Writer Christina Bernstein reveals how an annual pilgrimage from her London home to Mayo each November allows her to find her ‘Flow’ and recognise the 'Power of ‘Now’.
As of last year, I spend my Novembers in a white house on the western tip of Ireland in County Mayo. Cows roam the front yard. I make turf fires every day and lots of soups.
My dog, Bean, sits up front on the bumpy, 20-minute trips to the nearest supermarket and the house I stay in, like the five others in this Gaeltacht neighborhood, has a name instead of a number.
The postman sells lobsters on the side. I call it my Mayovember pilgrimage and I have been looking forward to it all year.
My mom doesn’t understand. She has been a widow for the past 11 years and she doesn’t understand why her happily married, 30-year-old daughter would choose to do this.
When I told her I was going to Mayo again this year, that I was going to drive five hours from London to Hollyhead, take the car ferry to Dublin, then drive another five hours to County Mayo to write and be a hermit, she told me I’d “lost the lost the plot for sure now.”
Luckily, I know she is wrong.
I carve out a routine those first few mornings on my own. I let Bean outside with the cows. I eat creamy eggs with Irish sausies and then I light a turf fire in the living room. I sit down on the couch in front of the fire.
I put my computer on a pillow and the pillow on top of my lap. I let my hands hover over the keyboard, dramatically, awaiting inspiration, and then, without fail, I push my computer off and walk to the fridge.
I open the fridge. I close the fridge. I pick up my phone and open the fridge again. My thumb opens Instagram, closes Instagram, opens Instagram again. Usually on the third day of distraction, after I’ve gone through every picture Cindy Crawford’s daughter has ever posted (and they are all pretty much the same picture, i.e. her face from various angles), I press down on the little purplish, pinkish Insta camera icon until it jiggles, and then, finally, disappears.
This is when I put my phone in the breadbox. I meditate. I force myself to write ten pages a day even though I know what I’m writing is total crap. I feel lonely and bored. I read a lot.
Most nights I crawl into bed around 5:30pm with my kindle, my hot water bottle and Bean. (She usually sleeps on her bed on the floor but in Mayo, she sleeps on my head.) And then, by the middle of the second week, something magic happens and I really can’t describe it any other way.
Something clicks. I get into a groove. I’ll look up around 4pm and realize I’ve skipped lunch, which is something I don’t do.
The books I read at night fill my head with ideas I can’t wait to type up and then when I do type them up, my characters take me in completely unplanned directions. Who wrote that? I often think at the end of the day, not because it’s particularly brilliant but because it bubbled up from some mysterious, foreign-feeling source.
One of the books I read last year was called Stealing Fire by Jamie Wheel and Steve Kotler. They describe the groove I get into perfectly and label it “Ecstatis” or “Flow.” According to them, Flow is “an optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel your best and perform your best... 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... and all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.”
Before my Mayovembers, I’d experienced “in the zone” moments, mostly while writing, sometimes skiing, but the feeling was always fleeting. I didn’t know it was a trainable state. I didn’t even know it had a name, let alone such a large fan club. Wheel’s and Kotler’s thesis is that Navy SEALS, scientists, artists, athletes, silicon valley teams and countless top executives around the world have been hacking flow for years.
According to them, Flow is what makes Navy SEALS superhuman– it’s what sharpens their reflexes and enables them to do things like read micro-expressions across dark rooms at high speeds.
Flow transforms Google engineering work into a “communal vocational ecstasy,” allowing coders to operate with a unified, hive mind. It gives writers, artists, athletes and problem solvers the mind-opening, focused boost they need to do or make anything original.
Kotler and Wheel back these claims up with a book-full of scientific, mind-based facts.
My favorite three are the below:
1. When people are in a state of Flow their prefrontal cortex– the part of the brain responsible for our ability to plan long term, to delay gratification, to reason through complex logic, the part that allows us to think about our thinking, i.e. “the self” or “the ego”– shuts down, our inner nag is silenced and the subconscious takes over.
2. This is when Big Magic happens because the subconscious mind is far more powerful than our conscious prefrontal cortex. The conscious mind can process about 50 bits of information per second. The subconscious, on the other hand, can handle as many as 11 million bits per second and these 11 million bits are free from temporal thinking.
3. Our sense of time is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, so when the prefrontal cortex goes offline, not only is our inner nag silenced, our sense of time expands. People experience an elongated present, a deep Now. The energy our brains usually spend thinking about past, present and future gets reallocated to attention and focus. We take in richer data and process it more quickly, turning ourselves into the most complex computing machines in existence, far more useful than Google’s new Quantum computer.
This excites me. The fact that the Navy SEALS are already using sensory deprivation tanks to sharpen Flow and cut the time it takes to learn a new language from six months to six weeks, excites me.
Unfortunately, at the moment, sensory deprivation tanks are hard to come by so the majority of us need to find more accessible ways of tapping into Flow, methods like meditation and forced concentration and these routes take effort and time but I really hope that doesn’t dissuade us because Flow is the best weapon we have against information overload.
In the middle ages, a literate person consumed the same amount of content in their entire lives as we do reading a single edition of the Sunday New York Times.
Without Flow, the only way we can handle all this information without short-circuiting is by tuning out, by melting into veggies, by scrolling mindlessly through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Zillow, Shopbop, by playing Candy Crush or plotless videogames or watching mind-numbing reality TV and then when we’ve stopped distracting ourselves – what are we left with?
I should backstep a bit here and say that I have friends who lead very happy, productive lives who’ve also consumed days worth of the Bachelor and have miraculously reached level 3,500 in Candy Crush. Personally, however, I know that my distraction addiction, particularly to Instagram, blocks all creative thought. It prevents me from being present, from living in the Now.
It’s the nemesis of meditation, of Flow, of creativity.
Admittedly, I have redownloaded Instagram during Mayovember this year but I’ve set a strict 15-minute time limit within the app. It is a great way to stay in touch with friends en masse and it is an easy marketing and discovery tool so I will allow myself to go down the rabbit hole from time to time but I forbid myself from living in the warren because I want to create.
I want to tap into Flow. I want to keep training myself to stay present, to fight through and harness boredom rather than numb it with content content content.
I know I’m incredibly lucky to have the time and the means to seclude myself in Mayo each November, to have such a supportive husband, to be able to choose to be alone. And I know there will be roadblocks to my pilgrimage in the future.
At some point, kids or commitments will prevent me from taking that car ferry but they won’t prevent me from doing Mayovember because I will always own a breadbox. I will always use the month to distance myself from my phone, to refocus and lean on my subconscious because as David Foster Wallace put it, “the alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
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