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.