Monday, July 26, 2010

What Does Flow Feel Like?

I realized my last post spent a lot of time explaining how to achieve Flow through setting up the necessary components but I didn’t get a chance to talk more about what it actually feels like when you get to experience it.

How do you express in words a very inner experience? It makes me wish I had the word skills of a poet.

And what if you haven’t experienced it? Does that mean you suck as a climber? No. It just means that you are missing out on a more holistic climbing experience that includes the inner experience. You can still climb without experiencing Flow much like you can still have sex without having an orgasm; still feels great but feels much better along with the final product so to speak. But I digress. Again, wishing I was a wordsmith.

I think it is necessary to say that you feel Flow throughout the climb. It is a process, not something you feel only when you get to the top of the climb. For me, Flow is the feeling of effortless grace. Each move just folds into the next one as if I’m climbing automatically. I am not thinking about my technique, it just comes to me through muscle memory. I am fully immersed in the climb with a sort of “relaxed concentration” of calmness and confidence as I move upward. I seem to intuitively know where to go and how to move my body to get there. It’s like an organic dance with the route as my dance partner. I am in full control without consciously trying to control it.
The author in Flow
Am I the only climber who recognizes how complex this experience is? It’s like a spiritual experience for me. There are so many layers in what I just expressed yet the inner experience so often gets minimized and overshadowed by other components such as onsights and first ascents. Meaning, the inner process gets overshadowed by the final product instead of focusing on how you got there. What I’m trying to stress is that if you actually cared about HOW you got there you will start actually getting more of those onsights and first ascents you deem so important. You could say I’m advocating for adding the “inner experience” to the list of disciplines you need to hone in addition to technique, strength building and understanding gear systems.

Achieving Flow for me must feel something like a Zen student trying to experience a satori when they meditate. While I do not have a formal meditation practice, I have talked with many friends who do and our language is often similar in what we are trying to experience. The quick fix American side of me wishes I could just snap my fingers, put everything in place and experience Flow on every route. But feeling Flow is something of an accident. You can only set everything in place and build a solid foundation and then you have to wait for Flow to happen. How frickin’ frustrating! But I like knowing that if I do put everything in place waiting for this “accident” to happen then at least I am more accident prone.

I’ve met a few wordsmith climbers in my time. Are you one of them? Please share your experience of what Flow feels like. What does Flow feel like for you? Maybe you have experienced more layers or more sensations than I reflected on. I would love to hear about it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Addicted to Finding “Flow”

Five years ago while researching the psychology of rock climbers in graduate school, I came across a term that finally identified a large part of my own experience in rock climbing: Flow. In my last post I mentioned giving name to the mental components of rock climbing. Well, this is a big component. You’ll hear me reference Flow – a lot. You could say I’m addicted to Flow. I even refer to it with a capital “F” because it commands that much respect as a climber.

The term Flow was created by psychologist and father of Positive Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “me-high cheek-sent-me-high-ee”). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Flow has also been referred to as being “in the zone,” or “in the groove.” In Eastern philosophies, Flow is similar to the spiritual development of overcoming the duality of self and object.

In an interview with Wired Magazine, Mihaly said Flow is, "Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." Climbing is the perfect sport for this phenomenon to occur. By its very nature, rock climbing is set up to meet the components of Flow that Mihaly says need to be present for Flow to happen:

1. Have clear goals (i.e. get to the top of the climb…).
2. The activity is set up to give you immediate feedback (i.e. popping off of a climb or successfully making it to the top is definitely immediate feedback).
3. There is a balance between the level of challenge and your level of skill (see chart below).
4. Have a high degree of concentration and focus.
5. You have a sense of control over the activity
6. You become so absorbed in what you are doing that you experience a loss of self-consciousness (as in worrying, am I doing this technique right?), time flies by (wow, I can’t believe we’ve been on this route for an hour!) and your focus of awareness is narrowed to only the activity itself (you’re not thinking about bills you need to pay or the drama you had with your sig. other last night).
7. It’s fun and rewarding! (This one is important. Otherwise, why climb?)

Flow Chart
Mihaly was one of the first researchers to include rock climbers in his psych research and recognized our skills as something more than “risk seeking.” He recognized the secret to what all climbers are really seeking: the experience of being “in Flow.” Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are all seeking the experience of Flow when we climb – and in our life in general.

The problem with Flow is that the feeling is hard to obtain. I don’t get to feel Flow on every route that I climb. But I do seem to feel Flow more often than not and it keeps me hoping that I’ll feel it again. Finding Flow on a route is much like the psychology of gambling that keeps people going back for more. Gamblers win on a variable interval schedule called “intermittent reinforcement.” They win just often enough to get them to plug more money into the slot machine. I would be willing to bet (pun intended…) that gamblers are just like climbers in search of Flow. I have experienced Flow on an intermittent schedule and now that I’m aware of what the concept is in general, I find myself trying to consciously create Flow every time I climb.

So why is experiencing Flow important while climbing?

On the most basic level the experience of Flow is pure happiness. The research on the psychology of happiness has shown us that we could all use a little more of it to counter our daily stresses. Americans tend to be more unhappy than other cultures in spite of our vast resources and knowledge.

On the climbing level, experiencing Flow will improve your climbing and improve your experience of your climbing. If you are constantly pushing yourself on projects (high challenge level), chances are that you may be spending more time in the Arousal and Anxiety fields of the chart. This can be frustrating and lower your motivation to continue. Or if your skills have improved but you’re not pushing yourself then you may be stuck in the Control section of the chart. Sometimes this can feel like our climbing growth has reached a plateau. Think about where you spend most of your time on this chart. What would you need to adjust in order to have a higher chance of experiencing Flow?

(For more information on the psychology of Flow, see my reference list below)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Who wants to talk about psychology?!

I do! And hopefully future readers of this blog. When I started rock climbing in 1992, (man, that makes me sound old…) one of my climbing mentors, Andrew Sell, told me: “learning how to climb is 90% mental and 10% physical.” Really?! Then why is it that everything I see in the media world of climbing would lead me to believe that climbing is 90% physical and 10% mental? Climbing magazines shy away from psych topics and instead focus on who climbed the latest 5.15 and what shoes you should buy. Climbing books are no better; they usually only devote a small chapter to climbing’s mental contribution (unless of course you are Arno Ilgner, who is the only climber I’ve found to fully tackle this subject –thanks Arno!). The climbing media make it seem as if the mental aspect of climbing is some elite club you can’t get into for fear of giving away some kind of magical power. The only thing this approach has accomplished is reinforcing the notion that rock climbing is for adrenaline seeking death wish super monkeys. It also leaves regular climbers like you and me getting frustrated when we bump up against our own naturally occurring mental limitations.

When climbers like you and me get frustrated it usually stunts our climbing development and at worst, makes us want to quit climbing all together. No one talks about it because they don’t really know what “it” is or how to talk about “it” and we don’t want to appear weak or dumb. We can’t find any solutions in the media because they make it seem like we should already know how to conquer our own mental shortcomings.

This is why I am starting this blog. I want to start giving a name to all the different complexities that Andrew was talking about when he said climbing is “90% mental.” I want to help climbers grow and evolve by bringing awareness to psychological topics others avoid. If I can prevent at least one climber from quitting rock climbing because they reached their mental plateau (and there WILL be mental plateaus!) then I will consider this blog a success. So welcome! Join me. Where should we start?