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Last Updated Friday December 01 2017 01:03 PM IST

Heal Thy Self | When your mind goes A W O L

Nirmala Ferrao
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Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

What has come to be known as “Donald Trump’s fe-fe moment” (when he tweeted, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” ) may have generated a storm of Twitter sass and sarcasm. But some comments, looking at why it could have happened, may have edged closer to the truth. Did Trump fall asleep with his hands still Twittering? A Democratic U.S. Senator, Al Franken, joked: "A ‘covfefe’ is a Yiddish term for ‘I got to go to bed now’.” Another possibility was also thrown up by the media: Did Trump have a medical episode of some kind?

Also read: Heal Thy Self | Shaken, not seared

No explanation has been forthcoming, and we may never know. But, what is beyond question is that the ‘covfefe’ moment marked a lapse of consciousness. To that extent, it is not a Trump exclusive, but reflects an aspect of human experience that binds us all. At the heart of our existence is the continual flowing awareness that we call consciousness. Yet, every once in a while, that stream may be broken. The lapse may originate in your body (e.g., fainting after a knock on the head), or in your mind (e.g., the sudden shock of bad news).

But not all situations in which you feel ‘out-of-it’ constitute negative experiences. Sometimes, when the mind goes AWOL, the fallout can be positive. One instance is daydreaming. Far from being “wasted” time, the consciousness switch of daydreaming (from reality to imagination) is now well recognized as being vital to mental rejuvenation, and even an aid to resolving tough problems.

Flow – the consciousness loss that’s a gain

There’s another consciousness loss that’s a big gain. It is called “flow”, the name given to it by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the behavioural scientist who has immersed himself in a lifetime of research studying this altered state of consciousness.

Also check: Heal Thy Self | Helicopter parenting

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

Think how it feels when you’re completely engrossed in a work project, a riveting book, a game of cricket. Everything clicks. Concentrating seems like breathing – you don’t think about it. You’re relaxed, your mind razor-sharp, an hour passes like minutes. This is one change from ordinary consciousness we welcome – when we are lucky enough to experience it. Music composers, chess champs, rock climbers, basketball players and surgeons all describe ‘zoning out’ the same way – an effortless, bull-s-eye centering of attention. Csikszentmihalyi found that so many of the people he studied – from Himalayan climbers to Navajo shepherds, from Dominican monks to blind nuns – described it as a spontaneous flow, that he called it the “flow experience”.

Flow happens in different realms, says Csikszentmihalyi, even in the realm of business. But being successful in terms of running a robust business venture is not enough. Those businessmen who do experience flow have two more things going for them: they are ethical and they are socially responsible. As Norman Augustine, a former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, said: “My definition of being successful is contributing something to the world... and being happy while doing it... You have to enjoy what you are doing. You won’t be very good if you don’t. And secondly, you have to feel that you are contributing something worthwhile. If either of these ingredients is absent, there’s probably some lack of meaning in your work.”

How does it feel to be in flow?

To know whether you’ve experienced flow is in your own life, ask yourself this question: “Is there anything I do regularly that makes me forget what time it is?” That forgetting -- that pure absorption -- is what “flow” or the optimal experience is all about. Regardless of culture or education, there are 6 conditions that seem to be present when flow takes place.

1. You are completely involved in what you are doing... focused, concentrated. It is no surprise that some people, when they are in this state of flow, forget even maintenance activities such as eating, drinking and sleeping. Why does this happen? Csikszentmihalyi explains it thus: At a ballpark estimate, our nervous system is capable of processing between 110 and 120 bits of information per second. So, taking 120 bits as a ballpark figure, when you’re immersed in the completely engaging process of flow, say, in creating something new, your attention is so completely given over to that process that you just don’t have enough attention left over to monitor how your body feels, or your problems at home. You don’t remember that you have an appointment in 15 minutes, you don’t even register that that you’re hungry or thirsty or tired. 

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

2. A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality. The late John Cage, lauded as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, had once described in an interview with Csikszentmihalyi, how he felt when the composing was going well: “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist... . My hand seems devoid of myself, I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And (the music) just flows out of itself.”

It is interesting that “ecstasy” in Greek means simply to stand to the side of something. Essentially, that is an analogy for what happens when you are in a state of flow: you stand aside from everyday realities, you step into an alternative reality. As Cage said, the experience of ecstasy can be so intense that it feels almost as if one doesn’t exist. In effect, existence is temporarily suspended. Your body disappears, your identity disappears from your consciousness. 

3. A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego. A leading American poet and writer interviewed by Csikszentmihalyi, described it this way: “It’s like opening a door that’s floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.” It’s the same kind of feeling, says Csikszentmihalyi, that Einstein described as to how he imagined the forces of relativity when he was struggling to understand the concept of Time and how it worked.

4. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing. An Olympic skater described it in these words: “I mean everything went right, everything felt good... It’s almost as though you don’t have to think... it’s like you’re on automatic pilot. You hear the music but you’re not aware that you’re hearing it because it’s a part of it all.”

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

5. Knowing that the activity is do-able – that our skills are adequate to the task. Life coach Martha Beck says, “When we strike a balance between the challenge of an activity and our skill at performing it, we can get totally absorbed in our task. That is happiness.”

6. Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes. Timelessness – that is, a loss of the sense of Time – is typically experienced in the more complex levels of flow , which occur less often than micro-flow experiences. It is often experienced when you are in a high-quality state of intense engagement with creative work. Creative people like writers, artists and composers are more likely to experience this kind of timelessness.

How to encourage flow to happen

While we can’t force flow to happen, we can certainly make it more likely to occur.

Take on those challenges that seem do-able. Flow seems to flourish in that zone that falls between anxiety and boredom. If you see a job as more than you can handle, you’re apt to feel frazzled, not focused. On the other hand, if it’s too easy, your attention is likely to stray. You must be pushed beyond your comfort zone, but at the same time your skills should be up to the challenge.

Choose an activity for its own sake. Some activities are more conducive to intense absorption than others, particularly those done for their own sake. Importantly, this includes play. Play is the ultimate flow experience, and children fall into it with the inevitability of a natural law. You can see it all happening if you look at the way your little boy builds his sand castle on the beach. He just can’t get enough of the sand: he wallows in it, throws it, and probably eats a bit of it. It sticks to his skin, covers his scalp and creates drifts in his beachwear. You might find yourself wondering how uncomfortable that must be, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He moves effortlessly over the sand, grabbing fistfuls and moving piles. He doesn’t worry if it gets under his nails or blows in his face. When he creates his sand structures, he is focused and deliberate. He is engaged.

As adults, we too can enter a play setting in which we achieve a kind of artificial focusing. When you jump out of a plane to go skydiving, your mind cannot wander. There is a sense of forgetting time, of having clear and immediate goals, clear and immediate feedback, not feeling bored or anxious. of being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. Time disappears. The ego dissolves.

You don’t necessarily have to go sky-diving. You could be playing the piano, singing in a choir, spending time with your best friend, immersing yourself in a religious ritual – or working, if work is what gives you flow.  If you love your job, it could happen during a complicated surgical operation or a close business deal.

Break down an overwhelming goal into several smaller ones. There will be tasks we feel incompetent to deal with. If an activity seems overwhelming, try breaking it down into manageable chunks. For instance, make researching a report a goal in itself. Once that’s done, outlining it could be your next sub-goal. After that, writing it will seem easier. Focus on the final step, presenting your findings after all the preparatory work is done. With practice, breaking down a task into simpler parts can transform a potentially stressful situation into a flow experience.

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

Look for your passion. The late Anita Roddick, founder of Body Shop, the natural cosmetics company that shaped ethical consumerism, once said: “When you’re considering a field of work, or even which company you would be happy working in, ask yourself: What makes you excited? What turns you on? Go towards companies that you really like, really admire. What do you admire about them? Spend if you can an internship there, or just knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, can I work here for cheap?... Find organisations that move your spirit if you can... and have fun. When you spend 95 % of your life in a work environment, it can’t be dour.”

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

You might be lucky enough to get an employer like Masaru Ibuka, co-founder of Sony, At the time that Sony was just an idea in his mind -- he was without a product, without money, but he did have an idea. He expressed it in the first “Purposes of Incorporation” of Sony:

To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their heart’s content.”

Work that makes you happy just to be doing it, and which brings meaning to your life as you go outside yourself and make a social contribution. .. Ibuka’s sentiment strongly echoes Augustine’s formula for being in flow.

Invest energy in relationships. The reason is that when we have to interact with another person, even a stranger, our attention becomes structured by external demands. In more intimate encounters, the level of both challenges and skills can grow very high. Thus, interactions have many of the characteristics of flow activities, and they certainly require the orderly investment of mental energy. The strong effects of companionship on the quality of experience suggest that investing energy in relationships is a good way to improve life.

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

What has all this got to do with happiness? Can we not be happy experiencing the passive pleasure of a rested body, warm sunshine, or the contentment of a serene relationship? Yes, we can, but this kind of happiness is dependent on favourable external circumstances. The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, Which gives it a savour all its own.

(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)

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