At some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced being completely absorbed in an enjoyable activity. This could be watching a sunrise, cooking a meal, skiing down a mountain, or playing music, or tennis.
During these moments, when our attention is completely focused on what we’re doing, there’s often a sense of ease, as if in that moment everything is coming into place.
When the Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explored what makes people happy, he found that people are happiest when they’re in a state of flow. He describes flow as, “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the earlier one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Flow states work well with tasks that have a few simple rules, clear goals, immediate feedback, and a degree of challenge that’s balanced by individual skill as well as concentration and focus. Many artists, musicians, and sports professionals develop their use of flow to reach peak performance.
So, are mindfulness and flow the same? Maybe if we only ever experienced flow, then we would not need mindfulness. Unfortunately, life can be messy and mundane and does not always come in neat flow-like experiences. We get distracted, react impulsively, get annoyed, stressed, and anxious, and make judgements and assumptions, which all make life much more complicated. Also, we’re not always sitting looking at a sunset, or skiing down a mountain; we could be washing up, travelling to work, or sitting in a dull, overly long meeting at work.
Mindfulness does include a lot of the elements of flow; it’s certainly about bringing your attention to present-moment experience, away from distracting thoughts. One of the closest mindfulness skills is working “One-mindfully”, which is about focusing our attention on one thing at a time. If we are in conversation and someone’s talking, our attention is on listening. If we’re writing a report, our attention is on the sentence we are typing. If we’re washing up our attention follows the movement of the brush on the plate. One of the secrets is to work out “where the action is” and rest our attention there.
The fact is that the present moment is always changing. Although we could say a single moment is like a breath, it makes little sense in being too accurate, as what we experience is really an interconnected, flowing present. Mindfulness is about working skilfully with the ever-changing flow of experience, whether this is easy and pleasant, or difficult and unpleasant. There may be different physical tasks, conversations, interruptions, distractions, feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, reactions, and responses. And we can easily get caught up in any one of these. Like surfing the wave of whatever’s arising in the present, the surfer needs to maintain alert attention and balance to respond skilfully as the wave rises, flows to the shore, and returns to the ocean.
Here are some tips for exploring flow using mindfulness:
- Bringing your attention and awareness to the body and senses into the flowing moment of experience
- Working with whatever you are doing one-mindfully
- Focusing your attention on where the work gets done
- If you become distracted by thoughts, or something else, bringing your attention back to focus on the activity
Practising mindfulness can help us maintain a sense of stability and balance with whatever arises. Taking a one-mindful approach we can make sure we do one thing at a time to the best of our ability, rather than having our attention and concentration scattered. Mindfulness also provides inner resources to ride the flow, making us better able to respond and balance our well-being, happiness, and performance.
Suggested weekly practice
- Find some activities, even mundane ones, like washing up or painting a wall and focus your attention one-mindfully on where the work gets done and see what difference that makes.
- When you are exploring a flow activity, remove obvious distractions, and watch for being distracted by thoughts. When you find that your attention has drifted off in thought, acknowledge where it’s gone and bring it back to the activity.
- Have some fun with flow by doing a different exercise activity like ice skating, or a creative activity like playing an instrument or painting a picture to explore your flow skills.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore the moment-to-moment flow of experience, seeing if it’s possible to skilfully work with whatever arises.