Flow and meaningful engagement in life

I have just spent a week in West Wales on a watercolour painting course. I do this every year if I can get the annual leave but I’m not an artist. Why do I do it then you may well ask? The simple answer is, I go to support my husband who is a professional artist and takes the course (if you’re interested in sublime watercolours and oils capturing the beauty of both the natural and built environment see his work here http://www.petercronin.org/).

I make lots of tea, smile a lot and am generally helpful; but I also go because it’s held in a beautiful spot and I catch up on writing, usually either a book or an article, depending on what’s on the agenda at the time.

But this year was qualitatively different. I could not settle into my writing routine; I could not focus on the article I was hoping to tackle, even though I was, and still am, burning to finish it in order to start another. Why was this, I pondered? And this is where it got interesting.

Those of you who have read the ‘Challenging stress… Finding balance book’ (you can buy it here https://goo.gl/ALsTiw) will know I  believe that wellbeing is found in a personally meaningful life. My work as a Reader (associate professor) in Cardiff university is certainly part of my passion and writing one of the aspects of my job I find most satisfying; yet the workplace provides quite limited time to do this. It’s there on the schedules but it tends to become filled by meetings, developing new materials or strategies, marking and placement visits etc. You know the kind of stuff…Plagiarising Shakespeare a bit, it’s not the stuff that dreams are made of, or rounded with a kiss….it’s the hidden tasks and clutter we all have to clear off the desk as the next lot builds up behind it. Thus, my annual leave becomes a quiet and focused time for writing ‘catch-up’.

So what had happened to my ‘zen’ moment to write away from the constant interruptions of the workplace this year? Well, even though writing is a meaningful occupation, so something I inherently enjoy, I was reflecting on the fact that this year I didn’t have to write in my personal time. In previous years it’s been necessary to cope with the workload; but this year I had adjusted my role and my thinking to accommodate that (an important stage of getting a more balanced and satisfied life). I also felt I needed and wanted a little break from my annual leave writing routine; so I made an active decision not to write. The problem then was what do I do? Returning to the book, variety is the spice of life and does engender a more interesting existence (Clouston 2015) but when all around you have a purpose and you do not, you begin to feel a little out on a limb.

The rest of the group were all experienced painters and were industrious in their efforts to improve; they were focused and absorbed on their work, sometimes tussling with a challenging subject or technique. I could see their engagement and and feel their mindfulness as they lived each and every moment of producing their artistic endeavours; several were also clearly ‘in the zone’ or experiencing ‘flow’.

Flow is reached through focused attention and full absorption in an activity. It’s usually (although not exclusively) something you really enjoy doing; it’s something you need to concentrate on but also to have some skill or mastery in. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) describes flow as meaningful engagement, a sense of being in which people become fully absorbed and focused on the activity they are doing, because it is both challenging and satisfying. When in this sense of flow, people can often find time slows down; this is because you are so involved with the activity you experience it fully absorbs your attention and other issues become forgotten. This is a great way to manage stress and anxiety because you break the cycle, become more mindful and meditative and in the resulting relaxed state, can begin to put things into perspective.

Experiencing flow is a critical part of living a balanced lifestyle and whilst we may all experience this in varying degrees of depth, it is a state of being that will bring greater satisfaction and meaning to life. It was inspiring to see this happening first hand in the artists, and I could see how they benefited from their engagement and mindful attention.

Now I do experience flow in writing, but this year, at this point in time, I was seeing it as a task, driven by the outcomes I’d been given at work rather than a self motivated task. Letting go of the work driven agenda when it’s dominating life is another very important step to getting a balanced life (Clouston 2015); but because I didn’t engage in it, I was feeling a bit lost. So what to do? Well as I note in the book, variety is the spice of life and engagement in something positive in life other than work is good karma; so I did a couple of things I have always wanted to: I visited Skomer and saw puffins, fulmars, gannets, guillemots, black backed gulls, herring gulls, razorbills, peregrines and huge seals; the evidence of elusive manx shearwaters was everywhere. It was awe inspiring and I really enjoyed the experience. I got my pencils out and started to draw (I used to draw at school) and this is one of my etchings. I’m going to work on it a bit more for next year….my landscapes were not quite so successful! He is fondly known as Donald….this is nothing to do with his Scottish heritage…..it’s something to do with that hair cut……Any ideas?

Clouston TJ. 2015. Challenging stress, burnout and rustout: Finding balance in busy lives, London: Jessica Kingsley

 

Donald

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