Last week I introduced Mihaly’s research showing that happiness correlates with states of FLOW and then answered the question “What is FLOW?” I also mentioned that cultivating or creating FLOW can be approached in two ways. Today I will talk about those two ways to create FLOW by further exploring the connection between spiritual practice and becoming an expert. Both are about cultivating optimal experience.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to it’s limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Religions throughout the ages have included techniques and practices that help one to become absorbed in something bigger than ourselves. While the paths are many, one thing that all of the contemplative paths have in common is that they develop ones ability to focus single pointedly. I wrote about a couple of ways to do this before. The religious traditions often relied on prayer, meditation, chanting, ecstatic dance, breathing exercises and other techniques. What do these all have in common? Other than developing our ability to Focus, they result in FLOW states. What Mihaly discovered, is that these states can also be cultivated at work, at play and in any other activity. The key is to structure the activity properly.
There are essentially two ways to go about creating FLOW. I could call them spiritual and mechanical. I will talk about Focus and Gamifying. One changes you, the other structures your environment and the way you interact with it. Cultivating focus will transform any and all activities bringing every moment closer to being a flow state. Meditation is the best method I know of for this. I can honestly say that meditation has changed my experience of every aspect of my life for the better. I realize how bold and absolute a statement that is and still I stand behind it. The other way to create flow states is to structure an activity so that it is more engaging. The key is actually to take any project and make it seem more like a game.
Think about what a game includes. Mihaly cites 8 key points to making activities more likely to FLOW. Tell me they don’t remind you of a game:
- Allows you to work toward a clear goal with a well-defined process
- Provides ongoing, direct feedback
- Is highly-challenging, but doable
- Allows for control over the means to accomplish the goal
- Is meaningful or intrinsically rewarding, by the very nature of doing it
- Cultivates deep-concentration
- Creates a lack of a sense of self-consciousness
- Leads to an altered sense of time
I start every coaching relationship by setting goals. The ironic part is that, while my clients do tend to achieve these goals, the reason that their life improves while working with me is not just because they reach their goals. Having a clear destination actually helps make the journey more enjoyable. Setting goals helps us to pay attention to what is happening. When we pay close attention to what is happening we are more likely to become immersed in activity. When we are immersed in this we way we are more likely to enjoy immediate experience. Quite often our goals change along the way. I never let uncertainty about outcomes stop me or my clients from setting goals. Having a goal is the very thing that allows you to change plans. It is the sense of purpose, direction and engagement that a goal provides that helps to cultivate states of flow.
They key is to become light and playful with your goals like a child chasing their best friend in a game of tag. Where I often see spiritual seekers getting lost is when their desire to be present and accepting of all that arises leads them to believe that they should completely let go of any attachment to outcomes. Stillness is not enough. Alone it is boring. The key, as FLOW theory states it, is not to go limp, but to become playful. Human beings happen to enjoy being creative. Having a goal that is challenging draws forth our creative potentials and gives us a focus that is outside of ourself. One way to keep challenge from becoming overwhelming is to break a goal down into smaller, more approachable steps.
When you break your work up into small tasks it helps you in a couple of ways. One is that the next step is clear and approachable. The other is that you get rewarded for completing a step. and This provides positive reinforcement, motivation and builds momentum.
What do gamifying tasks and spiritual practice have in common? They both cultivate two things:
Single pointed focus – the ability to become completely absorbed in one and only one activity
The ability to be absolutely present in the moment – Not only are you focused on one task, you are actually completely focused on one activity at a time in that task. You are not concerned with what the next 10 steps will be, but only on the one step you are working on right now.
The spiritual path works on you. By developing the interior skills to have a single point of focus you can be completely present in the moment. The gamification approach is a method for structuring your exterior environment so that your interactions with it foster single pointed focus while being completely present in the moment.
Next Sunday I will talk about how we each have one task which is the most likely to lead us to FLOW states. Are you ready to Find Your Element?