Losing Your Self
Most performers will admit that, in those liminal moments, you really have no choice but to push yourself.
Years ago, when I was in the throes of punk rock, my guitarist and I finished a set by jumping into the mosh pit. Partly because it was awesome, and partly in response to the crowd’s energy and enthusiasm. Most performers will admit that, in those liminal moments, you really have no choice but to push yourself.
So there I was, swinging my bass around, a tight sweaty circle opening and closing around me as we wailed through our final notes, chords, and screams. I was knocked about, shoved off balance, shoved back on to my feet, the crowd, equal parts demanding and supportive. As the last few notes loomed, I felt a little tap on the top of my head, near the hairline.
There was a moment of blankness but when it cleared I was on my knees, my bass held high over my head, ringing out the last deep rumble. As I staggered my way upright, I ran my hands through my hair, pushing it back, noticing I was a little sweatier than I’d expected. The horrified looks from the people around me suggested it was something else.
Turns out I was bleeding. A lot.
The little tap was the tip of a guitar punching through my forehead. A brief ER visit and some staples later, I had a really cool story and the license to use ‘splitting headache’ as often as I wanted to.
Oddly, since this was before smartphones, there happened to be a video recording of the show. When we reviewed the video tape, I got a chance to see the hit, watch myself fall, and stand back up. What was pointed out to me is that I never missed a note. I remember being blank but I don’t remember playing.
So who was playing?
Whether you think of it as such, we all have moments where our sense of self dissolves. There are moments in our lives when something is happening, and we happen to be the ones doing it.
Our training, our practice, our efforts are no longer within our conscious control and we achieve something like a flow state but with less feedback or awareness. There’s a flow state, but then there’s something a little beyond that. In a quiet empty space where ‘you’ aren’t, where ‘self’ isn’t.
A flow state is defined by Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi as
- intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- merging of action and awareness
- subjective experience of time is altered
- experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding
- “Immediate feedback”
- feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible
- loss of reflective self-consciousness
- sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- feeling that you have the potential to succeed
I would suggest that past a flow state is a null state, where the last two components fall away. There is no ‘person’ to have control or agency. There is no ‘you’ to feel the potential to succeed.
Creatives seek these moments, but you don’t have to be creative to experience it. You might reach it through a deep meditative state. You might get there by throwing yourself into physical tasks like gardening or masonry. No matter how you do it, I think a null state is a symptom of doing The Work. And I think a null state is a chance to really know what you are, not just who you are.
I find ways to help people perform to the best of their abilities, make processes as efficient as possible, ensure technology is being used to accelerate not complicate. In the end, there will always be work. But if we do it together, maybe it won't feel like work.