What is Flow?: Part 1
Not long ago I wrote a piece called “The Untracked Mind”, in which I explored the phenomenon of heightened consciousness and how it pertains to not only snowboarding, but life. This isn’t something we typically see in a shred mag, with most of the focus being on what this pro is up to and what happened on this or that trip – entertaining on one level, but essentially barren of any real meat. It did however explore the idea that through heightened awareness, our subjective experience of snowboarding can be enhanced to something like a flow state, a level of existence on par with the most satisfying of our lives. To me, this is why I snowboard – all of the inspiration in the world is useless without the power of one’s mind to direct one’s own experience.
In his renowned book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, puts forth the idea that the happiest, most fulfilling moments of our lives are those in which we are fully engaged. In a nutshell, he explores, “the positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life, I call flow.”
To go any further we must understand the concept that more than anything else, the bottom line in life is that we just want to be happy. It’s an idea Aristotle recognized millennia ago and something Csikmszentmihalyi notes in saying, “While happiness in itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal – health, beauty, money, or power – is is valued only because we expect it will make us happy.”
The thing is, those things don’t make us happy, they just point us to an end result that we think will.
Typically we have been conditioned to believe that we can “achieve” happiness if we work hard and set goals, often represented by money, power over others or beauty. One of the problems here is that once those goals are achieved, you require another to satisfy this reoccurring desire. Ask yourself: Do you feel good once a goal is realized? Maybe for a moment, but there is no sitting back and riding that feeling out for the rest of your life as if to say, “I’ve done it. Happiness achieved.” This is something I see in pro snowboarding a lot. A rider so fixated on getting the shot that screaming and board chucking have taken center stage in place of enjoyment of the present moment.
As Csikmszentmihalyi points out, “There is no inherent problem in the desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way.”
And let’s face it, isn’t most of life a struggle on one level or another?
In essence, there is a way to enjoy all moments, not just the chosen few after the long road of working for them has been accomplished.
So lets examine progression and snowboarding. Will becoming a better snowboarder make you happy? It depends on your approach. If it is simply to lock down another trick so you can move on to the next or because you are going to derive temporary pleasure from peer approval, certainly not. Yet, if your approach is in the moment and participating in the engagement process to its fullest, then absolutely! Otherwise you are on a hamster wheel to hell, always wanting more, more, more, never satisfied with what’s happening now. I’ve been on trips with pro riders and have silently tripped on how obsessed they were with what they were doing, giving no thought to others in the group and generally acting like a baby. It’s like the millionaire so intent on protecting his wealth that he becomes bound to it, instead of liberated because of it.
Understanding flow is understanding our approach as to where we are looking for happiness. Is it inside, or is it outside? Are you happy because you have a new snowboard and conditions are good? Or are you are stoked because of how you interpret these outside events and how “it all came together”? Things are objects, desires are fabricated scenarios that have yet to happen; chasing them in pursuit of happiness is like trying to catch the wind. It will forever slip between your fingers.
Becoming acutely aware of the moment you are in now however… there’s something to it. We may not have be trained to be aware of this during the mundane, undesirable moments of life as in many Native or Eastern traditions, but when we become absorbed in a task which demands our utmost focus something remarkable happens – we forget the circumstance that’s making us hunger for something we perceive as better and simply “get it.”
In introducing Flow, the author states, “The best moments usually occur when a persons body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus, something we make happen.”
To understand this in another way we must also look at how we are bound to outside circumstance. We have no choice in how we look, or the force of gravity, or countless other dynamics upon which we have absolutely no control. Yet, on the rare occasion that do feel in control, as with snowboarding – BAM – a flash of exhilaration. A moment ensues that we immediately recognize as different, fulfilling and engaged. In turn, we measure happiness against these landmark occasions. These experiences, in which we feel to have full command of our destiny Csikmszentmihalyi calls flow, or optimal experience.
It is these optimal experiences which lend us a sense of mastery in a world where we often have very little say, and to us, that means a lot! Controlled by outside forces in many respects, when we finally obtain a sense of true power we feel elated. In short, happiness ensues, it’s not achieved.
This simple shift in how we perceive what makes us happy is a clue to how to approach the rest of life and a hint that no matter what we are doing, we can be happy doing such given the fact that we are engaged. Getting lost in a book, delving deep into an algebra equation or even scrubbing the toilet can take you there so long as it’s done with intent.
Csikmszentmihalyi concludes, “People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close any of us can come to being happy.”
How do we control our inner experience, you ask? We will explore that next week in part two of “What is Flow?”