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Saturday, August 9, 2014

THE FLOW

In the hilariously funny movie Caddy Shack, the eccentric golfer and millionaire played by Chevy Chase dispensed some very valuable advice to his protégé. His tips for putting the ball in the hole? Be the ball.

 
Then there is the river in the book Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, the one River Phoenix was named after (God rest him). What did it do? It flowed. If you define a river by the molecules of water it contains, it is never the same river. Even its precise location changes, as it floods and evaporates, shifts its course. Some rivers even change names as they cross territories. But we know instinctually that despite its evanescence there is something that remains the same. Like we humans, who recycle cells, grow up, grow old and die, trade out likes and dislikes, etc. but retain a core sameness that never changes.
 
 
Athletes and non-athletes alike have heard of the concept of "the zone."  When everything comes together, all the hours of focused effort coalesce into a perfect moment where the player transcends time and space and yet is perfectly aware, is awareness itself. Like Michael Jordan making one of numerous buzzer-beating shots.
 
 
Another term for being in the zone is what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalya calls "flow." And flow is not just for players, unless you mean the game of life we all play. Finding flow offers a chance not only for optimal experiences, but also to train better and race smarter (if you do compete) and generally live a more fulfilling life.
 
People are noted to be happiest when doing challenging activities that require skill and concentration. Undertake a challenge without commensurate skill and you feel anxiety. If you don't occasionally challenge yourself you feel apathy or boredom. The flow of life is where skill and challenge meet. This is why children play, and why rock climbers, chess players, gardeners, musicians, (dog-walkers), artists and athletes spend hours each week intently focused on tasks that emphasize the process over the product, where the activity itself is the reward. These so-called autotelic activities are those in which your mind no longer wanders, your concentration locks onto the task at hand, you feel incvincible, confident that your well-honed abilities can meet the challenge, even as the energy you expend feels effortless.
 
As author Philip Latter notes in a recent Running Times article on the subject, you become egoless as your awareness and movements merge. Time speeds up. This is a peak moment, the essence of being alive. Where records are broken and champions are made.
 
Passive activities like watching TV or twiddling with your phone turn the mind off by bombarding it with a stream of unimportant information. Sensual pleasures (like pizza) occur automatically, requiring no focus or skill. Flow activities engage and challenge a person, and its the challenge that creates the enjoyment. Flow sensations include a merging of action and awareness, a heightened sense of control, loss of self-consciousness, and transformation of time (which seems to pass quickly).
 
How to cultivate flow? Put yourself in challenging situations that test the limits of your skills. Avoid passive activities (like surfing TV or Internet). Set clear goals and respond to feedback. And practice mindfulness and thought control If your thoughts wander, shift them to the present moment and stay focused on what matters most, which is here and now.
 
I know none of this is news to you and you already are going with the flow in your own life. It's nice to be reminded you're on the right track. Even better, that you are it.
 

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