In the very best moments on the trail, no matter whether you’re running or riding, thought and action merge into one stream of something like a bliss meditation. Everything gets easy. Everything becomes clear.
This is the flow state, a place you might exceed yourself on multiple levels without realizing it, without trying, where time is condensed and clarified. You forget yourself. The incoming signals from the world suddenly overwhelm the static broadcasting between your ears. You’ve done it. You’ve found the exit.
This is what I run for, this place where thinking stops. That is what I’m chasing.
The thing is, I don’t really want to know what I’m thinking. That seems like a strange stance for a writer, but you know, and maybe you can relate to this, in my experience, the more you think the more stuck you are in your own thoughts. My wife thinks it’s immature that I turn the music in the car up so loud you can hear it from down the block, and I can see her point. But I’m trying to drown out my thoughts. At the point where the sideview mirrors start to vibrate visibly, the human mind ceases to be able to cause problems. That’s not really a flow state though. It’s just a very loud, tenuous stalemate between thinking and not.
I run and ride to get myself unstuck, and sometimes, even without getting all the way to that flow state, the trail burrs off just enough of my harder edges to clarify what I’m thinking and help me feel calm. I always find a better mood in the woods.
Because flow isn’t on-demand like so many of today’s inferior entertainments, I spend a lot of time chasing it. In my spare time, ironically, as I can see now while I type, I read books about it (this, this, and this), think about it, talk about it. But in many ways, flow is like sobriety or contentment. If you could think your way there, all on your own, you would have done it a long time ago. There is no substitute for doing the work.
In the meantime, I will check my watch to see how long the last mile took. Too fast. Too slow. Who cares? I will pile up numbers, miles run or ridden, days in a row, vertical feet gained. All distractions. Consolation prizes. These are just things I do while waiting for the magic to happen. They may very well stand in the way of it happening.
Kinetic joy is what I’m after more than PRs, or race medals, or fast splits, or long distances. This not thinking is what I want. I see the parallels to drug addiction, chasing after oblivion, except flow isn’t oblivion. It’s the ne plus ultra of connection between yourself and the universe. It’s a joining, not a turning away. Maybe it’s an entrance really, masquerading as an exit.