Have you ever felt being in the flow of things? That optimum experience that many athletes and artists feel when time disappears and everything you are doing just seems to click effortlessly into place?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has written extensively on flow, calls it “an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness” in which you “become, at least temporarily, part of a larger entity” or even “at one with the harmony of the cosmos.”
I’ve experienced this a few times for extended periods, but most often only for brief moments. The type of flow usually comes after long periods of meditation, usually when I’m outside, immersed in nature, when thoughts cease and sights and sounds flow through me. “Mountain-top” moments you might call them. But occasionally, more rarely, they happen in the “market place,” unexpectedly, in the middle of a busy day. I love it when that happens.
The first extended period of this came when we were sailing in the South Pacific. We were anchored in a cove off Tahiti and I went ashore to do some shopping.
I felt unusually light-headed, as if walking on air, or as if some filter called “me” had disappeared, and all that was left was this crystal clear awareness taking in everything and everyone I met—that “not-two” feeling I mentioned at the end of my last post. That sense stayed with me during the bus ride to Papeete and slowly dissipated as I went about my shopping.
I wrote a poem about the experience when I returned home, focusing on the bus ride. When sitting in the open-sided bus looking out at the passing landscape that sense of “flow” was especially intense.
On a Bus to Papeete
Wind through the window
Streaming through my hair
I in my stillness
Hurtling through the air
Trees and grasses and roads bending
Faces with flowers and houses blending
Objects like petals on a dark stream,
streaming through me, leave me
Clean and empty as a hollow reed, still
faintly tingling with the rhapsody of being.
It happened another time when we had returned home from our voyage and I was working as a manager of a small popular family restaurant. It was Sunday morning and we were slammed. Folks were lined up out the door waiting to be seated. The hostess was going crazy trying to keep up with the demand, scribbling down names and crossing them off, leading couples and families to tables, bringing out highchairs and crayons and coloring books, taking out trays of water.
The waitresses were buzzing around the room taking orders, pouring drinks, balancing up to six plates at a time in their arms. The poor busboys were clearing tables as fast as they could, wiping them down, hauling cartloads of dishes back to the kitchen. Things were at a fever high pitch of frantic in the back of the house too, as cooks called out orders, slapped slabs of bacon and sausage on the griddle, flipped pancakes, whisked eggs.
And I was everywhere at once, making the rounds, helping out as I moved along, taking around coffee, refilling cups, chatting up the guests, helping to clear tables and seat people, checking up on missing orders, lending a hand to the stack of avocados that needed peeling to make up a new batch of guacamole.
Everywhere at once, acutely attuned to what was needed in the moment and filling in the gap, just streaming along, light-headed, calm, exuberant, being all things at once and nothing at all, just letting the ebb and flow of activity move me along, marveling even while in the midst of it, at how natural, spontaneous, hyper-aware, hyper-alive I felt.
It lasted all morning and well into the early afternoon. Then as the stream of guests faded, and the restaurant began to empty, so did the “high,” that sense of flow, and I was gently landed back on the ground again, normal me, but not a bit tired and still very happy.
Now most of the time I feel I’m being carried along mid-stream, not “in the flow” at the center as I was then, but skirting it, somewhere between the flow and the swirling eddies at the edge of the stream. It’s a pleasant place to be, knowing the “flow” is right there beside me, ready to whisk me away again when I’m ready and things are just right.
But happy too that I’m avoiding for the most part those pesky eddies that try to pull me away into the shallows—-those petty, tiresome swirls, and fearful spins, and down-spouts of grief and anger that are always there, ready to pull me under and upside-down when they can. Usually I am able to scramble free easier than I have in the past, knowing that whatever trouble in the world they represent is more easily solved when I’m not tumbling around in the turmoil.
Mostly it’s a balancing act, trying to bring those mountaintop moments into the marketplace and finding myself somewhere in between. Not an unpleasant place to be.