I’m intrigued by altered states. Whether induced through drugs, meditation, near death experiences, or whether they just come about on their own like in these two examples, I’m fascinated by the contradiction by our everyday reality and the more expansive realities we’re sometimes shown. Is there a “real” reality? I have no idea. What I do know is that I have occasionally experienced alternate realities and that they are among my most profound memories.
I've always remembered this one quote, from a review of Roger Ebert's, as I found it so beautiful.
"There was a boy, a chess player, once, who revealed that his gift consisted partly in a clear inner vision of potential moves of each piece as objects with flashing or moving tails of coloured light: He saw a live possible pattern of potential moves and selected them according to which ones made the pattern strongest, the tensions greatest. His mistakes were made when he selected not the toughest, but the most beautiful lines of light." From The Virgin in the Garden, by A. S. Byatt
I've tried mushrooms several times and I always end up believing the below statement:
"our five senses are not, as we commonly believe, the ways in which the world is revealed to us. Instead, our senses act as a filter so that we experience enough of reality to survive and succeed but not so much reality that we’re struck dumb. In other words, the real reality might be so overwhelming that we would be incapable of dealing with it."
At first I thought I had heard of song writers or musicians having that experience. A song just came to them out of the ethers. As I read more accounts, I realized I too had been blessed: once after high school graduation, I spent time painting in oils. One picture was in blues and blacks, the face of a man whose eyes followed you from any angle. Time and place dissolved. Later, I hung the picture in my dorm room, and during second semester, I met and fell in love with Steve. He was my first and meant (too briefly) the world to me. We had been dating for several months when a new acquaintance came into my room and said, When did you paint the picture of Steve?” I was amazed. I looked at the picture and realized it was, indeed, Steve!
Second: I was student teaching 7th graders in a Geography class. I was walking up and down the aisles of students, talking to each one, and noting the foreign countries they were going research and write their reports about. Suddenly, I knew what each one needed and how to help them. I was blinking back the tears as I finished my survey. They were the most wonderful class of kids I could imagine. And that experience was truly magical.
Others have mentioned gaining access to their subconscious. I’m not sure because there seemed to be something beyond what my subconscious could have known. Yes to getting my ego out of the way, but what was I plugging into? The Flow? All I know is it was wonderful.
Many folks experience this after a few days in the harsh conditions of Burning Man. There's so much sensory input, holes are blown in the filters and more stuff gets in.
I do experience something like this when I create the videos I create for work. It kind of just hits me like a freight train. I know what I need to make, I sit down and I see each scene in my head and I make it happen. I never have any idea where it's going to come from, or when. But when it hits me, I have to sit down and get to it right away. My brain won't let me do anything else.
I just figured it was some weird ADHD thing, but it is really intense and strange. I guess I thought it was just me.
Perfect piece. It is nice to know it can happen several times for some. You should be a professional writer if you ever give up the acting bug.
To my best recall, I have experienced this only once. In a new profession in the late 90s, I was asked to make a presentation to a large group of fellow professionals. I had been approached as though I was a seasoned expert in the field because of a piece I wrote in a journal for the field. Though enthusiastic and a quick learner, I was far from a noted expert. At first, I declined. When the the President of organization begged me saying he couldn't afford a national figure on the subject, I acquiesced not sure if I was flattered filling in as a regional novice. OK, why not? So I prepped as hard as anyone could.
The weekend came for the organization's annual gathering and there I sat in the front row waiting to be introduced as the evening's keynote. My gut seized up. I had no clue why the heck I was there as the person who an auditorium of professionals was told could help guide their professional journeys.
I stepped up with my notes, plus a lousy PowerPoint, and started talking. I have no idea what happened. In fact, in hindsight, I don't recall much of what I said or did. I can say that 70 minutes later, a swarm of people were shaking my hand, praising my presentation, begging for my notes, asking if I had written a book (wouldn't that have been mentioned in the introduction?), and someone asked if would I come to speak to their company in Charlotte. Damn. I must have been in the flow.
I do remember feeling like another force had entered me. I don't think I used many of my notes. Why did this almost surreal awareness find me? I humbly shared that I truly wasn't a leading expert in anything when I closed the presentation, but seemingly it didn't matter.
Throughout the remainder of my career, I repeated professional speaking for another 20 years on various tangible topics related to my ever-evolving business life. I never felt the flow again. There were times I needed it, but apparently, it shows up at random times.
Now retired and trying to find my footing as a grandmother of leisure I probably won't need flow. Still, psilocybin might help get me to the next birthday.
I’ve experienced a “flow” more than a few times, most of which happen when I am programming. I’ll be stuck on some problem and then I’ll see one small part where I could make progress. Seeing that one part came out of the blue and following it, my mind expanded to see more of a possible solution. Suddenly, I see the entire solution and I am programming it in an efficient and elegant manner. I’m conscious that I’m in this state of “flow” and I have to be careful not to think about it too hard, or I’ll lose it.
I’ve read of different ways to put yourself in a “flow” state, but the ones I’ve tried never worked for me. It’s a sublime experience and the more it happens the more I desire to be back in it. This inevitably causes a sense of loss, even depression, when it seems to be gone forever. But then, one day, when I’m not thinking about it, I’ll fall back into it yet again.
The filter that you describe can be seen in our heuristics, or mental shortcuts. Imagine if we had to separately evaluate every source of information for trustworthiness, for example. We would spend 100% of our time doing this and wouldn’t have time for even the basics of survival.
I’m excited for you to find rituals that work for you to create flow state. It’s an interesting and worthwhile journey.
"...of the sudden I was seeing the board for the first time. I don’t know how else to describe the sensation."
'Seeing the board' for the first time is not an uncommon phenomenon amongst beginner-serious chess players. It marks the spot where "I know how to move the pieces" changes into "I play chess." It does not mean you will become Ding Liren or be able to beat Magnus Carlsen, but you have shown you can beat a childhood friend who was better.
I bought an ounce of Flow OG one time and it sure seemed to work.
I wrote something about this awhile back as it relates to basketball but never shared it with anyone before now.
But above all else, there stands two aspects of the game that mean more than anything. Two distinct elements that, while almost exact opposites of each other, represent for me bona fide real-life, magic.
The first, to put it simply is when your body does something that you did not know it was going to do until you did it. Most of the time, the brain leads the body. But once in great while, instinct takes over. In the blink of an eye, a pass is made without premeditation. A drive instinctively finished with the off-hand. I can vividly recall singular plays from decades ago where I unexpectedly pulled something out of my ass. On the right wing, dribbling away from the basket when I spy Ken cutting back door and before I realize what is happening I have whipped the ball on a string through everyone and even Ken is surprised that he has this layup. In a different game in a different gym, I break free on the right baseline and drive hard to the hoop. I’m thinking shot all the way, but suddenly I’ve drawn two help defenders. I jump stop just outside the block, ready to leap, absorb the contact and finish. But somehow I head fake instead and get both of them in the air simultaneously, a couple of lions realizing they just zigged when the zebra zagged. My bounce pass skips under their feet and they helplessly watch Grant lay it up. In yet another gym, I leak out on a fast break. Jason whips me a long bounce pass, but he leads me too far. Way under the backboard, about to fall across the baseline, all I can do is stab it with my left, switch it to my right, reach back and fling it up with the exact perfect english to spin it in off glass. Like fucking MAGIC. I am referring to the mysterious supernatural here, but perhaps even like the player too. For that small moment in time, I am connected to my favorite player. For just a second, maybe I am feeling what he has felt so many times. Not thinking. Just playing with complete freedom.
On the other side of the spectrum, is another kind of magic. I am not even sure if I can describe this without sounding crazy. But these are the times when you see something happening before it happens. In 30 or so years of hooping, probably thousands of games, I can only recall this happening maybe 8-10 times. But it was real and it was never a fluke. I’m not talking about those assholes who think every shot is going in so they always call it. Of course they are going to be right every once in awhile. And I'm not talking about those times where you release the shot and while it is in the air you call “game” or “money” because you can tell it’s going in. Those moments are good too (really good), but they’re not magical. What I am talking about is honest to goodness clairvoyance. I’m talking about coming down the court on the wing and telling your point guard, “I got this. Right here.” He passes you the ball and the shot is just a formality because you have already seen it go in. Like I said, it has only happened a handful of times for me, but when the words have come out of my mouth they have never been wrong. If that is not magic, I don’t know what is. I remember one time I did it on game point and after the game was over, I overheard two of my teammates. Younger guys that had been hesitant to pass to me early in the game because they didn’t know me. “Did you see that? He called it.”
Love the concept of flow. My work is mostly reading / writing / editing scientific, instructional and educational documents. I spend a lot of time tracking accuracy of details across multiple documents. In 2020 I started listening to a Spotify music podcast called Flow State. The host puts together 30 or 60 minute blocks of music that all fall within a certain bpm range. Each block is connected to the next block with a 5 minute binaural sound wave. He coaches you at the beginning to decide what tasks you will do during your 30 or 60 minute block and to ignore everything else. The 5 minute binaural break is your trigger to stand up, move around and look away from your computer screen. I listen to one or more “episodes” of Flow State almost every day because it is so helpful. even if I don’t reach a full flow state every day, it does improve my focus
In one instance (this has happened to me several times) I was singing extremely difficult music. I'd coached it for nearly six months, getting my head around the rhythms and dissonances, and went into dress rehearsals still nervous as hell; though this was grad-level work, I'd originally gone into majoring in voice with very little prior musical education, just an okay ear and ability to sing.
Got to dress rehearsal and my first big scene (this was a full orchestra dress) and it was as if I'd shrugged off some kind of heavy load that was dampening everything. Singing went from something I overthought to the degree I grew tense and my upper notes were tight to an effortless column of sound pouring out of me. I was absolutely on the beat, catching every nuance from the conductor's baton and hitting every mark. It was a small audience of friends, crew who would come out and sit, and various singers' voice teachers, and after I sang the final notes of my aria that preceded a scene change, they applauded for so long that the conductor paused before continuing with the music.
Unfortunately, this moment of flow didn't come back for the actual performances, I suspect due to nerves. I was fine with how I did, but really missed that feeling.
It happened once when I was 16, too. I was really mad because my Dad had given me hell about not completing some minor yard work that could wait. I was trimming foliage planted alongside the house and got stung by a bee, spooked by a snake, and then found I couldn't budge a dead plant stalk Dad wanted to remove. I got madder and madder till I felt like screaming, whipped around and threw the little hand spade I was using and it chunked an inch deep in the tree 20 feet away. I could not reproduce that action again no matter how I tried. The speed required to propel the least aerodynamic, blunt tipped garden tool imaginable, much less the force to bury it deep enough that I had to work to pull it out.
I haven't read enough about flow states to find out whether anger could ever lead to one, but reading up on the Norse legends about the way Berserkers seemed to fight with "trance-like fury" made me wonder.
Like Ron Colman, I experienced it playing basketball. It was nearly 50 years ago and I still remember it vividly. I think athletes are more likely to call it "in the zone" rather than Flow, but it sounds like the same thing.
Like others have said, I’ve experienced this in writing, but I’ve also experienced it in conversation. Specifically, when someone has come to me for advice. There have been a few instances where I hear myself saying things and it’s like I’ve been given access to wisdom I don’t normally have in order to help that person. Then I go back to being my usual dopey self; it’s like a bizarre Flowers for Algernon situation. What I find really interesting about these types of things, including your chess story, is that recognizing you’re in the flow doesn’t snap you out of it. Something ultimately does, but in the moment it’s like having a waking lucid dream.
In addition to two adrenaline situations I experienced in my young 20s where my thinking accelerated faster than my actions, I have experienced this when playing music with the right people.