for its own sake. And one of the big markers is a distortion of time. We may have been doing something for hours without realizing it. 

Our grandson, Eli, recently commented on this. He had been doing some math which he loves. He came into where I was sitting and announced, "time is not time." When I inquired into what he was thinking, he explained that when you are doing something you really like, time goes super fast. Time isn't always experienced the same.

The distortion of time was the biggest marker of being in a flow state for my husband John. And he did experience flow a lot as a dentist. When John was doing a full day of reconstructing someone’s smile, it was a good day (assuming nothing went off the rails too much). Cziksentmihalyi's research explains why. Flow seems most likely to happen when certain conditions are present: There is a clear goal, there is a good fit between the challenges of what we want to do (the task) and our skills so that we are not bored nor anxious. There is some sort of automatic feedback built into the task. We can tell when we are making progress.

Surgeons have reported feeling flow, so have athletes and artists of various sorts. And here’s one of the biggies – experts have estimated that productivity increases 500 percent! That’s incredible. And though it is intense, and totally engaging, flow feels good...effortless.  The ego is quiet - without anxiety or self-consciousness. We are not even aware of ourselves. It’s even been called an altered state of being.

Flow, it seems to me, is a transcendent state because our action and awareness fuse. When we are in a state of flow, we are at peace with ourselves and others.  Unified. We are not in the claws of hatred, greed, worry, jealousy, reactivity, or resentment. Again, our ego is quiet.

So as I try to figure this out for myself, let me switch it up a bit to talk about compassion which I also think can be experienced as a transcendent state.

I used to get perplexed with John when he said, “compassion is easy.” Because that's not how I always experience it. Now I realize he was talking about practicing compassion while being in what he calls his “love place.”  His "God" place. A spiritual flow state perhaps where those brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin and anandamide and endorphins and maybe a little acetylcholine mix in just the perfect blissfully focused cocktail. Who knows? But I do imagine that this...what I am calling a spiritual flow state (or if you prefer, being in our "love" place) is good for our personal peace of mind and would do wonders for the betterment of humanity...if we knew how to get there.

John claims that to get into our “love place” we must get out of our heads…move down into our hearts. Hmmm.  And that tweaks me too, because if you have read many of my blogs, you know that I love research and thinking. And practically speaking we can’t really get out of our heads. But neurologists are showing brain images of people in a state of flow. Probably the same for seasoned meditators. The parts of the brain that we think of as the active problem-solvers and analyzers and worriers are "quiet." Maybe we might say "peaceful."

As a person who has worked as a life coach for a couple of decades, when many coaching clients ultimately got to the place where they were able to articulate what they REALLY wanted out of life it was …“inner peace.” Whatever that means.

Perhaps it's like the Jewish understanding of shalom...peace and harmony with others, in right relationship with the larger world, and at peace with all aspects of ourselves.

Inner peace, shalom, spiritual flow, love place...getting out of our heads and into our hearts...lots of words to hold a desired and beneficial experience. Indeed spirituality as we are talking about it here has been associated with well-being both physically and mentally.

Ok, how do people get into spiritual flow, their love place, their heart place, their inner peace place? And let me just say it's not a matter of "oh, that would be nice." We simply cannot keep doing the same things we are doing and expect a different result. If Einstein is right, that our problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them, then we need to treat this "getting into our love place" as a priority, an ultimate concern.

Maybe you already know what you can do to get into “spiritual flow.” Maybe prayer, maybe mindful walks in nature, maybe compassionate/connected conversations, maybe gratitude. Maybe music. Maybe mantras. Maybe poetry. And it helps to be in the second half of life. Researchers echo that idea.

In the second half of life, something happens. We take more pleasure in modest pleasures. We are not so interested in being super human, but rather in doing the best we can to walk along side other humans on the being human ourselves.

I was talking to a man a couple of days ago. He's in his sixties...enjoying "the best years of his life." That was not always the case. What happened? He said in his fifties he finally "quit beating his head against the wall." As I listened to him explain what he meant, it seemed to me that he made an intentional decision to stop madly pursuing power, money, and achievement and switched his focus to doing work he really enjoyed (he clearly experienced flow) and prioritized being connected to his family.

I think John’s mother got the idea, particularly in her later years. John took her for walks and for drives. She loved poetry and she LOVED trees. I wish you could have seen her eyes light up even on her death bed when a verse of Byron was read or when she gazed out the window to see the trees. And after she was about seventy-five, if you asked her how she was doing, the answer was nearly always, "I'm doing the best I can with what I've got." Now that may not mean much to you, but believe me, we lean on that mantra daily! It helps us quiet our ego, be kinder to both ourselves and others, and dampen our reactivity to people and things that don't go our way.

I have mentioned our weekly compassion circle. It's the most important thing I do to keep myself focused on compassion... which I happen to think is an awesome portal to inner peace, shalom, our love place, and self-transcendence. Last week a couple of people brought poetry that touched them. Maybe that’s another way of saying, it's poetry that helped them move toward spiritual flow.

Here’s the first one. (Thank you, Julie and Dick)


The Valuable Time of Maturity or My Soul Has A Hat 

I counted my years

and found that I have

 less time to live by,

 than I have lived up to now.

I feel like that child who won a packet

 of sweets: he ate the first with pleasure,

but when he realized that there were few

left, he began to enjoy them intensely.

I no longer have time for endless meetings where

statutes, rules, procedures and internal regulations are discussed,

knowing that nothing will be achieved.


I no longer have time

to support the absurd people who,

despite their chronological age,

haven't grown up.

My time is too short:

I want the essence,

my soul is in a hurry.

I don't have many sweets

in the package anymore.

I want to live next to human people, [my favorite line]

very human,

who know how to laugh at their mistakes,

and who are not inflated by their triumphs,

and who take on their responsibilities.

Thus human dignity is defended

and we move towards truth and honesty.

It is the essential that makes life worth living.

I want to surround myself with people

who know how to touch hearts, people

who have been taught by the hard blows of life

to grow with gentle touches of the soul.

Yes, I'm in a hurry,

I'm in a hurry to live with the intensity

that only maturity can give.

I don't intend to waste any of the

leftover sweets.

I am sure they will be delicious,

much more than what I have eaten so far.

My goal is to reach the end satisfied

and at peace with my loved ones and my



We have two lives.

And the second begins when you realize you only have one.


Mário Raul de Morais Andrade


And the second one…(thank you, Karen, for the next one, I’m not sure of the author.


Happy Life

I’m slowly learning that even if I react, it

won’t change anything, it won’t make

people suddenly love and respect me, it

won’t magically change their minds.

Sometimes it’s better to just let things

be, let people go, don’t fight for closure,

don’t ask for explanations, don’t chase

answers and don’t expect people to

understand where you’re coming from.

I’m slowly learning that life is better lived

when you don’t center it on what’s

happening around you and center it on

what’s happening inside you instead.

Work on yourself and your inner peace

and you’ll come to realize that not

reacting to every little thing that bothers

you is the first ingredient to living a

happy and healthy life.

What a wonderful metaphor for aging and becoming aware of values and priorities... being "a child who won a packet of sweets" and now realizes he is down to the last few. Do we have two lives when we realize we have only one...does that help us move toward transcendence? And how does reactivity interfere with flow and inner peace? Can we let it go? Does that quiet the ego? Is that a move toward transcendence?

We have covered a lot of ground. Being in the zone, spiritual flow, being in our love place, moving from our heads to our hearts, inner peace, shalom, going to a different level of consciousness, quiet egos, self- transcendence, taking advantage of being in the second half of life. We have some research, some stories, and for me...a desperate calling to do the best we can with what we've got.

A final thought... for the journey (thank you, Pastor Lilia). To live and die with a heart free of resentment, grudges, and ill-will would be a truly crowning accomplishment in life (author unknown). And I think we'll know we were in the zone, if the time passed very quickly.

How might we learn more about spirituality and notice what helps us get into a state of transcendence - flow, shalom and inner peace, and journey together to The Good Life?




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