The concept of flow is in some ways as old as the hills but it was systematised and brought to prominence by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his classic work ‘Flow’. Flow states are a mainstay in the world of positive psychology, which studies what it means to be happy. For example see Martin Seligman’s work.
Csikszentmihalyi wanted to know what characterised people who were happy – in the sense of being fully engaged in life. The essence of a flow state is that you become so absorbed in whatever it is you’re doing, that you lose awareness of yourself as a separate being, and things just happen naturally (they flow) without any need for willed effort on your part. It’s still you doing it, but if feels effortless, as if you are moved by some force beyond yourself. Flow states are very enjoyable – but you only realise it in retrospect. Flow states are common, at least for some people, and can happen in almost any context but are most typically encountered while playing sport, or music, or practising some art form, but also in more mundane contexts. A lot of people find flow at work! Csikszentmihalyi researched flow states in a wide range of cultures and contexts, and distilled a set of characteristics of flow states: Continue reading
Admittedly this title is somewhat provocative – a more important question is, should we even be trying to stop thinking in mindfulness meditation? And the answer to this question is no.
Recently I read Andy Puddicombe’s book, ‘Get Some Headspace’, and he points out, as lots of other writers do, that it’s a common misconception that meditation is about stopping thinking. People get frustrated because the more they try to silence the thinking mind, the more their thoughts come back at them – a classic example of the “quicksand” dynamic that I mentioned in an earlier post.
But it really begs the question, why should people think meditation is about silencing the thinking mind? After all, good mindfulness teachers make it clear that it isn’t. Perhaps it’s more that people naturally seem to want to shut off thoughts. Continue reading
Mindfulness presents us with something of a paradox: we want to control the mind in some sense, at least by keeping it in the present moment, and yet we are taught that any effort to control the mind is doomed to failure. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – a form of mindfulness-based therapy) gives us the metaphor of quicksand: when we struggle in quicksand, we get sucked down. In other words we get the opposite of what we want. Instead we need to focus on acceptance. Mindfulness therapy purists seem to be saying don’t make any attempt at all to control the mind, or at least to control emotions.
I think this goes too far – it risks throwing the baby out with the bath water. The key thing is the nature of the effort. The wrong kind of effort is indeed counter-productive. But there is a right kind – let’s call it mental application to distinguish it. It’s possible to acquire skill in working with emotions – emotional intelligence if you like. We’ll never have absolute control over our emotions, but equally we aren’t powerless. Continue reading
The story starts when I was a student. I was studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and hoping to specialise in Physics. I was struggling with Physics, in part because my studies weren’t giving me the deep understanding of reality that I really wanted. Then I came across a book called ‘The Tao of Physics’, written by Frijof Capra back in 1973. It was about the parallels between some ideas in modern physics, and ancient traditions of the East, such as Buddhism and Taoism. It was my first real contact with the idea of meditation as a way of directly experiencing wisdom, the nature of reality, etc. I realised that was what I really wanted. I learned that in Buddhism, wisdom is not just a passive acquiring of knowledge but comes with complete personal transformation, which is what meditation (at least in the Buddhist context) is all about.
That was back in around 1988. I’m still working at meditation. It’s probably fair to say that mindfulness meditation has proven harder for me than I would have liked. Continue reading