My own journey to flow
I started reading about flow research a few years ago, but the real journey began many years before. Snowboarding and surfing have been my passions for many years and much of my life has been engineered to maximise time spent on these pursuits.
Flow state research struck a chord in me because I had experienced many episodes of heightened awareness and focus when I was surfing and snowboarding. I didn't know I was in flow at the time but many of these instances stick in my memory as peak moments in my life. On certain occasions, when my focus was sharp and the challenge was high, my levels of involvement in my activity would go to another realm, my immersion in the act would go from physical to mental to something else.
It might have been snowboarding in waist deep powder through a tight tree section, bottom turning on my surfboard and tucking immediately into a barrel that had a microsecond window of opportunity. Time slowed down. My field of awareness honed in - I became what I was doing. I made rapid decisions without thought. I felt total control of the situation. And afterwards I felt calm euphoria.
Not necessarily whooping and hollering, "put your hands up in the air" euphoria. More of a calm "this is what I was born to do", knowing. An intrinsic bliss.
I had read about "being in the zone", I had watched heaps of elite sport and seen Michael Jordan sink impossible 3 pointers in the dying seconds of massive games. I had been to clubs, raves and festivals, experimented freely, and been part of the pulsating energy of mass human euphoria.
I remember going to a concert in London and being mind-blown by a 10 minute saxaphone solo and experiencing the buzz of 50,000 people all vibing off the energy created by a maestro in flow. I knew the flow state existed and I knew something of the wonders it created- But I knew nothing about how it occured and whether it was something that could be induced or re-created.
Most surfers and snowboarders, mountain bikers and other adventure sports enthusiasts know they love what they do, they know they are hooked into these sports by a mysteriously magnetic force.
But articulating why we are so addicted to sliding down waves or mountains is an awkward endeavour. I remember trying to really explain to my father why surfing consumed so much of my life. All he could see was a bunch of dudes bobbing out in the ocean and occasionally standing up then falling over.
I talked about energy of the ocean, harmony with nature... then found myself cringing at the awkwardness of trying to explain to a non-surfer what it was all about... and gave up.
Despite what the action sports industry and cultural cliches has led people to believe- for most people I don't think its really about the adrenaline rushes and death defying acts. Its more simple than that. Its about escape and return.... escape from the "real world", the stresses of modern life. Escaping from the busy-ness of our minds... and returning to a place of calm and stillness.
There is something about the purity and intensity of riding pure energy in the form of waves that produces exceptionally pronounced peak experiences for me and most surfers I imagine. The moment I enter the ocean, those pesky earthly worries usually start fading away.
Once I feel the energy of the wave propel me in that rush of speed and power, everything changes- there is only riding the wave. To do lists and stresses do not exist in this world. You could be shouting insults at me from 10 feet away and I won't hear you. There is only the wave.
Laird Hamilton, a Hawaii surf legend says it well: "When you go to that place, there's no time and there's definitely no thought. You are and it is and thats why we continually seek it out... "
Once the surfer has the skills to meet the challenge of riding waves, small or big, the activity can become a meditation.
The reason why surfing, and other similar activities are so addictive is because they plunge us into the flow state and as we learned before, more flow state= more happiness.
The Zen way
When I was 21 I moved to Japan for a couple of years. In between becoming a sushi connoisseur, honing mad karaoke skills, and surfing a lot I would go to the local Zen Buddhist temple.
There I learnt about meditation and mindfulness as a way of training the mind. The Zen monk that ran the temple was somehow stern yet warm. He also carried a big stick.
In zazen pratcice (seated meditation) if you feel like your mind is wondering and you want to bring it into sharper focus you can request a light beating. Not kidding. The first time I saw this out the corner of my half-closed eye, I had second thoughts about the whole thing.
But through experience I learned its almost painless, and also its a pretty effective way to snap your attention back in the zone. If I could hire a Zen monk to be my personal stick man, I would.
Over the next ten years I went in and out of stages of practicing meditation, sometimes intensively and at other times very sporadically. I always knew that quality of life was about the lens through which we chose to view it, and that meditation was a tool for keeping that lens clear and clean. Meditation in its various forms gave me great clarity of mind.
Joining the Dots
In 2008 I went on a 14 month adventure around the world. The previous 2 years I had started a career as a headhunter in the finance industry in London then Hong Kong. This was an era marked by extravagent excess and an expanding wasitline. I was stressed out, sick of the corporate world and burnt out by urban living. So I moved to Bali for a few months, and immediately checked into yoga retreat.
For the next spent 12 months I travelled through much of Indonesia and South America, and spent a season snowboarding in Whistler, reading about philosophy, Buddhism, Taoism, meditation, yoga... and surfing or snowboarding many hours each day.
This was the start of a new period of my life, where I confronted one of the barefaced lies that our culture teaches us- that happiness depended on success, and that success meant a career which would lead to financial security and wealth. All sounds reasonable in theory...until you see how miserable, stressed and discontent the majority of bankers in London and Hong Kong are. Any connection between wealth and happiness was severed in my mind.
Jaunting around the world for 14 months with my surfboard, snowboard and a stack of books was the adventure I needed to hit the reset button on my conditioned mind. I was able to experiment on myself. If having money and a high flying career didn't make me happy, but surfing every day, training my mind and body and learning about myself did.... then the mainstream culture was wrong, and Csíkszentmihályi, Bruce Lee, Buddha, Laozi, Mr. Miyagi and countless other wise dudes were right.
The search for happiness, success and the awesome life is NOT external. You will not find it out there. No matter what. You think that Russian oligarch with his model wife, ten Ferrari's, a 200 foot boat is happier than my buddy Mike Tomchek (who taught me to surf) who works casual jobs to pay the bills and to fund his epic life of surfing, rockclimbing and base jumping. Think again! Life is a journey of self-exploration. The conditions for happiness are inside us all, not out there.
But I digress. On my adventure around the world, I explored the connection between flow and meditative states. Both states required a deep focus on the activity taking place. Both states required a silencing of the thinking mind so that the subconscious could take over. And with both states... just like trying to be cool... the harder you try, the less it happens. A certain type of letting go and surrendering was required.
A few years ago I stumbled across the book Synchronicity: The Path of Inner Leadership by Joseph Jaworski. I highly recommend this book that charts Jaworski's personal journey and discovery of the "hidden hands" that kept opening doors in his life- the phenomonen of synchronicity. His journey led him to David Bohm and other quantum physicists who "discoverved" that one some level beyond the five senses, the universe was interconnected.
Something about synchronistic states and flow states felt similar to me. I also read about ancient peoples and indigenous tribes who lived in harmony with nature, and seemed to be more in sync with the world than our modern cultures are. They often seemed like highly intuitive people who lived in a way that was free of the blockages that our culture throws in our path- they seemed to live in flow.
Most of what I read about modern Flow state research is an echo of ancient wisdom.
Its taken me my entire life of playing, working, traveling, thinking, reading and talking to people. But now the dots are being connected. Science, philosophy, ancient wisdom, nature, adventure sports all tied up and interconnected by this elusive state we call Flow. This the stuff that I want to explore and write about and if thats interesting to you, please follow along and join in.
For anyone interested in the link between extreme sports and the flow state, please read Steven Kotler's excellent book: "The Rise of the Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance". Its full of mind-blowing stories of elite adventure sports professionals pushing the limits of human performance and incredibly clear descriptions of what happens in our brains when we go into flow.