Why I Flow
How The Flow State Helped Me Get From Self Harm to Self-Actualization
From a very young age I loved movement. My favorite class in elementary through high school was gym class. However, as a child with severe mental health problems, this rarely worked out well. I would frequently believe that my entire team was out to get me and that even the referees were plotting my demise as I ran across the soccer field. Anything that involved a remotely competitive element would probably end in tears. For the nine year old version of me, this included a lot of screaming, and frequently involved me finding something hard to hit my skull against until someone would pull me away from both the hard object and my own rampant emotions.
As you can guess, I didn’t play many competitive sports for long.
This meant that I would often do more individual activities like snowboarding or riding bikes. I found these activities to be a huge relief. I was in control, and there was no one else to be worried about or to blame. I would sometimes find myself completely lost in the moment, my mind absorbed by movement, as if my dysfunctional brain had finally synced up with my body. It felt fantastic, and while I didn’t know it at the time, I had discovered flow.
Flow has been around as a concept for thousands of years particularly in Eastern religions. One could easily compare the modern view of flow to the trance like state that many associate with Zen Buddhist monks. More recently, it has been accepted into a variety of psychological fields. Flow expert and inventor of the term, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi once describes it to Wired magazine as
“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” — Click here for the full interview
The Flow State is most often associated with activities performed with a high level of concentration for intrinsically motivated reasons. Meaning if you are doing something simply because you like doing it, and you’re focused on it, you are likely to enter the flow state. In fact, I frequently encounter people who have experienced flow and had just never heard the term. Many people know it by a different name, “getting in the zone.”
Despite its obscurity as a psychological concept, I believe that flow could be powerful tool to aid in the treatment of mental health. I have personally experienced the mental relief and motivation that can come through flow. I’m also not the only one.
The Orchard School is a mental health and alternative education center for children ages 16 and under. It’s located on a beautiful old farm East of the Hudson River in Southern NY. It hosts both residential and day students that have a range of emotional and mental difficulties. I attended the Orchard School from third to ninth grade and I fully believe that they changed my life for the better.
I recently got the chance to speak with the Orchard School’s Manager of Special Programs, Stephan Spilkowitz. Spilkowitz currently runs a variety of programs at the Orchard School including their participation in NYPUM (National Youth Project Using Minibikes). This motivational and incentive-based program rewards children for their good behavior with time riding motorized minibikes.
Spilkowitz described how kids who hadn’t found an interest in traditional competitive sports were often enthralled by the concept of riding motocross bikes. He also credited the program on its incredible ability to get kids with ADHD to be able to focus. In addition, he mentioned how it helps get less athletically inclined individuals involved in a sport that they can be proud of. In many cases, the kids in these programs see motocross as a passion, one that they have chosen to follow out of sheer enjoyment.
In his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about the importance of choosing passions like this saying,
“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do
will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Dr. Gerald Hurowitz, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University says that using activities that promote flow can be a great way to practice being mindful of the world around you. This is important according to Hurowitz who says that,
“When people are suffering they often focus on the symptoms and how they are going to get rid of them. However, it’s when they focus on being present that they recover more fully.”
— Dr. Gerald Hurowitz, MD
I am no longer the child who would bang his head against walls when he tried to play soccer. I am now a twenty-one year old communications student at Green Mountain College in Poultney, VT. I also have a job and yet I still manage to snowboard or mountain bike a bit at least three days a week. I credit much of my personal growth to passionate participation in activities like climbing, snowboarding, and mountain biking. It’s when I am doing these things that I can focus best. I also find that I am more successful in balancing other parts of my life when I can access the Flow State frequently. I have less anxiety and I wake up happy to face the world.