Travel and the Art of Flow

Nicaragua Travel
by Ian MacKenzie Apr 20, 2011

The sun shines. / Photo: Ian MacKenzie

Ian MacKenzie discovers the difference between pleasure and enjoyment, and the surprising formula for flow.

“Pretend like you have a coin between your butt cheeks, then lean back and f**k the saddle.”

I looked down at the man who offered this sage advice, not because I was taller than him, but because I was perched on a saddle. My horse, Colorado, was a massive steed, and waited contentedly while his owner Jamie explained to me the finer points of galloping.

“Make sure you hang onto the reins,” he said. “But once you get going, let go of the horn. It makes you look cooler.” Jamie flashed a smile, dressed every inch like a rawhide cowboy. Stetson hat. Checkered shirt. Hands that could crush a beer can and arms woven with tattoos. Gun glinting in his holster.

You would never know this recent “retiree” from the West Coast of Canada was a relatively new addition to the sun-parched plains of Nicaragua. Or at this particular moment: on the beach. I tipped my own black cowboy hat (a loaner), uttered my best “Thank ya pawd-na,” and ushered Colorado down to the water rolling up the sand.

I had two camera-men sitting on a sea-swept log, watching me with curious fascination, wondering whether I could pull it off.

I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous.

I’d never ‘galloped’ on a large animal before. My previous experience on a horse had involved some cantering, trotting, and even a lope now and then, but never a gallop. I also recall a few days of seriously sore groin muscles, and a vow to avoid riding as much as possible.

But now I had a shimmering stretch of Nicaraguan postcard before me. I had a cowboy, and his lovely cowgirl, following me with their expectant gaze. And I had two camera-men sitting on a sea-swept log, watching me with curious fascination, wondering whether I could pull it off.

“Heeyah!” I shouted, digging my heels into horse flank. Colorado leapt into motion, and I grasped the saddle horn tightly to keep from tumbling backward. Suddenly the ocean waves blurred by my peripheral vision. I rose up and down with the kinetic flow of muscle, the wind tearing at my hat. I moved with the horse, as if man and beast had become one.

Thoughts melted away – I forgot about being a director of a web-series, the danger of falling off, or the likelihood that my rein-holding arm was sunburned. Instead, I was simply in the moment. I was galloping.

I was experiencing: flow.

The Pursuit of Pleasure

That evening, when the excitement had worn off and I had a time to flip through the photos of my horse-man moment, I found myself considering the nature of happiness. (I tend to do that a lot.)

If someone had asked me what I felt during the experience, I would say I was ‘happy.’ And yet, leading up to the beach, as our group rode our steeds through the mid-sun heat, through the dusty streets on the outskirts of San Juan Del Sur, I was uncomfortable. I was hot. I was sweaty. I found myself considering how nice it would be to simply head back to the pool, grab a cold Imperial, and sip the afternoon away.

This would be the very definition of pleasure, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I had recently picked up this classic from the early 90’s, and found much wisdom to compare to my own experiences in the world.

“Most people first think that happiness consists in experiencing pleasure: good food, good sex, all the comforts that money can buy. We imagine the satisfaction of traveling to exotic places or being surrounded by interesting company and expensive gadgets. Pleasure is a feeling of contentment that one achieves whenever information in consciousness says that expectations set by biological programs or by social conditioning have been met.”

Essentially, we tend to believe happiness will result from fulfilling our societal notions of pleasurable experiences. Flip open any glossy travel magazine and you’ll likely be greeted with numerous photos of tanned hedonists relaxing under expensive sunglasses and holding a martini.

But unfortunately, pleasure rarely delivers the satisfaction we crave. Csikszentmihalyi continues:

“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

In short, pleasure cannot produce flow.

Enter Entropy

Photo: Ian MacKenzie

A central tentant of Csikszentmihalyi’s book is that the underlying quality of nature is entropy. This is the tendency to move from a state of order to disorder. Think of ice cubes in a glass, gradually moving from the form of ice (order), melting into the warmer water (disorder).

Another example: if you’ve ever tried to meditate, you’ll quickly notice your mind continuously leans toward entropy. Thoughts will enter and leave your awareness as soon as you let your attention wander. Order to disorder. One second your attention is on your breath gliding through your nostrils, the next, you’re wondering whether you sent that email to your boss.

In fact, as Csikszentmihalyi argues, the only way to combat the entropy of the mind is to harness your psychic energy: your ability to focus on the task at hand. With focus comes flow – the experience of being so absorbed in the moment that you forget where you are, who you are, and how you got there.

Nothing else matters.

It’s why rock climbers climb, swimmers swim, musicians play, and dancers dance. It’s why filmmakers film, painters paint, writers write. And it’s why all of these people report remarkably similar stories of how enjoyable it is to be in the flow.

Csikszentmihalyi explains:

“Enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectations or satisfied a need or a desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before. […] After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it.”

In short: focus produces flow. Flow increases complexity. And complexity leads to enjoyment (aka happiness).

The Recipe For Flow

I suddenly understood why I couldn’t stop smiling after my gallop down the Nicaraguan beach. In the moment, I felt like I wasn’t there at all – as if I had forgotten my “self.” But afterward, I felt more fully alive than before. Certainly more than if I’d lounged poolside for the afternoon, indulging in the type of pleasure our Western society seems hellbent on pursuing.

Regardless of the money-minded publishers and their glossy brochures, as I read deeper into Csikszentmihalyi’s book, finding flow can, but rarely happens by accident. In fact, their are clear guidelines to its cultivation.

He identifies 7 that I’ve paraphrased here:

We must confront a task we have a chance of completing.
We must have clear goals and immediate feedback.
We must give complete focused attention, removing the worry of everyday life.
We must be able to exercise a sense of control.
We must lose concern for our self.
We must feel like time is transformed.
We must feel the activity is intrinsically rewarding.

To outline each one would take more space than I have here (which is why I highly recommend reading the entire book).

Suffice to say, I felt like I had deciphered the age-old debate between “travelers and tourists,” where backpackers attempt to shame tour-packaged adults for their lack of real culture and authenticity. With this new lense, we can move the debate from the search for “authenticity” to the challenges of complexity.

We could ask ourselves the question: does this travel experience help me achieve flow?

Whether you’re in a grimy hostel in Prague, or a 5-star resort in Cancun, if the answer is ‘yes’ than we can say the experience, at the personal level, is worthwhile. (The environmental/social impact is another lense altogether). Everyone has unique boundaries to cross, and new horizons to explore.

The Beauty of Complexity

Csikszentmihalyi writes “The key element of optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.”

If you’re courageous enough, you’ll continue to cultivate certain travel (and life) choices precisely because they are more likely to challenge you. Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “autotelic personality.” Derived from the Greek words auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal – this person truly behaves as if the journey is more important than the destination.

“The auto-telic experience, or flow, lifts the course of life to a different level. Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals. When experience is intrinsically rewarding life is justified in the present, instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain.”

As the Nicaraguan beach faded into the night with the sunset, a smile still etched into my face, a thought did slip into my mind unbidden. It was a few poetic lines from the ‘Gospel Noble Truths‘ by Allen Ginsberg:

Sit you sit down
Breathe when you breathe
Lie down you lie down
Walk where you walk
Talk when you talk
Cry when you cry
Lie down you lie down
Die when you die

I silently added in my head: ride when you ride.

Community Connection

Need more flow? Check out the TED Talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And don’t miss the video interview with Casey Kochmer on Taoist Travel.

Special thanks to Rancho Chilamate.

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