It’s early morning and my husband is outside tending to his tomato plants. He moves among them with an electric toothbrush, buzzing the blossoms to encourage them to pollinate and produce more tomatoes. When he’s done, he moves onto the lettuce and kale and arugula and onions, checking their leaves and moisture levels, making sure they’re happy. He is the proverbial plant whisperer, and in helping these plants thrive he is also helping himself. This daily ritual of communing with his garden is a meditation of sorts, a way to center himself for whatever the day might bring at this particularly uncertain time in our lives.
He has a gift for finding activities that center him. When we walk on the beach his gaze is always down, scanning the sand for agates. He can spend hours this way, combing a beach with his keen eye for the telltale translucence of agates, and he has amassed an impressive collection that he has polished and keeps in a bowl on the living room table for guests to sift and fondle. Another practice he has picked up more recently is doing the New York Times daily Spelling Bee. Almost every day he reaches the highest level, Queen Bee. At night he tells me ruefully if he has missed any words. And there’s (at least) one more thing he does, perhaps the most important activity that centers him: cooking. He brings energy and joy and creativity to both cooking and baking. As he’s preparing his dishes he often listens to the music of The Great British Baking Show, which helps to get him in the groove.
I understand what these activities do for him, because it’s exactly what happens to me when I write. I exit the world in some way, and when I’m really motoring along I depart from myself, too, leaving behind my ego and becoming the activity of writing more than the writer. It is, I suppose, the purest form of escape, but it is also more than that because the mind is engaged at those times, as is the body. It isn’t like watching an escapist movie, or hiding under the covers, or scrolling through a phone. It’s an experience of deep focus, the narrowing and sharpening of attention. And it builds on itself: The more you do it, the more you want to do it, and the easier and more automatic it becomes.
The word has become a bit too trendy for my taste, but this is what psychologists and neuroscientists call flow. A change in brain waves can be measured when people are in a state of flow. It is not only a real thing, I believe it’s essential.
I think back to when I began writing poetry at age eight, and I wonder if I had the same experience back then. Was I unwittingly seeking an egoless experience when I was called to write? I remember being driven to do it and being secretive about the activity, hiding it from my parents and sisters. I can’t be sure what motivated me at that age, but I know I have felt the siren call to write ever since. Much of my early adult life was spent trying to arrange my life to free up time for writing, trying to work out how I could support myself and still write, while feeling the activity was somehow suspect because it pleased only me, and earned me no money, and did nothing at all for the world. My compulsion seemed like a kind of heresy. Eventually I stopped trying to justify myself and succumbed to the activity as essential for maintaining mental health.
When I was working in film in my twenties, I discovered film editing, and I fell in love with the activity. This was back in the days when you actually cut film on a splicer and taped it together. I would spend hours in a dark room, surrounded by trim bins draped with outtakes, viewing my work on a flatbed, playing a sequence again and again, slowing it down to figure out the exact frame on which to make the next cut. It was utterly absorbing, a new way of constructing a story, and in those darkened rooms on Broadway where I often worked, removed from the chaos of New York streets, I always lost track of time. Working solo or with an assistant, I often worked until ten pm — or eleven or midnight — and was up the next morning happy to go to work again. It is an activity, even in its current digital form, that closely resembles writing.
I am quite sure that people are happier when they have some activity in their lives that delivers them into this flow state. I have one friend who is an avid runner. She runs many miles every day, often up a mountain, and annually she does a trail run that entails running thirty-four miles on a backwoods trail, much of it up and down. She says running keeps her sane, that if she didn’t do it she’d be a basket case, and I’ve known her for long enough to believe this claim. I have no doubt that she enters a state of flow when she runs.
Another friend of mine, a decades-long Buddhist and meditator, spends hours applying paint and wax to canvasses to create encaustic works that touch my soul. She does this relentlessly despite being enervated by a recent diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. I have no doubt with her, too, that this work puts her in the zone.
In early high school my son found a martial art he became devoted to: krav maga, a demanding discipline practiced by the Israeli army. The studio he began attending years ago, RMA — Right Mental Attitude — has changed his life, training him to develop strength and focus that he employs in every aspect of his life. Now, fifteen years after beginning krav, which he also now teaches, he returns from his workouts with a glow on his face that tells me he has been in the flow.
The contemporary world, tied to the clock and to notions of productivity, legislates against losing ourselves in activities like these where process rules over product, where haste is unwelcome, where we make ourselves inaccessible to the world of phones and deadlines for long periods of time. But when I think of myself and my husband and my son and my friends, it is these activities that provide us with the deepest and most lasting form of contentment. I think they’re fundamental to happiness. And that has come to seem especially apparent in this current moment when attention spans have shrunk, and everyone is pathologically distracted. If I were teaching young kids, I would make it my mission to help them find activities in which they can reliably lose themselves, again and again, perhaps for life.