My first introduction to the dark side of flow came from reading In the Zone: Transcendent Experiences in Sport (Murphy & White, 1995). In it, former quarterback John Brodie was quoted as saying:
“Football players and athletes generally get into this kind of being or beingness more often than is generally recognized.
They often don’t have a workable philosophy or understanding to support the kind of thing they get into while they are playing; they don’t have the words for it.
So, after a game you see some of them, making fools of themselves sometimes and coming way down in their tone level. But during the game they come way up. A missing ingredient for many people, is that they don’t have a supporting philosophy or discipline for a better life.”
What did Murphy & White illuminate about the dark side of flow?
That athletes “have trouble recapturing peak moments in sport."
And that athletes needed a way to incorporate peak moments into the rest of their lives in order to maintain self-control.
The question they asked was how do we live in tune with the truth of transcendental experiences? How do we take these transcendental experiences beyond "The Spiritual Underground of Sport?"
They suggested an answer may be in practicing some kind of spiritual discipline.
Allow your own experience to inform you.
Has spirituality helped you to create a "workable philosophy" that integrates transcendent flow moments into your ordinary waking consciousness?
In my dissertation I hypothesized that mindfulness could be one such spiritual discipline.
I suggested this approach because in mindfulness we may also learn to transcend the sense of self. Albiet in an entirely different way than in flow-state. Whereas in flow-state we get completely absorbed into a task, quieting the frontal-cortex and Self. In mindfulness we transcend the Self by learning to let go of our attachment to the contents of our consciousness.
Through the trainable craft of mindfulness we can create a sense of order and ease in consciousness that we seek in flow. But this harmony is accessible at any moment, in any condition. Mindfulness is not as elusive like flow-state. Therefore, mindfulness may be seen as a true refuge from the chaos that enters our consciousness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a method to achieve emotional balance and enhance goal attainment through improved perception and judgment (Hayes & Feldman, 2004).
Bishop et al. (2004) suggested a two-component definition of mindfulness. The first component of mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention on the present moment (Bishop et al., 2004). The second component is openness and acceptance of all experiences, regardless of desirability (Bishop et al., 2004).
These components enable us to develop a “decentered” relationship with our experiences. This decreases emotional reactivity and promotes greater emotional stability (Hayes & Feldman, 2004; Segal, William, & Teasdale, 2013). With mindfulness we may disengage from automatic thoughts, habits, and behavior patterns that lead to the dark side of flow. Mindfulness enables us to choose behaviors consistent with personal goals, needs, values, and interests.
Leveraging Flow-State While Maintaining Self-Control
You may benefit from viewing Self-Control as a balance between flow-state and mindfulness. Remember mindfulness increases emotional and behavioural flexibility. It assists us in mapping the best course of action. But when that plan is set, we may benefit from jumping all in with complete focus and absorption into the task - that is, finding flow-state. In flow-state we lack the flexibility, but we become incredibly efficient.
Learning to shift between mindfulness and flow is how we become a controlled Superman and Superwoman.
Mindfulness is necessary but not enough. A controlled flow-state is what leads to accomplishing the impossible.