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Prince Ghidorah avatar 6:17 PM on 08.27.2008  (server time)
The Flow of Shmups: Ikaruga v.s. Yoga

I recently came across the concept of Flow, a term coined by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentimihaly (don't ask me how to pronounce it). The always reliable Wikipedia lists a number of hallmarks of the Flow experience which include: A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness. A distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself. Essentially, there is a dilation of time, a sense of almost automatic control over the activity, and a melting away of the duality between the actor and action.

Most of Csikszentmihaly's examples involve athletes and musicians, professionals whose work involves the repetition of a particular task (dribbling a football, playing a piano) to the point where the task itself becomes automatic, i.e. muscle memory takes over and self-conscious thought falls away. Now, athletes and musicians who reach a level of accomplishment wherein the flow state is well known to them are celebrated in our culture. The guy who does an amazing Ikaruga speed run and posts it on youtube? No multi-million signing bonus or headline performance at Carnegie Hall for him. But they all got there the same way, by "overlearning" or practicing something obsessively until it is not merely mastered but completely automatic.

The philosopher Zhuangzi held that there was essentially no difference between someone who masters a musical instrument, a religious ritual or whatever skill set was regarded as socially useful in his or her culture, and someone who practices catching cicadas on a pole or butchering oxen until it becomes a pure meditative experience in which all dualities are erased. The point isn't the outcome or the nature of the task, the point is the achievement of that rare and ineffable state of mind.

So the next time that your significant other gives you grief for being absorbed in a Shmup for hours on end or trying to achieve a perfect run-through of Super Mario Bros. just tell them that you are following the Tao and erasing your ego duality.

Link to the ox butchering story...

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