Sometimes when I’m trail riding a tough rocky section I notice nothing at all. I see but I do not narrate, my mp3 player is wailing but I hear silence, there’s a shaking in my body but I feel nothing. It doesn’t last very long. In fact, it only lasts as long as my fear, so until the tough part is over. I’ve noticed the same thing with snow boarding, at some speed it stops being snow boarding and it starts being a state of pure awareness. Csikszentmihalyi referred to this as the flow state and outlined the benefits of functioning in this state.
What I like the most about this state is that there seems to be no separation between what I see and how I interact with it. I can’t use the word react to it because the actions have a mindful quality in that they do not cause a fight or flight reaction that one would expect from sustained fear. My brain is processing the sensory information and directing my body to perform the correct action, or at least one that doesn’t see me falling. The key part is that my consciousness does not have to control the seeking of information part, looking at the trail, and it doesn’t need to be involved in the processing and syntheses of a solution, assessing the obstacles and determining the best available path. My brain will do this automatically whenever it has to.
Over time I’ve experimented with this state and have tried to deliberately engage my conscious mind with very poor results. It dramatically disrupts the flow of the experience. On the bike I hit things, my peddles will crash off of rocks, my back tire will find grooves and I clip out or fall when the front tire runs into something that I should have avoided. The bike awareness I have seems to disappear almost completely. It seems that I am aware of ONLY what I am deliberately looking at and commenting on. The creation of the mental map that my brain uses to determine the best route is severely impaired. My involvement in this process is definitely not needed. I’m better off if I let my unconscious brain solve these types of problems.
So, how do I increase the likelihood that my brain will come to the right conclusion and direct my body to perform that correct action? Step one is practice so you teach your body how to move on the bike / snow board / your legs. This step takes a long time depending upon the complexity of the task. Once you are well versed in the movements needed to perform that task effectively you move on to the next phase. Step two deals with providing your brain with the sensory information it needs to create an accurate mental map of the environment on which to base solutions. Think about it this way, if you know 10% about something, what are the chances that you will be able to answer a question on that topic? About 10%. As you increase your knowledge, you increase the chances that you know the answer to the question. This is pretty much the same thing, with one big difference, this information only needs to exist as information in your brain for a very short time therefore a verbal representation is not need because you do not need to repeat it in to memory. That means you simply need to bring the information in and your brain will filter for relevance and encode meaning.
To ensure that you give your brain enough information to come up with the best solution you need to deliberately scan the environment in a mindless fashion. Normally we look at the world in terms of patterns or things we recognize as meaningful somethings. For example, you don’t need to know that the car that is approach is a Ford to know that if you get hit by it you will get injured, you just need to know that something big that is moving can be dangerous so you take appropriate action to avoid the collision. With flow sensory priming you just need to keep scanning the approaching area of the trail or somewhere were you MAY end up going. Very often your brain will find a tight line that is fairly straight, but occasionally you’ll find yourself darting to the other side of the trail and following a better line. You won’t know that you have seen it until you start to change direction and then as you begin to ride the better line you’ll notice it. The key is to continually scan the terrain bringing in as much information as you possible can.
Initially it is very draining to do this but once you find yourself in the flow state it becomes effortless because it is what you do when you are in that state.
It is worth directing you to Steve Pavlina article 7 Rules for Maximizing Your Creative Output because it’s an effective way to help you achieve a creative state of flow. Sports participants take notice that by virtue of the fact that you are participating in a sports activity (e.g. snow boarding or mountain biking) you have already taken the 7 steps. With a little bit of increased intensity (speed) and deliberate sensory priming you should be well on your way to finding that state of being one with the bike, hill, board.