How To Lose Your Mind: A New Perspective On Flow

I’ve crafted my ideal routine.

Every morning, six days a week, I go to the library to execute the studying routine and 4 hours later that felt like 30 minutes come out with dissertation progress. Honestly, I look forward to doing that work. Reading, making connections, considering arguments, structuring information — I love it.

It feels good.

There’s nothing on my mind.

Life absorbs me.

The activity requires such a great amount of focus that my attention gets super narrow and I enter ‘the zone’. I get lost in flow, and leave the library feeling like I’ve made a step forward. Every day, something new ‘clicks’. Advancement.

Last week, my supervisor, who got his PhD at Harvard, told me: “I’ve never seen anyone so far advanced after 17 months in the PhD program.”

Flow works. Struggling doesn’t.

However: there’s a catch. I need these absorbing activities. I get bored without them. Dicking around frustrates me. It sounds nice and all, but it just doesn’t make me happy.

It’s not enough. I’m not in the moment. There’s no high.

It doesn’t give me the feeling.

I desire to be continually absorbed in life.

Voices

When I’m taken over by my monkey mind, I change.

The talk in my head utters a lot of bullshit about life and other people that I don’t assent to at all. This, in turn, angers me. I’m now in a downward spiral of negativity.

If there’s an explicit intermediary between me and the world, such as my mind saying stuff, that usually doesn’t help. The useless chatter gets in the way.

Sure, I need my mind when I’m writing or doing something hard. But I want to control the dialogue. It should be my tool, only allowing voices to inhabit my consciousness when I need them. Not the other way around.

I want to have nothing on my mind all the time, not just when I’m “in flow”.

When I’m lost in life, all problems evaporate.

Doing nothing

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I’m fascinated with this nothing-on-my-mind mental state.

My older brother has been known for settling in comfortably on our couch, only to proceed to just sit there. No music, no phone, no book, no TV. He just sits there.

Staring. Thinking?

I’ve often suspected that he is Dumbledore’s reincarnation or moonlights as Zen master.

My sister, likewise, recalled to me when we were Skyping a while back that she finds it “so nice to just sit on my bed, and do nothing”.

My dad, finally, is the true king at this. His favorite spot for peacefully doing this thing called nothing is near the kitchen table, against the heating, warming his legs. He’ll just stand there. Sometimes whistling or signing.

I’ve always found this fascinating behavior because it strikes me as rather boring.

What do you mean, it nice to sit/stand there, doing nothing?

An optional framework

In 2016–7, I spent 6 months traveling and volunteering in Africa. This changed my life.

I discovered my propensity for writing. My travel blog, that I reluctantly started when my family insisted, morphed into the most enjoyable project ever. My activity on Medium is a direct resultof that. It’s not unlikely that without my gap year, I wouldn’t be here.

Equally big was my mind-shift regarding work and leisure. In Africa, working when you don’t need to is considered weird. You work to sustain yourself and your family, and when you’ve put in enough hours to do that, you go and do whatever.

This mentality is directly opposite to how we morally think about working in the Northern hemisphere, where you, for some unclear reason, are supposed to work your ass off regardless of whether you need or want to.

The experience showed me that this way of thinking about how you should live — because that’s where the disagreement lies: the people I met in Africa aren’t incompetent and idle, rather, they consciously decided value family and enjoyment over productivity — was optional, and that I could opt out of it.

It was in a shisha cafe in Egypt that I decided that life’s too short for running along in the social status rat race. My mother died young, and so did all my grandparents and some of my aunts. I’ve always suspected that I might have ‘bad genes’ or whatever.

So I’m not planning on postponing life until retirement rolls around.

This is my dream:

And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, “What time?” — Tim Kreider, Lazy: A Manifesto

I want to have a choice. To follow my curiosity, to take “mini-retirements”, to live abroad for a couple of months every year, to reply “Always” when someone asks when I’m available for something fun.

I’m building, as Niklas put it, a “high-degree-of-freedom life”.

Nothing on my mind

This has been my mission since I returned from my gap-year trip. So far, progress exceeds my prior expectations.

It’s looking like I will have the freedom I desire.

But it still feels like I need some justification for ‘deserving this’. Even though I’ll finish my doctorate before I turn 28 and went from 0 to 6000 Medium followers in 10 months, there’s this nagging voice telling me I ought to prove myself.

Because I’m not enough.

When there’s nothing on my mind, by contrast, I don’t have these thoughts. The silence allows me to be myself.

There are many things that give me a great kick. But when I’m not preoccupied, I tend to feel unengaged. Useless. Too much of this and I get gloomy.

That’s why I envy my father, brother, and sister: they seem to possess the ability to be content with themselves and nothing. Just sitting there.

I love this Oh Wonder song:

Every time I meet your eyes
I can feel life come alive
And I’m getting high, getting high
I’m getting high on humans

It’s called Getting high on humans.

Could life itself be enough to make me lose my mind?


Like to read?

Join my Thinking Together newsletter for a free weekly dose of similarly high-quality mind-expanding ideas.

INTERESTING?

If you like this, you'll love a newsletter with well-curated and interesting articles and ideas (new e-mail every sometimes).