The FlowState of Slacklining
"With every step, I arrive at my destination." Thich Nhat Hahn
Long intricate shadows decorated the dry rocky landscape of prickly bushes and protruding rock faces - it's Saturday, the second day of Smith Rock Highline Festival, and I reluctantly slid my harness on for the second time that day, preparing to project a 100 ft highline called "Money Talks." At Smith Rock National Park in Oregon, it's near possible to actually project any highlines seriously around midday. Half of your energy gets sapped away by the merciless desert sun. This dry, high desert climate was certainly not what I expected coming to the Pacific Northwest, an area supposedly infamous for rainy days. Luckily, countless shady caves speckle the top of the sheer cliff faces - perfect for afternoon siestas and regeneration.
I had arrived at "The Bivy" (walk-in campground and dirtbag paradise at Smith Rock) a week early for the festival, and instantly felt at home there with my "Bivy family," a collection of highly talented climbers, highliners, and colorful characters. Some of them, like me, were just passing through, and others resided there permanently for six months at a time. I had only planned on staying a few nights, and moving on before the arrival of the large crowds that both the highline festival and the weekend would inevitably draw. Naturally, I had way too much fun, and a couple nights turned into a ten day stint. The Bivy and Smith Rock both draw you in irresistibly. I loved the people, and time trickled away quickly and unnoticed.
I also decided to stay for the festival, because in the first few days I was there, I became drunk on slacklining success. I on-sight full-manned (Full-man: crossing a highline both ways without falling. On-sight: crossing the entire length of a highline the first time without falling) both of the 40ft highlines there, "Wizard's Cap" and "Monkey Face," on my first day, jumped off a cliff and swung on a 120ft ropeswing rigged by the legendary Alex "Fancy-Pants" Stuart (highliner, climber, and permanent Bivy resident), and finally, set my new personal record for highlining on a 70ft highline called "The Gift." So, overall, you could say I was kicking ass. I had accomplished more in the first 5 days of being at Smith Rock than I had in the past year, and my ego was slowly inflating. I felt invincible.
More and more lines started going up Friday and Saturday of the festival as more and more talented highliners from all over the country started rolling in. Among those lines were an 80ft highline and a 100ft highline. "Perfect!" I thought, "Maybe I can set another PR (personal record) this weekend!" Sending (crossing) the 70ft line had felt so easy and natural that I was sure I could do it again.
That entire Saturday morning I spent working on the 80ft highline, "Dog Fight," and my confidence decreased as steadily as the oppressive temperatures increased. I crossed the line with one line catch on the way out. On the way back in though, something didn't click, and I just got completely destroyed. I probably took as many line catches as I took steps, and by the time I stepped off of the line, shaking hands struggling to untie my leash knot, my right leg (the leg I catch the line with) was cut, bruised, and sensitive to the touch. I took refuge in a shady cave to fixate on the back of my eyelids, which featured a marquis of disappointed and discouraged thoughts, that hadn't subsided by late afternoon as I pulled my harness on again to get onto "Money Talks."
This line was longer than Money Talks, but was rigged on different webbing, which makes a huge difference in the difficulty of a line. I slid out, trying to resist the overwhelming urge to back out completely. My brain was convincing me that I was a horrible slackliner and I had no chance of sending this line. With my first 3 attempts to stand, I proved myself right. I lost focus, and semi-intentionally bailed out and caught the line (which was painful after the morning I might add).
I was not even remotely in the zone. My morning of repeated failure on Dog Fight had tarnished my determination on Money Talks, a line that I might have been able to make a lot of progress on.
My repeated success during the first half of my stay at Smith Rock had inflated my ego like a balloon, and that Saturday it finally popped. My mental state prevented me from giving Money Talks a fair shot. My subconscious had been feeding me these thoughts that I was a "good slackliner," and when I didn't succeed as easily later, those thoughts were too easily replaced by thoughts that I was a "bad slackliner."
Controlling this ego when you're training for anything is tricky, and ultimately egoic thoughts of what you "are" and what you "aren't" will act as a roadblock between a person and what they are pursuing.
Dissolving your ego and expectations you have for yourself is so much easier said than done, though, and there exist no shortcuts to do so. It's a continuous process of actively seeking to live within the present moment not seeing yourself as a person experiencing the present moment, but instead as a fundamental part of the present moment. One of the reasons I love slacklining so much is that it has allowed me to come closer to this place of oneness with everything around me than anything else ever has. Some practitioners of slacklining (and many other endeavors that require and encourage deep focus) call this the "flow state." In the flow state, you have experience no judgement of yourself, no self doubt when you feel shaky walking a slackline, and no boastful pride when you feel steady and can walk the slackline steadily and quickly. Instead you are just dealing with any shaking and instability as it presents itself, in the now, and not worrying about feeling unstable 10 seconds from now, of feeling discouraged when you were unstable 10 seconds before now. Before I had experienced this on a highline for the first time, I had no idea that this kind of state of mind was even possible.
Nonetheless, even though I have experienced this addictive flow state before, tapping into it is still difficult and inconsistent for me, and I still constantly allow my ego to either over inflate me, or shrink me with self doubt. The difference now is that I am more conscious of it when it happens, and I am getting better at stepping outside of myself and identifying when my ego is preventing me from living in harmony with the present moment. I now try to incorporate this same state of mind into everything I do.
When you start placing judgments (positive or negative) on yourself in any situation, it's okay (even necessary) to take a step back, breathe, and try to let go of these expectations you've cultivated for yourself. Sometimes, doing so can take just a few minutes of calm reflection. Other times, if can take days (or weeks!) to dissolve this ego. Being aware of it is the first step.
I never did send those two lines at Smith Rock, but that's okay. They'll be there, and I can go back. For now, I'm sitting on an airplane to Paris, France after spending a few days in Iceland. I'm experiencing a strangely similar feat to scooting out on a highline, but I'm trying to harness the same unity with the present that I have felt on the highline before, and take everything - the good and the bad - as it comes.