Jan 27, 2022
Have you ever found yourself in a flow state while creating? A place where distractions don’t exist and all of your creativity is available to you. Is it something you struggle to duplicate with consistency? On this episode, I’m going to define what a flow state is, how we experience it, why it matters to our practice, and how to create it on purpose.
Ok, so what is flow? We hear fellow artists talking about it all the time like it’s a mystical force that shows up to our studio on a whim, but is it really like magic? While it certainly can feel that way, it’s actually far more practical. Childhood is often filled with flow states. I remember getting lost for hours drawing, playing, and figuring out puzzles. I was completely engrossed in whatever I was doing that helped me express my creativity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play, and work that is achieved by the fact that our brains can only take in and truly focus on a limited number of inputs. That’s why it feels like time stops and everything except what’s in front of you fades away. We lose connection with ourselves which is the most magical and other-worldly part of the experience. While flow can certainly be defined by what it is, it’s also defined by what it is not. Csikszentmihalyi goes on to say that feelings of anxiety, worry, apathy, and boredom need to be absent or minimized to successfully achieve flow. It’s not just about what you put in your creative environment to enter a flow state. What you remove or minimize is equally important!
Self-conscious art is boring. I’m just going to say it. When we are so focused on pleasing our teachers, our critics, and ourselves the work we produce is often safe, average, and inauthentic. That’s why flow matters so much in our practice. When you’re in a state of flow, you’re in tune with your inner voice. That part of yourself that is so wise and so uniquely YOU. If you’re someone who worries that your work is average or unrecognizable as your own it could be due to a lack of flow. The ability to get into a flow state and connect with your higher self creates that uniqueness. It allows you to sift through internal noise and start a dialogue with your authentic self without anyone else weighing in. Including you! Sometimes our fear-based thoughts get the best of us and keep us from achieving flow because they tell us “that’s not what art is supposed to be” or “you’re doing it wrong”. To paraphrase Phillip Guston, we’re only really painting when we let our critics and ourselves leave the art studio. THAT is flow! Silencing the hypercritical part of your brain in the act of creating. And when you’re creating, your analytical side has no functional purpose. You have to trust your instinct and let it do its job. Give yourself constructive criticism later on when you’re not actively painting. Flow allows you to say things on a canvas that your inner critic is too scared to say. Flow doesn’t worry about if people will think you're weird. Flow doesn’t care what other people think at all. Flow just creates boldly and authentically.
The ability to consistently enter a state of flow depends on our ability to manage the mind. We create flow by managing our thoughts and an awareness of what those thoughts create. We have to intentionally cultivate thoughts that invite possibility and creativity. Ultimately, it boils down to getting in the habit of practicing mindfulness. For me, painting serves as an act of meditation. We need to gently and mindfully bring ourselves back into focus every time we feel our mind wandering. An unmanaged mind constantly criticizes and judges every action and intent. It turns any mistake or misstep into a source of anxiety and worry instead of what it actually is: just another step on the journey. And when we keep our mind unmanaged we lose any sense of flow we had because we can’t stop overthinking. The truth is you can put a line in the wrong place, notice it, fix it, and then forget about it without giving it any meaning whatsoever. We need to be kinder to ourselves. We need to allow our mistakes to be simply that instead of immediately becoming judgemental and hypercritical. By managing our minds, flow becomes a part of our practice instead of a mystical lighting bolt that strikes whenever it wants.