My new weekend tradition is a nice 36 mile bike ride along the river to the state line. The weird thing about these long rides is that exercise isn’t my motivation. My primary motivator is that I love the psychological and spiritual experience.
There’s this great book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s all about the psychology of optimal experience and what it takes to get into a state of mind that we usually call the zone. I highly recommend reading the book, but in short flow arises out of the relationship between challenge and skill. A challenging activity that you are not skilled at makes you anxious. An easy activity that you are great at makes you relaxed or bored. Flow, however, is where a high level of challenge meets a high level of skill. Reaching flow typically requires a clear objective, a delicate balance between challenge and skill, and a feedback loop that allows you to tangibly see that you are meeting your goals.
Flow is when you’re so engrossed in something challenging that you lose track of time. Some of the activities that personally induce flow for me are writing, running, ping pong, chess, making music, coding, hiking, climbing, and you guessed it … biking!
Today’s bike ride was interesting because throughout the first five miles all I could think about was how sore my legs were and how little chance I actually had of making it all the way to Idaho … not to mention all the way back. The hills were killing my quads and I could swear the mile markers were getting farther apart, but somewhere around mile 15, I stopped thinking about all that. Instead I was caught in the rhythmic motion of my pedals and the rush of the river winding next to me. I had hit flow. The challenge of the next 21 miles came into perfect balance with my perceived level of endurance, and I was in a completely different world than the start of my journey.
The cool thing about flow experiences is that they take your mind to a level deeper (technically speaking they order psychic entropy). Instead of biking to make my body look fit, I was simply biking for the sake of biking. That might sound kind of silly, but I think it’s a good reminder to pursue things because of their intrinsic worth rather than other kinds of external factors. So what makes you flow?