water flowing over river rocks

Achieving a state of flow.

Achieving a state of flow has been one of my go-to strategies when life seems out of control.

Over the past weekend, I conquered my “Spring Exposure Syndrome” and spent some glorious time in the garden.  I haven’t worn shorts yet, though. They’re in storage in the attic and I’ve been too busy having fun outside to go digging around up there.

One of my projects was to complete a dry streambed at the end of our driveway. Last year, I put this in to help redirect the flow of water downhill. On Sunday, I bought some inexpensive bags of river stones and dumped them into place. The next day, I found myself on my hands and knees, arranging individual stones in the exact spot I wanted them.

This is ridiculous, I thought. One good storm or sweep of a rake and they’ll scatter everywhere. But I persisted–it felt so good. I was in a state of flow.

Being in a state of flow feels great.

In his book Flow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi–one of the pioneers of the concept–describes flow as “being consciously in inner harmony with whatever you’re doing.”

Some people talk about being “zen,” or “in the zone,” so completely absorbed in an activity, they lose track of time, which flies by. 

My absorption in the gardening project reminded me of the aquarium we bought when our sons were little. My husband, Mike, and I let the kids pick out the fish, the plastic plants, colored gravel, and a little castle. When we got home, I let the boys arrange the aquarium scene as they liked. Then after they went to bed, I secretly moved things around–not enough that they would notice, but enough so that the design flowed better.

It calmed me for some reason. At the time, I remember thinking, Why am I obsessing over this?

During our aquarium years, we were in the thick of family and old-house life. Our house was always in project limbo.  We weren’t good about finishing one job before starting the next. I’m not just talking about a fresh coat of paint or new throw pillows. I’m talking tearing out walls, stripping lead paint, patching ceilings, gutting the kitchen, to name a few. Add to that our full-time jobs and all the responsibilities that go along with having school-age children. I never felt in control of my life. 

Then, life got more complicated when Matthew, our older son, started to become, well, not Matthew.

Jump to this past weekend, some twenty years later. I’m dealing with health issues that make every day unpredictable. I never know when I’ll have a few good hours. I don’t know when, or if, I’ll be able to return to work. “Every day is a crapshoot,” is my favorite saying. Plus, I’m having surgery in a few weeks and I’ll have to abandon my garden for a while.

Hmmm. I think I figured out the attraction of the stones and the aquarium.

When big problems have no foreseeable end date, completing a small task is satisfying. Closure, like flow, feels good. If making a mosaic out of a stone hill worked for me, no reason to make a mountain out of it.

When life seems out of control, it feels good to be in command of something. It reminds me that I’m competent, that “I got this.” The fish may not have cared where the plastic castle sat, but I knew I could make it look good. I was the aquarium queen.

The creative process puts me in a state of flow. In flow, I lose track of time and forget about duties and obligations and surgery. It’s a relaxing place to be. Perfect stress management.

Finding your flow is effective stress management. Share on X

I guess my stone therapy or aquarium meditation is not so crazy after all. Maybe I’ll start a movement.

In the meantime, the next day when I’m having a few good hours, and the sun is not too hot, the sky is blue and a slight breeze beckons, I’ll be in my garden. Looking out there now, I think I see a stone out of place. It could flow much better.

What about you? What do you do when life seems out of control?


  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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