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Hone Your Own Flow

teafaerie | Musings | Monday, May 11th, 2009

When I’m on psychedelic drugs, I’m much worse at most of the things that I try to do. I’m worse at tying my shoes, for instance, and I’m worse at keeping track of time. I suck at operating electronics when I’m stoned, and at finding large objects in small pockets. I’m bad at remembering what I was just thinking or saying, I can scarcely read printed text, and making sense of subway maps is entirely out of the question. The dire warnings about the operation of heavy machinery are well founded, as are the tough laws against attempting to drive a car.

On the other hand, there are a few things that I’m better at when I’m high. Such, in any event, is my consistent perception. Importantly, sober observers tend to agree with me, and video records made at various altitudes confirm my suspicions.

I’m active in the fire spinning and flow arts community, which means that I like to set things on fire and swing them around. Sometimes the thing is a hula hoop or a big staff, other times it’s something more like a baton or a small ball on the end of a chain. I mostly don’t practice with real fire, of course (for which sobriety is emphatically recommended), but I practice quite a bit. I do it every day. I know what I can do and I know what’s just barely out of my reach, and I can state with complete confidence that I’m noticeably more awesome at twirling things around on, say, a touch of acid than I am when I’m stone cold sober.

This is assuming that all conditions are nominal and I can rally my focus to give it a good go and what have you; but the effect is fairly consistent, tested over maybe 100 experiences in a wide variety of sets and settings. It doesn’t require a whole lot of drugs. There’s a point of diminishing returns, obviously. Sometimes I just like to take a little bit. A good +1 on ye olde Shulgin Scale is enough to give me an appreciable edge. I think it has something to do with time dilation, though I don’t think that this is a complete explanation. I do occasionally get this sort of Bullet Time effect where I seem to be watching my tool swing around in slow motion, and I have plenty of time to pluck a falling object out of the air without quite having to rush.

I had this practice for a long while and spinning became a real trip anchor for me, and eventually also something like a sail. Accordingly, I started hanging out with more spinners and attending related events. […] As a result of all this our house has become something of a crash landing pad for itinerant flowbos on the international fire-spinning circuit, so I get a chance to talk in depth with quite an impressive cross-section of the subculture’s superstars. In the beginning, I was surprised by the percentage of top-tier performers who would cop to having made enormous breakthroughs in their arts on psychedelics. Now I kind of tend to assume it, unless I’m told otherwise. It’s by no means the rule, so please don’t think I’m suggesting that all or even most flow arts practitioners use drugs. I know plenty of straight or straightish spinners who are truly amazing, though many of them are way into yoga or some other integrated physio-energetic practice in addition to spinning.

The ecstatic dance community reports similar phenomena. Almost everybody has a story about the time they finally clicked into the trance, and nine times out of ten the experience involved some kind of psychedelic or empathogen. What they tend to say about it always sounds vaguely Eastern to me, with people talking about Chi and feeling “in tune” or “in harmony” with their tool, or even with the Universe itself. Some of them speak of a mysterious energy field that seems to both control their actions and obey their commands. Is this perception just a hangover from our Star Wars–soaked youth, or is there something to it? For sure a sense of unity with all things is an almost hackneyed psychedelic cliché, as is the impression that one is suddenly possessed of extraordinary skill, knowledge, or good fortune.

Another well-worn trope of the psychedelic experience is the perception that events seem to mysteriously constellate themselves around the vagaries of whim or will, or in accordance with some underlying congruity between the individual and her environment. Carl Jung called this phenomenon “synchronicity”, and he thought it to be objectively true, whatever that means. He found that it often occurred when a patient was unusually inflated, or at a particularly critical phase of therapy.

My personal experience with synchronicity, manifestation and repetition of pattern as related to psychedelics is far too bizarre to elucidate in this forum. I’d lose whatever shred of credibility I might hope to cling to if I told you half of the less impressive stories in my exceedingly outré collection. I’m not just talking about opening up to the right pages in books and little parlor tricks of that nature, either. The repetition thing is particularly interesting to me. For instance, I happened to eat apricots and almonds at the peak of my very first candyflip, and I’ve been “randomly” offered both foods together on no less than ten subsequent occasions, all while under the influence of the same combination of chemicals. The stranger holding the bag of trail mix always looks at me kinda funny when I suddenly burst out laughing and can’t seem to stop. I’ve given up trying to explain it to them. But I always accept the munchies. It’s sort of a tradition.

Yeah yeah, I know. We’re pattern-recognizing machines. That’s what we do. I was one of those kids who read Illuminatus in high school and I thought the number 23 was following me around for a while, right up until I decided to make myself obsessed with a different random number on purpose. Lo and behold, the new number starting appearing everywhere in my life. Just like any number would if you happened to be especially programmed to notice it. One of the things that drugs do is goose the button that says “This Is Important! This Means Something!” even when the situation is totally trivial. For sure this is part of what’s going on here. Tough to pick it all apart, though.

I think enhanced pattern recognition is a big piece of the puzzle, actually. According to several friends (ahem) high up in the field, a lot of computer programmers do their best work with just a little bit of an edge on, too. I once had a friend who got his PhD in mathematics. In order to do this you have to *discover something new in math*. I can still remember him sitting on the floor of the rec. room on half a hit of acid, shuffling and
reshuffling pages of numbers, trying to pick the whole pattern up in his head and turn it sideways so he could see it from a different angle. This might also explain why some musicians find that psychoactives enhance their art. And indeed I hesitate to speculate about who would be left holding their statuettes if they started stripping folks of their Grammys and whatnot on the grounds that some of the past winners made use of performance-enhancing substances. That being said, in my experience many tripping musicians are rather like drunk musicians: overweening, underprepared, and incompetent. Except when they aren’t.

On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis pitched a rare no-hitter against the Padres in the opening game of a double header in San Diego. He claims to have been under the influence of LSD when it happened, although he did not reveal that part of the story until many years after the fact. He had forgotten that it was a game day until after he’d already dosed. Apparently he was in the groove and success was inevitable, even though by all accounts he pitched a pretty wild game, walking several batters, dodging imaginary line drives, and almost hitting a couple of guys.

Psychedelics have been associated with the stimulation of the linguistic function in more than one context. I myself have had mixed luck attempting to amuse the muses in this manner. Writing is definitely a flow thing for me, though, and while it’s sadly true that most of my high-flung output is pure crap, what I still think of as the best thing I’ve ever written was produced on several grams of P. cubensis, straight upstream of consciousness, all-in-one-go, with almost no cross-outs or editing. (You can find it at and judge for yourself.) At other times, I couldn’t complete a sentence on an eighth of mushrooms if my life depended upon it. It’s not all that reliable, but when it works it works.

It goes without saying that plenty of users never experience anything remotely like this at all. I just find it interesting that so many of the people whom I bring it up to seem to know what I’m talking about. I’ve heard some fascinating stories. Certainly the commonality of these themes is well borne out in the literature.

Then of course there’s anti-flow, which is when everything goes haywire and you can’t do a damn thing right. Yes, it does happen. Let’s not even talk about it, though.

So what’s going on here? Is it a Chi thing, like a surge in The Force that I grew up wanting to believe in? Or is it something more akin to having a faster processor speed and a better connection? Is it the result of some kind of perceptual shift, like time dilation, increased visual acuity, or super-sensitized kinesthetic awareness? Is it a concentration thing? Is it just the placebo effect? Is it immersion in the Tao or some more Jungian organizing principle? Is it magic? Is it an illusion? Is there a difference? The debate flows on.

It really is a thing though. If you’ve never had it happen to you, try dancing more.