Finding the Flow | Pushing the Wave

Finding the Flow

Opinion, 21 January 2024
by L.A. Davenport
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. A holiday read with a disturbing twist.
As of writing, it is the end of the third week of January, and we can stock of how we are doing with all that well-intentioned resolve we had at the start of the month to make sure 2024 would be oh-so different from 2023, and see where we are with our objectives and priorities.

It’s easy to begin the month, and the year, brimming over with enthusiasm, but I find that three weeks in tends to be a good marker of how we are doing with our new habits and pursuits, and whether they have bedded in to something more durable and long term or if, like a house plant struggling an adopted home, they are withering and somewhat moribund.

I have to confess I don’t really believe in ‘resolutions’ as such. Picking the first day of the first month of the year to start being a better you seems a little arbitrary, and surely we can manage to find the resolve to improve ourselves and our lives at other times. Yet there is something about ringing in the new year, with its implication of a fresh start and a line drawn under the past that makes us take stock and see where we are going with our lives.

To coincide with, and cash in, on all of this, newspapers and magazines are of course full of ideas for self improvement at this time of the year, and the New York Times was no exception.

As part of its 6-Day Energy Challenge, they ran a piece for Day 5 called The Magic of Losing Yourself in a Task. I was curious, not because I was intrigued to learn about something unfamiliar, but because I wondered with a certain degree of sadness why the idea needed explaining at all.

Jancee Dun reveals that she has been “conducting an experiment” of late, in which she swapped scrolling through social media after work, “which vaguely entertained me but didn’t make me feel very good,” for activities that “feel more like play.”

A favourite recent activity she tried was flower pressing: “The whole process is fun: scouting for the flowers, checking to see if they’ve dried, humming absent-mindedly as I arrange them. I usually feel rested and invigorated after a session with my flowers.”

She has since learned that, while flower pressing, she had entered a “flow state,” which she defines as “a period of intense focus that comes from being completely absorbed in an activity.”

This, she was told by Dr Sue Varma, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York, NY, results in the release of “neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine, which make you feel alert, engaged and motivated.”

Dun goes on to say there are “low-stakes flow states,” where we can achieve the flow state without too much effort. We can apparently find clues to what activities could provide this by writing down “five of the most deeply immersive moments you had last year” or to look back at past interests and hobbies. “Once you’ve identified what lights you up (or has the potential to), block out 15 minutes today to try it,” Dr Varma told her.

Suggestions for low-stake flow state activities including learning a new foreign language, reading a short story or chapter in a book aloud to another adult and constructing an adult Lego set.

Obviously I find the idea of putting down one’s phone to spend time pursuing hobbies and interests, rather than stultifying the mind through perpetual social media scrolling, an inherently good one. However, I do despair at the thought that people need this explaining to them.

(While I do not wish to mock, I also chafe slightly at Dun’s breathless, first-to-discover-a-new-continent tone of voice, when in fact she is discussing about activities that thousands upon thousands of people undertake on a regular basis.)

When I was younger, the concept of a ‘flow state’, although no one called it that then, was taken for granted as part of the joy of a hobby, whatever it might be, or even the pleasurable side effect of undertaking mundane tasks at work. It was appreciated that losing oneself in an non-intellectually demanding, repetitive and yet productive task was both a safety valve for our minds and gave us the opportunity to develop key basic skills, thus doubling nourishing our souls.

The sad part of Dun’s piece is that there is clearly a generation of people who are so far removed from this understanding that they need to be told about it, and have it presented to them as if it is an entirely new concept, for them to share with similarly unenlightened souls, as well as test the patience of the rest of us when they tell us about it. (See my thoughts on the Silent Walking TikTok craze).

I am of course aware I did exactly the same when I was a teenager: thinking that every thing I did for the first time was the first time anyone had ever done it, and I was therefore the first to experience its pleasures and so needed to evangelise about it to all and sundry. But the rather lovely thing about growing up in a time before social media is we could be cringeworthy and embarrassing amongst ourselves, out of sight of the world.

And let’s be clear: social media is nothing more than a shiny, blinking way of killing time. It doesn’t resulting in anything concrete, and there is no trace of you and your contribution once you put your phone down. (And what will happen when the social media companies inevitably fold at some point? It bears thinking about).

Besides the induction of the ‘flow state,’ the added bonus of all these wonderful hobbies out there in the real world is that, once you’ve finished, you have a cake, a lovely piece of crochet, a model rocket, painted figurine or all manner of other things that enrich your life and the lives of those around you.
Over the new year, we stayed in a cottage in Yorkshire with friends. The trip was lovely and the scenery spectacular, but one thing in particular about the house caught my eye and my imagination: the owners had left several bookcases full of volumes of all kinds dotted about the place.

Clearly they were surplus to requirements to their family, but to passing strangers looking for something diverting to read, they could be the perfect accompaniment to a few days away in an unfamiliar environment. And there was an impressive selection available, even if I would wager that the collection was put together in the late 1990s and early 2000s and not much updated since then (a biography of John Major, anyone?).

I have to confess that when I arrived in the cottage I was a little tired of the book I was reading at the time, and wanted a few days off with something a little more racy. Step in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

It has been a good long while since I read any Holmes, and it was a pleasure to dip back into his world for a while, although it must be said that the collection is a little varied in quality. One story however, The Adventure of the Three Gables, stood out as being very problematic, and was quite a shock.

I had assumed, naïvely it turned out, that a medical man with such perceptive insights as Conan Doyle would be able to understand that the frankly racist description of the black boxer Steve Dixie would be beyond wrong. But it just goes to show that even the most apparently enlightened individuals can have terrible intellectual and moral blindspots that leave a rather nasty taste in the mouth.

After I finished The Adventure of the Three Gables I put the book back on the shelf, and wondered whether I will ever return to Conan Doyle again. After all, there are plenty of other classic detective stories by other authors that I have not read.
I feel I should report to some extent on my writing, and I am happy to say that numerous projects are progressing nicely, with two books, and potentially a third, nearing the point of being ready to release out into the world. They will be staggered over the first half of the year, but I will very excited to share them with you when the time comes.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Finding the Flow | Pushing the Wave