How Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Experience Relates to Meditation

A wonderful article called “Why does experiencing ‘flow’ feel so good?” written by Richard Huskey (Assistant Professor of Communication and Cognitive Science, University of California Davis) discusses the beauty and continued scientific study of the flow experience, first studied and popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. I read Csikszentmihalyi’s powerful book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” about 12 years ago. I was curious to hear how updated research on this topic might add to the connection of dots that I have personally experienced when relating flow experiences to meditation and “states” of pure awareness.

Huskey describes:

“Researchers think the connection between flow and well-being has something to do with three things: suppressing brain activation in structures associated with thinking about ourselves, dampening activation in structures associated with negative thoughts, and increasing activation in reward-processing regions.”

I was instantly struck that these three things connect very clearly to the well-being during activities that is achieved from deepening meditation practices. Here’s how…

Suppressing brain activation in structures associated with thinking about ourselves

Meditation naturally exposes the lack of a concrete definition and experience of a self. As one becomes more experienced with meditation, the sense of self shifts to a more universal experience, often described as a feeling of oneness. This oneness is what is also felt in a flow experience. You lose yourself and become one with the activity.

Dampening activation in structures associated with negative thoughts

Meditation builds awareness. Better yet, it builds your ability to identify with your awareness rather than the negative thoughts that often cloud the mind and block a possible experience of flow. Experienced meditators become hyper-aware of the negative thoughts and emotions that arise within and outside of meditation. They use meditation as a tool to explore and let go of negative thinking and rumination. This eventually results in much clearer perception where awareness takes the forefront of experience instead of negative thoughts. Useful thoughts dominate any thinking that is necessary. The same is described for flow experiences.

Increasing activation in reward-processing regions

There are studies that show that practicing meditation enhances neural plasticity in reward processing areas of brain. Meditators often experience powerful feelings of fulfillment. In meditation, when stressful and negative thoughts are let go and a connection to pure awareness is made, wholeness and fulfillment come forth. Richard Huskey describes how flow experiences are intrinsically rewarding. This could also read as “intrinsically fulfilling”. The further you go with meditation, the more intrinsically fulfilling activities become, even trivial or typically mundane activities.

On this last note about trivial activities, one thing that Richard Huskey describes is that flow occurs when the task challenge and skill level are high, even telling his students that “they will not feel flow when they are doing the dishes.” I think this is likely the case for most people that haven’t gone deeply with meditation. Most feel flow and fulfillment in doing an activity that they love, and that contains a convergence of challenge and skill. However, the deeper you go with meditation, the more you get this same feeling of flow with any activity.

Connecting to Huskey’s example, doing the dishes can turn into a flow experience even though it is not considered a challenge relative to our skill level. Doing dishes is certainly a time when you can be on auto-pilot. This allows your mind to ruminate and often drift to useless or negative thoughts. Flow is gone in this mode. However, since meditation builds present moment awareness through the letting go of these flow-obstructing thoughts, the redundant, non-challenging task of doing the dishes can become an opportunity for flow, just like a highly challenging, highly skillful activity.

You will begin to notice that the task, while commonly trivial, can be done more efficiently, and that there is beauty to be found in it. You can realize that moving a scrub brush a certain way as you wash will be a cleaner process for your clothes and countertop, or that the urge to empty the top shelf of the dishwasher before the bottom (or vice versa) could be replaced by grouping dish types according to where they go in the cabinets so that time and body movement is used most efficiently and gracefully. You might also begin to joyfully notice the color and light on a sparkling clean glass or ceramic dish. In this simple activity you lose your sense of self and become immersed and fulfilled by the process.

I have reached out to Richard Huskey to see if connections have been made with his work and meditation, and to hear any thoughts he might have on what I have described above. I am especially curious to hear if comparisons have been made between brain studies around flow experiences and brain studies of seasoned meditators. I am hopeful that he will comment and if he does, I’ll add any additional discussion with him here.

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3 thoughts on “How Does A Flow Experience Relate to Meditation?

  1. Hi there! Thank you for such an interesting read. I’ll admit, I’m not terribly well-read when it comes to the research on meditation. Based on what you describe, meditation and flow may share some similar processes, but I also get the sense that there are some distinct differences. For instance, flow seems to come from active engagement with a task whereas meditation seems to be very inactive. I have seen some research suggesting that meditation can help prepare people to feel flow later on, maybe that is the link? If aren’t familiar with them already, check out the Saron Lab (https://saronlab.ucdavis.edu/). You might find their work really interesting.

    Richard

    P.S. I liked your insight about how a different approach to doing the dishes might result in a flow state.

    • Thank you, Richard! I may have miscommunicated about the comparison. Flow experience during meditation is not what I am trying to describe. You mentioned “I have seen some research suggesting that meditation can help prepare people to feel flow later on, maybe that is the link?” Yes, it’s more about what meditation may do to the brain more permanently that contributes to future flow.

      For example, I played a lot of billiards when I was younger. A flow state playing this game was fairly easy to experience, but there was a clear contrast with this and other common activities in life. After meditation practices for a couple of decades and shifting from thoughts being at the forefront of experience to awareness being at the forefront of experience, I find that I enter flow experiences much more frequently, even with mundane or routine activities, and at times I seem to consistently be in a flow state across activities throughout the day.

      I am curious if flow without meditation in life is a temporary experience that could become much more frequent or even constant if meditation is practiced. I wonder how the brain scans and activity of seasoned meditators when they are NOT meditating might relate to the brain scans of non-meditators you are studying when they are in a state of flow.

      I hope this clarifies what I meant, and would love to hear if this brings about any further insight. I appreciate your time and response, and thanks for the tip about the Saron Lab – It sounds quite interesting, and I look forward to learning more about it.

      • Ah! Makes perfect sense. Thank you for the clarification. I think what you describe would be consistent with the literature on meditation and flow (although, I’ll admit that I’m not incredibly well read in this area). As for brain responses during flow for mediators vs. non-mediators, I haven’t seen any studies doing this (and given my general lack of familiarity with the neuroscience of meditation, I’m not well-equipped to speculate), but that would be a really cool study!

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