I get to my office in Brooklyn during a weekday morning after I drop off our two children at the bus. Before meeting with my first psychotherapy client, I sit silently to prepare mentally for the session. When the client arrives I greet them with a warm smile and a firm handshake. It is at this point that I am fully present. I get into a certain listening mode with my clients where I am deeply focused and not concerning myself with anything else at all. It is like something has taken over, where insights and active listening come through and I am able to lead the client to a point of healing and clarity. I am in a flow. This is extremely rewarding for me and I often come out of the session energized and content. This does not happen during every session but does occur more often than not.
I was reading a book simply called “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is a Hungarian-American psychologist. Csikszentmihalyi has done an impressive amount of research studying the behaviors, biology, brain activity and physiology of those who have achieved levels of ‘flow’ that made them highly successful. Flow is a state where there is tremendous focus and a feeling of freedom and bliss, so much so that time and everything else ceases to exist except for the task at hand. People like Michael Jordan have called it “in the zone.”
Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “...what we feel when we are fully alive, involved with what we do and in harmony with the environment around us.” Often flow comes about when we are engaged in the activities such as singing, dancing, sports, reading and even having an intriguing conversation with someone.
A great example of someone being in a state of flow is rock climber Alex Honnold in the documentary film “Free Solo.” Alex lives for climbing. He sleeps and eats in a van parked near Yosemite National Park so he can be close to the mountain where he practices free-solo climbing in order to perfect it. Alex planned and prepared each step of the way over several months to climb the 3,000 foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite. When he first attempted to free-solo the massive granite wall (no ropes or cables) he stopped along the way knowing that he was not in the right state of mind. Days later he was ready mentally and physically and was in the state of flow needed to achieve something no one had done before, free-solo El Capitan.
So how does one get to a state of flow? First off one need to recognize what they love to do and what brings them joy and what they are good at. Csikszentmihalyi states that “Happiness is being able to express who we are and our strengths and what we do…[that] this is what I’m supposed to do and this is what matters.” This could include something of the arts or ways in which one help others.
The next step is having clear goals in mind to focus on. These goals need to be measurable in order to know that one is getting closer to accomplishing them. Csikzamtmihaly identifies a four percent challenge to one’s skill-set so that they overcome boredom but, it is a challenge that is doable. Sometimes challenges one sets for oneself are too difficult and they set themselves up to fail. People also have a tendency to overload themselves with so many tasks and multiple goals that they become frustrated and overwhelmed. To get deeper in the flow, challenges are intended to be set over time so that they continue to grow.
When ‘in the flow’ there is a focus so intense that it surpasses the ego; there’s inner clarity, a feeling of blissfulness and a feeling of time flying by. There are no concerns or doubts and sometimes no worries of dying. Can you identify a time that you were in a state of flow? A time you were completely focused and clear about the task at hand and where time ceased to exist? It may be worth pursuing what gives you flow as it can bring increased life satisfaction and confidence.
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