In meditation we can slip into a flow state — that is, one where we’re un-selfconsciously and happily absorbed in an activity. What we’re focused on in a state of meditative flow are the experiences that are arising in meditation itself. So in a meditative flow state we’re focused on the experience of flow itself.
This is puzzling if we assume that “un-selfconsciously” means “unmindfully.” After all, isn’t meditation supposed to make us more self-aware? The thing is that self-awareness and selfconsciousness aren’t the same thing — at least not in the way those words are being used here.
When we’re selfconscious, and therefore unable to be in a state of flow, what happens is that a stream of anxious, irritable, or grasping thoughts is arising. Those thoughts place us in an antagonistic relationship with our experience: we don’t want our experience to be what it is. There’s awkwardness. We mentally trip ourselves up. There’s no flow, because we can’t become absorbed in an experience that we’re unwilling to accept.
Mindfulness reduces this antagonism in a couple of ways.
First, we learn to allow experiences to be present, so that we’re no longer trying to push away experiences we don’t want, or to grasp after those we desire. This leads to more of a sense of internal harmony.
Second, as we continue being mindful of our experience, antagonistic thoughts become less frequent. We’ve chosen, in effect, not to feed them, and so they begin to die away. Eventually they can stop arising (temporarily, at least) and we enter a deep flow state, which in Buddhism is called jhana (or dhyana in Sanskrit).
At the same time, mindfulness is by definition a state of self-awareness. We’re not just having experiences, but we’re aware that we’re having those experiences. So instead of just being stressed or angry, we’re aware that stress or anger are present.
So mindfulness is self-aware, but unselfconscious. Even though we’re more than usually aware of our experience, there’s a reduced sense of ourselves being in opposition to our experience, and thus there’s a reduced sense of self. We’re allowed to forget about ourselves while simultaneously being more aware of our experience.
Flow states can emerge in daily life as well. When we’re immersed in some pleasant activity like baking bread or writing, we’re also unselfconscious because there’s no antagonistic thinking. There’s no emotional or cognitive barrier between us and what we’re doing, and so this too is a flow state. At such times we’re probably not deeply mindful, because we’re more focused on the task than on ourselves — our bodies, thoughts, feelings, etc. — but we’re not totally unmindful either. There’s some kind of awareness that we’re happily engaged, for example, but we may also be doing some pleasant daydreaming in the background — thinking that’s unrelated to the task we’re performing.
As we practice, we learn to bring more mindfulness into such activities. In a way all we’re doing is deepening the flow state. Irrelevant thoughts are less likely to emerge, and so we remain more deeply engaged in what we’re doing.
Our mindfulness can also help integrate more parts of us into the experience. When I’m writing, for example, I’ll become more aware of the feelings I’m having with regard to the words as they appear, and this gives me a qualitative sense of the quality of my writing. I can more deeply enjoy the experience of writing.
I’m also more open to subtle cognitive connections that my mind might make, so that my writing’s more intuitive. It’s as if, as I’m writing, parts of my mind outside of consciousness are quietly whispering, “Here’s something relevant you might want to add.” The more mindful I am, the more likely I am to notice these whispers. And so in a state of flow I’m no longer writing. It’s as if the writing is flowing through me.
In the kind of flow state I’d describing, the sense of there being a “me” fades into the background. We’re mindful, self-aware, but un-selfconscious.