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

thejumperThey’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:

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  1. 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.

    Chris wrote on February 10th, 2011
  2. Two daft quotes:

    ‘Awareness, awareness, awareness’
    from a Buddhist master

    &

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

    Bill Rowles wrote on February 10th, 2011
  3. 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?”

    PartyLikeAGrokstar wrote on February 10th, 2011
  4. I have started doing bikram yoga for the past few weeks and I feel like I’m more focused.

    Carmella wrote on February 10th, 2011
  5. 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

    Dianna wrote on February 10th, 2011
  6. 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 is still behind the wheel, I don’t notice people waving I am fully aware of traffic conditions just blissfully unaware of the other people around because I get such calm fulfillment driving my little beast that I waited a good many years to purchase, and I continue to thoroughly enjoy the ride! thanks for bringing this up Mark! Im off to get my flow on!

    sinead wrote on February 10th, 2011
  7. 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*

    Dawn wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • Have you considered taking a yoga class with your child?

      rob wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • This will pass…

      Maybe you could find some time for yourself during naptime.

      lynn wrote on February 11th, 2011
    • 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?

      Alison Golden wrote on February 11th, 2011
  8. 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.

    Julie Blacklow wrote on February 10th, 2011
  9. Mark, I don’t have much to add other than this was an absolute great post. I really enjoy your thoughts on subjects like this, and always look forward to reading them.

    I was cleaning my room the other night, and came across a book I bought a few years ago “The power of now”. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read a book like that right now since reading a book like that demands a certain amount of mental energy that “easy” books don’t. I read the intro to get a taste, and he talked about letting go of the self.

    I am taking this post as a sign that I should definitely keeping reading in that book!

    Timely post man!

    -Ryan Denner

    Ryan Denner wrote on February 10th, 2011
  10. Times I really connect, let go, and flow, and it’s easy:

    – Mountain biking
    – Road racing (cars)
    – Painting
    – Working on a design project w/ no distractions
    – Working in the yard

    Hardest time for me to ‘be here’ is when doing the mundane – dishes, shower, feeding the baby, cooking, etc. I’ve been practicing ‘being here and now’ when I take a shower, feeling the water on me, inch by inch as it cascades over me. It’s helping, as I find myself doing it more while doing other mundane chores.

    I think that mental training of this sort is one of the hardest things to accomplish, especially for someone like me who’s always been prone to ADD, and who’s train of thought can resemble an octopus at times. Changing my diet has helped greatly, but it’s hard to make progress while waking up 3x a night to feed my baby girl… lack of sleep sure is a doozy.

    Great post, though, thank you. :)

    Kristina wrote on February 10th, 2011
  11. I find flow in pretty much anything; it just depends on my mood. I’m not saying I feel this way all of the time, but if I’m in the right frame of mind, even taking the Subway can be self-actualizing. I agree with the post–if I feel disconnected, all I need to do is re-focus and pay attention to the right aspects of a scenario.

    I think Michael Franti’s song, Hello Bonjour, is all about flow …

    “So you dance to the rhythm
    bounce to the rhythm
    shake to the rhythm
    and you roll the rhythm
    sweat to the rhythm
    get wet to the rhythm
    make love to the rhythm
    clean up to the rhythm”

    WildShan wrote on February 10th, 2011
  12. … song continues:

    “when you movin’ you come alive
    and when you grooving in rhythm we survive”

    WildShan wrote on February 10th, 2011
  13. Ever since I read flow in 1998, I have tried actively to recognize when and how Flow happens for me. The best experiences I have had have been while engaged in drawing or painting, for though I also have the experience in meditation flow was the goal, while drawing/painting it was simply the result. I love recognizing times of flow in my life, even today while folding clothes using one arm (had shoulder surgery, and I’ve learned flow can happen just about anywhere doing anything. Though I heartily agree that hiking, biking, and such outdoor activities bring many other excellent physiological benefits along with the psychological flow.

    Digby wrote on February 10th, 2011
  14. I have been struggling with finding flow in life recently, but wanted to share a story about my husband finding a perfect moment.

    A few years ago, after traveling to Colorado from Arizona via our motorcycles, on our way home we were caught in a major hail storm. He subsequently totaled his bike in the middle the San Juan mountains (read: nowhere near anything) and after hobbling his bike to a town 60 miles away we commuted two-up on my motorcycle. He sat on back, observing the coming afternoon summer storms just resting behind me. He still says to this day that was a perfect moment for him. He didn’t know where he’d sleep that night, weather we had a meal to look to or if we were going to even make it to the next town. He was just there, in the moment, one with himself and the world around him.

    The closest I think I’ve ever come to finding this flow—a true zen experience—in life is sitting in the Monterrey Bay Aquarium looking at their seaweed pool. It was amazing.

    Blue Buddha wrote on February 10th, 2011
  15. Great post! Probably my favorite yet!
    I often get “in the zone,” and for years I thought it was a bad thing… It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized it was a GOOD thing! (I used to just call it “being deep in thought,” but that wasn’t exacylt it.)

    Emily wrote on February 10th, 2011
  16. Great post!

    darla wrote on February 10th, 2011
  17. This is the beauty of the Primal Lifestyle…it’s not just about the food! Thanks, Mark, for teaching and writing on all of it!

    Carrie wrote on February 10th, 2011
  18. Excellent. I wish I could get my parents and younger siblings to turn off their texting, TV, music and internet long enough for me to explain the value in focus and improvement of self. My sister will spend some time with me and she says it takes her several hours to get used to the quiet I “carry” with me. She thinks I’m mad, but really I’m just lost in thought, nature, etc. She ends up reveling in the moment once she adapts to it. But alas..she goes back home.

    Really enjoyed this article. My favorite sentence– ‘let go of the…resentment of the task at hand.’ So true! When you remove the resentment, you can see anything as an opportunity to grow, learn, use your muscles. Ahhh I feel enlightened.

    Natashia wrote on February 10th, 2011
  19. … playing piano – always – flow…. (after a med-rare steak is best ;-) )

    DaiaRavi wrote on February 10th, 2011
  20. Great post Mark! I turned 54 this year and was aware of something missing in life that I used to feel. Twenty four years ago I gave up tournament chess because it did not fit under the umbrella of material sustainence, or persuit of luxury or the American dream. I started playing and studying chess again about a month ago and that emersion, that all out passion while engaged with the chess board has returned. The industrious side of my mind that has to see measurable compensation for all endevors is totally opposed to, in it’s opinion, this waste of
    Valuable time. Now I don’t listen and go with the flow. (a term I had never heard of till this blog)

    By the way Mark….I wonder if we are related?

    Gary Sisson wrote on February 10th, 2011
  21. I almost feel like I’m missing out on something. I read all the posts and trying to rack my brain as to whether I have these moments or not.
    Maybe because I hate my job so badly right now I can’t get flow. I work, adn dread going to work even when I’m exercising. Maybe I’m in Ennui.

    Just when I thought I had the Primal thing down. I’m failing miserably at this part. BIG time.

    Clint W wrote on February 10th, 2011
    • You can learn how to do this consciously. There is a guy in Sweden who have been working on this for several years. He has a simple model for training yourself to achieve this. It’s all about going with how the brain has evolved just as Primal Blueprint is about going with how the body has evolved.

      You can find tons of articles and a few videos about it at http://notnlp.com and it’s all “open source.”

      To hit the drill directly, just go to
      http://www.notnlp.com/?p=1078

      And it’s simple. Really really simple. Though it takes time to train the skill.

      There are of course much more potential with this than just having flow at will.

      Good luck with this. It will change the way you experience life forever :)

      Martin wrote on February 10th, 2011
  22. windsurfing, cycling, coding (but thats hard to get to)
    definitely more with things that are fully physical

    ste wrote on February 10th, 2011
  23. … oh hang on, how could i forget FRONT CRAWL SWIMMING!
    I think this is a very ‘trance-like’ activity because of the way your breathing has to be in a precise pattern and also in rythmn with your body movement, more so that anything else i can think of (anyone?) and so i think it must be quite yogic.
    Also i think this state is relatively easily reached or similar to secondwind/endorphin rush situations

    ste wrote on February 10th, 2011
  24. Movie marathons works for me. Pick a good actor and stay up all night trying to get through as many as I can.

    thehova wrote on February 10th, 2011
  25. Throwing pots at the local crafts center! Hopefully someday i can get my own wheel and kiln.

    Rhys wrote on February 10th, 2011
  26. I happen to have come across your website and article by mistake whilst researching on paleolithic lifestyles. Not only does it touch on a philosophy of life but i believe it the following to achieve it.

    1. Sense of freedom and I don’t mean living in a democracy or having a choice to buy your favourite drink. I mean that when you know that you don’t have any worries or concerns i.e. mortgages, paying for your children’s education, etc.

    2. You love what you do. Most of us are stuck in jobs that we don’t love and are in it because of the current economic climate. If we are in a job or lifestyle we love, everything else falls in place easily.

    3. You have no or next to none obligations and I don’t mean not looking after your kids or simply ditching your obligations. I mean the ability to look at a day say to yourself it’s beautiful and I’m going to take the day off for myself to either run, hike, etc.

    I believe and it is my opinion based on my experience that until these conditions are not met, it’s extremely hard to constantly be in the zone or to be in a state of dasien.

    Beating the monkey drums wrote on February 10th, 2011
  27. I have “flow” loaded in my reader but never really made myself read the whole of it. Partially due to the fact that I read “Slowing Down to the Speed of Life” from Richard Carlson dealing with the same topic which I enjoyed much more.

    Tomas wrote on February 10th, 2011
  28. I experience “flow” typically when running, but also when swimming… it’s elusive and that’s what makes it so special.

    I think it is all about being present in the moment. I read an article in another blog that quoted a zen proverb:
    “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”

    Whether you are enlightened or not, you still need to chop wood and carry water, so be present in the moment of everything you do and perhaps “enlightenment” will find you.

    joe812 wrote on February 11th, 2011
    • Spot on Joe!

      Or like Anthony De Mello said it:

      ‘Before enlightenment, I was depressed. After enlightenment, I was still depressed!’

      Well put – enlightenment isn’t a depression cure! Rather, enlightenment is perpetual flow, where depression may occur, but is incidental or irrelevant because it is not identified with…

      Bill Rowles wrote on February 11th, 2011
  29. an awesome book is “drawing on the right side of the brain” It says if you don’t give your left brain anything to do it sort of turns off and your right brain takes over = flow. It also is excellent for learning how to draw :)

    aimless wrote on February 11th, 2011
  30. Fantastic post Mark.

    Flow to me is trying my best in as many things as possible during the day. When I try my best, I always seem to find time just disappearing.

    Archie wrote on February 11th, 2011
  31. My flow is always when I’m diving and the deeper dives, especially decompression diving is when I find it most. I also know when I am out of the flow, which is typically winter and I’m not able to get away for a dive. Even though I find it when I’m hiking or biking, I just don’t seem to find it like I do on a dive.

    tek_diver wrote on February 11th, 2011
  32. I find flow regularly in worship. Eyes closed, hands raised, everything seems to get quieter and slower. On stage I’ll open my eyes and realize I’m no longer facing the audience :)

    Ham-bone wrote on February 11th, 2011
  33. Long, slow cross country skate ski, snowshoe, trail run-pretty much anything outside in the mountains gets the flow going!

    Denise wrote on February 11th, 2011
  34. I love the flow and it’s something I try to cultivate on a daily basis. In other words, I try at least once a day to immerse myself fully in a task and pay attention to my breath and how my body feels while I’m doing that task – whether it’s doing the dishes, showering, walking, playing soccer, lifting heavy things, or teaching. I think flow, just like meditation, just takes practice, practice, practice and a lot of self forgiveness.

    Also, there’s a great book by Sir Ken Robinson called “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.” In the book he talks about how finding the thing (or things) that, as you put it, “tap into our individual curiosities and interests” connects us to our true selves and leads to a more fulfilled and content life. He approaches the idea of “flow,” or “the element,” from an educational standpoint; that schools and education should help individuals develop and discover their element and then when people find their element they are more likely to learn reading, writing, math and critical thinking skills within that context.

    Amber wrote on February 11th, 2011
  35. I used to have flow as a kid, specifically when I was reading. I could get so immersed in a story that the world around me faded, even I faded, and the words in front of me turned into entire worlds. It was really awe-inspiring. But eventually I actually trained myself out of my flow because it annoyed people around me so much. Other kids would tease me and say things in front of me, because I was oblivious to them and my parents were annoyed that they couldn’t reach me (it would require yelling or physically touching me to get my attention as opposed to just calling my name). So I trained myself to react to my name (yep, exactly like a dog) and after that, I can’t go as deep with a book anymore. The flow is gone.

    There’s a lot of things in my life that are awesome and a lot of things that bring me peace and serenity, but I would love to have that kind of deep immersion or flow back in my life.

    Malin wrote on February 11th, 2011
  36. Flow – the subject of my first ever blog post! Nice post Mark.

    http://naturalmessiah.blogspot.com/2008/05/in-just-six-words.html

    Asclepius wrote on February 11th, 2011
  37. Endorphins, more likely.

    Bull wrote on February 11th, 2011
  38. One task that ensures flow for me is mucking the horse stalls. The smell of the dirt and manure, sound of the rake, flies, birds, some time frog and heavy sighs of the horses. I just disappear (some times for over an hour). When I come into the house (have to take the books off first) I’m almost sad the moment is over

    Richard wrote on February 11th, 2011
  39. I meant Boots. But a good history book sometimes gets me to the same spot.

    Richard wrote on February 11th, 2011
  40. This is about silencing the “ego” part of our brain. You can say its a survival mechanism that is constantly scanning, analyzing, judging, labeling etc. This was necessary for our survival. But this also has a lot of negative to it today. It makes us judge and put labels on others, it makes us worry about whats gonna happen in the future and what happened yesterday. Constantly working on overdrive so that we can be the “best”.

    Extreme situations like sky diving or that you are falling off your bike at speed. Will force the ego to shut down, since you have to stay totally focused in the moment to survive. Then you are in the zone and experiencing flow :)

    Torgeir wrote on February 11th, 2011

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