“If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost. The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.”- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Filled with a hearty breakfast on the second day of our first retreat, our seven teens were eager to dive into a rare chunk of time to create whatever they cared most about. Musicians hoped to write new lyrics and practice harmonizing old standbys. Artists would spread out blank sketchpads and sharp pencils to outline abstract images. Writers would follow their streams of consciousness to make sense of the stories swirling through their heads.We all want to be at our best to experience and be consumed by our creativity—as if time has flown by while immersed in our pursuits. This elusive state of consciousness is called “flow.” And, in it, some argue that there is nothing we can’t do.But flow is hard to reach when you’re distracted, you haven’t prepared for it, or you don’t know where you’re heading. Stymied by the unstructured time, many of our teens (who had met only the day before) worked solo for a while. And then, like powerful magnets drawn to the core, they tumbled back into the living room and visited with each other, sidetracked by their curiosity about promising new friendships. The next day, we shared with them another approach.
how flow works
In fact, we told them, creativity flows best when we’re in flow. Researchers, ranging from famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ned Hallowell, have studied this state for more than a century. Author Steven Kotler [link to The Rise of Superman], cofounder and Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, honed in on high-adventure athletes to understand how they tap into flow, too.In his book, The Rise of Superman, Kotler explains that flow isn’t binary; It’s a four-stage process. You can’t reach it without moving through all of the following, in order:
1. Struggle. Overload your brain with information, training or preparation. “You want your head to be so full that it’s spinning.”
2. Relax. Next, cook a meal, go for a run, or dig in the garden. This “release” or relaxation phase is necessary to help you kick off flow. Get out of your head and let your subconscious do its work.
3. Flow. Carve out time to focus your full attention on a clear goal that poses a slight challenge. Unplug, too: “If you’re trying to apply flow, you need to be able to focus.”
4. Recover. Flow is physically and mentally demanding. Prioritize time to rest and allow your memory to consolidate all that you’ve learned.
With practice, we can train ourselves to flow anytime. Follow your curiosity. Learn new things, and read a few books on the fringe of your expertise. Use disciplines such as yoga or Zen walking meditation, which match your breath with movement, to encourage deep embodiment. And have the courage to assume a little more risk each time.“Contrary to what we usually believe… the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” Csikszentmihalyi says. Kotler adds: “You want the challenge before you make you stretch, but not snap. We’re built to be exploratory creatures. It’s good for us.”Teens are naturally comfortable taking risks, and creativity is a potent gateway to their innermost selves. After months of practice, our teens now crave solo creating time on our retreats when they can foster flow. We can learn from them. We can all carve out free time, and meet it with preparation, a goal in mind, and time thereafter to rest. When we do, we’re that much closer to finding our most creative selves.