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This post is part of the Introduction to the Flow State series. Read the second part.
"In the groove", "in the zone", "in the bubble", and "on auto-pilot" are all ways to describe what the Japanese call "muga", and what Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sent-me-high-ee) dubbed "flow" in the 1980s.
Flow can be defined as a period in time in which one becomes so completely involved in an activity that all other thoughts and emotions – what some consider the "self" – are excluded from consciousness.
It’s during this episode that an athlete or artist is in the much desired yet elusive mental state required to push his or her limits in the quest for peak performance. While most people view flow strictly as an afterthought, there are some who deem it as the sole purpose of any type of activity or training due to the fact that it enhances their awareness, improves their mood, and most importantly, enables them to perform at a level of proficiency they wouldn’t otherwise be capable of.
Bruce Lee was an ardent believer in the flow state (he referred to it as wu-hsin, flow’s Cantonese counterpart) and stated, "The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action" (Tao of Jeet Kune Do, p7). He believed that "physical stoppage", or the opposite of wu-hsin, could create many problems for a martial artist, as it would almost always result in hesitation and self-doubt. It’s also said that he planned to use wu-hsin as his alibi should he ever have to legally defend a violent act, by simply stating that he did not do it, "it did it all by itself".
The flow state has often been associated with a feeling of complete control, peacefulness, freedom from physical restriction, and a sensation of weightlessness. While experiencing flow, it’s not uncommon for people to lose track of time, and even an awareness of their own actions. Martial arts, sports, music, writing, and computer programming are just a few of the avenues that can be custodians to this intangible mental state, but they’re some of the most effective. This is primarily due to the fact that practitioners regularly set “stretch” goals and are determined to reach them in a labor of love, two prerequisites to attaining flow. It’s theorized that an athlete or an artist (in the general sense) will have a very difficult time surpassing a baseline of mediocrity without adequate enough knowledge to routinely induce this flow state.
While some feel that it’s impossible to “will” the flow state to happen, I believe that flow is attainable with the understanding and subsequent application of a few basic concepts. Armed with these tools, you can continually improve your performance and overall sense of well-being.
Learn to focus your attention
In order to truly “let go of yourself”, you must be able to direct your attention to the task at hand like a laser-beam hitting a dot on the wall. Flow can only be achieved when the data entering awareness is congruent with pre-defined goals. Any other focus, such as personal or business matters, or how you may appear to others watching you, is superfluous and detrimental to your performance. If your focus wanders, it’s because your concentration isn’t suitably directed. Attention is vast – think of all of the input your brain receives while driving a car, yet you have no problem absorbing what’s useful – but it isn’t limitless, and therefore any information not related to the task, especially if it causes any form of anxiety, can divert it rather easily.
When in danger of losing this concentration try focusing on your heartbeat, the rhythm of your feet, your breathing patterns, or the way your muscles are feeling. Recognize that your concentration is slipping and immediately choose an appropriate focal point and regain your focus. You will find that if you don’t recoup control over your concentration, you’ll hinder your ability to act by missing critical signals. You need to distract the distraction!
Embrace your inner coach
We all have an inner coach, a voice in our head that helps us make every decision. Our inner coach, or our self-talk, needs to keep us in line and focused throughout an activity. It needs to be positive, energetic, and strong, and it needs to guide our actions in the right direction. Internal feedback during an activity is just as, if not more important, than the feedback we receive from others (instructors, coaches, friends). Think about it: Who knows us best? Who knows how to push our buttons? Who knows how to motivate us to do something we don’t want to do? It’s ourselves – our own collective self-consciousness. While many people feel that this self-consciousness is lost during flow, this is actually a faulty assumption. It’s the concept of “self” that escapes us during flow, keeping us from having to watch ourselves as if a third party while concurrently performing the activity. Our self-consciousness, however, is omnipresent and is essential to maintaining the flow state, as long as it’s acting positively.
Additionally, our self-talk needs to be task-focused and not outcome-focused. It needs to be positive, and we need to have the ability to discontinue all negative self-talk. In order to impede negative self-talk, remember these three steps: 1) always pay attention to your inner coach and be aware of its affect on your performance in order to swiftly determine when self-talk becomes negative, 2) once you’ve determined that your self-talk is negative, firmly think “No more!” or “Stop!” forcefully to yourself, and 3) quickly replace the negative stream of thoughts with a positive one, making sure it’s focused solely on the task at hand.
Develop “mental blueprints“
The flow state is much easier to return to once it’s experienced, but it isn’t always the easiest thing to achieve. One proven strategy is the use of mental blueprinting, or visualization. While traveling, if you don’t have a map from point A to point B, you’ll find yourself deciding your path en route (and probably getting lost). This is the same as the concept of mental blueprinting; if you don’t know precisely what you need to do, you’ll waste precious attention reserves focusing on your plan during the engagement. Instead, you always need to plan out your strategy ahead of time, whether for a workout or for a creative activity like writing. Blueprinting can free up your cerebral energy for the duration of the activity in order to focus on “doing” instead of on “what to do”. A classic example of this type of blueprinting is a baseball player out in the field. Before each pitch, it’s essential that he know exactly what to do should the ball be hit in his direction. If he finds himself with a baseball in his glove and no plan, he’s going to waste precious seconds deciding his strategy. Instead with a plan, he acts without hesitation.