I woke up this morning with a sinus headache. The weather changes bring them on and I have had to learn to accept them. Mercy prevailed this morning in that it was not as bad as it can get: I was able to move around without blinding pain. I decided to go for a morning ride since engaging the day can help for these milder headaches. In this case it did not, so my headache proved to be a companion during the whole ride. I could not know that when I left, so at the beginning of the ride hope still existed that the pain would stop. As the ride progressed, however, the hope disappeared.
I went to Point of Rocks, a natural rock formation in Siesta Keys about thirty minutes from home I been wanting to photograph. It was not an easy place to find but I did make my way to it. Almost. When I got to a seawall that I was supposed to be able to walk around the tide was too high. With all my camera gear, there was not much I could do except turn around and plan my next attempt during a lower tide. This trip was a bust. And I had a headache. And I was getting irritated. I was unhappy.
I then began to wonder: just how many motorcycles rides have ended like this? Very few. This was my 22nd ride and I can only recall a couple other rides that left me feeling so disappointed. That is a pretty impressive hit rate, so what was this disappointment about anyway?
We want every experience to be great, sure, but what exactly was disappointing about this experience? The lack of flow. Flow is a concept the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined back in the 1970s that has since spawned a field of study referred to as “positive psychology.” Flow is defined as a “mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does” (from the Wikipedia article on Flow). In sports psychology, it is called “being in the zone.” Most people intuitively understand this state, where both the challenge and skill level are high but equally matched. The opposite state, low skill and low challenge level, is characterized by apathy: flow is the opposite of apathy.
I usually enter flow when riding the motorcycle or doing photography. Put them together and it can become a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture. Now who would not want that? The Eudaimonia Self I seek to activate, my path to a flourishing life, is paved with episodes of flow. Thirty minutes of flow can easily last you the day, making everything shine brighter and have more joy than it would otherwise have. When you expect it and it doesn’t happen, I feel irritated, like I’ve been cheated out of something I was entitled to have. A bad attitude because it is a greedy one. Considering how often the motorcycle and camera take me there, I am fortunate to have a pathway to flow that is so reliable in the first place.
In any event, having a headache is a sure way to kill any potential for flow. It is impossible to experience flow when in pain, anxious, or bored. With my headache having become a stubborn companion for this ride, even if I had made it to Point of Rocks I would not have received my dose of flow for the day.
No photos resulted from this trip despite several captures and that is okay. The average hit rate for a better than good photo is around one in a hundred. A great photo is even rarer, so you learn early on when doing photography that you need to let go of the expectation of taking great photos. You simply photograph and you keep photographing. Eventually, if a number of factors line up, you will end up with a few better than good photos. Great photos? I have no idea where they come from. They just appear now and then. It is as much a mystery to me as anyone looking at the photo. What I do know is I can increase the hit rate of the better than good photos by doing certain things. What those things are is secondary for the moment. For now, let’s put them under the rubric of experience and learning since you do get better with practice. This is why photography is a Zen experience par excellence: when photographing you must be in the moment with no expectation if you are ever to take better than good photographs Cruising can also be a Zen experience but what stands out for motorcycle riding is its intensity and movement, especially in comparison to photography. There is significance in these two activities — cruising and photography — being at opposite ends of the movement spectrum. To lay them side by side as we have done here is to underscore the dimension of movement, and it is the contrasts in this dimension that can lead to flow, to finding the Eudaimonic Self and creating a flourishing life. Any two activities that meet these criteria would lead to flow. Skydiving and building sand castles, for example. Skydiving, Sand Castles & Eudaimonia could be a blog waiting to be written by someone. So could Hiking, Poetry & Eudaimonia. Or Walking Philosophizing & Eudaimonia. In fact, this last one sorta was written a long time ago. A group of philosophers in Late Antiquity and into the Middle Ages came to be called The Peripatetics who would walk around while they lectured.
This morning was not to be a time full of flow and that was okay. Flow need not happen every time you expect it. As the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott would say, it is “good enough” that it happens most of the time. And you know what? My headache did finally go away and I can almost taste the potential for flow in the back of throat by having written this post. Perhaps it is yet to come for today. My hope has returned.
May You Always Enjoy The Ride