Go with the flow
BY DOUG COOMER
It was an incredibly beautiful morning in early spring, several years ago, when something strange occurred to me while paddling my canoe.
I became aware of the fact I wasn’t thinking about anything.
At first, this might not seem like much to get excited or concerned about, but do you recall the last time you were aware of the fact you weren’t thinking about anything?
It was a strange level of focus I had never experienced in quite the same way before – total relaxation with the mind devoid of its usual unnerving chaos.
It was seeing and listening without the voice in my head identifying and naming everything that was in front of me – simply recognizing everything at once, and yet with a realization of being mentally quiet.
All other thoughts were gone, and my mind let go without thinking about letting go.
The only thing I could think about while driving home that day was how nice it would be to get the same feeling back.
What was it that caused me to feel like that?
How did it happen so easily?
I used the 60 miles of country road I had to traverse, before merging back into the ubiquitous noise of mankind and the Interstate Highway system, to do what a typical, curious human would do in this type of situation – over-analyze the thing.
All I could come up with was I recognized this state of mind from being in intense situations before, where the task at hand was critical, and where time and thought seem to get suspended.
Feeling confident this was an important discovery and wanting some kind of answer, I drove in silent concentration the entire way home, but all I could equate it to was “being in the zone,” and that seemed too mundane.
Maybe this thing had slipped under the radar of man’s inherent quizzical nature and had yet to be identified – not likely.
I felt I had come to the understanding I was engulfed in a kind of hypnotic monotony – solitude with motion.
As it happened, a short time later, I was in Brooklyn, New York, staying in a cozy Airbnb and perusing the extensive and impressive library the owners had filled the living room with.
A bright, green book titled, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1990) jumped right off the shelf at me.
I immediately thought to myself, that’s it – flow!
That’s what I feel when I get lost in paddling.
To get some initial background, I looked up flow on Wikipedia.
There I discovered Csikszentmihalyi had coined the term in 1975 when, during his research into optimal experience, found people often used the metaphor of “a water current carrying them along,” to describe their individual optimal experience.
I felt sure I had it.
I sat down and started to read at the kitchen table.
Two hours later, when I finally looked up, I had discovered the key to a lock I had not been able to open – I had been in flow.
My initial reading led me to believe that some form of a heightened mental or physical challenge was required to trigger this kind of response, and so it seemed odd to find myself experiencing the same feeling while doing something as passive as paddling a canoe.
As I read further, I came to understand any experience that involves inner growth, is the real catalyst for flow, and there is no predetermined activity or method to get you there.
It is completely up to each individual and their ability, and this is key, to be in the moment.
I couldn’t wait to get back in my boat and see what would happen.
It also occurred to me it might be difficult to get that feeling back since I was now aware of it.
I wondered if it might end up like trying to re-enter a dream I had awakened from and didn’t want to end.
I shouldn’t have worried.
In fact, knowing actually made it easier – you simply allow yourself to be in the moment.
To be on a smooth, flat-water run and feel the paddle through the entire stroke while sensing the tiny changes in the direction of the hull; Being able to put the boat exactly where you want to in a difficult eddy; Listening to a river for changes in the sound of the water ahead; Negotiating a tricky back ferry, a complex boulder garden or dealing with a rainy day.
Whitewater is guaranteed to put you in the moment without much effort.
If you are doing all of this without having to mentally verbalize your actions, then you are in the environment rather than passing through it – total magic.
It has become apparent to modern man that having an abundance of material possessions and leisure time, does not equate itself to individual happiness.
In fact, the contrary seems truer.
Our incessant attention to electronic devices has substantially decreased our ability to remain focused, which is a key factor in flow.
This only puts more importance on the ability to find some level of real contentment in one’s life.
For myself, finding flow through the graceful art of moving a canoe through the water has led me to discover other pursuits in life that can take me there as well.
It has become very important to me to manage my life so these activities become a regular part of it.
It’s hard to check your smartphone while paddling a canoe.
For those of us involved in silent sports – paddlers, runners, skiers, bikers, hikers, swimmers, climbers – I hope this article has helped to articulate a feeling until recently, at least for me, transcended words.
So, the next time you find yourself aware you are aware, simply go with the flow.