To join high tide; to drift with all the things we let go
Let go with the flow (The Beautiful South, 2003)
Clevedon, where I swim all year round, is located on the Severn Estuary. This Estuary experiences the third largest tidal range in the world with average tidal rates of 3 – 5 knots. It is possible, given appropriate local knowledge and weather conditions, to ‘ride the tide’ or ‘go with the flow’ without the need to do much actual swimming at all. In fact, a favourite activity among Clevedon swimmers is to swim under the famous Victorian Pier after high tide and be ‘whooshed’ back through with the retreating current, as though you were in an adventure water park. In ‘normal’, non-pandemic times, there are swimming events, here and in other estuaries that take advantage of such tidal assistance to create longer, enjoyable, endurance swims.
‘Going with the flow’ can be a wonderfully relaxing way to enjoy the sea during the warmer summer months. It is important, however, to point out, that you would not want to find yourself trying to swim ‘against the flow’. You would not win that contest – especially at Clevedon.
The tide is turning Oh, oh, oh, the tide is turning (Roger Waters, 1987)
Flow Theory is not the same as ‘floating’ or ‘going with the flow’. Psychologists (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) describe ‘Flow Theory’ as when a person undertaking an activity claims to be ‘in the zone’: the mental state achieved when so fully immersed in and absorbed by an enjoyable activity that one loses sense of time.
The impact of the ‘flow state’ on mental health and well-being has been studied in relation to all sorts of activities (most recently, gardening (Chalmin-Pui et al, 2021) but what I really love about it is that it employs the language of water – and, for me, of the sea and of swimming. Csikszentmihalyi (1975), who introduced the concept, called it ‘a state of flow’, because during his research, people tended to describe their intense experiences using metaphors of being carried along by a current, like the sea or a river that flows, such that time became irrelevant. Participants also described experiencing ‘waves of joy’ from the pleasure they took from the activity they were engaged in.
What differentiates a ‘state of flow’ from ‘daydreaming’ or ‘floating’ is that to achieve a flow state one must be fully immersed in a structured activity that offers a balance between the ‘perceived’ challenges of the task and ones ‘perceived’ skills. The task should be sufficiently challenging that there will be no ‘extraneous thoughts’ (Smolej Fritz & Avsec, 2007) or distractions, but not so challenging as to cause stress or anxiety. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1975:36), individuals who experience flow are so intensively involved in an activity, that nothing else matters. In relation to swimming, Griffiths (2018) has suggested that a state of flow is experienced when ‘your effort is producing a performance that’s a little better than usual, and it makes you feel great. You feel as if everything is working in harmony … it all happens as it should do. The water is soft and light, and every stroke pushes you further forward than it usually does’.
There’s hope in the air
There’s hope in the water (Marling, 2010)
In the colder, winter months that are just coming to an end, it is not really possible (in my experience) to achieve a state of flow during a swim in the sea. When the sea is cold, only quite short swims are possible, and it is inadvisable, for safety reasons, to lose all sense of the time. In the winter, you need to remain fully focused on what you are doing, what is happening to your body and where the tide is taking you.
While a cold water winter swim can lead to a sense of achievement, of overcoming something – and of surviving, it is the warmer temperatures that offer the possibility of longer, more mindful swims. In the warmer, summer months the sea can be comforting, enveloping, supportive, healing and soothing. And, now, as the water and the weather begin to warm up I am beginning to feel optimistic of better times ahead – of events actually going ahead, of swims in other places, of actually getting back to that South Coast Swim challenge I started in 2017 (see It Started There).
This has been a long and difficult winter for most of us. We have been separated from family and friends and from many of the social activities that help to get us through those dark, depressing months. Now though, it feels as though we are gradually – and despite a few ‘false dawns’ – finally beginning to move out of winter – and out of ‘lockdown’. There is a tangible sense of optimism in the air.
The sea at Clevedon, while still cold, has now reached double figures (just) and the days are getting longer; the sun is getting stronger. For the past month I have been challenging myself by gradually swimming a little bit further and staying in the sea for a little bit longer. I have found myself beginning to dare to look forward to those longer swims along the coast and to losing myself in the flow.
I find myself starting to hope!
And in case you might want to try to achieve a state of flow in your swimming, Simon Griffiths offers 9 tips on how to ‘increase your chances’ here
The Beautiful South (2003) ‘Let Go With The Flow’, on the album Gaze, Mercury Records
Chalmin-Pui, L., Griffiths, A., Roe,J., Heaton, T. and Cameron, R. (2021) Why Garden? Attitudes and the Perceived Health Benefits of Home Gardening, in Cities, volume 112, May 2021
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975) Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey Bass
Csikszentmihalyi, M.(1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row
Griffiths, S. (2018) Nine Ways To Find Your Swimming Flow, outdoorswimmer.com
Marling, L. (2010) ‘Hope In The Air’, from the album I Speak Because I Can, Virgin.
Oliver, B (2017) It Started There, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com
Smolej Fritz, B. & Avsec, A. (2007) ‘The experience of flow and subjective well-being of music students’ in Horizons of Psychology, 16, 2, 5-17
Waters, R. (1987) The tide is turning from the album Radio K.A.O.S, EMI