It’s 7:30 p.m. Monday, and I’m jogging to Payne Whitney, wrestling with a nervous breakdown because our C-hoops squad is playing Trumbull. They’re 8–0 and we’re 7–1; we’re last season’s champs, though, so the game’s a toss-up. But we can’t lose; I won’t let us lose.
At Lanman, I strip off my coat, try to remember a New York Times article from three years ago about the benefits of stretching, berate myself for not eating a pregame banana and eye the entrance praying we’ll have five players on Valentine’s Day. I put on a knee-length red sock, take it off, then roll it back on: I’ll be luckier with it. At 8 p.m., I slap hands with Trumbull at opening tip — Ryan, Paul, Ike’s little bro, Jason — and the ball’s live.
My first shot, from the 3-point line: swish. No thinking: two more 3’s, two baseline jumpers, an and-one. My shot is on and I’m just catching and shooting, looking for gaps to weave the ball through, finding opportunities to increase the tempo, exploiting mismatches in the paint. We end the half leading 26–20. Then we get shut down. In the second half, I’m running on reserve fuel, take hits because of the box-and-one, turn the ball over six times in 10 possessions, over-adjust to their defensive rotations, botch entry passes to my big men down low. Trumbull’s mid-range J is silky, clockwork; our two-three zone is slow to adjust. They go up by six, three minutes left.
I finally hit a three but am shoved to the floor; no call. Without thinking, I pounce on the Trumbull player, spew invectives, “What the f–k?” and “Are you f—ing serious?” the words stumbling over themselves; everything burns. The atmosphere explodes, testy; people interject, say it’s just C-hoops. Thirty seconds later, my mind is blank.
End game: three chances at a game-tying three, but we’re fouled, stripped, time runs out. For the next three hours, my co-captain and I shoot and shoot, diagram plays, finalize playoff rotations, plan a counterattack. I fall asleep, wake up at 11:10 a.m., think it’s Saturday, turn off my alarm, miss half of “History of Life.”
When I play basketball, I flow. I can’t — I don’t — think about anything other than the grip of leather on my fingertips, the pivot-turn-thrust of an outlet pass, the crab-walk slide to follow a slashing guard. I act and react based on intuition only. Nothing matters but what I can see. During a game, short-term memory drowns out long-term memory: I’m focused, feeling, uninterruptable. Even when I lose, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.
A psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (we’ll call him C-Money), took experiences of flow and defined them: a mental state of full immersion engaged in a process. Flow means an organization of the consciousness, a controlled psychic energy, a battle not against the self but “a battle for the self. … [A] struggle for establishing control over attention.”
There are many paths to flow. C-Money talks about a painter creating living forms on canvas, a father teaching his son how to walk, a grandmaster playing chess, a surgeon making an incision. Thousands of opportunities and challenges exist to expand our capabilities, some in fiercely technical situations but most available without prerequisite.
Personally, unless I’m playing C-hoops (or sometimes, when I’m writing, drawing or running through Grand Central to catch the Metro-North leaving in two minutes), I’m not flowing. My waking hours are all habit: e-mail, planning, watching others. In lecture, eating dinner, reading, I’m unable to conjure up a monopolizing concentration. In my process of self-actualization, I’m still trying to stand up, not yet even ready to walk.
C-Money expounds on the difficulty of achieving flow in society: Enjoyment and purpose are too linked to external validation — at Yale, that’s transcripts, society tap, leadership positions. But society’s obstacles are a trope. If we commit ourselves to reclaiming experience, the only action to take is uncovering and engaging in the activities that let us flow.
J.S. Mill said, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you will cease to be so.” Having the opportunity to play basketball — especially in college, especially in intramurals — is my exercise in unthinking, my flow. Basketball has helped me to realize I have the potential to commit myself to all my experiences this way. Right now, though, with less than two weeks of intramurals left, I’m leaving everything on the court.
Peter Lu is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Thursdays.
Correction: February 17, 2011
An earlier version of this article misstated Peter Lu’s college.