Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Lynda Flower, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. Ms. Flower’s research interest is in the psychology of religion, specifically regarding spiritual lived experiences during peak performance.
Ms. Flower is the author of the 2016 study ‘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, which was published in Performance Enhancement & Health.
The video below, produced by the University of Queensland, provides a great overview of the results of the study:
Video produced by University of Queensland, hosted by Vimeo.com.
I interviewed her about her motivations for the study, her interpretation of the results, and the ways in which she applies movement to her own life. I owe a huge “Thank You” to Ms. Flower for her time, and I encourage you all to read through the interview — it contains some great nuggets of advice!
What got you interested in this area of research (flow, athletic activity, spirituality)? What were your motivations for initially pursuing this topic?
I was initially inspired by a [University of Queensland] (UQ) lecturer Associate Professor Richard Hutch who taught the Master of Arts subject Psychology of Religion. He introduced us to the work of William James, a leading U.S. psychologist in the early 1900s who pioneered research in understanding the subjective nature of mystical and spiritual lived experiences.
I became fascinated how this research area expanded and developed over the decades and is now a global research area, particularly in sport. I was very keen to do some original research of my own for my Master of Arts thesis and chose ballet because ballet dancers with their strict training regimes are regarded as elite athletes as well as performing artists. I’ve just continued on from there.
You note that this research is located in “academic discussions of mystical and spiritual experiences in the Western cultural tradition.” To me, those two topics (“mythical experiences” and “Western culture”) seem slightly antithetical. Do you think Western culture should place more of an emphasis on spiritual experiences? If so, how?
Western culture has been dominated to a large extent by Christian narratives. A rich source of very detailed information about mystical experiences appears in literature about European medieval monks who reported these experiences during states of contemplation. Mystical experiences were not confined to monks and hermits however, and were also cultivated by the wider population. In medieval religious practices it was quite common for members of the general public to aspire not only to understand God but to directly experience him too.
In this increasingly consumer driven age, it would be nice to see more emphasis placed on the spiritual side of life. But this area is highly and uniquely individual and a matter of personal preference whether people wish to pursue this area of their lives or not.
Do you think activity and movement could act as a pathway for Westerners to take greater part in “mythical and spiritual experiences”? If so, how?
Activity and movement could certainly act as a pathway for Westerners to understand mystical and spiritual experiences. There has been a vast amount of research over the past three decades in the area of spirituality in sport. It could very reasonably be argued that common current terms used by athletes such as ‘going into the zone’ or into ‘states of flow’ during peak performance have their origins in the mystical and spiritual experiences.
The descriptions of the transcendent states of consciousness experienced while in the zone or flow are remarkably similar to descriptions of mystical and spiritual experiences from centuries past. Also going back to very ancient times there were two common ways to reach mystical and spiritual states. One was by contemplation and meditation, the other was by intense activity, such as ceremonial tribal dancing to induce trance like states.
The study clearly highlights that peak performance has myriad benefits to the performer. However, most people will never reach the level of elite performer. Do you think these results could apply to the average person?
William James found more than 100 years ago that there were varying levels of intensity for mystical and spiritual experiences. My recent study into peak performance in ballet also confirmed this. Some dancers reported having temporary melting moods in passing when dancing while at the other end of the scale other dancers reported going into such an altered transcendent state that their “day-to-day person wasn’t there, it was like another me.”
But those at the lower end of the scale reported that the ‘mild’ experience was still of benefit. It should be noted of course that dancers and athletes don’t reach dramatic levels of peak performance every time they perform. These tend to be occasional (i.e. a major dance performance or taking part in the Olympics) though less intense spiritual experiences of going into the zone or flow are regularly reported at other performance times, during training and so on.
Was there anything that surprised you about the results of the study?
What surprised me most was the lasting effects of the spiritual experience. I interviewed former professional ballet dancers who are now teachers and coaches. They could choose the most memorable spiritual experience they had had during peak performance to talk about.
Although they all spoke about experiences which took place 10-20 years ago, they all became very excited and emotional while reliving the event, it seemed to have had a profound effect upon them.
Many mentioned that although they are no longer dancing, the experiences/altered states of consciousness frequently still occur in other activities related to ballet such as teaching, lecturing or writing.
Have the results of this study impacted the ways in which you conduct your own life?
Most certainly! I’ve always tended to be more scholarly than athletic. Spiritual experiences for me usually occur through meditation and frequently while writing I drift off into a zone. But the research I undertook for the study highlighted the various intensities of spiritual experiences.
I’ve begun to recognize that even the less intense experiences which can occur while for example reading a beautiful poem, listening to music or watching a sunset also lift the spirits. For me, I find anything that takes me to a higher level of consciousness from the ordinary and every day, even for just a few moments, is beneficial.
How do you incorporate movement into your lifestyle? What advice do you have for people looking to incorporate movement into their lifestyles?
The three activities I regularly undertake are walking, swimming and Tai Chi. I walk as much as I can during my leisure time, at work I get up from the desk every couple of hours and take a walk along the long university corridors and up and down the stairs.
I try to swim every other day in summer and go to Tai Chi classes once or twice a week. Personally I find movement increases my energy levels which in turn helps my scholarly activities.
If people want to incorporate movement into their lifestyles then the key is probably to find something they really enjoy and like doing, otherwise it is likely to be short lived!
What are you up to these days? How can people find out more information about you if they are curious?
This year has been a busy one and I have more journal articles and a book chapter in the pipeline about my research into spiritual experiences during peak performance in ballet. I presented a paper at a Religion in Society conference in Washington, D.C., in March and am heading off to present another paper at a Global Spirituality in Sport conference at the University of York in the UK in August.
Thank you to Ms. Flower, and best of luck in your future endeavors!
Image from: Pixabay.com