Sex, Surfing, Climbing & Ukuleles: How To Find Your Flow State
I love running, paddle boarding and listening to music (often at the same time) but they don’t put me into a flow state. They give me way too much space to ruminate. Having sex, surfing, climbing and playing my ukulele on the other hand (not usually at the same time) slam me hard and fast (and sometimes gently) into the moment. There are some things that make me flow and many others that don’t. Here’s why I like to find the former:
After a challenging start to the year I was immediately grateful that I’d figured out how to run the previous year. I was going to need running I thought, to make me feel good instead of feeling pants. It seemed pretty obvious. But that’s not what happened. I found myself running along the canal, listening to the usual mix of bluegrass, Vedder and 80s movie themes, wiping my stupid eyes and jibbing like a hungry baby. That was odd, running was a feel good activity wasn’t it? I’d felt pretty awesome after almost every run thus far, and it was the perfect meditative escape right? Apparently not.
Too much space and time for a brain like mine (and probably yours) to engage with thoughts, have conversations with invisible people about hypothetical situations that either did or didn’t happen (so don’t exist) or won’t happen in the future (so still don’t exist). Thanks for that, brain, much appreciated!
Less thinking, more doing.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a run, or even a long walk; they are amongst my favourite things to do. They are in fact where most of my writing takes shape. The time and space they give me is creative freedom, inspiration and sometimes even meditation. But not when I’m sad. When there’s an emotional quandary to be navigated, time and space are no friends of mine.
If I look back to anytime during which I moved from the beautiful chaos of parenting to the vagaries of work and the adventures of travel whilst padding the gaps between with tears and snot, like the first four months of this year, and try to identify the tranquil moments when my head was steady, calm prevailed, thoughts abated, it was mostly when I was busy with something satisfyingly tricky. Let me explain.
To watch me surf is not like hearing me talk about it. I’ll fawn over the sheer bliss of sitting astride my board, fiery sunset on the horizon, waiting for the next set amongst my zen tribe. But when that set hits and I turn to paddle, praying for my hyper-mobile shoulder joints to stay intact long enough for me to catch three feet of potential energy, you’ll see a new-born giraffe leap with crazy intent to his feet; sometimes catching the ride, more often than not crashing into the salty tumult, all limbs and smiles. It’s not cool, but it is rad. It’s also why I decided to learn to paddleboard instead.
When you catch a wave there’s a wonderful moment where you feel the energy enveloping you and carrying you forwards. An unstoppable pressure building behind your vulnerable frame. And there’s a sound, a roaring and yet friendly sound that you’ll only ever know as the sound of being picked up by a wave. Like hunger or craving your drug, you’ll not know how else to describe it; it simply is. And in that moment, there is NOTHING else on the face of the Earth, absolutely nothing else exists inside or outside of your entire being. Only that moment, only you, thrust forward, maybe getting up, maybe catching the ride, probably wiping out, it doesn’t matter what happens next because there IS no happens next. In that moment you have found your flow. You have found your Ataraxia.
Finding your Ataraxia
Ataraxia is a Greek term used to describe a sense of immense tranquility, or more accurately a distinct lack of worry and anxiety. There are lots of ways of achieving Ataraxia and I practice a whole bunch of the methods that I’ve found work best for me; meditating, journaling, avoiding the news, avoiding toxic relationships and focusing on meaningful, compassionate connections. But I don’t rest easy, my body and my mind constantly need feeding with challenging movements, learning and explorative adventure and things that help me enter that flow state are by far and away the most effective way I know to leave thinking far behind and find my Ataraxia. Whether it’s surfing, climbing, sexing or uking; so long as there is a passionate process under way that requires one hundred percent of my attention on the next step, then anxiety, heartbreak, depression and all their dour chums will not talk their way in. Your flow state is a doorman and your demons won’t find their names on his list; party on.
Is the flow state a real thing or am I making stuff up again?
I reached out to Dr. Gabija Toleikyte, a neuroscientist and business coach based at University College, London to find out if I was making this up or if science actually had my back.
I can’t even begin to tell you how fascinating it is to get lost in a conversation about the evolution of the human brain with one of the UK’s leading experts and I was so engrossed I forgot it was actually a two-way conversation. When Gabija asked me about my children I had to bring my brain back to Earth before I could even remember their names!
It turns out that a state of flow is a real thing – Yay! Gabija told me that it’s often reported by high performing athletes and people taking part in extreme sports, particularly activities where there is a very real sense of danger. If living is at it’s most potent (as Seneca would say; living as opposed to time simply passing) when we are fully mindful of what we’re doing then we are never more alive when we are closest to death.
Gabija also caveated this, telling me that the state of flow is not all that well understood because it’s so difficult to actually measure brain activity when a person is in the middle of some crazy endeavour; makes sense. She suggested I look at Mihaly Csikszentmihályi’s book: Flow: The Psychology of Happiness.
Csikszentmihályi describes this flow state as a single minded immersion in a task so complete that in the process of performing the task even your emotions and ‘reflective self consciousness’ are harnessed; taking a back seat to the activity you are totally absorbed in, leading to a sense of happiness and joy.
Sounds familiar; a deep focus that leads the mind away from the engaged thoughts and stories we commonly tell ourselves (worry, anxiety, dwelling on the past, predicting a tricky future) and leaves you happy and content, mindful only of the moment. Sounds like meditation to me.
The art of not sitting meditation
I’ve played with meditation for years now. I say played with; I’ve not done nearly enough with the skill (and it is a skill that you have to learn and practice just like any other) as I’d like. I do it because I’m particularly (or maybe no more or less than anyone else – who know’s another mind?) prone to listening to my thoughts and talking to them, letting them play out like poorly written scripts written by over sensitive authors. My histories, my futures, things that don’t exist any more or probably won’t happen. Meditation helps me tame the narrator.
I won’t delve deep into the theory or practice now but suffice to mention, meditation is something I notice is absent when I’m not doing it. When it’s a habit, part of my morning routine, I find that I’m more often inoculated to the kind of unnecessary thinking that can make me less productive, mindful or present to the general radness I’m lucky to be surrounded by.
It’s a simple gig, not much to it really and what I’ve learned lately is that there are so many ways to meditate. From simply taking a few minutes to sit quietly and take a few deep breaths, to group or guided meditations and the many forms of meditation that we don’t even realise we are practicing, like when we are so completely focused on a task or activity that we have organically tamed these thoughts and made a quiet space in our heads, even when there is noise all around us. You can find your flow when you are sitting, absorbed in the sensation of your breath as it moves in and out of your body, or you can find it scaling a rock face, or riding a wave. I think the important thing is to make sure you have something, anything, that places you in that peaceful current and doesn’t leave room for anything else but the moment. Your moment.
Final thought (on taming anger)
I want to leave you with a final thought. I heard a podcast today with a chap called Tony Robbins, an American businessman, author and philanthropist. He was talking about the nature of gratitude, simply taking a moment to think about how lucky you are; the amazing people in your life, even just the roof over your head and the food you get to eat and he contrasted that with the angry, frustrated moments, the little challenges that invariable wind us up throughout any given day and he made a wonderfully obvious observation.
“You can’t be grateful and angry simultaneously”
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