“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and time again. My hand seems devoid of myself and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And the music just flows out of itself.”
The above quote by an unnamed American composer gives a vivid description of a flow state. It begs the question, are these joyful, effortless states the preserve of highly skilled creatives or athletes ‘in the zone’, or are they available to all of us - even while gardening, washing up or ironing a shirt?
Here a friend describes a very different example of flow as he recollects working in a drinks factory in Amsterdam, many years ago:
“As a bottle watcher, I sat by a large conveyor belt with many bottles trundling along on their way to be filled. I had to learn to notice one fallen bottle among hundreds and then neatly hook it back up again. Initially it was anxious work, as I found it difficult to even see a falling bottle let alone hook it up. The whole conveyor belt ground to a halt several times before I got it right.
But once I got the hang of it, the falling bottles seemed to show themselves to me and it was as through the hook went out of its own accord to pick them up. I even enjoyed the work!”
What are flow states?
Also known as effortless attention, flow states are defined as occurring when there is a balance between the level of challenge within any activity and the skill required to accomplish it. Where the activity is too difficult, one becomes anxious. Alternatively, if the activity is too easy, boredom sets in. This is true across any activity whether climbing the highest peak or cooking a meal. Effortless attention is available to all of us and can happen when we are absorbed in a familiar activity that requires our concentration.
And what is it like to be in a state of flow?
Flow can be described as being completely involved and focussed on an activity, with positive feelings of joy or serenity - even ecstasy, while knowing what needs to be done and that one is capable of doing it. There can be a lessening of concern about oneself, a sense of timelessness, accomplishment, and enjoyment in the task itself rather than the goal. One is simply and happily engaged with the unfolding experience.
Benefits associated with being in a flow state
Flow states promote ease, clarity and focus as the negative thoughts and feelings that can impede a task drop away. The thought processes needed for the task are clear, appropriate and immediate, seeming to arise out of nowhere. The ability to concentrate without distraction means a task can be accomplished with efficiency and enjoyment. The pleasure of being in flow gives rise to happiness and positivity that last beyond the experience and contribute to the wish to continue working in this way.
How can I experience flow for myself?
Flow cannot be consciously willed: it arises when the conditions are right. We can, however, create beneficial conditions. Chief among these is to know that we are up to the task in hand and not self-conscious while doing it. This requires some level of training and practice. Secondly, there does need to be a degree of challenge, even if that is simply being fully focussed on doing the ironing beautifully and efficiently in a way that an untrained novice to the task would be unable to achieve. Thirdly, motivation helps. You are more likely to experience flow while engaged in an activity you enjoy.
Can mindfulness meditation help to develop flow more generally in our lives?
The experience of deep meditation is similar to the experience of flow. Both share qualities of being fully in the present moment, of joyful, happy feelings and a sense of effortlessness and timelessness. This suggests that regular meditation practice could be helpful in accessing states of flow during activity.
We can be rather negative about mundane tasks but accepting the challenge of engaging positively and knowing we can do the job well, can shift us into a happier, more flowing state of mind.