Moving Mindfulness vs Flow State during outdoor activities: Can you do both?

Mindfulness, meditation, flow, zen, or mindflow we hear about these states of mind in the outdoor adventure sports world, but what are they and what’s the difference? Whether it’s backcountry skiing, trail running, mountain biking, rock climbing, or paddling, utilizing these states of mind can open up new levels of performance, focus, creativity, gratitude, and general well-being. So while we’re all out there getting our adventure fix, we can also double-dip and maximize the amazing mental health benefits of spending time playing (exercising) in nature.

I used to think that I loved all these adventure sports because I needed that adrenaline hit, but I’ve since learned it’s not about the adrenaline factor for me and for most of us adventurers. It’s about the psychological benefits. We’ve all been there – moving along the trail with nothing but the occasional deer, horse apple, or puddle to grab our attention from the flow state we’re in. As we move along the trail, it’s easy to slip into a flow state. All the ingredients are there – solitude, rhythmic movements, still mind, incredible focus.

mindfulness is observing

What’s Flow?

It’s this flow state that we often seek. It’s a magical place where our minds tune out all the normal chatter we’re subject to most all our waking hours. In this flow state, we tend to ignore pain, stress, fatigue, and other issues that come up while we’re exercising so it often doesn’t last the whole time we’re out running or biking or whatever, but there are windows of time during a workout – at least for me – that I go into flow and the world melts away.

So is flow the same as meditation? They’re similar but not the same. A flow state is when you’re entirely immersed in an activity, to the point where you lose track of time and forget yourself and focus all your attention on the activity at hand. You may ride right past a guy in a gorilla suit and not even notice it. In flow, you’re incredibly focused, but not on any one particular movement or obstacle, it’s all just blurred together into one thought.

flow is balance

What’s Moving Mindfulness?

Moving meditation or mindfulness, in contrast, is a state where you are aware of your thoughts and activities and observe them without judgment. It’s like the opposite side of the same coin as flow. In mindfulness, you’re totally aware of yourself and your thoughts, but you’re separate from it. You’re like the outside observer of the situation. It can be hard to differentiate the two if you haven’t learned how but read on and I’ll offer you my advice on how to deliberately move into either flow or mindfulness while out on the trails as well as show you what the benefits of each one are.

The benefits of mindfulness – which we can describe as awareness meditation in this case – are huge. I won’t spend much time on that (read the linked post for details), but a few benefits are listed here:

  • better well-being
  • reduced stress
  • enhanced creativity
  • enhanced thinking and problem-solving
  • better short-term memory
  • improved focus
  • reduced emotional reactivity
  • improved cognitive flexibility
  • increased relationship satisfaction
  • improved sleep
  • improved fear modulation

So if any of those benefits sound good to you, you’re in luck because you don’t have to sit on a pillow for hours a day to get them. You can meditate while you run, bike, or whatever. You just need some steady object, feeling, or movement to focus on.

How do you meditate while moving?

So getting into a flow state is pretty straightforward for people who punish themselves with endless miles of trail but meditating while moving takes a bit more – awareness. Awareness is the key here. The basic approach is to take exactly what we’ve been taught to do if we’re meditating while still and applying it while active. So while you’re running, pedaling, or paddling, start by focusing on your breath or another steady-state rhythmic action like your foot strike on the ground, your pedal stroke, or even your arm swing. I prefer to use my foot strike because it connects my mind to the ground.

Tune into that and nothing else. Don’t pay attention to your speed, don’t judge your movement patterns, and don’t worry about anything else related to your activity. Just focus on the one motion you chose. As thoughts surface in your mind, leave them on the side of the trail and move forward without them. Continue to focus on the motion you chose.

As you focus on your movement and let thoughts move out of your mind before you dwell on them, you’ll begin to be aware of your own consciousness. This is where the magic starts to happen. You’ll notice yourself becoming the observer of your action rather than just the runner, biker, or skier. You’ll almost be able to watch yourself as you move as you enter into the present moment and ignore the past and future. This state is mindfulness – meditation. Stay here as long as you can. Both positive and negative emotions can arise while you’re in this place. Let them come. Don’t resist anything, but once they come, let them go. Don’t hold on to them. Continue to focus on your chosen movement.

flow state while kayaking

You may not notice any immediate ecstacy or transformation into a Buddha, but as you exit your focused state of awareness, you’ll be different. Your mind will work differently. You’ll be more calm, creative, stable, and grounded in the present reality. At this point, I like to move from mindfulness through a stage of creativity where I actively let thoughts come into my consciousness and process them. After meditating, I tend to be more creative and can solve problems I’m chewing on more effectively. The only problem with this approach is that I sometimes solve a problem in my head and come up with amazing ideas, but then later forget them so I sometimes use the voice not feature on my phone to record my thoughts for later.

This open state of mind is also a great time to embrace the beauty of wherever you’re at. Lean into your environment with all your senses. Smell the petrichor, feel the hot sun, taste the salty sweat, listen to the bees buzzing, and look at the sun setting on the horizon.

Leaning into these senses will further enhance all the benefits of your mindfulness meditation practice and also prepare you for the flow state coming up next.

How do you deliberately access a flow state?

To achieve flow while out in the wild, here are some tips:

  • Choose a challenging but achievable goal. Flow happens when you are engaged in an activity that matches your skill level and pushes you slightly beyond your comfort zone. Set a realistic but ambitious goal for your adventure that motivates you.
  • Eliminate distractions. Flow requires uninterrupted focus on the task at hand. Turn off your phone, music, or other devices that might distract you from your run. Find a quiet or familiar route that won’t require too much navigation or attention.
  • Monitor biofeedback. Flow involves getting immediate and clear feedback on how you’re doing. Pay attention to your body’s signals such as heart rate, breathing rate, sweat level, or fatigue level. Use a tracker or app if you want to measure your progress more precisely.
  • Enjoy the process. Flow is about being fully immersed in the activity itself, not the outcome. Don’t worry about how fast or far you go, just enjoy the feeling of movement, rhythm, and energy.
  • Lose yourself. Flow is when you forget yourself and become one with the activity. Don’t think about who you are, what you have to do later, or what others think of you. Just move.

The Benefits of Flow

Entering a state of flow can bring you many benefits for your physical and mental health.
Some of them are:

  • Increased mental clarity
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Improved mood and well-being
  • Enhanced performance and productivity
  • Increased enjoyment and satisfaction
  • Prevented injuries and illnesses

How to combine mindfulness and flow to maximize the benefits

So you can see that flow and moving mindfulness have many overlapping benefits, but they’re not the same thing. People often ask if they can combine the two. The short answer is yes, but it’s not easy.

Most of the current science supports that flow state and mindfulness are different enough that you can’t do both at the same time. You can’t focus on nothing (flow) and also focus on everything (mindfulness) at the same time. However, some argue that there is a state called mindflow or mindfulness-in-flow that exists when you can find a middle point between being in flow and also focusing on your own thinking.

I don’t attempt this because I don’t need to. I combine both flow and mindfulness into the same activity but at different times.

mindfulness skiing

What works for me

I’ve been experimenting with various mental states while out skiing and trail running for several months and this is what I’ve found as the best sequence of mental states:

Warm-up: Start out as normal to get all situated and comfortable. This is a chance to thin out the crowds, work up a good pace, and work out any gear issues.

Mindfulness: Once you get to a good clean stretch of trail where you won’t have to stop for navigation or obstacle avoidance for about 5-10 minutes, you can go into your meditation. Just focus on the breath or the footfall or whatever.

Open mind: After finishing the mindfulness period, I find that my mind is usually overflowing with creative ideas, solutions to problems that I’m chewing on, or insights about myself and those I interact with. I use this period to just let my mind run free. Let it wander as you cruise through the forest or desert or mountains. I sometimes stop to write down insights I discover because in this state of mind, it’s often hard to recall them later.

Gratitude: After you give your mind a chance to run free, bring it back home by focusing on the sensory experience you’re having. Pay attention with all five senses and enjoy on a deep level being in nature. Pay attention to how your body feels and feel grateful for the adventure you get to be on.

Flow: By this point in the day, you’re probably starting to get a bit tired. When you come to a good section of trail where you can move easily without interruptions, it’s time to flow. Just move into it by forgetting everything but the present moment and flow. Stay in this state as long as you can.

I find that this sequence has completely changed the outcome of my workouts. I not only have more stamina and can go longer and harder, but I come home feeling so much more alive and refreshed. It takes a bit of practice to figure out what’s best for you, but play around with these various states of mind and see what clicks for you.

I believe outdoor exercise in the wilderness is the best form of therapy and can replace so many medications we rely on to stay functional and sane in today’s world. Just get out there and move.

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