Mindfulness exercises are powerful ways to reconnect with flow in our lives. The potential for flow is always with us, yet a step out of the mind is often needed to realize it. We need ways of stepping beyond the inner chit chat of the mind, to remove intellectual barriers and resistance that block a more fluid and spontaneous reality of mind from entering our lives.
If we want to bring flow into daily lives we must first know how to tap into the state of flow within. This isn't as hard or complicated as it may sound. All that is needed is sincere application of mindfulness exercises to bring our body and mind into the here and now.
Below you'll find a number of creative mind exercises to help train and develop a focused and fluid mind – a mind that lends itself easily to being in flow. Choose one mindfulness exercise, or a number of mindfulness exercises from the list below to practice on a regular basis ...
Set aside 10-15 a day to focus on natural, flowing movement. This is something that we rarely do. We are usually so busy and preoccupied with what is going on in our heads that we forget the flow of life that is happening all around us and inside of us. Focusing on something that is flowing and moving without interruption helps get our mind flowing and fluid as well.
Mountain ascetics in Japan and China traditionally made a point of contemplating mountain streams or waterfalls for this very reason. They knew the secret connection between inner and outer flow and were well aware of how outer flow could induce its inner counterpart.
For those of us not living in the mountains, the breath can readily be used as the flowing object of concentration. Take a break to and focus your attention exclusively on the ebb and flow of your breathing. Don't interfere with your breath or try to control it. Simply allow for your breath to flow in and out of you - fully. After becoming aware of the breath in this way, get into the rhythm of it.
To augment this breathing exercise you could also purchase an artificial water fountain for your home or office. The sound of water can help you relax and flow with your breath. The breath is a bridge between body and mind. As you connect with your body through full and unimpeded breathing, anxious thinking drops by the wayside. Let any thoughts get swept away in the current of the breath.
Taking the time to breathe for 10-15 minutes a day, will help you reconnect with your innate well-being and power. Conscious breathing is one of the purest mind exercises you can practice for developing 'flow'.
Slow down. Take your very own body as the object of focus and concentration. 'Watching' and enjoying yourself and your body as you flow in movement is a very powerful way to connect with inner flow.
You can find 'flow in movement' while performing the subtle and gentle moves of Taichi. You can also find it in the explosive movements of other martial arts, which natural intersperse with moments of utter stillness. Repeating a single movement smoothly and rhythmically, over and over again, can bring you to the one-pointed focus that can be the doorway to flow.
Flow can also be found through simple walking. This has recently become one of my own personal favorites. The thing to do is to simply cut your normal walking speed in half for a designated period of time. In slowing down you will notice a temptation to become stilted, mechanical or overly self-conscious in your movement. The trick is to avoid these and to keep your walking smooth and rhythmic as before.
"Move as you breathe; breathe as you move", as one of my martial arts teachers used to say. Don't stop; don't hold your breath - sound advice not only for walking but for life in general, especially when things slow down or get tough.
Granted, nowadays people don't walk anywhere anymore; but if you can make an opportunity in your day to do some regular walking, this can be an extremely powerful and engaging mindfulness exercise indeed.
Physically slowing down, forces your mind to slow down too. You will naturally become more aware of your body and a state of flow will be close at hand.
Another mindfulness exercise you may want to try is to simply cancel every thought that comes into your head for a predetermined period of time (say 2-5 minutes initially).
For this designated period of time you resolve not to become involved with any thought that comes to you. Every thought that comes your way, you simply erase by repeating the word ‘cancel, cancel’.
This is a mind-control technique popularized by the Silva method on how to change your thoughts. Use this internal mantra to keep yourself essentially ‘thought-free’ for the length of time you set for yourself. As your practice of mindfulness exercises ripens you can extend the periods of time where you engage in this purposeful type of 'non-thinking'.
Let it go for the sake of flow. You can use arguments and disagreements to great effect in practicing flow.
When you find yourself stubbornly arguing a point, even if you are right and justified in your own mind, practice letting it go just for the sake of flow.
Be crystal clear about what you aim to achieve in doing so. You aren't giving-up or giving-in. You also aren't agreeing with the other side. You're simply taking the opportunity to practice flow. See if you can get your mind off the hook and into flow.
The more intense the emotional interaction the more you can actually make this work to your benefit in this mind exercise, since arousal is an emotional state that is actually important to experiencing flow (see flow psychology for more on this).
You'll know you've actually succeeded in doing this by the feeling you get – it’s the difference between the feeling of a closed fist and an open hand. Holding onto your point in the argument, your mind will feel tight as a fist. Letting go of your point, right or wrong, you will feel your mind open up like an open hand.
The following mindfulness exercise makes use of the eyes. In ancient Japanese wisdom traditions a distinction is made between two types of vision or two kinds of ‘eyes’.
‘Ken’ was a term used to describe normal, everyday vision, which makes use of the physical eyes. ‘Kan’, on the other hand, was a term used to describe vision that doesn't make direct use of the eyes. This vision is known in the west as intuition or insight.
To make use of this distinction as a mind exercise for developing flow we make use of the focusing and unfocusing faculty of the physical eye. When you zero-in, and focus intently on something, you narrow your perspective and your field of vision. The mind stops and dwells on the object of concentration. This is when thinking begins.
When facing an opponent in Japanese martial arts, it is recommended to de-focus your gaze when looking towards the opponent - for this very reason. The instruction is to look at your opponent as if gazing at a mountain far away in the distance. Instead of looking at your opponent, you actually look through them. This allows for a much broader field of vision to prevail. It prevents the mind from becoming fixated and allows the full capacities of intuition and insight to come into play.
Experiment in your everyday life with de-focusing your gaze and see what happens. This can be done both physically and metaphorically as well. Take an acute problem or current challenge you've been looking at and see what happens when you de-focus your 'gaze' with it. Take note how things change when you do this. You may be surprised at the effects and discover how this helps you develop and and/or maintain flow in your life.
The last but not least powerful mindfulness exercise for cultivating flow is Zazen – a specific method of seated meditation practiced in Zen.
Put simply, Zazen is the conscious and deliberate practice of letting your thoughts come and go without attachment or involvement of any kind. Here’s how it works in a nutshell...
You seat yourself in a posture conducive to meditation (spine straight, head well balanced and shoulders relaxed, eyes half-closed gazing at a 45 degree angle to the floor directly in front of you) and you simply observe your thoughts. You could say that your thoughts become the object of concentration.
For the whole designated period of sitting you have accepted the fact that there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. Thinking is left completely to it’s own devices. We don’t try to repress or stop the flow of our thinking. We just let it be.
Our sole task for this short and purposeful period of time is to be the observer of everything that transpires. That’s it. Simple. Painfully simple, since the mind is always looking to do or be something. This is why simplicity and Zazen go hand-in-hand.
Sticking with this practice, over time, keeps us from getting entangled with our thoughts, which becomes a great boon to our ability to maintain flow.
Some of the mindfulness exercises above are considered more advanced than others. Zazen, for example, is often viewed as an advanced practice. Trust your body and mind and see which practices and exercises naturally attract your attention. Experiment with those to see what works best to incorporate into your daily life.
The ways to work with mindfulness are limited only to your imagination and willingness to experiment and 'play' with it. Stick with what works and drop what doesn't. The journey into mindfulness is rewarding and naturally satisfying. It is a source of deep pleasure, not just another thing to tick off of a 'to do' list.
How to meditate for beginners outlines two more mindfulness exercises to help gather yourself in concentration as an aid to the practice of meditation.