If you have experienced a state of flow, you probably remember it as quite enjoyable. It is usually associated with heightened concentration, deeper awareness, and greater effectiveness, and is sometimes thought of as being “in the zone.” Most of us would probably like to spend more time in flow, whether in leisure activities or work.
The state of flow is considered a positive psychological condition and has been researched primarily from a nonreligious point of view, and appropriately so. But I believe there could also be a religious or spiritual dimension to this experience. Being aware of this possible spiritual dimension might help us move more easily toward a flow state.
What Is Flow?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first to identify, study, and name the experience of flow, describing it as an optimal experience in which:
Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.
How Do We Reach a Flow State?
Csikszentmihalyi suggested several factors that can contribute, among them:
- We can give our full attention to the task. As we do so, our self-concern disappears.
- There is a good fit between the task’s challenges and our skills, with enough challenge to require our full attention and allow for a sense of growth, but not so much difficulty that we become frustrated or overwhelmed.
- We believe there is a good chance that we can successfully complete the task.
- The task has clear goals and feedback that provide a structure and a basis for knowing whether we are progressing as we work.
- We feel we are able to exert significant control over our work.
Entering a flow state as we work requires us to direct our attention toward the task at hand thoroughly and completely. This might happen naturally, but I suspect most of us need to work at focusing our attention more effectively. Practice helps.
The payoff can be very beneficial. Imagine spending more of our work time in a state of flow. We would be fully engaged, focused, energized, and effective, and would probably find more enjoyment and satisfaction in our work. We would also complete our work more quickly, allowing extra time for our other activities.
Could There Be a Spiritual or Religious Connection?
Csikszentmihalyi spoke of flow as a psychological concept, not a religious one, at least as religion is conventionally understood. Nevertheless, I think we can find several possible points of connection that can deepen our experience and understanding.
The biblical concept of shalom is one of them. Shalom includes a sense of peace and harmony in several dimensions—personal, social, spiritual, economic, etc. One might think of it as being in the right relationship with God, our fellow humans, our deeper self, and maybe our work. When the word “peace” appears in the New Testament (e.g., the greeting “peace be with you”), it usually refers to shalom.
In our work lives, we might think of shalom as the basis for holistic flourishing—a flourishing that incorporates each of the dimensions of human life.
When we are in a state of flow, we seem to be at peace with ourselves and our work, and I would guess with others as well. We are not beset by greed, pride, hatred, petty resentments, excessive self-concern, and other sins that can distract us. The virtues found in the Bible, such as patience, humility, and courage, seem to encourage this peace, as does the biblical injunction to observe the Sabbath.
As the Psalmist puts it, people with integrity will “lie down and sleep in peace” (Psalm 4:8); God grants this to those who are not troubled by unwanted thoughts, which sounds like the result of an ordered consciousness to me.
Another connection point might be Csikszentmihalyi’s observation that as we become absorbed in the task, our concept of self (and, I would say, our self-concern) recedes from our consciousness. We might experience a sense of enjoyment. I suspect that this sounds at least vaguely familiar to many religious people.
When else do we experience these types of feelings? We might think of engaging in spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and worship; helping and working with other people; being carried away by music; or acting on a sense of calling. The triggers and experiences might be somewhat different for different people, but I suggest a commonality. In each case, as we lose ourselves in the experience and our self-concern recedes, we might experience feelings of peace and positivity.
The New Testament frequently asks us to let go of our excessive self-concern. We see this reflected in the virtues of humility (Ephesians 4:1-3, Luke 18:14, Romans 12:3, Philippians 2:3, 1 Peter 5:6, and elsewhere). We are also asked to let go of our worries (Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 12:22-31, and 1 Peter 5:7). We are advised by Jesus that, paradoxically,
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:35, NRSV)
We might think of some virtues as potentially both precursors and expressions of an ordered consciousness.
For some of us, the state of flow might be inherently spiritual. The experience represents a state of mind that is fully engaged and fully conscious; we feel more alive and more like who we are meant to be. It depends on what one means by “spiritual,” of course, but it seems that as we experience flow, we feel that we are moving in the right direction—we might say in the direction ordained by God.
A Point of Clarification: When I speak of our self-concern receding, this is not necessarily a collectivist or communitarian concept, nor does it mean subjecting our will to the opinions of a group. Just because our self-concern diminishes, it does not mean our individual agency vanishes. On the contrary, I believe our sense of agency and purpose might become more robust as we stop worrying about our various distractions. This is especially true if the potential distractions are driven by concerns external to the person or the task, such as social pressure or the desire for social status or financial security. To the degree that the state of flow allows our actions to line up with our deeper internal values and drives, the experience can be liberating. It can move us away from being dominated by our social setting.
Can Spiritual Practices Help Us Enter a State of Flow?
I think they can, for the following reasons.
Spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation can help us focus on the task, let go of distractions, and work more relaxed. They help us concentrate, in effect reducing the disorder in our minds.
To the extent that our faith helps us develop virtues that apply in the workplace (in particular, patience, humility, compassion, equanimity, and transparency), we are less likely to be burdened by the distractions of resentment, anger, fear, pride, social pressure, and excessive self-concern. We are thereby more likely to be able to engage in the task at hand with an ordered consciousness.
Knowing and accepting who we are at a deeper level might also help us eliminate distractions; faith helps provide this.
Is Flow Always Good?
There is one further issue we should deal with: is the flow state always good? Can we enter a state of flow when we pursue inherently harmful goals?
On the one hand, it is hard to imagine someone being in a state of flow if various sins, petty or otherwise, such as greed or covetousness, control them. And it is pretty well accepted that encouraging traditional virtues enhances our sense of well-being and our ability to focus. One would hope that behaving with integrity in pursuit of a good cause would help us move toward a state of flow.
On the other hand, ordered consciousness and the state of flow do not appear to depend on the moral value of the intended outcome of our actions.
Perhaps we should leave this as an open question. In the meantime, we can protect ourselves by remembering the importance of having a robust moral framework and letting it guide our actions.
This post was adapted from The Sacred Meaning of Everyday Work, by Robert H. Tribken, available from Amazon here.
 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Collins, 2008/1990) p. 71.
 Ibid., pp. 49-67.