Swimming has never been my favorite thing to do. Even as a little girl, I didn’t enjoy it. Recently, as part of my quest to live my life freer and lighter, I decided to challenge myself: I started swimming. Though it took a few months for me to gather the courage, with an Olympic-sized pool at my local YMCA, I really had no excuse.
Overcoming body image issues and negative self-talk (“everybody is going to look at me wearing a swim suit”) was a necessary part of the process. But I was surprised by how liberated I felt in the water. I was really proud of myself for completing ten laps. Then, a few hours after my first visit, my back began to hurt. I felt exhausted for the rest of the day.
Rather than shy away from swimming, however, I allowed myself to be curious. Motivated to keep stepping out of my comfort zone, I scheduled a few private swimming lessons with a trainer. During my first lesson, I felt a magical transformation: Learning to glide, float and change the way I move my feet made swimming feel effortless, energizing, and enjoyable.
With the guidance of my trainer Jane, I did not try so hard. I lost track of time. I felt carried by the water, and I was totally present in the experience. I even got a compliment from Jane, who said that I was rapidly applying my newly learned techniques. It all simply…flowed.
Still, a few days after my lesson, I returned to the pool alone, expecting to feel the same effort and exhaustion I had felt with my first swim. Instead, I was completely immersed in the joy of effortless movement. My previous back pain was replaced by a sense of feeling really good in my own body. Swimming was fun.
Walking home from the pool, it hit me: The universe was teaching me a lesson about resistance and flow.
What is flow?
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” —Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi
In his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are completely absorbed and concentrating on the activity at hand. When we are in a state of flow, we are so involved with what we are doing that nothing else seems to matter.
How does it feel to be in flow?
In his pioneering TED talk on flow, the secret to happiness , Csíkszentmihályi explains (beginning around minute 14:00) how it feels to be in flow:
- Completely involved in what we are doing—focused, concentrated.
- A sense of ecstasy—of being outside everyday reality.
- Great inner clarity—knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing.
- Knowing that the activity is doable—that our skills are adequate to the task.
- A sense of serenity—no worries about oneself and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
- Timelessness—thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
- Intrinsic motivation—whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.
Flow is not a new idea. It exists in Buddhism (the “action of inaction”) and Taoism (“doing without doing”), as well as in Hindu texts, such as the Bhagavad-Gita. Csíkszentmihályi has described it as being “completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” We experience flow when we train martial arts, such as karate, and during centering practices, such as yoga, meditation, and Reiki. The concept of being “in the zone” during an athletic performance is another way of describing flow. Musicians, especially those who improvise, report that they experience being in the flow while playing.
What is the opposite of flow?
Have you ever felt like you were fighting against the natural flow? Maybe you had to wait awhile before getting the results of a test from the doctor or to find out your grade on an exam in school, and you tried to push it—made phone calls, sent emails, lost your patience, basically wasted time and energy to get the results early. In the moment, you might have thought that you were practicing persistence and determination. I am sure this notion is true in some situations. But, next time, you might want to play with this question: Am I going with the flow…or against the flow?
The opposite of flow is pressure and resistance.
The first time I swam laps at the YMCA, I tried so hard. I resisted bringing joy to my movement, and I ended up triggering my back and exhausting myself. But, even though my aversion to swimming began in childhood, I still have many happy memories of playing in the pool with my dad and my brother, of how much laughter and joy we shared.
Why do we take life so seriously?
Do you remember how you used to play outside for hours when you were a child? I often speak with women who miss the worry-free feeling of playing hide and seek, skipping hopscotch, or jumping rope—of enjoying the game and thinking about nothing else. When you think about your happiest childhood moments, don’t you realize that you were totally in the flow?
So what happened to us that we ended up taking life so seriously? Why do we resist bringing childlike moments into our adult lives? Why is it so hard for many of us to live in the flow?
I am still exploring this question for myself, and I want to encourage you to do the same.
Let’s think about things we can do today that will put us back in flow and allow us to feel freer and lighter.