Every pursuit, whether it is art or any other career, has these special sweet spot moments that have come to be known as Flow. Some endeavors are more prone to this than others for certain reasons but they all have access to it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively on the subject in his book Finding Flow as well as others looking at the scientific data surrounding this phenomenon.
In the 1970’s and 80’s there was very little information or conversation about this but as technology began to clarify the workings of the brain and new discoveries were made on the plasticity and recoverability from either defects or injury flow emerged as an important component of these studies. The point I want to make is that all studies come from focused inquiries of actual experience. Actual experience is where this article will be focused. There has always been an awareness of the experience of ‘being in the zone’. But the why and how of it remained foggy at best.
I began to recognize flow first through athletics at a young age. Basketball was my sport and there were days where I had ‘feel’ that I didn’t have on other days.The ball felt like part of my hand. There appeared on these days a knowing of what was going to happen next, a heightened sense of distance and momentum where you knew most of your shots were going in and you couldn’t miss. I always found this happened to me when I had the least expectation about my performance meaning I was either sick or injured or something that lowered my expectations. Maybe it was that I took the pressure off myself and allowed for a greater thing to emerge. The time and practice was already put in which is critical to allow for this state but on these days I had a relaxed, almost I don’t care state of mind.
Once I began my career, almost out of high school as a self employed artist, I began to experience a similar phenomenon on what I will call my good days. I had times where all of a sudden it was the end of the day and it just flew by. I developed an unconscious routine that over time seemed to allow for these days on a more regular basis. Looking back I recognize certain practices that kept raising the level of engagement and ultimately the outcome of my focus. How this manifested for me was looking at a finished work and having the distinct feeling that I didn’t do it and that it just flowed through me somehow. I had transitioned from the thinking mind to the feeling soul if we can call it that. In other words I was high from the experience and had no consciousness of how it had happened.
It is very difficult to expound on this in an article or book as this is experientally based and is as personal as the work you do and how you will be positioning yourself to allow for these times. However there are common elements that restrict flow and things that facilitate flow. New technology can actually image these states in the brain and we can train ourselves to maximize our ability and mindset. Meditation, yoga, exercise, stillness and my favorite ‘doodling’, a sort of visual daydreaming, typically initiates stepping into flow. I resist the idea of finding flow as I believe it exists around us every moment and we step into it when conditions are aligned for us. As we become more ‘automatic’ or unconscious in our ability to express ourselves, I have found that picking up a paint brush or pencil or whatever your tools are potentially open up and trigger this flow energy and before we know it there it is guiding us along the process that we are focused on.
In the end flow is a result of a conglomerate of things that we have chosen and committed to far before we ever feel it. It takes practice, routine and a deepening understanding of the work you are engaged in. Sometimes we get a glimpse of it when we discover a new interest or pursuit. Something sparks. It drives us to do it again and again in an attempt to duplicate the experience. I want to be clear however. Flow is not required to pursue and work at any endeavor of excellence whether painting, writing, dancing, theater or even medicine for that matter. However working at something, committing to something and the drive to pursue it is always a requirement to experience flow. Ultimately flow is a gift the creative force gives us to drive us forward and for each of us to be able to say, ‘it feels like it just came through me and I was happy to be a part of it’. Next week I will explore in more detail what detracts and what fosters this experience so stay tuned.