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.