first published April 2018
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve juggled way too many things, and my regular painting habit was interrupted. I forgot about what happens when we don’t get to enter flow states.
I first encountered Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into flow just a few years after I’d graduated. A friend had a cousin who was a psychologist, and he lived in Colorado. I met him when he was visiting my friend, and he drew us a diagram to explain the concept he’d learned; we enter flow states when skills and challenge are balanced. If the challenge is too low for our skills, we get bored. When the challenge is too great for our skills, we get anxious. In between there’s a channel, where we’re able to get lost, absorbed to the point of forgetting everything except for what we’re doing. Even to the point of forgetting ourselves.
I found this tremendously useful; if I was anxious while painting, I needed to find ways of reducing the challenge. If I was bored, I needed to find ways of increasing the challenge.
A few years later, Csikszentmihalyi was well known for his writing about flow. He explained that while we usually believe that rest and watching TV will make us feel good, he had found evidence to show that it’s being in flow that provides us with feelings of well-being. It’s as we emerge from it that we’re most likely to feel a sense of fulfilment. One of his experiments involved identifying the activities that brought his trial group into flow. For some it was running; for one - I remember this because it seemed bizarre – it was washing the dishes. He then asked them to avoid this activity for the duration of the experiment, which was intended to be two weeks. After a couple of days, they had to stop the experiment. The people in the sample were suffering symptoms identical to those of generalised anxiety disorder.
Now, when painting, I certainly don’t spend every moment in flow. There are a lot of moments where the challenge is too great (it’s hell), or not enough (it’s tedious). And not every period of flow leads to good work. I can be completely lost in painting trance, emerging from the absorption convinced I’ve surpassed anything I’ve done before, and the next time I look at the painting, it’s clear that it’s … not so great.
But, I experience longer periods of flow when I’m painting than in most other activities, regardless of the success or lack of it in the work. This morning, back in the studio, after just a short time, I felt like I was emerging from being under water and – at last – whew - able to breathe again. I was reminded that breaks from our flow activities need to be short lived.
But I thought of those who feel filled with anxiety at the thought of painting or writing, whether as beginners, or after a long period of not creating. And of how huge the challenge of starting can be.
I have often experienced this kind of overwhelm in other contexts. But we all know how to break some types of challenges into manageable components. Some of us might know how to break down the job of tackling an essay; some might be equipped for the task of tidying a horrendously chaotic flat. And these could be our reference points for breaking down the challenge that’s currently freaking us out.
But a lot of the time, we don’t just slip into anxiety when the challenge is too great, we immerse ourselves in it and ramp it up with our thoughts. If anxiety were a fire, we’d be flinging kiln dried wood on it and complaining about the heat. So what does it take to stop stoking the fires of anxiety? Information? Advice? Reflection? Action? A massage? Doing something else that brings us into flow? It depends on the nature of the challenge. Last week I needed work related advice, and a miracle occurred when I got advice from the right person, who explained, reframed and suggested ways forward. At the weekend, I needed to make the shift from rattled mind to being present, and a miracle occurred when I got support from the right people. This morning I needed to experience flow, and a miracle occurred when I had an uninterrupted period of flow. Amazing support is available. Knowing that is life changing.