Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chicks-int-me-hi), positive psychologist at Claremont University, published a theory in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1990 that describes the experience of oneness we get when we find that zone during an activity and lose all self-awareness. In a flow-state (whether it's running or painting or playing piano or whatever), we attain an optimal sense of intrinsic motivation, where we just do what we're doing for its own sake and the joy we derive from it. We feel free, totally fulfilled, and outside time. The key is that we're engaged and our minds are active. The zone you get into while watching TV is not the kind of flow zone you get from creative or active immersion. There's a mindfulness present in flow that's missing from passive activities where we're just spacing out. And I might argue that when you can engage your body and your mind in the activity, the flow experience is further enhanced.
Mindfulness meditation is one way to achieve and enhance the flow experience, and I think this is what happens when I'm running in a flow state that carries me along on the long runs. Mindful running isn't my idea. The concept of Zen running or running meditation has been around for a while, and I think it's a great answer to people who say they don't run because it's boring. In the Runner's World Training Diary, one of the daily aphorisms goes like this:
There is a Big Lie on the psychological side as well. 'Running is, by it's nature, a lonely and boring activity.' This fallacy lives in the minds of people who confuse aloneness with loneliness and unstructured activity with boredom. They aren't the same. In fact, in many ways, they are direct opposites.
Zen running has many adherents and the ways they describe it sound a lot like flow. As one runner explains,
My body worked completely free of mental conditioning. In other words I had "run zen," completely aware of what I was doing, without any mental suggestion, totally "there" in the moment of the race.
George Sheehan has been cited as the guru of Zen running, having published a book entitled Running and Being, about the ways that running practice can inform the quality of life beyond physical fitness. In his article "Is Running a Religion?", he writes:
In that hour devoid of distraction, when the world is on hold, I can focus on the troubles and joys of becoming myself and arrive at a sort of peace. I am the closest I will ever come to who I am, what I believe and what I should do about it.
Sounds a lot like flow, and it explains how the experience of a communal, yet very individual, run can create a flow state for someone that will take her 13 miles when a five-mile run can feel laborious and awkward.
Today's mileage: 5
Today's conditions: 45 degrees, sunny
Today's quality: 3