Published on Elephant Journal
“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
It was late July, and rain was imminent. Perfect conditions for running. I put on my shoes and ran toward the dark clouds filling the sky.
The slight breeze suddenly picked up and became a strong wind. The trees started to shake violently, and the leaves began to scatter across the ground.
I kept running; I didn’t stop. Rain pelted down from the now completely black sky.
I was the only one on the road—no cars, no vendors, not even stray dogs. I felt a chill run down my spine, and tears rolled down my cheeks. But I wasn’t tired, and I didn’t feel any of my usual running pains.
I was on some kind of high, and for a few minutes everything was so clear, it was as if I was at one with this universe. The swaying trees were dancing to the music from the sky, and I was the composer.
I had just experienced “flow,” the mental state of being completely present and immersed in an activity. In this state, we become so focused and absorbed in a given moment that our sense of self disappears, and time and space collapse. Athletes describe it as “being in the zone.” Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist, calls it the “rapture of being alive.”
The term “flow” was coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of positive psychology. He dedicated his life to the study of flow, which culminated in his seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. His research (since 1975) considered how we get into a state of flow and the benefits it produces in creativity, success, and living a more meaningful life.
The beauty of a “flow state” of happiness is that it’s under our control and leads directly to self-growth—unlike other states of happiness that depend on external circumstances like good weather, another person, or our favourite burger.
Flow is an essential ingredient in fostering creativity, reducing anxiety, and thus living a fulfilled life. It’s important we understand how it works and how we can ignite it in our lives. Extreme athletes in particular get into it quicker than others and are then able to perform at their best. However, flow cuts across many segments of life, including the workplace, the home, and hobbies. A supermarket clerk who pays positive attention to customers, an amateur gardener spending an afternoon weeding, and a chess master playing a challenging game might all achieve a state of flow.
There are some conditions that we must meet before we can experience flow:
1) Intense and Focused Concentration on the Present Moment
We must be completely occupied in a task at hand, so engrossed in the experience that in the words of Csikszentmihalyi, “other needs become negligible.” We lose our sense of self, and all day-to-day concerns drift away. We lose track of time and where we are. Napoleon, for example, was famous for concentrating hard and long on his next strategic move in a battle.
I love walking in historic cities. Last July, I embodied the real definition of a flaneur and wandered the streets of Paris aimlessly, observing the sights around me, removing myself from the world, putting myself into the heart of the city, and becoming one with it. After a few hours, I felt myself in full “flow,” and it was then I came to the realisation that I wanted to pursue writing as a central part of my life.
2) Inner Clarity—Merging of Action and Awareness
Flow tends to occur when we are clear about the task at hand and have a sense of how to measure its progress to get some immediate feedback. That’s why it’s easier to enter this state in games such as chess or sports like golf or tennis, as the hard goals and rules set a clear course of action for us without the need to question what should be done and how.
Last November, I joined NaNoWriMo, which is an annual online creative writing project that takes place only in November and challenges participants to write 50,000 words for a novel. It gets people writing and motivated throughout the month. I set myself a target of writing 1,500 words a day.
As the rules were clear, I wrote consistently every day. Not only did I have this great sense of satisfaction all day, but I also gained the confidence that I could write a book and not just blog—I broke a mental barrier I’d had within me.
3) Feeling the Potential to Succeed
We must acquire a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity. We know that the activity is doable and that we have the necessary skills to complete the task. Goals that are below our abilities are boring, while those beyond our abilities are discouraging. The task that is just beyond our current horizon challenges us to experience flow as we become motivated.
I remember when I played tennis regularly as a teen, usually against my best friend at the time. We were of matching abilities, and often shared wins equally. These matches were the highlight of our weekends, as we would finish high on adrenaline, one upset and the other elated. When I left England for Ghana, however, I tried playing again, but would either face an easier opponent or one who was much better. Slowly, I lost interest in tennis, and played soccer instead, like most of my new friends.
4) Intrinsic and Meaningful Motivation
Flow works best when motivation is internal and there is meaning behind our activity. In his 1988 study, Csikszentmihalyi looked at 250 “high-flow” and “low-flow” teenagers. The high-flow teenagers spent more time on “active leisure” activities such as hobbies, sports, and homework, while their low-flow peers engaged in low-flow activities like video games, television, or socialising. The research showed that the high-flow teenagers had higher levels of self-esteem and engagement, which led them to have greater long-term happiness, as well as success in school, social relationships, and careers.
Buddhists advise us to “act always as if the future of the universe depended on what we did while laughing at ourselves for thinking that whatever we do makes any difference.”
Many people consider “flow” to be a state only achieved by athletes and creatives, but the truth is that all of us can and should get into flow.
We must get out of our comfort zones more often and seek the adventures available to us. Our acts need not be drastic, but we must challenge ourselves at least a little every day. Flow is a natural tool that can help us tap into our “Superman side.” It brings us to a state where we believe in ourselves and our abilities.
Don’t waste a minute more of your life. Go get into flow.