As I slipped deeper and deeper into my body’s intuitive intelligence, I experienced moments of pure flow. This was existence in a dimension of consciousness devoid of time and self. My arms moved fluidly, hands pushing a ball of invisible energy across my body, hips rotating and feet gently touching the floor. We moved effortlessly, like kelp moving with the ebb and flow of ocean currents.
I was in a room with 12 others moving slowly in patterns inspired by thousands of years of Chinese tradition, but at the same time moving in a rhythm that was sourced by my own intuition.
Whether surfing or moving in a room, I find these moments of flow to be profound: Fleeting glimpses of my full potential.
When we flow, we experience life flowing through us, unhindered by the ego and the thinking mind. And the more we experience these moments of flow, the more familiar they are and the more we learn how to be in that state.
This article explores how the science of flow and the Taoist philosophy of wu wei (effortless action) can be channeled into direct experience, to create a life of greater productivity, efficiency and performance.
The Neuroscience of Flow states
Flow is a psychological state of peak performance. The term, “flow state” describes what it feels like. We flow from task to task effortlessly without the resistance of mental obstacles.
We flow through time without registering it’s passing. We flow through complexity without worry of failure. The task, whatever it may be is performed with a graceful ease.
So on a neuro-scientific level, what is the difference between moving, and moving in flow?
In flow we access what Professor Arne Dietrich calls our “implicit system” of informational processing. Dietrich, the author of How Creativity Happens in the Brain and the Professor of Psychology at the American University of Beirut, describes the brain's dual information-processing platform: our explicit and our implicit systems.
This what some refer to as the Left Brain/ Right Brain (which is not entirely accurate, as the brain works more as a connected network). The explicit system is what we use in everyday conscious awareness. This is our analytical mind, the source our critical thought, logic and reason. It is a more flexible system through which to process information, but it is very slow compared to the implicit system.
When in flow the parts of the brain that control the explicit system of information processing are shut down, in a process called “transient hypofrontality”.
This allows us unhindered access to our implicit system. This is a rapid and efficient system resulting in spontaneous and flowing action. When we flowed in that QiGong class, our actions flowed directly from our subconscious, intuitive mind
The Philosophy of QiGong & Wu Wei
Our modern culture and scientific breakthroughs have done wonders to advance our understanding of flow. But the ancient Eastern arts are so much more advanced when it comes to the experience of flow.
One of the main purposes of Qigong practice is to develop awareness. Moving slowly allows us to notice breath, the subtle sensations of our muscles, organs, tendons and ligaments moving. I become conscious of my internal energy and the vibrations that arise from stillness when standing with good form. I became aware of the energy in the room. As we all honed our focus inward, the energy palpably shifted to a higher frequency. I became conscious of gravity, and the energy field that surrounded my body.
According to a QiGong master we have started studying with, “moving slowly allows us to pay attention to how the energy of the body naturally raises our vibration, which allows us to attract good things and be highly conscious in the flow of changing events.”
The standing and the stillness in Qigong develops a higher level of consciousness, energy and awakens our human potential. A central concept in Taoism is “Wu Wei”. This can be translated as the “action of non-action.” Wu wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in harmony with the ebb and flow of the natural world.
Chinese poet and philosopher Lao Tsu seemed to be describing transient hypofrontality when he wrote in the 6th century BC:
"He doesn't think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being."
Cutting edge neuroscience and ancient eastern philosophy agree on how to flow: Transcend your ego and thoughts to unleash your potential on life.
Now that we are clear on the power of flow from a modern and ancient perspective, lets explore how we can set up our daily life so that our actions flow from the core of our being.
Step 1: Adjust Speed, Precision & Intensity
To achieve flow, the level of challenge must stretch your level of skills, but not too much. If there is too little challenge, you get bored. If the challenge is too great, you will become frustrated and ineffective.
The Japanese martial arts have a word for this balance: Zanshin. This means “the mind with no remainder”.
When I moved through a movement sequence that became progressively more complex, my consciousness became ever more absorbed by the movements. My mind had less and less remainder for thought. This meant that I was able to be in a state of non-thinking harmony with the universe. This is wu wei, the state of effortless action, otherwise known as flow.
In any given activity or movement there are 3 factors we can adjust to create more flow in our lives.
We can adjust the speed, the precision or the intensity. This applies to making a cup of tea, moving through a yoga sequence, writing a poem, balancing on a tight-rope, driving a car, rock-climbing, putting your underwear on, ironing a shirt, cleaning your dishes, peeling the potatoes or flying a jet. We can always adjust the level of challenge by tweaking any or all of these factors.
With our QiGong practice, we worked with slowing movement down. At first that was enough for me to flow. But as the movements became more familiar, I intuitively added a focus on precision. Becoming aware of the subtleties and the accuracy of foot placement, body angle, arm movement, as well as controlling the speed of all of these movements created enough Zanshin for me to flow. We can do similar in everything we do in life.
As an example, I endeavored to make a silent breakfast the other day, so I did not wake up a friend sleeping on the couch. This required adjustment of speed, precision and intensity. 10 minutes of moving like a ninja, resulted in total focus, flow and moderately delicious eggs on toast.
Step 2: Proactively set the conditions for absolute focus
Our attention spans take a battering from the digital, fact paced world we live in. This means we have to be ever more vigilant and determined to retain our powers of focus. Whilst reading this article have you once been distracted by a beep, a buzz or an urge to check the likes on your latest social media post?
Achieving flow requires a deep immersion into your activity, and that type of immersion can only happen through concentration and single-tasking.
When we are in a yoga or QiGong class, it is relative simple to turn attention inward. But in daily life we have to be more proactive and plan ahead to create the space to have uninterrupted focus so you can flow.
Depending on the demands of your life, this could mean putting headphones in to block out noise, or shutting down your emails and phone for an hour or having a silent/digital free Sunday. Figure out what will work best for your set-up.
Step 3: Find the joy in small perfections
Doing things well feels good. It doesn’t matter what that thing is. If we know we are smoothly nailing it the task becomes autotelic, which means it becomes self-fulfilling. When in flow you can slip into an enjoyable rhythm of process, which is the reward itself, and in doing so you start doing things with even greater focus and perfection. Auto-telicity creates a positive upward spiral.
Finding joy in the small things in life is a skill and to get better at it requires practice. Writing about what you are grateful for and making a note of the things you have done well are two simple ways to re-train our brains away from the default state of not giving ourselves credit where credit is due. This is the power of journaling.
Our psychology is such that when we amplify the feel-good factor through actions like this, we start to enjoy the activity more and more. Enjoyment and flow becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
The Art of Conscious Living
Over time and through consistent practice, slipping into a state of effortless action becomes habitual. Practicing movement arts such as QiGong, Yoga, dancing, boxing, climbing, surfing or similar can become part of your spiritual practice. When the Taoists talk of wu wei, they are not speaking of the rare moments of peak performance. They talk of the totality of life being encompassed by effortless action. Everything we do, from brushing our teeth in the morning to switching off the light before bed becomes part of our practice.
This is the Art of Conscious Living. Through this practice, we learn to transcend our ego and thinking mind. Accessing our implicit system becomes natural and we develop a higher level of consciousness and energy that awakens our true human potential.
Let us know what up think in the comments! Have you experienced zanshin or wu wei? We would love to hear about it.