09/14 Warming Up to Flow

At CWW, we often sing the virtues of getting into flow and, of course, we suggest that doing art is a natural way for people to experience it.

Flow is that state we achieve when we are fully immersed and engaged in an activity that is intrinsically rewarding to us, when we are faced with a challenge that we are skilled enough to master but which requires enough effort that we do not get bored. When we experience flow, we may have a sense of time either expanding or contracting–it feel like hours went by in minutes or that what was just minutes felt like a lifetime. During flow, people often feel acutely aware of themselves but at the same time unselfconscious and receptive to their environment–“present”.

Some people are blessed to be able to naturally and effortlessly jump into activities in which they experience flow–art, writing, running–but others may find that, even though they know what gets them into flow, they rarely get around to doing it.

If you are that second group mentioned, you may have wondered, “If I enjoy doing this so much (painting, hiking, gardening), why don’t I do it more?!” There may even be a part of you that actively resists doing it. And you may have bemusedly asked yourself, “Why would I avoid doing something that, when I actually start doing it, is so rewarding and feels so good?!” It might be helpful to know that most of us need to be “warmed up” in order to get into flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced simply “chick-sent-me-hi”), the father of Flow theory who studied artists and athletes around peak flow experiences, tells us is that for many people, getting into flow requires an initial effort that may at first feel uncomfortable or forced. He explains that one of the reasons that people often end up choosing sedentary but less rewarding activities such as watching TV or passively sitting around for hours, is that these activities appear to provide opportunities for rest and relaxation. However, what these activities actually tend to do is drain our energy and leave us feeling depleted and listless–they do not provide the rejuvenation and invigoration that flow activities create.

Although Csikszentmihalyi does not discourage people from occasionally indulging in what we these days might call “vegging out”, he says that we need to create habits that overcome our more passive tendencies and help us work through the initial resistance that keeps us from activating experiences of flow.

So how do we warm ourselves up to get into flow activities? We chose simple structured rituals that help move us from inactivity to activity. These can be very concrete with very concrete and tangible goals. It may be helpful if the result of the exercise does not have a high degree of importance or value. Just engaging playfully in the activity, starting and being in the process, is in many ways more important than the product.

Positively yours, Rebecca and Gioia

Art Activity
In art therapy, we use many techniques to help “warm up” our clients. Here are a few that you might try:

  • Gratitude List: Write a list of 15 things for which you are grateful or feel good about in your life
  • Spill Writing/Ripping: On a piece of color paper, write anything that’s on your mind for 3 minutes without pausing (if you don’t know what to write, write “I don’t know what to write”, “this is stupid” “nothing comes to mind” etc., until something does, the idea is to keep writing the whole time to let the hand movement jog your brain.  Take what you’ve written, rip it up, and reconfigure it into a design.
  • Take a piece of paper and use every color of your markers, pens, watercolors, repeat lines or shapes to make a pattern.
  • Without any art supplies, make sweeping exaggerated gestures like you are painting or drawing by swinging the arms in large circles as if on a large piece of paper or canvas. Reverse the direction, do this with both arms (also fun with glow sticks or sparklers).
  • Take a piece of clay and make ten different creatures in three minutes, quickly transforming the same piece of clay from one shape to another.
  • Do a collage of things that you enjoy and then do a painting of your collage.
  • Find a coloring in sheet, copy it three times, and color it in differently using either different art materials or different mark making and colors.

Once you are warmed up, make a piece of art work in response to your warm up activity.

If you get a chance, share what you’ve done on our Facebook Page.  We love to see your work.