Frame, Flow, and Focus

The combination of personal analysis and academic based analysis (purely reading) is important for gaining a deeper understanding of scenarios and allowing for means of analysis. While personal experience gives one the means to feel an experience, it is sometimes too personal for a deeper analysis of the subject. On the other hand academic readings give an analysis, but do not allow for the student to experience the situation for their own personal thoughts and feelings to develop. This being said, this essay will incorporate both personal and academic thought for a deeper analysis and understanding of Frame and Flow in the context of Lakota sweat lodge ceremony.

The sweat-lodge provides borders to an internal experience, which religious expert Victor Turner would describe as “a segment of society sectioned off to be scrutinized and assessed.” (Turner, Frame Flow and Reflection). In Turner’s articles Frame, Flow and Reflection, and Ritual, Tribal and Catholic, he discusses the idea of frame and flow. This is the idea that one aspect of life, the cultural or outside scenario, effects the personal experience and visa versa. To analyze this idea further, this essay will focus on the frame and flow aspects of the indigenous religious tradition of sweat lodge. Furthermore, the tools for analysis will be a combination of personal experience, observation and Turner’s articles mentioned above.

As previously mentioned, there is a framework for any internal situation or experience know as flow. The religious and cultural traditions of the Lakota people at Pine Ridge reservation created the framework for setting up the sweat lodge. The next layer of this spiritual frame lies within the physical stimulation. As one enters the sweat-lodge they will find it hot, humid, dark, and in some cases rather claustrophobic. Regardless of this original reaction, there is also a deeper frame work that the culture has created around a sweat-lodge as being a place of ceremony. Just as a church has been created for a place of prayer and is respected as such when one enters, so is a sweat-lodge. The reaction from entering a sweat lodge is that of flow which is the state of ones internal being. The dark, hot, humid aspect of the lodge signals to the individual entering that it is culturally expected for them to enter a mode of flow, in this case focus specifically in the form of prayer.

On page 520 of Turner’s article Ritual, Tribal and Catholic, he discusses the idea of flow stating, “flow is a common experience whenever people act with total involvement.” In the case of the sweat lodge, the focus given by each individual demonstrates this. Culturally it is encouraged that each individual focus in the form of prayer because that is the purpose of the ceremony. From the view point of education, however, this is not necessary. Reflexivity is clearly demonstrated in this situation showing that most people who enter the sweat-lodge will pray, as a reflection of the cultural framework, hence strengthening the religious framework.

In this same article Turner mentions the six qualities of flow. The first quality of flow states (page 520):


If a person in flow becomes aware of what he is doing, self-consciousness makes him stumble and flow-pleasure gives way to anxiety. One might argue here that if one has a good grasp of ritual rules, one could lose self-consciousness in the flow experience of competent performance. (Turner, Ritual, Tribal and Catholic)


In the sweat-lodge flow is shown by the prayer or focus that one must have in order to withstand the heat within the lodge and as a part of the ceremony. Although my personal experience does not pertain to everyone, it remains an example of breaking flow. Within the sweat-lodge it was important to focus whether it be on prayer or on another aspect of life. Due to the framework, the physical aspect of the sweat-lodge as well as prayer through music, prayer was the most accepted form of focus. In my experience, the less I was able to focus the more I felt the heat and noticed personal discomforts. This is important when discussing the first quality of flow due to the idea that by breaking flow of focus I became more aware of my discomforts and was no longer fully engaged in the ritual. The more experienced people in the ritual, such as the spiritual leader Mike Jr., did not react in the same way to many of the discomforts that many of my peers and I felt. This being said, it is arguable that he was able to “lose self-consciousness in the flow of experience experience of competent performance.”

Turner’s second quality of flow is “that flow is made possible by a centering of attention on a limited stimulus field.” The frame of the sweat-lodge limited stimulus directly through the senses as well as culturally. Complete darkness limited the powerful sense of sight hence strengthening ones awareness for sound, taste, touch, and smell. Of these remaining four senses sound and touch were influenced by the intensified addition of music and heat, each playing an important roll for the framework of sweat-lodge. The heat and steam from the rocks provided a potential discomfort making it all the more important to focus. Moreover the music provided an even more specific framework for each individual to direct their focus to prayer.

In the ceremony many people in our class were directly influenced by the framework of music. As the rhythm of the drum and sung-prayer began, many people joined in. Without anyone directly telling us to sing along, clap, or rock back and forth we lost all since of ego and acted in these ways. This is Turner’s third attribute of flow (pg. 521).  Although, no one in our group understood the Lakota language and few of us had ever participated in sweat before, we began to pray with the others. This is again, a strong example of reflexivity as the framework created by the music created complete inner focus, prayer, that made the ego irrelevant. In his article Turner states “no ‘self’ is needed to bargain about what should or should not be done” he further goes on to quote Csikszentmihalyi about unity being a part of flow. The lack of ego in the sweat-lodge allowed for a unity between those involved in the ritual, allowing the shedding away of any fear of outside judgement. Thus the prayer helped the community come together in turn strengthening the power of the ritual.

The fourth element of flow is when the individual finds himself/herself in control of the environment and in reflection finds that his/her skills perfectly match what the ritual demands of him/her (pg 521). Prayer within the sweat ceremony is both the framework and flow at this point. In other words the focus of prayer allows for the individual to be in a mind set that is essential for the participation of the ritual and staying in the ritual. Turner goes on to say that “if skills outmatch demands, boredom results; if skills are inadequate, there is anxiety.” Since the concept of prayer is not directly dependent on skill and is different for each person the only possibility for skill is inadequacy, resulting in discomfort.

Another attribute of flow is “flow usually contains coherent, noncontradictory demands for action and provides clear, unambiguous feedback to a person’s actions.” (Pg.522). This attribute directly relates to the reaction from the sensory element of sweat-lodge ceremony as the musical prayer lead to singing and clapping. Furthermore the mere act of prayer gives a person positive feedback because it is what the framework calls for, where as non-prayer or non-focus results in discomfort. By not focusing the person does not feel the fulfillment in the activity and may even feel a discomfort caused by the sensory framework set by the form of the sweat-lodge.

Similar to the discomfort one may feel physically, there is also the internal feeling of failure or success that one may experience. Turner states, “One can throw oneself into the cultural design of the game or art, and know whether one has done well or otherwise, when one has completed the round of culturally predetermined acts.” Culturally predetermined acts, or social norm, is determined by the framework provided. In the case of a sweat-lodge one knows that they have done “well” by fulfilling the act of praying, as is called for from the cultural framework of entering into such a ceremony. Although the predetermined act of praying is called upon it is not always possible for every individual to do. As an example, I was able to focus for the first three sweats, but unable to focus in the final sweat and felt great discomfort. Within the frame to focus, the internal flow of a person unable to focus may result in shame or guilt for the inability to focus. In some instances in the sweat-lodge the inability to focus resulted in people having to leave.

Just as prayer is a personal flow, so is shame. The person feeling ashamed for not being able to focus feels it at a personal level and remains in a form of flow. Although, they are no longer within the same flow, prayer or focus, as the rest of the group may be, they are still within the framework of the sweat-lodge ceremony.

The final element of flow is “ that it seems to need no goals or rewards outside itself. To flow is to be as happy as a natural human being can be…the specific rules that frame and trigger the flow don’t matter.” In context of the sweat-lodge, the act of prayer itself is self-sustaining and self-fulfilling. Even though the sweat-lodge provides a frame work for the personal act of praying, praying is a direct route to fulfillment. The religious culture that supports sweat-lodge promotes prayer which is self fulfilling thus strengthening the framework of sweat-lodge. Within ceremonial context this is that we all entered into the sweat-lodge to pray, knowing that the reward from prayer would come from within and there did not need to be any further incentive.

In addition to these elements of flow, Turner comments on the need to break flow as a part of the ritual process. In the case of sweat-lodge the opening of doors and doing rounds breaks the flow. The purpose of breaking the flow reinforces the focus and cultural framework of the ceremony.

The use of Turner’s articles and my own personal experience have allowed for specific application of Turner’s elements of flow in a ceremonial situation. My own experience in the sweat-lodge provides a frame in which my internal flow took place. In turn this strengthens the idea of reflexivity, creating a full circle link between my own experiences and the strengthened framework of the sweat lodge ceremony.

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