Flow—that single-minded immersion in a task that leads us to joy—is a life skill, a practice we can develop over time. Flow, also described as being in the zone, occurs when we have an optimal (peak) experience. It happens when we become so engrossed in what we’re doing that we forget everything else around us and experience pure joy and happiness.
Running, rock climbing, creating art are some of the activities in which we might experience this form of completely focused motivation.
Flow can also happen in our daily lives while going about ordinary work, like doing the dishes, typing, talking on the phone, if we’re able to focus our inner experience and choose to center our thoughts on what’s true, important, and life-giving.
The pioneer of the Flow theory, University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that human beings are able to process only 7 bits of information at any given point in time. Those bits of information come to us as sounds, images, emotions, and thoughts.
The dog barks.
We wonder what time it is.
The phone rings.
We remember we need to take the chicken out of the freezer for dinner.
Our nose itches. We scratch it.
We hear a song on the radio. It brings us to tears or makes us smile.
Because there are much more than 7 bits of information that bombard us in each moment, our central nervous system spontaneously has to choose which stimuli to give attention to so we don’t become overwhelmed and overloaded.
By becoming consciously aware of which 7 bits of information we wish to focus on, we can control our inner experience by choosing only those thoughts, images, and emotions we want to process through our on-board human computer. In other words, while we may not be able to control our outer experiences, we do have the natural ability to control our inner life through what we choose to focus our attention upon.
Doing the dishes we might be thinking about how tired we are, how frustrated we feel with the current presidential election, how we wish our life was much more exciting than the mundane tasks we have to struggle through each day. Or, we can focus our attention on the fact that we’ve been given these amazing hands that are able to flex and bend and touch and feel the smooth water flowing over them. We can lift our spirits to the sound of a sparrow chirping joyfully outside our kitchen window, and feel our breath tingle through our lungs. Suddenly, what once was a pity party soon becomes an orchestra of sight and sound.
My buddy calls this type of positive, energetic, living-in-the moment: opening your heart.
“When I open my heart I feel a sense of flow,” he says.
“The negative thoughts and perceptions I hold onto fade away, and I sense a deeper connection with the voice of love in, around, and through me. That’s the voice, the images, the thoughts I choose to focus upon, and they fill me with peace and connection with myself, the Creator, and others.”
Opening our hearts, finding flow, are positive life skills that are within our grasp if we choose intentionally the 7 pieces of information we allow to capture our attention.
And even when life’s outer experiences throw a wrench at us we can still choose to flow as we process them. We can open our hearts, let go of the negativity, and discover how even the tough times in life are inviting us to grow, gain wisdom, and find joy and happiness in each moment.
brian j plachta
I never got that kiss with Teresa. But as I reflect on that long-ago night, I realize Sister Carmella shared two pieces of wisdom I’ll never forget: to leave room for Jesus and the healing power of a smile.