Going with the Flow

Posted by Georgia Sawyer on

"When we are involved in (creativity), we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, TED Talk, February 2004.

When I started woodturning, I quickly noticed the sense of immersion I can feel when working at the lathe - a feeling of oneness with my activity which leaves little room for other thoughts and worries. I often find myself reaching for a piece of wood and going to my lathe when my brain gets too ‘chattery’, my chest feels tight, or my body finds some other way of telling me I have something to worry about. Much of the time, increasingly as I have become more confident with my turning, I reach a point of not thinking beyond my current activity. I could be in the middle of storm and not notice (well, a small storm). For however long I am working at my lathe, all I see and experience is that piece of wood rotating around and around. The experience I am describing is known as “flow”, a term coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and described in the quote above. Sometimes, I just need to be grounded in a particular moment rather than catastrophising about the future or worrying about what I said three years ago, woodturning allows me to do that.

More than just being a pleasant experience, a 2007 paper argued that regular experiences of flow can provide a nonpharmaceutical way of regulating extreme emotions, such as anger, and preventing irrational thought patterns. Many will be familiar with the term ‘fight or flight’ to describe the human response to highly stressful stimuli or situations; these responses are a result of sympathetic nervous system activation beyond its basic level. It is this that causes those tell-tale signs of feeling in a heightened state like anxiety or anger – our heartbeat speeds up, blood may rush to our faces and extremities, our chests feel tight and our mouths go dry. Ultimately, we are primed to fight our way out of whatever situation is triggering us or get out of there – a sensible evolutionary mechanism our bodies have adapted but often inappropriate for the everyday challenges of modern society. This contrasts with the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for our bodily functions when in a restful state.

Achieving ‘flow’ means we can reach a balance, a ‘yin-yang’, between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system branches. We feel focused and alert to the task at hand yet relaxed and peaceful. This both feels good in the moment and is far healthier for our nervous systems than being in chronic heightened states. Studies, such as that by Fisher and colleagues, have long shown that prolonged heightened arousal of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to health conditions like cardiovascular disease.

Beyond the physical health benefits of an active parasympathetic system, a well-balanced autonomic nervous system has been found to change our outlook on ourselves and the world. Research discussed in a Psychology Today article has identified a link between parasympathetic activity and reduced egocentric bias; research into the achievement of ‘flow’ in extreme sports found that an "overview effect" can be reached by athletes when in flow which leads to experiences of awe. When I am immersed, ‘flowing’ in my woodturning, I no longer feel trapped in my own brain but feel aware that I am part of something bigger, a feeling that is difficult to express in words. Perhaps you’ve been out walking in nature and you immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, feelings and smells around you, so much so that you’re really aware of being part of a bigger system. That’s the feeling I’m describing.

As humans, we are always seeking that next new thing that we are told will make us feel ‘great’, whether that be new clothes, food, alcohol or something else. The desire for these types of reward is driven by thoughts of ourselves as individuals, by seeing ourselves as isolated entities that we need to make ‘better’, by comparing ourselves to others. Ultimately, they usually come from a lack of connection with the world around us. Now, let’s consider the etymology of the word ‘ecstasy’, this high we all seek to find in its various guises; the word comes from Greek and means ‘to stand outside of oneself’. Perhaps to truly feel the contentment we all seek, seeing yourself as part of something bigger is crucial. For me, crafting provides an awareness of this.

Key to achieving the flow which brings you into connection with the world around you, is bodily enactment. There is great joy in feeling the wood in my hands as it changes shape and takes on a new form, of altering the pressure or the direction of the chisel and watching the result of this action. I am not alone in this, research has found that crafters have reported their enjoyment of the sensations of the materials, the repetition and the tempo involved in making. Indeed the power of direct, physical contact with a crafting medium was investigated in a 2015 study in which participants were assigned to paint with their fingers or with brushes. Findings showed that direct tactile sensations provided experiences of being more present in the moment, more mindful and better able to attend to their environment.

Mindfulness in everyday life has been associated with better mental health and fewer experiences of negative emotions and can be contrasted with ‘mindlessness’ which consists of ruminating over the future and past and is associated with depressive, negative thoughts. If meditation and other practices which seek to enhance mindfulness are tricky, craft and hands-on activities may offer a viable path to avoiding 'mindlessness'. 

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