Since the end of the last century, the concept of flow, or optimal experience, proposed by the American positivist psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has become popular in Western culture. According to the concept, a person will feel his life full and happy if he learns to control his consciousness. With a focus on what is important here and now, the rest fades into the background, and the account of time disappears — this is how a person is filled with a sense of satisfaction with life or even euphoria. Entering the stream helps a business that captivates. It can be dancing, drawing, sports, music, and even speaking in your native or foreign language.
PhD in Psychology, dance researcher, author of the course «Dance and Movement Culture in History and Modernity» at the Higher School of Economics
The first psychologist to talk about the flow was William James at the end of the 19th century, using the expression “stream of consciousness”. His colleagues imagined consciousness as a container of separate ideas and images, which can be compared to buckets of water lined up in a row. James, on the other hand, believed that consciousness is like a river, where water flows continuously. It was in the meaning of the flow as something continuous that the theorists of dance began to use this concept at the beginning of the 20th century. Discussing the different types and qualities of movements, the Hungarian choreographer Rudolf Laban and his followers contrasted movements that are fast, sharp, intermittent — smooth, fluid, lasting.
Later, the flow became a key concept in the positive psychology of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and the meaning of this term changed: the flow began to be called not the quality of movement or consciousness — their fluidity, continuity — but a special state of a person. This is a positive state, the opposite of a negative one, such as anxiety, apathy, or boredom. Over time, many myths have developed around the stream — as if you need to enter it, and then everything will be done like clockwork.
Of course, flow does not guarantee happiness. But it can give moments of pleasant oblivion and relaxation from everyday life. During the dance, a person enters an altered state of consciousness. And this is not about taking any substances — to cause this experience, it is enough to move the body. This process is controlled by kinesthesia — signals from the motor apparatus, in particular, from proprioreceptors in muscles and tendons. A person begins to sensitively feel what he does not emphasize in ordinary life: a sense of position in space, a sense of movement, a sense of the strength of his own body. Also, pleasant sensations and pleasure arise when a person shares his dance with someone — for example, with a partner or performing in front of an audience. It has been noticed that during a dance performance there is a special feeling of being “here and now”. Moving in the dance, a person does not think about other things that he could do — he does not strive anywhere and is not in a hurry. The dancer plunges into the flow of experiences and finds himself in the fullness of the current moment — this brings pleasure and brings him closer to happiness. To enter this state, you just need to start dancing. With friends or alone. With or without music.
composer, improviser, author of spatial compositions and sound installations
The flow in improvisation and in composing music manifests itself in different ways. When I write music, sometimes I put it together rationally, and sometimes I kind of create it “through the flow”. That is, the material seems to begin to give birth to itself in my head, and I become a hand that must have time to write down everything that happens after the stream. It is like a flash of insight, lasts several hours and is quite exhausting.
And when I play music as an improviser, on the contrary, I feel filled with strength. Interestingly, I’m not specifically trying to enter the flow state, it just happens. My goal at this point is to deal with sounds, produce and listen to them carefully. The flow becomes a consequence of this process.
Imagine that musicians are sitting in front of you and begin to play improvisation. In the first 10-15 seconds, they still do not know what will happen next. It is at this moment that a special state arises, which I call a cocoon. In it, in the first seconds, the character of the music is formed, there is a coupling between the performers. From this moment, in fact, depends on whether the flow will appear in their game or not. If it forms, the music will slide easily; if not, the game can be difficult to overcome.
By itself, I would describe the flow as a special state associated with listening and hearing. That is, this is an exacerbation of auditory processes and at the same time the inclusion of intuition — it is felt as if everything that happens around during improvisation in a group begins to acquire an integral, total meaning. It seems to me that this is most similar to the effect of tunnel vision — the excess is eliminated, and only a small part of the key sounds that affect the course of the entire improvisation remains in focus.
teacher of English, pedagogical designer and methodologist of language courses «Flow» from «Yandex.Practicum»
When describing mastery of English, we often use the concept of fluent — «fluent, fluent in the language.» This English word comes from the Latin root «flow» (the verb fluere — «to flow freely» (of water), the participle fluens — «flowing» or fluor — directly «stream»). That is, the ultimate goal of learning a foreign language is the ability to express thoughts freely, to be in a state of flow, communicating in English, when ideas are easily put into words and their meaning is clear to the interlocutor.
To join such a stream, firstly, you need to go through a certain path of learning. Master the so-called language systems — vocabulary and grammar. But teaching them just as a theory is not enough; it is important to make them active and applicable. Through the practice of using new words and grammatical structures in natural contexts, the brain moves away from translating thoughts from one’s native language into a foreign one and gradually learns to think in a second language. Therefore, it is impossible to learn English in a couple of days; it takes time, practice and experience to develop a language skill.
Secondly, focusing on the meaning of what you want to say helps achieve a state of flow in English communication. Vocabulary and grammar should solve a specific communicative task facing you. You may not even know a certain word that you need to express a thought, but when focusing on the meaning of the message, you will try to use already familiar words. And when a new and most accurate word is suggested to you, you will remember it faster, since an internal query will already be generated for it. Remarkably, this technique helps people with different levels of foreign language proficiency, from the earliest to advanced.
Thirdly, speech in English becomes a stream when a person manages to catch the balance between relaxation and concentration. When communicating in a foreign language, it is important to lower the demands on yourself and not consider mistakes as something bad or shameful. I remember this well from my students and personal experience — the more you try to evaluate yourself in the process of a conversation, the further away from you is the state of flow. That’s why it’s so important to let go of expecting immediate results and just feel like you’re in the process. So the speech becomes smoother, and the conversation in English as a whole brings more positive emotions.
PhD, International Olympic Committee Certified Physician in Sports Medicine, freediver and co-founder of the Aqualibrium Club
In my opinion, the state of flow is the harmony of two «I»: external and internal. The external absorbs social experience, rules and stereotypes, sometimes it acts as a critic, evaluates and comments on our actions. This is the part of consciousness that is usually on all the time we are awake. Along with this, there is another “I” — the inner one — this is already the territory of the body, its sensations and experience, which exist without the participation of consciousness.
Flow in sports is the absence of evaluative and critical thoughts in the first place, and the minimization of any other thoughts in the second place. Being truly in the flow, a person hardly thinks, he is concentrated on what he is doing and is completely immersed in the process. Often, immersion in the flow occurs spontaneously, but it can be purposefully caused by combining two approaches: on the one hand, regular training, and on the other hand, work with consciousness by keeping the focus on sensations and on the current moment. It sounds simple in words, but in practice it is not an easy task.
For example, in freediving, the goal of a person is to swim as far under water as possible or to dive as deep as possible to depth with just one breath. In training, we not only improve technique and physical qualities, but also purposefully work on concentration on bodily sensations. For example, we focus on the temperature of water, its density, how it glides over the skin. In the same way, you can switch to visual sensations: look at the tiles at the bottom of the pool, patterns from ripples on the surface of the water, shadows. You can listen — for example — splashing water or muffled sounds from the surface. It is important that this action be interesting, that it captivates and distracts the consciousness, then restless thoughts fall silent.
In freediving, and in other sports as well, being able to sink into the current can help an athlete deliver the performance they are ready for. According to the stories of the most titled athletes, regardless of the sport, it was in this state that they achieved the best results. For example, Slovenian athlete Alenka Artik, who dived 114 meters in November 2020, commented on her world record in freediving like this: “The key to a successful deep dive is to completely immerse yourself in the present moment <...> It is not easy to repeat this. This is the magic of the state of flow.”
ILLUSTRATION AND DESIGN
illustrator, co-founder of the Elephant in a Boa project on illustration and design, lecturer at the British Higher School of Design
I tend to get into a state of flow more often when I’m doing personal projects than commercial ones. Work on orders is usually divided into many stages with approvals, which makes it impossible to complete everything from start to finish in one go. Although sometimes you still manage to catch the flow. For example, in the process of creating a concept. When I come up with a solution to some complex problem, the ideas seem to come naturally and eventually line up organically.
It seems to me that the state of flow can be equated with inspiration. Moreover, it can visit not only in creativity: with inspiration, you can do a general cleaning, sort out all the brushes and paints, perform some routine administrative tasks with documents, take into account income and expenses in tables … Although recently in search of «flow» in new affairs I had a big failure. I thought I would be interested in embroidery. But no, I realized that I do not have enough patience for threads and small stitches. So the surest way is to catch the flow state by doing your favorite thing.
Even before the pandemic, my colleagues and I started a tradition of meeting for breakfast in a cafe and drawing. This practice has always been about the process in which you can completely forget yourself and feel absolute pleasure. For me, this is an opportunity to let go of control over actions and come to a result intuitively, not quite consciously. The illustrations always turn out magical this way.