By Douglas Eby
Life is shaped as much by the future as by the past. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
Athletes call it the “Zone” – an optimal internal psychological climate for peak performance. Brazilian soccer player Pele has described days when everything was going right, and feeling “a strange calmness I hadn’t experienced in any of the other games. It was a type of euphoria; I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their teams or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically. I felt I could not be hurt.”
Basketball players, when they experience being “in the zone” report that the basket seems bigger, and feeling an almost mystical connection to it. The legendary hitter Ted Williams has said that sometimes he could see the seams on a pitched baseball. Gymnast Carol Johnson found that on some days she experienced the balance beam as wider, so “any worry of falling off disappeared.”
Football quarterback star John Brodie told Michael Murphy, author of “The Psychic Side of Sports“, that he found periods in every game when “time seems to slow down, in an uncanny way, as if everyone were moving in slow motion.
It seems as if I had all the time in the world to watch the receivers run their patterns, and yet I know the defensive line is coming at me just as fast as ever.” This time dilation experience may relate to studies of psychologist Robert Ornstein in which increased information processing by the brain can result in a “stretching” or slowing down of the experience of time.
A number of sports psychologists and trainers use a range of techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, concentration exercises and meditation to help access the “zone”.
One of the consistent themes of these approaches is the need to “get around” the conscious mind. The winner of the 1988 Olympics in archery was a 17-year-old Korean young woman whose training included meditation for two hours a day. Archer Tim Strickland has noted that conscious intervention is the great enemy: “Your conscious mind always wants to help you, but usually it messes you up.”
Jennifer Lehman, who teaches and consults on film acting, and is also a teacher of awareness training at The Rocamora School in Los Angeles, notes how that quality of mind can interfere: “It’s difficult to achieve a consistent openness, letting things flow through you, without your own judgments, your own personal history, or how you think it should be, interfering with that. I also have a feeling that our thinking mind is different than our feeling mind, and that if we start thinking, we shut down creative expression.
Thinking is very linear and one dimensional, and we get attached to it and its ‘should’ and ‘ought to’ and ‘let me go in there and fix it’. When you have a creative experience, it’s a very full experience. I liken it to a hologram. It’s multidimensional. But if you’re making a mental choice about something, for example ‘I hate that person’, then your experience becomes limited to only that.
A creative experience has many layers all at the same time. And if you’re trying to juggle a bunch of ideas and keep them all in balance, it’s going to limit your availability to feeling states.”
Using PET scan technology (Positron Emission Tomography), researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have found that people learning to master a video game show a reduction in the overall metabolism of the brain – less brain activity with greater skill.
This indicates that increasing ability results in better efficiency: the brain can “relax into” the task. This may be the physiological result – or perhaps cause – of decreasing the “static” of consciousness referred to in Zen Buddhism, in peak performance training approaches other forms of awareness training.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sent-me-high-ee) continues to explore and define a state of optimal experience he calls ‘flow’ -described in his books “Flow – the Psychology of Optimal Experience” and the sequel “The Evolving Self“. He says “Life is shaped as much by the future as by the past. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”
He has found that “best moments” are not limited to leisure or even good times, since “people who have survived concentration camps or lived through near-fatal physical dangers often recall that in the midst of their ordeal, they experienced extraordinarily rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest, completing a hard task, or sharing a crust of bread with a friend.”
He points out that “Some flow experiences involve low danger, like reading a good book. But certain people are disposed to respond to risk, and their flow will depend on it more than somebody else’s.
Danger is the hook. But their descriptions are not that different from, say, a Thai woman’s description of weaving a rug. The quality of concentration, forgetfulness, involvement, control are similar.”
Some of his recent research relates to the UC Irvine studies: “We found that high school kids who reported flow more frequently performed better in the test situation with much less cortical activity, were less aroused by the tasks, or spent less mental effort responding to the stimuli.”
Complexity becomes refined into flow rather than confusion through being ordered and integrated. But achieving flow may present a greater challenge for gifted individuals, who often experience unusually high levels of mental excitability or functioning.
His suggestions for experiencing flow include picking an enjoyable activity that is at or slightly above your skill level; continually raising the level of challenge as performance improves; screening out distraction as much as possible; focusing attention on all the emotional and sensory qualities of the activity, and looking for regular feedback, or concrete goals to monitor progress, even if it is a large or long-term project with delayed outcome.
Writing a short story, or raising a child, can be contexts for flow experience: you can see them as a series of short-term steps or events, each having value in engaging one’s talents.
Other examples of “flow activities” are games, artistic performances and religious rituals, but Csikszentmihalyi notes that “people seem to get more flow from what they do on their jobs than from leisure activities” – perhaps especially those kinds of jobs which demand full attention, like surgery or computer programming.
But achieving flow may present a greater challenge for gifted individuals, who often experience unusually high levels of mental excitability or functioning.
In describing the process of mindfulness training in her Rocamora School in Los Angeles, which attracts many gifted and talented individuals, director Mary Rocamora notes that it is possible to break old and disruptive modes of awareness that catch us up in routines of feeling or belief, impeding flow experience: “Trapped states loosen their grip; they diminish in frequency and intensity because they are recognized as not real, just simply another pattern that is distorting the now.
Eventually they drop out of experience altogether, as presence is more easily moved toward and sustained.” She says awareness work is an orientation to living, to “looking and seeing where the flow is going, so that we’re not working at cross-purposes with anything that’s moving organically on its own.”
This quality of attention may be what is really at the heart of flow experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., director of a major stress reduction clinic, in his book “Wherever You Go There You Are” suggests exercises in attention: “Draw back the veil of unawareness to perceive harmony in this moment.
Can you see it in clouds, in sky, in people, in the weather, in food, in your body, in this breath?… Try being present for things like taking a shower, or eating… Notice the feelings that push you toward the telephone or the doorbell on the first ring. Why does your response have to pull you out of the life you were living in the preceding moment?”
Being present and mindful in this way brings with it a quality of living with reduced effort, more attuned to the flow of life.
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Douglas Eby writes articles and interviews related to psychology and creative expression for a number of print and online publications. He holds an MA in Psychology, and is particularly interested in giftedness and creativity for women.
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