Sunday, January 22, 2012

The relationship between mindful participation and "flow"

Most people are probably familiar with the concept of "flow."  "Flow" falls under the realm of "positive psychology" and was formulated as a psychological theory by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state of consciousness that occurs when a person's attention is completely absorbed by a given activity.  During a state of flow, all sense of time is suspended.  A person becomes fully immersed in a given experience; he is no longer conscious of himself.  His actions and attention are completely in sync.  In a state of flow, a person is not conscious of external distractions.  Neither does he experience any internal distractions; "mental chatter" does not occur in a state of flow.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, only certain activities can stimulate flow.  To enter a state of flow, a person must engage in an activity that is challenging, but within his ability.  Challenging activities, Csikszentmihalyi asserts, require our attention.  Simple tasks, on the other hand, are frequently performed on auto-pilot.

It seems to me that a lot of people tend to think of flow as something that just "happens" when you find the right kind of challenge.  I am sure this is sometimes the case.  We start doing something; we become so immersed in it that when we next look at the clock we are shocked to find that hours have passed.  So to a certain extent, the experience of flow does seem to depend upon finding the right activity.  It is not, however, a given that once you find the "right" activity, flow will just come naturally.  There is also no guarantee that it will be easy to find the activity that compels you to fully immerse yourself in it.  For these reasons, flow depends upon more than just finding the "right" challenge.

If we leave it to chance, flow is likely to be a state of mind that we achieve spontaneously, but infrequently.  Flow is the type of experience that allows us to fully engage in our lives; as such, it has the potential to enrich our quality of life and to add to our sense of purpose or meaning.  Why leave something like that to chance?

When I teach mindfulness to my patients, I use the model designed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  The DBT manual distinguishes between mindfulness "what" and "how" skills.  The three "what" skills are observing, describing, and participating.  I see the skill of "participation" as the sort of culmination of mindfulness practice, i.e., as something you work towards.  The more you practice observing and describing the world around you (and within you) without judgment, the better able you are to participate mindfully in whatever is happening in the present moment.

The practice of mindfulness is concerned with process, not outcome.  Flow, too, is about process.  Flow is achieved through mindful participation and is its own, intrinsic reward.

I will be the first to admit that I do not experience flow very often.  As a very task oriented person, it is difficult for me to take time to engage in the process of doing something.  Often, I am so focused on needing to get things done that the process of doing brings no satisfaction at all.  Because of this, I cannot jump straight to mindful participation when I practice mindfulness.  Instead, I must practice non-judgmentally observing and describing.  Gradually, this will enable me to maintain contact with the present moment more and more frequently.  The more I engage with the present moment, the better able I am bring mindful presence to my daily activities.  Mindful presence leads to mindful participation; mindful participation leads to flow.


  1. Me impacta en hermosura sus letras gracias por su presencia ya hacía tiempo que no me visitaba le deseo que este nuevo año este lleno de armonía.
    Feliz semana saludo desde…
    Abstracción textos y Reflexión.

  2. I am not really a flow person, except when it comes to meditation over a time period. Like you I'm task oriented, probably taught by own parents as a way of finding happiness by 'getting things done.' Hence we don't relax as easy as most. But we can change! I am introducing mindfulness to be aware of other people, getting out of their way, giving up seats for some, letting them go ahead as a way of chiseling at my ego. It is about mindfulness of where you see yourself and how to disappear because we all know we will one get a head start.


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