In his bestselling book West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief, author Steven Kotler recounts how — after being bedridden for two years and on the brink of death with Lyme disease — he was able to overcome the illness by embarking on an epic globetrotting surf odyssey in search of answers to some of life’s bigger questions.
What Kotler discovered during his spiritual quest was that surfing, in its own unique way, is akin to religion; and the devout surfer is no stranger to the mystical experience. In fact, Kotler himself experienced several surf-induced transcendent states, or flow states, during the course of his research which he attributes to ultimately helping him defeat Lyme.
“One good lesson I’ve learned from water is to go with the flow.”
When I first read Kotler’s description of one of his many surf-inspired flow states — distinguished by a sense of timelessness, effortlessness, and selflessness — I realized that I too have had many similar experiences throughout the course of my life, and not just while surfing. I’ve also achieved this pleasurable state while woodworking, running, meditating, practicing yoga, public speaking, performing music, and writing.
The definition from Positive Psychology: “Psychological Flow captures the positive mental state of being completely absorbed, focused, and involved in your activities at a certain point in time, as well as deriving enjoyment from being engaged in that activity.” In other words, flow is an expression of peak performance, during which the individual is operating at 100% of their capability as a result of being completely focused and immersed in the present moment.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-born professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California (and the author of the book “Flow”), has been leading flow research in the United States since the 1960s. Csikszentmihalyi, who believes that flow plays a pivotal role in promoting human happiness, describes the mind state as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter: the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
What is more, flow occurs on a spectrum of intensity ranging from micro to macro, so even an activity as simple as taking a 20-minute walk in nature can induce a microlevel flow state of mind. Other activities known to induce flow include swimming, skiing, rock climbing, painting, tai chi, table tennis, meditation, and yoga (among others).
Like Kotler and Csikszentmihalyi, I’m sure you too can think back to a time when you were “in the zone” — when you were so engrossed in an activity that you lost track of time and you seemed to be a spectator watching your actions unfold in front of you. You were likely also incredibly productive. That was flow, and I bet it felt pretty damn good.
It should come as no surprise that action sport athletes frequently experience flow as a result of the extreme moment-to-moment focus and risk of injury inherent in their sport. Flow can show up in any situation that demands pinpoint or “laser-like” focus from the individual, which in surfing, translates to the catching and riding of a wave, especially a big wave.
“You’re just caught up in those few seconds and nothing else matters,” says professional big wave surfer Greg Long. “Sound, smell, everything just totally goes out the window. It’s what’s directly in front of you, what you need to do to make that wave, and nothing else.”
According to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s research, flow in sport is most likely to occur when the challenge at hand slightly exceeds the athlete’s ability level and risk is involved. Let’s consider a surfer who is attempting to get barreled (by riding inside the tubular section of a wave) for the very first time. The surfer in question has probably ridden thousands of waves up to this point, so that her skillset is good enough to allow her to get barreled, but she’s never actually achieved the desired outcome before.
Because the challenge is slightly above her ability level, and there is the potential of getting injured if she falls, the surfer must enter a state of extreme mental clarity and focus in order to be successful. She will almost certainly enter a flow state during her first ever tube ride, and then she will want to recreate the feeling over and over again.
“But to ride a wave you have to completely forget yourself; you have to be absorbed in the moment, or you’ll fall off,” says former professional surfer Jim White. “So every wave is about union, it’s a momentary connection with something far beyond yourself, and that doesn’t happen very often.”
If you ask any surfer who has ever been barreled, they will tell you that riding inside the tube of a wave is one of the most addictive feelings in the human experience. And for good reason. When someone is experiencing a flow state, their prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain that controls higher cognitive functions like self-reflection and analytical thinking — takes a break. The result is a temporary loss of ego followed by effortless information processing as the individual’s instincts begin to take over.
Add in the cocktail of feel-good neurochemicals that often accompany a flow state (dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, and serotonin), and we begin to understand why the experience is so pleasurable. Based on the beneficial neurochemical response that coincides with flow, one could argue that our species is actually hardwired by evolution to constantly seek this mental state. For our ancestors, the ability to focus and be aware of their surroundings often meant the difference between living and dying, and so our biology effectively rewards us for moment-to-moment awareness. In the technology-driven society of today, however, it is extremely difficult to simply “be here now.”
In his best-selling book Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols claims that the average person in today’s society has to process more information on a daily basis than any other time in history, resulting in unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression.
Nichols believes that most people operate constantly in a reptilian fight-or-flight “red mind,” which can be counteracted (interestingly enough) by spending more time around water. “What happens when you’re at the water is your brain is getting a break,” says Nichols. “Getting to the water forces us to disconnect from the stream of auditory and visual information, and switches your brain to Blue Mind, which helps us relax, reconnect with nature, reconnect with others, and reconnect with ourselves.”
What Nichols is really talking about when he refers to “blue mind” (potentially unbeknownst to him), is flow. Let’s chalk up another point for surfing on the “flow chart”!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, another time-tested method of combating “red mind” is through the practice of yoga. During the course of his extensive research on the source of happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that humans are not necessarily happiest when we are relaxing and being passive, but rather when we are being challenged by something that is both difficult and worthwhile.
That is to say, our best moments occur when our mind and body are being stretched to the limit, and if you’ve ever taken a 90-minute yoga class, then you know firsthand the euphoric state that this “stretching” can induce.
In addition, yoga is most optimally performed when the individual practicing it has mastered the art of pranayama, or the breath, and the body and breath flow ceaselessly and rhythmically. “The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity,” says Csikszentmihalyi. “Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.”
Some say the fundamental utility of yoga is to harmonize mind, body, energy, and environment to achieve enlightenment. However, scientists have revealed that the same end goal (self-actualization) can be achieved through any number of different meditative practices — any practice that promotes flow.
As we’ve all hopefully learned by now, happiness is not something that simply happens; happiness must be fostered. Therefore, perhaps the best way to cultivate happiness is to incorporate more flow-inducing activities into our lives. Surf and yoga, anyone?
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