October 25, 2014

Flow and mindfulness

Automatic negative thoughts about yourself can hinder your performance and well-being.  Here, I describe two ways to protect yourself against them: flow and mindfulness-meditation.

Researchers Michael Robinson and Maya Tamir (2011) compared two types of brain activity: task-focused and self-focused. These two states of mind inhibit each other: when one of them becomes more active, the other becomes less active. The authors wrote that a task-focus is associated with positive affect, mental health, and productivity while a self-focused processing mode is associated with negative affect, psychopathology, and lesser task success.

This conclusion, that feeling well and functioning well seem to require an absence of self-focused attention, reminds of the positive experience of flow. Flow is an intense experience of being so engaged in an activity that your sense of self and time temporarily fade. Flow happens when there are clear goals, optimal challenge and feedback. (The concept of flow is related to the concept of work engagement).

What may work so well in flow experiences is that they interrupt a process of thinking negatively about oneself. As neuroscientist Sam Harris explains, we are nearly continuously producing thoughts without us being fully aware of it. These thoughts form an internal dialogue. Many of these thoughts are negative; we judge ourselves and other, worry about the future, and regret the past. According to Harris, these ongoing streams of thought distract us and distort our experience and our functioning.

In addition to flow, there is a second way of interrupting these dysfunctional thoughts which is called mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is clear awareness. In these meditation techniques - as I understand them; I have hardly any personal experience with them- you do not focus on a task but on a non-judgmental experience of the present moment.  Beginners in this type of meditation often notice how hard it is to keep focusing on the present moment without being lost in various streams of thought. With practice, however, you can get better at this.

The concepts of mindfulness and meditation may sound new-agy or and pseudo-scientific but it appears that they need to be taken seriously. Many studies have shown that they have many benefits, such as better resilience stress, a better immune function,  better mental health, less negative affect, and better social functioning.

Question: what are your experiences with flow and meditation? 

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