How to Get into a Creative “Flow State”: A Short Masterclass

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Enter a ‘Flow State’ on Com­mand: Peak Per­for­mance Mind Hack Explained in 7 Min­utes

Albert Ein­stein Tells His Son The Key to Learn­ing & Hap­pi­ness is Los­ing Your­self in Cre­ativ­i­ty (or “Find­ing Flow”)

Cre­ativ­i­ty, Not Mon­ey, is the Key to Hap­pi­ness: Dis­cov­er Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s The­o­ry of “Flow”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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