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Flow

May 8, 2009 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Climbing out of time's narrow grip by loving whatever you are doing.

A few weeks ago I was walking my daughter to kindergarten when suddenly she stopped. "Look, there's a rainbow in the water!" she exclaimed, pointing to a nearby sprinkler. I looked impatiently at my watch and then up at the water glinting in the morning sun. Instead of my usual, "Yes, that's nice" response, I stopped beside my daughter and stared. There really was a rainbow in the water! And it was beautiful. Then I noticed the crystal blue sky and the leafy green branches of the tree next to us.

As I sat in front of my computer later that day, I kept thinking, I almost missed it. I almost missed that precious moment with my daughter. And for what? One more minute on the watch.

In our rush to get through the day, we sometimes end up missing the day altogether.

In our rush to get through the day, we sometimes end up missing the day altogether. The tendency to chain ourselves to the relentless movement of the clock seems to be an adult phenomenon. Children don't do this. They stop to stare at rainbows and birds and tiny ants. They lose their sense of time in the simplest of games. They don't check their watches every few minutes or wish they were doing something else. It is easy to dismiss this sense of timelessness as a luxury of a carefree childhood, but this is not entirely accurate. As adults, we can also choose to climb beyond time. But it takes work.

People experience time differently, often depending on what we are doing at that particular point in the day. We all know those rare activities in our lives that make time irrelevant. When we are engaged in these experiences we feel most alive and full of purpose. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of mind "flow," the psychology of optimal experience. Common examples of flow activities include climbing a mountain, painting, playing a challenging game, reading and even participating in a good conversation.

How often do we engage in these activities that make us feel alive and above time? What percentage of our day do we spend in flow? The key to climbing out of the clock's narrow grip seems to be a matter not of always doing what we love but rather to love whatever we are doing:

"But because almost any activity can produce flow provided the relevant elements are present, it is possible to improve the quality of life by making sure that clear goals, immediate feedback, skills balanced to action opportunities and the remaining conditions of flow are as much as possible a constant part of everyday life." (Finding Flow, Csikszentmihalyi, 34 )

We can transform any part of our day into a source of energy and life instead of just doing what we have to do.

The implications of this idea of flow are enormous. It means that we can transform any part of our day into a source of energy and life instead of just doing what we have to do. We just need to make sure that we are focused on the goal of that activity, and that we give ourselves the feedback that we need. In Jewish parlance, this is called "Kavannah," directing your mind to the task at hand and focusing on its higher purpose. You can do this while washing the dishes or even paying the bills. People who often find themselves in the state of flow are people who like to do almost everything because they learn to invest the best of themselves in whatever they are doing.

Engaging fully in life does not necessarily require making big choices. Sometimes flow means just choosing to notice what is happening around us. See that elderly woman who needs help with her bags. Notice the crying child lost in the supermarket. Staring at the sunset.

The other day my daughter told me, "I am sending you a kiss, and it is shaped like a butterfly!" And I saw the butterfly flying towards me in its multi-colored beauty, and I began to understand how it is possible for a person to take empty space and fill it with life.




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