Friday, September 30, 2011

Feeling the Flow

Half an hour into the hike it happens:  the climb becomes effortless, my body relaxes, my breathing falls in sync with the rhythm of my footfalls and heartbeat.   Worries from the work week and other mental chatter fade away. The focus of my awareness shifts-- while some attention stays on my breath and the rhythm of my stride,  I also fall in tune to the outside world.  The colors of the leaves intensify.  The textures, scents, and shadows of the forest come alive.  I notice how the wind gently touches my skin and how the earth presses against the soles of my feet.   Plants wave their branches at me, and (crazy as it sounds) I see the interconnectedness of this ecosystem and the kinship all living things share.  I am at home.  I can hike forever.

Flowing down the Zion Narrows (Photo by P. Soukup)
It happens also when I'm up on the trapeze at my aerial dance class.  I am totally in the moment.  It is a delightful challenge to focus intently on many things at once: moving with the music, legs extended and chest open, keeping balanced, staying in sync with my classmates.  My thoughts are clear, time loses meaning, I am free and flying.  On the ground, I may dislike my body, but up in the air, I have plenty of strength, flexibility, and poise and am decidedly happy in my own skin.  Afterward, I have bruises and rope burns, but the pain doesn't even register when I'm up on the trapeze.  I am utterly happy.

I found out that this mental state that I experience both out on the trail and up in the air has a name: flow.  Wikipedia says flow involves being "fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." It results loss of self-consciousness and feelings of joy and transcendence of normal awareness.  It happens when the task is challenging but matches one's ability level and offers immediate positive feedback.  Tasks that I enjoy most are the ones that allow me to experience flow.  Things that I find either too easy or too difficult, and that don't require a lot of skill, very rarely give me the same sense of bliss.

One of the benefits of flow is that it has a meditative effect similar to what many experience in yoga or sitting meditation.  It trains your mind to stay focused for sustained periods of time, and it helps you practice controlling your thoughts.  I believe this is the key to being happy.  When do you experience flow?

No comments:

Post a Comment