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E17: Tips and Tricks for Experiencing More Flow in Your Life

Jacob Derossett

We're here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach and author. Sarah has been teaching meditation mindfulness for the past two decades, training and certifying others to teach mindfulness. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled Tame Soothe Dwell: The 55 Teachings of TSD Mindfulness. On today's podcast, we talk about flow state versus flow experience. We take a test to determine how much we practice humility, and we talk about how humility leads to flow experiences. I'm Jacob Derossett. We're here with Sarah Vallely, Sarah, how are you?


Sarah Vallely

I'm great, Jacob, thank you. Learning how to navigate in whitewater was one of the best ways for me to expand my spirituality. When you do whitewater, you need to learn how to read the water, you need to know where the majority of the water is flowing, because that's going to be your line. And that's such a good metaphor for life, seeing where's the majority of the flow is going in my life. And moving into that and trusting that line and trusting that path. Flow experience doesn't mean everything is working out perfectly in our lives. In fact, being in a flow experience, can be really helpful if things in our life aren't working out perfectly, because we can just move through it with less stress and more surrender and trust.


Jacob Derossett

I'm really interested to hear how you distinguish between passivity--just throwing your hands up in your life and saying, okay, it is what it is. I'm going to let Jesus take the wheel. And I think one of the big things in the meditation world is passivity—learning when do you have to step into your small self and act versus when do you just lay back on the riverside and just watch the flow go by.



Sarah Vallely

The old-school mindfulness answer to that question is have your sitting practice, maintain your sitting practice. And when you do that, you will naturally move into right speech, right thought and right action. And I think that's maybe a good comparison between what I'm talking about here. And the mindfulness definition of this flow is just moving into right action, right speech and right thought,


Jacob Derossett

This is something I've really struggled with. I've definitely had periods where it felt like things were unfolding the way they needed to. And I felt like I've had periods when I was really allowing things to just do their thing, versus kicking and screaming in my head about, like, how unfair things were versus other times when it's kind of like, okay, well, I can't do anything about that right now. But at a certain point, there is a time to act with family members--there's times where you really want to swoop in and help people or friends. I've had friends that have struggled with things like addiction and letting them follow their path could end in death. I think a lot of people worry that if we allow things to flow, we'll be too passive.


Sarah Vallely

That's a great point. Can you be driving during the flow experience? Can you be making a decision during a flow experience? I would say, yes, you can be driving during a flow experience because a flow experience doesn't mean you're not alert and paying attention and keeping yourself safe. It's more about being a real observer. And letting certain elements of your life unfold like the person in front of you cut you off, you see that unfold and see your reaction to it. And maybe have some compassion.


Regarding decision making during a flow experience--when you're really in a flow experience. There's not a lot of weighing pros and cons. There's so much clarity, that it doesn't seem like there's really a decision to be made. The path is laid out in front of you. And it's just whether you're going to take a step forward on that path or not, is the way I experience it.


Jacob Derossett

I'm not confident I've ever experienced this. I'm going to give an example of flow that I have experienced. And then I want you to tell me how this is different from flow experience. My wife and I were playing spike ball. If y'all haven't played spike ball out there, you should absolutely check it out. It's really a lot of fun. It was during the pandemic. I was very fortunate that It was a very relaxed time in my life, it was just my wife and I hanging out a lot. I remember playing and really having a lot of thoughts about, oh, I should do this, I should step here my hand and should adjust this way. And then I remember telling myself, you just need to get out of the way. You just need to allow this to happen. And lo and behold, decisions were getting made, but not by me.


I read the “Inner Game of Tennis”, also monumental discussions about stepping back and not using your logical brain decision-making brain. Instead being with the experience visually, and then observing yourself do these things. From what I've heard other people describe flow state, I feel like that's pretty close.


Sarah Vallely

That's an excellent example of flow experience, and it also happens to be an example of flow state, perhaps. But I just want to make that distinction between “flow state” and “flow experience”, because I don't want people to think that when you're in this flow experience, you have to be productive. You don't have to be playing a sport, you don't have to be at work killing it, you could be at home experiencing an intense emotion, or just relaxing outside at the park and be in a flow experience.


There are three practices that help us move into this flow experience. One is mindfulness. The other is mental neutrality. And the third is humility. If we're not in flow, what we can do is check in with ourselves on these three practices. Are we being mindful? Are we mindful of our process? Check in with our mental neutrality. Are we being mentally neutral about our process? We talked about this in our last episode about enlightenment. Are we having humility within our process?


I you are out of flow, chances are one or more of those practices is not up to par. And for me, it's almost always the humility. I'm not in humility. I'm almost always mindful and can really check in and notice my process. A lot of times, I'm not mentally neutral, but I can noticed that I then usually move myself into some mental neutrality, and that's just a mind training basically. But the humility part is the one that I find the most challenging.


Jacob Derossett

So humility. Is this the cousin of humiliation? Is it like a moment when you are humbled?


Sarah Vallely

Humility and humiliation are different experiences. Humiliation is associated with shame. When you experienced humiliation, you often are going into fight or flight and it can be a really intense experience in your abdomen--you can have a lot of tightness, discomfort. You're probably thinking shameful thoughts devaluing, which is saying that you are lesser of a person because of something you did or something you felt. That can feel really uncomfortable. For me, this is a different physical feeling, than humility. There's a distinction. Humility does not involve shame. You're not in a place of shame. You're in a place of “Oh, maybe I don't have it all figured out. Doesn't mean there's anything wrong with me. Doesn't mean I'm lesser of a person.”


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, I don't think I've ever experienced that without shame. I play Wordle every day and I'm very proud of my 100% streak. Days that I don't think I'm going to make it, when I don't know the word I'll just quit. Today was the first day this morning I was sure I knew it. And I picked a word. The answer was a way more common word than the one that I guessed--my very last guess. And I lost my streak. And I just had this rush that came over my body--just exhausted by like. I thought I had it, and I have moments like this all the time. For me. It's always like a fatigue feeling of like, “Oh my goodness, when will I move past this?”


Sarah Vallely

Moving into a place of humility is huge and can change the trajectory of your life. It really is an amazing practice and one that most of us don't do naturally. We're not supported in our culture to do this naturally. When I feel humility, I feel a deflation in my body on a physical level.


Jacob Derossett

When I said tired, it’s instantaneous. Yeah, deflated. That's a great word.


Sarah Vallely

I feel some sinking down type energy. Sometimes I feel a little hollow. And then the next morning or several hours later, I usually feel a little lighter. It's as if I've released some stuff that I I don't need to carry around anymore. It ends up being a really good feeling.


Jacob Derossett

Why is that? Because I experienced the same thing. There's almost like a little bit of a relief in getting proven wrong. Why is that invigorating on the back end?


Sarah Vallely

I think your ego takes a little bit of a setback, which can help you feel lighter, help you feel less responsible, help you feel more in the flow. Jacob, I'm going to give you this test.


Jacob Derossett

My testing abilities poor today. I've already failed Wordle Oh, no.


Sarah Vallely

I have this test to enlighten us on where we're at with our humility. So on a scale of one to ten how much do you experience the following? And you might consider the last week or the last month? How often are you being critical of yourself?


Jacob Derossett

I would say I'm very often hard on myself. I'm going to say nine just because I would reckon somebody's more critical of themselves then me, but I would say anywhere from seven to nine.


Sarah Vallely

Next one is on a scale of one to ten, how often do you ruminate about the past?


Jacob Derossett

This is lower, I am pretty good about saying, “That's already gone. I can do better later. It's okay.” So I would say three to four for that.


Sarah Vallely

Okay. Next one, on a scale of one to ten how often do you hold on to outcome? Another way to think about this is how much do you worry?


Jacob Derossett

Oh, 10. In my life, I would say 10. It's way, way too often.


Sarah Vallely

And on a scale of one to ten how often do you hold a judgment against humanity?


Jacob Derossett

I definitely believe everybody's a victim of circumstance in one capacity or another. That is my compassion piece. It's not always easy when somebody cuts me off in traffic. In that moment, I'm mad at them for doing that. But ultimately, I realize they have their own reasons. So yeah, I would say that's pretty low.


Sarah Vallely

So you have more compassion for other people than you do for yourself?


Jacob Derossett

Oh, yeah.


Sarah Vallely

Next one is how often do you associate your self worth with your accomplishments, and your worthiness with your failures?


Jacob Derossett

Now, this actually is interesting. This grows as I age. A seven. It used to be very low, I used to have no attachment to the outcomes of things and just did my best. And now as I age, for some reason I'm much more competitive.


Sarah Vallely

And last one, this is the biggie. This is the hard one, on a scale of one to ten how often do you strive to be above average?


Jacob Derossett

10. That's why in Wordle I will literally quit. In college, my advisor pulled me in her office, and she was like, “You get zeros and hundreds. You could just half ass something and get a decent score.” But I was like, “No, I'm allocating my energy to things that I'm going to be perfect at.”


Sarah Vallely

When did average become negative? We associate being average as a negative quality. Striving to be above average literally means you're striving to be better than other people. It's like we were born into this world and it's a competition--we were born into a competition and that's a lot of pressure. And literally striving to be above average is striving to be better than half the people on the planet. It's mathematical. When you really break that logic down. It's kind of bizarre.


This is a new concept that a lot of self-help gurus are talking about these days. They're saying that we can get the most out of our human experience in the middle. In the middle is where the most valuable human experiences are to be had. Not saying being good at something is not good, but it's nice to think about how it evens out. Overall, it's best for me to say, “Hey, I'm an average human being having an average human experience and that's okay.”


In that test, we also talked about rumination and being self-critical. rumination, by the way, is thinking about an event, reliving it in our mind and analyzing it and being critical of ourselves. That's a typical example of rumination. The humility in this experience is do we have the authority to say what we did was not good enough or that we are not good enough? Are we an authority on that? I think that's the surrender and release that we can move into is we're not an authority. When our ego comes in. It's not just about putting us up and saying how great we are. More often what's happening is our egos coming in and telling us what's wrong with us. It’s ego, either way. And so that's why the humility is really good energy to move into. And to let go of that of that ego voice.


Another thing that we talked about in that test is associating your self worth with your accomplishments and your worthiness with your failures. Newsflash, your self worth lies in your ability to experience the good and the bad--experience the easy and the difficult--to experience pain to experience joy--to experience, regret, and gratitude, all of it. That's what makes us worthy is our ability to lean into all those experiences. I don't know maybe our ego is a saboteur. It's like I'm going to fuck you up and make you feel like shit.


I did read a research article called humility that was published in American Journal of Psychoanalyst. And they did give some reasoning as to why moving into humility is really valuable. And the first reason is that it opens up psychic space. Pema Chodron talks about this. I just read her book “When Things Fall Apart”, and something that she says repetitively in that book is about creating this space. Specifically, if we're aggressive in a conversation or aggressive with ourselves, what we're doing is we're filling up that space. And what if we didn't fill up that space? What if we just left it open?

“Humility” American Journal of Psychoanalysis 2018

Jacob Derossett

Could you give an example of somebody being in non-flow experience?


Sarah Vallely

Being critical of yourself, that's going to take you out of the flow experience? And what can we do to remedy that, to reverse that? First, being mindful that it's happening, and using self-compassion is a wonderful tool, saying something compassionate toward yourself. You can say something validating if you're being self-critical because you're feeling a certain emotion, you're feeling sad. You can validate yourself and say, “It's understandable that I'm feeling sad. This is hard. Even though this happened, even though I'm feeling this way. I'm loved. I'm connected, I'm worthy. I'm a good person.”


And sometimes, it’s just mindset. We just need to remind ourselves that even though society tells us that we need to push ourselves to be above average, we can give ourselves some slack and chill out and have that middle way experience. Just be in the middle.


Jacob Derossett

I'm still trying to nail down exactly what this flow experience is. Can you give an example of if possible,


Sarah Vallely

Feeling like it's going to be okay even though I have no idea what the outcome is going to be, even though the outcome might not be what I wish it would be. Being okay with that is the flow.


And another reason they say humility helps us with our lives is it reframes our perspectives, which helps in relationships, so we can be inclusive of other people's perspectives. Humility also helps us with the acceptance of the time limited nature of existence. What do you think of that one?


Jacob Derossett

I think about the limited time of my existence, probably every few minutes of my existence. Every time I have to do something I don't want to do. “I only get so many minutes and I don't want to do this right now.” It definitely helps me let things go. I don't want to spend any time working on or worrying about this because get a limited amount of time.


Sarah Vallely

I think it also has something to do with us realizing that one day we're going to die, really leaning into that reality is a practice and humility. And another reason they say that humility helps us with our lives is it allows for us to have a more accurate view of reality. That's the whole point of sitting and practicing mindfulness is so we get a more accurate view of what reality is.


Self-compassion is such an important part of moving into humility. And embracing uncertainty is another important piece to moving into humility--letting go of outcome, allowing the events in our life to unfold that's all about embracing uncertainty. I suggest you read books about self-compassion, embracing uncertainty. Kristin Neff with her work with self-compassion. And Brene Brown, she's got some great books about embracing uncertainty.


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