Saturday, October 9, 2021

A Unifying Theme

Recently, I realized that I've been studying flow for at least as long as this year. 

I've been searching for it for much longer. 

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (we'll call him MC) is the psychologist who first coined the term flow and has done the most extensive research on the topic. He describes flow as an optimal experience in which we may become so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. The key to flow is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the rewards it brings. 

Interestingly, the Bhagavad Gita also points us in this direction: "You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive." 

MC has found that one of the key characteristics of a flow state is that there must be a unifying theme

Without completely understanding why, I've felt the urgent necessity of cultivating a theme before each of my Ironman races. I find it in my journals. As I read back through the preceding months of growth and struggle, I often find myself moving increasingly closer to a new state of being. Something is ready to evolve, and equally, something is ready to die in order to make space for the evolution. My conscious mind is not privy to what will come next or how it will play out. There are no guarantees about where this will lead me, but I feel the responsibility to clear the space, and Ironman is the ritual altar upon which I make my sacrifice.   

The underlying thread of truth in everything in my life that has come to its natural ending is weaved through the desire to belong. In earlier iterations, I had to let go of various cultural identifications of belonging. I had to unlearn the destructive misconceptions that 1.) I needed to obtain a certain measurable outcome in order to feel acceptance, and 2.) that belonging is synonymous with conformity; that it is our sameness that links us together. 

Through shedding the skins of these maladaptive ways of being in the world, I initiated momentum towards expanding into a quest to belong first to myself. I began the process of distinguishing between which thoughts, voices and ideas are mine, and which ones I've collected from media or other outside influences, which were more interested in maintaining a status quo than serving the growth of my soul. I began to listen even more closely to my inner knowing. 

It is in the letting go that I am able to merge with the universal current. The flow carries me towards a set of experiences which are exponentially more rewarding than any outcome that I could have set as a goal in the state of consciousness that preceded the flow experience. 

In their book, Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explain the phenomenology of flow through the following characteristics:

Selflessness: There is a loss of self-consciousness where action and awareness merge.

Timelessness: Time passes strangely; you feel as if time slows down or speeds up.

Effortlessness: Every action feels as though it is automatic; leading from one action to the next in spontaneous creative fashion.

Richness: Your mind feels as though it has access to a vast database of information.

Research demonstrates that flow is the single highest predictor of life satisfaction and meaningfulness. The people who experience the most flow understand how to leverage the flow cycle to explore the upper possibilities of human potential. It is integral for peak performance and wellbeing. In a flow state, you have access to:

  • 500% boost in productivity (research from McKinsey & Company)
  • 430% boost in creativity (research from University of Sydney)
  • 490% increase in skill acquisition (research from Advanced Brain Monitoring & DARPA)
  • improved decision making
  • increased endurance
  • increased efficiency
  • consistent motivation
  • enhanced wellbeing
I've seen many of my athletes have breakthroughs when they have moments of tapping into flow. Others are on the verge. What keeps flow just out of reach is when there's too much identification with an outcome. Achieving a certain result is attached to a perceived identity: 

I'll be a real athlete when I break this time barrier. 

I'll be able to rationalize the time/money/energy I spend pursuing my goals if I can just accomplish this goal; if I can validate myself with this result. 

I am not enough until I can prove that I belong in this category. 

The sad, although predictable outcome is that it just doesn't work that way. And many of us, myself included, go through painful battles against self, fighting relentlessly for these concepts to be true, until we become too exhausted or disheartened to continue. Then within that moment of defeat, we either give up and hang up our shoes, or we give up fighting ourselves and agree to pursue our goals in a new way.

There are 2 distinct ways we pursue endurance: we either allow it to be generative and life-giving, or we hold it too tightly and allow it to drain the life out of us. I've experienced both. 

Holding too tightly is the primary antagonist of flow. They cannot coexist.  

For so long you thought that if you just controlled everything that you could control, then it would all work out how you envisioned it. But the way that you envisioned it is what's stopping you now. When you once envisioned the glorious retrieval of your goals, you did so from a limited perspective. You couldn't see a bigger picture so you zoomed in on one that you could grab ahold of - something tangible and known. 

In order to experience flow, you'll need to set that aside now. Whatever it is, it is too heavy to bring with you. Flow requires you to be light, to not keep yourself tethered to the shore of that which you can see. 

In our modern society, without ritual rites of passage, I have come to believe that there's a group of us who choose triathlon as our way of proving ourselves, to ourselves. It is the embodiment of a new state of being which is the final step towards making it real in the world. We have a deep, soul understanding of the need for ceremony. 

In the preceding steps, we had to prepare ourselves: physically, mentally, emotionally. Then in the race, the new you that you've been growing and feeding is waiting to show you what else you can do. 

Let it show you. Allow it to be revealed to you. And know that the most challenging moments are the ones in which you'll find your new self. Obstacles are the hurdles that get us into flow. 

Here's how I experience flow, in my athletic pursuits, in my writing, and in my communion with the natural world, the spirit world, and myself:

I am in total alignment: mind, body, spirit. There is no process of thinking of an action before doing it. There is only doing as a result of alignment. I understand that my body has needs in order to maintain the flow, but I don't feel the weight of those needs; I have no corresponding feelings about them. They just are.   

I am outside of time. 

I am more the essence of myself than the solidity of it. 

I receive answers at the moment of questioning. I receive questions so that I may know the answers to that which I have been unknowingly searching for. 

It is the only experience in my entire life in which there is no underlying feeling of longing. 

I have an elevated knowing of the interconnectedness of things. 

I am on the edge. Balancing both carefully and effortlessly as to not fall off. 

One of the greatest gifts of my life is my connection to my intuition. Admittedly, my journey towards parsing out the differences between the voices of cultural conditioning and the one of my inner knowing was simply about bringing consciousness to my thought patterns. My intuition has been loud and unrelenting in its decision-making for as long as I can remember. I recognize it naturally. The hard part for me was about convincing myself that I would be safe, and still loved, if I let go of everything else. 

And if you too decide to embark on this journey, you'll learn as I did, that when you build a bridge of alignment with your inner guide, the natural flow that results is so inexplicably rewarding that the fear of not belonging begins to fall away on its own. 

So now, I find myself ready to embark on the part of the journey that comes after I've cultivated belonging within myself: to expand into the unique way in which I belong to the world, in community. As you may have guessed if you know me, or after making it this far down the page, I feel the most at home inside myself. My inner world is my comfort zone. I delight in spending hours writing, creating, and feeling deep connection with nature. I've built a beautiful home inside my psyche. 

But lately there's been a persistent tugging - something telling me that I can't stay inside forever - telling me that there is great connection that can be cultivated out in the world. Although I'm not exactly sure where to start, I'm hoping that sharing my experience of flow and intuition will help open some doors. 

In a timeline I once believed would be mine, today would have been the Ironman World Championship, the goal that I've been working towards securing for the past 5 years, since I raced there last. It was hard for me to understand why that wouldn't become my path. All of the signs seemed to align. I've finally come to understand that this other timeline that my soul chose for me will become more meaningful, in many ways that I know, but am not ready to share, and in many more ways that have yet to be revealed.  

But still I wonder, what will this next Ironman be about? Usually by the time I begin to taper, the unifying theme has begun to reveal itself. This time, all I have is the gentle insistence on setting the search aside, urging me to find peace in the not-knowing. All I receive in return for my inquiring is a softness, which says:

It's ok to not know. 
There's a gift in the not-knowing. 
Be courageous enough to walk into the fire with nothing but your unknowing. 
Be willing to allow the burning to decide what stays and what goes.           

So as I prepare to step into my next container of becoming, at Ironman California, I plan on bringing nothing but myself, ready to be transformed, willing to allow the next phase of myself to be revealed to me only when it's ready, open to the flow which has always guided me, to take over completely. 

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