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The Experience of "Flow"

Updated: May 27

A definition of FLOW is "the sensation of intense competent mastery over one's environment by the accretion of a series of small, self-reinforcing successes during the course of executing a self-directed goal of high difficulty or danger, and requiring total immersion and absorption as well as complete concentration.”

In more colloquial terms, Flow occurs when "everything comes together" or falls into place, like when an athlete feels "in the zone" or like when a military sniper prepares himself for the moment of releasing the shot. The perception of the passage of time by a person in a state of flow is that time "slows down" relative to the happenings in the outward world. There must be clearly defined goals and progress, but with an uncertainty of the outcome; there must be an immediate "feedback," of rewards or penalties for one's actions; and, confidence in one's own perceived ability.


Flow generally induces: (1) a generalized feeling of well-being, (2) a calm exaltation (not a drug high), and (3) the feeling of personal transcendence over the surrounding environmental conditions.


Flow occurs in many circumstances; for instance, imagine a lead surgeon in the operating room, issuing various commands to the nurses and other doctors, who begins to feel a sense of competent mastery over his environment, and is in a highly focused state of concentration -- successfully performing one small task after another, and then another: that surgeon is in a state of "flow".


Now, the above describes "positive" flow. That's the state of mind that you’d aspire to attain. Flow, however, can also be used "negatively," as a defense mechanism to insulate yourself from your environment:


For instance, suppose you're a thousand feet high on a rock wall, and if you look down, you see a drop of a thousand feet. You can readily develop vertigo and fall. The technique employed in "negative" flow is blocking the outside world by focusing on the immediate activity of one's hands working the ironmongery attaching you to the wall, to the exclusion of the environment about you. See my Poem, Fear and Flow, p.149 of my Book, supra.


Thus, flow is not only a pleasurable state of being to be sought after and attained, but can also serve as a defense mechanism against fear—to focus one's attention on the micro-activity at hand, and NOT LOOK DOWN!


Ideally, you want to achieve a state of mind where everything is going right: e.g., because you've made the correct preparations, you have avoided, or minimized, creation of "subjective" hazards; further, no "objective" dangers pose a perceptible risk, and thus you perceive that everything is going well. A sense of Flow develops not all of the sudden, but bit by bit, by the performance of one successful task after another, seriatim, building up your confidence—THAT IS THE KEY TO FLOW! It makes you feel self-confident that you are in control of what you're doing, that you are "equal to the task".


A person is called "alienated" from the object of his work when he feels that his skills are inadequate to do the job. By contrast, a person experiences something called "anomie" when he/she feels that his/her capabilities far, far exceed the job that he/she is given to do. Flow can only exist when you don't have either alienation or anomie. When you feel that your capabilities are equal to and being used correctly by the task at hand ; that's the only circumstance in which flow can even begin to occur. Otherwise, you are either frightened because you feel that you can't do the job or you're bored because you feel the job is beneath you.


I urge you to "Google" the term "Flow"! It's a well-recognized and well-studied state of mind.

REFERENCES: For further exploration of the concept of "Flow" in mountaineering, as well as the phenomenon of alienation and anomie, see, Mountain Experience, The Psychology and Sociology of Adventure, by Richard G. Mitchell, Jr. (The U. of Chicago Press: 1983), at pp. 153, 177, and passim.

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