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‘Soul’: An Exploration of Flow

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the 2020 film Soul.

Let’s talk about Soul. In short, it’s a typical Pixar Studios feature that talks about simple, lightweight things… you know, like death. And in the familiar Pixar fashion, in addition to telling a story, Soul made sure that it brings an extra something to the table, and teaches its audience a little lesson or two. Well, to say that the lessons here are either little or few would be a lie. 

All About Soul

Directed by Pete Docter, the 2020 animated feature follows protagonist Joe Gardner. Joe teaches middle school music in New York, yet his days and thoughts are filled with dreams of bigger things, that mostly consist of being an accomplished jazz musician. One day, a window of opportunity opens for Joe to achieve that dream. When he is finally given his chance, however, Joe falls down a manhole, ending his life. And thus, begins his journey.

As you can probably tell by now, among the major themes of the film are aspirations, life and death. But there is one scene that stuck with me upon viewing, and even until after watching the film. 

In this particular scene, Joe, along with an unborn soul he befriended, named 22, arrive at a wide, open field; located in the Great Before (where unborn souls live before their time on Earth), but seemingly hidden. Above the field, specifically floating in the sky, are holographs of individual souls, each invested in an activity, like acting or playing an instrument. Turns out, these souls belong to living humans on Earth.

It is said that living souls may enter this space whenever they are immersed in an activity that transcends them to an area beyond reality. In other words, these are the souls of the people who are engaged in an act that puts them “in the zone”. These people are so deeply focused, to the point their souls literally enter the spiritual realm.

Joe and 22 with Moonwind, a living human who is able to transport to the spiritual world through flow. Source: YouTube

Joe mentions that he was just there, recalling his audition to join jazz musician Dorothea Williams’ band earlier that day; the last thing he did before his death. This experience of transcendence exists in the field of psychology with the term “flow”.

All About Flow

The concept of flow is popularly coined by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He explains that flow itself is the mental state when we experience complete focus and absorption on a task or an activity, as if being outside of reality.

Flow was what Joe experienced during his audition. A total immersion, while playing the piano, as if all his senses were devoted only to the music he was producing through his fingertips.

Since the inception of this concept, flow has risen in popular psychology. It has been an experience or sensation pursued by so many, mainly when it comes to work. There are even numerous videos or articles on the internet that teach you how to “hack into” flow; tricks you can do to maximize your chance of entering that state.

Soul‘s Lesson on Flow

In Soul, Joe speaks highly of flow. He wanted to be like the legendary jazz musicians he looked up to; performing in such a manner that it envelops them into the music they are playing, blocking out external and internal influences, until as if nothing else existed. Joe chased flow, and — fortunately for him — got to experience it before his time on Earth ended. His recall on flow seemed to be the ideal condition of work. Being so immersed in it, it makes you forget time and the space around you. It’s no wonder why people are drawn to it. 

Joe loves the piano. Source: YouTube

However, besides projections of humans in flow, there also exists dark entities in the Great Before’s hidden field. These entities are in fact “lost souls”. Sometimes, these lost souls are the ones who blindly go through life without awareness and mindfulness. Their day-to-days are dull and bring no enjoyment for them.

More importantly though, a soul could also be deemed lost if they are too far deep in the flow state. These are the living people who are too immersed in a certain activity that they most likely no longer care about the real world or the life they are living. To them, the only world worthy of their attention is the task they are submerged in. In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, this experience requires intense concentration to the point that “existence is temporarily suspended”.

If a person only cares about their work to the point they shrug off the people around them, their health, and other aspects of their life, for example, then their soul might end up lost. What does this teach us about flow, then?

If we look at the big picture, one of the key takeaways from Soul is to be more present and appreciative for our todays, and not get so blindly caught by the anxieties of tomorrows or the regrets of yesterdays. We learn this as we follow Joe’s journey through literal life and death. 

Not just in life, we bear witness to his experience with flow in the Great Before as well. Joe’s character is one that is very determined in achieving or attaining what he wants. On Earth, Joe’s passion for music is clearly present and contagious. In the Great Before, he was also steadfast in his desire to escape the afterlife (the Great Beyond) and return to Earth, therefore undoing his death.

Joe’s soul on the stairway to the Great Beyond. Source: YouTube

Sadly, in pursuing both of these objectives, Joe eventually realized that he had been treating those around him — his loved ones and acquaintances on Earth, and 22 during his time in the Great Before — unfairly. He learned that a lot of times, he had been self-centered and was acting inconsiderately. Fortunately for him, he realized this flaw and eventually learned his lesson. There are some who aren’t so lucky.

Flow is a pleasurable experience and this is why it feels almost otherworldly. You might be singing, dancing, crafting, running, or I don’t know, writing an academic paper, and feeling yourself enjoying it so much it’s like you’re transported into another dimension. Soul cleverly captures this phenomenon. And yet, it also didn’t forget to mention that these spiritual-like experiences are not enough to make us human. Instead, what makes us human is our experience with the world, because it keeps our feet on the ground. 

If this statement is not true, then why does Joe so desperately want to go back to Earth, if he can live in the afterlife as a soul in peace? Or better yet, why did 22 eventually receive an Earth Pass, allowing them to begin their life on Earth, when before they said they were satisfied just being in the Great Before?

Among the business and chaos of life, there is a feeling of casual magic that we all crave, but most of the time don’t realise. If that’s the case, then what we should do is to take a minute to step out of our own “zones”, because the thing we are searching for might just be in front of us all along.

Featured image is a screenshot from the official trailer of Pixar’s Soul.

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