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Flow States Part 2

Publication date: 01 December 2011

To recap: the problem with flow is it presents a paradox: we want to access flow states, yet to try is by definition not flow.

I think the key to the resolution, insofar as a resolution is possible, is to go back to a distinction that I mentioned in an earlier post. Timothy Gallwey, in his 'Inner Game' series of books, distinguishes between self 1 – the teller, the commentator, the ego, the judger – and self 2 – the doer. What Gallwey calls self 2 is a broader conception of the self that goes beyond the narrow conscious ego or will-power. We are all of us so much more than we think we are. The broader self can do so many things that we can't do by force of will: fall asleep, be spontaneous, relax, find things pleasurable (or painful) control emotions. This broader self includes what you might call body intelligence. We know when we're hungry and when we've had enough to eat. We know how to walk down the street without thinking about it – and what a nightmare it would be if we had to think about how to do that.

So we could say that this broader self or self 2 knows how to enter flow, but the narrow conscious will or ego doesn't. The key to entering flow is resolving the lack of harmony between these two sides of ourselves.

How does the narrow conscious self access the resources and abilities of the broader self? Well, clearly not by demanding, cajoling, judging and criticising. That makes things worse not better – it's what I call the “quicksand dynamic”.

Gallwey suggests we can literally ask self 2 for an outcome. This means an attitude of trust, appreciation, respect, even humility. He stresses it works if we can give self 2 an image of the outcome. Self 2 speaks the language of image, feeling and sensation – not words. Telling is not enough. You need to know what the outcome looks like, or feels like, or both.

In a sense, the question we're asking ourselves is, what would it feel like if … (fill in the blank, e.g. I play a certain tennis shot, or I was calm and my muscles were soft.) The more specific (in terms of sensory detail) the better.

This kind of attitude engages the imagination (which is perhaps another self 2 resource). The result of wondering what it would feel like to speak smoothly and fluently during my presentation, is very different from that of demanding I must stop myself blushing or my boss will think I'm an idiot.

If you don't know what it would feel like or look like because you've never done it before, then you can trust self 2 to learn, and ask for learning as an outcome. Self 2 is really good at natural, spontaneous, effortless learning. All you need to do is give your attention to your sensory experience, with this open, non-demanding attitude.

What does self 1 do once it's asked? After all, it's difficult if not impossible for self 1 to just switch off and do nothing but wait. The answer is that self 1 can concern itself with what it can have some control over, which is pay attention, or focus. There's a lot to be said about how to focus – but that's the subject of another post.

I think biofeedback is a really useful context for learning to access flow. All the characteristics of flow that I listed in Part 1 of this post are potentially there. My experience is very clearly that “success” in biofeedback (e.g. reducing muscle tension or increasing heart rate coherence) only comes with letting go, and an attitude of openness, acceptance, and entrusting (in the broader self, or self 2). When success comes it feels in a way effortless – although in another way the mind is definitely engaged.

Lastly I want to touch on the subject of flow in meditation and mindfulnesspractice. I think most would agree that when meditation goes “well”, it is a flow state. But for most of us it's not always like that. In such cases it may be useful to ask, which of the characteristics of flow listed above are missing? I think one really interesting one to think about is feedback. If the goal of maintaining awareness is clear enough, what is often not clear is feedback for the times when we lose awareness. I for one can spend many minutes at a time off in distraction, forgetting to bring my mind back because I have nothing to tell me I've gone off...

Unless I use biofeedback that is. In this sense, biofeedback can support mindfulness practice. It can independently tell me when I've become distracted, but even before I've become distracted it can help me see the effects of the way I'm applying my mind. In meditation it's not easy to see such effects.

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