How Do We Create "Flow"?

We all have the capacity for "flow" if we can find and do what we love most.

Posted Feb 27, 2014

I recently read a story in Runner’s World about Diane Van Deren, a world class long distance runner who is in her mid-fifties. She suffered from uncontrolled temporal lobe epilepsy for seventeen years until at the age of 37 she had surgery (temporal lobectomy) to remove that part of her brain that caused her seizures. Since the surgery in 1997, she has been free of epilepsy. There was some residual brain damage from the surgery, though, that affected her vision and her capacity to track time---she is always late; she has lost memories of her personal life; and she often experiences sensory overload.

Despite this, since her surgery, Diane has improved as a long-distance runner, an ultramarathoner, actually: someone who routinely runs and wins races of 50, 60, 100 or more miles. Now when she races, she often has no idea how long she has been running or where exactly she is going. As it turns out, the surgery, or to be more precise, the residual damage that resulted from the surgery, may have aided Diane in becoming the runner she is today. She once won a 300 mile race across the Yukon pulling 50 pounds of supplies behind her. A year later she covered 430 miles. Her remarkable endurance has been credited, in part, to her brain limitations. She cannot track time or map the details of where she is and where she is going, two things that can make a runner more aware of distance, pain, and hardship. Her physician says Diane has “special facility for ‘flow’ that lets her transcend the anguish of running long” distances. She becomes so completely enmeshed in what she is doing that it is as if she is in a state of timelessness. For her part, Diane thinks her gift lies simply in “keeping up the fight.” Perhaps it is both.

“Flow,” as proposed by Csikszentmihalyi, occurs when someone is completely immersed in an activity. Full attention, total focus, complete enjoyment. Everything else falls away. It has been described as a sensation of being carried along by a current of water. Effortless effort. Flowing while going.

Sign me up! I would love to add more flow to my mojo. Of course, wanting it doesn’t actually get me any closer to having it. In fact, trying hard may actually impede achieving it. I meditate and have experienced moments, sometimes just seconds, of centeredness, of just being, and the peace that comes with it. Feeling centered involves a degree of focus and presence that heightens my sense of being. But my experience of flow is a little different than that. It feels like I am integrating being present and doing present, if that makes sense. I feel like I am moving without going; that I am being without stopping.

Maybe her epilepsy surgery and the unusual changes that occurred in her brain enhanced Diane Van Deren’s running capacity, but I think the fact that she found something she loves doing may be an equally important factor in her effortless effort, her flow. Sounds simple enough. But how many of us find something we love and then do it? Many other things take over, lay claim to us, make demands on us, often very legitimately. And we find that the thing we love recedes and feels unreachable.

At this time of my life, I experience flow when I am writing. Time often falls away because who I am, heart, mind, and soul, is immersed in something that I both love and find meaningful. Because of that, I make sure there is always room in my life to do it.

I think everyone has something they love doing more than anything else, something that is most meaningful. The trick to flow is doing what you love.

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