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How finding flow can help academics in their work and careers (opinion)

When I first learned to dance Argentine tango, I had no idea that it might be useful to me in my academic career.

Tango is an incredible art form. The dance can be rapid and passionate or slow and meditative. It is a dance of improvisation and spontaneity. There are a set of rules and given steps and moves, but within that framework, the dancers have plenty of room for creative, impulsive gestures and flourishes.

I remember when I was taking lessons, I would often dance with an elegant Hungarian who would hum as we glided across the floor. It was delightful to dance with him, not only because he was so skilled but also because he was creative—he had fun with it. When you dance the tango, you have to listen closely to your own body and that of your partner; it is two people caught up in a nonverbal conversation, and all of the usual mental chatter, the self-conscious thoughts and the awareness of time and the outside world fall away.

I did not know it at the time, but when I was dancing, I was sometimes entering into what’s called flow, or a flow state. And only after returning to dance many years later, and learning other practices like meditation, have I realized that flow is not only for artists and athletes but that ordinary people can have access to it, as well. Flow is an interdisciplinary field of study attracting research among neuroscientists, psychologists and anthropologists, to name a few. It has generated a flurry of interest in recent years both among academics and the general public. The reason for this is simple: flow feels amazing, and people who have had a taste of it want more.

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihály first coined the term flow in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.Athletes, artists and writers often refer to flow as “being in the zone” or the moment “when everything just clicks.” Michele Biasutti, a psychology professor at Padova University, describes the characteristics of flow as follows: concentration on the task, peak performance, distorted sense of time or timelessness, loss of self-consciousness and an autotelic experience. “Autotelic” refers to a task that is enjoyable for its own sake, that is intrinsically rewarding rather than offering external rewards such as money or prestige.

John Vervaeke, a cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto, explains that flow entails a sense of being at one with the task—as if you and the activity have merged and your sense of self disappears. I would add that a sense of spontaneity and play is important to finding flow.

Flow states can never be planned or guaranteed, but anyone can access flow. It is not an exotic mental state far out of the reach of mere mortals who are not meditating in a cave in the Himalayas or reaching the peak physical prowess of an Olympic athlete. Even anxious, frazzled academics like myself, those trying to claw their way toward some semblance of work-life balance, can find flow—and in healthy ways. There are real and easy steps we can take. And it is worth it to try to achieve more flow states, not only because they feel so good but also because flow can help us be in a better relationship with ourselves and with the demands of teaching, service and research.

I often think of flow by using the metaphor of driving a car. Imagine driving in your car on the surface streets. You have to be aware of cross-traffic, stoplights and pedestrians. Driving on the surface streets is like our ordinary states of mind, in which we’re engaging in an almost constant inner dialogue full of self-conscious and often critical thoughts, re-examining incidents in the past or worrying about the future, switching gears, shifting our attention from one object to another.

Then imagine getting onto the highway with no traffic at all where you can cruise at a steady speed without distractions, but you are still focused on driving the car. That is what meditation teachers call axis concentration. It is a wonderful halfway point to flow, where the inner chatter has gone quiet. Then imagine using cruise control, or the car driving itself and the driver disappearing altogether. That level of absorption and loss of self-consciousness is flow.

Features That Encourage Flow

Although flow has become a hot topic in recent years, it is an ancient idea. Many wisdom traditions across different cultures have referred to flow by many names and outlined practices for entering flow states. Meditation practices in Buddhism and Hinduism use a term called “samadhi,” which is often translated as concentration. But this concentration is not the kind where you are furrowing your brow, tensing your muscles, trying to thread a needle. A better translation might be “non-distractability,” or absorption.

Rather than attempting a tense form of concentration, simple meditation practices can help still the mind and possibly lead to an absorption state. When I attended my first meditation retreat, I spent a week in silence—without phones, without emails, meditating several hours a day—and to my surprise, I did not go mad. Instead, I found that my attention and focus had become razor-sharp. I had brought some papers to grade on my way home, and when I set to work, nothing could faze or distract me. I cut through those papers like a hot knife through butter. The feeling of deep calm and concentration was incredible. I had lost all sense of time. And this was with a task I usually dreaded!

It was as if I had just gotten an upgrade for my brain. I was like the lovesick Freddy in the musical My Fair Lady, who does not mind spending hours, even days, on the street where his beloved, Eliza, lives, because times means little to him in a blissful state. I now knew how he feels when he sings, “Let the time go by, I don’t care if I can be here on the street where you live.”

I realized that I had discovered a powerful tool for my research and teaching, and I looked for ways to recreate this state of consciousness—or at least create a hospitable environment for it to appear. Here are the features or conditions that have helped make flow possible for me and that I would recommend to other people in academe.

  • A quiet and calm environment. Try to minimize distractions such as alerts on phones or computer screens. In the classroom, try to create an environment with minimal distractions. Flow is definitely within reach while teaching, and psychologists even study a phenomenon called group flow.
  • A practice or ritual. That could include meditation, lighting incense or playing music that helps set the stage, so to speak, for a task that requires concentration. Many famous writers have used excessive alcohol, drugs and even exhaustion to quiet the inner critic and get “into the zone,” but I find that certain meditation practices can have similar effects while being more physically sustainable, to say the least. (One successful novelist confessed that he had writer’s block for over a year when he got sober.)
  • A project or task that you enjoy. This is extremely important, especially in research and writing.
  • A sense of play and spontaneity. We often take ourselves so seriously. We want our research to have weight, impact, rigor—and so we should. Yet we can become so caught up in a sense of importance that we forget to have fun, to be creative. So much is lost when we sacrifice creativity. Allowing ourselves to play, to have the space to try innovative approaches, creates the conditions ripe for flow. For example, during one of my classes, Early Modern Europe, I was showing my students the importance of certain bodily gestures and posture during the Renaissance, and I invited them all to stand up and try them for themselves. I could see that they were having as much fun as I was—they were even laughing at my weak jokes and playfully trying innovations of what I was showing them. We were all goofing off with the poses, and I showed them more than I had planned, deciding to move a little out of my comfort zone. That day, I almost forgot to end class on time.

These features are especially vital for writing. Flow can help us write and publish with more ease and less anxiety—the most common roadblock to flow—and choosing a project we enjoy can help us get into flow. Recent research has shown that people are far more likely to reach their goals or stick with new, healthy habits if they find something intrinsically rewarding about them—if they enjoy the doing of the task.

All this is not to say that getting into flow and a state of prolific productivity heaven is easy. Certainly, many aspects of modern culture and academe conspire against us—both competing for our attention through technology and through an academic mystique that promotes productivity while providing little guidance in achieving it. Traditional academic culture, writes media studies scholar Joli Jensen, “obstructs rather than promotes scholarly productivity … All we are told, basically, is ‘Write and publish lots, or else.’ … The stakes are incredibly high; the process remains hidden; there is constant pressure to ‘crank it out’ with shame and humiliation for anyone who stumbles.”

I have certainly seen this in my own field, history, one of the book disciplines, where scholars are expected to produce monographs for tenure and promotion, and yet many struggle with all of the anxieties and angst we may have around writing. And then we have to deal with the shame of not publishing enough.

Many issues in academe and in the wider culture can hamper our ability to teach and write effectively, and finding flow will not solve all of those problems. But it can help us to, little by little, chip away at the anxiety, dread or boredom we might feel about our projects and responsibilities. And on the best days, it can lead us, like the tango, to lose ourselves in the dance.

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