Being in the Flow

Being in the Flow

Recently, I saw a TED talk on Flow by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He researches happiness and what makes people feel life is worth living

He found that work which brings us into a flow state is most rewarding. This state is beyond culture and education but usually comes when a skill is highly developed and practiced. We don’t have to think about the process but just step into it and go with it.

He outlines these common features of Flow:

1 – completely involved in what we’re doing
2 – a sense of ecstasy or joy, outside of everyday reality
3 – inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well we’re doing
4 – knowing it’s doable and we’re up for the task
5 – serenity – no worries about self, growing beyond boundaries of ego
6 – timelessness, in the present, hours pass by quickly
7 – intrinsic motivation – the flow becomes its own reward

You may notice this is similar to meditative states and qualities of enlightenment. And indeed, research shows meditation practitioners step into a similar state to high functioning performers, athletes, and business people. These qualities of experience come with a key marker: cross-brain EEG coherence. The brain working as one.

– transcending (samadhi) during meditation creates coherence
– the coherence from daily practice is gradually carried forward into activity
– years of practice to perfect a skill may develop coherence resulting in high performers

According to research, high mind-brain development is the largest contributor to world-class performance and stepping into the zone (flow) in any field. Education contributes 1%, experience 3%, and adult age 0. Practice is a larger contributor but I’d suspect our approach to the practice matters a lot. A grudging slog will not bring the same results as a joyful focus.

(I tried to find a simple link to a non-geeky description of the research but wasn’t successful.)

Curiously, this discovery was accidental. During research into higher stages of development, my brain physiology professor in grad school, Dr. Fred Travis, discovered coherence in the EEG. They soon discovered coherence between different parts of the brain grew with regular transcendence. Exploring this further, they found occasional control subjects had the same feature and it was highly correlated with high performance in their field.

This lead to a focus on high performance and how to develop it. Effortless meditation and skill in the field are key. I’ve just discovered they’ve written a book on the topic called Excellence through Mind-Brain Development. It outlines 4 “performance dimensions.” I’ve not seen it. Here’s its website.

The nice part? Enlightenment is a side effect of enjoying life. 🙂


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    1. Yes, he touches on the creative process and some elements of the above. But he also mentioned “I can’t bear feelings between people.” His description suggests emotional saturation and difficulty processing conflict, symptoms of a backlog of repressed emotions.

      That tends to make getting in the zone more difficult and affects quality of life. His comments also suggest he’s an HSP but this would have been before this was understood.

      Sensitives benefit even more from good emotional processing skills.

      On the other hand, that repression may have driven the things he created. 🙂

  1. AB

    Hi David,
    Have been wondering about Flow as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I agree with you that one has to have highly developed skill to get into the zone. However he shows on a graph that the challenge level also needs to be high enough otherwise one ends up in control or relaxation state. I am wondering, when in the zone state, is one fully self-aware? Any thoughts?

    1. Hi AB
      There’s a distinction here that’s useful to mention. When someone has a strongly identified ego, that can get in the way of getting “into the zone” as that requires a form of letting go. But when we focus on a task and get absorbed in it, this can potentially move us past that control and allow the flow of insight, performance, and creativity. In that case, we would not be self-aware, only task-aware.
      “completely involved in what we’re doing”

      If we’re holding to a controlled state (or just spacing out), that won’t lead to flow. Then a high challenge level might be used to “break through.” A lot of performers, for example, have serious stage fright even after years of performance. But they have other drivers that allow them to push through that and get into the flow.

      Much easier is if we also develop self-awareness. By this I don’t mean awareness of our strengths and weakness (although that’s also useful) but our inner wakefulness beyond the mind and emotions.

      When we become established in presence/ inner wakefulness / Self awareness then there is an allowing of the experience there naturally. Self-awareness permeates our experience and when we focus on a task there is nothing to pull us away from it. We step into flow naturally.

      Myself, I find the zone still shows up when it does. It’s not something to try and control but just allow. When it does, I have to be flexible and go with it.

      To be clear, there is a deeper kind of flow when the resistance of a person trying to control falls away. Life itself has motivation and flows through us. But at one time, it will be flowing towards getting groceries. At another time, toward answering questions like this. And then there is the magic times where the flow is about inspiration and insight. I have to capture that as otherwise, it just flows on and is forgotten. I have notepads around the house, etc. 🙂

      We could say there are styles and levels of flow…

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