Thinking About Flow

If you make a living programming, you know how productive, how creative, how enjoyable this state is: you + the task at hand – any other thought in the world. Focus, flow, mindfulness only of the moment you are in.

Flow can be found in the most mundane moments (there are no mundane moments if you become aware of this): from playing a game of basketball, to playing your guitar, to a late night World of Warcraft session, to gazing at your wife, or laughing with your daughter.

Time slows when you are in flow. Anxiety about the future transforms into passion about the now. Thoughts about the past do not get a chance to play on your conscious mind.

Flow is an extreme form of the feedback I’d give my Mom, when she was falling into a bad state, and concentrating too much on mistakes made or horrors visited upon her in the past.

“All that matters is the here and now. You, right here, are safe and well. We are doing well. All of us are blessed. Don’t let what happened 20 years ago defeat you. It doesn’t matter. Besides – its kinda insulting to your current circumstances to think anything more of the past other than it helped you get to here. Now is all that matters.”

(I need to tell myself this more often!)

This doesn’t jibe so well with a lot of psychological talk about how people need to face their pasts to over come them. That’s true in many cases. In many cases we *do* need to deal with the demons in our hearts in order to achieve our potential. But Mom had already faced her past. In countless therapy sessions, with countless doctors. She had a condition. And her doctors had, at one time wrote her off as hopeless – doomed to a downward spiral of psychotic episodes.

Becoming mindful of her own thoughts was part of a larger set of solutions that helped her be very “with it” the last few years of her life before leaving us. She succeeded to the point of being aware of threatening ‘bad thoughts’ and seeking out help before cycling and requiring hospitalization. Before this, once you saw the signs, you knew it was a hospitalization that would be the result.

Its funny, when you think about it. Because while we find flow in a great many positive things, the state of flow is just as likely found in the neutral or even the negative.

We spend millions of dollars, our time and attention, following gurus of various ideologies, taking up crazy religious practices, pursuing sex and drugs, creation and destruction, creating drama upon ourselves and our fellow man – just to be in it.

Flow is so primal a force in our adult lives because its something we literally swam in 100% of the time as children.

Our schools and our parents barked it out of us as they taught us to ‘pay attention’ for the *next* moment. We shaked it out of our own hearts as we let ourselves become more and abiding to scheduling. Most of all, as we get older, time simply seems to speed up as we become aware of our looming mortality.

Psychology Today: Finding flow:

…A deprived childhood, abusive parents, poverty, and a host of other external reasons may make it difficult for a person to find joy in everyday life. On the other hand, there are so many examples of individuals who overcame such obstacles that the belief that the quality of life is determined from the outside is hardly tenable. How much stress we experience depends more on how well we control attention than on what happens to us. The effect of physical pain, a monetary loss, or a social snub depends on how much attention we pay to it. To deny, repress, or misinterpret such events is no solution either, because the information will keep smoldering in the recesses of the mind. It is better to look suffering straight in the eye, acknowledge and respect its presence, and then get busy as soon as possible focusing on things we choose to focus on.

To learn to control attention, any skill or discipline one can master on one’s own will serve: meditation and prayer, exercise, aerobics, martial arts. The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.

It is also important to develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn, become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.

…Flow is a source of mental energy in that it focuses attention and motivates action. Like other forms of energy, it can be used for constructive or destructive purposes. Teenagers arrested for vandalism or robbery often have no other motivation than the excitement they experience stealing a car or breaking into a house. War veterans say that they never felt such intense flow as when they were behind a machine gun on the front lines. Thus, it is not enough to strive for enjoyable goals, but one must also choose goals that will reduce the sum total of entropy in the world.

Find your flow and you slow down time. Find your flow and time has no meaning. Find your flow and find your love.

These are things I am saying as much to myself as I am you.

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