An ideal state to get in whilst making art is the flow state, popularised by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It describes the experience of being so absorbed in what you’re doing that you forget everything else, even time passing. and many different tasks can produce flow, from athletic to creative activities. Flow is important because it’s an important aspect of creativity, satisfaction and wellness.
In his book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi describes “The positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow.” He uses a rock climbing experience example: “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.”
Alex Grey in The Mission of Art says “During an artist’s creative flow of concentration, he or she can be in a state of unity and integration with the subject and may also have breakthroughs of insight.” Being able to get into the flow state can create a fertile ground for the unexpected to emerge–a key creativity tool. Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path describes how “It is action without thought. The mind is not getting in the way and confusing you. You are just expressing without even knowing what you are doing. You are the flow… This is the miracle of inspiration, of creating. Un-self-conscious acting… When we become conscious, it’s over…”
How do we get into the flow state when making art? Relax and focus your attention firmly upon the physical experience of making, not on the outcome. Ignore mental chatter and avoid self-judgement because they will make you conscious of every mark you make. Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action suggests “Relaxation of control is a basis for inspired expression… Ironically, we are doing our best thinking when we are not consciously thinking about what we are doing. We become so completely engaged with sensing and feeling what is taking shape during the present moment that we are able to put everything we have into the process of expression.”
If our best thinking comes from not thinking, it’s time to relax and let go of the outcome and go with the flow to create from within.
Picture a butterfly flying around. It can move with seemingly little purpose, flitting about with no clear straight direction and floating on the air as it moves from place to place. Picture two butterflies interacting with one another in a playful dance. Spotting these moment in real life can be mesmerising because they revealing an intimate moment from a normally hidden world.
We can be more like the butterfly in our approach to making art, helping us open up to more joy by letting go of the regular (thought) constraints we put on ourselves. Instead of moving from art piece to art piece seriously thinking about where we’re headed, we could flit and flutter about playfully. We could choose to move with a different, lighter attitude, one that releases heavy thoughts around the value or quality of what we make. Letting go of the burden of our art needing to look a certain way encourages us to continue making in a more playful way.
Float on the air, let go of needing to know where you’re “supposed” to be headed and see where the wind takes you.
Have you ever been so immersed in a task that you lost track of time or your surroundings? You may have unknowingly been in a flow state, explained fully by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: “The flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control – or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about loosing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.” In order for flow to take place, you need to be focused on a task that isn’t too hard you can’t ever achieve in, nor too easy that there’s no challenge. Effort has to take place in order for flow to occur. “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.” If a task is too easy, long term it won’t provide you with enough stimulus to continue so the challenge becomes how can you increase the difficulty of a task as your confidence and skills improve?
But how can flow help with an art-making practice? Full immersion into a task quietens the mind’s chatter – negative thoughts or unhelpful comments – that can railroad you if you pay them too much attention. Szentmihalyi explains “In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. “Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else?” Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because action carries us forward as if by magic.”
The feeling of being in flow is very rewarding and brings a sense of satisfaction about your work. If “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing”, then giving yourself the space and time to make art, you increase the chances of experiencing the benefits of flow.
What if not taking action in the form of forced decisions and ‘busy-work’ for the sake of feeling productive, is actually the best thing you could do right now? Instead of the hustle and forced striving, you went with the flow and followed your curiosities gently, with no sense of rush?
Reading, dreaming, talking about your area of interest is all focus and holds so much power. We underestimate the value in thinking more consciously about how you want to show up in the world and what you want to create. It’s enough to be present and gently focusing. When it’s time to take action, it will feel exciting and you’ll do it naturally.
What could we create is there were no limits or rules and the goal was to follow your joy and pass that message onto others?
“You might spend your whole life following your curiosity and have absolutely nothing to show for it at the end – except one thing. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you passed your entire existence in devotion to the noble virtue of inquisitiveness. And that should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic.