Flexible Focus #33: The Wonderful World of Flow

by William Reed on December 23, 2010

If you have ever been mesmerized by the sight and sound of flowing water, then you can appreciate something of the energized mental state of focus know as Flow. It is the process of full engagement in the task at hand, living in the moment, being in the zone.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi drew the world’s attention to an ancient phenomenon which is at that core of what makes life worth living, the state of being in Flow. The state of being in Flow is associated with intense enjoyment, deep concentration, and optimal performance. He describes it as a state of ecstasy, as if standing outside of oneself and watching things unfold effortlessly. The video of his TED Talk provides a good introduction to his findings.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written a number of books on Flow, Creativity, and the psychology of engagement in work and daily life, which you can explore on his Amazon Author’s Page.

His research has found resonance with people in a remarkable range of domains: education, music, sports, spirituality, martial arts, professions, and work itself. The state of Flow is consistently associated with feeling good and performing optimally. Something about this trance state works for race car drivers as well as orchestra conductors.

He identifies ten characteristics which accompany the Flow state:

  1. Clear goals or purpose
  2. Concentration on a limited field of attention
  3. Loss of self-consciously through immersion in action
  4. Distorted sense of time
  5. Direct and immediate feedback
  6. Balance between ability and challenge
  7. Sense of personal control
  8. Intrinsic reward and effortlessness
  9. Total absorption without distraction by bodily needs
  10. Merging of action and awareness

Finding Flow in the Mandala

Although Flow Psychology has a global following today, it has long been a part of Asian spirituality. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism all have developed disciplines for overcoming the duality of self and other. Zen Arts apply the concept to mastery of art forms as well as development of consciousness.

Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning Circle, and the concentric diagrams of the Mandala have been used in Hindu and Buddhist ritual and meditation for centuries. Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung described the Mandala as a symbol of the unconscious self, which he believed could contribute to wholeness in the human personality.

We have already seen how the Mandala Chart can actually free your mind by thinking Inside the Lines, and how much creativity there can be in Folding the Square.

The Flow state is associated with immersion of awareness in action. In a discipline such as music or the martial arts, this is called deep practice. The Mandala Chart can assist you in selecting and deepening your engagement in the art or discipline which best helps you find the Flow state. Self-discipline in the pursuit of such an art, or discipline under the guidance of an experienced teacher can facilitate your ability to stay in the Flow state.

Here are eight benefits of deep practice, eight reasons to engage in discipline:

  • Polish your skills. Whether you are learning to cook, speaking a foreign language, or mastering a musical instrument, you cannot improve without practice. It is the proverbial way to get to Carnegie Hall. In sports, music, and many other professional disciplines, it is estimated that to achieve significant mastery, you need 10,000 hours of deep practice.
  • Gain unconscious competence. Before you attempt something new, you may have no idea how difficult it is (unconscious incompetence). When you try your hand at it, for a while you may be painfully aware of how poor your performance is (conscious incompetence). With practice, eventually you become able to perform well if you concentrate (conscious competence). But you can only achieve mastery through extensive time in deep practice (unconscious competence).
  • Discover new territory. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the best way to discover something new is to revisit something familiar. We filter out far more than we take in, so there is always room for discovery if you approach it with a beginner’s mind.
  • Develop skillful means. In the process of trying to solve a difficult problem you find lots of ways that don’t work. If you keep at it, sooner or later you discover what does work. This is known as skillful means (kufū in Japanese, or kung fu in Chinese), the art of solving problems with finesse.
  • Cultivate perseverance. A Japanese proverb says that persistence brings power. In any endeavor worth pursuit, perseverance is a prerequisite to success. This is the mind set which drives deep practice. It also builds character by preparing you for other challenges.
  • Gain perspective. The more times you practice, the better you will understand. The more ways you look at something, the more flexible focus you bring to bear, the better your perspective will be. Perspective is also one of the benefits of expert advice or training.
  • Guide or teach others. Having developed all of these qualities through deep practice, you become qualified to teach them to others. Deep practice becomes a part of you, and gives you the authority of experience.
  • Get into Flow state. Deep practice is a traveling companion to the Flow state. It takes you there, and makes the most of your experience.

You can download a PDF Mandala on the BENEFITS OF DEEP PRACTICE, and use it as a reminder of how to enter the Flow state through the art or discipline you practice. Study the Flow state through the books of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and you will soon put together the what, the why, and the how.

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