State of flow

Some people talk these days about “peak experiences”, and how they give meaning to a human life; like when you skateboard over the great wall of China with a sprained ankle and your mind is so focused and death-aware that you are totally and utterly in the zone, you can put weight on your foot painlessly, you seem to drop down into a more spacey, subtle level of consciousness, and it feels great. But, honestly, you can gain the same blissful effect far more safely (and inexpensively) by learning to meditate properly.
hacking-flow-achieving-ultimate-human-potential-1-638Not only that, but there is no comparison in terms of meaning, for meditation lets us have peak experiences not only now but in all our future lives. Meditation is transcendent – it increases our human capacity from initial scope to middle scope to great scope. A few years ago a friend of my cousin’s was telling us how she liked to jump out of airplanes because it was the only time she felt so “incredibly alive”. Ironically (or not), she died quite young last year, of commonplace cancer. Already with initial scope we are mindful of death, so each moment of this fleeting precious life can be an opportunity for a peak experience, for feeling just as incredibly alive as my once-acquaintance plummeting through the sky.

And through meditation we grow into relaxed Yogis bound for liberation (middle scope), cool, heroic Bodhisattvas (great scope), and then fully Awakened Ones, omniscient beings who can bless each and every living being every day, freeing the world from suffering. No skiing, skateboarding, surfing, skydiving, or high-wire walking can ever do that for us, even if we don’t have a fatal accident.*

One thing that does inspire me about people who push the boundaries, though, is that they are not discouraged, they have vision. They don’t assume, “I’ve never done this before so I will never be able to do it.” We could be more like that. Just because we haven’t gotten enlightened before doesn’t mean we cannot do it now. Just because Buddhism is new to the modern world doesn’t mean that it is not going to take this world by storm, with the help of our own examples.portugal-festival-2

I was in NYC for the last few weeks and many people were pouring in for meditation classes every day. This upsurge of interest is happening in other places too, and is light years away from the early days of Buddhism in the West. I remember, 35 years ago, the organizers being excited when 100 people showed up for Geshe Kelsang’s teachings in the so-called North Wing gompa at Manjushri Center, whereas now, at Kadampa festivals around the world, thousands is the norm. And studies on the benefits of mindfulness and other Buddhist techniques are everywhere you turn, mainstream, such as in the big display on the ground floor of Denver library. The snowball has already started its roll.

There is also related talk these days about being in a state of flow – extreme athletes or insanely talented artists being prime examples, but I think we all enter the zone to some extent whenever we engage in some creative act with concentration, eg, gardening, flowwriting, acting, composing, playing music, etc. We do love this because we are experiencing some degree of euphoria or bliss at that time, our most gross, chunky, talky, concretizing mind is temporarily turned down so we are at peace.

And Dharma minds put us in a state of flow – refuge and love spring to mind, but also wisdom, compassion, maybe all of them! And not least Mahamudra. 

Training in concentration

In this article, I talked about what was Mahamudra Tantra, namely the union of bliss and emptiness. Meditation on the nature of our mind is the access point to Mahamudra, enabling us to improve our mindfulness so that we can then meditate on emptiness and the union of bliss and emptiness. According to the Ganden oral lineage, Je-Tsongkhapaour “ear-whispered lineage” passed down through a succession of awesome practitioners to the present day, it is the recommended object for training in concentration.

Geshe Kelsang, modern-day Mahamudra Master, has said:

Make meditation work.

This means we make it work for us, and I think we need not be scared to experiment with the ingredients previous Yogis and Yoginis have given us, any more than those crazy snowboarders are afraid to experiment with what they have learned. We can put together these following elements of dropping into our heart, experiencing peace, receiving blessings, and meditating on clarity in whichever way helps us gain the peak experiences.

Short meditation

So here is a short suggested meditation to help you enter the state of flow without having to leave your armchair (though do put your coffee cup down for a moment …)

We first drop from our head into our heart chakra in the middle of our chest, sensing already some peace and space. (Our heart is where we feel things most deeply – for example, where do you place your hand when you want to express love?) We feel grateful and happy at our good fortune at still being alive, still having this opportunity (for forget skateboarding, even shoveling can kill us); and make a decision to apply ourselves gently without expectation to our meditation.

With this decision, we consciously breathe out whatever is on our mind, let it go with each natural exhalation. Our thoughts only have the power we give them; we don’t ever need to feel intimidated by them. We are infinitely bigger than them, bigger even than the sky is to the clouds. With each breath, space opens up in our mind and we feel lighter and cleaner.

As we inhale we experience the breath as radiant light, the most beautiful, blessed light we can imagine, which we breathe right down into our heart. Through enjoying this process, our awareness is also drawn naturally toward our heart, riding upon our breath. This light is the nature of our Spiritual Guide’s mind, peaceful inspiration that soaks into our root mind. We feel our awareness becoming centered within a light, calm experience at our heart, and there we abide.

Within this, we ask: “What is the mind? What is it that is aware of the sounds, sensations, distractions? Where is it?”, so that instead of focusing all our attention on their “content” we use these thoughts to help us become aware of awareness itself. We recognize the clarity — the inner empty space with no shape, no color, no size, no material properties, no form — that possesses the power to perceive, that is conscious. We stay here, experiencing clarity moment by moment.

zone_4We can appreciate the extraordinary beauty of the nature of our mind, which is limitless clarity and unbounded potential. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could gain deep experience of the nature of our mind, and through this accomplish Mahamudra and full enlightenment? For this, we need to do ourselves an enormous favor and receive blissings — commune with the mind of enlightenment itself, with our Spiritual Guide and all the Buddhas.

We feel that our present mind of peace or contentment, however slight or relative, is connected to our Spiritual Guide’s mind of peace, that we are already abiding in a heart-to-heart communion with all the Buddhas, and in particular to their full experience of Mahamudra. We take a moment to recognize this, to relax into our peaceful mind, knowing that we are not separate from Buddha’s transcendent consciousness, knowing that there is an ocean of assistance on hand. We are really in the zone now; whereas before we may have felt unsure, now we feel very confident that we can pull this meditation off.

We can feel too that we are meditating on our root or very subtle mind, which is naturally blissful. (Imagine bliss if you don’t feel it, everything begins in our imagination, it is still authentic.)

With this connection, we can if we wish engage in Liberating Prayer, Prayers for Meditation, Heart Jewel, or any prayers we like, and then continue with more Mahamudra meditation, pausing any time to feel that connection with the mind of enlightenment. Or you can open your eyes and get on with your day, thinking it could be your last & staying in the zone …

(*There is a bit more to say about the state of the flow, and how it increases performance; so I’ll explore it a bit more in a future article on refuge. This is intended as a conversation starter, so I welcome your insights into the subject. Indeed, Helen has already written a very helpful comment below.) 

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 39 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

14 thoughts on “State of flow”

  1. I read and studied all of Csiksgentmihalyi’s books and research in the 90’s related to my professional work in the field of education. I’m always amazed at how so much of whatnis published in contemporary western psychology literature confirms what Buddha taught over 2000 years ago. What struck me then (as I was also studying Buddhism at the time) was the relationship between mindfulness and the “flow” state.

    Luna, you talk at the end about staying in the flow, and I think that’s the most difficult part for many as it takes training and we live in a society of distractions. Slowly, slowly is good advice, and to know and have faith it’s possible to be in the flow continuously! Would you agree?


  2. Someone close to me objects to the formulation “every living being wants happiness all the time” because of the example of peak experience, which she considers meaningful but not always “happy.” Have never known how to answer….


    1. i think when we are experiencing meaning we are naturally experiencing pleasant feelings — may not be the same as the happiness of changing suffering, but it is still happiness, purer happiness in fact.


  3. Thanks for this wonderful article! It’s made me wonder if Csiksgentmihalyi’s work ‘Flow’ might be of interest to you too. He spent several decades devoted to unraveling what it is that (he observes) ‘gets us into the ‘flow’ of things’. Naturally, he’s found this experience crosses all boundaries, cultures, classes and so on 🙂

    I’ve found some of Csiksgentmihalyi’s ideas to be quite helpful to my refuge practice. For example, he gives a simple clear image that I like to ‘lean on’ for encouragement. It’s a simple image that I’ve found works well in conjunction with the question: “am I in refuge?”

    “Am I in refuge?” “Am I in ‘the flow’?” – for me they are asking the same thing. Having a visual image like this has sometimes helped me dial to in a more rambunctious mind: offering it a direction to move ‘within refuge’ or ‘increasing refuge’ rather than creating an observation of being ‘separate from’ or ‘untethered from’ refuge. After all, There’s no reason why refuge shouldn’t be experienced in the same way as a peaceful mind! A little bit of peace indicates a ocean of peace is within reach – and so it is with refuge.

    (working with his ‘flow’ diagram – image linked above) I’ve benefitted from seeing my relationship with refuge as analogous to ‘flow’ by considering the ‘flow’ tile as qualified refuge, while the tiles that surround it as ‘shades’ of refuge on the ‘big sundial of refuge’. This also gives me some fearlessness, because it helps me to realize, that no matter where I am on the sundial, I am in refuge. Sure, it may be a weak ‘apathy’ refuge, or an ‘anxious’ refuge (working with the tiles in the image again) but it is refuge and therefore naturally, the mind that wants to make me feel inadequate has to give way to a mind of deeper and deeper refuge. (Unless I decide to be willful and reject this – but that’s a whole other issue! ;))

    Now, on the flip side, a fun thing is to also play with experiences where I really do feel ‘in the flow’ (in refuge), because then I have the luxury of working with more subtle edges of challenge/ confidence in my practice, so as to try to keep my ‘flow’ fresh and vibrant and engaged. From that perspective I have an opportunity to gain a greater appreciation for the joy the Kadampa Geshes would gain by ‘wishing for more challenging situations’ – if their confidence was on point, it would seem to me, that they knew they needed a little adversity to keep their ‘flow’ steady, and vice versa.

    I find this approach somewhat analogous to the constant small gentle adjustments we make to a car’s steering wheel on a long drive. Even though the road seems straight, we’re constantly (and somewhat subconsciously) adjusting left/ right to stay ‘straight’ on the road, because we know that without making those little adjustments, it won’t be long before we’re needing to make a really big adjustment to avoid careening off the road!;)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is brilliant Helen!!! Thank you so much. Hope lots of people read it, in fact will add a line to the article right now to encourage them. And I want to say a bit more about flow/refuge in the next article so this is doubly helpful.


      1. Yes! This is very helpful as an addition to the brilliant article above! I can’t express in words how much this piece has helped me with my current meditation practice. Thank you both very much.


  4. Lovely. Thanks. I like the word “blissings”. Dont know if it was intentional , but a good invention anyway ! ☺


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