Flow: biking-induced identity-shift

As I slowed down on the final straight of mountain biking this afternoon, a beautiful thought crossed my mind: “The flow and immersion experienced is not ‘mine’, this really IS the kosmos experiencing itself through me”. Put another way, God (however you conceptualise it) sees the flowers, sunset (and feral rabbits) through our eyes, feels the heat, breeze (and sore back) though our body, hears the birds, crickets (and illegal dirtbikes) through our ears. Every time one loses onself in a sense of ‘flow’ it’s like the self-Self separation dissolves and pure unadultered experience dominates.


Pondering that thought reveals lots of implications for what one might do, knowing one is directing God’s attention, thoughts, eyes, ears and using God’s body. Y’know, like, don’t waste the precious life one has. More on that later, but today I thought I’d re-post a piece on ‘flow’ I wrote a while back. Originally posted on the ABC Open Midwest site, here.


Enjoy! (reading the post, or going riding, or doing whatever gets you in the flow!)


[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/47638327 w=500&h=281]

Flow: Mountain biking: Andrew Outhwaite from ABC Open Mid West WA on Vimeo.


Being immersed in nature like this and focused in the moment is (generally) wonderful for our health.


I say generally, because there’s always the risk that the immersion could become a collision when you’re going 30km/h with your heart thumping, legs aching and sweat stinging your eyes while navigating a twisting, narrow trail!


But that’s part of the joy, because much more than watching TV or some form of passive entertainment, optimal experiences of enjoyment don’t usually happen during relaxing moments of leisure and entertainment, but rather when we are actively involved in a difficult enterprise, in a task that stretches our mental and physical abilities — perhaps event to 110%.


There are many reason to love cycling: just the pure enjoyment and endorphins of exercise, being able to ride with so many different sorts of people on different types of bikes (mountain-bike, road, rusty one-speed cruiser) and the excuse to quietly enjoy nature and our beautiful landscapes.


Currently I ride 2-300 kilometers a week through a mix of road, commuting and at least once a week mountain biking. While I do go ‘110%’ that’s far from my constant state or experience, rather what I most enjoy are the results of steady improvement in strength, skills, speed and exploring new trails and routes with a bunch of friends out in nature.


One aspect of mountain-biking that really stands out as being special and motivating is the opportunity to really be in the ‘flow’.


Commonly ‘flow’ is described as “going with the flow”, “being in the groove” “being in the zone” or more academically by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  (author of “Flow — The Psychology of Optimal Experience”) as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people do it even at great cost, for the sheer state of doing it.” You can watch/listen to Mihaly’s TED talk on the topic here.


This may sound quite familiar to mountain-bikers, and can be at ‘great cost’ to wallet for sometimes-expensive bike parts, or at ‘great cost’ due to physical injuries and occasional crashes!


What’s definitely common is the experience of being completely attentive to what is happening right now on the trail and completely enjoying it. At the best of times, riders minds will be intensely focused on the riding, with concerns about physical discomfort, the next meal, to-do lists or work frustrations disappearing.


This focus is not just intense and directed, it usually had to be more expansive. If you are too focused on the trail immediately in front of your wheels, you won’t notice what’s coming up ten or fifty metres down the trail and are likely to crash into something as you only notice it a spit second before you’re on top of it. And if you are too focused on what’s ahead you’ll surely ignore the small rock, rut or sandy patch that could be your undoing.


So your awareness is sort of expanded, scanning and peripheral while being very focused. This desire and necessity to notice the trees, trail, rocks and everything that’s around while ignoring pain, frustrations or work pressures aligns with Mihaly’s descriptions of flow states. He describes experiences and conditions conducive to enjoyment in several ways that would resonate with riders, including:

  • Our sense of the duration of time is altered and hours can pass by like minutes (e.g. a 30-minute lap feeling like one very long, seamless experience),
  • One acts with deep and effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life (e.g. a great way to forget about work)
  • Concentration is possible because the task has clear goals and provides immediate feedback (e.g. feeling your heart rate, succeeding in smoothly navigating a rocky patch of trail).

Mihaly also describes some relatively simple principles that can help turn any activity into a flow experience:

  1. Set goals. Clear goals, where you can measure progress, and keep raising the stakes.
  2. Become immersed in the activity. Invest your attention in the task and the system within which action is taking place.
  3. Pay attention to what is happening. Pay attention to the environment, system and interaction. Self-conciousness is the most common form of distraction.
  4. Learn to enjoy immediate experience. This is more and more possible as you develop determination, discipline and increasing skillfulness.

Many sports provide an easy way to create ‘optimal experiences’ which probably explains their popularity, and it’s particularly easy to illustrate these principles with mountain-biking.


Becoming immersed in the activity requires conscious effort, but any attention directed towards self-consciousness (how do I look? My bottom hurts! I might fall off into the bushes) will direct attention away from the trail and probably result in a crash or collision!


Then the longer you can sustain the effort and attention on the trail, the longer you can be sustained in this enjoyable flow experience and the more you enjoy what you are doing.


And it doesn’t matter what your skill level or fitness is, everyone can hop on a bike and enjoy a flow experience. On your first ride your goals may simply be to complete a whole lap of the river loop, then completing a whole loop without foot down, then beating your best time, then keeping up with your faster friends, then seeing how many laps you can do in 12 hours! All the while, aiming to increase your goals, skills and immersive enjoyment.


While I’ve only related flow to the experience of mountain-biking, Mihaly’s invitation is to ‘transform the entirety of life into a single flow activity, with unified goals that provide constant purpose’. In that context, mountain biking at 110% is not so much about a singular focus for life and super-human efforts. It’s rather part of a life where one has a mix of activities that are complementary, each enabling enjoyment of immediate experience, while also achieving purposeful, unified goals.


It also means doing one’s best to avoid pesky trees and rocks that will always try to knock you off your bike and out of your flow experience!

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