Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Flow?

Golden pantherAwoke to a vibration of wistfulness: glad for the relaxed pleasure in encountering everything with soft regard, and glad to feel only a faint rippling awareness of multiple kinds of violence in the world – sprung from conflicts in the news. It was inspiring to notice the ripples without having them compromise basic well-being – a style of alertness so new I wanted to write about it. Yet I felt wistful that an old way of knowing the world was fading away, a familiar “I” disappearing.

Is it possible humanity is really evolving into awareness of this flow state, beyond the contractions of fight, flight, and freeze that have characterized our lives and communications for millions of years? It was the absence of a fight-flight reaction, when reading about dangerous conflicts, that brought up the term and my memories of learning about it.

My earliest seminars had touched on the science side, on Walter B. Cannon’s  coinage of fight or flight, later expanded by Peter Levine’s work on Nature’s freeze response (in Waking the Tiger). The human potential movement (a Western discovery of Eastern wisdom) had launched its inquiries and experiments into flow: a subtle, beneficent capacity to witness/experience all of Nature, beyond personality and its representations of value. I read Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s wonderful Flow book when it came out, yet now see it as more performance-related than my own use of the word, which is more about essence – maybe more like Louis Schwartzberg’s magnificent time-lapse film of pollination, courtesy of TED. Yes, much of life does move more gracefully, precisely, and successfully from inside the flow state (athletes and artists call it the Zone), as long as the energy of striving doesn’t compromise it.

A dilemma sometimes arises in conveying subtle states, while honoring the dimensions where human activities like science are valid – the place most of us live and interact. I’m aware that for some readers, even the mention of science rings alarm bells. Understandable, considering all the presentations declaring that mystical experience is delusional, to be explained – soon or already – by machines. On the other hand, for some in the current consciousness conversation, saying “nondual” or “oneness” or “acceptance” or “presence” has become a form of flight (spiritual-bypassing) – however well-intentioned.

So when I mention (on this website founded on a meditation practice) the amazing TED Talk on the brain’s hippocampus, with its digital maps of how self-protective boundary-sense develops from remembered experience – perceived boundaries being critical components of human interaction (the word peace derived from the word for the stake in the ground that marked boundaries of the countryside) – I worry I’ll be viewed as one of those “brain creates everything” people. The brain is much more sensitive and elaborate than that: it registers and interprets. When it’s in the Flow Zone, the miraculous inventiveness of Nature is a marvel to observe, as a transducer of experience, not its generator. Awareness of it can live very well alongside and interwoven with mystical experience.

Knowing how it works, being aware of its functioning in one’s own reality, for example, adds to the pleasure and awe in watching, say, a Galapagos scene  in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, when caged specimens are dropped by gatherers fleeing an enemy. “Open the cages!” screams the physician-naturalist. The camera focuses on the jumbled pile of abandoned open-door cages, with lizards and other fauna clinging desperately to, or cowering in, the familiar boundaries of bamboo boxes. This leapt out at me, conditioned as I was by my early years of mind-body study: much of our early learning was about the power of conditioned “entrapment.” A host of movies since then have illustrated it beautifully. Terry Malick’s Tree of Life is (among other things) a brilliant tone poem of conditioned fight-flight-freeze, including the literal steel and glass cages of office buildings, with flow burgeoning in the form of Nature’s creation, from cosmic fires to water in all forms.

Once the mind fully groks how the body’s miracles work, admiration for its talent can replace self-judgment – and keys for reshaping our own perceptual boundaries are more materially in our hands. Tendencies to cling to old cages of circumstance and concept feel instantly more malleable. The self-sense can shift into a more creative mode, and compassion for self and “others” is enhanced.

So from the most transcendent to the most mundane, may our days flow in ever-deeper harmony, always.

About Cat and the Gateways