Like a mysterious subatomic particle or large universal component, both of which are known to exist by inference of proven data, I think I’ve identified a level above Eckhart Tolle’s three responses. We know we can choose to accept what happens, enjoy it passively, or even engage in the occurrence enthusiastically. But there is evidence that a level greater than “engaging enthusiastically” exists—and I think we’ve all experienced it.
What is this mysterious level? It’s being in “the zone” or in “flow,” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed it in his book by that name first published in 1990.
Flow is defined as focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents the ultimate experience in harnessing emotions in the service of performing and learning.
In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, as they are in the lower-order responses Tolle identified, but positively energized and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task, although flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity, with no awareness of one’s self or one’s emotions. In flow, one is not conscious of self…he or she abandons the concept of “self” to the mission or team effort at hand.
I remember crossing the finish line of one of rallying’s favorite racing sections (Concord Pond stage at New England Forest Rally, for those who need details) with my driver, Matthew Johnson. For five minutes, there had been nothing impinging on our brains but the task at hand, going incredibly fast, challenging the physics of speed and friction, and communicating flawlessly. The in-car video captured two grown men (one old enough to be the other’s grandfather) bursting with joy at the accomplishment of finishing in record-breaking time and still being alive!
Athletes report being “in the zone” frequently. Michael Jordan often said that life off the basketball court couldn’t hold a candle to the time he spent in his “world.”
Csikszentmihalyi discusses flow as a source of happiness. He also warns that it can be addictive. When Europeans first came across the American aborigines, they found them frequently playing games of chance. Sometimes a person would leave the game having lost all his possessions, stark naked in the middle of winter, to walk home through three feet of snow. That which grants us pleasure or even happiness has the power to force everything else out of our existence. Alcohol, gambling, and drugs have all been reported to cause a “happy” feeling in those who indulge.
So flow, it appears, can be a double-edged sword. When I was a young psychology student in college, we wired rats’ brains to stimulate their “pleasure” area when they did what we wanted them to do. They would get a jolt of pleasure every time they ate a 45 mg food pellet. In very short order, these animals would be as big as cats and would not move at all in their cages; they just lay there with their mouths by the source of the pellets.
So this leaves me with a conundrum. I want experiences of being “in the zone” or “in flow” more often, but I don’t want to give up life as I know it to achieve them. Still, I know that I experience joy during these episodes.
Accepting, enjoying, or engaging (Tolle’s three responses) all require a clear consciousness of self…a conscious choice to respond in one of those manners. Flow requires enough motivation (a choice also) to abandon self to the goal. What a team concept! I’m convinced rally co-drivers do this all the time…by choice…in order to get the best possible results from the team (driver, co-driver, car, crew, physics, external environment).
So my question now is, if I abandon my concept of self (my Knower/Judger rules, my DISC profile, my concepts of right and wrong) will I experience flow? I suspect not. But I also suspect I cannot experience flow without slipping through that wormhole.
When have you experienced flow?
Were you with a team, or was it a solo accomplishment?
Did you recognize that you were unconscious of you (self), lost in what you were doing?
Did you experience joy? Happiness?
How did you feel about that?