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A few years ago I stumbled upon the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the famous positive psychologist and the author of the book ‘flow’. His work intrigued me deeply and I began to investigate the depth of it in a variety of different ways. By understanding his theory and concepts through reading his books and articles. By seeking flow through applying different methods such as breathwork and seeking the flow state in a range of outdoor activities. I even recently traveled to India for eight months to explore the ancient practice of classical Yoga, which Csíkszentmihályi pointed out to be one of the most well developed flow practices out there.
While progressing and internalizing these techniques, it started to become clear to me that every experience, whether it is flow or any other experience, is produced within my physical and psychological structure. This insight pointed out to me that my body and mind are the sources of my experience. Everything I experience is a consequence of the play of body and mind.
But what is an experience? Not by concept or definition, but what is my experience right now?
The answer that came to me, after months of practice and reflection, surprised me and is actually not even an answer at all. It’s not an answer you can think of. Because the question can not be answered by giving a logical explanation that can be understood and held within my thinking mind.
Why is that so? Because the logical description of any experience in my thinking or in words is not the experience itself. The answer to this question can only be found by attending to something different than thoughts.
Shifting your attention
This insight became very clear to me on a particular day. I was practicing a certain kriya - a yoga practice that uses the breath. I was sitting half outside and half under the roof of a corridor. I had my eyes closed and was focused on my breath and practice. Suddenly it started to rain. Half of my body started to get wet. The rain poured heavily and I could hear the noises of people running to take shelter under the roof. In those few minutes I got bombarded by external triggers and sensations. The rain hit me on one side of my body, air temperature dropped rapidly, a few raincoats hit me in the face while people were passing by. And even the mosquitos took shelter under the roof and started to bite the other side of my body. Despite all these distractions there was no response to these triggers to stop my practice, get up and take shelter. There was no aversion, no self pity, non judgment about the situation. Not even an inner voice trying to make sense out of all the sensory inputs. I was not attending to my thinking mind. My attention was completely in my body, experiencing an intense sense of aliveness.
See and try for yourself if you can make this shift of attention out of the thinking mind into the subtle experience of aliveness: sit comfortably in a chair. Close your eyes for a few minutes. Take a few deep breaths and relax into it. Bring your attention inwards. Just feel the sensations that come into your awareness. Do not label any of the sensations, just be with the sensations.
If you find this difficult, try to focus your attention on your hands. Become aware of the subtle sensations inside your hands. Do not label any of it, just be with the sensations. You might start to become aware of a pulsating sensation of energy and aliveness. Now, expand this awareness slowly to your entire body. Notice the pulsating sensation throughout the body. Also notice the openness and stillness of the mind. Keep this awareness steady for a minute and slowly, open your eyes.
Now, coming back to the question: what is your experience right now? Do you notice that the moment you activate your thinking mind, you partially lose the subtle experiences in the body as a result of the shift back into the thinking mind. And do you see that the description of this experience in your mind is not the actual experience itself?
What I learned is that to become aware of any experience, the first thing that is needed is to come out of the thinking mind. Because having a thought about my experience is something completely different then being aware of the full experience itself. The thought in my mind is not my awareness of the experience, the thought in my mind is my unawareness of the experience. Therefore, to come out of my thinking mind requires a shift in attention away from my thinking mind into something else. This is not done by convincing myself that I am not my thoughts, because this in itself is a thought. Also this is not done by trying to stop my thinking. This is done by shifting my attention to the sensations of the experience.
I was already working as a coach and very familiar with flow, but I was struggling to be the coach I knew I could be. I lacked a robust coaching framework and support system…Hear other stories
Let’s circle back to flow for a second. To me flow seems to be pure action without thinking about the act or anything else. The movement of thought seems to be absent. There is even no perception of the experience itself. It’s a pure being state while performing an activity. The perception of it comes when falling out of flow. Also the logical concepts, definitions and theories of flow that I enjoyed reading about and can understand, are very different from the actual flow experience itself. The actual experience is very personal and real, but can not accurately be described in logical terms. That does not mean that flow theory is useless or wrong, I rather see flow theory as the collection of signposts pointing towards a subjective experience that we all are capable of experiencing. These signposts may be scientifically correct, but they point towards a deeper personal truth that can only be subjectively experienced. The signposts have been very helpful to me and have propelled me to investigate inside my own physical and psychological structure. It is always helpful to remember, however, that flow is a subjective experience. Whilst scientific analysis may be necessary to help conceptualize, apply, and share knowledge, the fundamental truth of flow (and any subjective experience) is an existential truth and not a conceptual one.
The ultimate living laboratory
From this point of view, I see the physical and psychological structure as the ultimate living laboratory capable of producing many experiences. It is one of the most advanced chemical laboratories on the planet, but unfortunately it comes without a proper user manual. Having a life of rich experience such as flow we need to learn how to create it from within our own living lab by enhancing and improving our experience through conscious experimentation.
But before we can start improving the quality of our experience, the first step is to become aware of our moment-to-moment experience itself.
I hope you enjoy your living laboratory as much as I enjoy mine :-)