Adapted from Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.
Before we get started, a working definition of Flow:
Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel your best and perform your best. More specifically, the term refers to those moments of rapt attention and total absorption, when you get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears. Action and awareness merge. Your sense of self vanishes. Your sense of time distorts (either, typically, speeds up; or, occasionally, slows down). And throughout, all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.
Seeking Flow involves opening up to pleasure, getting out of our heads, taking risks, and a whole slew of otherwise questionable behaviours—how then, do we pursue a path like this without overshooting the mark–getting “hooked on the high”, becoming a Bliss Junkie or some other kind of reprobate?
Well, the simplest way is to do what folks always have–make use of timing, seasons and ritual.
Here’s a way to have your cake and eat it too, so you can continue to pursue Hedonic Engineering without going off the rails…
Step One: Figure out how potent/distracting/damaging your given Flow activity is–the higher the risk/reward ratio, the less often you should do it. (Think daily sun salutations vs. an annual ultra-marathon, or 15 min meditation vs. a trip to see a Peruvian shaman)
Step Two: Jot down all of the things that you love to do to get out of your head/into the Zone, and stack rank them from low risk/low reward all the way to high risk/high reward (action sports, EDM festivals, sex, self-medication, workshops, etc.)
Step Three: Sort your Flow seeking activities into one of five buckets–daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, annually
Step Four: Connect your practices with pre-existing cultural rhythms to make them self-propelling rituals. If you do it daily connect it to sunrise/sunset, waking/sleeping etc. Weekly–make it your own contemporary Sabbath observance. Monthly? Connect it to a full or new moon, or beginning or end of a calendar month. Seasonal? Solstices and Equinoxes are easy–but Christmas, Easter, July 4th and Halloween all work in a pinch (and often have days off work to go with them). Annual? Take your pick–birthdays, anniversaries, New Year–whatever’s significant.
Research shows that we are more likely to make and keep habits that cue off cultural milestones–so hack them for your benefit!
Step Five: Last, but not at all least, how do you know if you’re truly pursuing a Flow Hacker’s path to liberation, or just kidding yourself and hiding out in the Bliss? Short answer–you don’t. Longer answer, build into each year a forced hiatus–a stretch where you set all of your Left-Hand indulgences up on the shelf and test to see how itchy you get–Lent, whether you’re a believer or not, works admirably for this purpose–40 days Cold Turkey, flush out the pipes, and when you return to the Good Stuff, you’ve got a renewed perspective on how sticky it gets. Plus, it really puts the exclamation point on Mardi Gras’ Fat Tuesday, when the ashes of Wednesday’s abstinence are waiting in the morning!
So in a contemporary society that’s fully dismantled most of the “oughts” and “shoulds” of the orthodox “Right Hand” path, and we’ve devolved perilously close to “if it feels good, do it” entitlement–here’s a happy medium that lets us put the pedal down on hacking Flow while maintaining just enough steer to stay on the tracks.
If you’d like to read fascinating stories of how individuals and groups are accessing heightened states I highly recommend the book Stealing Fire, here it is on Amazon.