Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Achieving Flow


CC Jean Stimmell

I noted with great sadness the passing of the man with the unpronounceable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the pathbreaking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.⁠1 He was influential in my life, along with some of my patients, particularly overly-conscientious, workaholic teachers and business executives who, after studying his book, became more effortlessly productive while rekindling  joy and happiness in their lives.

In this seminal work, written in 1990, he used the term “Flow” to describe the sense of creativity that emerges from an intense absorption in a challenging activity, whether in the arts, sports, business, or a hobby.

 We’ve  all experienced it: being wholly absorbed in the activity at hand, being so involved in it that we lose our our sense of time or even our sense of self. This state of being is what folks are describing when they say they’re in the zone or in the groove. His book was about what makes this happen and how to get more of it.

It's not rocket science, according to him: "Talking to a friend, reading to a child, playing with a pet, or mowing the lawn can each produce flow, provided you find the challenge in what you are doing and then focus on doing it as best you can." The crucial point is that Flow doesn't just randomly happen; we make it happen.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi described flow as totally focused, "completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.⁠2 .”

Deep focus is central to Csíkszentmihályi's notion of Flow, the opposite of that old cliche, "going with the flow," which too often is an excuse for apathy and indifference. When properly understood, Flow is a profound concept integral to spiritual and religious practice.

This notion finds its strongest voice in Taoist and Buddhist traditions. As it is for Csikszentmihalyi, the core idea is not to force or grasp our way through life but instead live life spontaneously, in harmony with the natural order. Rather than doing nothing, it is about connecting to an effortless flow by connecting deeply with what we love. Then we are not doing a task; we are becoming it.

In many ways, as a society, we are going in the wrong direction: In an interview in 1986, he blamed television for the decline in hobbies, avocations, and lifelong education that blend aspects of both work and play. According to him, such pursuits promote Flow and, as a consequence, happiness.⁠3  Unfortunately, if we were to equate the distraction of watching TV in 1986 to having a beer after work, the distraction of the internet today is like mainlining heroin 24/7.

One bright sport is how we as a society are turning on to mindful living, meditation, and paying attention to the present moment. Linda Stone asserts that paying attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. But it all depends on how we use it. We can enhance it with passionate practices, diffuse it  with technologies like the internet, or alter it with pharmaceuticals. But, in the end, we have no one else to blame: "we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool.”⁠4  



1 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row




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