Mindfulness and flow

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For a while I’ve been pondering two things that seem to be diametrically opposed but related in some way.  Mindfulness is a state of mental engagement where attention is deliberately focused intently on whatever is happening in the current moment.  Flow, a concept that can be attributed to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, puts the emphasis on performing an action near the limits of one’s ability.

What I find odd is that mindfulness seems to slow or even freeze time, whereas flow makes entire hours vanish in the blink of an eye, in the spirit of “Time flies when you’re having fun.”  In my experience they’re both highly desirable states, well worth the effort to cultivate.  Do they play well together, though?  I think they can, and this is why:

Earlier this week I was producing a report at work.  It’s something I do all the time, so there was no learning curve to deal with.  I have the technical vocabulary to do it by rote, without having to think deep thoughts.  This particular morning, though, something was different.  I found myself slipping into a mindful state, aware of the words on the page and my fingers on the keyboard, and the rhythm that unified the words and the fingers.  Something in my perception tilted ever so slightly, and for a few seconds the rhythm took over.  My attention shifted away from what I was doing to what was being done.  The boundary between the screen and the keyboard vanished, as did the boundary between the words and the movements of my fingers on the keys.

The best explanation I have is that part of my brain went into a flow state and another part remained in mindfulness and took notes.  It didn’t last long, perhaps a minute or two, but it felt good.  It felt like something worth experiencing again.

I’ve tried to establish a regular meditation practice on a few occasions, but my fast-talking, often mischievous mind has a hard time with the concept.  Why waste precious minutes sitting there when you could be doing something interesting instead?  I might have just found an answer to that question, along with a way to make meditation more real and more interesting in its own right.  The next stage is to figure out how to deliberately create the extraordinary mental place I found myself in, and stay there longer.

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