We all know what flow is. The flow of a water along a riverbed, the flow of an artist immersed in a painting, the flow of a jazz band creating on the fly. We all know what it feels like to flow, and what it feels like when life just is not flowing. One is a smooth, harmonious, effortless state of ease, the other is stagnant, blocked and... un-flowy.
So the word describes what it is perfectly. But what is fascinating is that philosophers and ancient mystics have been talking about flow for centuries, and in the last 40 years psychologists and neuroscientists have started researching the state and offering all kinds of models, neurobiology and analysis to the discussion.
Flow is so ancient, yet so modern.
When in flow, a cascade of neuro-chemicals are released, our neuro-electrical signature changes, our sense of time and self is diminished, our action and awareness merger, and we do things extraordinarily well.
Recent studies have shown that we are 500% more productive when in flow, and elite units in the military have started artificially inducing flow (using trans-cranial stimulation - electric currents in areas of the brain) so they can accelerate learning. Others out there are throwing huge resources into learning more about it. Most notably, the Flow Genome Project, are committed to "mapping the genome of Flow by 2020 and open sourcing it to everyone".
The father of modern Flow state research, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, grew up in war-torn Eastern Europe, spent some of his childhood in a prisoner of war camp and there surrounded by human misery decided to seek out what it is that drives happiness. His journey took him through philosophy, the arts, religions and ultimately to psychology.
In the 1970s Csíkszentmihályi became a leading figure in the early movement to study positive psychology. Up until that point most academic research was focused on the other end of the spectrum- depression, suicide, grief. Studying what made humans happy was seen as academically fluffy.
During Csíkszentmihályi's early life in the prison camp, he had experienced moments of happiness and contentment while playing chess. He knew that happiness could be synthesised and flourish even in the midst of misery. His research led him to investigate this state of being that led to incredible increases in performance and contentment.
He described people in flow as "being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using you skills to the utmost."
Through years of research involving thousands of people recording their activities and accompanying emotions and thoughts at random intervals during the day, Dr. Csíkszentmihályi identified these 6 factors (sometimes listed as 9) as encompassing a Flow State experience:
1. Focused Concentration- An intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. A merging of action and awareness
3. Loss of self-consciousness: Your ego disappears- you become what you are doing
4. Elevated sense of personal control over the situation or activity
5. Sense of timelessness-Time slows down or speeds up
6. The activity is autotelic- intrinsically rewarding- you feel awesome without any pats on the back
The Eastern Philosophy of Flow
The Japanese martial & creative arts use the word mushin to describe an unusually heightened state of awareness where there are no thoughts or emotions to block you from accessing the zone of peak human performance. It comes from the “mushin no shin” which is a Zen term for “mind of no mind.”
In the Chinese internal arts, this is called this wu wei, sometimes translated as effortless action, non-forcing or effortless doing. Both wu wei and mushin describe entering a state in which it feels as though nature is guiding us.
In the yoga tradition, there is the concept of samyama (perfect control of the mind) which can be likened to mushin and wu wei.
The philosophers and monks of the ancient Japan, China and India did not need any brain scanning devices to realise that flow was the state of optimal performance. Being in tune with the rhythms of nature, and achieving balance and harmony in life is the aim of all spiritual practices of the east.
FLOW = HAPPINESS
Tapping into flow will not only optimize performance, enhance creativity, accelerate learning. It will create the conditions for happiness itself.
Flow goes far beyond doing things better. Csíkszentmihályi learned that the humans with most meaning in their lives, the happiest most content humans on earth are the ones with most flow in their lives. The equation is gloriously simple. More flow=more happiness. Why is this? Well, to achieve flow requires deep awareness of the present moment. You the pulled into the now. In flow, there is no past or present and no sense of self. This is a glimpse of enlightenment. Searching flow is not a replacement for spiritual practice. Far from it. It is no more than a glimpse of what we practice for.
If you want to learn more about Dr. Csíkszentmihályi's research, you could start by reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. You could also watch this
To learn more about the eastern philosophy of flow, read these articles: