Riding the Magic Carpet

A Simple Flow Story

Note: I did not take a camera on this trip, so the pictures in this post are just to help convey the story.

This story takes place in June of 1998 on a trail system that runs from the Skagit Valley eastward into Manning Provincial Park in BC. I was with Brent B. and Brent M. The trail from the valley bottom up to the high ridges above was fairly steep and unrelenting. Up, up, up, in the thick coastal forest with no view. There was nothing special to look at, so I just started to focus my attention on what I could see of the trail about 3 meters (10 feet) in front of me. Still up, up, up. I could feel my labored breathing and my legs working hard to gain anonymous elevation (“anonymous” because everything looked the same).

And then it happened …

Suddenly I realized that the steep uphill hiking became almost effortless. I was going uphill at a good pace, but I couldn’t feel my legs working. It was as if I was being carried along! I was “riding the magic carpet”.

I wasn’t aware of my legs, but I was aware that I was having some kind of extraordinary experience … something special was going on! So I consciously positioned my tongue on a certain place on my lower lip — to indicate that I was having this experience (and I would leave my tongue in that position for the duration). The placement of my tongue was simply to indicate (to myself) that I was conscious of having this experience.

I continued in this manner for about 10 minutes — although my experience of time both “slowed down” and “sped up”. I was aware of the effortlessness. But I was also aware that I was gaining elevation and moving at a good pace.

At one point I decided to see if I could intentionally speed up my pace and still experience it as effortless. So I started to hike a lot faster … and that’s when the Flow experience ended. I re-positioned my tongue. Maybe I had gotten a bit greedy and wanted the effortlessness AND the extra speed. Or maybe I’m a bit of a scientist, and wanted to see what adding an extra variable would do.

I knew that I had just had a Flow experience. I knew when it started, and I knew when it ended. And it was one of the first times that I was aware of being in the midst of an experience like this.

This experience is quite similar to what some athletes are referring to when they talk about “being in the zone” — and especially when they know that they are playing in that zone (i.e. they are aware that something extraordinary is happening in their experience).

In his book titled “Flow“, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a number of characteristics of a Flow experience. In the table below I look briefly at each characteristic and how it relates to the Magic Carpet Ride-Hike described above:

A challenging activity that requires skillCertainly the steep trail was challenging, and the backpacking adventure required various skills. There are also some skills involved with being aware of one’s own experience.
The merging of action and awarenessThe story above involved an interesting interplay of action and awareness. Sometimes my awareness was “in” my actions.
Clear goals and feedbackThe goal was to get up to the high ridge, and the feedback was in terms of elevation gained and amount of effort required.
Concentration on the task at hand.I think this was helped by the lack of scenery. I was simply focused on the trail just ahead of me, because that was all I could really see. There were no distractions, only concentration. There was a “one-pointedness” of focus.
The paradox of controlOne the one hand, I could not control when the “Magic Carpet” experience began, and I could not make it last for a long time. On the other hand, some of the conditions (the antecedents) that precipitated the experience were within my control (e.g. planning the hike, being in good physical shape, good co-adventurers, etc.).
Loss of self-consciousnessDuring the actual experience I was not aware of my ego. It was if I wasn’t “hiking”, but rather it was as if I was “being hiked“. I wasn’t “breathing”, but rather “being breathed“. And my legs simply “left” my consciousness — I didn’t have to think about them, and yet they were performing at a very high level.
The transformation of timeTime did some funny things during the experience. Sometimes it slowed down, and my experience was in slow-motion. And other times it sped up, and time “flew by”.

For now, the main purpose of this story is to describe a fairly simple Flow experience. My plan is to post some more Flow stories in the future, and I just wanted to “set the table” for the presentation of some of the more complex ones to come.

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