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 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.
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.
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?