Control of Consciousness and Flow

It is not possible to experience control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines. Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake can one really experience the sense of exercising control.

 —  Cskiszentmihalyi

Consciousness refers to the sensations, images, and thoughts that we experience and are able to influence. In contrast, dreaming includes some of the same experiences, but we are not conscious because we do not control them, they occur autonomously. Attention determines what will and what will not appear in consciousness. By purposely aiming your attention, you can influence the phenomena you experience.

The stimulus that captures your attention has the power to influence your state of consciousness. Addictive stimuli and threatening stimuli are typically the most salient stimuli around, and hence the most likely to capture your attention. You exercise your will when you over-ride the natural tendency to attend to the most salient stimulus, and instead purposely work with your attention. Each of the paths below offer a different approach to that objective.

Pathology and the study of paths

An ecological approach

Addictive and Emotional Disorders are a consequence of a mismatch between the salience and the meaning of a stimulus. Trouble begins when a pathogenic stimulus captures your attention. The first, and probably best, line of defense is to keep your attention on stimuli that elicit resourceful and life-enhancing psychological states.

An ecological approach is to schedule healthy pleasures that evoke emotionally satisfying states of mind. Certain activities, known as Flow activities are particularly useful for this purpose.

There are many competitors for your attention, but you can only fully attend to one thing at a time. Put another way, attention determines what will and will not appear in consciousness. Whatever captures your attention has a great impact on your state of consciousness. But attention has an opportunity cost. When you are focused on one thing, you are not attending* to other things.

The subjective reality you experience is determined by whatever captures your attention. You can exercise a mindful influence over your emotional state by purposely shifting your attention from stimuli that elicit counter-productive trances — such as anger, fear, or self-loathing — to stimuli that elicit more helpful subjective phenomena.

Before we get into the methods of controlling attention from within — the meditation exercises — I will describe the ecological approach to influencing your attention and hence your subjective experience: Engagement in flow activities.

Flow Activities

The motivation for engaging is some activities is the enjoyment of doing it. For me, skiing is a flow activity. They don't pay me to ski  —  quite the contrary! I do it because I like doing it. When I am skiing well, I am not thinking of past regrets and future threats, I am paying full attention to what I am doing in the here and now. With my consciousness so fully engaged in this demanding, yet enjoyable activity, I am no longer burdened with idle cognitive resources that might otherwise be consumed by self-focused rumination.

The first few times I went skiing it was not fun. I fell a lot and it was frustrating. It took me about 5 times to get good at it enough that I could enjoy myself skiing. A friend reported that she was forced to take piano lessons as a kid, but eventually it became intrinsically rewarding. She, like others describing flow activities, reports that sometimes "I was not aware of myself as a separate ego. It felt as if the music was using me as an instrument . . that the music was flowing through me."

Behavioral Activation

Getting people with Mood Disorder to engage in activities that involve pleasure and/or mastery [flow activities] seems to account for most of the benefit of Cognitive Behavior Therapy. In practice this is a difficult challenge, because people with Emotional Disorders, especially depression, do not feel like engaging in such activities. Even when they do it does not offer much relief. In order for behavioral activation to produce its beneficial effects, one must continue to engage in these activities until they become enjoyable and the depression lifts. Like the beginning skier this requires some faith to get yourself to continue performing these activities for a while despite the absence of immediate gratification for your efforts.

Forms to help you structure your behavioral activation efforts:

This is a self-directed course and the forms below are useful tools to help most people structure their behavioral activation efforts. However, many people also benefit from collaborating with another to get themselves to adhere to their plan.


* — It is possible to multi-task, but you can only attend to one thing at a time. Examples of multi-tasking, such as driving while having a conversation are possible because some tasks [driving in this case] have become autonomous and hence do not require attention, see Asleep at the Wheel.



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