As a teenager, I was painfully shy and self-conscious, but the first time I stepped on a dance floor I knew I was hooked for life. I had found a pathway to ‘flow,’ a key ingredient to happiness and something all of us can experience.
I was in my late teens when I first danced in public. Up to that point I had avoided any kind of school dance function like the plague. No junior prom, no homecoming dances, no Sadie Hawkins. I already didn’t like being the center of attention, and I was terrified of being humiliated.
So what was this thing that compelled me to dance? What was so powerfully motivating that it could get this shy kid to face up to his fear of attention and humiliation?
I had found ‘flow,’ and it was through the practice of ecstatic dance.
It’s impossible to know how long ecstatic dance has been a part of humankind; at least as long as there has been civilization, but it probably goes back as long as we’ve had the ability to hit two sticks together and make music.
Although we tend to think of dance as being a frivolous pursuit, in many cultures dance is a way to experience the sacred. In some dances, the aim is to go into a trance state; in others, dancers are said to become possessed.
Artists have a similar experience. My art professor called it ‘The Zone.’ It’s where you become so fully engrossed in the creation of the art that you lose yourself. Time ceases to exist, your ego falls away and you forget about needing things like hunger and sleep.
But for the most thorough explanation on the subject, you should watch the TED Talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
So many artists described how they work as a spontaneous ‘flow’ that that is what he decided to call this particular experience. His research is illustrated by this diagram:
The important thing to know is that you need 3 things to find a flow state: a subject that interests you, a high level of skill in that subject, and a high degree of challenge.
Flow is a creative experience and it’s something everyone can attain. It’s not just for the artists.
Legend has it that when English mountaineer, George Mallory was asked, why do you want to climb Mount Everest, he replied, “because it’s there.”
I have never rock climbed (unless you count indoor rock climbing), but to hear climbers talk about why they do such a dangerous sport, it’s in the pursuit of flow. When Lynn Hill talks about bouldering, she makes you understand that rock climbing is a highly creative activity.
Csikszentmihalyi also notes that when you are in flow, “what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”
In that context, George Mallory’s comment makes perfect sense.
With rock climbing, the risk of falling provides the challenge. The skill you need to meet that challenge is a mastery of your body. Because the level of danger is so high, it demands intense focus and it’s very easy to go into flow.
These days, I don’t dance as much as I used to… but I have added props and the element of fire.
Like rock climbing, the danger that fire presents demands a similar focus; and that’s where I find my flow.
However, you don’t need to risk life and limb, you can experience flow in just about anything you enjoy doing.
Anything that has an improvisational nature lends itself very well to flow: Jazz music, surfing, sports, martial arts, freestyle rap. For that matter, things that involve the unpredictability of another human being can be in flow easily: wrestling, boxing, improv acting, banter, or just any good conversation.
Recall the flow diagram above. It takes three things: skill, challenge and interest.
If you have a high level of challenge and not enough skill, then you are in a state of ‘arousal.’ That’s where the most effective learning takes place. If you have a higher level of skill and not enough challenge, you are in a state of ‘control.’
Control and learning are both good places to be and you can move into flow easily by increasing your level of skill or challenge.
Hopefully, this gives you a better understanding of how flow works. As an expression of creativity, flow is key to experiencing the full richness of life. It’s easy to see why Csikszentmihalyi calls it “the secret to happiness.”
Top photo licensed through Creative Commons. Original: https://flic.kr/p/7zL69a