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  • Writer's pictureBarry Shirley


Hi Guys. In this August 2021 blog (Issue 20) I contemplate the subject of ‘Being in the Flow’ (or ‘in the zone’). Is it different to going with the flow (which could be seen as being apathetic)?

As in my previous blogs, I will draw on the views and opinions of past and current masters, sages, mystics, gurus, philosophers and generally wise people. I also tap into all the worldly belief systems, religions and philosophies to draw on ancient knowledge and wisdom. These blog posts are designed for those interested in mindfulness and will only give you a taste of the information, knowledge and wisdom that is out there (and all points raised can easily be further researched).

Before I contemplate the spiritual and psychological aspects of ‘being in the flow’, where all points will be taken from modern and ancient views on consciousness/stillness, I would like to set the scene, as it were, for this post (and all my previous and future posts really).

To do this, I am referring to an interesting essay written by Aldous Huxley in 1944 called, ‘The Minimum Working Hypothesis’ (from the book ‘The Divine Within’ - 1992).

Huxley was an English writer, philosopher and mystic (1894 – 1963) and examined the spiritual basis for the nature of the ‘Divine’, ‘Enlightenment’ and the ‘Ultimate Reality’. He wrote the popular book ‘Brave New World’ 1962 (his view of a dystopian technocratic world) and ‘The Island’ (his view of utopia but prone to the limits of humanity).

In the essay, he explores his insights into human foibles. He slams religions for their dogma along with sentimental humanists who are unable to explain matters that are beyond the senses. He saw all this as handicaps for humanity in general but recognised that a persistent few were able to research beyond the dogmas. This resonated with me as, at a certain stage in my life, I was asking myself various spiritual questions including, “Is there more to life than this?”

Huxley states, “For those of us who are not congenitally the members of an organised church, who have found that humanism and nature worship are not enough, who are not content to remain in the darkness of ignorance, the squalor of vice, or the other squalor of respectability, the minimum working hypothesis would seem to run to about this:

That there is a Godhead, Ground (i.e. metaphysical meaning of consciousness), Brahman, Clear Light of the Void, which is the unmanifested principle of all manifestations (i.e. the unseen guiding hand of the universe rules all seen manifestations).

That the Ground is at once transcendent (i.e. beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience) and immanent (i.e. within, inherent).

That it is possible for human beings to love, know and, from virtually, to become actually identical with the divine Ground.

That to achieve this unitive knowledge of the Godhead is the final end and purpose of human existence.

That there is a Law or Dharma (i.e. cosmic law underlying right behaviour and social order) which must be obeyed, a Tao (i.e. In ancient Chinese philosophy – the underlying natural order of the universe) or Way which must be followed, if men are to achieve their final end.

That the more there is of self (i.e. small ‘s’ indicates material ego self), the less there is of the Godhead; and that the Tao is therefore a way of humility and love, the Dharma a living law of mortification (ie subduing the ego state) and self-transcending awareness (i.e. spiritual idea considering oneself as part of the universe or consciousness). This, of course, accounts for the facts of history.

People like their egos and do not wish to mortify them (i.e. subdue them), get a bigger kick out of bullying and self-adulation than out of humility and compassion, are determined not to see why they shouldn’t ‘do what they like’ and ‘have a good time.’ They get their good time; but also, and inevitably they get wars and syphilis, tyranny and alcoholism, revolution, and in default of an adequate religious hypothesis the choice between some lunatic idolatry, such as nationalism, and a sense of complete futility and despair. Unutterable miseries! But throughout recorded history the great majority of men and women have preferred the risk – no, the positive certainty – of such disasters to the tiresome whole-time job of seeking first the kingdom of God (i.e. the Divine, Consciousness, Spirit, Higher Self, Divine Ground, Godhead, Brahman, the Source, Supreme etc). In the long run we get exactly what we ask for.”

Both Eastern and Western philosophies have articulated the concept of the ‘flow state’ which was seen to be beneficial to our spiritual and creative practices. In the modern idiom of being ‘in the zone’ it has been embraced by mindfulness in a general sense and taken up by business entities as being seen to be a complete concentration or focus tool.

The Hungarian/American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined his research into highly focussed mental states as, The Flow State. During his research work in the 1980s and 1990 he was intrigued by artists who could become so lost in their work they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep. Whilst that sounds extreme, as an artist myself, I can vouch for the experience of many hours being in the flow whilst painting (and when we painted together, of not talking to my artist wife working in the same space, for hours!)

It appears that anyone can experience flow in a pleasurable state. During his research Csikszentmihalyi interviewed athletes, musicians and artists who explained the joy of performing at an optimum level with the product flowing out of them with ease.

Because of his experience as a young person during the 2nd World War and the way a lot of adult people were not able to withstand the resultant tragedies, Csikszentmihalyi wanted to understand what contributed to a life that was worth living. He eventually became a happiness researcher in the US, firstly looking at creatives and writing a number of books based on the premise that happiness levels can be shifted by introducing flow.

Check out Czikszentmihalyi’s TED talk in 2004 at this following link which is both a video and a transcript:

In the video he asserts that there is a combination of challenge and skill and doing something you really like to do in achieving a flow state. Also, being almost ecstatic with a sense of clarity, forgetting yourself and a feeling that you are part of something larger.

Czikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow:

1. Complete concentration on the task;

2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;

3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);

4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;

5. Effortlessness and ease;

6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;

7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;

8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

In terms of eastern philosophy many ancient texts have reference to being in the flow, including Taoism, Zen Buddhism and the Hindu Vedas. For instance, the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Sutras can offer some guidance as follows;

The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Sanskrit Hindu teaching at least 3-5 thousand years old. The Gita basically denotes an allegorical battle between the forces of ego and the higher self, it does this with dialogue between Krishna, as the Supreme Soul teaching the warrior Arjuna (representing the best but flawed aspects of humanity) how to defeat the ego forces and discover the higher Self, (The Gita is considered a mostly secular practical guide on living a spiritual life. The entire text is a representation of the battle that goes on in our minds representing a blueprint for solving the ethical and moral struggles of human life).

There are many references in the Gita to equanimity or evenness of mind (samatvam in Sanskrit). At Chapter 2 of the Gita, verse (sloka) 48, Krishna instructs Arjuna to: “Be steadfast in yoga, O Arjuna. Perform your duty and abandon all attachment to success or failure. Such evenness of mind is called yoga”. Yoga is described as the union (or yoking) of mind, body and spirit and in this verse, yoga means to concentrate the mind upon the Supreme by controlling the ever-disturbing senses (i.e. accessing universal consciousness and creating a sense of spiritual awakening).

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are Hindu classics and are also useful in identifying important qualities needed during a flow state. NB: Patanjali was a Sage in ancient India and the sutras were attributed to and compiled by him over 2000 years ago (also from much older traditions).

I refer briefly to the 5th, 6th and 7th limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras namely ‘Pratyahara’ ‘Dharana’ and ‘Dhyana’. All of these aspects and many other aphorisms are dealt with in great detail in many different written interpretations, the most popular being the book by B.K.S Iyengar titled, ‘light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’.

Essentially Pratyahara is the fifth limb of Yoga and means, the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses – using breath control and almost akin to withdrawing to your metaphorical ‘cave’.

Also, Pratyahara prepares us for Dharana which is the 6th limb of Yoga and involves a deeper concentration and meditation on a point of focus. Dhyana is the 7th limb of Yoga and is a full immersion in concentration where one could momentarily separate illusion from reality, endeavouring to reach the ultimate goal of yoga (i.e. union with the source). Students of Hatha Yoga may tend to experience these particular limbs of Yoga in the Savasana pose.

In terms of mindfulness generally, you need an intention with an opportunity sometimes to just stop from the busyness of everyday life. An evenness of mind (also called stillness or ‘inner peace’ found whether through meditation or deep relaxation), is a place where we can all go to but can be torn away from by stimulation in the physical world. We can also fall into that flow zone when deeply contemplating beautiful things like a sunset or sunrise, or a calm sea, listening to beautiful music, or holding a sleeping baby. Or, even just marvelling at nature for instance. Being in the flow – or zone – is tapping into that stillness.

Deepak Chopra (US/Indian spiritual author, Endocrinologist) talks about flow being an awareness in multiple dimensions – see ‘Metahuman’ p.90 - 2019. He states, “A person is ‘in the flow’ when everything seems to go right, obstacles melt away, and answers come effortlessly. Each aspect occupies its own dimension, yet somehow, they get coordinated when flow is experienced. There is a sense of calmness and also the experience of happiness, sometimes to the point of ecstasy. If the flow is powerful enough, it can be all-consuming, giving the impression that the creative ideas are coming of their own accord, using us as a vehicle, the way a playwright uses actors to mouth his words. Flow feels desirable but quite mysterious, since it comes and goes, and some people never experience it. The mystery is solved when you realise that flow is the unobstructed access to metareality. In it we are experiencing wholeness” (i.e. oneness with consciousness)

Elizabeth Gilbert author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ in her book ‘Big Magic’ describes this fascinating access to metareality as follows; “One of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard of this phenomenon – that is, ideas entering and exiting the human consciousness at a whim – came from the wonderful American poet Ruth Stone.

I met Stone when she was nearly ninety years old and she regaled me with stories about her extraordinary creative process. She told me that when she was a child growing up on a farm in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields when she would sometimes ‘hear’ a poem coming toward her – hear it rushing across the landscape at her, like a galloping horse. Whenever this happened, she knew exactly what she had to do next: she would ‘run like hell’ toward the house, trying to stay ahead of the poem, hoping to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough to catch it. That way, when the poem reached her and passed through her, she would be able to grab it and take dictation, letting the words pour forth onto the page. Sometimes, however she was too slow, and she couldn’t get to the paper and pencil in time. In those instances, she could feel the poem rushing right through her body and out the other side. It would be in her for a moment, seeking a response, and then it would be gone before she could grasp it – galloping away across the earth, as he said, ‘searching for another poet.’

But sometimes (and this is the wildest part) she would nearly miss the poem, but not quite. She would just barely catch it, she explained, ‘by the tail.’ Like grabbing a tiger. Then she would almost physically ‘pull’ the poem back into her with one hand, even as she was taking dictation with the other. In these instances, the poem would appear on the page from the last word to the first – backward, but otherwise intact. That, my friends, is some freaky, old-timey, voodoo style Big Magic, right there. I believe in it, though.”


  • Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” And “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. - Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like” - Lao Tzu – 6th century to 4th century BCE – Chinese philosopher.

  • “When you’ve seen beyond yourself – Then you may find peace of mind is waiting there – And the time will come when you see we’re all one – And life flows on within you and without you” – Lyrics from the song ‘Within you Without you’ – The Beatles UK pop group - 1967.

  • “There is force in the universe, which, if we permit it, will flow through us and produce miraculous results.” Mahatma Gandhi – Indian spiritual leader, lawyer, ethicist, anti-colonialist – 1868 – 1948.

Take away

  • Try to create an attitude of regularly tapping into stillness – challenge yourself to focus all of your attention in the present moment.

  • Get absorbed in what you are doing – cause your ego to withdraw for a while – flow is a state of meditation.

  • Develop a calm and even mind accepting situations and letting go of others as appropriate.

  • And, as always, please consider the phrase - “Dare to Know” (SapereAude) - a timeless plea for independent thinking by Philosopher Immanuel Kant.

  • Also, try yoga, along with meditation – a natural combination for overall well-being.

Compiled by Baz Shirley.


*See also:

Instagram: @bazabstractart - Facebook: Barry Shirley

And all my previous posts on:*

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