Curiosity is a Necessary Ingredient for the Flow State: Five Steps to Enhancing Your Curiosity

Whoever thought of the axiom ‘curiosity killed the cat’ must have lived a very boring life. Let me tell you why.

I wrote in a previous article about the Flow state and how Flow is the most satisfying experience a human can have, greater than happiness, since happiness is usually a superficial and fleeting emotion. For those of you who are not familiar with flow, the flow state involves complete immersion in what one is doing, to the point where self, time, and distractions melt away and the only thing that exists is the action that a person is performing. It can be as complex as working on a piece of art or music or working on the mechanics of a car to as superficially ordinary as mowing the lawn or cleaning the house (it all depends upon state of mind).

One of the important keys to developing more flow in your life is developing a sense of curiosity for both the complex and for the seemingly mundane aspects of life. If you devote your life to curiosity, everything will become a whole lot more interesting to you. As a result, your life will become much richer.

Most of us have devoted all of our attention to cope with the stressful demands of life, and thus have little room to be curious about the universe, nature, or consciousness. But without it, your life becomes empty and dull. If you have not developed a sense of curiosity, I recommend that you begin to develop it now, before it is too late and you find yourself on your death bed wondering where the time went.

Below are 5 steps to developing your sense of curiosity:

Step 1: Concentrate on tasks (even routine tasks) that need to be done

Develop the habit of doing what needs to be done with undivided attention. Even the most mundane of tasks can become more rewarding if we approach them with the same attention that we would to make a piece of art. Need to mow the lawn? Figure out a way to do it more efficiently. Need to wash the dishes? Figure out a different way to get the chore done more quickly.

Step 2: Do more of what enriches your life and do less of what leaves you feeling empty

Devote more energy every day to things that you enjoy but that you don’t do enough of because they may take too much energy to initiate. For instance, you may enjoy painting but you may feel it takes too long to set up the easel and the paints. You may enjoy the feeling you get from working out at the gym, but it takes too much energy to get dressed, put on your shoes and drive to the gym. Just do it. Do more of these activities and less of activities that may be easy to access but that leave you feeling empty inside, such as watching television or scrolling through social media.

Bottomline: things don’t start to become interesting or enriching until you invest a little energy up front.

Step 3: Don’t make lack of time an excuse

‘Time stress’ is one of the most common complaints today. Really, this is just an excuse people give to absolve themselves of responsibility for taking control of their lives. How many things do you do each day that are truly necessary? How much more time could you have on your hands if you learned to prioritize and organize your schedule? Think about the activities you do every single day that are useless – i.e., scrolling through social media, watching TV—and think about how much time you take each day to do those useless activities. The average person spends nearly two hours each day on social media. This adds up to five years over the total span of a person’s life. Do you really want to waste five years of your life away on something that leaves you feeling empty inside? If you are having trouble prioritizing and organizing your schedule, buy a planner and write out your week and days ahead of time (i.e., every morning) and think about removing yourself from social media platforms altogether. I took myself off of facebook and ever since, I have had more time to dedicate to reading books, writing on my blog, and making informational youtube videos, despite my busy day job as a physician.

Step 4: Learn to control your concentration

Instead of waiting for some external stimulus in your environment to entertain us, we must learn to concentrate our attention at will. Being able to focus our attention can create a sort of feedback loop. Just as being interested in something will allow us to focus on it, the opposite works as well.  If you are able to focus your attention on anything at will, you will likely become interested in it. On the surface most things in your surrounding may not seem very interesting – rocks, plants, history of World War II, running for the sake of running. However, if one takes the time to focus on these actions or objects, they may blossom into very interesting topics. 

What happens when you cannot concentrate your attention? Your mind physically and emotionally begins to unravel. Flow psychologist Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this mind-unraveling phenomenon ‘psychic entropy.’ Controlling your attention means controlling what you choose to perceive as your reality. When you cannot control your attention, your environment takes control of your reality. As a result, you become controlled by the whim of your external experiences. Uncontrollable anxiety rushes in because you have no control over your life. Allowing your environment to control your attention will leave little energy for curiosity, because you spend all your psychic energy trying to deal with the anxiety and lack of control in your life.

If you focus on physical or emotional pain, then your reality becomes that. The more energy we invest in the pain, the more real it becomes. Obviously, you should not ignore or suppress painful experiences. Your psychic energy will then become consumed with suppressing these pains. It is best to confront painful emotions and events in life voluntarily and head on, deal with them, respect their presence, and then move on with focusing your attention on what you choose to focus on. 

A perfect example of taking control of reality by choosing what to focus on is that of the survivors of Holocaust concentration camps. The physical and emotional pain of imprisonment in the camps were present on a daily basis. Prisoners who accepted this pain and who then chose to focus their psychic attention to a rich inner life were the ones who were most likely to survive, both physically and psychologically. Rather than ruminating on their cruel external surroundings, they cultivated a deep sense of curiosity from a rich inner life. This curiosity gave them meaning and thus helped them survive in the harshest of surroundings. 

Step 5: Embrace your Darkness

Everyone has a dark side. Carl Jung called this ‘the shadow.’ Often, people shy away from their darkness because it makes them feel uncomfortable or makes them feel badly about themselves. It is especially difficult to accept one’s darkness if he/she lacks much self-esteem, unconditional love from friends/family, or if one feels their darkness is ‘darker’ than should be acceptable (i.e., aggressive impulses, shameful experiences, irrational wishes or fears and unacceptable sexual desires).

However, once a person becomes comfortable with curious exploration of the dark aspects of their personality, they may find it to be a rich source of creativity, meaning, and inspiration. Many pieces of literature, movies, and mythology focus on the shadow archetype of human beings. Without the shadow, these pieces of literature, movies, and mythology lack appeal. Once we recognize that the limitation imposed by our own shadows can be a source of strength and creativity if we explore it with curiosity, we can do amazing things with our lives.

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