Flow Experience

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FLOW EXPERIENCE . All major world religions, as well as most sects and tribal cults, are said to produce on occasion, among their faithful, states of ecstasy or altered states of consciousness. Such experiences constitute for many believers one of the main attractions of religion, if not a proof of its ability to mediate the supernatural. In cults and sects such experiences are often induced by chemical substances ingested in ritual contexts; by fasting; by various hypnotic trances, or by what Émile Durkheim called "collective effervescence," a condition engineered by rhythmic music, dance, and ritual movements.

Remnants of such direct sensory means for inducing altered experiential states can still be found in the major religions. The use of music, chanting, lighting, and scent in liturgy and of fasting and ritual feasting clearly derive from earlier methods for producing ecstasy. But the great religious traditions have become gradually less dependent on sensory means, while at the same time they have developed the ability to induce ecstasy through cognitive disciplines. Prayer, meditation, satori, samādhi, despite the tremendous variety of cultural differences represented in their settings, are all mechanisms for providing a sense of mystic union with a sacred, transcendent force.

Is the ecstasy reported in religious practices and rituals unique to religion, or is it a species of a broader genus of experiential states? At least since the writings of William James, psychologists have supported the latter hypothesis. It is assumed that there is no qualitative difference between the unusual states of consciousness occasionally experienced in religious contexts and analogous states reported in a variety of secular contexts. The task for the scholar is to describe the experiential state precisely, and to explain why it occurs in the context of religious practice.

Perhaps the state of consciousness that most closely resembles accounts of religious ecstasy is the "flow experience," so named because many people have used the word flow in describing it. This subjective state has been reportedly experienced by creative artists when working, by athletes at the height of competition, by surgeons while performing difficult operations, and by ordinary people in the midst of their most satisfying activities. In other words, states of optimal experience in a wide variety of context, including meditation, prayer, and mystical union, are described in terms of very similar subjective parameters. The subsequent experience is "ecstatic" in that it is characterized by a sense of clarity and enjoyment that stands out from the blurred background of everyday routine.

The flow experience is characterized by the following phenomenological dimensions:

  1. a narrowing of the focus of consciousness on a clearly delimited stimulus field;
  2. exclusion from one's awareness of irrelevant immediate stimuli, memories of past events, and contemplation of the future; hence a focusing on the unfolding present;
  3. merging of action and awareness, also described as absence of doubt and critical reflection about one's current activity;
  4. awareness of clear goals and unambiguous feedback; so that one knows one's standing with reference to the goals;
  5. lack of concern regarding one's ability to control the situation;
  6. loss of self-consciousness, which in turn may lead to a sense of transcendence of ego boundaries and of union with a larger, transpersonal system.

When these conditions are present in consciousness, the experience is usually interpreted by the individual as being enjoyable and autotelic (worth seeking for its own sake). Activities available in everyday life form a continuum in terms of their capacity to induce flow. At the lowest level are "microflow" activities such as doodling, pacing, or smoking, which provide fleeting experiences of ordered existence. At the other extreme are "deep flow" activities that provide relatively lasting and totally absorbing experiences, as in creative endeavors, complex symbolic or religious thought, or the heights of physical performance.

Whether an activity is capable of providing flow depends in large part on the kind and degree of challenges (opportunities of action) that it makes available, and on the actor's skill (capacity to relate to them). When these two are in balance, flow occurs. If challenges overshadow skills, anxiety ensues; if skills are greater than the opportunities for using them, boredom follows. The complexity of a flow experienceor its ability to provide deep flowis a function of the extent of challenges the activity presents and of the actor's skills. Games, spectacles, and rituals are structured so as to provide the maximum of flow experience.

Religious action-systems present a wide variety of opportunities for action, ranging from microflow-like repetitive physical rituals (e.g., the spinning of Tibetan prayer wheels) to the purely cognitive sequences of doctrinal exegesis. Religions occasionally are able to transform a person's entire life activity into a unified action-system with clear and congruent goals. It might be argued, for instance, that the religion of the early Puritans was an all-embracing flow activity that focused the consciousness of believers on the necessity of attaining salvation and prescribed a productive vocation as a means for attaining certitudo salutis. In this process Puritanism had to exclude many pleasurable experiences from the consciousness of the faithful, but within the limitations of its goals and rules it provided an all-embracing and enjoyable field of action.

In general, however, flow experiencesreligious ones includedare liminal in terms of the dominant patterns of consciousness required by social existence. Prayer, ritual, meditation, or the reading of sacred texts establishes interludes of flow in a stream of consciousness that otherwise tends to be structured either too loosely or too rigidly. These activities are occasionally able to provide concrete experiences of a mode of existence more conducive to the expression of individual potentials than the socially restricted historical reality is capable of doing.

See Also

Consciousness, States of; Ecstasy; Religious Experience.


Crook, John H. The Evolution of Human Consciousness. London and New York, 1980.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games. San Francisco, 1975.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. "Toward a Psychology of Optimal Experience." In Review of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 3, edited by Ladd Wheeler, pp. 1336. Beverly Hills, Calif., 1982.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). New York, 1963.

Laski, Marghanita. Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences (1962). Reprint, Westport, Conn., 1968.

Turner, Victor. "Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology." Rice University Studies 60 (Summer 1974): 5392. Reprinted in Turner's collection of essays entitled From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York, 1982), pp. 2060.

New Sources

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, 1990.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York, 1996.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement in Everyday Life. The Masterminds Series. New York, 1997.

Hume, Lynne. "Accessing the Eternal: Dreaming 'The Dreaming' and Ceremonial Performance." Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 39 (March 2004): 237258.

Inghilleri, Paolo. From Subjective Experience to Cultural Change. New York, 1999.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1987)

Revised Bibliography