Tao & The Art of Flow

When was the last time you were so deeply involved in something that made everything around you fade away?
Flow, a term first coined in the ’70s by psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced Chick-Sent-Me-High-Ee) is described by him as:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

If you’ve ever experienced a state of flow, concentrating deeply on the task at hand, then you know there’s one thing that disappears — the focus on results.

Described as “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best”, as mentioned by peak-performance expert Steven Kotler in a speedy podcast with Mindvalley.

It refers to any of those moments of total absorption when you’re so focused on what you’re doing that everything else vanishes.

Flow amplifies motivation, productivity, innovation, and creativity. It accelerates learning, empathy, environmental awareness (your ability to perceive the natural world), and even collaborative work.

It can be achieved either individually or as a group collaborating on a task, project, or a sport. But today’s article will be about You, the individual.

In this article, we’ll examine the connection between the philosophy of Tao and the psychological state of Flow, so that you can achieve deep focus, concentration, and happiness more often.

Before we get to the triggers, a quick FAQ —


Is flow state hard to achieve?

Focus is a huge energy drain. For those of you that have experienced flow, then you know it’s not tangible. It’s not something you can force yourself into. It’s not something you try to do, it just happens, and therefore you must be aware of what initially brings you into this state.

Since focus comes for free, you don’t have to work so hard to pay attention to the stuff you’re trying to pay attention to, which is a bit of a paradox, like Lau Tzu’s saying of action by non-action.

Become aware of flow as a state of mind, practice often and like anything else your mind will naturally shift towards it.

One of the best ways to naturally achieve flow is to make sure the thing you are trying to focus on is aligned with who you are or who you want to become.


How do you know when you’re experiencing flow?

Csíkszentmihályi identified 10 experiences of being in flow. They don’t all necessarily have to be in place for flow to occur, but you’re likely to experience many of them. The last 4 points are described by Steven Kotler as “flow triggers” or pre-conditions that lead to the experience, rather than characteristics.


1. Action and Awareness Unite:

The doer and the doing become one. Our actions feel automatic and require little to zero resources.


2. Selflessness:

Our inner critic becomes silenced and our sense of self-consciousness disappears.


3. Timelessness:

Past and future fade off, and we enter a deeper now, experiencing an altered perception of time.


4. Effortlessness:

Our sense of struggle vanishes. The experience becomes intrinsically-rewarding.


5. Paradox of Control:

We hold a powerful sense of control during this time. Again, the doer/doing becomes one. We become the captain of our own ship.


6. Intrinsic Motivation:

The experience is intrinsically motivating. We are doing it without any apparent external rewards vs extrinsic motivation (behavior driven by external rewards like money, fame, or grades). We do it because the activity itself is so capturing that it’s its own reward.


7. Deep Concentration:

Total focus on the right here, right now. Complete absorption in the present moment.


8. Challenge/Skills Balance:

The challenge of the task at hand slightly surpasses our skill set so we have to push ourselves outside our comfort zone: The idea is that you pay the most attention to the task at hand. When the challenge of the task slightly exceeds our skillset: You want to stretch, not snap, by being slightly out of your comfort zone. You’re constantly pushing


9. Clear Goals:

These are not big, long-term goals. What’s critical is to know what we’re doing now so attention can stay focused on the present moment. Start with your hardest and most important task, and decide on them the evening before your workday. A bad goal for say, a videographer, would be, “I want to edit a short clip by the end of today”, vs a clear goal which would be something like “I want to edit a 5-minute clip that creates an emotional impact with my viewers”. Here’s a simple method to declutter and set clear goals. Have clear goals and precise plans.


10. Immediate Feedback:

This can be feedback from your co-workers or simply being aware that you’re making progress with the task. The point is, you must have live feedback so that you can make changes accordingly and improve your performance as you’re going.

It is also important to know that flow is not an all-or-nothing experience; rather it’s a spectrum experience this, as Fredrik Ullen reported in his great paper on the physiological components of flow (see further reading below): “degree of flow is a continuous variable that can be used to characterise the experiential quality of an everyday activity.
Furthermore, flow is a spectrum experience.
It’s like anger. You can be just a little angry or homicidally murderous: same emotion, different degrees.
Csikszentmihalyi discovered that the same thing is true of flow.

As mentioned by Kolter,

“You can be in a state of micro-flow (a lighter version of the state ) — like what happens when you fall into a great conversation at work or you can experience a state of macro-flow, where all of those core characteristics show up so strongly that the experience itself takes on otherworldly, quasi-mystical qualities — for example, time slows to a crawl and you feel one with the universe.”

The connection to Tao:

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, said to have lived somewhere around the 5th or 6th century B.C, wrote a spiritual masterpiece called the Tao Te Ching, which is the main work of Taoism. A well-known concept that has emerged from Taoist philosophy is Wu Wei, which can be translated as “effortless action”, or the paradox “action of non-action”.

“That which offers no resistance overcomes the hardest substances. That which offers no resistance can enter where there is no space. Few in the world can comprehend the teachings without words, or understand the value of non-action” – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 43.


Seek this so-called “effortless action”. In a practical sense, we can describe Wu Wei as the state of flow, often referred to as being in ‘the zone’ by athletes. When athletes are in the zone, they engage in action without trying and move through time and space effortlessly. This connects with the scientific findings of psychologist Csíkszentmihályi, in regards to effortlessness. There are no extremes, no worries, no ruminations; everything seems to flow in a natural course.

However, many other “flow triggers” can be interlinked, too: like selflessness, timelessness, deep concentration, you get the idea. By doing just a few practices in our daily lives, we can move a few steps closer to achieving flow:


Be more in the here and now: Whether it is by meditation or other mindfulness-related activities, begin your days by driving your attention to the present moment. Doing this will help kick off your day’s concentration rhythm and in turn, flow.


Be more like water: Follow the path of least resistance, just like the formation of a river, as mentioned in the Tao Te Ching. When we embrace our natural state of flow, we allow ourselves to swim with life’s current rather than against it. When we go with life’s flow rather than forcing our own stream, it allows for both the discovery and embracement of opportunities. Water doesn’t force its existence, it just is.


Our natural desire is to resist the changed path: When we question the inevitable change, we begin doubting our purpose and question things that we will never know the answer to, which can result in a lack of creative confidence. Instead of opposing life’s changes, let things flow naturally in whatever way they like.


Be more yin, than yang: in the highly active Yang-society we live in, we seem to value only one part of human existence, which revolves around achievement, speed, and success. We get educated, take on work and family responsibility, try to get as rich as quickly as possible, and judge each other as ‘human doings’, rather than human beings.

However, embracing the Yin part of the circle, which is being more passive, more introverted, in a state of rest and nourishment, can lead to flow. Of course, balance is key.

Tap into the flow state:

Work in 90-minute blocks of uninterrupted concentration: This is super important to know. Most of us simply try to progress through our workday from beginning to end without a time structure, but this lack of mental organization results in fatigue and burnout. By time blocking 90 minutes of pure concentration, you tune in to your natural ultradian rhythm (that same one of REM sleep).


Do tasks that you find intrinsically rewarding: To constantly deliver high performance while feeling at one with yourself, researchers highlight the importance of finding intrinsic motivation (doing something without any apparent external rewards) vs extrinsic motivation (behavior that is driven by external rewards like money, fame, or grades). According to Steven Kotler, one can find true intrinsic motivation by cultivating an environment where curiosity leads to passion, then purpose, autonomy, and finally mastery (the drive to get better and better). To put it shortly, do things you enjoy/are passionate about and they will drive you to flow.


Declare victory on those tasks: check off all completed items on your task list when done. By doing this, not only do you give yourself a conscious reward, but your brain actually attributes this victory to positive emotions of achievement, which stimulate motivation for the long run.


Have confidence: Self-doubt or overthinking your abilities creates paralysis, and lack of confidence simply shuts down our creative forces. When we’re unsure of ourselves, we can’t perform to our fullest abilities and achieve flow.


Practice distraction management: Turn your devices off and unplug. For those of you who have children, husbands, wives, bosses, or business partners, let them know ahead of time. Let them know that you need to maximize your performance by setting uninterrupted concentration blocks.


Realise that sometimes you can’t fight attention: There will always be days where your attention is all over the place. In fact, it’s natural to have less focusing neurochemicals that after a good day focused on your desired tasks, the following day your focus will be harder (or even impossible) to achieve. This is because flow is neurobiologically expensive (as in very energy-consuming).


If you’ve ever experienced a state of flow, there’s one thing that disappears: the focus on results. This is great, as it allows you to focus on the task at hand.

No matter if you’re immersed in writing, a certain sport, a photoshoot, or a dance; when you’re in a flow state, you naturally forget the anxiety and pressure about results, the future, or the failings of the past. It’s just You and the task, together.

Like the philosophy of the Tao, letting go means stopping the swim against the current. It means letting go of the past, letting go of the future, focusing on this moment entirely without hesitation.

Well, after writing this article the word flow looks and sounds strange.

Hope you’ll be flowing soon, too.

Article by Alon Cohen

23 May 2023

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