“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In ancient Japan, martial artists spent years for mastering a meditative state called “Mushin”. Once mastered, fighters shed their fear completely and they were free to move and strike with no hesitation. Thus they became juggernauts, match for hundreds.
The flow state defers from our natural state. When someone enters in the flow, his sense of self-consciousness decreases. For example, when the rappers improvise, brain scans revealed, brain activities responsible for self-consciousness drops. In other words, they switch to the flow.
Jazz musicians also felt something similar : a sage-like calmness along with creativity quadrupled. They named it “being in pocket”. Athletes called it “runners’ high”. Monks coined the term “nirvana” for describing the same.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the first psychologist who studied this life-altering state of being. He named it “Flow state”.
But what is this mysterious state, anyway?
Flow State: The Next Level
Flow is a consciousness state when you become completely absorbed in your work. Your focus converges. You start to draw lines between seemingly unrelated points. Thinking out of the box becomes a cakewalk.
And during this experience brain opens the floodgates of serotonin, the “happiness” hormone. You feel euphoric. And this happiness is permanent.
Talking about getting high on your work.
Brain scan reveals, during flow state brain switch to Transient hyper frontality mode. First, self-consciousness related activities of the frontal part of brain reduces. Then the co-ordination between different parts of brain increases. As a result, brain processes way more information than normal which elicits performance, fulfillment and creativity.
Flow State For Everyone
Artists, scientists, athletes — genius minds leverage on flow to accomplish impossible.
A good writer scratches his head for enticing words whereas a great writer let it loose and right words appears on paper magically.
That’s why I had the impression that flow state, as astonishing as it might be, is for few. I mean, everyone can’t have access to such secrets, right?
Jamie Wheal, in his TED talk, says most of the people experienced flow state once or twice. Remember when popular DJ made you feel you could dance all night? Or during your 1000 meter freestyle swimming practice, you wanted to swim whole day?
Yes, in those moments, you tasted flow, for an instant.
Then why doesn’t everyone break records left and right?
Because we are like buckets full of holes.
When experience is poured into us, we get full for an instant, only to be emptied again. When DJ stops the music or we come out of the water, we lose the flow.
Greats, however,are like chalices. They mastered the art ( or science?) of switching to flow state. They can get immersed in the experience and unlock creativity or superman like performance at will.
Mastering The Flow State
So how can you train your brain to achieve the state of flow and boost performance and happiness?
Dr. Csikzentmihalyi found out an individual can experience flow state with any activity. However, it most likely occurs if he performs a task for intrinsic purposes. Take example
of Daoist sages like carpenter P’ien or butcher Ting from the descriptions of Zhuangzi. Those blue collar sages achieved the “flow” which even Confucian scholars failed to achieve.
To get into the flow, pick up an activity you genuinely enjoy. It could be complicated like music composition or as simple as lifting weights.
Remember, choose something challenging but not overwhelming. High skill-high challenge is optimal for getting in the flow.
Whatever you choose, turn it to mindfulness practice. Now let’s go to actionable steps:
- Step 1: Before immersing yourself, stop and take long breaths. This would soothe your mind and make the groundwork for creating flow.
- Step 2: Live in the moment. Pretend there is no past or future. If you are working out, for example, feel the tension in your muscles, your breath and even the dumbbell.
- Step 3: Deliberately perform the task while paying full attention. If you are writing, pay attention to every word. If you are lifting feel how the tension spreads in your muscles and how your breathing changes. Think it as a meditation but through constant action.
- Step 4: Remain vigilant and continue your mindful practice. If your attention slips off, bring it back to the where it belongs to. Stay engaged in such a way as if you are born for it only.
This mindful practice will make most mundane activities deeply satisfying, hence, clear up the path to the flow. And once you master the flow, as the Japanese warriors put it, it will become instinctive and the way of your life.
So, when will you be starting?