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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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February 10, 2011

Total Immersion: How to Recognize and Tap Into the Power of Flow

By Mark Sisson
163 Comments

They’re moments when the rest of the world – even consciousness itself – recedes into an unperceived periphery. Seemingly outside the progression of time, detached from the bounds of physical need, you fade past existence into immersion. The self quietly falls away. You’re one with the mountain, the paint brush, the instrument, the pose, the stride, the notes, the words. If you could freeze time to capture this dasein experience, you’d witness freedom, lightness, unwitting joy.

Like Schrödinger’s cat or a faint star in the night sky, however, these moments resist direct observation. The minute we bring awareness to them, they’ve already passed. We catch them, instead, out of the corner of our eye – briefly, fleetingly, on the returning threshold of consciousness. Despite their transience, we discern their effects. We emerge changed – more content, composed.

These are flow moments of course – spells of time in which we become wholly absorbed in our endeavors. They’re sometimes called peak performances or “in the zone” moments in the athletic arena or, alternatively, samadhi in yoga and select Eastern religions. Flow happens when we let individual consciousness – or self-consciousness – slip away in a larger pursuit. We become our action, our intent, our doing. It’s a union of sorts, as the samadhi concept suggests.

We can experience it when skiing down a mountain, climbing the face of a rocky cliff, playing frisbee with the kids, rowing across a quiet lake, creating music or art, practicing yoga, or building a cabinet. We can encounter it either in an individual activity or as part of a collective group.

The father of flow research is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian professor and researcher. His research and analysis of flow experiences have been applied to everything from educational theory (PDF) to business management. Csikszentmihalyi’s basic premise is this: we most enjoy life when we’re presented with – or seek out – manageable but creative challenges that tap into our individual curiosities and interests – challenges that give us immediate feedback for our improvement and success. They’re enough to stimulate our biochemical triggers without setting off the whole fight or flight cascade. These constructive trials of choice and circumstance offer a stark contrast to the getting and spending, passive entertainment and personal pampering modern society often promotes as self-fulfillment. (It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “just do it,” eh?) Csikszentmihalyi says it best: “When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own. It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.”

In short, a life marked by flow has the power of “good” stress, of healthy, nurturing challenge that feeds our sense of self-purpose as well as our self-affirmation.

In the hectic pace of modern life with its disjointed rhythms and constant interruption, our daily existence is too often defined by menial errands, tasks, and chores. It’s easy to become distanced from these flow states. In the process, I believe, we become distanced from ourselves, our experience of life in a bigger frame. When we allow ourselves to think about it, we can feel on the fringe, outside of life looking in, pining to return to the center. (Can we say life crisis?) Ennui, Csikszentmihalyi tells us, is the acute opposite of flow (a state few of us, I hope, experience). With ennui, we’re somehow left with little but the self – detached from the indivisible human context of purpose, action, community.

Although most of us probably wouldn’t put ourselves in that most discouraging category, we all can lose touch now and then with transcendence in our lives. We “forget” how to slip into these flow states. Some 20% of participants in one study reported flow experiences each day, but another 15% said they never felt them. Research suggests, however, that we can, indeed, train ourselves to get back in the groove. As Csikszentmihalyi explains, “One of the most important active ingredients here is the refinement of attention…. Training attention to come back over and over again to a complex task allows awareness to become increasingly absorbed in the task at hand.”

In one study, professional musicians who received yoga training for a summer reported less performance anxiety than control individuals. In a subsequent study, musicians who participated in an ongoing yoga program experienced less self-consciousness during performances and reported an easier time slipping into autotelic or “flow” states.

We all, I believe, have that craving for transcendence in our lives. There are days when we feel the weight of our self-consciousness as a burden. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re a curious, high maintenance, but fascinating lot of a species. A healthy life with all the wholesome trimmings – nourishing food, vigorous exercise, adequate sleep – only gets us so far. That’s why I harp on the concept of vitality as much as I do. It’s a different animal altogether, I think. There’s a major divide separating surviving versus thriving. Self-actualization, in all its myriad of forms, isn’t luxury. It’s downright obligatory. It’s instinctual. Whether we consciously prioritize it or not, we seek it out. It’s at the heart of our humanity, our evolutionary imperative. It behooved our ancestors, after all, to push themselves beyond mere subsistence living. Instinctive, adaptive curiosity was likely the mother of invention more than a preconceived notion of necessity was. How do we feed that instinct today? How do honor the need for concentration and competence? How do we lose ourselves to achieve that contentment and quiet center?

In the busyness of life, it can be hard to carve out time and focus, but perhaps our ability to experience flow depends less on separate efforts than on a mindset and organization we bring to many of those daily demands – work, hobbies, or fitness related endeavors. Flow isn’t about doing a particular thing as much as it is losing ourselves in it. The rhythm of snow shoveling (yes, even that with a little imagination), the creative inspiration of cooking, the abandon of a good hike or run, the precision or inventiveness of our work can all become fodder for flow. When we let go of the extraneous commentary in our heads, the resentment of the task at hand, the impatience with ourselves, we can bring a new engagement to the moment – and in the process perhaps be surprised.

Good readers, how do you feel flow in your life? What do you think about Csikszentmihalyi’s theory and the role of flow in a good Primal life? I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts.

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163 Comments on "Total Immersion: How to Recognize and Tap Into the Power of Flow"

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Ron, Franklin, OH
Ron, Franklin, OH
5 years 7 months ago

A nice ride on a mountain bike in semi-challenging terrain works for me

adam
adam
5 years 7 months ago

I had the exact same thought a few sentences into the article. I’m in the same region, see you at Caesar’s Creek sometime…

Alison Golden
5 years 7 months ago

Ahh, I needed this this morning.

Flow is so vitally important to being vital but so many of us experience ennui instead.

Technology elicits ennui in me, getting back to nature has the opposite effect.

Paleohund
5 years 7 months ago

Great post! I’ve tried to put a word on the experience… ‘Flow’ works. I always used ‘Primal’.

For me, running trails with my ridgebacks through a densely wooded area always does the trick. The inability to see ahead, the quick response time needed, the instinctual focus, the adrenaline. Running with dogs that seem to be experiencing the same thing.

Transcendental is right.

Eric
Eric
5 years 7 months ago

Every time I ride my mountain bike I experience this.

Wow I can’t wait until the snow melts…

DThalman
DThalman
5 years 7 months ago

yeah mtn biking and climbing both for me

Joe
Joe
5 years 7 months ago

So awesome to see you write about this, Mark! I was a psychology major and worked for several years on research projects looking at the concept of flow and it’s involvement in academic motivation.

It was a great experience for me and gave me a great lens through which to examine what I’m spending my time doing: am I finding flow?

It’s one of the big reasons I love jiu jitsu – frequent opportunities for a match of challenge and skill, while demanding full attention. It’s the recipe for flow!

Brad W.
Brad W.
5 years 7 months ago
This is an interesting perspective and discussion. When we sit in meditation at our cushion, we practice this very thing. Focusing on the in breath and then the out breath, we can begin to drop thoughts and simply experience. When our mind inevitably wanders, we eventually notice it. So we can then return to our breath, having noticed our mind at work. This is a powerful practice that can yield amazing results. If we’re diligent and fortunate, we may see results. Not in a matter of days or months, but maybe in years. The point is to practice. Regularly. Like… Read more »
Earthspirit
Earthspirit
5 years 7 months ago

I was thinking about childbirth in this post. A lot of women say they experience letting go of control and allowing their body, primal mind and the flow and energy to take over completely.
http://www.unassistedchildbirth.com/sensual/orgasmic.html

Earthspirit
Earthspirit
5 years 7 months ago
“Pushing was absolutely incredible. It felt SO good. I loved the sensation of my daughter’s head popping out; and her body coming out was incredible. I made roaring sounds. KT later asked me if I was in a lot of pain and I said I felt no pain at all. I was reaching down into the depths of my being – I felt like I was reaching back through time eternal, into the Great Mother herself – and using my power to push her out. The sounds were sounds of power. And I felt awesomely empowered. It was I could… Read more »
Tamara
Tamara
5 years 7 months ago

I agree I felt that flow very primal feeling during my chid birthing experiences. Part of the reason for studying to be a Doula is to help more women find that moment during theirs. A true sense of your own strength that you can never lose.

drea
drea
4 years 9 months ago

This is why we need a blog that has a focus on womens issues! I love hearing this stuff and want to learn more about primal living from a womans perspective. any suggestions?

caliblue
caliblue
5 years 7 months ago

Thanks for this post, Mark. We really are lucky to be able to experience ‘flow’. Painting totally does it for me-I can set out to paint for a half hour, and I can hardly believe when ‘suddenly’ the clock lets me know that two hours have passed. I think it definitely helps our brain work stuff out for us without us paying much attention.

Kris
Kris
5 years 7 months ago
When I read the title I was skeptical, but having finished reading it, there’s so much sense here. I think it goes hand-in-hand with our societal obsession with “multi-tasking.” It drives my wife nuts how I only do one thing at a time, but I am so much more calm and collected than she is. I can see these principles in the way that I work. I fully devote myself to whatever the task is at hand until it’s done, whether it’s cooking a steak or coding for work. I don’t let extraneous things intrude to cloud my thoughts. When… Read more »
Resurgent
Resurgent
5 years 7 months ago
“?Evolution” implies that creation is not complete, hence the possibility of evolving. That is the basic Primal principle of life. We are all born with an urge to grow. Just like a seed, which has to travel long to become flowers – Life is a pilgrimage. The urge is beautiful. It is given by nature itself. ‘Flow’ happens when we accept our individuality and give up our personality – Personality is that which society manages to make us while individuality is that which society is afraid of. I use a small method for staying in the flow – it is… Read more »
salim
5 years 7 months ago

i have been living as simple as possible for 5-7 years..climbing..sprinting..goint outside..i never frustrate if i dont do well when i am doing a certain activity just being there makes me happy. we really dont need too much to be happy..cause we already have too much..thnks for the awsome post..i also recommend the book ” Rock Warrior’s Way’. on how to control your mind and be more in the present..whatever you are doing

DThalman
DThalman
5 years 7 months ago

yeah i’m halfway through that book now!

Kevin Cowart
Kevin Cowart
5 years 7 months ago

Zen

Charlotte
5 years 7 months ago

I always experience this feeling when I ride my road bike. I also experience this in my work, since my career is creative in nature (I work as a graphic designer/ web designer and web developer/ artist/ animator).

Andrea Reina
Andrea Reina
5 years 7 months ago

When I practice yoga, during a jog/sprint, spending quality time with my good friends, in the kitchen working over a meal.

This is a great article that exposes what really makes life worth it for each one of us. I needed a little reminder today, so thanks Mark!

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Kelda
5 years 7 months ago
I’ve been feeling this flow in the last few weeks, somehow effortlessly moving along – I’ve spent much time reading and have found myself immersed and making connections, I’m doing crosswords more quickly, I’m in the flow … a good feeling … I started yoga four weeks ago. I blogged about this a little while back called The Art of Stillness – you can find it in anything you do, ironing, washing up, sorting laundry … the best thing I’ve done in 2011 is left the radio off, completely, and not followed any news programmes. I’m in the flow far… Read more »
Frank
Frank
5 years 7 months ago

C.S. Lewis said essentially the same thing in his book, “Surprised By Joy”.

Nancy
Nancy
5 years 7 months ago
Great post, Mark. Yes, as a Christian, I recognize these moments as the Holy Spirit at work in my life, and I try to be alert for them. Often they are long moments, sometimes a sustained experience such as that perfect dinner with friends. Sometimes they are not outwardly happy moments, but very stressful situations. For example, I helped rescue a dog yesterday, on the way to a business meeting, under trying circumstances. I fully experienced this situation as “flow” or -in my own terminology- walking with the Holy Spirit. My advice: get some! Be alert and seek these moments.
Spence
Spence
5 years 7 months ago

Read “The Power of Now”.

Flow is presence while in engaged. I thinkit is important to be present at all times, even while still.

Great fro a Primal mind

Lynn
Lynn
5 years 7 months ago

I’ve gotten this from tai chi and also walking/running along the trails in a nearby park.

David
David
5 years 7 months ago

There have been times when I’m playing my guitar and I close my eyes and become so immersed in the song that by the time I’m finished I still have my eyes closed and don’t know what to expect when I open them because I’ve become such a part of the song that I’ve left my bodily awareness.

Nader
Nader
5 years 2 months ago

i sooo know what you are talking about…I one time recored a cover of a song to put on youtube; after looking over the recorded video of me playing it, i noticed my eyes were still closed even after i stopped singing 🙂

barb
barb
5 years 7 months ago

I am so looking forward to your Reconnect book!!

Robin
Robin
5 years 7 months ago

excellent! I often experience this while practicing yoga, meditating, sewing, cooking, cleaning… and yes, even shoveling snow! Its such a freeing feeling. I’m so happy to read this, and even more pleased to see you touching on yoga philosophy a bit too Mark! Great article, one of the best yet in my opinion!

Carl
5 years 7 months ago
I enjoy activities where I have to be focused in the moment, like snowboarding, playing soccer, bouldering, in very rare cases I am able to “flow” while doing the dishes, it is when I do not see them as something evil, but just do them and scub and clean and dry until they are done. I think there are many different ways to get to the flow, my goal is to find something to enjoy that every day. For me it is possible when my skill level matches up evenly with the challenge at hand, not too easy but not… Read more »
Kathy
Kathy
5 years 7 months ago

I went for my first trail run last weekend and experienced this ‘flow’….I just didn’t know the name for it. It felt good to be outside, running over the rough terrain and, since I’m still a little overweight (lost 60 lbs last year!), the run was a bit of a challenge. I’ve booked two more trail runs and look forward to the flow!!

Danielle
5 years 7 months ago

I know long distance running isn’t totally advocated as a primal activity, but the flow of long, slow runs is quite magical… at least it was before I got injured.

Kelda
5 years 7 months ago

Try cycling – same flow – less injury

Kelda – retired runner, now cyclist!

Danielle
5 years 7 months ago

Thanks Kelda! Great idea, but the town I live in is not cyclist friendly.

Spinning classes?

Vance Gatlin II
5 years 7 months ago
I experience Flow in two ways, when I’m writing on an urge and my mind and typing are one. And when I practice Systema: The Russian Martial Art. Type that into YouTube and watch them work, or Vladimir Vasiliev. It is built on the principle of natural movement, calm breathing, and when its full speed they move like dancers. Moving gracefully away from a attack and counter-attacking based on where their arms or legs are. Their health system calls for fasting(sound familiar) and cold water dousing. You can learn more about it at http://russianmartialart.com it’s amazing. I never noticed how… Read more »
Irene
5 years 7 months ago

Spending time with my 3yr old. I actually learn a lot about living in the moment with her. She’s my little Buddha. A good workout on my spin bike; it’s easy for me to get lost in the moment. Sometimes I get so involved in the workout I lose track of time.

James
5 years 7 months ago

Ha! I have the book Flow sitting on my desk to read right after I am done with Primal Leadership (learning to lead with emotional intelligence). Csikszentmihalyi’s research is great in my view. We all need to experience flow more often instead of hectic life. I bet Grok had more of these flow moments than us today since there was less distractions and more enjoyment of life

James
James
5 years 7 months ago

Mointain bikers have a saying,if you anin’t flowin’, you’re blowin’.

Brad
Brad
5 years 7 months ago

Great post! At age 49, this year, I began taking hang-gliding lessons. I am a “hang 1” pilot, working on my “hang 2” certification. Life is all about being present!

Simplyryde
Simplyryde
5 years 7 months ago

I haven’t thought about this in some time. With constant distractions flow can be hard to find. The two times I really feel in the zone, are mountian biking at night, and playing music with a group. Both of these tasks require all of you attention, and put me ina flow state. I need more time for flow!

Zac
Zac
5 years 7 months ago

Inchetucknee Spings, Lake City, FL.
A spring fed river that is an attraction for people to ride tubes on, like a lazy river. Scenic, with fallen trees in the water. When I swim there I climb onto one of the fallen trunks and sit there, watching the gentle current under a clear, blue sky. Flow, just thinking about it, haha

Eric
5 years 7 months ago

Mark,
Funny you should write about this – I’m taking a class related to Movement and Mindfulness. Flow was one of the books we had to read and I LOVED IT! We’re doing yoga in the class as well, and it’s a great way to meditate and ground oneself in the body, as well as provide a flow experience. I find for myself that physical activity is one of the easiest ways to achieve the flow experience – it’s one of the reasons I’m so excited for my Pacific Crest Trail Thru-hike!

ciep
ciep
5 years 7 months ago

I love this post! How cool to see a blog discussion about flow! The flow-state is why I love climbing so much. I’m learning to find it in other activities as well these days, but climbing seems to create it easily — at least for me.

It’s such an amazing and sublime state. At he risk of sounding ridiculous, I really feel “at one” with everything when I’m in flow. Actually, I can’t even say that “I” feel that way — because in flow “I” disappears.

Faith Ellens
5 years 7 months ago

Your writing is marvelous. Thank you for sharing to us your experiences.

rob
rob
5 years 7 months ago

Trail running while practicing tai chai does it for me, with sometimes some zen thrown in.

Chris G
Chris G
5 years 7 months ago

Flow is a fascinating area of positive psychology research. For those interested, check out:
http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/
and
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)
Happy reading! (It too is a flow activity.)

Richard Hartnell
5 years 7 months ago

I’ll just leave this here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKizrvTeO1A

John (aka Wish I Were Riding)
John (aka Wish I Were Riding)
5 years 7 months ago

Ennui and depression go hand-in-hand.

Dave
Dave
5 years 7 months ago

I reached Samadhi trying to pronounce ‘Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’

Michelle
Michelle
5 years 7 months ago

Hi Mark,
I had to drop you a note to tell you how much I enjoyed this post. I’ve been reading quite a bit the last few years on this very subject. In my search for something more, I’ve learned I had “it” all along. Being present, being grateful, being mindful of even the most mundane, everyday, ordinary tasks, has allowed me to feel this flow, this energy of being grounded in the moment. I appreciate your wisdom!

Chris
Chris
5 years 7 months ago

It is an amazing thing when you become one with what ever you are doing. I have had the experience several times in my life. There is nothing that explains it. But it is lost when I realize what is going on and try to grasp it, it then merely becomes smoke in my hands. It has happened to me while illustrating, running, CrossFitting, during western martial arts drills, and just being in nature.

Bill Rowles
Bill Rowles
5 years 7 months ago

Two daft quotes:

‘Awareness, awareness, awareness’
from a Buddhist master

&

‘Relax and sink (let go)’
from a tai chi master

PartyLikeAGrokstar
PartyLikeAGrokstar
5 years 7 months ago

I definitely get it when I’m shooting the basketball around by myself. I’ll hit a bunch of jumpers in a row without realizing until all of a sudden…”damn, why can’t I do that every time?”

Carmella
Carmella
5 years 7 months ago

I have started doing bikram yoga for the past few weeks and I feel like I’m more focused.

Dianna
Dianna
5 years 7 months ago

Originality when writing creatively places me in the flow… I call it birthing… Something entirely it’s own results.

When staying calm in acceptance of how life is unfolding, I remain in the flow…

I call it peace… But more… Fulfillment

sinead
sinead
5 years 7 months ago
reading this post I was trying to work out where my flow had gone, I used to find it in my race car, i could just zone out and be on a different level. but when you mentioned shoveling snow I realized that lately my flow has been happening in the activities of household chores, water blasting our drive way – which i did over the course of two days, was strangely cathartic and relaxing. the same sensation happened when I cleaned out several big cupboards in the house, and reorganized. but the most common one for me these days… Read more »
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Dawn
Dawn
5 years 7 months ago

Good god I wish I had more flow. Alas, however, I have a two-year-old interrupting whatever I’m doing and demanding my attention 24×7. Some days I feel that any flow I used to have in my life is gone forever. *sigh*

rob
rob
5 years 7 months ago

Have you considered taking a yoga class with your child?

lynn
lynn
5 years 7 months ago

This will pass…

Maybe you could find some time for yourself during naptime.

Alison Golden
5 years 7 months ago

Will s/he sit in a jogger or stroller or backpack or bike buggy while you get some exercise? Some times of day can work better than others. Can you experiment?

Julie Blacklow
5 years 7 months ago

As manager of a horse ranch near Seattle…at the foot of the Cascade mountains…I feel this flow daily…riding…grooming the horses…looking at the mountains, the eagles overhead…or cleaning a stall…I am both humbled and awed every day…part of the flow.

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