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Omphaloskepsis Blog

Autotelic Flow

Sep 29, 2009


I want to talk about what happens when I work and seek out your experiences in kind. When I am engaged in an autotelic activity, when I make daily paintings such as the one presented above, I almost always experience flow. That is, I enter a state of hyper concentration. The outside world melts away. Time ceases to exist for me. I feel no judgement or attachment to what I’m making, the egoic self has been suspended.

In a 1999 lecture in Sydney, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Pronounced "Chicks send me high" ) described flow. Beginning with autotelic modalities, or artists creating new meaning, many of whom described an "ecstatic state" or a feeling of being outside of what they were creating with their hands. Ecstatic comes from the Latin for "stand to side".

Professor Csikszentmihilyi accounted for this feeling of being consciously outside of the creation due to the psychological limits of consciousness. At higher levels of consciousness the more mundane aspects become subconscious in order to restrict conscious attention to the number of items it can manage. So a pianist described not noticing the room, his hands, the keys, the score, but rather being conscious of only "being one with the music and expressing emotion".1

As a painter, I notice only color, shapes, the touch of the brush on the canvas, moment by moment, and some deep emotional connection between these things and the movement of my body.

You may also have noticed this phenomenon post coitally, as the room slowly swims back into focus, and time starts to take on context again.

Another definition of flow: "A sense of that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear clues as to how one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous." 
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1991:71)


When I work, I let go of my expectations and I let go of control over the end results. When I reach a stopping point, or completion point, it seems as if “other” has created the work in front of me. My reaction is “cool! That’s what got painted.” instead of “Look what I painted.” Intellectually, I know I’ve painted what’s in front of me, but the sense of ownership is missing. It’s not what I painted, instead, it’s what got painted. This has the happy result of freeing me up to enjoy the artwork post creation.

I think that 35 years of training drawing the figure, learning to look and learning to see has put me in the position where, when I paint from life, I am free to simply let go, and let it flow.

It’s not enough to talk about the direct experience of flow, what happens in the flow. In order for optimal flow conditions to exist there are preceding conditions and post flow consequences.

This structure or core experience of flow is composed of:
    1. Close correlates of the flow experience, such as playfulness;
    2. Antecedents of flow, including skill, challenge, interactivity, focused attention, arousal, telepresence;
    3. Consequences of flow, including positive affect, exploratory behavior, and control.
(Hoffman and Novak (1996)

In other words flow comprises the act itself, training and skills acquired prior, and the positive consequences of flow following the experience. For me its the time spent observing and training my eyes and hands, the autotelic act, and the the detachment that allows me to enjoy the work unencumbered by ego.

When I work on the oil paintings from photo reference, it’s harder to enter the state of flow. I’m not as proficient with the medium, the end is more certain and controlled, and the work can sometimes be tedious with all of the preparation time, setting up the materials, mixing the paints and chemistry. Sometimes, however, it’s through the tedium that I can enter the flow.

Four flow components are:
    * control;
    * attention;
    * curiosity;
    * intrinsic interest.
(Csikszentmihalyi (1975)
The 8 dimensions of flow are:    
    • Clear goals and immediate feedback    
    • Equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill    
    • Merging of action and awareness    
    • Focussed concentration    
    • Sense of potential control    
    • Loss of self-consciousness    
    • Time distortion    
    • Autotelic or self-rewarding experience
(Csikszentmihalyi (1993: 178-9)   

Here is an other, similar definition from David Farmer (1999):
   1. Completely involved, focused, concentrating - with this either due to innate curiosity or as the result of training
   2. Sense of ecstasy - of being outside everyday reality
   3. Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done and how well it is going
   4. Knowing the activity is doable - that the skills are adequate, and neither anxious or bored
   5. Sense of serenity - no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego - afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible
   6. Timeliness - thoroughly focused on present, don't notice time passing
Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces "flow" becomes its own reward

I often get this flow when I’m writing too. One thing I have noticed, however, is my reaction to being interrupted. I really don’t like being pulled out of flow prematurely. It’s been great training - working from life with people I don’t know. When they talk to me, I can’t exactly snap at them. But I do have a tendency, unfortunately, to snap at my husband when he interrupts me while I’m composing. His timing is impeccable.

On Thursday I had a very strange experience in my studio. I went to my studio to work after taking the children to school. The studio has been excessively warm because of the location of my studio in conjunction with the sun and the huge glass windows. I often feel lethargic upon entering my studio as a result. I sat down to look at my previous day’s work and assess what had to be done next. As I sat there I got an overwhelming sensation. It was like flow in overdrive. It was the flow from meditation, where full-body sensation occurs, plus the flow from working in the art studio, where time is gone and the outside world goes away. All of my molecules were a vibrating mass suspended in liquid and at one with the surroundings. There was no difference between me and the chair I sat on. The sensation was very pleasant.

This was also flow. But this was counter productive in my studio. Eventually I knew that I would not be getting any work done and I left. I didn’t want to establish the habit of entering my studio to do nothing.

Things returned to normal as evidence by the work I was able to complete on Friday.
Please let me know of your own flow experience.

Category: Creativity

Please add a comment

Posted by Elizabeth on
Experiencing the flow when task focus, whole brain/body engagement sitlnmaueously happen, can be incredible. Transcending just for a short time, are experiences one hopes at least several times per year.I recall doing hand calligraphy (steel nib pen style) and occasionally spelling the words wrong, because I started to fall in love with shape of the letters I was creating!!Or oil painting a section where suddenly all the brush, mind, eye seem to speed long with colour, paint texture/viscosity.Or cycling along and suddenly those hills is not that difficult after all on that day.It is an enormous euphoria one would love to bottle up and preserve. To tap into such experiences does require some initial skill development of whatever you are doing/want to do and making sure there is time /that you don't have a pressing deadline on that time of day. You must allow yourself to be free for those times. That includes letting go of brain stresses and worries.
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