When I went to college, mountain bikes were coming onto the scene. I bought one my freshman year, rode it everywhere—on campus, and on the local mountain bike trails with friends. In medical school, I bought my first bike with front suspension, with which I could ride more challenging and technical terrain. There were excellent trails within 30 to 60 minutes of St. Louis, as well as enthusiasts in each of my classes whom I could link up with (school was challenging, but we would always find time to get out for a ride). In the summers, I also started traveling with friends to places that had “real” mountain biking, like Colorado and Wyoming. We’d ride huge descents in Durango and long stretches of single track in Alaska’s Kenai peninsula. On these big trips, we judged our rides by how “epic” they were.
We can feel like we’re on autopilot, almost floating somewhere with a daydreamy spaced-out quality of awareness. In contrast, awareness during flow experiences is vivid, bright, and engaged.
And that’s when I started tripping into flow. Flow is at the opposite end of the spectrum from habit. Mindlessly watching TV or automatically responding, “I’m fine how are you?” when someone greets us are examples of responses that are triggered by a stimulus, yet are disengaged. We can feel like we’re on autopilot, almost floating somewhere with a daydreamy spaced-out quality of awareness. In contrast, awareness during flow experiences is vivid, bright, and engaged; we’re so here that it’s like we’re so close to the camera, so engaged with the action, that we forget we’re separate from it. I didn’t have a language for it at the time, but that feeling of completely losing myself in a mountain bike ride was directly related to how epic I would judge it to be afterward. I had also experienced transcendent moments while making music in college, yet had chalked this up to what happens when my quartet or orchestra had played well together. Now I was having these flow moments more and more regularly.
Getting Our Flow On
The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi first coined the term “flow” in the 1970s while studying why people were willing to give up material goods for “the elusive experience of performing enjoyable acts” such as rock climbing. It became his life’s work, defining how we currently conceptualize “being in the zone” (the opposite of being zoned out). In an interview with Wired magazine, he described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego [self] falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”
At times when I was mountain biking, there would be stretches where I would lose all sense of myself, the bike, and the environment. Everything would merge into this amazing fusion of awareness and action. I wasn’t there, yet there I was, in some of the most awesome experiences of my life. The best way I can describe moments like this is that they are delicious.
We all have experienced flow at one point or another. We get absorbed in something we’re doing, whether it’s sporting events, playing or listening to music, meditating, or working on a project. We look up from what we’ve been doing, it’s five hours later, it’s dark outside, and our bladder is about to explode—we’ve been so focused we haven’t even noticed. Wouldn’t it be great if we could produce this on demand?
We all have experienced flow at one point or another.
The more often I experienced flow on my bike, the more I could look back afterward on the conditions that increased the likelihood of it arising during that ride. After a year or so of accessing flow at different times, I started to put on my scientific hat to look at my own experiences. What were these conditions? Could I reproduce them?
Researchers have debated for decades what it takes to get into a flow experience and stay there. Yet, there is still no consensus on how to reliably reproduce this state in controlled environments, let alone what brain activation (or deactivation) and neurotransmitters are involved. Are there other clues about conditions that support flow? Csíkszentmihályi emphasized that a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. Beyond keeping us alive when in extreme situations, what was he getting at? Pondering this after mountain bike rides, I started to understand what this balance meant. If I was on terrain that was flat and easy to ride, my mind was more likely to chatter away. If I was doing something that was too technical for me at the time, I would fall or stop frequently (and get frustrated with myself). Yet, when the conditions were perfect—I was riding terrain that was challenging enough not to be boring, yet not too challenging, I was much more likely to pop into flow.
From a brain perspective, this fits with what we currently know about the self-referential networks—those that get activated when we think about ourselves. The main network, dubbed the “default mode” network (aptly named because we’re self-referencing most of the time) gets quiet when someone is concentrating on a task but lights up in circumstances that promote boredom. It also is activated during self-evaluation and other types of self-reference. And, studies from my lab and others have shown that this network gets really quiet during meditation. This may be the “loss of reflective self-consciousness” that Csíkszentmihályi was referring to.
Relatedly, many of the other elements of flow sound surprisingly similar to meditation: Concentration focused and grounded in the present moment. Subjective experience of a continuously unfolding present moment. Intrinsic reward. These are all good descriptions of mindfulness, whether we are in formal meditation, or simply being mindful during our various experiences as we go about the day. When we get out of our own way and into the momentary flow of life, it feels pretty good. Not surprisingly, Csíkszentmihályi even mentioned meditation as a way to train flow.
What about joy and flow? Is there a joyous condition that supports flow? Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls hall-of-fame basketball player, may be a good example of this. During his professional career, he scored more than 40 points in how many games? 172! Yet, what is one of his most memorable moves? That he stuck his tongue out when he was “in the zone.” This may be an indication of being in a relaxed, even joyful state as he’s cruising past his defenders, tallying up points. When we know we’re on fire, we can relax and enjoy the ride as we burn up the competition.
Phil Jackson was Jordan’s coach during the period that saw the Bulls win three back-to- back championships. He was well known for encouraging his athletes to meditate, bringing George Mumford, a sports psychologist and meditation teacher, to Chicago to train his players. A few years later, Jackson had Mumford train Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Soon thereafter, the Lakers also won three championships in a row. Pre-game meditation sessions were aimed at helping the players relax and let go of hopes of winning or fears of losing a game, instead focusing on the conditions of the moment. Jackson wrote in his book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, “The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. The ride is a lot more fun that way.”
Use the Force
In Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life Csíkszentmihályi wrote, “In principle any skill or discipline one can master on one’s own will serve: meditation and prayer if one is so inclined.” As part of this, he emphasized one’s attitude or motivation for partaking in the activity: “The important thing, however, is the attitude toward these disciplines. If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost. The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.
Paradox: When we look for flow, we won’t find it. The harder we look, the more elusive it gets. Here are a few tips to help move in the right direction— finding those perfect ingredients for flow.
Drop the Goal
Forget about achieving or “getting” flow. Instead, focus on the process—finding the ingredients that make the right cake.
Calibrate Your Equipment
Your body is your gauge.On one end of the gauge’s spectrum is contraction or constriction (simplistically put, the experiential “me”) and on the other is expansion (boundaries between “me” and the universe are blurred). Now, think of a time recently when you were really afraid
or angry. Relive it as best you can. Notice what this feels like in your body. Next, think of a time recently when you felt joy. It can be helpful to think of a time when you were sharing a joyful moment with others or felt joyful when something “good” happened to someone else. Notice what this feels like in your body. Go back and forth to make sure you can tell the difference between contraction and expansion.
Move Toward Flow
Using your now calibrated gauge, throughout the day, check in with your body to
see if, in this moment, you are contracting or expanding. For example, what does it feel like when you want to be in flow? If you notice that you are contracting (or have already contracted into a tight little ball), simply get curious as much as you can, and notice what this actually feels like in your body. Can you name the sensations and pinpoint where they are strongest (e.g., contraction in your chest)? What happens to the contraction when you get really curious? If you notice that you are expanding, note what this feels like, and what conditions are supporting this experience right now.
As you drill down into the conditions that create contraction versus expansion, you will find what ingredients make your flow cake. Like a baker, each time you experiment, your cake will get fluffier, lighter, and more delicious.
How Our Attitude Impacts Our Flow
One way of looking at Csíkszentmihályi’s focus on attitude is to consider how it affects the elements of flow. In particular, if we are meditating in order to reach some fantastic state, there is an implicit self-reference in the equation. With that, “we” become separated from “our” experience. The two can’t be merged at that point. In other words, “I” am riding “my” bike, rather than some self-transcendent experience unfolding in the now that
I can’t describe because I’m not in it. In other words, the more we work to get flow, the more likely we are to get in our own way, ironically, tripping ourselves up and preventing entry into that state. As the Chan master Hui Hai is said to have put it, “Your me is in the way.”
Might there be some biological data to back this idea up? During a study in which we were using real-time fMRI neurofeedback to track default mode brain activity and link it
to moment-to-moment subjective experience, one of our experienced meditators reported spontaneously dropping into a flow state. After one of her runs, she said, “There was a sense of flow, being with the breath…flow deepened in the middle.” The corresponding activity
in a region of the default mode network most linked to the experiential “grab” or contraction related to self, showed a corresponding and notable drop in activity. We had caught flow on film!
Although this is just an anecdotal experience, and by no means definitive, this was a
nice demonstration linking default mode brain deactivation to flow. There are likely other brain regions and networks involved in the state—we just don’t have a good idea (yet) of what they are. Though other brain regions have been investigated in conditions that support flow, such as jazz improvisation and freestyle rap, the posterior cingulate cortex has thus far been the only consistently implicated and deactivated brain region linked to flow.
have to learn the piece. And, how we practice may be critical to learning. Starting with an extreme example, if I practiced scales on my violin, but did so lackadaisically, even playing some notes out of tune, this would be worse than not practicing at all at that time. Why? Because I was learning to play out of tune. Just like bringing together the right ingredients for meditation or a cake recipe, the quality of musical practice makes a big difference in whether we will get into flow when performing. If the quality of the practice is good, the odds that the results will also be good increase dramatically.
If we practice without paying attention, bad habits slip in more easily. As the famous football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” The nice thing about music is that it in itself adds a magical ingredient that helps
us transcend our normal everyday experience that centers around ourselves. When we’re playing music for music’s sake, an element can come together where it simply starts singing an uplifting joyful “hallelujah” unto itself. Perfect practice sets us up to flow.
As I’ve learned to bring the proper ingredients together, my meditation practice has deepened over the years. With this, so has my ability to get into and stay in flow while mountain biking, playing music, and doing other activities. Is it possible that finding the right conditions and practicing them carefully supports our brains in reinforcing the proper neural pathways that support flow? It may be analogous to baking a cake, in which we simply have to add the right ingredients, in the right proportions, and bake them at the right temperature: the cake comes out perfectly every time.
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