Friday, August 9, 2013

Finding Flow

There is a man who minted the concept of flow, that optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where a person is fully immersed in what they are doing.

Many people in the pop-psy, positive psychology movement think of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a genius for this.  A rock star.  A hero.

My favorite part about Csikszentmihalyi is that he is a climber.

"Whenever a climber leaves the known paths, he enters an area without rules or routines to rely on. The only advice comes from deep inside the self, and hopefully the motivation is true. At such moments, the mountaineer is creative, not merely a participant in sport. This creativity manifests itself in styles of climbing or in exploration of unknown areas. It is impossible to cram mountaineering into a sport framework. To me there are as many ways to experience the mountains as there arc real and passionate emotional bonds with the mountains. If you allow my earlier sarcasm, permit me a momentary contact with the mystical. I conclude that mystery is essential to mountaineering. What is unveiled to the individual when involved with creative mountaineering forms part of a new bond with the mountain experience."  –Voytek Kurtyka, the consummate alpinist/artist/philosopher in “The Art of Suffering”

The beauty of play is that there is an implied margin of safety. If a surprise endangers you, it is no longer playful. Climbing is perverse in that it forces a psychology of entering and exiting a continual string of danger, or at least of perceived danger. The game becomes the dance with the margin of safety itself. 

Are there categories for surprises? 

Clearly, say, discovering some hidden talent, is much deeper and more rewarding than unexpectedly receiving a birthday cake. And that cake, in turn, is a far greater experience for the hungry child than for the sick diabetic. 

 Almost anyone prefers cake to a surprise triple-bypass surgery. 

Yet Dan Gilbert quotes a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for 37 years as saying his ordeal was “a glorious experience”; another man who was paralyzed from the neck down said that before his accident, he “didn’t appreciate others nearly as much as I do now.”

Climbing, the art of suffering, has another lesson to teach: resilience. 

Sometimes, the simplest things in life are the worst at strengthening our resilience. For the diabetic struggling with a sweet tooth, that piece of cake might be his greatest challenge, despite the expectation that he control his diabetes.  And yet the falsely imprisoned convict has less expectation upon him, making it all the more awe-inspiring when he is able to persevere and even thrive through his sentence.


In my own life, I find that taking hold of stressors, and applying them intentionally and gradually, strengthens my resilience.  I have taken up climbing, running, cycling.  I embrace suffering within these disciplines and in doing so, empower myself to defeat suffering elsewhere in my life.

And maybe my obsession with suffering comes out of early childhood, and maybe it was nurtured through mountaineering and climbing.  But it has taken a new shape, not of merely enduring, but harnessing, and hopefully I will use that process to reduce suffering in the world. 

A motivated life is one with well-balanced surprises, and control over one's suffering.

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