The concept and pursuit of flow is central to Eastern philosophy. Taoism especially speaks of flow often in an effort to emulate movement, grace, and freedom. It requires trust and letting go which is also central to the concepts of non-attachment that are practiced in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other spiritual practices. Flow is a state of being that incorporates whatever is happening in an improvisational way rather than being stuck to a script.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. – Lao Tzu
Like the ebb and flow of tides we will always experience moments when we feel stuck and moments when everything is flowing for us. Sometimes we just need to accept these times when life has us in a holding pattern. But we also have the ability to shift this stuck energy if we choose. Flow states of consciousness bring creativity which is central to success, leadership, and empowerment while also bringing peace of mind and happiness. Science has started to unravel what happens in our brains during these ‘a-ha’ moments when presence or focus increases, time disappears, and we get into ‘the zone’. By understanding the science, and incorporating these practices we can increase our ability to get into flow consciousness.
Science and Flow States of Consciousness
Neurochemically, the brain releases large quantities of endorphins: norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin flood (flow into) our system. These performance-enhancing and pleasurable neurochemicals have a huge influence on our creativity. Steven Kotler of the Flow Research Collective says that flow states are, “caused by transient hypofrontality — the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex.”
This is most interesting because it is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC or DL-PFC) that is involved in impulse control and critical thinking. Not surprisingly this part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until we are in our twenties which explains why children are so comfortable being creative and in the flow (and why they do crazy impulsive things). However, it appears that this part of our brain associated with self-awareness or our ‘inner critic’ needs to be suppressed for us to enter into flow states.
It isn’t only the neurochemicals in our brain that produce flow states, it is the electrical frequency, or brainwaves. According to Kotler, our brains become activated somewhere between Alpha (daydreams) and Theta (edge of sleep). This is commonly called the lucid state, and is a realm rich with inspiration. Flashes of inspiration are also associated with Gamma, but this state is usually fleeting.
It is no surprise that water is a primary natural element that teaches us about flow. It passes around rocks as it splashes down mountainsides, falls from the sky as rain and though soft and nurturing it can also smooth stones. Musicians strive to enter a flow state when they are jamming, just as the painter can become lost in the colors and patterns of paint as it is spread across the canvas. Writers experience this phenomena when inspiration grabs them, and athletes experience it on their best days.
Life itself is an art-form where we have an idea or vision and then encounter many obstacles that we must negotiate as we cascade towards fulfilling our dreams. We see the contrast between flow and tension in the body of a dancer as we feel the contrast between these two extremes. Even the great martial artist, Bruce Lee, allowed his expertise to be shaped through his observation of water. In this way we can see how art, nature and spirituality flow together. Now let’s add science into the mix!
You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend. – Bruce Lee
The Daydream Place
In order to discover this flow state, since we have drawn a connection between water and flow, we must be willing to indulge our emotions. We have all heard the idea of letting your emotions flow. Many people use their ability to control impulse to also inhibit their emotions because they are afraid or embarrassed of their shadow emotions like anger, sorrow, or fear. Though we all need impulse control for social reasons, it is not easy to repress our emotions while allowing creativity to flow because the two are entwined.
This is where spirituality is helpful. The ability to witness and stay present with all emotions, to create a sacred container to allow ourselves to feel is very important. This can be with a morning meditation, yoga, a walk in the woods, or any practice that allows our brains to slow down while we sink into our body-awareness. This state of relaxation, openness, and quiet-mind is the daydream place also known as parasympathetic that is creative, and healing for our body and mind.
One of my favorite books over the years is The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. It is more than a book, it is a way of life. The book contains exercises to open the creative mind that are proven to be successful for decades among artists of all types. A key component of the program is Morning Pages. It is an exercise in writing from a place of flow…no stopping to think, edit, or use correct grammar. Just tap into flow consciousness and see what emerges. I highly recommend the book to anyone wanting to learn this precious skill for opening the mind. – Why Imagination Matters
Shut Down Your Inner Critic
The second important thing you can do is to train your mind to be in a flow state by having a regular practice of shutting off your inner critic. Buying a journal and practicing morning pages as described above will help you enormously. It doesn’t have to be words, it can also be paints smearing across a canvas without any desire to create form but to just watch the ways the colors smear together the way a child is with finger-paints. This can also be done with slow movements, or sitting at a piano or other musical instrument. Make your mind wander and practice ignoring your critical mind that wants to interfere. Lay on your back and stare at clouds until you can see patterns and shapes, watch them come together and morph into forms and formlessness.
Become Like Water
Though the practices which help you cultivate the ability to be in a flow state seem counter-intuitive in our fast-paced, goal-oriented world, they are integral to our success and happiness. This is not merely something we practice alone, it is a way of behaving in community. We can be the critics to our friend’s expression, or we can smile and encourage them to play with ideas. This creates synergy and mutual support which is at the foundation of a creative culture.
Of course there is a time to be critical, but once you begin to explore the world of flow you will realize that it is less important than you once realized. If you want to excel with the creativity, flexibility, and confidence that is needed in our modern world then you may want to take Bruce Lee’s advice, “Be like water my friend.”
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