Flow States in Recovery

The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes a flow states as “optimal states of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” The future and the past tend to fade from immediate view and we become engrossed in the moment. Absorbed, the passage of time may speed up or slow down. We are often able to act with less consciousness thought, almost automatically.

People find these states through the creation or appreciation of art, design, music, athletics, management, trades, spiritual practice, or any number of other means. They are rich states of experiences that feel inherently worthy of pursuit. They carry a sense of meaning that is not necessarily based in any of the external achievements that might come as a result. We tend to seek them out automatically, but when we start to learn to navigate flow conscious it’s obvious that entering into that state has a few basic prerequisites:

  • Skill: The first time you pick up a guitar is likely not going to result in this kind of deep focus. Depending on the activity, team coordination and communication may be another important factor here.
  • Challenge: If your ability is not being reasonably tested it is equally unlikely to stay interesting.
  • Rhythm: Even the greatest cyclists in the world cannot race a Tour de France every day of the week. It is a peak experience that we rise to and descend from. It requires proper preparation. Learning to work with flow states means cultivating a natural rhythm, learning how to celebrate, rest and recover, then energize again.

Flow researcher Jeanne Nakamura describes the key to accessing flow as “the balance between the level of skill and the size of the challenge at hand.”

Flow States in Recovery

In recovery it’s possible to look back at some of what were once positive aspects of an addictive behavior. Substances may have helped manage energy or focus throughout the day, to press through challenges, cut out distractions, rest and recover energy, or sleep. Some of the people who I work with run successful, complicated businesses, or work in other high stress environments, and found that substances were part of their formula for managing this. Usually though, people come to recovery once those positive aspects were completely overwhelmed by negative consequences that built up over time.

You may or may not already be involved in some kind of activity where you tend to find flow. However, looking at strategies for thinking about and cultivating flow can be a helpful practice in recovery because it can lead to alternative approaches to coping with stress and redefining what it means to find identity and purpose. Looking at the spectrum of states of consciousness and how to navigate them also means that we don’t have to be confined to the black and white binary of high vs. sober.

In an article called Addiction & Transcendence as Altered States of Consciousness, Ralph Metzner, the psychologist and psychedelic pioneer, described addiction as a contracted state of consciousness. It is one in which we become increasingly focused on a narrower and narrower band of experience. Maybe at first this narrowing of attention helps to remove distractions, but if negative consequences start to pile up around us we might become dependent on that narrowing of attention in order to avoid dealing with those things.

Contracted awareness

In some ways, flow involves a similar kind of narrowed attention and focus. However, this is only during peak moments of the flow experience, and only in certain respects. Being well prepared for flow means being able to focus attention into a field that is enriched with information and complexity. The truth is that flow requires a flexibility to be able to move into and out of those narrowed states into more expanded states.

Flow requires an ebb. Being prepared for flow requires taking a step back to understand and integrate the bigger picture, to plan new approaches, to practice skills required to take on greater challenges, and even just to let your mind wander. At other times in our lives that ebb can run deeper. Early recovery, illness, sadness, and periods of grief, can all demand our patience and a tolerance for being able to step out of those peak states for a period of time.

Resourcing Flow

There are a few resources that range from podcasts to books that discuss experiences and tools that people use to conceptualize and access flow states. Below is a far from comprehensive list, but a few good starting points.

Vitally Absorbing Creative Interests FlowVitally Absorbing Creative Interests (VACI) – SMART Recovery

The SMART Recovery program refers to related activities, mostly creative projects or hobbies, as Vitally Absorbing Creative Interests (VACI). The term vital absorption refers to one of the central qualities of flow states. It’s a worthwhile exercise and starting point, especially for those who are involved in SMART Recovery.

Maximizing NeuroplasticityMaximizing Neuroplasticity

Another way of describing the ability of being able to shift from one state of consciousness into another is plasticity. Ibogaine treatment facilitates a profound shift, but there are other practices that help to build the foundation for that kind of plasticity. Covering the trifecta of diet, meditation, and exercise is the strongest approach. Making room in a busy life for these things can be critical to managing stress.

Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

For a solid scientific foundation for understanding flow states, the work of Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, dubbed the “godfather of flow psychology” is the most comprehensive starting point. His book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience describes how flow states may be the secret underlying happiness and a meaningful life.

Stealing Fire by Jamie Wheel and Steven Cotler

The book Stealing Fire is a book about ecstatic technologies, tools for accessing altered states of consciousness. They mention meditation, flow, and psychedelics, and describe approaches to each from a scientific and practical perspective. This is a self-described advanced discussion, and if you’re early in recovery their recommendation is to work on some of the very solid starting points discussed in the book and program 10% Happier by Dan Harris. For interest, both of the authors have done numerous podcasts that give an interesting and rich background to understanding applications of flow in the high performance world.

Microdosing Psychedelics

Microdosing has been generating a lot of media buzz and has become popular with all kinds of people, from stay at home mothers to silicon valley executives. It involves taking sub-perceptual doses of psychedelics like LSD, mushrooms, or even ibogaine on a regular or semi-regular basis. There are different protocols for approaching this, but people use this method for reasons ranging from accessing flow to managing depression. The Third Wave provides comprehensive microdosing guides for different substances, and is a good starting point for understanding the practice.


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