Monday, January 14, 2008

Entire Article on Flow

The link to the article about flow from my previous post went dead. I found it again here.

But in case that link goes dead, I'll paste the entire article in this post.

In the Zone
Seeking that Zen state of “flow” helps us to excel in sports and in life
by Dave Philipps

The approach to pro snowboarder Jeff Meyer’s favorite jump in the snowy backcountry near his Breckenridge home is steep and narrow. He has to clear an old mine while keeping just the right speed.

“If you mess up, there’s a good chance you could die,” he said recently. But he doesn’t think about that as he’s shooting down toward the hit. He doesn’t really think about anything. “I’m just there, totally in the moment, in a heightened state of existence.”

It’s the same invincible feeling Olympic track cyclist Erin Mirabella occasionally grasps while flying around the velodrome.

“You’re going all out. By the end you can’t walk, you can’t see straight, you count down every second. Everything hurts,” said Mirabella. “But sometimes, it just clicks. Time almost doesn’t exist. There’s a oneness, a wholeness. You’re going on instinct. You just let your body take over.”

When that feeling of wholeness washes over ultra-runner and Leadville Trail 100 winner Anton Krupicka when he’s on the trail, pain and fatigue seem to evaporate.

“It almost feels like I’m running downhill,” he said. “It’s this feeling of total integration with your surroundings, everything being in its right place, a harmonious way of being... It’s about as spiritual and religious as I get.”

There are many names for this sport-induced hypersense of focus and awareness: “being in the zone,” “when things click” or “a Zen state.”

Whatever you call it, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-mehigh-ee”), said the feeling may be not only the fuel driving our desire to snowboard or bike or run. It may be the reason we sing, paint, climb mountains, play chess, compose symphonies, build smaller microchips or do anything difficult. Basically, Csikszentmihalyi said, flow may be what makes humans human.“

It’s amazing, how universal it is,” said Csikszentmihalyi, a Claremont Graduate University (California), professor who has been studying the feeling he calls “flow” since he coined the term as a rock-climbing grad student the 1960s. “In every culture we’ve studied, it exists in the same form.”

Women who weave tapestries in the highlands of Borneo, meditating monks in Europe and mountain bikers in the Rockies all report that when they do what they love to do, they occasionally get so engaged they forget time, stop thinking about other obligations, and feel as if they became one with what they were doing.“

So many people compared it to being carried away by an effortless current that I decided calling it flow made sense,” said Csikszentmihalyi.

Of course, the idea of being so absorbed in the moment that you feel as if you can act without thinking was a familiar concept in Eastern religion long before flow. For millennia, followers of Taoism and Zen Buddhism have strove, through meditation, study and arts as varied as sword fighting and flower arranging, to become one with an elusive larger harmony.

Freestyle snowboarding is a fitting, modern way to chase the Zen state, said Meyer. For years he had no words for the transcendent euphoria he felt in the commitment and concentration of going into a tricky jump. Then he found “satori,” a Zen Buddhism term that means “understanding.”

He explains it this way: “Say you and I are standing in a room. I’m holding a baseball. I can look at you and without saying anything, toss you the ball. Chances are you’ll instinctively catch it. That brief time when the ball is in the air, you’re completely focused on it.

You know what you’re going to do, and you’re not thinking about your mortgage. You’re not thinking about whether your back hurts. You’re not thinking anything else. That’s satori. It’s a rush.”

It’s why he’s devoted himself to snowboarding. No other action can deliver the same feeling.

But flow is different for everyone. You don’t have to be an extreme sports pro to get the rush. Drawing, a good match of chess, playing a guitar or making first tracks on a powder day can do it. About 12 percent of the population reports never entering a state of flow, said Csikszentmihalyi. An additional 10 percent reports experiencing it daily. Most of us, though, experience it once every few months.

“You can’t make it happen,” said Krupicka. “But if you do certain things, it’s definitely more likely.”

For Krupicka, the Colorado Springs runner, flow happens only when running, especially alone on beautiful mountain trails.

“I’ve tried a bike and it just doesn’t work, but if I’m on the right trail, and in the right mood, I can run for, like, seven hours and it’s like my legs are turning over by themselves.”

The real formula for creating flow is finding the proper balance between skill and challenge, said Csikszentmihalyi. If something is too easy, it becomes boring. If something is too hard, stress elbows out flow. But if you are performing well at the edge of your skill level, you can enter that trance-like state where everything else ceases to matter. From an evolutionary point of view, Csikszentmihalyi said flow seems to make sense.

“When you look at the basic things our species needs to do in order to survive, like eating or have sex, those activities are very pleasurable to us. If they weren’t, we might disappear as a species,” he said. “I think it’s the same thing with flow. Flow means enjoying challenges and wanting to have more of them.”


  1. Thanks for posting the entire article. It reminds me of some of the stuff I'm starting to read about in Waitzkin's "Art of Learning". Now if I can just put it all together.

  2. I read your first post and I was going to come back and respond and then I come back to even more on this topic. Very nice post.

    I was thinking about this topic and I think it is important to be able to get 'flow' not only in the activity you want to excel at, but also in preparing for that activity. This is especially true in chess. If you can sit down and just train hard, block out everything else and really just learn the board or go over some high quality games then when you are playing games you will be able to achieve the same state of mind.

    In my experience I have found that if I am unable to find 'flow' at the board it is usually because I have not been putting myself in it everyday at home. When I am able to find 'flow' at home then my games progress more smoothly and I find some really strong solutions. More than that the game feels right.

    I have also found that there are certain things that can push me in or out of this state of mind during a game. If I am falling behind due to a lack of interest early on I will feel the pressure and I can usually summon up some determination and find my zone, conversely if I am very far ahead my interest sometimes wanes and I will lose my stride.

    This really goes back to what Philipps is saying that we have to be right on the edge of our skill level for our interest to peak.

  3. Rocky, you are cordially invited to participate in a "blogger round-robin" tournament on FICS if you have the time and inclination--se here: