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How to be in the flow and achieve Happiness

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness, so that you can then go and empower others.

I have Dr. Ramesh Pattni, he has studied theology and psychology. He’s actually got three master’s degrees and has a doctorate in Yoga psychology from the University of Oxford. And he tutors at the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies. He’s a member of a number of very prestigious organisations. He also is a counsellor and a therapist. He assists a lot of people gain their mental well being and resilience, he really is someone absolutely phenomenal.

So tell me, Dr. Pattni, what is it to be in the flow? What do you mean when you say you’re in the flow?

Dr. Ramesh Pattni: Okay, so you may have heard of this idea called “being in the zone”. I’m sure many of the people who are kind of looking at it or listening to this will have had the experience of being completely absorbed in doing something right. So, for example, you are interested in painting and you are interested in looking at paintings. And imagine that you’re standing in front of the painting and you look at it and you get so absorbed that everything else goes out of the picture. It’s like you are so focused on something and you are so absorbed in the painting itself that you become completely unaware of everything else. This is really an indication of the state of flow. So, for example, if you’re running a race, your attention is so focused that you can see and feel the movement of your body, the power behind your muscles, the kind of force you have in your lungs, the ground beneath you and living absolutely in the moment. This huge amount of presence in the moment itself, you are so absorbed in whatever you are doing that you forget everything else. And it’s like you are one with the task which you’re doing.

AB: Amazing.

Dr. RP: And this is what we can describe as a state of flow.

AB: So could you also explain to us what happens to us when we’re in the flow and what happens after?

Dr. RP: This flow is really a state of the mind, right? And it is a state of complete absorption and immersion in any kind of activity you are doing, being absolutely present to whatever you’re doing, present to your own state of awareness. And this state of flow, which is a complete immersion in something which you are doing, it can be just looking at something or it can be doing some activity or running a race, playing a game. For example, in Wimbledon you might have noticed some people who are so focused and you can see the concentration on their face and by the time they actually hit the ball, they know exactly where it is going to land, how they’re going to hit it, what they’re going to do. And this state is this mental flow state whereby the vision, the thought process, the feeling, the action all align themselves in a complete kind of flowing way, as it were, and there are no distractions. So it’s like something is flowing so smoothly along. And if you notice, for example, when you do cooking and you pour oil after one container into another container and see how the flow of the oil is, and sometimes you can’t even see that it is flowing because it is flowing so smoothly. In the same way, imagine that all the functions of the body and the mind and the intellect and behind that the vision of what you are doing and the goal which you want to achieve, all of them are flowing so smoothly, you are so absorbed in this whole process that not only your sense of ego falls away, your sense of self disappears, time disappears, and even where you are, space disappears as well. It’s like nothing else exists except your mind. And it is like a state of complete absorption, like what we call in yoga as samadhi. Samadhi is such a deep state of absorption of the mind in whatever it is thinking or doing, so that nothing else exists besides that. And this is the alignment of the purpose and the action and the action itself and the merging of consciousness with action.

AB: Beautiful, merging of consciousness with action.

Dr. RP: Normally what happens, the two things are divided. I’m here with the mind. There is something objective, so object and subject, these are kind of separate and the object is kind of working. Like my body is doing something, I’m moving my hands. But I am then engaged in such a way that consciousness comes together with the action itself, the two things merge together in this smooth flowing of the mind, of the consciousness, of the action itself AND it becomes such a beautiful experience. This loss of sense of self itself can make it a wonderful experience. So this is what happens during the flow state itself. And then immediately afterwards you have this great sense of joy, this happiness which comes about because your mind has been in such a state of absorption that you feel pure joy once you are out of the state. So imagine a painter who is painting. Painting is so absorbed and then he finishes the painting and he steps back and steps back and looks at the picture and says “oh my God, look at this joy of creation”, the joy of painting which has been so absorbently done that it becomes a beautiful creative piece of work. And this is another thing which flow provides, not only happiness, it kind of flourishes your creativity, the sense of creativity which we all have, but it is somehow maybe suppressed due to various different things. But here in the state of absorption, creativity begins to flourish as well. 

AB: But tell me something, Dr. Pattni, isn’t the idea of what we’re trying to achieve, aren’t we trying to do everything in that state of flow? So whatever we do, we are completely absorbed in it. Isn’t our aim to be doing everything so that we’re completely absorbed?

Dr. RP: Absolutely. And this is the idea of flow, is that to be absolutely absorbed in something which we are doing. For example, if I’m writing an email, completely absorbed in the action itself, so that everything else disappears out of my consciousness. It is only what I’m thinking, what I’m typing, what my actions are doing, my keyboard, everything becomes completely narrowed and absorbed in that particular activity. So anything else which is distracting, we are not jumping out and in. This is what the mind does, because the mind is a monkey mind.It will keep on jumping. When I’m writing the email, my mind jumps, “what’s outside the house? I heard a noise. Something is going on. Something is going on in the house” My mind jumps that way. So there is nothing of that sort, mind is here, totally absorbed. Consciousness and work come together in such a beautiful way that it becomes like an absorbed state of consciousness which is flowing towards whatever you are doing. 

AB: Dr. Pattni, tell us what are the benefits of this?

Dr. RP:The benefits are many. You are able to have this increased flow and therefore, it makes you able to regulate yourself. Because regulation is associated with two things- one is awareness and one is focused attention. If you have awareness and focused attention, it gives you much more ability to regulate your thinking, regulate your feelings. Emotional regulation, in fact it increases your EQ emotional quotient. EQ means emotional intelligence. It begins to increase. Why? Because you have this tremendous sense of absorption, consciousness and awareness. At the same time you are able to control and regulate it in such a way that it becomes a way in which you can manage your emotions, you can direct your emotions in the best way possible. That’s number one. Number two, a greater sense of enjoyment throughout the day and a sense of fulfilment. Why? Because you have been so absorbed in doing something that you are able to achieve something very good and creative and working efficiently. This kind of happiness which you feel in achieving something. The third thing is, besides the happiness, there is something else which begins to happen is that you have this increased capacity for engagement with everything. So while I’m talking, if I’m in a state of flow, I feel completely engaged with whatever I’m saying. So it gives me a greater sense of engagement with everything. So when I’m talking to the person, I’m with that person and nothing else. Fabulous. And this sense of presence which we have, the presence of somebody, can make such an enormous difference. So that when you walk into a group of ten people in a room, everybody turns their head towards you because all of a sudden this enormous presence has come into the room. So engagement is there, the presence is there. And another thing which happens is that you become inwardly motivated. This is called intrinsic motivation in psychology is that you are passionately kind of expressing yourself because you want to express yourself, not that anybody is telling you, not extrinsic because the circumstances demand or people around you demand this. No, it’s not that. It’s that you want to be the creation and the creative force in anything which you are doing. Intrinsically oriented, intrinsically motivated to do the things which are the very basic expression of yourself. It’s a wonderful state of being because then it is this creativity which is at the heart of yourself which begins to express itself in this kind of thing. So these are some of the benefits of being able to be in the flow and to be able to experience that flow in our lives.

AB: We’ve touched on some of the benefits. This is something that isn’t everyone working towards this, trying to be in the flow. So how do we get there? 

Dr. RP: Everybody wants to do something efficiently and effectively and that means they require concentration and effort, right? And therefore in order to be able to do that, what do we need? We need to have some kind of practice, discipline. And for me, the best way of doing this is the method of yoga, okay? The Yogic method is the best way of training not only your body but your breath- Pranayama training. The mind to such an extent that it is able to go into high states of absorption. This is what I meant by Samadhi, is that Samadhi is such a high state of absorption of the mind in anything that you are able to experience that object of your absorption to a huge degree of intensity, therefore everybody wants to be in this kind of state of absorption, but not everybody is able to achieve this very high state of absorption. And just like if you want to go to the Centre Court of Wimbledon. It’s not for everybody, right? If you want to do that. Years and years of training, daily exercises, daily training so that it becomes such a way in which you function while you are playing the game that you’re totally with the game, you’re totally with the body, you’re totally with the knowledge of everything which is happening around you. You can observe some of these athletes and some of these sports people and you will see the kind of concentration they have. In other words, what I’m saying in order to get into this stage of flow requires some kind of training. And I think, yoga is the best method because yoga trains you to attain focused attention, focused awareness and it heightens your awareness by making so many things available to you in your own awareness. And why that particular discipline is there in yoga is that the very fine discipline of the mind allows you to in fact go into a transcendental state of the mind, which is a very, very subtle state of the mind. But that can only happen if you train your mind in the same way. What flow is expecting of us is this high state of absorption, focused attention, open awareness, absorbed awareness. So both deep things have got these two things in common. And therefore, if you want to have more and more of these flow experiences, then I would suggest go and practice yoga. And what patanjali in Yoga Sutra describes this as mind which is clear, like a jewel. So clear it can see through anything. And the mind which is trained in the yogic way is also the mind which is going to be able to get absorbed in anything which it does to the extent that the mind becomes in that kind of flow state which we’ve been talking about. Incredible. So for example, if we talk about yoga, then we are talking about the Yum-Niyam which is the do’s and don’ts of life, which means the whole lifestyle has to change. And you know that if you are becoming a yoga practitioner, it means it’s not just about taking half an hour every day and doing posture and then the rest of the day, you do whatever you want to. If you really want to get the benefit of yoga and to be able to experience flow in this kind of way, then it means that it has to kind of change fundamentally. Your vision of life changes, your lifestyle changes, your diet changes. The way in which you relate to yourself changes. The way in which you relate to the world changes. Okay, so four dimensions change: your physical dimension, your personal dimension, your own psychological personal dimension, your relational dimension, how you relate to the world around you and especially people, how you relate to people that fundamentally change. And then of course, the fourth dimension is a spiritual dimension which frames the whole meaning of life and the purpose of life, right? So in other words, that fundamental changes in vision of life, the mission of life, the lifestyle itself and the practice of individual things, of yoga itself. So this kind of change is required for us to be able to experience more and more of this flow. It is the key to happiness as well. It’s the key to experiencing joy all the time. 

AB: But Ramesh Bhai, I have a question for you here which I get asked a lot and I completely agree with what you’re saying, that it has to be about the whole everything, the complete life. It’s not just one thing you do that 1 hour or half an hour of yoga and pranayamas a day but to someone who’s starting on this, Ramesh Bhai, can be quite overwhelming. So can you give us some guidelines on how you start on getting to be in the flow. How do you start off like, do it an hour a day of yoga, do half an hour of pranayama? What would you advise?

Dr. RP: In order to start getting into the process? You can take, say, half an hour. In half an hour, you can practise, say, postures for about ten minutes. You can practise breathing exercises just in and out, very slow in breathing, out breathing, and then take five minutes to do that and 15 minutes, you just sit down and focus on your breathing, one particular place where the sensation of this air moving in and out is available to you around the nostrils. Just focus on that one particular sensation. If you are able to do these three exercises every day, just half an hour, it sets you off on the journey so that you are able then to at least experience states of attention and focused attention which is really the basis of the flow state. And when you begin to have this training of your attention, focused attention and you are able to use that particular concentration capacity in other things, then you are able to go towards this flow state much easier than before. So these are the three basic steps which you can do every day, practice every day and you will be able to do it and within one or two or three months, you’ll begin to see the difference. You’ll begin to see that the mind, which is a monkey mind, this wandering mind, becomes trained and you are able to control the mind then, rather than the mind controlling you.

AB: Fabulous.

Dr. RP: Why it will help you in all other aspects of your life is because at the heart of doing anything right and enjoying anything requires you to pay attention. Even if you’re sitting in front of the movie and you’re watching a movie, that deep sense of attention and absorption can be such a beautiful experience. Talking to a person can even be a beautiful experience because you are so attentive and so present and so much engaged with this person that it becomes like you are with a unique human being right in front of you. And the beauty of any person comes through this kind of flow experience.

AB: You said everything needs to change, right? So you said spiritually. The way you relate to yourself, the way you relate to others, your food, your lifestyle, the way you think. Everything needs to change. Will you talk to us a little more about how people can take steps towards all those different things?

Dr. RP: There are three levels of change. The first level is where you change your habit and this is the simplest way of doing it. So for example, if you’re in the habit of eating ten times a day, you want to say, okay, instead of ten times a day, I want to change this habit to make it three times a day at particular times and particular quantities, simple change of habit. Level number two is a change of mindset. So I can change a habit, but that’s only one single thing. I can stop smoking, for example, or drinking or whatever it is one habit. If I change a mindset, I change several different habits. So suppose I have got a healthy mindset. It means, I have to look after my body, I have to look after my diet, I have to look after my mind, I have to look after my whole lifestyle. Lifestyle changes, mindset changes. It changes so many things. Third level of change is the paradigm change whereby everything changes, your whole life changes. So we can start by small, small habits. Then we go to changing of the mindset. Then we go on to change the whole vision of life. But it can be done in this simple manner. And of course it affects all four dimensions of a lifetime. The physical, the personal, the relational and finally the spiritual part as well. All this thing can come together slowly by slowly as we begin to travel on this journey towards that perfect state of complete absorption in anything we do.

AB: Wonderful. That is absolutely magnificent. Tell me, Dr. Pattni, any tips or techniques or advice for people?

Dr. RP: First thing is just try to explore this idea of flow. Try to understand it. And then, just like I was saying, if you wish to start off on this journey, simple things you begin to do. And that means that certain disciplines have to be brought into your life. And it’s just half an hour. Just take half an hour of your 24 hours and devote it to the practice of physical posture, yogic posture, yogic breathing and yogic concentration. And if you have this focused attention, focused concentration together with the simple exercises of posture and breathing, which also help the mind to become focused, then practise focusing your attention, concentrating for 15 minutes. And that is the starting point of your journey. And then you can begin to explore much more deeper things about what am I doing here? What is the meaning of life, what is the purpose of my life and how can I get fully engaged with that purpose? And that begins to take you towards this fulfilment of your life, happiness in your life, greater sense of joy and accomplishment in your life as well with these small kinds of steps which you can take on a daily basis. 

AB: There’s a lot of mental illness at the moment. The mental health after the pandemic has been quite hard. You’re saying this is a way of achieving happiness. If people did this, would that take them away from mental health issues?

Dr. RP: If you do have any kind of mental health issues, the first thing is to seek some kind of assistance to get you into getting away from the distress which is caused by mental health issues and sometimes, it can require professional help. So many people come to me and suffering from anxiety, depression, all kinds of mental health issues, which is really sad to see and especially in COVID it has become quite at the forefront that people need to take care of their mental health as well besides the physical health. So once you have a certain level of mental well being, what these things do is to enhance that mental wellbeing. So it’s like you are under the surface of the water. First of all, you need to come to the surface of the water. Come to the surface and then begin to enjoy coming to the surface by these kinds of exercises which you can do and to get you into the states of flow which then help you to achieve all these things benefits which we’ve been talking about. 

AB: Do you think we should start children on this when they’re young so that they don’t get to mental health issues? 

Dr. RP: I was telling my students this morning, I said if you want to kind of manage your mind, managing the mind through the yogic means is absolutely possible and to begin to train the children in some of this discipline, just like for example, very simple exercise of silent sitting. Tell a five year old child to sit down and sit silently for five minutes. That in itself is training. Why? Because it’s a discipline which then allows them to know that they can control their body, they can control their mind, they can control their speech. Just five minutes, let them sit down. And then, as they get older, you can begin to introduce some of these mental techniques of yoga. For example, how to attain a state of focus of your mind, how to concentrate on something. Then how to concentrate in such a way that you are able to contemplate, and then how to contemplate so that you can meditate. By the time they are 18-20 years old, if they’ve gone through this kind of training, you will see they have got much better cognitive functioning which means they are able to think things through. They’ve got much better emotional regulation which allow them this capacity to deal with any kind of challenges and coping mechanisms which are available through this kind of training so that they can cope with things, where mental illnesses arise, because you’re not able to cope with things to prevent or to be able to help us in dealing with challenges of life and ourselves, then that is something which can be started off quite early in the life as well. 

AB: That was such a magnificent talk. Thank you. Ramesh Bhai, thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you, leading your best life.