I recently had the very good fortune of hearing Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi deliver a presentation at the Happiness & Its Causes conference on one of the concepts for which he is world-famous: flow.
‘Flow’ is the state of being we all experience – however briefly or infrequently – when we become completely immersed in whatever it is that we are doing. By definition, it is a state of complete mindfulness.
Mihaly tells the story of how he first became aware of the flow experience during the Second World War in his native Hungary, when a chess player described how he could become so absorbed in his game that he would be oblivious to the bombing going on all around him. Even if the ceiling fell in, he said, he wouldn’t notice it.
Mihaly later heard similar stories from rock climbers, dancers and musicians. He came to realise that this unique state of flourishing is defined by a number of characteristics. As Mihaly listed one after the other of these, I couldn’t help thinking how in many ways they define a great meditation session:
The characteristics of ‘flow’:
- Attention is focused on a limited stimulus field;
- Action and awareness merge
- There is full concentration, complete involvement
- Self-consciousness disappears
- There is freedom from worry about failure
- The sense of time becomes distorted
- The experience becomes its own reward – it is auto-telic (a good in itself)
You can, of course, debate the application of some of these points to meditation. Matthieu Ricard, who was also at the conference, suggested that when we meditate our attention may be focused not on a limited stimulus field, but on the infinite nature of mind, an object that could not be more boundless. That said, placing our attention at the tip of our nostrils and monitoring the breath in and out certainly falls into the category of ‘limited stimulus field.’
The ‘action’ of a meditator in paying attention to the present moment may be a lot more subtle than that of a performer doing the tango, but the merging of the two so that subject and object merge into a state of non-duality most certainly characterises a great meditation session. As does the disappearance of any self-consciousness, fear of failure, and so on.
The idea of meditation becoming its own reward is an interesting one. When we begin, for most of us this is not the case. Just as, I suspect, the novice rock-climber, musician or chess player faces many hours of fairly unrewarding practice before reaching a level of competency where being in flow is possible, so too a newcomer to meditation.
But with applied effort, it does happen. We no longer require the evidence of scientific studies to tell us how beneficial meditation is for us. We do it because we know how good it feels to be in flow. If we practice diligently for long enough, meditation becomes its own reward. We experience brief moments of being in flow – and are encouraged to keep going to see what happens as these moments extend for longer and longer …
As a footnote, if, like me, you are bamboozled by how to pronounce the name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, let me pass on a tip I learned from a Buddhist nun at the conference. “I know I shouldn’t say this,” she laughed mischievously, brushing her face. ‘But I just remember ‘Cheeks send me high!” Phonetically his name is Me-high, Cheeks-send-me-high.
Just don’t ask me to spell it!
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I had fun narrating this: