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cello320One of the threads in Raising Freethinkers that I found most fascinating was the section on “flow” (in Chapter 5, “Ingredients of a Life Worth Living,” written by Molleen Matsumura).

We’ve all experienced the flow state—when we’re completely in the moment, so intensely focused on the activity at hand that we lose track of time. It’s one of the most deeply satisfying and meaningful states we can enter.

Creativity researcher and psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-hi-ee,” just as it looks) spent years defining, describing, and studying different aspects of flow, which he called “our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved.”

After I first read Molleen’s contribution on flow, I dug into the literature a bit. It began to occur to me that the descriptions of flow experiences (including the feeling of being at one with everything or experiencing total peace) paralleled the descriptions of transcendent spiritual experiences, including meditation.

Finding activities that put you into the flow experience, then, can provide a secular equivalent to “spirituality”—something that lifts you out of everyday experience. You might say I’m flowy, but not religious.

Some thoughts from Molleen in Raising Freethinkers about how parents can facilitate the flow experience in their kids—and how we often get in the way:

Since flow experiences are some of the most meaningful we can have, parents can help their children have a deeper experience of life by helping them find and engage in flow. And one of the most common enemies of flow is something over which parents have a good deal of control—schedules.

Just when an activity is getting really interesting and the flow experience begins to take hold, it’s time to set the table, leave for preschool, go to gymnastics. Your own time pressures can make it difficult to see that your child isn’t necessarily just being stubborn when they don’t want to be interrupted. It can also be challenging to set aside appropriate and adequate times for extended concentration to be possible…

Helping your child have flow experiences that are both inherently satisfying and enhance other aspects of life will depend on identifying his or her particular abilities. Practice is a good thing, but practicing hard at a particular activity, such as playing the piano or playing basketball, will be more worthwhile to some kids than others. It takes careful observation to know whether a child really needs to try a little harder, or needs to try something different.

Writing fiction is a flow experience for me. Nonfiction, no. And writing music, for me, is never a flow experience. More like forcing a marble through a Cheerio. Playing the piano, yes — playing clarinet, nein. Hiking, yes — sports, nyet.

I want to help my kids find their flow. While I’m at it, I need to find and engage more of my own.

What are your flow experiences?

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.