Meditation VS Flow State


... who think they're meditating while doing something fun or engaging like your favorite physical activity, while running, or something else?

I don't know how many times I've heard people say something along the lines of: "I don't like to sit and meditate. Instead, I meditate when I [insert favorite physical activity]"

I don't doubt that there is a meaningful experience behind saying that, and I totally get where it's coming from. I almost want to say it myself sometimes.

But let me explain why it's not useful to think that way. The reason is that it expands the concept of meditation too widely. Meditation is a progressive skill you have to learn, not something that falls into your lap for free. And what a person might mean by saying that is more accurately described with the concept of a flow state described by Csikszentmihályi (1990).

So lets unpack what might be different about meditation and the flow state so we can use the terms more accurately. There are many words out there, flow, meditation, mindfulness, awareness, consciousness, metacognition, presence - if we use them interchangeably we will be confused or ignorant of important nuances and truths about our own psychology. And we might risk thinking and spreading (which is worse?) more trivial, wrong or ungrounded hippie-like, pop-psychology things than we'd like to think of ourselves doing.

So lets clean up our terms! (If this sounds boring to you, you're definitely in the wrong place.) Here we go.


The flow state was first described in Csikszentmihályis book Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990). Being in a flow state feels great and is a quite positive state of consciousness to be in. It is characterized by 

  • deep enjoyment
  • timelessness
  • being one with the activity
  • involvement: complete focus and attention on the task 
  • creativity

And these factors increase the likelihood that you'll enter your flow state

  • high skill level and high level of challenge

The flow state The way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful challenge.


the meditation of movement is the same as while sitting: leaning back into consciousness itself, witnessing all sense objects as part of the the same space, the same field in which everything appears.

Concentration meditation: 

This typically requires mental effort. To not identify with or become lost in a thought is hard work! It also requires no work at all, because both the thought and the mindful memory of attempting to meditate are both objects in the field of consciousness. It's already there. 

Effort and no effort are the same, equal and valid experiences in consciousness. 


Common denominators between flow and meditation are the pleasantness of a concentrated, focused state, and present moment awareness. The difference is what your goal is while in the state: Solving a stimulating task or building mindfulness about present-moment experience.  

Flow is fun, stimulating, engaging. Meditation is deep, peaceful and equinamous.

Everyone can experience the flow state, even without being taught anything. It's a state that emerges spontaneously, it's a NOUN. Kids do it all the time by modifying the games they play to be optimally fun, hopefully for all parties involved. But rarely does someone learn to meditate without being taught. The fact that you have to learn meditation, the way in which it's a method or a tool, a VERB, shows that  

What does the teaching add?

There are barriers to both the flow state and to meditation. But here is a key difference between flow and meditation: If you remove the barriers to the two, you get your flow state for free, because that's part of what the brain is designed to do, whereas you don't get the ability to meditate at all, because it's a skill you have to learn. 

You learn things fast if your in a flow state while learning, so funnily enough, it would be great to learn meditation while being in a flow state. While that can happen, the scope of meditation stretches far beyond being in any particular state while meditating. 


Both flow, a state, and meditation, a method or tool, are profoundly positive and should be part of everyones lives. 

Flow is about optimal experience. Meditation is an activity that changes our relationship to any experience, optimal or horrible, comfortable or painful.



  • Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csikszentmihályi (1990)
  • Creativity - The Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihály Csikszentmihályi (1996)


  • Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris (2014)


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