The difference between mindfulness and flow

This happens to me about once a week. When talking to someone, that person will say: “Oh yeah, mindfulness… I do xxx and that is meditative to me.” This “xxx” part can be anything from running to gaming, through coding to sex. Often, the implication is that to this person, practicing mindfulness is unnecessary; after all, sometimes, when they do xxx, they’re “in the moment”.

But this is false equivalence. The assumption is that practicing mindfulness is somehow pleasant or relaxing. A contemplative version of smoking cannabis or drinking alcohol.

The meditative activities that are mentioned are almost always flow activities. The experience of flow connotes a confluence of doer and activity, a mind that is clear and present and the subjective experience of timelessness. The phenomenon of the optimal experience has been well researched and occurs when challenge and skill level are evenly matched, when distracting factors are absent and when there is high motivation to engage in the activity.

Experiencing flow is pleasant. You can get the sense that there is just this moment, just this action. Naturally, this state can also be reached in meditation, but it is not the goal of mindfulness practice. People who regularly practice mindfulness or vipassana will generally tell you that their practice is mostly just hard work.

Relaxation or experiencing flow is not the goal of mindfulness practice. Rather, the goal is to witness your experience of moment-to-moment reality with as much equanimity as possible, in order to optimally note in which situations, in which ways and in which intensities you create suffering for yourself. By stopping yourself from engaging in desire and aversion with regard to your experience, you can remain unmoved in the endless stream of your experience. This way, you get to know the contents of your experience ever more closely. In fact, you’re engaging in a process of meta-cognition (the cognition of your cognitive processes), occurring in real-time.

The result of this adventure is that you develop a certain degree of independence from your experience, that you are able to start experimenting with new choices, and that your self-knowledge grows. A self-knowledge that is not based on books you’ve read or on someone else’s words, but on your own meta-experiences.

Someone with strong mindfulness who experiences a flow state might try to investigate this flow experience by describing it in terms of its component parts. The likely result of such an investigation is that the flow experience will cease. This makes sense; you’re not completely immersing yourself in the experience because you’re doing something else, and that hinders “the flow” of flow. The general flow experience can be seen as specific form of trance: the complete, highly motivated and voluntary immersion in an experience which is created by matching your skill level to the challenge that is presented.

Mindfulness, however, is anything but a trance. In its purest form, it is knowing the entirety of your experience in any moment, without judgement and with complete awareness, through conscientiously noting and investigating the components of your experience. Almost as if you were a naturalist, observing some new species of butterfly.

Perhaps people tend to understand “meditative” to mean the relative absence of (bothersome) thoughts. This absence is accurate, as far as the experience of flow is concerned. If any thoughts are present at all, they will be wispy and in the background and probably relevant to the activity that is responsible for flow. Just like when you’re watching TV – which, if one accepts this use of the term, can be equally meditative.

Mindfulness is the direct opposite, as in mindfulness you actually turn toward anything that happens by, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant, physical or mental. Of course, there are many ways to do this, and it’s definitely not necessary to practice mindfulness in order to obtain self-knowledge. Writing is a good alternative, just as talking to someone wiser/kinder than yourself about such things.

Of course, it’s possible that relatively few people are actually looking for a way to better get to know their experience. If that were the case however, it would be more correct on their part to say: “Oh yeah, mindfulness… I don’t really feel like it right now.”

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