It’s all about that moment. That instant where everything drops away from your mind and all-reality boils down into the next turn, the next jump, the next metre of mountain in front of you. There is a sense of clarity that comes with knowing that any mistake, even the smallest one, could have extremely dire consequences. For years the people who dedicated their lives to escaping into that moment of almost-nothingness were labeled as thrill seekers, adrenaline junkies or straight-up lunatics, but science is increasingly pointing towards the opposite. Those time-warp, singularity-of-focus moments—being “in the zone”—may hold the secret to life’s happiness.
Words by Feet Banks
“I think what we are talking about here is Flow,” says Tim Emmett, a professional rock and ice climber who sometimes leaps off things—cliffs, towers, bridges, anything—for the sheer fun of it. “I find that it happens when you are absolutely encapsulated by not only the surroundings around you but also the challenge of the situation. You can’t even think about what you are doing because you are just reacting and working from the unconscious mind. Stuff happens because your body makes it happen, not your mind.”
The concept of “Flow” began popping up in modern psychology back in the 1970s with the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi while studying the science of happiness. In his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow-happiness is not obtained passively but rather through focused motivation and single-minded immersion.
“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”
“Flow is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter,” he says. “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile… 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. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”
For Tim Emmett the first thing that springs to mind when he talks about Flow is Solo climbing, rock climbing without a rope. “All you think about is right now and the next hold,” he says. “And what to do with each finger and limb and toe in order to make that next move. There is the influence of consequence and the need to be the most efficient. It is more of a state of meditation… you get tunnel vision, because you need to.”
Greg McDonnell is a 19-year Whistler local and a Registered Clinical Counsellor and a Mental Performance Consultant with the Canadian Sport Psychology Association. After two decades of working with both professional athletes and regular mountain sport enthusiast Greg has developed a more local explanation of the Flow state.
“Humans are hardwired to not only seek out, but also thrive, in these moments of high-consequence physical movement.”
“I define it as the spiritual aspect of sport,” he says. “That place where things seem effortless, where the ‘monkey mind’ is not troubled by the constant small and large traumas of everyday life.”
You’re not thinking about your overdue cellphone bills while dropping into untouched powder and you can escape your problems pretty effortlessly launching rollers in the bike park. Greg likens it to a sort of “moving meditation” and explains that humans are hardwired to not only seek out, but also thrive, in these moments of high-consequence physical movement.
“We came from the savanna hunting and gathering, moving all the time and we were profoundly fit and happy despite the difficult life. I believe movement is in our DNA and is evoked out of us in today’s context and helps us discharge the ‘sticky’ effects of trauma from the nervous system the same as it always has.”
If risk, focus and movement are the keys to happiness and escaping “sticky” human effects like pain or stress, what about competitive athletes? The very nature of contests is wrought with added stress, but according to the more difficult and worthwhile the goal, the more Flow happiness we can achieve.
“Once you are moving there is no time, you have to react without thinking. To be in the zone like that, having fun…it’s the best thing in the world.” —Simon d’Artois
“When I am competing it’s important to get over the nerves and the pressure,” Simon d’Artois, a 24-year old Whistler skier and 2015 X-Games Superpipe Champion. “World Cup events always make me nervous but at X-Games it’s more of a good time so I was able to get deeper into that tunnel vision. Once you are moving there is no time, you have to react without thinking. To be in the zone like that, having fun…it’s the best thing in the world.”
For professional athletes part of getting into the zone comes from the pre-game rituals. D’Artois mentions SAFEstart, a program that teaches young athletes to develop patterns or a system of awareness to promote safety. Competition, he says, is not much different—when focus is required, athletes use repetition of movement, breathing, and other triggers to help them hitch a ride on the Flow.
“For me I always had to be calm,” says Jen Ashton, a three-time IFSA World Champion freeskier known for routinely throwing down big, high-consequence runs when the pressure was on. “Before I contest I would always try to joke around and be relaxed.”
Now retired, Jen uses her experience coaching kids in the Whistler Freeride Club, a 70-member group of 13-18-year-olds who ski at a very-high level. “They are already experiencing that singularity of focus,” Jen says. “We are skiing in exposed areas and going off cliffs and they expect me to do it too. I’m still skiing stuff were I have to really pay attention to what I am doing but I can also pull the coach card and go ‘check the landing.’”
While much of the coaching is focused on technique and safety, when it comes to competition Jen says it’s about establishing comfort through repetition. “We do a lot of mock competitions. Pretend contests all over the mountain to get them used to the fear and the nerves and how to deal with those while executing their lines. Some kids are better than others, some take to it very naturally.”
The argument has often been made that the lifestyle and sports most associated with the Flow state can be addicting and dangerous for young athletes. Terms like “death wish”, “Daredevil” or “adrenaline junkie” often appear whenever an accident occurs in the media-dubbed Extreme Sports. With lots of experience dealing with mountain-town addictions of all kinds, Greg McDonnell says the “high” associated with a Flow state can be nothing less than a numbing of other pain or trauma.
“Movement elicits the ‘happy drugs’ in our brains,” he says. “Serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin, all of which have a direct link to increased mood. There is no question these hormones contribute to a transcendant state but there is also a tipping point when it is no longer productive.”
Greg points out that research has shown young males do have a tendency to search for ever-producing adrenaline activities and have been described as being “addicted” to the next hit. “I think it is possible to ride this line by being mindful once the flow state is achieved. You can enjoy the bliss for a while but that mindful awareness is the key recognizing it as flow, or spiritual.”
Words like mindfulness and spiritual open a whole new can of worms. Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism all reference a state of mind and non-action that resembles Flow and predates it by centuries. “I would call Flow mindfulness or awareness without the mind,” says Sarah Woods, a skier and mindfulness expert. “It’s a natural state and there is no judgement in that state. You are totally in the body and without the mind. Just heart. It’s awareness.”
Woods has spent the last 16 months intenstively studying and contemplating these topics in mountain towns in Canada, Spain and Chile. She believes you can enter a state of mindfulness without having to partake in high-paced, big consequence endeavors. “I think you can be eating, doing the dishes, brushing your teeth…these are all opportunities to be mindful and in the body. For me it starts with breathing but those practiced moments of being mindful in un-risky situations can be valuable in risky situations later on.”
Super duper ski star Dana Flarh agrees: “I have a hard time slowing down the mind sometimes so I spend time in the isolation tanks at West Coast Float. When you are in there you are forced to go inside your own head and create the flow internally. You don’t have the outside surroundings to help so I just drift into somewhere and let go of the overstimulation and everything that happened that day. I come out on cloud nine and I’m ready for whatever is next.”
If there is an energy of universal flow all around us, it’s likely that Dana is more tapped in than most. After moving to Whistler the literal minute he graduated high school, Dana has spent the last 16 years living his dream of being a professional skier. He’s been featured on the cover of Powder Magazine four times and spent a decade travelling the world filming for the biggest ski movie companies in the industry. When he talks about skiing, Flow is an integral part of the conversation.
“Maybe some people think it’s an adrenaline high but I really enjoy a more sustained flow on a longer line. For sure you need 100 percent focus or there is going to be problems but my favourite is to be so focused in to that run for longer than usual that I get to where I am super fluid through blind rollers without having to slow down or look or think about having it mapped out in my head. When I get to that place, I like to just go with it and appreciated an unprecedented amount of Flow.”
We may not need the mountains to get into that Flow state, but they will always be able to take us there. Mountains inspire goals within us and they present challenges we must overcome. Mountains have no concept of time and there is certainly no room for ego up amongst their sprawling emptiness. The mountains are just there, the rest is up to us.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was certainly familiar with the mountains but it’s unlikely he dedicated his life to them. So let’s with the words of Necj Zaplotnik, one of the founding fathers of Slovenian climbing and mountaineering and an incredible author/philosopher of Mountain Life. In her excellent book Alpine Warriors author Bernadette McDonald has translated some of Zaplotnik’s writing from his own book Pot (translation: The Path):
“Alpinism is like art. You put all your strength, your entire soul into your work. You forget everything. You only live for that metre ahead of you, and when you stand, exhausted, on the top of a snowy mountain and bask in the warmth of the sun, you feel beauty within you that cannot be described. You feel the world. You feel the earth, the sun, the wind; everything breathes with you and intoxicates you. The friend with you keeps silent. Only his eyes glow above his sunken cheeks. And without asking him, you know that he has exactly the same experience. That he is living life itself.”