In search of flow

24 09 2010

I have contemplated for some time what this “adventure kitesurfing” malarky really means. Many of my friends who have done big and even small adventures, talk about the inevitable post adventure restlessness and in many cases depression. All complain about the big visa bill and having to work again. Most also get viewed by their non adventurous friends, as just anther crazy adrenaline seeking person and can’t really relate to what they have been through. So is adventure really worth it if all you have to look forward to is post adventure depression, a big Visa bill and being viewed as crazy person?

I am an avid follower of other people’s adventures and am really interested in the psychology behind why people go and do adventures like I have just done. Many cite reasons such as leading a more fulfilling life on return from pushing themselves to the edge.
I am somewhat sceptical about these claims and think many people, without realising it, are really in search of something called “flow”. I hope to explain this concept further and introduce factors needed to achieve it.

What is Flow?
Before you start thinking this is just about sport, it’s not, the concept also applies to other aspects of your life such as work and has been well-studied among artists, musicians and scientist’s. The best explanation of flow I have seen is the following Wikipedia article, it basically summarises and expands on some work by a psychology researcher called Csíkszentmihályi.

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost. To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.
The flow state also implies a kind of focused attention, and indeed, it has been noted that mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and martial arts seem to improve a person’s capacity for flow. Among other benefits, all of these activities train and improve attention.
In short, flow could be described as a state where attention, motivation, and the situation meet, resulting in a kind of productive harmony or feedback.

A longer explanation of how and why he came up with the idea of is detailed on this if you have the time.

I experienced moments of flow on the Cook Strait crossing and definitely during the Coastal Classic race. It’s almost like time just accelerated and everything worked harmoniously make the goal. I felt it at times on the Brazil trip but not as often. Mostly I was just pleased to be safe at the end of each day and there was no big euphoria on finishing at the end of 2000km.

A friend of mine also summarised a concept I have advocated for some time which is a site called Feed The Rat. In reality feeding the rat is just describing a lifestyle that is seeking flow and a break from boredom.

I was once asked about why I do jiujitsu, and I remember clearly stating that it was the only time in my life when the noise inside my head stopped. My brain is going at a million miles a minute, there are always thoughts about work, life, money, goals etc, it never stops. In jiujitsu, another person is either trying to choke you out into unconsciousness or break your arm. You stop thinking about jiujitsu in your mind and you allow it to become you. You give everything you have, all of your senses to the artform and use it to not only survive but prevent further danger by attacking your opponent to unconsciousness. I found that it was one of the few times in my life when the noises in my head stopped, time almost stood still and I could focus intently on something else. I craved that feeling again.

How to achieve flow?
People search a lifetime to experience flow moments and sometimes they can be few and far between. How to achieve flow is probably another blog post and requires some more research on my part to explain properly. For the moment this is the simplistic explanation.

1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

Just in case you were wondering, I haven’t been affected by the post adventure depression or restlessness yet. Maybe because it’s still the honeymoon period or maybe because I am pleased to be done putting myself at risk every day. I certainly have a big visa bill however, and yes the media are happy to frame me as just another crazy guy because that’s just easier for people to grasp. It was however nice last week to be interviewed by someone who actually understands adventures and didn’t immediately ask “what about the sharks”.

Funny enough I don’t have a desperate urge to go out kitesurfing and am quite happy contemplating other activities to occupy my time. Activities this week have included 2 yoga sessions, a social run and tonight I will try my first Copeira session.

If only more people understood the concept of flow maybe the world would be a happier place. So I am interested in others thoughts on this topic. Have you experienced flow in sport or life in general and what were you doing to achieve that.




13 responses

24 09 2010
marlene laureys

This is such an interesting topic, and yes, there have been amazing periods in my life where I felt totally connected to a whole and was totally into the flow. When in that space if that is what you want to call it, everything comes together at the right time , you couldn’t possible mastermind it. It is a feeling of fluidity, and is experienced in the moment, whatever that moment might be. It can be during a great kitesurfing session, it can be during a powder ski session, or it can manifest in a more material way, such as a business idea, that works from A to Z, and without any major difficulties. I feel that it requires to be without ego thought, because as soon as ego or conscious mind interferes, the flow is interrupted. When majority defines what it is to be normal, and majority lives in fear, then yes, people who live outside the square will be named all sorts, but lets not forget that it was never majority that makes us move forward, it was never majority that discovered new things, or made big changes. Majority defines what is normal after it has been truly tried and tested by minority, the fear has gone, and it than gets accepted into main stream. So, even if it takes depression, which is just another form of ego interfering with that flow, lets still keep on reinventing ourselves, and keep up different ways of thinking and being.

24 09 2010

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the concept, but looking at the diagram in particular really resonates with me. It’s very interesting that you should post this now as I’m also just coming off what I now believe to have been a state very close to flow during a project at work. Now that it’s on hold, I find myself restless, easily bored and frustrated because the act of applying skill to a complex problem ended up with a very high level of satisfaction and enjoyment, despite all the challenges.

I hope to get to a point where my perceived kiting skills will match the challenges I feel in Wellington in most sessions, especially as I tire throughout a session.

PS: Have fun a Capoeira , I’ve got a few friends in Canada that are die hards for it now, say it’s a great release and exercise regiment.

24 09 2010

Great post. Its so true and while its obvious that peoples skill levels vary a great deal, the challenge level varies a lot too, even for people within the same skill level.

I also believe that there is another component to obtaining flow which involves recognition from others (the feedback). It always helps to know that others are aware of your achievements. It is always more satisfying to be able to share these experiences. Kitesurfing is such an individual sport, yet why do we kite with others?

Achieving flow is addictive, and so the cycle will continue.

So, what’s next Louis?

24 09 2010

Interesting topic. There are parallels with Al Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat. Flow applies to bike riding (racing, touring, distance), rock climbing, surfing etc etc. Staying “urban” for too long is somehow both painful and stultifying.

24 09 2010

Peter as mentioned in the article, feeding the rat is very similar to the concept of flow. I think the concept of fow explains the idea better and is something that can more easily be understood.

29 09 2010

I had this thought last night that flow could be achieved by sitting on the couch watching TV or playing video games. But is it the same thing? Certainly in the video game scenario, the right attentional focus and challenge would be present. So if that’s the case why get off the couch and travel 1000s of km to find wind? 😉

1 10 2010

As an artist and a dedicated skier, its my experience that both can offer the same flow experience. I switch from one to the other depending on the season and the variation seems to fuel the fire as well. Living on the margin economically can be tiresome but I am finding that gets easier to ignore as well. The elixir is flow, which I think defines what it truly means to reach potential.

2 10 2010
jan willem/john (fitness)

the flow mmmm, search your limits,-then feel the satisfaction-than be cool whith that, youre entering the flow state…
How it feels … super i,m on the roll, i,m doing great, or better i,m in the flow…
Flowing do people in music(feeling happy dancing), flowing in sports (feeling smooth doing the job)..

Flowing feels not stressfull,it’s a state of feeling comfortable in what you are doing…

Cheers from john the dutchguy,,,

14 10 2010

Very nice article indeed. Our civilisation is in desparate need of more flowing.

“Flow” is the result of practicing being in the ‘now’ (as described by Eckhart Tolle in “The Power of Now”) or simply being ‘aware’, as OSHO would say.
It is basically when you are focused on what you are doing at that time (ie ‘here & now’), it does not involve the past, or the future, but the present moment, which is all that exists. Any ‘thought’ is futile and a creation of your mind which feeds and reinforces your ego and sense of self.
The other key to ‘flowing’ is to eliminate your ‘ego’ as much as possible. The less you associate ‘the story of my life’ to your daily activities & opinions, and the more you accept the current situation of your life as a result of the actions you have carried out, the better you will feel, and the more you will ‘flow’ with the Universe and it’s energies.
Read “Meetings with Remarkable People” by OSHO for some other ways of understanding the flowing of life.

25 10 2010

funny enough, I just begun kiting, last thursday I rode mountainboard with the kite for the first time in my life. The feeling when you are speeding up and down a grassy field with the kite hanging in front of you is just awesome. I guess that was my recent moment of flow, cant wait for more wind 🙂

24 12 2010

Quite an interesting topic, and although can be broadly applied to many other activities, is very well-fitting for sport activities like kitesurfing. The feeling when you’re out there focusing only at what you’re doing, when your minds are totally connected to every muscle in your body and nothing else, the feeling is just unmatched.

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[…] the question, what can I do right here in Wellington NZ, that will keep me entertained and give me Flow . Bingo, it is windy in Wellington and kitesurfing looks […]

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[…] if you read carefully,  it’s actually pretty sound thinking and I think stems from 2 ideas; Flow and The Power of […]

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