Let me begin with a story from the Tales of Vikramaditya. The story is about Urvashi.
What does Urvashi have to do with performance excellence and the flow, you might ask. Isn’t she an apsara, a heavenly dancer, or more correctly, a heavenly courtesan? Isn’t her job, according to mythology, titillating male hearts and tempting ascetics with her charms?
The tales of Dattatreya that India has been telling and retelling for ages teach us that wisdom could be found anywhere. One could learn wisdom from a fish, from a crane, from a leaping tiger or from the stillness of a mountain. One could learn lessons from a heavenly courtesan, or her poorest cousin, a street whore too. In fact, Indian culture teaches us several invaluable lessons through tales of prostitutes.
In one of the stories told about her in the Tales of Vikramaditya, Urvashi teaches us the highest lesson in performance excellence.
The story tells us that once there was rivalry between the two best celestial dancers Urvashi and Rambha about who was the better dancer of the two. Now both the apsaras are renowned for their unsurpassed beauty and for their dancing skill. Naturally the gods could not decide who the better dancer of the two was. It is also possible that none of them wanted to take a definite stand on this. For if you declared one the superior, you would displease the other. And you do not want to displease either Urvashi or Rambha! Finding no other way, they decided to leave the matter for arbitration by an outsider, by a human being.
Greek mythology tells us the story of the Judgment of Paris, in which Paris was called upon to judge who is the most beautiful of all the goddesses. What had happened was that all the gods and goddesses were invited for the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis, leaving out Eris, the goddess of discord. The Nuptials are not a celebration to which you want to invite the goddess of discord, but Eris did not like that she was left out and wanted her revenge. What she did was to write the words “For the fairest” on a golden apple and throw it among the guests at the party. Three goddesses claimed the apple: Juno, the queen goddess of Olympus, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and Venus, the goddess of beauty. Jupiter was called upon to decide but he did not want to take a decision in the matter – he knew what would happen if he chose whichever one of them. Eventually it was decided that the handsome young shepherd Paris would make the decision. The goddesses immediately approached Paris and tried to bribe him. Juno promised him power and riches if he chose her; Minerva promised him wisdom and fame; and Venus, the most beautiful woman on earth as his wife. Paris declared Venus the most beautiful of the three. The other two goddesses instantly became his enemies. But Venus was pleased and took him to Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman on earth, and Helen’s elopement with Paris, who was already the wife of King Menelaus, led to the legendary Trojan War.
It is characteristic of Greek mythology that practically every time a god or goddess interferes in human affairs or a human being interferes in the affairs of gods and goddesses, it results in tragedy. But in Indian mythology, most of these interferences are benign in their result, though there are exceptions.
Well, coming back to Urvashi and Rambha, the man whom the gods decided to place in the seat of judgment was none other than King Vikramaditya, the king-emperor, legends about whom fill volumes of Indian folklore, the most famous of which are what are popularly known as the Tales of Vikram and Vetal.
Vikram was then ruling from Ujjayini [modern Ujjain in central India], his splendorous capital that rivalled Amaravati, the capital of Indra, the lord of the gods. Invited by Indra, Vikramaditya reached Amaravati and was received with great honour. He was invited to watch the performances of Urvashi and Rambha for a few days and also to participate in the other entertainments of Amaravati. Some two weeks passed this way and then one day Indra asked him the question to answer which he had been brought to the capital of the celestials.
Vikramaditya was very reluctant to do the job he was asked to do, though he felt greatly honoured. Who was he, a mere mortal, to judge the celestials, he asked. When pressed, he remained lost in thought for a while and then, after planning out a strategy in his mind, agreed ro. The following day was set for him to make the decision.
Just before the competition began, Vikramaditya asked for two floral garlands to be brought to him. Unknown to everyone, Vikram hid a scorpion inside each garland. [We must assume here there are plenty of scorpions in heaven!] As the dancers were about to begin, Vikramaditya gave each of them a garland, which they were requested to wear during the dance.
The dance began and both Urvashi and Rambha were at their very best. The audience of gods, goddesses and celestial sages watched spellbound as their performance ascended to greater perfection every moment. Both Urvashi and Rambha always danced breathtakingly, but today the whole audience felt no one could ever dance to greater perfection.
And then it happened. Surprising everybody, Rambha made her first mistake. A slight imperfection, an almost imperceptible fault. And then another, and then yet another. Something amazing was happening before the eyes of the gods, goddesses and sages! Instead of giving the best performance of her life, Rambha was giving the worst ever! No one had ever seen Rambha making so many errors in a dance. It was unbelievable. Everyone knew she was a supreme mistress of dance and now she was dancing like an amateur!
The dance came to an end. No one had any doubt about who the winner was. Vikramaditya’s words merely confirmed the conviction in everybody’s heart. Urvashi was officially declared the supreme dancer of the heavens. Rambha fled the scene in shame.
Now the gods and goddesses turned as one person to Vikramaditya. What had he done? How was the miracle achieved? Why had Rambha failed on that day? Why had she made so many obvious mistakes? Why had she danced like a novice?
Vikram explained the test he had designed. The garlands he gave the dancers had a scorpion hidden inside each. So long as the dancers danced to perfection, their rhythms would be so smooth that the scorpions would be unaware of their movements, their steps and movements would lull them into a kind of contented sleep. That is how Indian dances are designed – the movements induce a kind of light trance. But the moment the steps and movements became less than perfect, this trance would be disturbed. The movements would lose have their mellifluousness and become jarring and irregular. This might not be obvious to the audience because the dancers are so supremely talented, but within the garlands the scorpions would become disturbed because they would physically feel the jarred movements. Awakened from the trance, they would sting the wearer. And that is what had happened with Rambha.
But how had Rambha’s movements become less than perfect in the first place?
As a dance progresses, the best of dancers transcend themselves and then it is no more they dancing, but dance happening through them. Dance has the ability to take the dancer beyond herself, beyond her limited self, and it is when this happens that dance achieves its highest quality. It is no more a dancer dancing then, but dance flowing out of the dancer on its own. It then becomes pure dance, without a dancer being present. In the language of the Gita, action then becomes inaction because there is no actor behind the action. Karma becomes akarma because there is no karta behind it. The result is unsurpassed excellence.
When the dancer ceases to be and the dance goes on, then it becomes pure dance. Supreme dance, truly divine dance. Then it is the divine essence in us that is dancing and not the ego.
This had not happened in the case of Rambha. As the dance progressed, a thought came to her mind – “How beautifully I dance!” And that thought created a gap between her and the dance. She was no more one with the dance, but there was a distance between the two, a distance created by her self-consciousness, by the presence of her ego. The moment that thought came to her head, the moment the ego appeared, her dance became less than perfect, her movement lost their perfection, and the resulting jarred movements awakened the scorpion and it stung her.
A single thought in the mind, and Rambha loses the contest.
Urvashi kept dancing in self-forgetfulness. Urvashi kept dancing and became one with her dance. For her it was no more she dancing, but dance happening through her. There was just the dance, she had disappeared.
What had happened to her was self-transcendence. Self-transcendence which is essential for the highest perfection in dance, for the highest perfection in any action.
It was not Urvashi who had defeated Rambha in the dance. Her own ego had defeated Rambha.
Our best moments in personal life as well as in professional life come to us in moments when our ‘self’ [ego] does not exist, is transcended. Modern psychology calls this ‘the flow state’. This is the state of all creativity, problem-solving, and performance excellence.
In all our outstanding performances, whether it is in singing, in painting, in writing, in making a presentation or a speech, in team work, in playing an individual game or a team game, or in making love, there comes a moment when the self as we know it does not exist. Those moments in the bathroom when we get beautiful creative insights – those are moments of self-forgetfulness/self-transcendence. In fact, all creativity, all inventions require this self-transcendence as its basis.
This is how George Leonard in his The Ultimate Athlete describes those moments:
“Michael Spino, a ranking long-distance runner, was training one rainy day along dirt and asphalt roads, and was being paced by a friend in a car. He planned to run six miles at top speed. After the first mile, he realized something extraordinary was happening; he had run the mile in four and a half minutes with no sense of pain or exertion whatever. He ran on, carried by a huge momentum. It was as if the wet roads, the oncoming cars, the honking horns did not exist. Gradually, his body lost all weight and resistance. He began to feel like a skeleton. He became the wind itself. Daydreams and fantasies disappeared. All that remained to remind him of his own existence was “a feeling of guilt for being able to do this.”
“When the run ended, Spino was unable to talk, for he had lost a clear sense of who he was. It was impossible for him to decide if he were Mike Spino or “the one who had been running.” He sat down at the side of the road and wept. He had run the entire six miles on wet and muddy roads at a four-and-a-half-minute pace, close to the national record, and now he could not decide who he was.”
Mike Spino did not understand it, but what had happened to him was an experience of self-transcendence.
Commenting on Spino’s experience, George Leonard says: “Distance running is indeed a powerful instrument for altering human consciousness. Like many of the meditative disciplines, it requires a willingness to bear pain, a propensity for self-denial. The rhythmic, repetitive movements of the body and the steady flow of visual stimuli are well constituted to induce visions and reveal mysteries…”
Apart from being the state of peak performance, self-transcendence is also the state in which visions become possible and mysteries are revealed. Sports, with its constant need to bring out the best in oneself, to ‘outperform oneself’ is one of the easiest ways of achieving self-transcendence.
Here is more from Leonard, wherein he tries to describe the state of self-transcendence, without finding proper vocabulary to explain that state about which the west knows very little.
“Sometimes the highest accomplishments in sports seem to place the performer in a dreamlike state. Enrico Rastelli, who dazzled all of Europe with his juggling, displayed a childlike ease while accomplishing the most spectacular feats. Standing on his hands with a rubber ring spinning around one leg, he could make a ball climb from the crown of his head up his back to the sole of the other foot. He set a world record by juggling twelve balls in the air simultaneously. Rastelli said he felt he was not working but dreaming.
“Other championship performers have described their moments of high performance and unusual perception as being totally different from dreaming. British golfer Tony Jacklin, winner of both the U.S. Open and the British Open, admits to having experienced a state of altered consciousness some ten times in his golfing career:
““It’s not like playing golf in a dream or anything like that. Quite the opposite. When I’m in this state everything is pure, vividly clear. I’m in a cocoon of concentration. And if I can put myself into that cocoon, I’m invincible.”
“Jacklin, quoted in the London Sunday Times, went on to speak of the difficulty of describing his experiences. “They sound stupid. For a start, it is very difficult to explain these feelings to someone who has not experienced them. . . When I’m in this state, this cocoon of concentration, I’m living fully in the present, not moving out of it. I’m absolutely engaged, involved in what I’m doing at that particular moment. That’s the important thing.
Daniel Goleman has been fascinated with peak performance and the state of flow and self-transcendence. Here is what Goleman has to say about self-transcendence and peak performance in his celebrated book Emotional Intelligence:
“A composer describes those moments when his work is at its best: “You yourself are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I’ve experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching in a state of awe and wonderment. And it just flows out by itself.”
”His description is remarkably similar to those of hundreds of diverse men and women – rock climbers, chess champions, surgeons, basketball players, engineers, managers, even filing clerks – when they tell of a time they outdid themselves in some favoured activity. The state they describe is called “flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the University of Chicago psychologist who has collected such accounts of peak performance during two decades of research. Athletes know this state of grace as “the zone,” where excellence becomes effortless, crowd and competitors disappear into a blissful, steady absorption in the moment. Diane Roffe-Steinortter, who captured a gold medal in skiing at the 1994 Winter Olympics, said after she finished her turn at ski racing that she remembered nothing about it but being immersed in relaxation. “I felt like a waterfall.”
“That experience is a glorious one: the hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture. Because flow feels so good, it is intrinsically rewarding. It is a state in which people become utterly absorbed in what they are doing, paying undivided attention to the tasks, their awareness merged with their actions. Indeed, it interrupts flow to reflect too much on what is happening – the very thought “I’m doing this wonderfully” can break the feeling of flow. Attention becomes so focused that people are aware only of the narrow range of perception related to the immediate task, losing track of time and space.”
Concluding this discussion of the flow state, Goleman says: “Flow is a state of self-forgetfulness, the opposite of rumination and worry: instead of being lost in nervous preoccupation, people in flow are so absorbed in the task at hand they lose all self-consciousness. And although people perform at their peak while in flow, they are unconcerned with how they are doing, with thoughts of success or failure – the sheer pleasure of the act itself is what motivates them.”
In the story of Urvashi and Rambha, while Urvashi had lost all self-consciousness, even the consciousness that she was dancing wonderfully, Rambha failed to reach that state. The thought came to her that she was dancing wonderfully. She became self-conscious.
It is also possible that Rambha suddenly became preoccupied with the result of the competition. Maybe, while one part of her mind was on the dance, another part became preoccupied with winning, with the result. And that preoccupation threw her out of the flow in which she was dancing until then.
When you are divided within yourself, it becomes impossible for you to reach or remain in flow, to self-transcend. Only a person who is undivided and whole at that moment can achieve self-transcendence. The fragmented individual is barred from entering the state of self-transcendence.
It is for this reason that the Bhagavad Gita says: karmanyeva’dhikaraste, ma phaleshu kadachana; ma karmaphalahetur bhooh...” “Your power is only over your actions and not over their results. Do not be preoccupied with the results of your actions while you perform actions.” When we become preoccupied with the results, part of the mind is tied up with that preoccupation and we are not able to give ourselves entirely to the action in hand. This makes our mind fragmented and that prevents us from achieving self-transcendence.
There is no action through which we cannot attain self-transcendence, no action which cannot be performed in the self-transcended state, provided we are able to give ourselves entirely to the action.
George Leonard, Daniel Goleman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi speak of achievimg self-transcendence through running, painting, writing, singing and numerous other activities. Another person who has studied the phenomenon in depth is Dr Charalempos Mainemelis of London Business School, who has studied the flow state and self-transcendence as well as time transcendence in the context of work in industry and business. According to psychologists who study the flow state, flow could be achieved even while engage in such a routine, monotonous job as that of a filing clerk in an office.
Amaru Shataka is an ancient Indian classic in Sanskrit. One traditional belief says it was written by Adi Shankara, the great mystic-philosopher, though there are many who refuse to accept this. The book is a collection of one hundred erotic verses [many more have been added since and the current extant text has around one hundred and fifty verses], one of which contains a beautiful description of a couple achieving self-transcendence while in the act of lovemaking.
One of the greatest psychological understandings of Indian thought is that no actor can be perfect, only actions can be perfect and actions become perfect only when the actor ceases to be, ceases to exist.
So long as the actor is present in the action, the action is less than perfect.
Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna speaks of the need to eliminate the actor from the action, the performer from the performance, the doer from what is done. One should be an akarta – non-doer – while performing karma, says Krishna. Be just an instrument for the actions to happen through, and never be the doer of actions, he tells Arjuna repeatedly, and through Arjuna, all of us. The secret of action, according to Krishna, is to be like his flute. The flute is empty and because it is empty, Krishna’s music can flow through it.
In Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus: the Son of Man, the author says:
“Jesus the Nazarene was born and reared like ourselves; His mother and father were like our parents, and He was a man.
“But the Christ, the Word, who was in the beginning, the Spirit who would have us live our fuller life, came unto Jesus and was with Him.
“And the Spirit was the versed hand of the Lord, and Jesus was the harp.
“The Spirit was the psalm, and Jesus was the turn thereof.
“And Jesus, the Man of Nazareth, was the host and the mouthpiece of the Christ, who walked with us in the sun and who called us His friends.”
The last verse of the Bhagavad Gita makes this beautiful promise to us: yatra yogeshwarah krishnah, yatra partho dhanurdharah, tatra shreer vijayo bhootir dhruva neetir matir mama. “Where there is Krishna, the master of yoga, and where there is Arjuna with his bow in hand, there shall goodness, wealth, prosperity, victory, glory and firm justice be.
Arjuna should be present with his bow in hand. But the arrows should fly as directed by Krishna. Arjuna should be there, ready for action, but he should cease to be the actor, the doer, and allow actions to take place through him, and then there shall be goodness, wealth, prosperity, victory, glory and firm justice.
“Nimittamatram bhava savyasachin” – “O Arjuna, be you no more than an instrument [in the hands of the High].”
It is only egoless action that can touch the heights of perfection and it is only egoless action that can engender goodness, wealth, prosperity, victory, glory and firm justice.
Because the ego is poison. Because the ego contaminates everything, corrupts everything, poisons everything.
One of the ways to transcend the ego is to give ourselves entirely to the action, to lose ourselves in what we are doing, as Urvashi did while dancing.
When we give ourselves entirely over to the action, when we lose ourselves in the action, the actor disappears and actions achieve the highest possible quality.
That is true excellence in action – as declared by the Gita verse yogah karmasu kaushalam.
In the context of leadership, a leader climbs to the highest quality when he lets things happen through him without letting his ego interfere.
This is a secret known to musicians and dancers and singers all over the world. This is a secret known to writers and poets and painters all over the world. This is a secret known to actors and speakers and sportsmen all over the world.
Eliminate the actor to achieve excellence in action.