In spiritual circles, when someone says they’re experiencing a state of flow, they usually mean things are going well. Or, put another way, things are going the way they want them to.
But can we experience flow when things are unpleasant? Or does unpleasantness signify that we’re disconnected from flow?
Flow, in my mind, is a neutral term. It doesn’t preference a pleasant flow over an unpleasant one. It simply means that things are, well, flowing.
Google tells us that the verb flow means to “move along or out steadily and continuously in a current or stream.”
So, flow implies movement of some kind. Movement of what? Energy. Energy in the form of our body, our thoughts, our emotions, the events we’re experiencing, and anything and everything in between.
If flow itself is neutral, how do we experience flow when events are unpleasant? The same way we do when events are pleasant: by allowing.
Is Allowing Weak?
The concept of allowing is often a hard one to cozy up to, especially in a culture that emphasizes taking action–even rash, dangerous action–over stillness, where stillness is seen as a weakness. But allowing is, at its core, an acceptance of reality.
Think about this: When we are in a situation, whatever we’ve experienced has already happened. So what we’re really debating is whether or not we want to allow something that has already happened to happen. We can debate this all day long, and the experience has already taken place. It’s done. Whether we choose to “allow” it or not is really just an illusion of control.
When we allow, we accept reality at face value. This happened. Now what?
Now, we can choose how to respond, and this is where our power truly lies. Not in wishing the past hadn’t happened. Not in pretending that if we don’t allow something into our reality it ceases to exist (this is called delusion).
This brings us to the two important skills that enable us to engage in flow. Think of these as the on/off switch for your personal life flow. If you’re feeling stuck, flip the flow switch on by engaging these two skills.
1. Observe what is.
This is a big part of contemplative practices from many spiritual traditions, the practice of simply observing reality.
Imagine that you are a reporter and your only task is to describe what is occurring as objectively as possible. You don’t need to add your subjective interpretation (“This is bad,” “She’s being mean”); simply stick to observable, factual occurrences. These might be external or internal.
- There’s a baby crying in a row behind me.
- My heart is beating faster than it was before.
- That driver switched lanes without using a turn signal.
- The grass feels cool between my toes.
The above told from a subjective, interpretive position might look like:
- That baby is driving me nuts! Why aren’t the parents doing anything?!
- I can’t believe he just said that to me! What an asshole!
- Well, la di da–look who feels they don’t need to use their turn signal! *honk*
- Oooh, that feels nice…
It might seem robotic to take in life through observations, but there’s immense power to be had in this process because it allows us to take in more of life than what our subjective filters allow. We’re able to receive details that don’t match up with our interpretations, and thus, our picture of reality and our place within it expands.
This practice is especially powerful when combined with…
2. Feeling our feelings.
In addition to our objective awareness, we also have our emotional experience, and when we learn how to tap into this skillfully, it becomes a wonderful asset.
Quite simply, feeling our feelings is just what it sounds like: allowing ourselves to have the emotional experience that is arising, as it arises. There is a vast difference between feeling our feelings and acting out or reacting to our feelings, and we are aiming for the former. I am not advocating lashing out in anger or giving someone the silent treatment–both are examples of acting out our feelings.
Feeling our feelings is an inside job. When anger arises, we sit with it. We feel the accompanying sensations in our body, and we can use the tools of observation to name them, if we need help staying present. “My heart is beating faster. I feel a warmth in my throat. My hands are clenching.”
We resist the urge to tell other people about our feelings in the moment, waiting until we ourselves have felt the feelings first. This allows us to truly integrate our emotional experience, rather than distancing ourselves from it by venting, creating interpretive storylines, casting blame, etc.
This Is How We Flow
With these two skills–observing what is and feelings our feelings in response to what is–we are working with reality. We are allowing reality to be what it already is, and we are receiving information from both our objective mind and our subjective emotions with the purpose of choosing a mindful response, in contrast to mindlessly reacting to events and resisting reality.
This is flow. This is allowing life to occur as it occurs, and mindfully choosing how we want to respond.
And allowing, again, is not merely passive. When we choose how to respond, we alter the path of flow, and we experience that altered flow as the next batch of life experiences.
Thus, allowing and mindfully responding are the foundation for living in a state of ease. Not necessarily a state of easy, but ease. Rather than trying to force reality to be what it is not, we are accepting reality for what it is, and this ushers in a feeling of ease.
When we resist allowing reality to penetrate our awareness, we delude ourselves into a state of dis-ease. We feel disconnected from ease–we feel dis-eased– because, deep down, we know reality is not as we are pretending it to be, and we can never quite shake the discordance without fragmenting our psyche to a greater or lesser degree.
But when we allow reality to be as it is, we’re no longer funneling our energy into the impossible: changing what has already occurred. We’re laser focused on using the information gleaned from past occurrences to choose how we want to shape what is yet to be.
And this, my friend, is what it is to flow.