“Flow” is a concept proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, described as a state of single-minded immersion in a task, where one’s emotions align with the task and energize us. A person experiencing a state of flow becomes so immersed in the task as to lose a sense of the separate self, but also experiences spontaneous feelings of joy. A state of flow requires involvement in a structured task; a task that offers immediate feedback that requires adaptation; and a balanced experience of one’s competency and the challenges of the task.
Flow is often explored in the context of work or hobbies, where one’s skill and passion join in a state of “doing without doing.” In my practice, I work with the concept of flow as also a feeling of alignment and integration. When I am in the flow of my life, my relationships and obligations feel nourishing and intriguing. I am not always in a state of ecstasy, but I have the sense that I am where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to be doing. My sense of purpose arises from within and feels validated by what is happening around me. I perceive problems and challenges as natural responses to having purpose, not a sign that my purpose is wrong.
There are places within us that get stuck and pull us out of flow. I might love what I’m doing but feel preoccupied by what’s going on at home. I might hate what I’m doing but resist making any changes out of fear. Old traumas might prevent me from saying what I need to say or doing what I need to do, blocking up energy. If I cannot act with my heart, mind, and gut aligned, then my life can begin to feel empty and lacking joy.
Integration of self strengthens flow. Dishonesty with myself or others diminishes the strength of integration and the capacity for flow. The emotional integrity necessary for flow means the ability to bring everything I am into the moment without getting distracted by my multiple stories or efforts to protect ego, as those interfere with the small adjustments necessary to support flow. If all I do is smile and say everything’s okay when I’m seething with anger inside, then I am not in integrity and certainly not in flow. If I’m unwilling to discuss my pain because “men don’t do that,” then my pain will stay buried within, out of reach of healing.
This does not mean flow is out of reach for people who are working toward healing and integration, because that would include almost everyone. What it means is that the work of healing and integration creates more and more inner space, freedom, and capacity for flow.
The paradox is that we approach flow through sinking into these stuck places. The wound is the pathway to healing. Avoiding or numbing ourselves only further limits and impedes our ability to experience healing, authenticity, and joy. We can practice patience and the gentle opening of attention, noticing more and more the unconscious patterns that constrict energy and flow.