What it means to be in the flow...

Spirituality has been making an interesting comeback in recent years. Recently the trend has been not to focus too much on one’s own initiatives to be spiritual.  Rather, the idea is gaining ground that  giving up control to some higher power/consciousness/energy, whatever that may be. In other words, being “in the flow.”

But what’s really fascinating about this idea is that it’s not actually specific to spirituality: many people talk of feeling, under the right conditions, like they’re in the flow, as if something greater has taken over and they’re simply letting it happen. Writers, artists, musicians, designers, athletes, and many others have experienced this state of flow, or being in the zone, writes Alice G Walton in Forbes.

She discusses the views of Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing, who makes a couple of points about what’s likely going on when we get out of our own way and into the flow. The first comes from looking at the other end of the spectrum — when we’re stressed, which might be considered the polar opposite of “flow.” He points out that at these times, our thinking starts to suffer, sometimes in significant and bizarre ways. We tend to look for patterns where there are none, and draw conclusions that don’t exist.

“A lot of research looks at what happens when you’re stressed,” he says. When we try to control things when we are tense, “we end up looking for patterns where they don’t exist,” says Michaelis.

The other point he makes is that we’re a species who, when we’re young, are helpless and rely on other people to survive — doing so is built in, and it actually feels really good. This may be part of why surrender (to anything outside ourselves — a caregiver, a greater power, etc.) feels secure. “We’re an altricial species,” needing much care and attention, says Michaelis. “We’re wired for this, we’re pretty much useless at birth. We have to give up control to other people, or we die. So in fact we’re wired to give up control—to trust others to have more knowledge than us.” So again, there’s something intrinsic about relinquishing control, that’s not only a necessity but actually kind of delightful and stress-relieving.

Michaelis says that same delight in letting go also exists when we witnes great art unfold.  When we can really surrender ourselves in the unfolding of a painting, poem or music, we  experience a type of abandonment or bliss. “It’s like television writing,” he says. “It’s so good these days that you can relax into it, and even give some leeway when an episode isn’t so good — you know it’ll be better down the line. It’s like, ‘Ok, I can relax’.”

Thus being “in the flow,” is our natural way of developing and growing.  Without any pretensions of the ego or others’ expectations, we  are given the possibilities to develop ourselves. In this process, on its own, we become closer to ourselves.  In this process, we can both work hard and relax; we can both struggle and enjoy; we can both let go of ourselves and be the master of ourselves!

This is true, not only of psychological phenomena.  At the biological or physical level too, when we are at ease, when our bodies are relaxed, when we  feel  comfortable with our own physical bodies, we can achieve great things, without struggling. That is the spirituality of letting ourselves go and in the process fulfil ourselves! Thus we flow with the rest of the universe, and the universe flows through our bodies! Rhythmically.

(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)