On ‘flow’ and the distinction between spaciousness and emptiness.

by waxbanks


Think of ‘flow states’ not as forebrain-free experiences, but rather as those in which thought, meta-reflection, and action are experienced as integrated. This might not be the right model in terms of neurobiology but experientially I think it makes sense. You act, think, think about thinking, conceptualize — and the different frames of experience seem to align. This is the prize. In flow you’re not just empty: you are spacious.

This superposition of experience is also known as the ‘oceanic’ feeling: borderlessness, fluidity. This is the nature of that specific heightened state, in which imagination is in alignment with outward/physical experience. It’s the (sometimes) poetry of psychogeography.

The setting (the City, say) is a somatic component of the spell; the spell is cognitive in fundamental nature.


The spaciousness/emptiness distinction is an important one. In flow states we don’t experience empty mind, but rather an inexplicable facility — we know where the ball is headed before the opponent hits it, we hear the next phrase before our musical partners play it, we improvise entire stanzas instead of individual verses. This is obviously not empty-headedness! Nor is it as simple as ’emptiness of ego’: we’re aware of our bodies, our minds. We have self-consciousness…but not ego-attachment.

(Recall DFW’s observation about Roger Federer and what it means to be perfectly in command of your instrument, about the tennis ball looking to him like it’s as big as a basketball. The world slows down for you, but it doesn’t hollow out in doing so — you can just take it in, seemingly without effort.)

In a flow state, the world is positively full of spaciousness. What’s ‘missing’ is barrier and imposition. But so much more is present — even as we sense that there’s suddenly so much more room.

Again, note that this is a description of experience, not neurobiology. I’m only talking about the subjective experience of flow. You really do feel perfectly capable, alive to the moment. What you don’t feel is the vestigial attachment to the idea of the moment — or to the past, the self, imagined futures never to be — holding you back from the present. ‘Single-point awareness’ isn’t necessarily simple. The moment is complex, awareness the same.