Mindfulness, flow and being in the moment

Mindfulness is often mistaken for “being in the moment”. It’s easy to understand how this confusion might arise, so let’s compare the two to see where they overlap, and where they may differ.

In the popular vernacular, “being in the moment” straddles the divide between normal human behaviour and mysticism. Most people have had experiences – usually when engaging in some pleasant activity – where the narrating, commenting voice in their head drops away to leave only the pleasant experience of “just doing”. Mystics, like Eckhart Tolle, present the possibility of inhabiting this present-moment experience as the default mode of living. Many people assume that mindfulness is a semi-mystical practice that aims to get you to that pleasant state. As we will see, this expectation is inaccurate.

Being in the moment

“Being in the moment” denotes a pleasant state where one experiences the relative absence of unhelpful or unpleasant thoughts and judgements. Without the usual stream of running commentary that accompanies your life, experience becomes pleasant, effortless and clear. The experience of being in the moment harbours an element of timelessness, of just this very moment existing, sometimes with exquisite salience.

What is actually experienced in such moments is flow, first scientifically described by Hungarian author Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It does not really matter how flow is brought about, whether through playing a game, engaging in one’s profession or by doing some pleasant activity, the most important factors for flow to arise are:

  1. An even match between skill level and challenge
  2. An immediate connection between action and result
  3. High intrinsic motivation to engage in the flow-producing activity
  4. Absence of disturbing factors

Mindfulness

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is concerned not with obtaining a state that feels good, but with observing anything that presents itself to your mind, whether they are bodily sensations, sense data or mental impressions. While, like flow, mindfulness can only be practiced within the current moment, the goal of the practice is explicitly not to stop your thoughts from happening but in fact to welcome them and to observe them as closely as possible.

And whereas flow is brought about by doing and getting absorbed into some activity, mindfulness is developed by the deliberate act of paying attention in any moment one chooses to practice mindfulness. In tandem with mindfulness, you develop discernment of the elements that make up your current-moment experience.

In practice, the contrast between flow and mindfulness practice could hardly be more stark. Whereas flow – being in the moment – assumes the wilful suspension of thinking to produce a state of pleasant absorption, mindfulness sacrifices the pleasantness of one’s experience to discern ever more closely its component parts. In fact, mindfulness teachers tell you to merely observe the affective labels (pleasant, neutral and unpleasant) that your mind applies to all of your experience, without getting caught up in believing them. This way, discernment is sharpened and mindfulness developed.

Disadvantages of mindfulness

So, am I saying that mindfulness is not a pleasant experience? You bet, that is exactly what I’m saying. I won’t sugar-coat it. For most people, and for a number of reasons, practicing mindfulness is one of the hardest things they can do.

First off, you haven’t practiced mindfulness ever in your life. It’s a new adventure. So when you are starting to develop mindfulness now, with your mind already set in its ways, you are initially embarking on an uphill battle. This is because you’ve most likely been practicing the opposite of mindfulness for a long time, so it takes time to rewire your mental circuits to properly learn this practice.

Second, with much of our lives devoted to “doing”, making the switch to simply “being” is a huge leap. And it’s a leap that has to be taken over and over again, every time you have promised yourself to make time to meditate.

Third, there can be something off-putting to having to just observe pleasant sensations, thoughts and sense impressions without following the pleasantness. The attitude you’re being asked to cultivate is that of equanimity – non-preference towards the entirety of your experience, warts and all. Especially to newbies, this can feel restrictive and might present a genuine obstacle. I suppose this is why most current-day mindfulness teachers keep stumm about this element of the practice. With time, however, this exact element can come to feel liberating, because pleasant experiences can imprison your mind just as effectively as can unpleasant ones. The freedom that is obtained this way can have a powerful effect on your life. Sadly, many people never get the chance to find this out.

Conclusion: the advantages of mindfulness

So, “being in the moment” and mindfulness are both practiced in the current moment, but they differ in the sense that flow is by definition a pleasant experience while mindfulness aims to be a neutral enabler of adequate discernment of the factors that make up a person’s experience. Why then practice mindfulness?

Apart from the scientific evidence that practicing mindfulness acts as an effective antidote to stress, depression and anxiety, mindfulness practice is increasingly used as a way to gain insights into a person’s most intimate ways of relating to oneself: one’s personal narratives. Knowing in great detail the stories you tell yourself frees you from many self-made impediments to your long-term goals.

Perhaps the biggest difference when comparing merely “being in the moment”, pleasant as that may be, to practicing mindfulness is this dimension of learning to be free within the space of your own head. The experience of flow can only provide you with momentary relief from unhelpful mental commentary, whereas practicing mindfulness can help you accept, learn from and eventually overcome unhelpful aspects of your inner life.

3 Replies to “Mindfulness, flow and being in the moment”

  1. Is “being in the moment” really synonymous with flow? Being in the moment can be defined as not being caught up in thoughts of past or future, objectively observing whatever is occurring here and now – thoughts, feelings physical sensations, etc. in this context, being in the moment is not a practice, it is the result of practice. The practice is to return to the present moment when mindfulness recognizes that the mind has been submerged in past or future.

    1. Hi George, thanks for your thoughtful reply. You’re right, I am using a rather specific definition for the phrase “being in the moment” in this post, for the sake of contrast. I equated it with the flow concept here, but I could just as easily have referred to the development of unitive meditative states, such as samadhi. You’re quite right in pointing out that in reality, mindfulness practice and “being in the moment” can arise together. The purpose of this article is polemical, to explain what mindfulness is as opposed to what people often tell me they think it is (“being in the moment”, with the connotation of finding a hiding place away from their problems).

      In reading this article, were you curious about something I didn’t go into, such as the mechanics of how the concepts of mindfulness and flow may work together?

  2. Mindfulness and Peak Experience from the perspective of Affective Neuroscience

    Here is a new perspective on mindfulness that posits it as an essential element of achieving ecstatic, flow, or peak experience. The procedure it entails is very simple and you may wish to give it a try. It is based on the work of the distinguished neuro-scientist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan who was kind to vet the argument for accuracy. My argument is validated by simple procedure and is easily falsifiable, thus it has a short shelf life if it does not work.

    Simple Procedure
    Just be mindful and simultaneously and consistently engage exclusively in meaningful or important behavior and you will feel relaxed, pleasurably aroused, and ‘intrinsically’ motivated. The more meaningful the behavior, the greater the affective response. That’s it.

    Simple Explanation
    Individuals who engage in tasks that have a consistent and high degree of ‘meaning’ (e.g. sporting events, creative activity) naturally experience a state of high alertness and arousal (but not pleasure) that maps neurologically to the activation of mid-brain dopamine systems. However, many of these individuals also report a concurrent feeling of pleasure or bliss, but these reports are evidenced only in non-stressed situations when the covert musculature is inactive or relaxed. Since relaxation engages opioid systems in the brain, and because opioid (pleasure) and dopamine (arousal) systems stimulate each other, blissful states require the simultaneous engagement of resting protocols (of which mindfulness is the most effective) and meaningful cognitive states, behaviors that can be very easily achieved and sustained.

    I offer a more detailed theoretical explanation in pp. 47-52, and pp 82-86 of my open source book on the neuroscience of resting states, ‘The Book of Rest’, linked below.

    The Psychology of Rest
    https://www.scribd.com/doc/284056765/The-Book-of-Rest-The-Odd-Psychology-of-Doing-Nothing

    Meditation and Rest
    from the International Journal of Stress Management, by this author
    https://www.scribd.com/doc/121345732/Relaxation-and-Muscular-Tension-A-bio-behavioristic-explanation

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