I’ve been practicing traditional seated meditation for about 5 years now. The kind where you sit still for 20+ minutes paying attention to your breath in complete silence.
It’s a practice that has been invaluable to me and has had more positive benefits than I could ever anticipate….but it’s also a practice that has made me judgmental of other people and how they choose to “meditate”.
For example I often like to ask people “do you meditate?” Or “Have you ever tried meditation?”
The vast majority of people that I meet don’t have a consistent meditation practice…but they do however have an activity that they consider to be “like” meditation.
For example people will say things like “cooking is my meditation”, or “dance is my meditation”, or “exercise” or countless other examples like music, art, writing, or even other simple things like walking or talking on the phone with someone else.
For the last few years I always dismissed comments like these. I would say “oh no no no that’s not meditation. In order to meditate you have to sit still with your eyes closed and pay attention to your breath. Cooking or dance or music are similar, but those aren’t quite the same as meditation.”
Over the last year or two though I’ve had two experiences that have changed my mind on this subject.
The first is my newfound love for the Slackline. This is a sport that has you tie a flexible line in between two trees and walk across while you balance.
As I’ve improved my Slackline skills over the last year or so, some interesting things have started to happen…
For one, I noticed that an hour session of the Slackline feels like the equivalent of 5-6 hours of seated meditation – It would take me significantly longer to get to the level of calm and awareness I achieve if I tried to do it through meditation alone.
For another, I began experiencing what I could only describe as “flow.” I would have moments on the line where time slows down, where I can feel every inch and nook and cranny of my body and control micro-movements, where my body would move without resistance and everything would feel effortless.
It was nothing short of a trance or out of body experience. A “meditational state” if you will.
Slacklining was slowly starting to win out as my preferred form of meditation. I was beginning to contradict my own views.
Then one day I came into contact with two books that forever changed my perspective on this topic, both written by Steven Kotler – The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire.
I read Stealing Fire first, and it began to connect the dots in my mind.
If I could summarize the book in a few sentences, it would be this – Throughout the history of the world we have documented a variety of Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness (NOSC’s), whether they be through drugs, religion, sex, sports, meditation, music and dance, or other forms. While previously thought of as entirely separate experiences, Steven explains that across all of these activities we’re actually seeing the same signature in the brain.
What is that signature? FLOW.
Yes, behind all of these experiences lies flow. Although seemingly disconnected and separate from each other, whether you achieve this state through drugs, sex, or extreme sports, the signature in the brain is the same.
Across all of these activities we see the same thing – Slowed brainwaves, improved Heart Rate Variability (HRV), improved focus and concentration, increased lateral thinking and problem solving, better mood, and lower stress levels.
This understanding of flow was a paradigm shift for me mentally. If you substitute the word “meditation” with “flow”, it all starts to make a lot more sense. All those people who told me that cooking or dance or writing or whatever it might be was their “meditation”, might actually be experiencing flow after all!
Maybe I was being judgmental. Maybe there really isn’t that big of a difference between traditional seated meditation and other activities done with the right intention.
MAYBE, just maybe, it might also be a lot easier to find a meditative state through other means than meditation.
If the Slackline gets me calmer more quickly, if the Slackline gives me deeper and more powerful flow states, maybe that’s the meditation I need to follow instead of sitting on the cushion and trying to fight my mind.
The bigger picture began to fall into place. Follow my flow. Find and cultivate flow states.
This perspective of flow began to add color to many other experiences I’ve had in my life. Things l do for fun, things that I would normally look at as “unproductive”, I began to look at as meditation.
For one, I’ve been a freestyle rapper and poet for years as a hobby. When I look back on the experiences where I “black out” and don’t remember what I said, it makes a lot of sense to describe it as flow.
Or drawing cartoons. I can lose hours doodling away with a pad and a piece of paper. Also flow.
Or writing. My favorite pass-time that always makes it’s way to the back burner because it’s not how I make my money…Yep, flow!
And across all of these the effects are the same – after I’m done with it I feel calmer, my brain isn’t racing, I lose track of time, and it’s effortless.
Although doing it unconsciously, I’ve been building a life around flow for a long time.
So who am I to say that cooking or dance or music isn’t a form of meditation? If the end result is the same, if the end by-product is the same, who gives a shit?
So now, instead of asking people if they meditate, I ask them “what is an activity you can do that makes you lose track of time?”
This usually starts a much better conversation and leads to us finding a lot of common ground and shared experience.
Now I realize the error in my ways. I realize that I became another one of those judgmental meditators who look down on people just because they don’t practice the same form as I do. I became one of those people who looks at these activities in a hierarchy of productivity instead of realizing we all have different paths.
Now my perspective is follow your flow. Find the activities that give you flow states, the hobbies that make you lose track of time, the activities that have a positive ripple effect into the rest of your life.
Is meditation still a core practice? Absolutely. But for different reasons. Meditation allows me to be the observer, to watch my thoughts and observe habit patterns.
Attention to breath and body scans are core fundamental practices that have an overflow into other areas of my life. I look at it as the foundational tool that helps me to achieve flow independent of the activity.
But it’s not the be all end all. It’s just one practice that works in harmony with the others to make flow states more likely to occur.
Previously I used to get frustrated or feel guilty if I missed a day of meditation – Now I don’t care if I didn’t meditate as long as I had at least one flow activity in my day.
What does this mean for you? If seated meditation isn’t for you, don’t worry – go find something else that is easier for you to find your flow.
I can’t imagine a world of people sitting and meditating all day, and to be honest if I did it would look quite boring.
But a world filled with people chasing flow? Now that sounds like an interesting world to be a part of!
A world where we bond over the common shared experience that is independent of the activity, instead of relying on the activity itself for connection.
Yea, that sounds like the world I want to live in.
We live in a world that wants to segregate and label and place people into buckets. We live in a world focused on the differences rather than the similarities.
I fell into this trap with meditation – searching for how people meditate differently than I do instead of trying to dig deeper and find mutually shared connection and similarity.
It’s a trap I will no longer fall into thanks to my new understanding of flow and flow states.
Want to dive more into the applied neuroscience of Flow State? Join my Free Course Foundations of Flow. In it I teach you all of the methods to get into flow on command.
Either way, go follow your flow. In the end, that’s what matters most 🙂
Also published on Medium.