Updated: May 7th, 2021
It’s 4:30am on a brisk November morning in Phoenix.
Brisk for the Sonoran Desert that is. My alarm sounded at 4:00am, and I knew that I had a 13-15 mile mountain run ahead of me. The idea of getting out of a perfectly good, warm, cozy bed, and trading it for a 45 degree, two and a half hour, run vexes me. Be it as it may, I did my morning slog down the stairs, out the door, and down highway 202. At 4:30 in the morning there is not a soul at the trailhead save for myself and a few coyotes I can hear in the nearby pitch-black wash, howling to the others to let them know of my presence. To say that it is eerie is an understatement.
So why, you ask, do I do this to myself?
Well, first off, it’s training for the season of mountain trail races which awaits. Secondly though, it’s that I know in about 10-15 minutes I will be in my sweet spot, my happy place, my zone, my FLOW.
Yes, my FLOW.
I know that everything will be effortless, time will stand still, and even though my heart rate will be racing and my quads burning, I won’t have the foggiest idea any of that is happening. FLOW. Now, of course you ask, “what is FLOW?”
If you Google “FLOW”, the first thing that pops up is a Wikipedia entry which reads,
“In positive psychology, flow, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
That sounds about right, and were I to break my run down later in the day, Google would be almost spot on.
Merriam-Webster defines FLOW as
“A smooth uninterrupted movement or progress” “to proceed smoothly and readily” “to have smooth continuity”.
The etymology of FLOW can be seen in the Greek word PLEIN, meaning to float. Yeah, all that sounds about right as well. Again, when I look back at my effort later in the day, these words and phrases will ring true.
If I am worried about when I’ll get tired on a run, based on past experiences, or if I have the right gear, based on what “may” happen six to seven miles in to a run, rather then what I’m DOING, and it’s hard to FLOW. One of the four parts of the FLOW cycle is “release”. It means taking our minds off the problem. It means removing or severing prior thoughts, beliefs, and emotional patterns.
If you need a more thought-provoking answer, I suggest the writings and research of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Steven Kotler.
Zinn is a leader in the area of Mindfulness. If you are unaware of what that means, it is an absolute awareness of the present (for lack of a deeper definition). In Zinn’s book, “Wherever You Go There You Are”, he says the following about mindfulness as it relates to FLOW. “Non-doing can arise within action as well as stillness. There is no exertion of will, yet nothing is left undone.” He adds, “Non-doing is a cornerstone of mastery in any realm of activity.” To Zinn, “Non-doing simply means letting
things be and allowing them to unfold in their own way. Enormous effort can be involved, but it is a graceful, knowledgeable, effortless effort, a doerless doing.” He finishes by writing, “Action then becomes a pure expression of art, of being, of letting go of all doing – a merging of mind and body in motion. We grasp and realize the fact things already are perfect.” He is saying that there is no need to worry about past run experiences, or if I have the right gear for what is to come; rather, to be in a non-doing state of doing. Zinn writes, “Seeing as clearly possible, and conscious of not knowing more than we actually do, we act, make a move, take a stand, take a chance. Some people speak of this as FLOW.”
If you want your mind blown more, I offer Steven Kotler’s take on FLOW. Kotler is the modern-day rock star in the field of human performance when it comes to FLOW. Where Zinn gives us a very thought-provoking heart driven look at how we can use our self-compassion and control of our breathing in the here and now, Kotler is taking on a sort of mystical scientific approach to this field.
In his book, “The Rise of Superman”, Kotler writes, “What is flow exactly? Scientists describe it either as a ‘state of consciousness’ or an ‘altered state of consciousness,’ though neither phrase completely satisfies. Consciousness itself is a slippery subject. There is no agreed upon definition of the term, nor accurate taxonomy of its various states.” He adds, when speaking of climber Dean Potter, “the disappearance of self, the distortion of time, and that ‘psychic connection’ to the universe are among flow’s more famous qualities.” He finishes with, “Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the “flow channel” – the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch, but not hard enough to make us snap.” This is also known as the Yerkes-Dobson 4% Law.
My rudimentary understanding of all of this, in a language which I as a front line law enforcement officer can understand, is that FLOW, as described by all of the references I have set forth here, is enabling your mind and body to work as one, to cancel out the “noise”, bring your subconscious attention to some task at hand, and with no sense of time, space, effort, or sensation, just “BE” with the moment, flawlessly.
But here’s the thing…..The question set forth in the title of this paper was,
“What Does Flow Mean To Me?”
Well, if it is my FLOW, and you want to know what goes on in my head, heart, and body when I feel FLOW on a mountain run, then it’s simple:
Flow is a state, where senses are gelling.
The pride you will feel, already is swelling.
It’s showing no fear, when fear should be felt.
It’s wining the hand, with the crap you were dealt.
It opens all doors to a place called “The Zone.”
Where often you’ll find, you are there all alone.
It could happen this way, and/or as a group.
As a squad full of cops, or a brownie troop.
Where does it come from, this magical power?
For me it’s a mindful, and yoga-full hour.
I find my flow, when breath dampens fright.
That sweet spot when heart rate is feeling just right.
It’s high on a mountain, running the ridge.
When I can’t go much further, not one more smidge.
Its mindfulness core does not take much thought.
It’s just being HERE, and can not be bought.
It is getting it wrong, or getting it right.
It happens in morning, in noon, and at night.
It is sensing the answer, just before asked.
It’s effortless breathing through what you’ve been tasked.
For me, when it happens, I do not ask why.
It occurs without thought. I don’t have to try.
Time, Self, and Effort seem no where around.
My output and skill level, leap and they bound.
Flow makes me feel, like time, it is slowing.
My tank, it is full, and possibly growing.
It sure doesn’t sense the hills I ascend.