Go With the Flow

Posted on: August 25th, 2016 by

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Many people whose lives are affected by cancer or any other serious illness — whether former/current patient or caregiver — often experience depression and anxiety. Psychotherapy, psychotropic medications, EMDR, and guided imagery are just some tools that can be effective at combatting intense emotional stress. These and more options can be discussed with medical professionals.

But another phenomenon effectively decreases or even eliminates stress completely for a period of time. This tool has helped me and many others immensely. It does not require psychotherapy and medications and is easy on the wallet.

It is called Flow.

The concept of flow is the focus of a book by expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. While this post isn’t a book review, I cannot recommend this book more highly. Reading this work was life-changing for me because it made me aware of how certain activities I participate in are highly beneficial to the mind and body.

In a nutshell, flow involves participating in an activity requiring focus and deep concentration where a person invests psychic energy for a period of time. Past wounds and future worries are obliterated; the only thing that exists is the present. Activities can include, but are not limited to, dancing, writing, creating/playing music, knitting, sewing, sketching, painting, and even working at a job that demands great attention.

The more flow one can incorporate in his or her life, according to Csikszentmihalyi, the better the quality of his or her life, self-growth, and exuberant feeling of transcendence: “Without enjoyment life can be endured, and it can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment. To gain personal control over the quality of experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.”

He is spot on.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow helps guard “against the entropy that brings disorder to consciousness. It is really a battle for the self; it is a struggle for establishing control over attention.”

Watching television and other passive activities might be enjoyable, argues Csikszentmihalyi, but they don’t create an optimal life experience. Television may bring pleasure, but it does not bring about flow or truly enhances one’s life. And coming from the flow side of things, I couldn’t agree more.

One of the things I often struggle with is focus, thanks to chemobrain. With some tasks, my thoughts are scattered. The activities that give me a sense of flow are exercise, writing, and art. While I love participating in all these activities, art is the one that puts me in the most meditative state and gives me the greatest flow.

I want to discuss my meditative art practice, and you can apply this concept to your own flow activities, if you haven’t already.

Art Therapy

Art takes me to a place where I lose self-consciousness. During the time I draw or paint, my problems and stress “disappear.” All that matters is that particular art project, so much so, that I lose track of space, place, and time. With each brush or pencil stroke, all that matters is the present and the artwork itself.

Losing myself in an art project

Losing myself in an art project

Here’s an example: I start working on an oil painting at 5 p.m. and get so lost in the painting and the resulting reverie, that before I know it it’s 2 a.m., but it feels like just a millisecond has gone by. Each moment I devote to art I am in a meditative state of absolute relaxation. And even after participating in art, I feel more “together” and focused.

This is flow.

And this meditative state helps soothe my mind and body for as long as a few days after participating in the activity.

Unfortunately, for the past year or so, this vital part of my life has been neglected due to a busy life. Balancing work and family isn’t easy, and I haven’t spent enough time with the activity that brings me the most flow — art.


That’s going to change. From now on, I plan to better integrate art into my life. Truth is, no matter how busy I am, I must make time for art — there’s always some time for art — in order to enhance my life with flow. My mind is now conditioned for art-related reverie: all I have to do is watch my daughter create a painting, and waves of relaxation overcome me.

This is why I understand why adult coloring books are all the rage. These books promote flow. I’ve purchased a few and color with my daughter, and I experience reverie while focusing on the task of coloring.

Flow 3

To me, flow is about functioning and managing stress better. To cope with stress, we need to enhance our own quality of life. If we can create flow in our lives, we can better deal with the stresses life has to offer.

What activities relax you?

Have you ever experienced flow? If so, what activity/activities have prompted this phenomenon?

The first draft of my latest art project

The first draft of my latest art project

Flow 2

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16 Responses to Go With the Flow

  1. Caroline had this to say about that:

    The best thing for me is my weekly knitting group at a local cancer support center. All the women there call it one of the best things they do for themselves. We chat and do our needlework and chat and vent. The two hours fly by.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Caroline,

      Sounds like you have a great hobby, and it’s wonderful when shared with friends! I can’t knit a stitch, but I admire those who can. Sounds like you experience flow whenever you all get together. Terrific!

  2. Kathi had this to say about that:

    Agree very much. I think I discovered this for myself a long time ago, that there are absorbing and often creative activities that require total concentration, and thus are like a form of moving meditation. I am fortunate that my job requires that kind of concentration, so that, even though it is tiring, it completely takes me out of myself & my own stresses. And of course, writing and making art and even certain kinds of exercise do the same. The thing about these activities is also that they feed our soul, I think. That’s part of it. Once you realize how it works, it’s (almost) easy, but we do have to remind ourselves to have enough of these kinds of things in our lives. Good post. xoxo, Kathi

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      You said it so well — “moving meditation.” That’s what creative endeavors are. My job also takes me out of myself. When I teach, just helping my students is what matters most to me. And I know you help so many people at your job.

      Yes, these activities do sustain us, and I’m so glad that so many are available to us.

  3. Stephanie Urban had this to say about that:

    I started painting again last year, when I realized that stress had pushed my creativity to the side. I decided I needed to do something to deal with the very stressful job. So, I can’t quite agree that a job that requires a lot of thought has the same benefits. But after I got out the paint brushes and decided to try my hand at watercolor (which was cheaper and less committed than oils)I could feel the instant benefits. YouTube was an excellent free source of instruction. A few months later, I learned I had breast cancer. I shared the benefits of painting while going through treatment and was asked to volunteer to share what I had learned at the cancer center. To show people you can learn just a few techniques from YouTube and get started on the cheap. I continue to write and paint and will NEVER give it up again. Never let go of your creative side, no matter what! It is the beginning of the end! Great Post! Thank you!!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your insightful comment. It’s wonderful how you embrace being an artist. YouTube has so much information on how to do everything; I’m proud of you for seeking out this way of learning how to watercolor. I tried watercolor, and I struggled, finding oils easier for me.

      I took very cheap lessons from an artist at Hobby Lobby; that was my entry into painting, although I was dabbling with it before formal classes.

      You have helped many people by discussing art as stress reliever at the cancer center. Yes, creativity rules!

  4. Pat Wetzel had this to say about that:

    Flow is an amazing book! The best part of the book is how the author discusses the elements of flow, how to create and sustain this timeless focus. Fo me I’ve found flow flying sailplanes; hiking Tahoe, kayaking and through other outdoor activities. Total magic! A must read!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I totally agree that Flow is a must-read. It’s such a book filled with wisdom that helps the reader learn about how to improve the quality of his/her life through focus. Your activities sound wonderful. I love your word “magic” to describe the book and the experience. It really is.

      Thank you for your comment.

  5. Eileen@womaninthehat had this to say about that:

    Beth, I agree. There’s nothing like being in flow. I experience it with writing and dance. It’s like nothing else exists except for the magic of that moment.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Eileen,

      Flow is truly a gift to us. And yes, the moments spent in flow are magical. :)

  6. Rebecca had this to say about that:

    Beth, your post made me think of sports. I remember when I played volleyball during my high school and college years — not very easy years for me — I was able to completely escape from the difficulties of my reality. Currently, I experience that same sensation with writing and taking long walks. It is more challenging today to keep a consistency with flow. I still experience moments of flow, but they often get interrupted by the overwhelming life I now live. There’s just too much to do and so little time. But we have to make it a priority to welcome this type of therapy as it often leads to having a good quality of life. xx

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Yes, Rebecca, we must have to make flow a priority, no matter how busy our lives are. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s the truth.

      Sports bring about flow for sure. I didn’t know you were a volleyball player! I used to play in high school. Walking helps me, as well.

      Ah, if only we had oodles of uninterrupted time, huh?

  7. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    Fascinating post. I experience flow when I write. I can write and totally lose myself and before I know it, hours have passed. And walking. That’s another one for me. And another activity I can lose myself in is reading. But like you, I have a lot of difficulty concentrating since chemo. It literally takes me months to finish a book, but for those moments when I am whisked away… gosh there’s nothing quite like it. We all need escapes. We all need flow! Thanks for the post and for the reminder to make time for it, or at least try to.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      I’m so glad you experience the phenomenon of flow. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Writing is an excellent way to bring about this meditative reverie.

      Yes, concentration problems abound for both of us, it seems, when reading, thanks to chemo. But the key is, as you know, to keep reading even if it takes a long time to finish a book. It takes me a long time to finish books, too, as you know.

      Walking is a good way to bring about flow, too.

      Thanks for your comment!

  8. Carolyn Thomas had this to say about that:

    This is a wonderful reminder, Beth! I too love the book “Flow” (although still utterly unable to pronounce Mihaly’s last name!)

    My #1 go-to flow resource these days is my 16-month old granddaughter, Everly Rose – who lucky for me, lives two blocks away. When she was born, one of my blog readers told me: “This new baby will be better for your heart than anything your cardiologist can prescribe for you!” And she was so right. It’s simply impossible to spend time with this happy little girl without having to focus all of my heart and soul on her, especially now that she’s walking and learning to talk. Best thing ever – and way more fun than having my own babies… 😉

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Carolyn,

      I’m also unable to pronounce Mihaly’s last name. The book is absolute genius!

      What a wonderful thing to have a granddaughter living nearby! Children do so much for our emotional and physical health; it truly is amazing. I’ve heard that being a grandparent is much more fun than being a parent. Enjoy your sweet granddaughter!

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