Flow: The Art of Happiness

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Last weekend I had nothing to do.

Nothing.

I didn’t have to go anywhere, be anywhere, do anything, see anyone. There was no coulda, oughta, shoulda, musta, haveta, gotta.

I’d done the shopping, done the food prep, done the washing, vacuumed the house, cleaned the bathroom, washed the cat, cleaned the kitchen, done some more washing,trained, had a nanna nap, done my homework, cycled to work in order to submit my homework, cycled home again, read the next module, had brekky, snack and lunch all in good time, done my morning journal, tidied my room (!!!)  and I got the the point where I had done everything I could possibly do to avoid having nothing to do and in doing so achieved…

nothing to do.

I lay on my bed, listened to the silence and immersed myself in the moment of just being – alive, breathing, listening to my heartbeat, not thinking, not doing anything.

It was lovely.

When was the last time you had absolutely nothing to do?

You see, we surround ourselves with things and stuff and to do lists which ensure we are always run off our feet with busyness – the vast majority of us are human ‘doings’, we spend our whole lives ‘doing’ stuff.

why?

to avoid the absolute simplicity and nothingness of ‘being’.

If you’ve ever read ‘The Power of Now‘ by Eckhart Tolle, this is exactly what he’s talking about.

I had achieved momentary now-ness. Time stopped, it ceased to be a concept, it had no bearing on me at that particular point I was free from it and it was wonderful. An odd thought struck me in that moment where I was totally at peace with myself and the world and that thought had one word attached to it:

Happy.

I can’t even begin to remember I last had (time for?) such a thought.

There is another book that delves deeper in to ‘Now’ and how you can use it to achieve or increase your levels of happiness. ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience‘ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is that book, I’m in the process of reading it now –  its a bit dry, but it explains how you can turn any situation into one that confers happiness onto you by being in a state of flow.

During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and such total involvement with whatever it is they are doing at that particular moment that they temporarily transcend consciousness i.e the power of now. aka ‘in the zone’

Let me give you some examples:

When I’m photographing at a bodybuilding show I am totally in flow: I am fully focused on the bodies on stage, aware of every movement, every blink of their eyes, placement of their features, how the light and shadows play across their physique, highlighting the muscles. I’m acutely aware of how the strain of the pose pops out their veins and the sweat runs down their face. I’m staring at them through a tiny little square of glass, waiting…waiting…waiting for them to hit the peak of their pose or look directly at me so I can capture the look in their eyes and show what they’re feeling inside – the nerves, confidence or sense of accomplishment. I slow my breathing, pay deep attention to my heartbeat and wait for the perfect moment to press the button. Time means nothing, surroundings and noise fade away – its all about the moment. Yet strangely, time is also of the essence because all of this is running through my head in less than half a second as I have to get the shot and move on to the next competitor in the line and the next, and the next before the moment passes and another pose is called.

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When I write I am in flow especially if I am able to write at the moment an idea strikes me – I don’t plan what I write, it just comes to me – most often when I’m doing something else and not even thinking about writing. I often get my best ideas when I’m cycling to work – sometimes I arrive and I have no idea how I got there, because I was absorbed in an idea that I delved into and wrote the article in my head.

When I train I am always in flow – right from the time I park my bike outside the gym, as I lock it up and get my gym card out of my bag, a sense of calmness and purpose comes over me. I walk the 25m through the gym door, hand my pass to the desk guy and say hi, before going through the turnstile and onto the gym floor. I check the floor to see who’s in, which trainers are on that day, who they’re working with and what they’re doing, before going up the stairs to the changing rooms. I have my changing room routine doing my hair and ironing my work clothes and when I come back down the stairs I am ready to own the gym floor. It’s my space and my time – I own it. It’s me, my muscles and the metal. I feel every lift, every muscle contraction, I time my breathing and heartbeat to the lift, I count the reps, move on to the next exercise, rest for the prescribed amount of time, focus on recovering my breathing and bringing my heart rate back down, feeling the lactic acid burn fade until I’m ready to go again. It’s a dance – me and the metal. The metal always wins, but little by little I chip away at it, always changing, always progressing.

Whilst I’m resting, I often look like I’m gazing into space completely vacant or am about to chew someone’s head off, but I’m not. I’m totally there, in the moment hyperaware of every single thing that is going on – watching, absorbing, not thinking, outside the stream of conscious thought…flowing…

Another time when I am in flow, but not for myself, is when my cat has an asthma attack. As an asthmatic I empathise with my poor little boy, I know what he’s feeling inside, I know how he can’t breathe and how hard he has to struggle to get air into his fluidy lungs. I know that he feels that he’s got iron bands wrapped around his chest which are getting tighter and tighter, I know how the cough does not help and I know how scared he is, because he doesn’t understand what’s going on. When my boy has an asthma attack, I drop everything and lie down next to him, stroking him, talking to him quietly, gently patting his back to free up the mucus and make it easier to cough – just like my mother used to do with me. Then when he’s finished coughing as he lies exhausted, I hold him, smooth him,  until he’s breathing more easily or goes to sleep. I have no idea if it helps, but sometimes when he is more ‘himself’ he’ll butt his head against me and touch his nose to mine, that’s his way of saying ‘thanks mum’

Flow as you can see from these examples is completely controllable, sometimes the act of going through a routine can bring on the state of flow, like my gym routine or when I’m not cycling to work and I decide that it is time to write – I make a cup of tea. Its not about wanting a cup of tea and I don’t always drink the cup of tea as sometimes I achieve  flow so quickly that the outside world fades away, then its just me and the words. The routine of making a cup of tea is what focuses my mind into my writing space and opens me up to my writing flow.

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In the last few months, I have deliberately and purposely changed my life to reduce my stress levels, be nicer to myself and work towards healing the adrenal fatigue that I’ve brought on by constantly pushing myself, driving myself too hard. I’ve done this by scaling back or eliminating things from my life that cause the stress and introducing or increasing activities that allow me to flow. With my writing, I have taken away the deadlines and schedules, I write for me, whenever I feel like it. With my training I have removed the pressure of proving to myself (any everyone else!) that I can make it back onto stage and be up there with the best. We (team Baker) did that and did it extremely well, so I no longer have anything to prove. In addition to that, I’m probably the least injured I have been for 4 years, so now we can focus on improving my weaknesses rather than being compromised by having to work around injuries. It changes everything. We can start experimenting, finding out what I’m really capable of – I can now train for the sheer enjoyment of training, knowing that the body improvements will follow.

I have also given myself permission to fully pursue my photography, play with it, have fun with it, to no other purpose than ‘because I can’. At shows, I’ll aim to take less shots, but  make them better and I won’t put myself under so much pressure to turn them around in a few days – mind you we’ll see how that goes since I get so lost in the moment!

In doing all this, right now, I have created a more relaxed, happier space. (not so spooky coincidence – this turned up in my blog feed today.)

Flow and the power of now are one and the same thing. If you have a hobby or you’ve been doing something, been somewhere, seen something that so captures your attention that time seems to stop, you don’t have to think about it – that is when you are in flow. It could be riding a motorbike, watching a sunset, playing with your kids, having a good conversation with a good friend, a nice dinner (or brekky…soo a flow activity for me!), it could be simply having 5 minutes of quiet time to yourself when you’re otherwise incredibly busy…hmm…think about that! It could even be doing an exam or creating a particularly useful spreadsheet at work! Whatever it is for you, then I encourage you to try and increase it, practice it, do it more often, find time for it…

be it.

For in that being lies the art and key to happiness.

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