June 18, 2015

A Mindful Look at Pressure & Flow.


“As your faith is strengthened, you will find that there is no longer the need to have a sense of control, that things will flow as they will and that you will flow with them to your great delight and benefit.”

~ Emmanuel Teney

We’ve probably all experienced the sensation of pressure in our lives.

It’s that feeling of tension or burden that sometimes wells up when we’ve committed ourselves to something and then feel a sense of obligation, to ourselves or others, to follow through on the commitments made.

Pressure can sometimes make the simplest of actions feel like drudgery, and take the joy out of an otherwise enjoyable and beneficial action. Prolonged intense feelings of pressure, whether externally or internally applied, can sometimes result in psychological issues including stress and anxiety, and even manifest physical pain and chronic illness.

Pressure can either be internally driven (when we pressure ourselves) or externally driven (when someone else pressures us, such as a boss, partner, or parent). Either way, feelings of pressure don’t always empower us to take positive action. Sometimes the outcome is that we feel frustrated with ourselves and our efforts, and our language becomes infused with “shoulds” and references to our lack of willpower, discipline, work ethic or self-control.

Pressure—the good and not so good.

Feeling pressure is not a negative occurrence in its own right, and not necessarily a conflict to Flow. Pressure can be a positive catalyst when there are legitimate and urgent forces and motivations underpinning the desired action. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that pressure is a common precursor to the state of Flow.

We’ve all heard stories of mere mortals being capable of extra-ordinary, seemingly supernatural strength or mental acuity when faced with catastrophic circumstances: The women lifting cars to save the life of their trapped child for instance, or a specialist diffusing a bomb with precious few seconds remaining before detonation and hundreds of civilian lives (and their own!) at stake.

Similarly, if our house were threatened by bushfire, feeling pressured would prompt us to evacuate those we cared about, remove items of personal value, and do what we could to protect our property. In this instance, we could reasonably predict a more positive outcome under pressure, than if we’d felt completely relaxed about the fire encroaching upon our property. We can view this type of pressure as “functional pressure,” that is, pressure that has purpose and serves our ultimate intention.

Often times though, feelings of pressure seem to arise in circumstances in which it serves no functional purpose at all. In fact, it interferes with our progress. Unproductive pressure is that which serves only to create doubt, fear and stress, and often results in procrastination, half-hearted efforts, or complete stagnation.


“Should” packs a mighty punch for such a little word. It immediately positions us in a defensive relationship with the thing we believe we should be doing, because by definition we haven’t actually done it despite there being a perceived benefit or imperative. Many of us pressure ourselves to undertake things we believe we should be doing and aren’t, or aren’t doing as well as we think we should be. The internal conflict which arises when we say “I should” often indicates that we haven’t taken personal ownership of the action, and haven’t shifted mentally and emotionally to the more active and assertive position of “I am.”

Healthy Lifestyle—A paradise for should.

Personal health and wellness is one area in particular where we are prone to self-criticism and pressure. Most people will tell you that their health is of great importance to them, but in the next breath will tell you how much they struggle to adopt seemingly simple lifestyle choices which might benefit them such as regular movement, eating well and getting enough rest.

In today’s complex and information rich society, we are bombarded with messages from the media, and many and varied “experts” telling us what we need to do to be happy, successful and healthy. Many of these messages are perfectly sound in terms of being evidence based advice that would, in theory, promote health and well-being for those who were to implement the recommended strategy into their own lives. Eat more vegetables, drink more water, drink less alcohol, don’t smoke cigarettes and exercise for 60 minutes per day. These appear to be reasonable pieces of advice, however human beings can be complicated creatures and for most of us, simply knowing or being told what to do doesn’t stimulate us to action. If it does, it often doesn’t last for long enough to yield sustained benefits.

When our efforts to live a healthier lifestyle fall short of our expectations, we can be left feeling disillusioned and frustrated with ourselves, which often only reinforces underlying beliefs and creates more tension and pressure, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle of pressure and disappointment. Arghh! Internal conflict can take over and we forget why we were doing the activity in the first place. We lose the satisfaction of working toward the achievement of something that was once important to us, because we have replaced inspiration and motivation with expectation and obligation. According to Flow theory, to be immersed in a state of agitation or anxiety is, by definition, to be excluded from the experience of Flow.

Decades of Public Health research has indicated that the factors impacting on whether or not we take sustained personal action to improve our health are largely related to: a) how we perceive ourselves and our likely success in relation to the adoption of new “healthy” behaviours (self-efficacy), and b), our ability to integrate the desired behaviours within the context of our everyday lives, which can be super challenging, especially if we don’t have access to the resources which make a healthy life, (aka health determinants) easier. Acknowledging the barriers, and applying a loving and compassionate lens through which to view ourselves within our journey to wellness is a more fertile ground for Flow…


The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task. (Goleman 1996)

So what is this Flow state that so many social scientists are obsessed with? Flow is our highest state of inspired, motivated progression. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Flow is completely focused motivation, representing perhaps the “ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” Within his book, Csikszentmihalyi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of Flow and argues that in this state, emotions are not just contained and channelled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.

Some people, athletes in particular, prefer to use the term “Zone,” or more specifically, being in the Zone to describe their experience of Flow. As an example, picture a professional soccer player experiencing a moment “in the Zone.” Spectators can see there is something about his gait, his ease of movement, his concentration, his rhythm that makes it appear he is no longer governed by earthly laws of physics and physiology. He receives the ball and directs it through the oncoming opposition as if they were stationary obstacles. He barely looks up to face his opponents as they swarm around him in futile attempts to defend against his assault on goal. He can’t be tackled, and won’t be diverted from his singular objective of putting the ball in the back of the net. It’s as if he is channeling all the greatest players in the history of the game and interrupting his forward motion would be akin to damning a flowing waterfall, or redirecting the Titanic!

This free flowing, unpressured state of Flow is not exclusively the domain of gifted athletes. While demonstrations of Flow may not always be quite so potent or public, we each have the potential to move into heightened states of inspiration, motivation, commitment and productivity.

Flow for health.

At its heart, Flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. It can feel like we have wind beneath our wings. The universe is supporting our every breath and action. In this space, potential is limitless, creativity is effortless, and we can even experience feelings of bliss commonly associated with being connected to the divine. The expectations of others are inconsequential in this state because our motion is 100 percent internally inspired and generated. Momentum builds of its own accord. Pressure, obligatio, and reluctance fall away. We’ve eclipsed mere responsibility to the task at hand and are instead the inspired and willing orchestrators of our future and in our element.

When we consider the application of the state of Flow as it relates to personal health and well-being we see incredible potential for transformation. Imagine what could be achieved if people approached the task of improving and maintaining their health from a position of inspiration, motivation, commitment and productivity!

Much of the literature on Flow has been developed through observations of people in Flow and having subjects describe their experiences while in this state. The lessons learned from these observations are indeed valuable to those who find themselves “stuck” and unproductive in prioritised areas of their life, such as personal health.

Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi (2009) identify six factors (seen below) which encompass the experience of Flow. These factors can appear independently of each other, but in combination constitute the most comprehensive Flow experience.

[I have noted similar concepts taken from complimentary theoretical constructs, simply to demonstrate and acknowledge cross disciplinary ways of understanding Flow.]

1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment (Mindfulness, being in the “Now”).

2. Merging of action and awareness (Creating Awareness, Creating Action, Congruence, Alignment).

3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness (Lightness, Trust, Self-Awareness, Authenticity).

4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity (Self efficacy, Self-management, Self-determination, Responsibility, Commitment).

5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered (Meditation, mindfulness, being in the “Now”).

6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as “autotelic experience” (Gratitude, Optimism, Positivity).

If we consider the available information relating to these factors which characterise the state of Flow, we can extract those we consider transferable and creatively and consciously integrate them within our own lives. In this way we can potentially relieve ourselves of unproductive pressure, and facilitate the manifestation of Flow in daily life.

Clearly some of these elements are non-voluntary. We couldn’t, for instance, invoke a distortion of temporal experience (at least not by ways and means I am advocating here) but some elements are amenable to deliberate adoption. We can all set about practicing every day mindfulness, meditating, consciously choosing gratitude and optimism, cultivating self-awareness and applying a congruence lens to our actions, i.e., Is this action in line with my core values and intentions?

So, let’s get practical and discuss the application of flow theory to improve our lives.

To begin with, we need to understand our triggers for pressure and stress. Take a moment to reflect and query whether any of these often apply to you:

• Committing yourself to work or act beyond your realistic capacity.

• Holding yourself to such a high standard that meeting your own expectations is a daunting task.

• Allowing the expectations and values of others to determine your commitments.

• Saying yes to things without taking time to consider if they are what you really want.

• Committing to something that is misaligned with your core values and priorities.

• Holding a belief that you are ill equipped, under qualified or unworthy of achieving the objective and using language which reinforces that belief, e.g., I’ll never finish this in time! or I’m such a lazy so and so…

Once we have some awareness about these tendencies, we can start bringing that awareness into our day to day experiences of pressure and stress. Rather than becoming frustrated or dis-heartened when we realise that we’ve landed ourselves in the pressure cooker again, a more productive and compassionate approach might be to:

• Re-appraise the action that is the apparent source of pressure and either re-affirm or let go of our commitment to its accomplishment.

• If we decide we wish to maintain our commitment to the action, view the situation as an opportunity for re-framing and repositioning ourselves in relation to the desired action.

Pressure vs. Flow—“An alphabet of powerful questions.”

How can we increase the presence of Flow in our lives and only experience feelings of pressure to the degree that they serve their intention? The following questions may assist those wishing to increase self-awareness relating to their feelings of pressure and move towards higher states of generative, inspired action. We can also help others we love or work with by gently posing questions which might help them navigate their own pressured states:

What is the specific task or action you feel pressured about?
What is it about this situation that makes you feel pressured?
What is the origin of the pressure? Is it being externally or internally applied?
Are the feelings of pressure warranted? Why?

Upon reflection, you might find that there is little reason for feeling pressured. For instance, if the feeling is related to a deadline with work, we might re-appraise the task and realise that there is, in fact, plenty of time to get it done, or that an extension or variance to the delivery of that task is no big deal. We may hold an underlying belief that others expect more from us than we can contribute, but upon reflection realise that we ourselves are the primary source of pressure and everyone else is perfectly happy! It is useful to consider whether the pressure is real or something we have created to serve another purpose, which leads into:

What do you get for feeling pressured? What’s the payoff?
Do the feelings of pressure support your ultimate intention or do they hinder it? How?
What would happen if you simply stopped feeling pressured?

If you discover that the feelings of pressure are a natural and productive element supporting your intention, you can then work to let go of negative perceptions and accept some degree of pressure as part of the process. If however you conclude that you are not served by the feelings of pressure, you can start to peel away the layers, exposing underlying feelings and assumptions by asking:

What is the significance of this action or objective?
What or who are you doing it for?
What is the reward for achieving the objective?
What is the value of that reward to you?
Is the action or objective aligned with your previously expressed values and priorities and if so,
What else might be required to achieve it?

Once we consciously and wholeheartedly commit to an undertaking, and we are certain of its purpose and service to our ultimate intention, we will often cease entertaining thoughts and feelings of pressure, resistance and doubt. We may simply “get over it.” This doesn’t mean that we will never experience those thoughts and feelings again, but that we can observe them with greater impartially and not inflate them with more meaning or consequence than is warranted.  We are in a position of positive intention. Here, we are ideally positioned to consciously redirect our energy and establish an alternative internal dialogue with questions such as:

Am I still committed to achieving this?
What will I sacrifice if I choose to let go of this commitment?
Is the thing I would sacrifice of value to me? Why?
Do I still choose to undertake this?

If the answer to this last question is a resounding yes, visualization exercises can be an effective way to get us over remaining hurdles and stimulate us to generative action. For instance, whilst in a deep state of relaxation we can create a personal story in which we see ourselves successfully achieving our objective and living with the reward that came with it. At the end of the visualisation we can ask ourselves:

What did I experience during the visualisation?
How did I feel? How did I look and sound?
What was I doing?
What did it feel like having achieved the objective?
How do I feel in relation to the objective now? Does it feel more or less achievable?

Flow, the final frontier for promoting health and happiness?

I’m not suggesting that each of these questions need posing every time we find ourselves pressured. Unfortunately there’s still only 24 hours in a day! Different questions will be meaningful at different times, and through familiarity we can quickly hone in to the most pertinent questions in each circumstance. Ultimately though, the raising of conscious awareness becomes a habit, and before we know it we are processing moments of stress, and indeed navigating our lives with less self-flagellation, more joy, and with ease.

A final note on flow.

It is important that Flow not be framed in such a way as to exclude everyday people from identifying with it. Language is key to enabling people to relate to the concept of Flow. Not all of us would necessarily be able to recount an occasion of being in Flow, but most people could recall an experience of feeling inspired, motivated, committed and productive. Each time we re-connect ourselves and others with these experiences, and remember the personal resources we utilised at that time, we bring flow a little closer.

So, on that note:

Can you remember a time when you were inspired, motivated, committed and productive?

What were the circumstances?

What is the difference between then and now?

And finally….

What can you do to manifest more inspiration, motivation, commitment and productivity in your life?


Relephant Reads:

Letting Go in Relationships: A Buddhist’s View of Attachment.


Author: Kylie Johnstone

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Flickr/Derek Adkins

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