“Flow- An optimal mental state of functioning in which our skill matches the challenge, action and awareness merge, and we become so engaged in the activity that we have a loss of self-consciousness and time gets distorted. Full stop”
One year ago today I was embarking on the beginning of what turned out to be one of the best adventures of my life. I traveled from January through mid June finding myself in climbing destinations in California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Canada. I then moved to Tuolumne (in Yosemite National Park) and had an incredible summer, working all over Yosemite and spending my days off climbing immaculate granite and exploring the wild places of both the Western and Eastern Sierra. In a quite spur of the moment decision, I ended up climbing in Spain for much of December.
Life was good.
It was 11 months of total bliss and relative freedom. I hit all kinds of personal bests in my climbing, visited some extraordinary places and – after a rough and isolated 2015- I rekindled in me my intrinsic need for community.
(Well, now I’m nostalgic. Here’s a random smattering of photos over the course of 2016, in no particular order.)
That felt good.
The last few days of 2016, though, were not so glamorous. After returning from Spain I packed up my car and headed north for 1000 miles on the I-5 , destination Seattle.
My world has shifted. I’ve moved into a real room that isn’t the back of my car or a “substandard” government provided cabin (I loved that cabin), I dusted off the road bike I largely have ignored and have relocated to a city, pursuing a graduate degree in Seattle at the University of Washington.
Initially, I thought the shift would be shocking, difficult and stressful. The reality is that my vagabond lifestyle was very brief when compared to many others. However, the juxtaposition of a painful 2015 with a remarkably fun and exciting 2016 was so stark that I was worried that moving to a city again would make certain aspects of my harder years bubble up again. So far, though, I have adapted more easily than I thought I would. I am a different person than I was in San Francisco and am in many ways stronger, less vulnerable and more independent. Furthermore, I like school. I forgot how much I enjoy being presented with new concepts, ideas and information. I am being pushed to think creatively , to prioritize tasks, to apply broad concepts while specializing in specific subjects and to cultivate new skills that I had never before had to refine.
I also realized that I had missed the “University bubble” where everyone is shuffling around, seemingly busy, seemingly engaged or enraptured in some world-saving, scientific breakthrough (or are maybe ambling around like hungover undergraduates). I forgot that I enjoy debating, discussing and that I finally am confident enough to not just mentally engage in class but to verbally participate as well. I now am that annoying person who asks a bunch of questions whereas in undergrad I largely kept quiet. I’m flexing parts of my brain that I hadn’t really challenged in a long time. In addition, with the current political climate that has been demoralizing in so many ways, being in a liberal city and operating mostly in a University has been probably one of the better environments in which to witness the transition. It has also facilitated my desire and ability to empower myself and become as involved as I would like to in a resistance. What I am enjoying most, though, is learning what the best questions to ask are.
Don’t get me wrong, if I could somehow repeat 2016 for the rest of my life, perhaps mixing up the places a bit, I would in a heartbeat- it would be a dream come true. Many may write back “oh but you can!”, but that old “responsibility” whispering into my ear became a loud droning roar so here I am, for at least the next two years.
Luckily, I am not in a bad place. I can see Mt. Rainier from my window, the Olympic mountains always greet me on my cycling commute and the best view of the Cascades is just a stones throw from my new home. Seattle is uniquely positioned as a gateway to several impressive mountain ranges, to beaches, to rainforests and even to deserts. If I had to choose a city, this one definitely tops the list. (it wasn’t an accident that I ended up here)
The frustration, though, of not being able to explore and to wander because I am a bit bogged down in other extraneous work has left an impression on my morale that I had feared. Spending my weekends mostly around the city has been difficult, though I hope that with improved weather and a flexible schedule, that I will be crushing all types of climbing in the spring and summer. I am always charged with an energy to explore, especially when the potentials are constantly expressed to me visually ( in the form of scenic vistas and annoyingly badass people that I seem to meet everywhere in this city)- and it is in a sense painful to come to terms with the fact that I cannot and will not pursue 90% of the ideas that buzz through my head. When this reality sets in, it saps away my energy and sometimes takes with it the belief that I am making the right types of life decisions.
To survive, I need to make sure that the latter state of mind doesn’t take over . I must avoid disillusionment and the sensation of feeling trapped. When I delved deeper into this problem, I began to realize that the root of it lies in facing the following challenge- put the same kind of value and commitment into my work that I do into my climbing and other outdoor pursuits. That challenge makes a critical assumption- I must be able to garner a similar level of satisfaction from both endeavors.
This is where the idea of “flow” comes in. In climbing, it happens rarely but when it does, your entire world lights up afterward. It also tends to coincide with your greatest achievements. I can think of several times where I found myself in this state- when I sent Penguin Lust , my first real “project,” on some of my harder on-sights and definitely when I sent “Darkness at Noon” in Smith Rock, one of my prouder achievements. (strangely enough though not on any of my other most difficult climbs) I have also experienced a less intense type of flow on long backcountry approaches to alpine climbs and many times in all kinds of runs. It is a special, unique experience where my focus was intensely devoted to the task at hand and the rest of the world seemed to stop. Creativity, perseverance, tenacity, endurance and motivation all peak in this state. Afterward, the energy you yourself cultivated from elevating to such a state warms you up and invigorates you throughout the day. It makes you purely happy. Recently, I read an article by climber extraordinaire Hazel Findlay about the subject, where she interviewed Cameron Nordsworthy, a PhD student studying the phenomena. I started my blog with the definition he cites of flow, which I repeat here
Flow- An optimal mental state of functioning in which our skill matches the challenge, action and awareness merge, and we become so engaged in the activity that we have a loss of self-consciousness and time gets distorted. Full stop.
When I first read this definition my heart rose a little bit. “That is it!” I thought. That is the damn feeling I so exasperatedly try to explain to others. The pursuit of the “full stop” is a large part of what gets me riled up about rock climbing (sport in particular)- the fact that it is the best pathway to finding flow. Something else in that article though struck a chord with me, as he discussed his own pursuit of the flow state in areas outside of climbing and physical exertion.
“.. I started to focus on flow and I made it my intention to try and find it. All of a sudden it started appearing more and more in my life, in different areas; in business, in writing, in other sports I was doing such as surfing. As a result, I started using flow as a philosophy or a principle for performance coaching. I started to see that when our focus is on flow, not only do we experience more flow in our lives but typically our motivation increases and our anxiety decreases”
The thought of trying this type of experiment got me excited. Maybe I could do this too. Maybe I could pick apart my life piece by piece and start to try to tap into that state not only in my climbing, my backpacking, my running.. but also as I pursue a research project and a degree. Of course it is an insanely difficult task, which has a high potential for total failure- but I find it will be worthwhile to explore. It seems to me that all the most valuable pursuits in life are those in which success is not only not guaranteed , but is also unlikely.
Another psychological tactic I have been using is the “jumping in the lake” strategy. If you have ever swam in a cold lake with me, you know that I am skittish and hate getting into cold water. I love the sensation afterward, but that initial plunge is insanely difficult for me to do. Most people say they just turn their brain off and leap, but I have another method. Essentially, I tell myself that if I don’t get into the water on the count of 5, the entire world will end. Then, I verbally count out-loud to 5 and without fail I always jump in. (the decision to start counting is where I really lag). Basically I assign this task an importance value because I know that the outcome will be worth it (most of the time).
Assigning the larger goal of getting my graduate degree and pursuing research that I find to be interesting means, logically, any task that is associated with this pursuit also inherently will have value. For example, all of the seemingly unimportant articles I have been reading , even if I don’t use the methods or the subject isn’t quite relevant , are helping me think more critically, ask better questions, criticize claims, check sources and cultivate all types of vital skills I will need if I am to be successful. I’m jumping in, counting to 5 (over the course of two years) because it will not only contribute to my overall career goals but will endow me with unique traits that will undoubtedly benefit me in other goals and increase my self-confidence.
Climbing, though, is of course firmly on my mind. I have all types of goals in all realms of the sport- from sweet sport routes to single pitch trad to alpine endeavors to hard multipitches, I want to test it all. I have started to seriously train for the first time in my climbing career, because I figured that if I will have access to a gym and will have limited time to climb outdoors, I might as well try to get stronger to maximize the time I do get outside. So here I am, using the hangboard, doing some targeted weight lifting, and not just climbing but performing sport specific exercises. This, to me, fits into both the flow and the “jump in” processes. Keeping to a schedule and finding the motivation at times can be difficult, but because I assign my training a high value of importance to me so far I haven’t wavered (though it is only week 7!) Occasionally during individual sessions, I do find myself tapping into some heightened sense of body awareness. I haven’t reached any flow state, but I doubt that I won’t. I also view trying to reach a physical peak as quite important not only because I am athletically motivated and enjoy testing myself, but because I always have found that harder routes are the most beautiful, the most aesthetic, and the ones in which I most likely will find myself “flowing.”
This may appear like a drawn out monologue where I am trying to convince myself that going to school was a good choice. In some ways, maybe it is. The real purpose, though is to use writing to straighten out my head, make priorities, embark on some major mental shifts and track mental progression. I am lucky to have the opportunity I have been given, particularly when you consider the caliber of the lab and the University which believed in me enough to fund me, and will give this task no less than all of my best efforts.
“The will to succeed means nothing without the will to prepare”
modified from the great runner Juma Ikangaa
“VENGA!” – Spanish for “Come on!” AKA “Try harder!”