Monday, October 29, 2012

Go with the Flow

Shortly after I finished my Kokopelli Trail ride in Utah last weekend, I found myself in a position I land in frequently — trying to explain to skeptics what it is about long bike rides that I find so appealing. When attempting to verbally describe this concept while my mind is still fried from the physical demands of the ride, I often hem and haw and mutter buzz words such as "pretty" and "mountains." One non-cyclist friend speculated that she would become "crazy bored" on a six-hour solo ride; another mountain biker friend called this particular redrock canyon route "cheesy" because it lacked the necessary amount of adrenaline-pumping singletrack. "I can't really explain it," I finally concluded. "But long-distance rides are one of the few activities I can fully immerse myself in. Sometimes when I'm on my bike, I get so caught up in the movement that I let go of everything else; nothing else matters. It's liberating, really, to lose myself so completely."

A couple of days later, while chatting about music on our way home from Moab, my friend Craig shared similar sentiments as he described improvising on his saxophone. After his wife and daughter go to bed, he sometimes slips into his garage and lets the whole world disappear into the music. He's playing the instrument, but the harmony seems to be creating itself, an independent energy that pulls him along for the ride. As the conversation continued, I realized that Craig wasn't just describing the same emotions I feel during long bike rides. He was describing the same experience.

When I pointed out the similarities of our reactions to these two otherwise unrelated activities, Craig recommended I read "Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This was a fairly popular pop psychology book written in the 1980s that I had never heard of before this past weekend; strangely, as Csikszentmihalyi's theories bolster the same ideas I have been forming — and writing about — for years. "Flow" proposes that optimal experiences are formed when people focus so fully on an achieving a goal that they shed all excess distractions, and in the process experience energized attention, enlightenment, and joy. He proposes that the happiest people are those who consistently enter this kind of "flow" state, funneling all of their energy and emotions into the singular satisfaction of the moment.

"I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it," Csikszentmihalyi wrote in "Flow." Later, when describing his clinical research, he explained, "What I discovered was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy."

And another quote that will resonate with endurance junkies everywhere: "The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen."

It's a compelling concept that can obviously be applied far beyond the simple acts of riding bicycles or playing jazz music. A painter creating a mural, a lawyer building a case, two friends engaged in an engrossing conversation, and a worker on an assembly line are among examples of flow states described in the book. I just started reading "Flow" and am only a quarter way in (27 percent according to my Kindle), but it's been quite illuminating reading. I considered some of the times in my life during which I've entered into a fully immersive state, and the activities that generated this flow:

1. Long-distance cycling, especially in wild and scenic landscapes
2. Hiking and running, especially in physically demanding conditions or on difficult terrain (i.e. climbing steep mountains)
3. Piecing together all the components of a daily newspaper under tight deadline pressure (i.e. editing and designing newspaper pages — sadly not a high-demand skill these days.)
4. Writing

In fact, flow is exactly what has been missing from my writing lately. Reading this book has sparked consideration as to how I can get this back. For the past year, my strategy has largely consisted of aggressively pursuing the first two activities. This has kept me saturated in flow experiences and subsequent feelings of contentedness and happiness, but admittedly at the expense of more traditional productivity. Still, I feel grateful that I'm healthy and secure enough to have regular access to this enriching state — even if relatively few can understand what's so great about riding a bicycle. It means something to me — and in an existence formed by inner experiences, that's what matters.

I'll continue reading this book and working harder to apply this satisfying singular focus to other aspects of my life. But I'm blogging about it now because I believe the concept of flow can be an effective shield in the widespread battle against anxiety, depression, and discontent. It's something worth reflecting on — What activities bring you to a state where you forget about time, hunger, exhaustion, even fear? How can these activities become more of a central focus in your life? I think these are important questions. 


  1. The first time I heard about the concept of flow was, of all things, at a scrapbooking trade show. It truly can occur in any sort of activity as long as you lose yourself. I've heard friends talk about flow in gardening and in computer programming...for me it's most likely to happen when I am hiking, especially solo - if I'm with other people, my self-consciousness about my pace tends to get in the way of any zen-type flow feelings.

    I really do think that when I get into a state of flow, it's just about the only time I'm not either thinking about the past or worrying about the future, I'm just truly living in the now. (Those 'be here now' hippies were right!)

  2. Exactly how I feel about long distance hiking, backpacking in particular. It does not even have to be all that hard. It's more about getting away from everything but nature and moving through it on its own terms.

    And, now that it is winter, I am finding that I am writing more. Flow of a different kind, I think you are right. In summer I fill myself up with outdoor stuff.

    You've got it right.

  3. Cool! You have found my favorite Hungarian. Hunter S Thompson took the concept a "bit" further in Edgework. Voluntary risk taking in the times of Strava was my proposal for my wife' psych thesis, unfortunately shot down by her prof.
    Nothing better to introduce Flow than a six hour mountain bike ride or race stage. Or the Braille trail in Demo!

  4. Yep, that's how I feel about skiing, photography and hiking (in that order!) A few hours (or a day) spent in one of these activities leaves me a much happier person.

  5. Jan — it's interesting to consider the correlation between risk taking and flow states. Obviously some people, such as rock climbers, find flow in high-risk environments. For me, personally, risk activities and flow activities seem to take place on opposite ends of the spectrum. When I'm engaged in high-risk activities, I'm too consumed with anxieties and fears to disappear into the task at hand. Although I'm willing to take on more risky activities — such as riding the Braille Trail — my end goal in such activities is to improve my skills, conquer my fears, and have fun. When I am seeking that Zen-like "flow," I go for long and arduous bike rides or hikes that any thrill seeker would find painfully dull.

  6. Wow, I've never seen that feeling described so well. Looks like I'm going to have to find that book.


    Steve Z

  7. Studies of animals doing what they do best - i.e., deer browsing, cows grazing, bears foraging - showed their brains produced more alpha waves when in that state, may correlate to what we call being "engaged". Evolved from migrant, opportunistic hunter gatherers always on the lookout for a score, whether it be a tree with ripe fruit, eggs in a bird's nest, a tasty carcass, whatever, maybe that's why travelling and scrutinizing the landscape is an intrinsically pleasureable activity for homo sapiens.

  8. I'd never heard of "flow" before...but it accuratly describes how I feel on a bike ride. Long ago during a nasty divorce I'd grab my mtb and hit the trails in Wisconson (Kettle Morain State park) and would go do a night ride in the middle of the week...I'm an electronics guy, and I always associated my bike as a "shunt to earth ground" for all my negative energy...during the ride I'm focused on going as hard and fast as I can (and not crashing) by the end I'd be utterly whipped and estatic at the same time, and all was once again right with the world.

    Riding my mtb on sweet singletrack still makes me feel that way...the road bike not so much (cars seem to suck the zen out of the moment)..however a good lonely winding road can still certainly do the trick.

  9. I've spent a lot of the past year mountain biking solo and it never fails, no matter the weather or my level of fatigue, to chill me out and leave me in a happier state. There is something completely mind-clearing about extended physical activity and it's a feeling I don't get from anything else.

  10. Love this: "And another quote that will resonate with endurance junkies everywhere: 'The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.'"

    Exactly! I was just thinking of this very thing this weekend at my 50 miler. I wrote a blog post about it just yesterday. Trying to explain why I do what I do. I tell people that what I do is my drug of choice. Now I can tell them it's my flow. I'm going to download this book right now.

  11. Sounds like an interesting book, will have to check it out.

    I've used the word "flow" before to describe riding, especially mountain biking. Riding singletrack always puts me in that mode - and maybe why it's still so addicting - even after 28+ years of pedaling on dirt.

    I've thought about this before, it occurs when doing something intense enough where your mind is quiet and you're fully engaged. Maybe not 100% of the time, but at least in some time segments. On familiar trails, that occurs for me. On new trails, the flow mindset lasts longer. Interesting stuff.

    During the late '70s, I rode and raced dirt motorcycles - motocross. With the speed, concentration, and intensity, that flow feeling was quite intense and lasted for long amounts of time.

    Mind completely clear, no running thoughts - just totally absorbed in the experience. I remember crashing once, in the middle of this flow, and feeling like the world just stopped turning. Memory still vivid 30+ years later.

    These days I get a similar feeling while bicycling, working on bicycles, writing, and photography.

    Great post today. Got me thinking about this once again. Thanks!

  12. Ah, Csikszentmihalyi, the master of studying the dynamics of creativity. If you like that, you should also check out Shelly Carson - I just finished her book, she focuses on functional MRI's and accessing different parts of the brain to activate creativity (including flow).

  13. This "flow" concept is a core principle behind Buddhist philosophy. The principle is that by fully embracing the current moment in whatever we are doing we go to spiritually Zen sort of place, free from the mind and it's worries of the future and past. By being in the "now" we free ourselves from the repetitive worries inflicted on us by our minds that inevitably lead to "suffering.". Buddhists believe that now is all that life is and by fully embracing it, we spiritually free ourselves from our minds desire fret over the future or past. When you watch how much energy your minds spends thinking about the future and past you realize how crazy it is.

    There are many ways to access this "now" Zen state: meditation, endurance sports and creating music are three I enjoy. When younger I used to free climb w/ o ropes and get there b/c it your worries fall away quickly when all that matters is your next move, not a real healthy way to access the now in hindsight.

    We all have our portals to the "Now" to keep us spiritually sane. Now you need to ask , how can I be more present in the now when I am not on my bike.

    You've had an inkling now are you ready to unplug from the Matrix? If so you must read Eckhardt Tolle's "The Power of Now.". Changed everything for me

    Sorry for the sermon. I am off the soapbox

    The Slow Cyclist

  14. "But long-distance rides are one of the few activities I can fully immerse myself in. Sometimes when I'm on my bike, I get so caught up in the movement that I let go of everything else; nothing else matters. It's liberating, really, to lose myself so completely."

    Nice Jill. Just the way many of us feel when we pursue our passions. That loss of all space and time...leisure. Just how I feel when I'm out on the river fly fishing or up in the mountains on foot or bike. Thanks for the post!

  15. Jill, great post!, thanks for info on 'next' book to read. BTW, kinda always looking to read your 'next'.

  16. The flow is an interesting idea, especially after reading your blog and seeing how introspective you are most of the time. How many times do you actually turn your brain off and live in the moment while you're out exercising. Seems like most of the time when you're out you're thinking out life's issues, and using exercise as a means to get away from everything. Does your internal dialogue actually stop when you're biking or running, or does it only happen when trail conditions are so tough you only have time to think about the present moment ?.

    Me, I'm almost always thinking about something else, especially if I'm on a trail I've been on many times before and it's boring.


Feedback is always appreciated!