Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
10 Feb

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

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.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

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

    Ron, Franklin, OH wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • 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…

      adam wrote on February 10th, 2011
  2. 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.

    Alison Golden wrote on February 10th, 2011
  3. 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.

    Paleohund wrote on February 10th, 2011
  4. Every time I ride my mountain bike I experience this.

    Wow I can’t wait until the snow melts…

    Eric wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • yeah mtn biking and climbing both for me

      DThalman wrote on February 10th, 2011
  5. 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!

    Joe wrote on February 10th, 2011
  6. 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 we brush our teeth, our sitting becomes a part of our day, every day.

    Brad W. wrote on February 10th, 2011
  7. 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.

    Earthspirit wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • “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 say the best feeling I have ever had. Primal force of life coursing through me. Power of Woman, Power of Birth, Power of Carolyn! If I can do that, I can do anything I set my mind to” – one very cool quote from that website.

      Earthspirit wrote on February 10th, 2011
      • 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.

        Tamara wrote on February 10th, 2011
        • 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?

          drea wrote on December 8th, 2011
  8. 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.

    caliblue wrote on February 10th, 2011
  9. 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 it happens I get very mentally discombobulated and unbalanced, and I don’t like it.

    I can recognize these “flow” times in a lot of the stuff I do. If I’m not careful, it tips over the line to perfectionism and is not relaxing anymore. But who hasn’t had those times when you’re preparing a big meal and everything is just humming along perfectly? Or you’re doing a benchmark workout and blowing away your old time without even much effort? Love those “zone” moments!

    Kris wrote on February 10th, 2011
  10. “‎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 more like a reminder, it just keeps the awareness in me that all the time, whatever I am doing, whatever is happening around me – it is not me.
    I just remind myself of the one who is inside the body. Walking, sitting, eating or doing anything, I just remember the one who is neither walking nor sitting nor eating.
    All doing is on the surface, and beyond all doing is the being. So just be aware of the non-doer in the doing, of the non-mover in the moving.
    It may sound illogical – but look closely, the entire existence will seem illogical. Just believe in this meaningless, beautiful chaos of existence, and be ready to go with it wherever it leads. It simply IS, flowering, blossoming, dancing.

    Resurgent wrote on February 10th, 2011
  11. 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

    salim wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • yeah i’m halfway through that book now!

      DThalman wrote on February 10th, 2011
  12. Zen

    Kevin Cowart wrote on February 10th, 2011
  13. 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).

    Charlotte wrote on February 10th, 2011
  14. 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!

    Andrea Reina wrote on February 10th, 2011
  15. 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 more often than not these days, I go to bed satisfied with the day and wake eager to face the next, for me now existence, being in the moment, is enough, there doesn’t need to be an end point.

    None of this would have happened before losing the bipolar and that is down to eating and living Primally so thank you Mark.

    Kelda wrote on February 10th, 2011
  16. C.S. Lewis said essentially the same thing in his book, “Surprised By Joy”.

    Frank wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • 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.

      Nancy wrote on February 10th, 2011
  17. 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

    Spence wrote on February 10th, 2011
  18. I’ve gotten this from tai chi and also walking/running along the trails in a nearby park.

    Lynn wrote on February 10th, 2011
  19. 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.

    David wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • 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 :)

      Nader wrote on July 9th, 2011
  20. I am so looking forward to your Reconnect book!!

    barb wrote on February 10th, 2011
  21. 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!

    Robin wrote on February 10th, 2011
  22. 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 unmanagable that I can give everything I have and enjoy it while it lasts and not focusing on a certain outcome.
    Thanks for that post!

    Carl wrote on February 10th, 2011
  23. 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!!

    Kathy wrote on February 10th, 2011
  24. 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.

    Danielle wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • Try cycling – same flow – less injury

      Kelda – retired runner, now cyclist!

      Kelda wrote on February 10th, 2011
      • Thanks Kelda! Great idea, but the town I live in is not cyclist friendly.

        Spinning classes?

        Danielle wrote on February 11th, 2011
  25. 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 it’s amazing. I never noticed how tense and stressed I was. First I went Primal with excellent results, now combined with kettlebells, and now Systema. Loving it.

    Vance Gatlin II wrote on February 10th, 2011
  26. 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.

    Irene wrote on February 10th, 2011
  27. 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 wrote on February 10th, 2011
  28. Mointain bikers have a saying,if you anin’t flowin’, you’re blowin’.

    James wrote on February 10th, 2011
  29. 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!

    Brad wrote on February 10th, 2011
  30. 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!

    Simplyryde wrote on February 10th, 2011
  31. 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

    Zac wrote on February 10th, 2011
  32. 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!

    Eric wrote on February 10th, 2011
  33. 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.

    ciep wrote on February 10th, 2011
  34. Your writing is marvelous. Thank you for sharing to us your experiences.

    Faith Ellens wrote on February 10th, 2011
  35. Trail running while practicing tai chai does it for me, with sometimes some zen thrown in.

    rob wrote on February 10th, 2011
  36. Flow is a fascinating area of positive psychology research. For those interested, check out:
    Happy reading! (It too is a flow activity.)

    Chris G wrote on February 10th, 2011
  37. I’ll just leave this here:

    Richard Hartnell wrote on February 10th, 2011
  38. Ennui and depression go hand-in-hand.

    John (aka Wish I Were Riding) wrote on February 10th, 2011
  39. I reached Samadhi trying to pronounce ‘Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’

    Dave wrote on February 10th, 2011

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