Ever watched a game, say a basketball, football, or hockey game where there is a player who seems to know the script for the entire game ahead of time? The player seems to be one step ahead of everyone else, they are consistently in the right place at the right time to receive the ball or puck, able to breakaway from defenders or the entire defensive line as if they know the opposing teams entire playbook. They dunk, they score, they run into the end zone for touch down after touch down. This state is referred to as being ‘in the zone’, ‘in the groove’, the player is said to be ‘on fire’, ‘on the top of their game’ or simply ‘smoking’.
In psychology the state is referred to as ‘flow’ : “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.” (Wikipedia – click to link to ‘Flow‘)
I didn’t know the concept of ‘flow’ by name but I was introduced to it as an alpine skier racing with the Milton Heights Ski Club and then later the concept was reinforced when I became a ski instructor. ‘Flowing’ in alpine skiing is experienced when the athlete carves one silky smooth turn after another: they float across the snow accelerating out of corners as a result of well timed application of pressure and appropriate distribution of pressure on their ski edges, which when paired with accurate reading of the terrain, the snow quality, the fall line allows turns to be carved as if built into the ski hill.
I was able to experience ‘flow’ in a few other sports… there were a few times while wind surfing when the rollers on the lake, a strong gust of wind, and the setup of board and sail were so sweet that the skeg started to vibrate letting me know I was skimming the surface… it was such an amazing experience that for a few summers I remember waking up wanting to feel that way again and again. Back then I didn’t call it ‘flow’, back then it had no name… it was simply a feeling that came when for a moment you managed to span the gap, becoming one with the moment, when there was no separation between you and the moment. It was nothing I ever experienced anywhere else except when involved in sport, which perhaps explains why sport has always fascinated me.
Another time of ‘flow’ was bodysurfing in Barbados on the beach just below Crane Resort on our one off day during a UofT Swim Team training camp. A bunch of us headed out in taxis from the parish of Christ Church to get to Saint Philip in search of the massive waves coming off the Atlantic Ocean. We were not disappointed… the waves were massive! We swam out to catch the waves, swimming to get up to speed no different than a surfer paddling to match the speed of the wave, seeking the sweet spot of the wave which you could ride all the way into shore if you only held streamline just so… and just long enough. Often times the wave would flip you over and pound you into the sand, only to be followed by the pounding from another wave coming crashing down on you, but the feeling of catching a wave was again so indescribable that it didn’t matter… you had to swim out again and again in order to have the chance of ‘flowing’ one more time.
The concept of ‘flow’ was given its name by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a Hungarian-American psychologist who is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is also the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and of the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College. (Wikipedia – click to link to ‘Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘)
Excerpt from wikipedia:
In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.
In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
I believe that what we are all truly after in life is flow. We want to flow in our daily lives, we want to flow physically, mentally, and emotionally between challenges and setbacks to successes of all levels. We want to experience that oneness, wholeness, the unity that flow provides even if its just for a few seconds.
I believe that a life that is truly lived well is a life that chases flow. Like a child chasing a butterfly, the chase is as amazing as the moment the butterfly lands on a finger, a nose, or the top of the head when for a moment we feel at one with nature, with life all around. When the butterfly takes off… we gladly, we joyously resume the chase… because we know that to flow is to be in pursuit of our potential, which like the butterfly lands once in awhile giving us the opportunity to feel a moment of exquisite peace, tranquility, and exuberance.
But how do you explain to someone the concept of flow if they have never experienced it for themselves? How do you express to someone the deep deep connection, and fulfillment, and satisfaction that comes from even momentarily feeling flow? How do you help someone understand how worth it, it is to chase flow, to work towards being able to get into a state of flow and then work to be able to sustain it for longer and longer periods?
I believe everyone knows what flow is, why else do we want to watch the Olympics? Why else are we riveted by World Championship level competitions? Because we hope to witness an athlete – even for a brief moment – who flows. We know what flow is at our core, and we know how it can make us feel, so we want to witness an athlete so we can vicariously live through them, for that moment, to feel what its like to be the one who executes the play which leads to the win.
I believe we all want to win, and not just feel like a winner, but to win in style – a style of flow because those wins are the only wins which truly matter.
Unfortunately, the deep desire for each of us to win has been cheapened and dumbed-down where the hope is that we will fall for a knock-off of flow instead of committing ourselves to the pursuit of true flow, of the indisputable feeling that is winning in style. We are being sold, and we are buying in bulk cheap knock-offs of flow… to the point that we are overwhelmed with objects that we hope will fill the void that only flow fits. The result… we drowning in chronic lifestyle diseases, overweight or obese, medicating ourselves with prescription drugs, legal and illegal narcotics, others hope that checking off vacation spots, bucket list items or chasing after temporary trends will fill the void. The substitutes for flow fail, they all fail and they fail miserably to fulfill us; they provide a temporary high, but then fade quickly. These substitutes fail to provide us the contentment, the deep deep satisfaction that we all hunger for, and need to truly be healthy.
In sport, the cheap knock-off to flow is HiiT – Hi Intensity Interval Training. We are sold that HiiT is the short cut to achieving in sport, the path to success, be it the podium, qualifying for larger and larger events, everything and anything… if you only train HiiT. Age group teams indoctrinate children into believing that if they only try hard enough, and then try harder and harder… then there is a chance that they will make cuts, make a team, make it to the next level of competition. Like children, adults are told that short bouts of super intense activity will yield all the wellness and health benefits anyone could desire.
Flow is not for sale.
Flow is not derived via short cut.
Flow is not found where we have been told to search.
There is a path to flow, its just not the path you would imagine…
Next post… how to get on the path to pursuing FLOW using a remodeled version of Csíkszentmihályi flow pinwheel diagram as a roadmap.