Transcendent States Assist Peak Performance in Mystical Ways

Spiritual experiences “in the flow zone” can have long-lasting positive effects.

Posted Dec 11, 2018

Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock
Source: Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock

For the past decade, I’ve been trying to pin down specific language and universal terminology to describe the "transcendent ecstasy” of being in a Csikszentmihalyi-like state of flow that assists with achieving peak performance as both an athlete and writer.

The final chapter of my first book, The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, (2007) is titled “Superfluidity." This is a term I borrowed from the world of quantum physics and coined to describe the highest tier of being "in the zone" which (for me) feels almost like an out-of-body flow state—in which thoughts, emotions, and actions synchronize with absolutely zero friction, viscosity, or entropy—and one's body and mind seem to perform effortlessly. The psychological mindset that accompanies superfluidity is marked by ego-less exuberance, a sense of connectedness to something much bigger, and pure joy.

As an ultra-endurance athlete, who did seemingly “extraordinary” things—such as breaking a Guinness World Record by running six marathons back-to-back in 24 hours on a treadmill and completing three non-stop Ironman triathlons (7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, 78.6-mile run) in 38 hours without sleep—I was often more mystified by “how” I was able to accomplish these feats than onlookers. I always return to the spiritual aspects of these record-breaking peak experiences for answers more than intellectually analyzing my training regimen or sports-based physiology.

Since retiring from sports competition, I’ve spent years deconstructing the key elements that went into creating what I call “superfluidity” and have tried to transfer that skill set to other aspects of life. For example, as an athlete turned science-based writer, I strive to create a state of flow when I’m writing that allows my mind and fingertips to fluidly transcribe thoughts and empirical evidence into a keyboard while connecting seemingly unrelated ideas or interdisciplinary research in a way that seems “frictionless" and makes sense to the general reader.

For the record: Writing doesn’t come naturally to me and I'm still a rookie. Most of the time, I feel like a hack. “Superfluid” writing is rare (for me) and happens episodically. Just like in sport, being completely in the zone—in a spiritually-grounded way that assists peak performance—as a writer is unpredictable, but it's something I hope for every day. That said, because I know what superfluidity feels like as an athlete, sometimes I get the exact same “it’s about to happen!” sixth sense that lightning is about to strike. Then, within milliseconds “Shazam!” fresh ideas and evidence-based research come together in a miraculous flash where everything fits together perfectly in an instant.

In these moments, my touch-typing skills come in handy. As my brain becomes a conduit for something out there in the ethers that wants to take shape in the blogosphere, my fingers rapidly start clickety-clacking away on autopilot. When I'm in this state, I can type about a hundred words per minute. And my ten fingers seem to complete sentences faster via the QWERTY keyboard than my mind can think. At this speed, a 1,500-word article takes shape within a half hour. When this “ecstatic process” happens at my desk, it feels as if “I” (as an individual with an ego) am just a passenger along for the ride. (Ecstasy means “to stand outside oneself” in Greek.)

Although I’m almost always sitting still while writing, these moments of being “in the zone” at my desk feel like “coming home” to the same flow zone I knew as a professional athlete. The sensation of fluidly connecting thoughts, ideas, and actions while typing an article mirrors what it felt like to “stand outside myself” as an ultra-endurance athlete during moments of peak performance while running, biking, and swimming a long-distance triathlon.

The reason I’m giving you this background on my personal experiences with “superfluidity” is because yesterday morning I stumbled on some exciting new research from Australia that addresses these topics. After finishing a sunrise jog, I stopped into a coffee shop for breakfast. I was scrolling through the latest “MedicalXpress” headlines to see if there were any interesting new press releases, when suddenly this title jumped out at me, “Dancing 'In the Zone' Lasts a Lifetime for Dancers.”

The lede of this concise 250-word statement grabbed me, “Dancers often report achieving transcendent states of consciousness during peak performance, and a University of Queensland (UQ) study has shown these 'in the zone' states continue into later life.”

Even though I love to dance, I am by no means a “dancer.” Nevertheless, I said “Yes! This sounds spot on.” I suspected this study was probably referring to the same rarely-discussed phenomena of transferring "flow" skill sets from one domain to another that I’ve experienced as a retired triathlete turned writer.

The release goes on to describe how Lynda Flower, author of Transcendent States and Artistic Expression, and UQ Master of Arts (Studies in Religion) alumnus, conducted interviews with five former professional ballet dancers who became ballet teachers. The interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) based interviews reveal that previous “performance transcendent states” had influenced study participants' teaching techniques and life perspectives long after retirement from professional ballet. Flower notes that transcendent states were described as 'spiritual’ experiences by all the study participants and were associated with a positive lasting effect.

This paper, “Spiritual Experiences of Post-Performance Career Ballet Dancers: A Qualitative Study of How Peak Performance Spiritual Lived Experiences Continued into and Influenced Later Teaching Lives,” was published online November 19 in the journal Research in Dance Education.

“All participants said they continued to feel early career performance 'in the zone' states in later professional life in areas such as direct teaching, lecturing and academic writing. Additionally, all the teachers taught techniques to help students achieve their own performance 'in the zone' experiences,” Lynda Flower said in the statement. "Many former dancers said their performance and subsequent teaching 'in the zone' experiences had changed their worldview with a lasting influence for the better. For some these experiences generated an ongoing sense of achievement and 'making a difference,' while for others, the 'in the zone' feelings of joy, freedom, and abandonment increased intuitive awareness and the ability to handle stress more effectively."

This teaser made me eager to learn more. So, I did a Google Scholar search and found another paper by Flower from 2016, "'My Day-To-Day Person Wasn’t There; It Was like Another Me': A Qualitative Study of Spiritual Experiences During Peak Performance in Ballet Dance." By this point, I had a hunch Lynda Flower might be a kindred spirit.

After finding a viable email address that might reach Ms. Flower, I sent her an introductory note: “Greetings, Lynda Flower — Until this morning, I was unaware of your research. That said, a few minutes ago, I stumbled on a press release about your most recent study. Wow. Fascinating stuff!” Then, I explained some of my autobiographical first-person experiences mentioned above regarding “superfluidity" and requested the full PDF files of this research so I could read both studies in their entirety.

I also wrote, “If you're interested in reading a piece I wrote a few months ago for Psychology Today on the intersection between spirituality and peak performance please check out, 'What Driving Force Helps Us Go from Flow to Superfluidity?' (Out of curiosity: Does my description of 'superfluidity' echo how any ballet dancers in your research describe being 'in the zone'?)"

Within a few hours, I got a warm-hearted response. Lynda sent both papers and said, “Yes, I think 'superfluidity' perfectly echoes what the ballet dancers felt during peak performance. Being 'in the zone' has had a number of terms over the decades: mystical experiences, spiritual experiences, peak experiences, optimal experiences, states of flow and being in the zone, but descriptions of the actual lived experience indicate the feelings generated are consistently the same.”

Last night, I devoured both of the abovementioned papers by Lynda Flower along with another piece she wrote on this topic, “Spiritual Experiences: Understanding Their Subjective Nature in Peak Performance,” which was published May 4, 2017 in The Sport Journal.

This paper provides a detailed historical timeline of spiritual experiences and peak performance that ranges from “Ancient Origins and Medieval Traditional Religious Mystical Experiences” to "Separation of Mystical Experiences from Religion," on to "Postmodern Era: Peak and Optimal Experiences."  

Below is an excerpt by Lynda Flower from the section in this paper called, “Spiritual Experiences Across Historical Time Frames Are Inherently the Same,”

A review of the major historical research milestones of spiritual experiences in the West suggested that the reported subjective elements across the centuries were remarkably similar. The medieval mystical lived experiences of monks and hermits involved transcendent states of consciousness with an “individual felt experience” which was frequently “visionary” and “powerful” (26).

Later work by William James (10) in the early 1900s found “mystical moment” lived experiences involved similar positive transcendent states “outside of normal consciousness”. He also identified that these experiences occurred not only through religious practices but also in secular contexts (10). In the post-modern and New Age era, major studies by Abraham Maslow (14) into peak experiences and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1) into optimal experiences and states of ‘flow’ built on the foundational work of James (10). The major elements of these experiences reported across a wide range of professions (including sport) similarly involved heightened positive emotions and transcendent states of consciousness higher than normal everyday awareness.

Studies by Michael Murphy and Rhea A. White (18) into “in the zone” spiritual experiences in sport echoed previous historical research. Their findings indicated that the peak performance experiences reported by athletes involved “moments of illumination; out-of-body experiences; altered perceptions of time and space; exceptional feats of strength and endurance; and states of ecstasy” (18:3). A comprehensive review into ‘performing in sport with spirit’ by Mark Nesti (19) also found the subjective nature of spiritual experiences reported by athletes involved transcendent states, time and space distortions and a holistic worldview.

As can be seen from the above, the subjective nature of the transcendent states reported during mystical, peak, optimal and spiritual experiences, as well as states of ‘flow’ and being ‘in the zone’ are remarkably similar. These lived experiences all typically involve transcendent states beyond the limits of normal day-to-day consciousness, heightened positive emotions, and frequently elicit feelings of awe, wonder and amazement. Despite the different terms used across the decades, the accumulative historical research suggests the reported subjective nature of these experiences is inherently the same. The notion that spiritual experiences in sport today have their origins in ancient mysticism could also arguably be supported.

Again, all I can say is “Wow!” Flower says everything on this topic I’ve been trying to capture in words for the past decade in that passage.

Coincidentally, the final chapter of my book, The Athlete’s Way, begins with a long quote by William James from The Varieties of Religious Experiences: A Study in Human Nature. I also reference the findings from one of my all-time favorite books by Marghanita Laski, Ecstasy In Secular and Religious Experiences (1961).

Below is another passage by Lynda Flower from the sub-section "Difference Between Religious and Secular Experiences" in her paper "Spiritual Experiences: Understanding Their Subjective Nature in Peak Performance" (2017).

Although the transcendent elements described above were consistently reported in both religious and secular experiences, one essential difference was apparent. As Judeo-Christian narratives and medieval literature demonstrate, the original mystical experiences were interpreted through religious knowledge and belief and traditionally involved a ‘divine’ encounter with God (26). Although mystical experiences were generally understood to be solely religious, later terms such as spiritual, peak and optimal experiences and being in ‘flow’ or ‘in the zone’ were interpreted from both religious and secular perspectives. Non-religious experiences typically involved a transcendent feeling of union with the universe (10, 15) rather than a divine encounter.

In a sporting context, the term spiritual experiences is also generally understood to include both religious and secular experiences. As Richard Hutch notes (8), this acknowledges athletes with religious affiliations as well as those who may regard themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Also of note is that while athletes with religious affiliations often interpret their peak performance spiritual experiences through religious knowledge and belief (8, 18, 19, 24) few, if any, additionally report a ‘divine’ encounter with God.

Finally, although this review has highlighted that religious and secular spiritual experiences have inherent similarities as well as essential differences, the subjective reports demonstrate they remain highly individual in nature. Because spiritual experiences take place in personal, internal worlds and are interpreted through states of feeling rather than the intellect, they remain difficult to generalise (5). This echoes the observation made by William James more than a century ago that spiritual lived experiences essentially reflect: “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (James 1982). With this he set a definition of religion as a vital axis of a person’s life.

Together, the three papers by Lynda Flower listed in the reference box below make a dynamic triad that provides current evidence-based research on the link between spiritual experiences and peak performance within a historical context. If you have time, please explore this research more in-depth and stay tuned for a follow-up blog post that will do a deeper dive into Flower's most recent research.

References

Lynda Flower. "Spiritual Experiences of Post-Performance Career Ballet Dancers: A Qualitative Study of How Peak Performance Spiritual Lived Experiences Continued into and Influenced Later Teaching Lives." Research in Dance Education (First published online: November 19, 2018) DOI: 10.1080/14647893.2018.1543260

Lynda Flower. "'My Day-To-Day Person Wasn’t There; It Was like Another Me': A Qualitative Study of Spiritual Experiences During Peak Performance in Ballet Dance." Performance Enhancement & Health (First published online: November 25, 2015) DOI: 10.1016/j.peh.2015.10.003

Lynda Flower. "Spiritual Experiences: Understanding Their Subjective Nature in Peak Performance" The Sport Journal (Published: May 4, 2017)