Until now, “flow” has been a mystery, a quality to be sought after, which, like happiness, flees the seeker but graces one who indirectly cultivates it.
Author Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as “optimal experience”, a.k.a the “holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement”. “Total involvement” implies self-forgetfulness, a blissful engagement of attention that transcends time.
It’s fair to say that flow is a desirable mode of attention.
Cognitive scientists divide attention into two parts: bottom-up, and top-down. Bottom-up attention happens when your attention orients due to an external or internal stimulus, like a loud noise, an approaching person, or an intrusive thought.
Almost by definition (but not quite), bottom-up attention is an interruption — but an interruption of what exactly? Of top-down attention.
Top-down attention is when you choose focus in relationship to your larger desires and goals. It’s a bigger-picture, strategic type of attention. A simple, cave-man example of top-down attention would be “hunt a deer so that my family can eat”. Imagine yourself as a hunter, bow in hand, hiding in a bush, watching for a deer to come by.
Your hear the deer, mincing daintily along the game path, almost in view. You are nearly holding your breath to be silent. The deer is upwind, so you know you won’t be sniffed out. Your mouth starts watering, as you have eaten only berries for three days. You slowly lift the bow…and a horsefly lands on your arm, ready to bite an agonizing little chunk out of your skin. Now you have competing top-down and bottom-up attention!
This is the anti-flow: competing, conflicting top-down and bottom-up attention. Which brings us to the empowering definition of flow:
Flow is the total alignment of top-down and bottom-up attention.
Why is this such a great definition? Because if you understand flow by this definition, you can generate this desirable and stress-free state at will.
Csikszentmihaly speaks of flow in terms of high skill meeting high challenge.
“The results showed that high challenge/high skill situations created an optimal state of mind…”
“High challenge” implies a demanding environment and an important outcome, both of which evoke a strong focus response on the “top-down” part of the equation.
“High skill” implies confidence, speed and automaticity in terms of the bottom-up side of the equation — it means that you don’t have to think about your response, you can just act instantly.
Returning to our cave-man example, as an experienced hunter, there is no conflict. The horsefly can be utterly ignored, even the pain of the bite. You’ve been bitten by horseflies before, it’s not fun, but it’s tolerable, and you don’t even have to think about whether you’d risk losing the deer to slap the fly. With high skill, the horsefly is merely taken into account, with nary a ripple in your flow. You don’t even think about it.
There’s no interruption. No resistance to the horsefly.
Csikszentmihaly is right, that high challenge/high skill generates a flow state. But using our definition, we know exactly why it creates a flow state: because top-down and bottom-up attention become perfectly aligned.
The high challenge intensifies the top-down attention, and the high skill handles all the variable inputs for “no interruptions”. This combination of alignment plus engagement creates a state of absorption, self-forgetfulness, in which one’s petty problems, insecurities, in fact entire identity are entirely ignored and disappear for a blissful while.
With access to the deeper truth of flow, we don’t have to limit flow states to those rare moments of high challenge/high skill. We can consciously align bottom-up and top-down attention in any moment, to experience ease and flow.
How? You’ll see it in the notes above:
- Include and trust everything that is happening as part of your flow. If you actually do this, you will find that you are undistractable and uninterruptible. There are horseflies, but no interruptions. It turns out that distraction and interruption are a function of your resistance — not of the stimulus itself, whether it is a crying baby or an intrusive thought.
- Include and trust your desires and plans as part of your flow. Let your urge to act on your desires and plans become part of everything occurring, not a separate, special phenomenon.
By thus transcending the difference between top-down and bottom-up attention, you will immediately enter a state of flow. This is a truly valuable and skillful use of attention.