Is “flow state” the new mindfulness? The phrase has gained a lot of currency lately. You may have heard it spoken of in rarified terms that sound like you have to be a full-time artist, professional athlete, or Albert Einstein to access it. On the other hand, we have award-winning journalist, human performance expert, and Flow Research Collective founder Steven Kotler explaining in a video that we featured recently how to achieve a flow state on command. So, does flow require a little or a lot of us? It requires, first and foremost, a shift in consciousness.
In the field of positive psychology, flow is most associated with theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose Creativity: Flow the Psychology of Discovery and Invention provided key contemporary insights into the idea. For Csikszentmihalyi, directing our activity toward material notions of security sets us up for disappointment. Flow states are best understood as actualized creativity we can manifest in almost any conditions: we can be “happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside,’ just by changing the contents of consciousness,” he said.
For Taoists, flow means according with the nature of things as they are, which takes a lot of keeping still and letting be. Goethe used the phrase “effortless effort” to describe creative flow. Kotler’s definition is a bit more operational: Flow, he says in his Mindvalley talk above, is an “optimalized state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best.” One thing all notions of flow seem to share is a belief in the importance of what Kotler calls “non-time,” or what the Taoist calls “the doing of non-doing,” a pleasurable resting state without distraction. (Kotler takes his “non-time” between 4 and 7:30 in the morning.)
Kotler himself arrived at the flow state “through an unusual door” — which he illustrates in his talk with an MRI of a skull in profile and list titled “The Cost of Doing Business.” For an ambitious freelance journalist, that meant “2 fractured kneecaps, 2 shattered arms, 1 snapped wrist, 2 mangled ankles,” and the list goes on (including 5 concussions): a description of injuries incurred while following extreme athletes around the world. What he saw, he says, were people who had everything going against them — little education, little natural ability, and histories of “destroyed homes.”
The athletes he followed were traumatized people who would not necessarily be candidates for world-changing innovation. Yet here they were, “extending the limits of kinesthetic possibility” — doing the previously impossible by achieving flow states. Kotler’s descriptions of flow are often very Yang, we might say, focusing on “peak performance” and favoring sports examples. But his claims for flow also sound like deeply healing medicine. He talks about “triggering” flow states to “overcome PTSD, addiction, and heartbreak.” Like Csikszentmihalyi, he saw firsthand how flow states can heal trauma.
We can achieve this “altered state of consciousness” by surfing or skydiving. We can also achieve it while solving equations, translating foreign languages, or knitting scarves. As Csikszentmihalyi points out, it is not the content of an experience — or the expense in airline tickets and broken bones — that matters so much as our state of absorption in activities we love and practice regularly, which take us away from thoughts about our ever-present problems and open up the space for possibility.