Mindfulness in Flow: The next generation of mindfulness theory, research and practice in higher education


The purpose of this article is to review the current theory, research and practice of mindfulness, meditation and flow and their current role in higher education teaching and research and to recommend the integration of mindfulness with flow in a range of higher education activities.

The article first summarizes current definitions, research findings and applications of mindfulness and meditation and the research on flow which shows that the flow state has many similarities to mindfulness. Mindfulness, however, is a passive aware, observing state while flow involves fully being engaged and immersed in an activity. Flow also involves connecting with the direction and flow of energy. Mindfulness and flow together can enhance individual and organization performance and development but little has been written or researched regarding the relationship of mindfulness to flow.

The growing interest and research in mindfulness and meditation, combined with growing problems in health in the community, staff and students have resulted in many higher education institutions conducting courses while others have initiated mindfulness centers dedicated to the advancement of mindfulness practice and research.

While mindful leadership and flow have gained interest, few dots have been connected regarding the role of leadership in bringing mindfulness and flow to the workplace.

The article describes the integral point which provides conditions for mindfulness-in-flow, referred to as mindflow, to occur especially when used with an Integral AQAL (All Quadrants, All Levels) framework. This article suggests that mindflow is a useful addition  to future teaching, research and development of leaders and staff in higher education institutions. .


Mindfulness, Meditation and Flow: Theory, Research and Outcomes

A study by Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) showed that for about 47% of the day, the average person is not in the present moment. According to their research, when the mind wanders we experience greater moments of unhappiness because it drifts to personal concerns and worries. 

Testimonies describing the benefits of meditation by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, Koby Bryant, Madonna, Richard Gere, Katy Perry, Sting and successful business people such as Steve Jobs and Arianna Huffington popularized the idea that meditation and mindfulness overcomes unhappiness and are important way to achieve a fulfilling life. Popular books like The Power of Now (Tolle, 2000), The Miracle of Mindfulness (Nhat Hanh, 1999), and Wherever You Go, There You Are (Kabat-Zinn, 1994) and others have brought mindfulness to millions of people.

In a large and comprehensive study, the US National Institutes of Health found that in 2013, approximately eighteen million adults – eight percent of the adult population of the US – and one million children were practicing meditation (NIH, 2015).

Programs in mindfulness and meditation are now common in the community and higher educational institutions have increased their involvement with mindfulness in teaching, research and staff development. While the interest and research studies published on meditation/mindfulness have grown significantly, there still is confusion about the difference between meditation and mindfulness, their secular or spiritual orientation and concern about their passive focus on one’s self rather than an active contribution to others and the world. 

Kabat-Zinn (1990) and Williams and Penman (2013) state that mindfulness is a state of enhanced attention to and awareness of present experience in an open, relaxed, non-judgmental way. Mindfulness practices include letting go of biases, frustrations, pre-conceptions, negative emotions and judgments and expectations of others. Mindfulness often includes elements of managing negative self-talk and pre-conceived beliefs to help return to the present moment.

Mindfulness has its roots in meditative, spiritual traditions, where conscious attention and awareness are actively developed. The state of non-judgmental awareness is considered sati, or mindfulness—to see things as they really are. Meditation is often taught as a key part of mindfulness training and involves setting aside time to quiet the mind. During one type of meditation the mind focuses on one thing such as a mantra, image, or the breath, and the meditator brings the attention back to the object of meditation when thoughts, emotions and distractions occur. In a second type of meditation, referred to as mindful meditation, vipassana or ‘insight meditation’, awareness is on any sensation, feeling or thought that arises in the present rather than on one meditative object (Cacioppe, 2006, Sheldrake, 2017).

The words mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably. Many mindfulness teachers speak about and use meditation techniques as a principle method to develop mindfulness. The diagram below is a useful way to present the difference between ordinary, subconscious, mindful and meditation forms of awareness and shows meditation as a specific form of mindfulness.

Meditation, like mindfulness, includes being aware of what arises (e.g. sounds, feelings, emotions) but also aims to attain a deep level of stillness in order to experience the ‘ground of consciousness’ (Reninger, 2014, Tolle, 2000, Sheldrake, 2017). Mindfulness can be practiced in everyday activities such as walking, eating, driving and working while participants usually practice meditation in a seated position, focusing on an object of meditation or, as in insight or vipassana meditation, awareness of whatever arises,

During both mindfulness and meditation, a person experiences physical, mental-emotional relaxation, slowing of time, a feeling of freedom and boundlessness and, in certain states, a loss of self-consciousness.  Wilber (2016) has refined the concept of mindfulness with his description of levels of mindfulness from physical awareness to awareness of feelings and thought to the highest level involving the loss of the ego self while still having awareness of the present moment. Wilber calls this process ‘Waking Up’.  

Research Findings on the Benefits of Mindfulness/Meditation

The growing increase in interest and participation of the community in meditation and mindfulness has resulted in a significant increase in university research. To date, more than 380 peer-reviewed research studies on the Transcendental Meditation technique have been published in over 160 scientific journals (TM website). In 1980 only a few studies were published on Mindful-Based-Stress-Reduction, one of the most popular mindfulness type programs, while in 2013, 543 were published.

Research on mindfulness and meditation took a leap forward with the introduction of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) which showed that new neural pathways grow and change the size and structure of the brain (called neuroplasticity) during meditation.

Studies have shown that in long term meditators, the cortical regions which process sensory input were thicker and that meditation increased brain activity areas involved with learning and memory processes, emotional regulation, self-reflection and perceptiveness.

Two meta-studies have summarised the results of several years of meditation and mindfulness research: “What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?” (Davis and Hayes, 2012) and “Brief Summary of Mindfulness Research” (Flaxman and Flook, 2012). Among the health and social benefits they describe was lower blood pressure, reduced stress, less heart disease, reduced recurrence of cancer, fewer headaches, better sleep, slowing of the aging process and bolstering the immune system. Recent research showed that meditation can lengthen the telomeres in chromosomes which helps overcome the negative effects of stress and aging (Blackburn & Epel, 2017). Social benefits include improved interpersonal interactions such as trust, self-esteem, life satisfaction, reduced alcohol and drug abuse, and less crime.

Reb and Choi (2014) summarized results the impact of mindfulness on the workplace which showed an improvement in job satisfaction, reduced employee turnover and absenteeism, and improved workplace learning. An eight-week program that taught meditation to 178 workers showed significant reduction in the meditating group on measures of strain and depression (Manocha et al, 2011). Davidson et al (2003) reported increased happiness, energy and engagement, decreased anxiety and activity increased in the left prefrontal cortex after an eight week mindfulness-meditation program.

Nurses reported greater relaxation, self-care and improvement in work and family relations after meditation training (Shapiro et al, 1998). Kirk et al (2011) found expert meditators were twice as likely to make economically rational decisions and reduce negative emotional responses compared to a control group. The ability to learn, improve memory, achieve faster reaction times, and increase mental and physical stamina and performance in school was improved through the regular practice of meditation (Reb & Choi, 2014).

Concerns have been expressed regarding weaknesses in methodology including small sample sizes, lack of random samples, poor use of controls, and use of self-report as measures of improvement (Ospina, et al, 2007, Horgan, 2013). There is also criticism about mindfulness training being conducted superficially or including people who were not ready psychologically. Andresen (2000) noted that meditation has been linked to adverse side effects for some people including depression, suicidal impulses, insomnia, nightmares, and anxiety.  While there is greater awareness that mindfulness-meditation training is not suitable for some people, and the need for more rigorous research, there is substantial evidence of the positive benefits of mindfulness.

Universities, therefore, have an important role in monitoring the quality of research on mindfulness and meditation, to verify or not their benefits, and to define the conditions and elements needed for effective teaching and practice.

Mindfulness Programs Conducted by Higher Education Institutions

There has been a significant increase in higher education activity in teaching of mindfulness. In addition to the popularity of mindfulness and its possible benefits in reducing lifestyle illnesses, an additional factor has been the growing number of mental health problems of students (James, 2017). The Higher Education Funding Council of the United Kingdom has reported the increase of student mental health problems has increased from 8,000 in 2002/2003 to 18,000 in 2102/13.

The 2016 UCLA Higher Education Research Institute survey of freshmen nearly 12 percent of students indicated they are frequently depressed. According to the data gathered by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University from 139 institutions, 26 percent of students who sought help said they had intentionally hurt themselves; 33.2 percent had considered suicide with the numbers of students increasing each year.

To respond to this growing interest and health problems in the community and students, a number of universities, have started mindfulness centers including the University of Southern California, the University of California at San Diego and Irvine and the University of Massachusetts.

Buckingham University in the UK has defined its vision to be a positive-health university with mindfulness central to this vision. Maharishi International University, which started over 30 years ago, has been dedicated to the science and practice of Transcendental Meditation.

The University of North Carolina, Harvard University, Duke University, University of Minnesota, UCLA, University of Pennsylvania, Elon University, University of Virginal, Cambridge University, and University of Iowa are some of the universities currently running programs for students, the community, and workplaces. A number degree courses in health, education and business have included elements of mindfulness in their teaching curriculum. Most of these programs focus on the reduction of stress and the improvement of health and psychological wellbeing of the individual.

While a number of university executive education programs include mindfulness presentations and practices, only a few have made mindfulness a core ingredient in their programs or offer specific course on mindfulness. Atlantic University, however, runs a Mindful Leadership program.

In summary, meditation and mindfulness, has resulted in considerable benefits for personal health and wellbeing, performance, learning, engagement and job satisfaction. These benefits are confirmed by physiological improvements in brain, heart, and cell functioning. There has been an increase in universities and colleges conducting mindfulness research and training programs for the health of community and individuals and a smaller number of programs for the workplace and leaders.  

A major problem for lack of wider adoption is that for people who lead busy, action-oriented lives, mindfulness and meditation can be considered a waste of time. The traditional slogan in business of ‘Don’t just sit there: Do something!’ is opposite of the mindfulness state of “Just don’t do something: Sit there”. Taking time out to be in a passive mindful state appears contrary to the drive to be as productive and cost efficient as possible.  

Integrating mindfulness into the activity of the flow state may result in wider appeal and additional benefits beyond individual health and wellbeing.

Flow: theory, research and application

Flow relates to the movement of energy at physical, psychic and spiritual levels. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, defines flow at the psychic level as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the activity”. He considers flow as the optimal human experience.

The Killingsworth and Gilbert study (2010) mentioned earlier found that the greatest moments of happiness occur when we are in the present, immersed in the task—in flow. During these times of being fully in the moment, we experience a state of complete contentment. According to an international Gallup survey, between 15% and 20% of adults claim to experience flow every day. Another 60% report being intensely involved in what they do anywhere from once every few months to at least once a week (Csikszentmihalyi, 2004). Studies confirm flow is a universal state across a wide range of activities such as elite and non-elite sport, aesthetic experiences, literary and scholarly writing, creative, and a wide range of social and work activities

Phil Jackson (1995), ex-basketball coach of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers and winner of six national basketball championships, describes the flow state: “All of us have had flashes of this sense of oneness—making love, creating a work of art—when we’re completely immersed in the moment, inseparable from what we’re doing. This kind of experience happens all the time on the basketball floor; that’s why the game is so intoxicating. But if you’re really paying attention, it can also occur while you’re performing the most mundane tasks.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s studies (1997) have clarified characteristics of the flow state and conditions that help bring it about. He describes the following nine components:

  1. A balance of challenging activity and skill
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. Concentration on the task at hand
  4. Loss of self-consciousness, a sense of a separate self disappears
  5. Altering of time, including time standing still
  6. A clear, purposeful goal
  7. Unambiguous feedback
  8. A sense of both control and spontaneity
  9. Autotelic experience: the activity has no purpose other than itself

Research studies have shown the greater time a person spends in flow, the greater self-esteem they experience (Wells, 1988). An investigation into flow in the workplace found that employees experiencing high levels of flow were more flexible and adaptable in the workplace and more likely to seek opportunities for action (Ceja & Navarro, 2011).  A study by Fulgar and Kelloway (2009) showed a significant positive relationship between flow experience and positive mood, and that tasks requiring complex skill, expressing creativity and resolving problems lead to a more frequent experience of flow.

Studies have found that the flow experience has a direct positive impact on job satisfaction, performance, engagement and motivation (Chui & Lee, 2012, Lee, 2004, Bryce & Hayworth, 2002, Bason & Frane, 2004). The Swedish-owned company, Green Cargo, moved from a long history of losing money to a profitable company in 2004, one year after introducing new work practices based on flow principles (Ceja & Navarro, 2017).

Several studies have linked flow to commitment and achievement during high school (Carli, et al, 1988). In studies of two university courses, flow predicted semester end performance (Engeser, et al, 2005).

Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2009) state that flow can occur through structuring the external environment and activities that provide challenging, meaningful tasks with clear feedback that match a person’s skills. Csikszentmihalyi (1990), however, indicates that some individuals are less capable of experiencing flow because of their inability to manage their attention. Some are unable to hold attention on one thing because their attention is dispersed and fragmented by external stimuli. Others limit their ability to experience flow because of excessive concentration on one’s self through continual doubt and uncertainty or excessive self-centred preoccupation on personal desires and self-interest. Fragmented, self-conscious or self-interested attention lack sufficient control of psychic energy to enter flow.

Lee (2005) examined the relationships of motivation and flow experience to academic procrastination in 262 Korean undergraduate students and showed that high procrastination was associated with lack of self-determined motivation and low incidence of flow state.

Two studies based on interviews with elite swimmers, showed that optimal performance, or “flow,” states reveal similar characteristics to mindfulness and acceptance states. In flow experiences, the elite swimmers were especially mindful and accepting of their bodily sensations. In the second study, mindfulness, integrated into the skills training program for seven young elite golfers, contributed to performance improvement in competition. Participants improved the efficacy of their routines by getting more relevant internal and external information (Bernier et al, 2009).

Research (Kee & Wang, 2008) into the relationship between mindfulness and flow in student athletes found that athletes in a high mindfulness group scored significantly higher in the flow components of challenge-skill balance, clear goals, concentration, control over their actions, and loss of self-consciousness as compared to athletes in a low mindfulness group.

Csikszentmihalyi (1993) provides an overall summary of the consequences of flow as: greater creativity, peak performance, talent development, improved productivity, greater self-esteem, stress reduction and psycho-therapeutic healing. There is evidence that greater skill in mindfulness improves the likelihood of flow and performance. Yet as Faria (2017) indicates flow and mindfulness have been studied individually and have led to positive outcomes; however, they have yet to be linked in academic research.

In higher education teaching, there is regular reference to flow theory and application in psychology, sport, music and education but currently few university courses or programs are dedicated to flow theory or practice. Most initiatives to teach flow theory and practice come from outside higher education in programs such as Kotler’s Flow Genome Project (2014), and Meloncilli’s (2017) and Marelisa’s (2017) programs.

Mindflow: a unique mindfulness-in-flow state

Cacioppe (2017B) has defined two different types of flow state, full absorption and mindflow. Full absorption flow occurs when a person is in a limited state of mindfulness because their attention is narrow and fully immersed in the activity. Absorption describes a state where the individual is completely attentive to and engaged with their present activity (Rothbard, 2001). In a state of absorption, unlike mindfulness, individuals block out inputs that are not central to the activity.

The absorbed state is different from mindfulness where a person remains aware of the wider environment. Instead, a person will be unlikely to perceive external sounds, sensations, people or things unrelated to the activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 2004, Dane, 2011). A person walking down a street in a mindfulness state is aware of sounds and sights around him including the feelings and tensions within his body, but he may not be in a state of flow. A person absorbed in flow may miss new information or block out important environmental cues. For example, one person described being so absorbed while working at home, he didn’t see his toddler walk past and out the front door. This type of absorbed flow is sometimes called concentration or tunnel vision.

Shelden, Prentice and Halusic’s (2015) research found an inverse relationship between the absorption component of flow and mindfulness. Participants who experienced greater flow scored lower on measures of mindful self-awareness. Ability, however, to maintain awareness of the environment while keeping a high level of attention on an activity would be a valuable attribute in life and work.

Cacioppe (2017A) describes the second type of flow state as mindfulness-in-flow, which he calls mindflow, This type of flow has been part of spiritual practices such as walking meditation, gardening and calligraphy but can also occur in ordinary activities such as driving a car. The diagram below shows a continuum of absorbed attention with the whole focus on the activity to the attention on the activity buy still open and aware of wider information and sensations.

Under times of threat as in a car crash, the situation may require a person to be in absorbed flow because there is no psychic energy available for wider awareness. In mindful flow, however, there is a high level of attention on the activity but also awareness of stimuli and people in the environment. While there is overlap between mindfulness, absorbed flow and mindflow, the state of mindflow has a wider awareness of the environment and results in a greater ability to respond, learn and adjust to a changing environment as shown in the following diagram;


Whitelaw (2012) describes this state of connectedness as Samadhi. This connectedness is not an exotic condition, but a natural state that arises when we’re absorbed into our setting”. In mindful flow, because the awareness widens to other elements of the moment, a person is open and responsive to other people and changing circumstances.

While concentration on work activities is commonplace, it can result in a narrow, focus rather than being aware of other things or people. The ability to be in the present be connected to other people and relevant factors in the wider environment is a skill that would be useful for managers, workers as well as high elite athletes.

Mindflow at the Integral Point

The mindfulness-in-flow process was taught by Russian teacher and mystic, George I. Gurdjieff, in the 1930s, at the Institute of Human Development in Paris where he attracted many students from all over the world. Gurdjieff used the process of the ‘working surface’ (also referred to as the ‘work surface’) to develop students to a higher level of awareness where they fully experienced the moment and connected to something larger than themselves.

The working surface is mentioned is in an Ouspensky Foundation exercise file (2015): “Direct all your attention to the work surface. The work surface is the surface between the instrument you are using and the object you are focused upon, for example the surface between the sandpaper and the window sill or the space between the saw and the beam.” In another reference, Colin Brown (2002) states, “Placing our attention on the working surface was our instruction always. ... it always reminds me that there is a working surface somewhere ….”. This Gurdjieff working surface process is still taught around the world in schools started by his students.

The term ‘integral point’ (integral means to make complete or whole), instead of working surface, has been adopted by Cacioppe (2017) and incorporates two elements of Ken Wilber’s Integral AQAL (all quadrants, all levels) framework (2016) which extend and enhance the conditions and understanding of the mindflow process.

The integral point is where a person’s attention merges with the outer objective world, the point where the one person’s inner world merges with another person or object.

The integral point is the centred point of awareness in an activity where connection occurs. This is different from an open-mindfulness state where awareness is on any stimulus that arises.

Examples of the integral point are:

  • When walking, where the foot touches the ground.
  • When writing or typing, where the tip of the pen touches the paper or the fingers touch the keyboard.
  • When driving or riding a bike, where the tires meet the road.
  • When listening to another person, the sound of the person’s voice.

The following quote describes a person’s experience at the integral point: “One Saturday morning I was waxing a floor and was able to keep my attention at the integral point for some time. The grain and colours in the linoleum became so clear it looked like I was watching them on a movie screen. As I worked, the stillness was immense, even though I was aware of the sounds and movements of others working around me. There was no sense of time and, even though I was doing a reasonably strenuous activity, it felt effortless, like I wasn’t doing anything. I felt an overwhelming sense of bliss and gratitude—to be waxing the floor! It was an intense feeling of unity and flow with the whole cosmos. I can still recall the vividness of each of the speckles in the linoleum and that feeling of absolute happiness” (Cacioppe, 2017A).

As this quote describes, the experience of the integral point includes the flow characteristics of effortlessness, timelessness, dissolving of self, and vivid experience of the moment. There is also, an awareness and connection with the environment and others and with something greater than one’s self.

Jackson (1995) describes this awareness and connection with other players: “The players develop an intuitive feel for how their movements and those of everyone else on the floor are interconnected. Not everyone reaches this point. Some players’ self-centred conditioning is so deeply rooted they can’t make that leap. But for those who can, a subtle shift in consciousness occurs. The beauty of the system is that it allows players to experience another, more powerful form of motivation than ego-gratification.”

The Gurdjieff process has been developed into a four-step process that leads to mindflow: 1) Remember to be present and relax, 2) Become aware of one sense (e.g. breath, listening), 3) Bring attention to the integral point, 4) When the attention wanders, relax and return to awareness and the integral point.

Attention at the integral point is a special type of flow that connects with a wider environment, responds to the need of the moment and learns and adapts. This process can be used during any activity to bring about the mindflow state but requires practice to stay at the integral point.

If a person can achieve this high level of mindfulness, action and clarity of purpose (mindflow), it would transform their personal and work life so they would, to use Ken Wilber’s term, ‘Show Up’ authentically and fully.

An Integral Framework for Aligning and Conducting Energy and Flow

Mindfulness theory and practice focuses primarily on a person’s mindset and awareness. While mindfulness practices such as ‘tonglen’ projects compassion, empathy and loving kindness to others, it does not consider other environmental factors such as access to resources, power, leadership, systems, and structure that strongly influence the ability to practice and incorporate mindfulness and flow in one’s life.

Integral theory’s comprehensive AQAL (all quadrants, all levels) provides a comprehensive meta-theory that integrates existing models into an integrated and coherent framework. While integral theory has additional elements such as lines, types, and holons, the four quadrants of reality and stages of self-identity are especially relevant to mindfulness-in-flow since they relate to the flow of energy and attention.

Integral theory’s four quadrants of reality, which Wilber (2000) labels as ‘I’, ‘it’, ‘We’ and ‘IT’ can be viewed as four worlds of flowing energy: ‘My Inner World’, ‘Our Shared World’, ‘World of Things’, and ‘Systems World’ as show in Diagram 5 below.

The upper right of the diagram, is the ‘World of Things’, the outer world of objects is where we see the flow of physical objects and actions such as people, tasks, equipment, and resources. All four worlds interact with and influence each other but since we see, taste, touch, hear and smell things, this world is often described as the ’real world’. 

The upper left world, ‘My Inner World, includes the flow of personal thoughts, feelings, fears, hopes, values, memory, beliefs and motivation. It includes attitudes, mindset, and personality. This world involves the flow of individual psychic energy.

The lower left, ‘Our Shared World’, includes group values, norms, myths, shared stories, unwritten ground rules and collective beliefs that form the culture of a family, team, organization and community. This is the collective, shared mind and energy that influences and shapes group beliefs and actions such as planning, distribution and control of power, information, resources and decisions.

If the elements in the four worlds are aligned they support and encourage flow but if they are in conflict or misaligned, they inhibit the flow of energy and actions. The integral point is where the alignment and integration of these four worlds occur – the point where they meet and the internal, external, individual and collective worlds flow into one.

It is hard to have flow when there is interpersonal conflict, when people don’t have sufficient skills or financial resources, if the systems and procedures inhibit effective operations, or if the culture doesn’t support the common goals and values. When elements in the four worlds align at the integral point, flow occurs and results in a balanced organization that performs well and encourages the development and wellbeing of staff, customers and key stakeholders.

Flow and the Stages of Self Identity

“To repeat the desirable feeling of flow, we must find even higher challenges and build more sophisticated skills, in doing so, we help the evolution of complexity move along one more step “ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993; 189).

Csikszentmihalyi states that the experience of flow leads to a development and evolution of self. As described in his quote, flow involves a challenge vs skill dynamic. If a person experiences boredom, then an increase in challenge is needed. If anxiety is experienced, then an increase in skill is required. The increase of skill in response to a greater challenge results in an increase in the complexity and awareness of self which leads to a higher stage of development. 

Stages of development have been defined and researched by western psychologists and sociologists such as Maslow, Loevinger, Kohlberg, Wilber, Torbert, Wade, and Graves and eastern philosophers such as Aurobindo, Gurjieff and Buddhist scholars. They have described these stages based on needs, moral development, cognitive capability or ego development. These stages of self-identity are personal and social constructions about what and who we are acquired from parents, friends, school, and the media. Because our self-image is a psychological construction, it takes energy and effort to build, maintain and develop (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993). Wilber (2016) calls the process of developing through these stages ‘Growing Up’.

The following is a brief summary of these eight stages (Cacioppe, 2009) with Beck and Cowan’s (1996) Spiral Dynamics’ colours also included to represent each stage.

  1. Surviving Self (Beige): Concern and energy focused on survival, safety and personal and financial security.
  2. Bonding Self (Purple): Energy given to belonging to a group (e.g. family, sporting team, work group, etc.) by maintaining norms and values that keep a person part of the group.
  3. Asserting Self (Red): Energy used to stand out, be important, and powerful.
  4. Controlling Self (Blue): Energy used to maintain order, organization and for things to run efficiently and well. Energy needed to reinforce rules, boundaries, responsibilities and a clear hierarchy of authority.
  5. Achieving Self (Orange): Energy focused on achieving and getting recognition for accomplishments.
  6. Including Self (Green): Care, concern and empathy for others, Energy given to include and treat others fairly.
  7. Integrating Self (Yellow): Energy focused on creative possibilities, future vision and integration of previous perspectives into something new.
  8. Integral Being Self (Turquoise): Harmonious energy and flow with life. Respect and regard for everyone and everything.

Each stage develops by including yet transcending the previous stage (i.e. becoming increasingly differentiated and integrated). Stages at lower levels are comprised of denser, physical energy while higher levels have finer mental/emotional and spiritual energy.  Beck and Cowan (1996) indicates that the interaction between the constructed ego identity and the challenges leads to a development or fragmentation of self. This successful interaction of challenge and skill, as described earlier, leads to flow and development of the self.

While a person may put energy into several stages over a day or week, there is a ‘center of gravity’ of self that influences and shapes the experience of flow. For example, a person in the achieving stage, will strive hard to achieve. The desire to achieve may lead to flow but may also limit that person’s experience of flow because they strive so hard.

Each stage moves from a narrower, physical definition of self to a wider and finer spiritual identify of ‘Self’ that connects with life past, current and future. The first five stages, Surviving to Including, Graves (2002) describes as ego focused while the Integrating and Integral stages transcend the ego and identify with something larger than one’s self. Those people who have their center of gravity at the integral stage Csikszentmihalyi describes as ‘autotelic’ personalities or transcendents who experience flow more frequently.

Csikszentmihalyi states that autotelic activity occurs when an action is done for its own sake with no consideration of an external goal. During the flow state the sense of self disappears yet there is a vivid and intimate awareness of the present moment. At this moment there is a paradox of experiencing ‘no self’ and only ‘Self’, referred to in Zen as ‘Not two’. This flow state also leads to development of the self because the limited, ego self dissolves and an experience of a larger Self/no self occurs.

“Those who identify with evolution, blend their consciousness with it, like a tiny creek joining an immense river, who currents become one” (Csikszentmihalyi,1997:147).

While this may appear daunting, it simply requires bringing the attention mindfully to the integral point and responding to the need of the moment. The mindflow process also requires commitment and skill not to be dragged along by the strong social conditioning and current cultural values that propagate either egotistical self-interest or submission of individual uniqueness and creativity to collective ego exploitation (i.e. racial or gender bias, business self-interest, religious dogma, etc.).


Mindflow: the Next Generation of Mindfulness Theory, Research and Practice

“Within an evolutionary framework, we can focus consciousness on the tasks of everyday life in the knowledge that when we act in the fullness of the flow experience, we are also building a bridge to the future of our universe” (Csikszentmihalyi,1997:147).

The integration of mindfulness-in-flow has considerable potential to provide people and work places positive benefits in health, well-being, interpersonal relations and performance. Integrating mindfulness and flow also is an easily understood concept that can be brought into daily living.

The integral point adds an important new dimension to mindfulness theory and practice not described in research and literature till now. The four Integral worlds and stages of self-identity provide environmental, interpersonal and performance perspectives that enhance current concepts of flow.

Mindflow programs have been conducted in several companies and for the public. While the long-term outcomes are still being evaluated, participants have reported considerable benefit in managing stress, improved interpersonal relations, improved work performance and greater experience of flow.

Research is needed to examine the relationship of mindfulness and flow including how development occurs or is inhibited through the stages of self-identity and greater understanding of the integral point and flow is needed in problem solving, planning and interpersonal activities.

Csikszentmihalyi (1993:275-276) states “Perhaps the most urgent task facing us is to create a new educational curriculum that will make each child aware….that life in the universe is interdependent. …it is imperative to begin thinking about a truly integrative, global education that takes seriously the actual interconnectedness of causes and effect”. A primary role of the senior leadership is to guide, control and coordinate the flow of energy and work to achieve this unifying vision in higher education research, teaching and staff and leadership development.

There are considerable bridges that need to be crossed before mindfulness and flow will be embedded in higher education. Reb and Choi (2014:9) state that university “business schools are still far away from integrating mindfulness practices, let alone embracing them as a core skill to be taught.” Leaders of the future need to be exposed to these ideas, and a good start would be for universities and colleges to incorporate mindfulness and flow in their courses and community programs. Senior leaders of educational institutions also need to include mindfulness and flow practices in their own personal and professional life.

Using the mindfulness-in-flow process and Integral framework outlined in this paper leads to personal health and fulfillment and connects individual action to the flow of energy in the world and contributes to its evolution to higher stages. This requires the mindfulness of Waking Up, the mindflow of Showing Up and Growing Up through the stages of development. This practical and simple mindflow process with the Integral map as a guide holds extraordinary potential for our future.



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