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:

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. Great post Mark – I absolutely love ‘flowing’.
    Swimming is one of the things I do that allows me to achieve flow very easily. There something about water that just totally focuses my senses and allows me to be fully present in the moment.
    I’ve recently gotten back into swimming laps (which to many may seem boring/tedious) but to me it’s beyond revitalizing.
    Again, great post and a healthy reminder of achieving overall wellness (both mentally and physically).

    Cha Cha wrote on February 11th, 2011
  2. Lately I’ve been trying to get back into meditation which basically does the same thing. Swimming has the same effect if I go long enough. Something about the sensory deprivation, maybe.

    John wrote on February 11th, 2011
  3. I just looked at the photo that accompanies this post.

    As a mother of two preteen boys, I hope it’s been Photoshopped…

    Alison Golden wrote on February 11th, 2011
  4. Ah…. I practice Oriental Medicine and Hypnotherapy for my living…. After 30 years, it is still a passion… I play electric bass semi-professionally… I have a 10 year marriage that is “ALIVE”, dynamic and vehicle for growth… I sit zazen, qi gong and self hypnosis to grow myself and develop unconditional positive regard for self AND I have found Primal Blueprint and all of YOU wonderful beings HERE!!!! YeAH, I am in the flow!!! Blessings to you all!!!

    Randy Clere wrote on February 11th, 2011
  5. I agree with most commenters here. This was a fantastic post. I could instantly connect with your description.
    I don’t mean to go all self-helper on you, but you totally diagnosed what I have been missing in my career and life generally. Even though I have a decent job (though not very exciting) and I have been eating paleo and exercising, as an atheist I’ve had pangs of the dreaded “existential crisis.”
    I have yearned to feel belonging and immersion into a task or community. I guess I remember it from few years ago when I used to play team sports a lot.

    Thank you. I will be pursuing flow to get out of my existential ennui and excessive reading of blogs.

    Contemplationist wrote on February 11th, 2011
    • hey – youre not alone – i am in similar situation, even down to excessive blog reading :) I am going to create more opportunities for flow too.

      barb wrote on February 12th, 2011
  6. I’m surprised no one has mentioned (ok STE did kind of mention it) but SURFING! Riding a wave that has come hundreds if not thousands of miles just to crash in the perfect spot for you to join it just for a moement. The entire process of catching and riding a wave is entirely flow (the ebb comes after). Check out the book “Surf is Where You Find It.”

    AquaReef wrote on February 11th, 2011
  7. My best art creations are the result of being in the flow.

    While photographing in nature or urban environments I’ve had the best time while in the flow. However, sadly, I realized this was not good for my safety.

    Sharon wrote on February 12th, 2011
  8. Total Immersion is also a style of doing freestyle swimming. It allows you to go longer distances and use less energy. It is very similar to judo and other martial arts in that mastering form makes the stroke seem effortless and takes less strength.

    Ward wrote on February 12th, 2011
  9. I saw the cool post about squeezing out the baby…anyone mention the conception portion of the event?…that and golf.

    Bill wrote on February 12th, 2011
  10. Total immersion takes place for me anytime time I’m in the ocean. Be it surfing swimming or riding my handplane, I feel the most at peace during these activities.

    Andrew wrote on February 13th, 2011
  11. Y Ward I have read and try to follow the ideas of the Total Immersion swimming too! (I first i thought this meant that your body is to be totally submerged when swimmng, as opposed to a philosophy !) Especially helpful I found swimming with bunched fists that teaches you to really twist the body with each stroke.

    AquaReef, i too have surfed but for me it did not come close to the windsurf. Too start-stoppy.
    Imagine wsurf is like catching a single wave that lasts indefinitely.

    ste wrote on February 13th, 2011
  12. Great Post Mark.

    One question, any techniques on getting back into the flow. I have always remembered some situations where time seemed to slow down from when I was a kid playing soccer. Till today, i describe that state to my friends and they think I exaggerate.

    I still remember a goal I scored in a school match, where everything was in slow motion. I was running with the ball, and without even turning my head I knew where my friend was running and that there was a defender running up at an angle behind me. I remember kicking the ball and seeing it go slowly, very very slowly as the goalie dived in slow motion and I saw the ball curl extremely slowly around his outstretched fingers and into the goal….it was literally like the slow motion sequences from the movies…and after scroing the goal suddenly everything speeded up as my friends ran up to congratulate me….. It was not just a state of complete though passive immersion as other readers have narrated but a feeling of being superhuman and being faster than time. I wasnt tuned out but perhaps incredibly tuned in. It also seemed like an out- of body experience as in I never turned my head but in my mind I could almost make out the layout of the field, of where my team members were and where the defenders were…..and this without consciously seeing….

    I have often wondered at this state and wonder how we can recreate it and apply it to our work.

    Rahul wrote on February 14th, 2011
    • I know exactly what you are talking about. Yes, you can learn to do this consciously. I wrote some about it above. I don’t understand this completely but it involves the vestibulary system and how we keep track of objects in space and our balance.

      Rather than explaining the way I personally understand this I’ll point you in the direction of Robert Johanssons blog. He is a Swedish guy who have been working several years on a model you can use to train yourself to do this at will. There are a few videos and tons of articles about it.

      It’s called RBIm and is simple and awesome. Found at http://notnlp.com

      I had to read a lot of articles before I started to understand this even a little but you don’t need to understand it to do it as long as you can follow the instructions.

      It’s worth every second of practice.

      Martin wrote on February 14th, 2011
  13. I agree with this on many levels. My work can be seen as mundane and repetitive. At times it became so automatic I could not recall if I had missed a step.
    I started practicing being conscious, being aware of what I am doing and putting my whole effort into the task at hand- the result can be powerful. Too often we go on auto-pilot and miss out on the living we are actually experiencing.
    I love how my primal life seems to be marrying my spiritual life.

    Shelley C wrote on February 14th, 2011
  14. ..sorry i have to give my 5 penneth .Having spent 2.5 years in Buddhist (Thera and Zen ) and Benedictine monasteries what is said above is in part dangerous as all get-out to say..esp bit about not so much as doing anything particular as opposed to losing ourselves within it.
    Read about extremely violent people…often when interviewed they talk of those moments when they were slashing someones face or committing some other act of atrocity.
    Extreme examples but please if you say such things, please reflect upon what you say for a moment afore posting.

    Simon Fellows wrote on February 14th, 2011
    • Well sure, but the same could be said about meditation… not all dissociative states are similar. Arguably, the flow state is one of interconnectedness, not pure detachment…

      Richard Hartnell wrote on February 14th, 2011
      • Flow isn’t about detachment at all. Rather you are associated with the context which is why it can feels like you cease to exist since you don’t relate yourself to the context, you are it. Young children do this all the time before they’ve developed their brain to compare contexts and become aware of the self they are relating context to. This happens around age four I believe. Then most people seem to forget how to do this when they grow up.

        It’s a function from our brain evolution and nothing mystic or such. You can train yourself to access this at will just like you can train about any skill you already have. It will take time as with everything. Worth every second though.

        This is my understanding from articles I’ve read combined with half a year of practicing RBIm.

        Martin wrote on February 14th, 2011
  15. Absolutely fabulous write-up. I have long had these “moments”, but never had any idea that they could be attained through any means of my own. Definitely going to look into this a lot deeper. Interestingly enough, I find that while I’m “in” flow, I have a lot of energy; however, once I’m “out” I feel exhausted.

    Nathan wrote on February 14th, 2011
  16. These are the moments that I really cherish but never really know how to find them again. I am going to have to bust into that creativity zone more often when trying to do things. Cool article as usual Mark

    Bill Nad wrote on February 16th, 2011
  17. Very good post MARK!

    Flow is well beyond any LIFE STYLE !!!
    its dealing with PRIMAL AWARENESS in
    a NON DUAL WAY – this is very valuable
    insight.
    However:
    the learned person KNOWS
    the wise person PRACTICES

    You can NOT know FLOW intellectually
    there is the ” rub”
    but you can BE IT thru attention relaxed
    yet focused !

    NAMASTE

    josh wrote on February 16th, 2011
  18. I mostly get flow experiences when I’m playing (computer) games. It’s so addictive though that it just causes more problems than benefits.

    steven wrote on February 21st, 2011
  19. If you have not done so, beg borrow or steal a copy of Jane McGonicals book “Reality is Broken”.

    I am obsessed by this book just now and its on the same topic.

    Jane has the ability to take the last 10 years of my life and summarize them in a paragraph in a series of Eureka moments.

    At worst, have a look at her presentation on ted.com

    Marcus wrote on February 23rd, 2011
  20. Ecstasy lies in the simplicity of making ourselves happy and healthy on a daily basis- something which intrinsically stems form our ability to tap into primal and primordial routine behavior. I was elated to read this post- one which only strengthens the quotient for success to all primal existence. Bringing the body, mind, and spirit into a state of primal equilibrium cannot be achieved from dieting alone; the breadth and depth of this article is a must read for all.

    Monika wrote on October 5th, 2011
  21. I remember my professor in my Sports Philosophy class talking about flow or being in the zone. When Micheal Jordan went off for 35 points in one quarter or Kobe Bryant had 81 in a game this is flow. I myself do not experience flow very often. I think when I do though I am doing something I truly enjoy. Playing beach volleyball I can get in a zone where everything seems to slow down and seem easy. This only last for a little while though then I have to focus hard to make things happen. I have experienced this on the basketball court as well. Again everything slows down and you see everything very clearly. I would love to be in the zone or flow more often. I know day to day life really affects this with all the stress that around. Learning to cope and manage that stress I know is very important. Great post! I really enjoyed reading it.

    Paul wrote on March 29th, 2012
  22. Anyone interested in delving further into the ideas of presence and intuition as pertains to flow and attainment of the phenomenon called the “Zone” ought to check out the book “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin. Very insightful, one of my favorites (and no, I don’t know Josh or receive kickbacks ;) ).

    Adam wrote on June 19th, 2013

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