What is the Difference Between Flow and Mindfulness?

Published by Olivier Devroede on

Flow, just like mindfulness has become a buzzword. Unfortunately, this also means that a lot of people have misconceptions about what the words exactly mean.

Flow is a pleasant state of mind when you are completely absorbed in a task where you tend to forget time and yourself. Mindfulness, however, is a state of mind where you are not only aware that you are doing something but you are also aware of the fact that you are aware.

Although the two concepts differ quite a bit, they are also related to each other and it can be difficult to disentangle them if you only have a partial understanding of what the words mean.

So let’s see in more depth what the two concepts are and how they compare to each other.

What is Flow?

Flow is also know as being in the zone. Image courtesy of Manuel Sagra

Flow is also known as being in the zone. It was first studied by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975.

Flow is a state of mind in which you are totally absorbed into the task at hand. Your focus is so powerful that you forget everything except what you are doing.

This means that people coming out of a flow state usually have no idea of how long they have been working like this.

You have certainly experienced this when you were engrossed in a great book or movie. Hours could have passed and you had no idea.

This state is also associated with very pleasant feelings like serenity and feeling in control of what is going on. No wonder people have been trying to achieve this state since it makes you more productive and more happy.

The downside of the flow state is that it is not something you can achieve the whole time. You need to be very focused and doing a task that you find interesting and challenging.

During these types of tasks the usual mind chatter falls away, which we experience as a feeling of well-being. Mihali explains this effect by saying that the mind can only process ~110 bits of information at the same time.

So when we are engaged in activities that are not challenging or interesting enough, we have some spare cycles of our brain free to do other, usually unrelated, stuff. Our brain has the tendency to fill this void with random chatter.

It is precisely this random chatter that tends to make us miserable.

A corollary of this definition, is that flow is not readily available when you are relaxing. So it does tend to promote workaholism 😉

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of what is going on, all the while being aware of the fact that you are aware. Photo courtesy of Barbara

As this is a blog on mindfulness, I have different articles going into much more depth on different definitions of the word. If you are interested in that, I can wholeheartedly recommend this article and this article.

But for the purpose of this article, I will use a more concise definition of my own:

Mindfulness is a state of mind in which we are deliberately aware of what is going on around us and inside of us in a detached way, all the while being aware of the fact that you are aware.

As you can see, mindfulness is also a state of mind.

In mindfulness, you place your attention on something of your choosing and you become aware of it.

This is the first stage of mindfulness. As you grow more proficient in the practice, you discover another dimension to it: you are also aware of the fact that you are noticing.

Mindfulness is not dependent on the external conditions you are in, or the kind of activity you are doing. You can be mindful at any time.

One of the misconceptions about mindfulness is that you are always centered, calm and happy when you practice it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You also practice mindfulness when you are angry, upset or even frightened.

The goal is to get to know these states so their grip on our live decreases, leading in turn to a heightened sense of well-being.

How do Mindfulness and flow compare to each other

Sometimes concepts get twisted and contorted. Better to separate them. Lovely picture of a hill and trees reflected in the water courtesy of Tim Cooper

As you can see from the discussion about what flow and mindfulness are, that they are actually quite different.

Flow is about restricting the field of experience, whereas mindfulness is totally open to whatever arises.

Flow stays on topic, and mindfulness is allowed to wander around.

As described in this research paper by Sheldon and Prentice, the two are mutually exclusive from the point of view of attention.

So why are flow and mindfulness compared or mixed up?

There are however, a few links between the two.

The first, and most obvious, is that both states of mind are beneficial for your well-being. Both flow and mindfulness have been extensively studied and both are highly beneficial for you.

I agree, that is not a good reason to mix them up.

The second one is in the way these states can be cultivated.

To attain flow, you need something called deliberate practice.

In deliberate practice, you try to always be just outside of the zone where you can manage the task at hand. In sports, these would be drilling exercises where you know you can hit the target 30-40% of the time. You have to be really focused to hit it, but you know you can do it with enough concentration. With repetition, you get better and you hit the target 80% of the time. That is the cue to move on to something more difficult as the tasks might become boring.

So here is the key point: you need all of your concentration to attain flow.

And although there are many approaches to mindfulness, the most popular one is through meditation.

There exists something called mindfulness meditation, but usually, people start out with concentration meditation. And if you read the book ‘The Mind Illuminated‘ by Culadasa (John Yates, Ph.D.), you will see that the way concentration meditation is practiced in Tibet, closely resembles what we now call deliberate practice.

Flow is not the same as concentration meditation either.

I hear you thinking: then flow is concentration meditation.

Well, actually no, it is not. Or not fully.

Concentration meditation and flow are alike in the sense that in both cases you focus on a single object. They differ in the sense that even in concentration meditation, you remain mindful and do not lose track of the fact that you are meditating.

The core difference thus lies in being aware of what you are doing. In flow you are aware of whatever you are doing in great detail. In sports you would feel your muscles and deliberately flex them in the correct way.

But you need to forget that you are doing it. Sportsmen always tell that when they want to force or correct the movements too much, they get in their own way. You need to just do it.

Much in the same way, you need to get out the way of yourself in meditation, but you get out of your way consciously. Without forgetting yourself.

Featured photo by Emiliano Arano from Pexels

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.