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How Biofeedback Supports Flow In Mindfulness Meditation

This article is a follow-up to an earlier piece I wrote about why mindfulness meditation is so hard and how to make it easier. I want to take up a particular theme that I touched on in that article, which is the idea that mindfulness practice is most rewarding, fruitful and enjoyable when it has some of the qualities of a flow state – in other words, when our focus feels effortless, and we get so deeply absorbed that we lose the sense of ourselves, there is just direct experience, and yet at the same time there is an intense feeling of control, or self-possession.

How then do we make mindfulness practice more flow-like? This raises something of a dilemma because if you're deliberately trying to access flow, then by definition you're not in flow because you're making self-conscious effort.

Actually, flow states rarely arise purely spontaneously or randomly, they are preceded by effort, plus other factors.

In my article on flow states, I listed the main preconditions for flow. So we need to consider how to make sure that these preconditions are in play, in mindfulness meditation. In this article I propose that biofeedback can help support mindfulness practice by strengthening three of the main preconditions for flow.

1. Having a clear and consequential goal

Having a clear goal helps focus. In mindfulness the goal is kind of clear: to stay present and aware. But then what? The thing is, when you are present and aware, you need a next step to work towards. A related factor is that being present and aware, or not, is not very consequential. You don't lose much when your mind wanders off – you don't lose points or money and no-one is going to criticise you.

Biofeedback adds to the goal of clear present awareness: you try to reach or stay in or deepen a particular psychophysiological state, e.g. low muscle tension, or optimal breathing, or heart coherence.

Many mindfulness practitioners will object to what I'm saying here because mindfulness is not goal-oriented. I would counter that mindfulness does have a purpose, and that it's ok to have goals (e.g. counting breaths to ten) but you just need to hang loose to the goal, and treat it as a game, as though it doesn't really matter whether you achieve it or not.

2. Immediate feedback

Ideally your flow activity should make it immediately clear whether you are getting closer or further away from the goal (that's what feedback is). In meditation, if you drift off, there's not much going on to tell you so. Biofeedback can tell you when you're drifting away from your target psychophysiological state. For example, in muscle tension biofeedback you can set a "threshold" such that when the muscle tension (EMG) signal exceeds it, a bell rings to alert you. In other words, biofeedback can function as a sort of distraction detector.

3. Right level of challenge

A flow activity should be not so challenging that you get anxious or dispirited, and not so easy you get bored. Meditation can be both boring, and it's easy to feel you're getting nowhere and that you might as well give up.

With biofeedback, improving your “score” can add interest.

Conclusion

I believe it's possible to employ biofeedback in the context of mindfulness practice in a way that supports the preconditions for flow, yet doesn't take you away from the spirit of the practice, which is to be present with your own experience without either grasping after pleasurable experiences or trying to reject unpleasant experiences.

This is the spirit of how I use biofeedback in my Stress Resilient Mind Programme.

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