The Ebb and Flow of Flow
By Tom Crowe
In his essay Ritual, Tribal and Catholic, Victor Turner asserts that flow is “a state in which action follows action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part” (Turner, 520). I like to think about it as being “in the zone,” or maybe better said, focusing without trying to focus. Flow presents itself in a variety of human activities, from communicating, to working, to studying, to recreating, to practicing religion to really any thoughtful activity (of course, without thinking about thinking it).
In Turner’s essay, he references the following 6 attributes (first described by Mihali Csikszentmihaly) that typify flow: 1) “Action and awareness are experienced as one.” 2) “Attention is centered on a limited stimulus field.” 3) “Loss of ego.” 4) “The actor finds himself in control of his actions and environment.” 5) “Coherent, noncontradictory demands for action and clear, unambiguous feedback to a person’s actions.” 6)“No goals or rewards outside itself” (Turner, 521-522).
Turner applies the idea of flow to religion, and more specifically, ritual. He states that a “well-constructed ritual system includes flow-breaking as well as flow elicitation,” through “agonized pauses and contraventions” (Turner, 522-523). He argues that when flow is deliberately halted, i.e., when “anti-flow” is introduced into ritual, it grounds the participants, allowing them to realize exactly where they are, contemplate what’s happening and why it’s important, so they can immerse themselves back in to the ritual with a renewed sense of vigor and direction.
During the sweat lodge ceremony on the 3rd night of our visit to Pine Ridge, we were graced by the presence of Mike Sr., the revered Medicine Man of the Little Boy Family, their extended family unit and the Colorado College Indigenous Religious Traditions class that makes the yearly journey to the Reservation. This ceremony was, by a significant margin, the most spiritual and meaningful sweat ceremony to me out of the four sweats we participated in, and probably, the most significant spiritual event of my life.
The biggest component and the reason why in my eyes I had this spiritual experience was because of the spiritual leader of the ceremony, Mike Sr. and the tone he set throughout the ceremony. He had this energy about him that instilled peace in my mind, cracking psychological barriers that normally prevent me from capturing the full potential of ceremony. He was able to communicate and act in a way that made everything make sense, combining prayer, wisdom, rhythm, connectivity and beauty into the experience, engaging me with whatever was important at that moment. Moreover, he channeled me in and out of the flow Turner argues is so essential to ritual, in and out of prayer, in and out of myself, and in and out of understanding, leaving me with an incredible amount of clarity and peace by the time the ceremony was over. And while I can’t speak on behalf of all of my classmates and the other participants, I don think I was alone in this feeling.
In particular, coming in and out of self-consciousness, (or as Turner describes it, the experience of action and awareness as one) was the most formative part of it. I generally have a hard time getting out of my own head, removing my conscientious self from my thoughts and actions, so being able to do so (without self hindrance and questioning) was incredibly unique and powerful. During ceremony, particularly when the 3rd and 4th rounds of the ceremony came to an end, I emerged from the flow, and was able to reflect on how important it was for me that I had lost self-consciousness during these periods, giving me an even stronger desire and urge to harness flow and seek out all the clarity and spiritual emotion that arise when action and awareness are combined.
While I didn’t necessarily realize the full significance of coming in and out of flow during ceremony, reading Turner’s article and reflecting on my experience enabled me to grasp how important it was for my experience. Without flow, you cannot reach a higher level of spirituality and peace of mind, and without the anti-flow, you cannot reflect and push yourself to ponder and question why the flow is meaningful. I appreciate being able to conceive something that earlier I was unable to understand.
Mike Sr.’s son, Mike Jr., led the other sweat ceremonies that took place on the 1st, 2nd and 4th nights of our visit to Pine Ridge. During these sweats I did not have as deep and meaningful spiritual experience. The biggest hindrance to my full psychological and spiritual engagement in these three ceremonies was my inability to harness flow, and subsequently, not being able to come out of it, ponder it and come to value it. A big part of this was that my connection with Mike Jr. was not as strong, which is undoubtedly a two-sided coin: 1) my own self-consciousness, my preconceptions and assumptions, my internal wall and 2) the lack of connectivity, rhythm, spiritual capture and engagement in Mike’s ceremonial leadership, that presented itself both in and out of sweat. While I feel guilty for blaming someone else for what I may be misconstruing for my own shortcomings, I cannot deny and ignore what I think and feel. The distracted and self-conscious state that arose from both my own and Mike Jr.’s shortcomings, though formative in terms of how I can change myself and how I can think critically of others, made it impossible for me to harness the flow that Turner argues is so important to ritual. Thus, I was never able to reflect on the flow experience and realize and engage in the importance of everything that goes along with finding flow.
Applying the concept of flow to a context outside of ritual and ceremony, I think that the Little Boy Family at this moment in time, and subsequently the people who participate in their ceremony, are in a period in which their flow is somewhat diminished. The Little Boy Family and their extended social unit are in a liminal, or transition time. Mike Sr., the Medicine Man, the curator of the Lakota tradition, wisdom and healing and spiritual leader is on his way out and Mike Jr. is on his way in. While this period has been and will continue to unfold for a number of years, this transition creates a complex array of emotions, challenges and potential for increased spiritual enlightenment for all the participants in ceremony for years to come.
The position that Mike Jr. is currently in is extremely challenging as he is unsure of his role as the upcoming spiritual leader, wavering somewhere between spiritual apprentice and spiritual master (i.e. Medicine Man) a title that carries a lot of responsibility and pressure to perform in a way that impacts a lot of people. Mike Jr. and Mike Sr. have a not-so-perfect relationship, exemplified by Mike Jr.’s comments during ceremony, Mike Sr.’s apathy towards them and Mike Jr.’s subsequent exit during ceremony.
This period that the family and their larger social/spiritual unit serves as the anti-flow, what I think will be influential in framing their context, purpose and the intention behind why they pursue the traditional Lakota ceremonies and religion. Just like halting flow in ritual, halting it during their journey as spiritual beings will ground them, contextualize where they stand and push their community forward into the future of capturing meaningful spirituality through flow and breaking down all the barriers that prevent them from reaching it.
Turner, Victor. “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic.” Worship 50: 504-524. (1976).