My experience of flow is that of a state where everything finds synchronicity. A symbiotic rhythm. Where I am fully engaged in an ongoing, spontaneous dance between my inner and outer world. A state of immersion where my actions and the reactions they stimulate are harmonious. A state where there is an absence of self-talk, an absence of self doubt, an absence of shame. A state that I believe is not entirely possible to consciously experience without interrupting it. Only realising that we have been in it as it begins to subside and we notice how time has flown by.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state of optimal experience – the opposite of the dissonant state he calls psychic entropy. “When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly. Situations in which attention can be freely invested to achieve a person’s goals, because there is no disorder to straighten out, no threat for the self to defend against.”
These descriptions have always strongly resonated with me and, at the same time, I’m beginning to wonder if the reality of my lived experience isn’t as binary as I had previously imagined. Is it possible to find flow in dissonance?
Today, the 10th October, is World Mental Health day. A global call to talk about the every day nature of mental health and to fight the social stigma associated with doing so. Like most other human beings on the planet, I experience many highs and many lows in my own mental health. When I experience the highs it feels like I am in a state of flow. No threat, no disorder and no need to defend myself against self-doubt. Just a congruent, immersive, effortless flow. A virtuous cycle in which my energy and my spirit nourish each other. And when I experience the lows I experience the opposite. Moments of psychic entropy. Where nothing clicks. Where self talk and self doubt dominate and drown out my creative spirit. Where I feel separate, different and unconnected to myself and my environment. Where there is an absence of meaning. An absence of energy and spirit. And it is in these difficult moments where I am starting to learn to find flow through creative practice. To draw the dissonance I am experiencing. To sculpt the self-doubt. To paint the difficulties. To write about them in all their gory detail. And through doing this in a creative way I find flow again. Not always, but often. Through doing this form of creative Tai Chi with the difficulties, rather than trying to battle with them or flee from them, I am able to make different meaning from them. I am able to reclaim at least a little flow in the eye of even the biggest storm of dissonance. (My 2017 talk on Dancing with my Inner Critic tells the story of how I began this practice.)
The early seeds of shame and self doubt have often been planted in moments of interrupted flow. Moments where, as a young child, teenager or even an adult, our state of spontaneous, immersive flow was suddenly disturbed by criticism, humiliation or punishment. (School did this for me on a regular basis in a variety of ways.) And our flow may have been interrupted for a very valid reason in the interests of our own safety. My friend, therapist and author Simon Cavicchia, often tells the story of his state of flow being interrupted as a very young boy by his mother as he wandered, unaware, into a busy road in order to stroke a cat on the other side! I have come to believe this is why many adults find it so difficult to trust their own spontaneity as, at some level, it is hard wired to these moments of shame and embarrassment that have become associated with surrendering to flow. So it makes sense to me that the way to reclaim flow and gently dissolve or at least make more sense of these interruptions is through whatever practices we naturally find a flow state in. For me it is art and running. For my wife it is her photography. For others it might be to dance their difficulties. Or to write poetry about their self-doubt. Or to meditate on their here-and-now experience of themselves. Or to or use Lego to help let go. Or to knit out their psychic knots! And the advantage of exploring our lived experience through these non-linear creative means is that we don’t need to draw any firm conclusions or take aways from the process. The act of immersing ourselves in the process of creation is enough to help get us unstuck, even a little. And whilst you might chose to share the outputs of your creative practices with others, essentially this is a practice for you only. So it really doesn’t matter what it is you do or what anyone else might think of it.
Think of it as your own, unique creative retreat. A way of finding meaning and insight in the very eye of the storms that are an inevitable part of being human.
Steve and Simon Cavicchia’s next “Playing at the Edge: Dancing with your inner critic” workshop takes place on November 22nd & 23rd in London. Details can be found here.