Flow describes an intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment, a merger of action and awareness, a loss of reflective self-consciousness. In a sense, when someone is in a state of flow, the mind enters a meditative autonomous trance, which can distort their perception of time, as they become solely absorbed in their present action.
Most of us have experienced flow at some point when we have been so absorbed in a physical or creative activity that all our sensations and thoughts have felt reduced to a compressed euphoric singularity, and our actions have felt dissociated and involuntary.
Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist who named the concept, said in a 2004 TED Talk that: “When you are really involved in this completely engaging process... [you don’t] have enough attention left over to monitor how [your] body feels, or [your] problems at home… [Your] body disappears – [your] identity disappears from [your] consciousness.”
Psychological research has suggested that the mind can only attend to a certain amount of information per second. And according to Prof Csíkszentmihályi, when someone is in a state of flow, “existence is temporarily suspended” due to this hyper-focused immersion in the activity that results in a state of mind that has no more attention left to allocate to, or register, other sensations.
In addition to making activities fly by due to their enjoyment, studies have also suggested that this state of complete immersion also supplies the benefits of living entirely in the moment, serves as a buffer against adversity, and provides a release from incessant negative thought patterns.
Climbing out of Depression
Belinda Fuller started the charity Climbing out of Depression after the tragedy of losing a loved one to depression. In her friend's honour, she set up the organisation to help people suffering from poor mental health by giving them an experience and realisation through rock climbing that there are “things that can make you feel alive and are worth living for”.
Ms Fuller explained that climbing is known to provide the mental space to “break the vicious cycle of depression through the distraction of an all-encompassing activity… [That] stimulates mind, body, and soul to the point where for that time spent on the wall, there is no space for anything else – it is possible to be in that magical state called flow.”
Some physical activities have the ability to act as a therapy because of the level of concentration and skill that they demand – facilitating both flow and mindfulness. But particularly rock climbing due to the constant gratification of visible progress and the reward of the sweat and determination in getting slowly toward the goal – analogous to how many people's experience their struggles with their mental health.
Climbing out of Depression aims to reach individuals in need of support by providing them with community, fulfilment, and the joy of climbing. While the charity is not a counselling service, the team members are trained in mental health first aid and can signpost individuals in need of professional assistance.
Through focussing on something enjoyable and all-encompassing, Ms Fuller commented, “climbing can provide some essential relief from pain, anxiety, grief, stress, and trauma… [Our] climbing sessions are designed to introduce individuals to the exciting experience of climbing, but we also endeavour to provide the space to talk if and when an individual is ready.”
“Our mission statement has always been to be accessible and inclusive to everybody. To reach people who wouldn't necessarily find climbing and that maybe didn't have the confidence to actually financially commit to it. And to have that one-to-one support to just hold their hand through that first session and introduce them to the lovely staff here and to make friends. So, you don't have to do it all on your own – that’s my vision.”
- See also: '“Climb your mind” The relationship between mental adversity and the mountains'
- See also: 'How to cultivate self love when times are hard'
Flowing mindfulness and yoga
Another renowned way of achieving flow and mindful internal stasis is through yoga. Kara Colegrave, the founder of Paloma Yoga, started teaching classes virtually full-time during the first half of the pandemic; she said of her classes that “they aren't really about physical fitness. They're about mental fitness.”
“I wanted to create a yoga class where people could show up and just lie down for an hour. And people would be able to spend an hour not stressing out over what they’re feeding your children tonight or whether they have done enough exercise this week or have done enough laundry – a complete hour spent doing something for themselves.”
Ms Colegrave said that yoga concentrates the mind on the present by breathing techniques and the body movements (or the asanas) so that the mind cannot wander off to our daily worries and concerns. And much in the same way as in climbing, there are goals and ambitions that are gradually worked towards; however, the primary purpose of the activity is concentration and the merger of action and awareness.
“I think in yoga there is a lesson in understanding that there isn't a destination, that it's about progress, even that is just holding your breath longer – it’s not about getting anywhere. It is just about being here. And I think that that kind of message really resonates.”
“As soon as you get onto the yoga mat, even if you just sat there, you're safe – nothing you're going to do is wrong. That is where it starts; you've taken a step for yourself by opening the matt out and just sitting there.”
Ms Colegrave commented that the finer focus that and an activity like yoga can provide means that we are no longer obsessing over the person who was rude to us on our way to work, or the argument that we had with a friend or any of the other frustration that we feel the need to constantly dissect and revaluate.
“As soon as we find acceptance of ourselves, we start to kind of feel more positive about those negative daily occurrences”, she added.
Climbing and yoga are meaningful activities if we are interested in unlocking the door to experience flow. During these activities, we can learn new skills and disrupt our constant stream of thoughts and sensations that can often become overbearing and have the potential to become downbeat, anxious, and accusatory.
Of course, we can all contribute to our overall quality of life by enabling moments to reflect on ourselves. But we also need moments where there is no opportunity for our consciousness to ruminate over the day or obsessively predict tomorrow’s problems and simply be free in the present moment.