I am an individual defined by movement. As a kid, I couldn’t get enough games of tag. As an adult, my favorite type of vacation is driving on an empty, country road in a stolen vehicle. Lately, I’ve noticed if I’m on a walk with someone, I’m as verbose as a glad-handing politician. But as soon as were done, I clam up like a mafia don.
The other day I was walking across a frozen golf course on my way home from the grocery store. The reason I was walking across a golf course in the middle of winter is because it’s not a good idea to do it during the golfing season. At that moment the course was all mine and it was quite peaceful. Then I stopped. The reason I stopped is because I heard something off in the distance: a flock of ducks on a far-off lake complaining because that’s what ducks do. But that’s not what surprised me. What caught my attention was I could hear them. Even though they were many blocks away, I could also see them. I could see past them to the neighboring park, the cars rumbling down the adjacent street, a homeowner walking into his house with groceries for a pineapple stuck out of the bag. At that moment I could see and hear everything.
In sports this is called the zone. Hungarian Professor Michaly Csikszentmihaly, who has made it his life’s work to study this phenomenon, terms it flow. It is a moment when all distraction falls away as every sense, physical ability and mental acuity perform at their absolute peak. It is Csikszentmihaly’s belief that reaching this plateau comes when a difficult challenge is met with a significant level of skill. (See graph.) In his opinion flow is a rare occurrence only achieved by the most dedicated and talented whether an Olympic figure skater, a concert pianist or a normal Sunday stroller.
I know! How did I fall into a moment where everything felt crystal clear as my senses extended in every direction? I don’t know why? I don’t even care. It happened and it felt fantastic. It was a clarion moment. I felt miraculously invincible until I tripped and fell into a sand trap.
That’s the problem with flow: it never lasts long. But there have been moments when I have reached this plateau. Many times it happened while playing basketball; sometimes while swinging a golf club. A few times it even happened while watching someone else.
I was downtown strolling to a favorite pub when a body came streaming around the corner. It was a valet, not a manservant in a rented tuxedo, but a college kid wearing a bright-red windbreaker, heading to pick up a car.
What caught my attention is how efficiently he moved. There was no flailing or extraneous movement. Even though he was in an outright sprint, his run looked as comfortable as my evening stroll. The bright-red windbreaker did not slow him. Instead it cut through the damp fall air. Every shift in the fabric was sharp and dynamic. Every step the valet took was polished and smooth as he cut across the street, passed me on the left and headed down the street. It was a matter of seconds and it was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw. It reminded me of a time when my sister dashed around me.
I was in my parent’s backyard within the confines of a wooden fence. It was the kind of fence that held little privacy for the wooden slats of cedar were spaced with gaps between. Sarah ran along the outside of the fence, playing a heated game of tag. Instead of catching her full stride, I only saw glimpses. It was like watching a movie on an old-fashion kinetscope. But instead of being jerky and choppy, Sarah moved as fluidly as a trout swimming up a stream. She moved so seamlessly around the perimeter of the fence it looked like she could have slipped into the yard.
I’m trying to understand why I was drawn in by these two runs. It had to be the effortless ease shown by Sarah and the valet. There wasn’t anything in their runs that looked like friction. But that’s the problem. What do you do when life throws in an obstacle? Well, that question can have more than one response.