A couple of weeks ago I saved a whale that was entangled in fishing gear. This is something I used to do when I was part of the Whale Research Group during my PhD at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Now another local group, run by some friends of mine, is in charge of this job.
While here in Newfoundland I had the opportunity to give them a hand.
As I remembered correctly, it was the usual “high energy" experience. Getting the call, skipping breakfast, getting the gear, the truck and boat ready, getting a change of clothes because you likely end up wet, and leave in a rush. Trying to get there as soon as possible, with one thing in mind: free the whale.
Once we got on location we had hard time finding it as it had towed the fishing gear out of the bay. After an hour or so, though, we managed to find it and we started the “roller coaster”, as i like to call it. That is when you ride on top of a 15m - 50ton whale in a small zodiac, trying to cut away the fishing gear on the giant and often scared animal.
Your mind gets very focused and you concentrate on the task at hand, which could be throwing the grapple to grab the fishing gear, pulling or letting go of the lines according to the whale’s movements, being careful not to get caught in the lines when the whale dives, watching the propeller and the nets, trying not to cut yourself with the sharp knives, balancing with the waves, etc.
It had been a while since the last whale entanglement I had responded to, about three years ago (pic), so I must admit that, for the first half an hour or so, I also had to deal with a bit of shaking in the legs. I was well aware than just a flick of the tail and we would all be flying up in the air. Passed that, no more time for afflictive thoughts, not even the one of: “Oh God, we are all going to die here.”
After a lot of struggles to get a hold of the lines attached to the whale, we managed to cut some, and the animal, probably feeling some relief, started to cooperate. In the end we got it all free with no major accidents. We were on the water for about 6 hrs.
On the steam back, lining on the railings of the fishing boat that had taken us there, the feeling of exhaustion set in, accompanied by a great sense of accomplishment for having saved an animal from certain death.
So how can you accomplish something so risky without being totally paralysed by fear?
You can when the psychological state of flow kicks in. As defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “the flow is a mental state in which you are totally immersed in one activity, with a sensation of energised attention, full involvement and pleasure.”
It is an adaptation of the mind to face a challenge or a difficult task. The result is a more concentrated mind, free of automatic and afflictive thoughts, that allows you to act without being distracted by secondary thoughts and with little fear of the consequences.
I have to admit that it feels good to be in such a state. It is a kick. All your regular problems are gone.
This mental state has been hailed by the proponent of positive psychology as the pinnacle of human experiences, and, according to them, we all should strive to reach such a state. But looking at it from a meditative perspective, I can also see some limitations.
In the flow state there is a goal, an intention. A football player, or a samurai or a sniper can all be in the flow. But are they connected with the essence of the other person? Do they they know that the person they are going to hurt with a bad foul or kill, is life as much as they are?
Once we become totally focused on a goal, we lose touch with the life inside us, and we also lose the connection with others. This way our actions become out of proportion with reality, and others become a means to an end. When we regain a bigger perspective, it is likely that we may feel remorse.
So where was our mindfulness during the state of flow?
It wasn't there. In the state of flow you gain concentration but you lose mindfulness. You lose the big picture. It is concentration without openings. You lose touch with the emptiness, the space that contains the object of your consciousness. For this reason, it is not a superior state of consciousness.
On the contrary.
It is like going back to the animal realm, where it is true that conceptual thoughts subside, and you ride on some primordial energy, but you also lose the connection with your essence and that of others.
I have heard the Dalai Lama telling the example of a man possibly writing his best novel for hours in an absolute state of flow, but, at the same time, totally neglecting his wife, and therefore sowing the seeds for a lot of suffering in the future for the both of them.
Is this a state of consciousness we should aspire to? Is this the pinnacle of human consciousness?
Also, the state of flow can be addictive. You may come to need it to feel alive. It can be like a drug. People in extreme sports or dangerous professions, or emergency workers can all become addicted to this altered state.
Nothing wrong when you are in it, but when you go back to your regular life, you start missing the excitement and the high energy of the flow. Your regular life feels dull in comparison. So the mountaineer wants to go back up on the mountain putting his life in a dangerous situation again.
Is there another way to act skilfully without regressing to a state that depends on external circumstances or that it is based on reaching a goal?
(next blog to find it out).