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Flow State – Meeting the Present Moment in Motion

One of my favourite ways to enter the flow state is through running. While meditation and asana practice are very precious to me, I am also quite passionate about lacing up my shoes and hitting the road.

Initially, running and swimming seem less like spiritual practices and more like physical endeavours. It’s true that the muscular and cardiovascular workout aspects of these activities are pretty dominant. And a good sweat is indeed satisfactory. But I love running most for those magical moments in which body and Spirit meet.

These are the times when exercising turns into a flow experience and goes beyond the physical and emotional levels. Flow is very similar to meditation in that it allows for a shift in headspace to occur, and for time to become insignificant. It is when the constant stream of thought finally subsides, and steady, single-pointed awareness takes its place. Movement becomes effortless, in spite of intense physical engagement. Without any background noise, it becomes possible to tap into the joy of the present moment. This feeling is also known as the runner’s high

What actually defines a flow state?

Saints and sages spanning centuries and continents have cited present moment awareness as the source of inspiration and joy. Many spiritual traditions have shared with us their insights on how to achieve it. Eventually, modern western psychology started developing an interest in these extraordinary states of consciousness, and came up with some fascinating observations:

The real flow state does not occur randomly, nor does it take place under chaotic or passive conditions. Usually a flow gets provoked when we are engaged in an activity with clear focus and direction. The task needs to push us to the edge of our skill level, while still leaving us under the impression that we can master it. We also need immediate feedback about our performance to constantly stay switched on. Usually the experience is so captivating that other needs become negligible.

Patanjali meets flow psychology

Interestingly, the mechanisms which trigger a flow state according to modern psychology are very similar to the conditions necessary for a deep meditation described by Patanjali 2000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras. I would even say that the quality of a flow state through engaged action and the state of absorption during a sitting meditation are comparable.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the leading psychologist in the field, classifies the experience of an engaged action as a flow state when the following six qualities appear simultaneously: an intense concentration on the present moment, a sense of being in control over the activity, merging of action and awareness, and the loss of our reflective self-consciousness. This phenomena is typically accompanied by an altered experience of time, and the clear perception that the activity is intrinsically rewarding.

Does this sound familiar to what we’ve learned from Patanjali?

In the second part of the Eight Stages of Yoga (the inner limbs of Ashtanga), Patanjali describes very similar conditions: a state of internalization of the senses (Pratyahara), single-pointed concentration of the mind (Dharana), an effortless flow of consciousness toward the object of meditation (Dhyana), and the dropping of the isolated individual consciousness leading to the perception that subject and object are one (Samadhi). The last three appearing together are leading to an ecstatic absorption (Samyama).

And how to get there?

To trigger a flow experience while running, all you need is a distance which is a bit longer than you’re used to – just a little bit too long. But you’ve trained hard, and you know that you are actually ready to take that next step. You need a solid conviction that giving up is not an option and enough detachment from self-limiting ideas about your body’s capabilities. And you need a good day.

These are in my experience the conditions necessary for meeting the present moment in action. This is meditation in motion.

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