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Mindful : February 2017
Elements of Flow Concentration Your attention is focused and grounded in the present Action You merge doing and awareness Evaluation You become less self- conscious (and less self-evaluative) PRINCIPLES We all have experienced flow at one point or another. We get absorbed in something we’re doing, whether it’s sporting events, playing or listening to music, meditating, or working on a project. We look up from what we’ve been doing, it’s five hours later, it’s dark outside, and our bladder is about to explode—we’ve been so focused we haven’t even noticed. Wouldn’t it be great if we could produce this on demand? The more often I experienced flow on my bike, the more I could look back afterward on the conditions that increased the likelihood of it arising during that ride. After a year or so of accessing flow at different times, I started to put on my scientific hat to look at my own experi- ences. What were these conditions? Could I reproduce them? Researchers have debated for decades what it takes to get into a flow experience and stay there. Yet, there is still no consensus on how to reliably reproduce this state in controlled environments, let alone what brain activation (or deactivation) and neurotransmitters are involved. Are there other clues about conditions that support flow? Csíkszentmihályi empha- sized that a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. Beyond keeping us alive when in extreme situations, what was he getting at? Pondering this after mountain bike rides, I started to understand what this balance meant. If I was on terrain that was flat and easy to ride, my mind was more likely to chatter away. If I was doing something that was too technical for me at the time, I would fall or stop frequently (and get frustrated with myself ). Yet, when the conditions were perfect—I was riding terrain that was challenging enough not to be boring, yet not too challenging, I was much more likely to pop into flow. From a brain perspective, this fits with what we currently know about the self-referential networks—those that get activated when we think about ourselves. The main network, dubbed the “default mode” network (aptly named because we’re self-referencing most of the time) gets quiet when someone is concen- trating on a task but lights up in circumstances that promote boredom. It also is activated dur- ing self-evaluation and other types of self-refer- ence. And, studies from my lab and others have shown that this network gets really quiet during meditation. This may be the “loss of reflective self-consciousness” that Csíkszentmihályi was referring to. Confidence You develop a sense that you can deal with whatever arises because your ‘practice’ has become a par t of who you are Presence Your subjective experience of time is altered such that the ‘present’ is continuously unfolding Understanding You experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding Relatedly, many of the other elements of flow sound surprisingly similar to meditation: Con- centration focused and grounded in the present moment. Subjective experience of a continuously unfolding present moment. Intrinsic reward. These are all good descriptions of mindfulness, whether we are in formal meditation, or simply being mindful during our various experiences as we go about the day. When we get out of our own way and into the momentary flow of life, it feels pretty good. Not surprisingly, Csíkszentmihályi even mentioned meditation as a way to train fl o w. What about joy and flow? Is there a joyous condition that supports flow? Michael Jor- dan, the Chicago Bulls hall-of-fame basketball player, may be a good example of this. During his professional career, he scored more than 40 points in how many games? 172! Yet, what is one of his most memorable moves? That he stuck his tongue out when he was “in the zone.” This may be an indication of being in a relaxed, even joyful state as he’s cruising past his defenders, tallying up points. When we know we’re on fire, we can relax and enjoy the ride as we burn up the competition. Phil Jackson was Jordan’s coach during the period that saw the Bulls win three back-to- back championships. He was well known for → How to identify the deceptively complex experience of flow ILLUSTRATIONBYGETTYIMAGES/COLORMOS February 2017 mindful 73 insight