What can run but never walks,
has a mouth but never talks,
has a head but never weeps,
has a bed but never sleeps?
The answer is … a river!
(From JRR Tolkien’s, ‘The Hobbit’)
But was does a river have to do with happiness? It’s all about flow.
Despite the twists and turns of its banks, the change of surface on its bed and regardless of its source (the head) or its mouth which often opens to the sea, a river just flows. And if we could tap into the consciousness of a river, I imagine we would find it completely involved in its purpose.
What is it to live fully now and to be completely involved and engaged in the moment?
Think of a time when you have been completely immersed in what you were doing, so much so that the passage of time seemed to have disappeared; your mind didn’t wander (or wonder!) and there was no sense of self that existed in that moment. Whole-heartedly engrossed in the activity, you realised how much time actually passed only after the experience ended.
I was fully absorbed in such as state a couple of evenings ago when I took my girls for an after school activity, playing football in the local park. I had taken some research for this blog and my goal was to read through the material during the time my daughters gleefully kicked footballs. I was so completely captivated and engrossed in reading and understanding the material, that I did not realise my hands had become numb with cold, and I was completely unaware of anyone who might have passed me whilst I sat on the bench or of how much time had passed.
I had no concept of me or of my connection to the passage of time in that moment.
I was only made aware that the hour had passed when the trainer blew the whistle sounding the end of the session, and it was then I realised that, due to the winter chill, my fingers and toes were completely numb and that I had a mild headache.
Psychologists have described these fully absorbing experiences as Flow State and yogis of the past have described this state of mind as Nirodha or Samadhi. Basically they describe the same concept.
Indeed, world famous psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I know, totally unpronounceable surname!), whose article I was reading in the park has completed extensive research on understanding how we can come into a Flow State.
To create a Flow State:
Perceive challenges or opportunities for action.
Be aware of the skills that you possess that stretch those perceived challenges, hence actions.
Compose clarity of goals and immediate feedback.
Strive for a sense that you are fully attentive to the task at hand.
So in my case the challenge was to understand and read through the article on Flow States, the skill was my ability to read and understand yogic and psychological based concepts and my goal was to complete research for this article by the time the girls finished football!
Under these conditions I entered a subjective state of mind experiencing moment by moment the following characteristics:
Intense focus and concentration on what I was reading.
Complete loss of self (that is, I was unaware of my hands turning numb with cold, my feet freezing and the mild headache I developed due to the cold). In essence I was devoid of any emotions because there was no sense of self.
A sense that I had control of my situation; a feeling that I could complete the article by the time my girls finished their football session.
Distortion of temporal experience (I had no concept of time, thus no idea how much time had passed).
An intrinsically rewarding experience so much so that I repeated this state to get the same flow state when I wrote this article.
When in flow, the individual works at FULL CAPACITY and their inner potential is maximised; and I feel in some respects that this is comparable to a river, the challenge and goal is to flow (from head to mouth!) across the changing terrain of its bed, the skill is the ability to flow regardless of the passage of time. Thus a river always works at full capacity unless is it hindered by, for example, a dam.
Entering flow depends on creating a balance between existing skills and perceived challenges. If the skills exceed the challenge an individual will enter a state first of relaxation and then of boredom, but if the challenge exceeds skills then one enters the state of anxiety.
There are many activities that can allow you to enter flow or nirodha. Many athletes, artists, rock climbers, dancers and chess players have reported being in the state of flow. Even work-oriented activities can induce flow and many surgeons have reported to enter this state. Activities that rarely induce flow are housework, idling, resting and watching T.V.
The result of being in flow state is that it encourages an individual to persist and return to an activity because of the experiential rewards it brings, and it fosters growth and expansion of their potential. As the self grows through these experiences, there is an elevated sense of self-esteem.
As I experienced the flow state in the park, I recreated the same experience today to complete this article and it brings me great pleasure and a sense of expansion as I send off these newsletters to you. And the feedback from you regarding my articles, keeps me growing and wanting me to write more.
And here’s another riddle (not one of JRR Tolkien’s!):
Who can be attentive to the task at hand,
Accepting a challenge, developing a plan,
Using skills to attain a clear final goal,Entering a flow state where time takes no toll?
And the answer is … you!
So now the task is in your hands to find the activity that will take you to your flow state and create experiences for your expansion. And if you do regularly get into this state, appreciate and embrace the experience.
(References: The Concept of Flow by Jeanne Nakamura & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and if you are interested in reading more on this topic consider reading his book called Flow: The psychology of happiness)