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Flowing to the Top Of the Mountain

I CLIMBED a mountain the other weekend. No, I don't mean anything heavily philosophical - not primarily at least. I'm talking about actually putting one foot in front of another along a path up to the summit of an actual mountain. This disclaimer is necessary because otherwise the literal experience is likely to evaporate into pure metaphor.

The mountain in question was Mount Monadnock, in southern New Hampshire, a modest, well-worn peak that presumably is to serious mountain-climbing what the bunny slope is to skiing.

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But it was an opportunity to test out some ideas in a recently read book, ``Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience,'' by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, released earlier this year by Harper & Row. Flow, as described by Csikszentmihalyi, is not something to ``go with.'' It's something to achieve, at the expense of considerable effort and energy, but with a considerable reward. Time flows when you're having fun.

Csikszentmihalyi's analysis is that optimal experience (or, in plainer English, happiness) is to be found in a golden channel between anxiety and boredom. To avoid boredom, we should be continually striving to meet some new goal, reach a new peak (oops, there we go into metaphor again - or did we?). If we know the goal isn't manageable, anxiety will set in. But the author sensibly observes that the way out of the anxiety caused by having unattainable goals is to increase our skills to be able to meet them after all, not to revise our expectations downward.

And so it was with my mountain trek.

It was well into the afternoon by the time we got to the start of the trails; the more leisurely and scenic ambling routes to the summit were out of the question if we were to return before dark. Our choices were between the route that went straight up and the one that went almost straight up. Almost-straight-up won.

The first phase of the path was relatively gentle; that is to say, too steep for a walk, but not quite steep enough to feel like a climb. I was more aware than I wished to be of muscles that don't get much of a workout at the office.

Are we having fun yet? After all, this was supposed to be fun, and if we decide it's not fun anymore, we can turn around and climb back down. Whenever I entertained such a thought, however, a little squad of kids in sneakers was likely to bound past me, shaming me back into resolution. And the escape option was too simple a way to look at the situation. The path suddenly got steeper; indeed, it ceased to be a path at all but rather turned into a stream of boulders marked with the occasional daub of paint to show the way. I felt as if I were climbing through my eighth-grade earth science textbook.

While still reserving the option to turn around after exerting reasonable effort, I thought of how ``Flow'' describes people in challenging circumstances trying to find ways to gain mastery over them by building whatever quirky little systems work for them. I decided to focus on making every step count as part of the way to the top. I counted off groups of 10, 20, 30 steps, boulder to boulder, with an occasional assist from a tree branch. An hour flew by in considerably less time than the ``easy'' first part of the trek had taken.

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Then we encountered some hikers descending from the summit. ``It's only half an hour away,'' they said.

They were wrong.

But the summit was suddenly within reach, and we knew we were going to make it. And we did, even though it took rather longer than we had thought.

We didn't linger too long at the top; it was more important as a goal than as a place itself. But it was interesting to see how having a goal we knew to be attainable focused our energies.

Focus - concentration - is important in Csikszentmihalyi's book. He transfers scholarly research into practical suggestions that anyone can follow. He has some interesting ideas about order, about disciplined consciousness; he even has good things to say about complexity, which he says can help give meaning to people's lives.

Maybe the trip to the peak was mostly metaphor after all.

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