Flow is a buzzword being used and abused by ambitious corporate consultants and spiritual gurus alike. It has become yet another state, like “optimized innovation” or nirvana, where everyone is trying to formulize to be the BEST! There is even a Flow Dojo where elite athletes are encouraged to enter the flow state so we can catch lightning in a bottle and replicate it.
Rather than pushing yourself or pursuing excellence to experience flow, I suggest doing the exact opposite. According to Positive Psychologist and renowned researcher Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a mental state in which a person is “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. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Flow is a state praised by poets for centuries as a place of mystical union and ecstasy; the mysterious space just beyond the mind where we feel light, alive, and free. Where the self-conscious ego is quiet and we experience just being.
I feel most in flow when I am singing my heart out like a six year-old, connecting people I love, hearing a well-told story, or coaching a room full of people. It is the rare moment when I am not obsessed with an outcome or worried about what people think. It’s when I am surrendered to whatever is unfolding and aware of something greater than myself. Flow is a brief reprieve from the mind that should not be hunted. Like the truth, flow dances beyond definition. I try to live my life in service to it, so when it appears, I follow.
Ambition and flow are only in conflict when our mind has a specific timeline or outcome it is attached to. Flow has its own sense of time. In order to cultivate conditions for flow I would suggest silencing your mind in meditation, questioning your thoughts, and acknowledging when it is present, and then observing it without attachment. Don’t fret when you feel the absence of flow, you are always in it to a greater or lesser degree. As we heal from the misunderstanding that our mind is in charge and we become aware of what really wants to happen throughout us, we can be in service to flow and play in it.
How does flow show up for you? Consider a time when it felt like every cell in your body was standing at attention and vibrating with aliveness. It can be riding a bike as a kid, working on a math problem, speaking in front of a group, making art, cooking, or playing an instrument– the activity doesn’t matter. Now slow it down even further. What are the qualities of this moment? What are the sensations in your body? Invite these qualities into your experience right now by breathing them into your body. These qualities are the elements of flow. Get intimate with them. When I guide clients through this meditation, they almost always describe this state of being as light, alive, and in the flow.
The essence of flow is pure presence. Remember Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”? THIS is what he meant. If you are ambitious, your mind will tell you slowing down is death. It is a lie. Slowing down is where we tap into flow and life becomes much more playful and fulfilling. You don’t have to huck yourself off a cliff or be a virtuoso in the violin, you just need to bring yourself fully into your present moment. It happens more often than you think, we just need to train ourselves to slow down and become aware of it.
“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” Emily Dickinson
Bristol Baughan is an Emmy-winning and Oscar-Nominated filmmaker, author, and private coach. She is a TED Fellow and Founder of Inner Astronauts, a custom experience and private coaching company supporting people in coming more fully alive in service to the world. Bristol holds a B.A. in International Studies from the American University School of International Service and an M.A. in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica.
Artwork by Michelle Favin of Whys LA for Poppy & Seed. Connect with her @whyslosangeles.