Last week my wife and I went on vacation to Tofino, BC on Vancouver Island. A friend of hers recommended it, and since we’ve both been so busy with work, we booked the trip largely without doing too much research on the town of Tofino itself. As a result, we were both surprised when we arrived to discover that Tofino is largely considered the surf capitol of Canada. Large swells from out in the Pacfic and some of the largest sandy beaches in the country are right outside the town, which has lead to a huge surf community there.
Being the adventurous type myself, I decided to rent a board and wetsuit (it’s the north Pacific Ocean after all) and spend a day surfing. Now, despite skating for over 26 years, snowboarding for 20, and wakeboarding for around 5-6 years, I’m not very good at surfing. I’ve only done it a few times years and years ago in the much warmer waters around Florida, so I’m a bit of a noob at it actually. Still, you only live once, so I jumped in the surf and gave it my best, despite the waves probably being a bit larger than I was ready for.
After a couple of hours getting battered by waves and getting used to popping up on my board, I was starting to get the hang of things and actually managed to ride a few waves for more than 3 seconds. A few of the waves I managed to catch were big, 6-7 feet (which was big for me), and required all of my concentration to stay up on. It was during those successful moments that I sometimes reached that zen state, that feeling of flow and balance where you stop thinking about what you’re doing and it just seems to happen on it’s own.
Now, I know a lot of musicians will know what I’m talking about, because I’ve also reached that state a lot while writing music too. You’re working on a song, and you get in that groove, that zone where you’re just writing as fast as you can and the music is just flowing out of you effortlessly. You don’t have to think too much about what you’re doing, it almost feels like the music is writing itself.
It’s an addicting feeling for sure, and I’ve often appreciated how it’s shared not just by artists, but also athletes as well. In some ways, I think it’s the main reason I’ve always been attracted to things like “extreme” sports. I spent a lot of time thinking about this after my day surfing, and I think I’ve used my experiences in both disciplines to narrow it down to the two things that you need in order to reach that state:
– You have to know your tools. Whether is a skateboard, a keyboard, a guitar, you name it, to reach that flow state you need to have some level of proficiency with whatever you’re using. You don’t need to be an expert by ay means, but you have to be comfortable enough to not put too much thought into HOW you will do what you’re trying to do.
Trying to get into the groove is probably not going to happen if you’re just trying to learn the guitar for the first time. In my example above, yes it was one of the few times I’ve been surfing, but I’ve been standing sideways on boards my whole life, so it didn’t take me long to learn to balance and get the rudiments of control on something new. Basically, the means of achieving what I was trying to do became second nature.
– The task must be difficult, but still achievable. When things are easy or repeats of things we’ve done countless times, our minds tend to wander. We don’t focus on the task at hand, and we don’t concentrate as much as we should. I think it’s this concentration more than anything that helps us achieve a flow state, to get in the groove.
The last few years I’ve been getting more and more into downhill and freeride mountain biking. I’ve started riding jumps and stunt lines that are seriously big, the kind of thing where a crash can mean a major injury. Consequently, before I ride this stuff, I spend a lot of time clearing my mind, picturing in my head what I’ll do each step of the way, and just focusing on the task ahead of me. When I do go down the line, I’m totally focused on making sure I do what I pictured in my head, it’s concentration of the highest order. I have nothing to distract me, so I’m totally in the moment.
The same thing happens with music making too. Perhaps I’m playing my guitar and coming up with difficult chord progressions, or playing my keyboard faster than normal and trying to not miss any notes. Or maybe I’m just finally getting close to a sound in my head that I’ve been struggling to achieve. I’m overcoming a difficult challenge, and in doing so I’m giving it all of my attention and not letting anything take me away from that.
Anyway, maybe it’s different for other people, but to me it’s these two ideas of knowing your tools and working on something outside of your comfort zone that seem to help me “get in the groove” so to speak. It’s not something happens all the time, but it sure is fun when it does!