Flow describes the state of being blissfully immersed in a task to the exclusion of everything else, including one’s self. Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist introduced this concept back in the 70s.
I have felt this type of bliss just a few times. Decades ago, I competed in my very first karate tournament. I had just gotten my green belt, and I appeared to be the only one at that level. All the others had blue and heaven forbid, brown belts. They were like demi-gods back then. The black belts had their own special time and location.
My nervousness approached extreme levels. We engaged in some preliminary sparing at our own club, but I had never been in a real tournament when people were planning to give their all. The rules were fairly simple. The first to two points wins. Don’t hit anyone. Hard.
I found my assigned ring and they called all the names. I answered to mine with the standard OSS! Which can be used for yes, no or present. The word OSS symbolizes the attitude of suppressing your emotions and to persevere through all of the training. Similar to the army slogan. Karate Strong!
We do the traditional bows to each other and to the judges and line up outside of the ring. The ring comprises of tape on the floor of the gym that the competition is being held. Makes getting in and out way easier.
We all wear the white sparing gloves. They do protect the knuckles somewhat, but since you are not supposed to actually hit anyone, they don’t serve any other purpose. They work most of the time. The one time they didn’t resulted in one of my knuckles residing in my palm ever since then. I push it back in every now and then, but it seems stubbornly happy where it is.
I don’t recall anything from my first four fights except that I managed to win them somehow. The fifth and final fights sticks in my mind. My opponent was a brown belt, and tall and athletic looking. I tried not to get somewhat too off balance from the fact that he had more skills, musculature, and experience. Meanwhile, I felt exhausted, pained and severely bruised. I had banged my toes against harder objects like knees and elbows all afternoon.
We both bow to enter the ring, and come up to our own line. We then bow to the referee, and to the judge and then to each other. The referee says Hajime, I feel an additional spike of adrenalin as the fight starts.
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that there are five basic aspects of flow.
Firstly, intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment. In the middle of a competition, the last thing on your mind is that project due tomorrow. You are totally focused on what you opponent is doing, and you let your own body take care of itself. You can’t think and hit at the same time. Although Yogi Berra was not thinking about throwing punches when he said that.
Secondly, there should be a merging of action and awareness. My opponent steps in with a kick and I quickly block and respond with a reverse punch. Just a half point for me since the referee perceives that the technique may have been less than perfect or that it may have partially blocked.
Thirdly, there is a loss of reflective self-consciousness. You are no longer engaged in a competition, you essentially become the competition. Constant repetition allows you to react without thinking. I sense an opening and respond with a quick roundhouse kick. Another half point for myself.
Fourthly, a sense that one can control one’s actions. I normally have the traditional anxiety interacting with people, but the moment I enter the ring this all falls away. The rules are certain and the objective is laid out. This is totally different from social situations where you don’t know the rules and you don’t know what the objective might be. Other people may be beyond your control. My opponent wins the next half point
Fifthly, there is a sense that time has passed faster than normal. Time becomes thicker and denser. The bouts are generally two minutes. My opponent wins the next half point again. We are now tied where one more well executed technique would win the match and the division. I glance over at the clock. Thirty seconds remain.
Lastly, the experience of the activity becomes intrinsically rewarding such that the overall goal just becomes an excuse for being there in the first place. So if winning falls away, and the focus becomes exercising the best technique you can, then you have entered the flow. The match starts once again. With my left side forward, I start to compress myself smaller. Like a spring. Every muscle become galvanized. I imagine the tiger behind me as I try to jump a chasm. I bring my right knee up and launch myself directly at my opponent with a right straight punch. This catches him completely off guard and he rotates around to try to evade me. This becomes a mistake as now I can punch his unprotected side.
The referee throws himself between the two of us and calls the fight. I am awarded an ippon, a full point and the match.
I don’t recall the awards ceremony, or the little trophy they give you afterwards or even being happy about winning. The goal completely disappeared. But that one technique became burnished in my mind like another tattoo. I am sure that the surge of neurochemicals such as endorphins, dopamine and serotine were responsible for my feeling good about it and for a short time after. When the hormones wore off the painful bruising remained for days.
The recollection does come in handy on occasion when I am doing some bench presses and I want to squeeze out one more rep. Putting your all into something becomes easier with a visualization and an extra little shot of adrenalin.
Part of the flow includes a balance of skill level and challenge level. You can be easily overwhelmed by a foot sweep and the balance would be gone. The challenge can’t be so far above you that you are too anxious about even being able to succeed. My own challenge appeared to be above me, but not so far above that it seemed impossible.
I wonder if animals experience flow, or are they constantly in a state of flow. When I talked about my dog Seamus attempting to the chase that jackrabbit, it did not seem to the least bit concerned. It only applied the exact amount of effort required to avoid the dog. And when Maguire joined the chase, the jackrabbit just applied a bit more effort and outran them both.
It merged its action and awareness seamlessly. I am sure the jackrabbit was right in the moment and not thinking about anything else. It was no longer engaged in outrunning the dogs, it became that thing instead.
Once again, the struggle becomes more important than the destination.