To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments.
To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself.
She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’
Chronic unmanaged stress kills focus, creativity, imagination, and inspiration.
It’s like a black hole that sucks the light out of your mind and body.
But, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, or stuck right now… don’t fret because in this piece I’m going to teach you how you can begin to hack your mind for less stress, boosted creative juices, and increased concentration.
We’ll be hacking the mind by learning how to enter into the Flow State.
The Flow State is the sweet fertile spot where stresses and anxieties dissolve and inspiration, concentration, creativity, and original thinking, and imagination are born.
If stress kills inspiration, creativity, focus, and productivity then the Flow State revives them.
As we’ll see in a bit, the Flow State reduces the stress response while activating the relaxation response.
The relaxation response optimizes our mind by slowing our brain waves down, which in turn shifts our states of consciousness.
As we’ll see, slower brain waves are associated with increased creativity, focus, and productivity.
A brain in flow also begins to produce multiple neurochemicals that are conducive to this enhanced state of thinking, imagining, and processing.
But before we get there, let’s look to nature for some guidance on how we can activate the Flow State in our lives because wise ol’ Mama Nature really does know best when it comes to effortless flow.
Just look around you and observe how nature is always in perfect flow and harmony when left to her own devices.
Climb the mountains
and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you
as sunshine flows into trees.
– John Muir, aka ‘John of the Mountains,’ naturalist, author, & environmental philosopher
By observing natural flow patterns and emulating them, we too can experience the benefits of this state.
In fact, there’s a whole field of study dedicated to observing and utilizing natural patterns as a means of solving problems and making processes more efficient, it’s called Biomimicry or Biomimetics.
Let’s look at one specific area of nature – a butterfly’s metamorphosis process.
Surprisingly, there’s a lot we can learn from a butterfly in terms of how to gracefully experience change, challenge, stress, and even destruction.
Lessons from the Chrysalis (Cocoon)
We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to acheive that beauty.
– Maya Angelou, poet, singer, author, & civil rights activist
UCLA physics professor and scientist, Dr. Jim Gimzewski researches how cell vibrations create sounds.
He studies how sounds affect us on a cellular level and how even the ‘tiniest cells vibrate creating sound currents.’ (1)
Thanks to the groundbreaking nature of his work, Gimzewski is considered by many as a pioneer and frontrunner in a new field of research: sonocytology (the study of cell vibration sounds.)
Stay with me here, I promise this is about to get interesting…
In 2009, Dr. Gimzewski studied how butterflies develop whilst inside the chrysalis (cocoon), and so measured the butterfly’s heart rate oscillations as a means of tracking the changes inside. (2)
For an entire week, he tracked what was going on within the chrysalis by observing heart rhythm patterns and found that:
“There were bursts of periodic oscillations.
What happened was that this thing as it undergoes metamorphosis is not continuously changing, it’s undergoing bursts of oscillation. Then there’s a period of quietness, and then another burst.
And towards the end of the cycle where it emerges, the amount of activity increases so that the ‘on’ period is much longer than the virtual ‘off’ period.” (1)
Here’s the actual recording of the butterfly’s heart rhythms taken from Gimzewski’s TEDx talk. You can see the bursts of activity followed by the pause periods that appear as a straight line:
Adopting an Activity/Pause Cycle
Seeing this activity/pause pattern made me realize:
This is how a butterfly is made… By honoring both the yang side of life (action) and the yin side of life (pause).
The butterfly maximizes resources by mobilizing energy flow at specific, strategic times followed by periods of silence, nothingness, stillness, and integration.
What would happen if we applied this flow cycle in our lives too?
How would our stressed-out bodies and minds respond?
Could overwhelm and stress be transformed by simply living more rhythmically?
So I began to look at my own life in an effort to gain discernment and awareness in order to know when it’s time to expend energy and take action, and when it’s time to conserve energy and pause, rest, and integrate.
I found that the more I connected to this flow pattern in my own life, the better I felt.
It’s like I stepped into some sort of energetic field that facilitated my ability to tap into my inner knowing.
Honoring the flow pattern in my life helped grow my intuitive capacity, it brought on waves of new and inspired ideas, and it eventually led to experiencing a much deeper connection and trust in myself.
I also realized that committing to live in the flow of Nature’s rhythms was more complicated and involved than it sounded.
The concept sounds simple enough and do-able: take action, rest, take action, rest…
But the implementation and application of this practice is another thing entirely.
It’s a gradual process of learning and developing new skills that we haven’t ever really been taught.
It’s about learning to slow down and turn inwards so we can hear the subtle promptings of when to put our foot on the gas pedal, and when to put the brakes on and rest.
Learning to live in Nature’s flow requires commitment, tenacity, willingness, and a lot of freaking patience because it takes time and it’s a lot of work to become familiar and connected to your own flow pattern.
In fact, it’s a never-ending endeavor.
This kind of science reveals to us that the caterpillar (future butterfly) understands that in order to create beautiful transformation, on any level, there’s a dance that must take place.
True flow is rhythmic and cyclical.
There is an optimal time for activity, action, creation, and work; and there is also an optimal time for pausing, resting, silence, surrender, and integration.
Our work lies in being so connected to ourselves that we intuit and sense which time is which and when it’s time to switch gears.
Like I said, this is a lifelong learning process for all of us.
The objective isn’t to get it perfect.
The objective is to keep getting better and better at it while also gracefully learning from the times we don’t get it so right.
Adopting an Activity-Pause cycle + flow rhythm in your life can:
- Help you avoid burnout and unnecessary energy drains and leaks.
- Increase creativity, focus, imagination, and inspiration.
- Help you restore and replenish the moments you need it most.
- Reduce guilt and inner dialogue like: “I should be doing more.”
- Help minimize “workaholic” tendencies as a means of escape.
- Clear your mind and sharpen your mental processing.
- Improve mental or physical performance.
- Help you integrate and process difficult emotions and unconscious charges.
- Increase self-awareness and auto-reflection.
- Help you slow down so you can respond to your surroundings instead of reacting to your surroundings.
- Increase physical energy reserves.
- Give your body time to heal and recover.
Remember: the Pause is just as important as the Action!
The Pause activates the relaxation response and ensures that the Action is optimal and most efficient.
Try tuning into the rhythms already present within you and in your life.
Notice the subtle ebbs and flows of your days and moments.
Honor your body temple by listening to its messages and promptings.
Rest when you intuit you need to.
Push hard and get it done when you intuit you need to.
Learn to decipher the difference between the slave driver inside you, and the nurturer inside you and honor them both because they both serve a purpose.
Now, let’s shift gears from natural Activity-Pause cycles to discuss the concept of flow from a mental and psychological perspective…
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
In his book, FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pegs flow as the psychological convergence point where challenges meet skill.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, we experience flow when we engage in activities that provide the right amount of challenge given our skill level.
These kinds of activities and tasks help us completely immerse ourselves in the moment and in what we’re doing, while also stretching and testing our capacity and resilience.
Note: Your ability to effectively self-govern during challenges and change is also a skill.
Effective and efficient stress management will involve you learning and cultivating various new skills.
You’re ultimately learning a new way of being.
This will be challenging, and it should be!
Especially at the beginning.
Every new skill involves a learning curve, and this is no different.
Embrace the challenge knowing that it’s your portal into the flow.
We perform better when we’re in flow because at that moment we are fully immersed in what we’re doing, and derive deep personal and/or professional satisfaction from it.
We become unique and innovative in what we’re creating.
We learn and retain better.
Csikszentmihalyi interviewed a multitude of subjects across all ages, disciplines, races, education levels, and cultures to uncover what exactly happens to our consciousness when we’re in this ‘optimal experience’ state.
“… We have, with other colleagues around the world, done over 8,000 interviews of people – from Dominican monks to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shepherds,” he says (3)
He found that no matter who they were or where they came from, across the board, there are 7 conditions present when we’re flowing: (3)
1 – We’re completely immersed in what we’re doing, to the exclusion of all else. This one-pointed focus and steady concentration is called Dharana in Yogic Philosophy. We’re put right back to the here and now present moment via this narrowing of consciousness.
2 – A sense of being outside everyday reality and rote, mundane routines. There is a merging of the action and your awareness.
3 – Great inner clarity and a sense of personal control over the situation and action. Knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing it, not based on other’s’ standards and guidelines, but rather, on our own independent internal guidelines.
4- Knowing that the activity is doable, achievable; that our skills or inner resources are adequate to the task. We believe in ourselves and our capabilities at that moment.
5 – A sense of serenity and equanimity. Feeling secure in oneself. A feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ‘reactive slave’ within. Self-consciousness melts.
6 – A sense of timelessness. Thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes. We’re freed from the shackles of the past and future. Anxiety melts away.
7 – Intrinsic motivation is present. The act itself is the reward. You no longer seek outside forces nor does anyone need to tell you to do it, you are inspired from within, and act out of your own accord.
1 – Where am I already experiencing flow in my life?
2 – Where would I like to experience more flow in my life?
3 – Where is the flow blocked in my life?
4 – What are two specific moments when I was so in the flow that I lost track of time and forgot the world around me? (Think of the moment in time, time of day, location, where you were.)
5 – What was I doing then?
6 – How can I honor my life’s rhythm more? What would that look and feel like?
7 – Where in my life would I benefit from pausing right now? (List specifics)
8 – Where in my life would I benefit from taking more action right now? (List specifics)
9 – What are 3 specific things I can do right now to honor wherever I am in the Activity-Pause cycle?
10 – What activities or experiences can I engage in more that would help me achieve the 7 Flow components?
11 – What can I begin doing ASAP that would be its own reward?
The Flow State Optimizes Your Brain
Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness.
A state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best.
It refers to those moments of total absorption when we get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears.
Our sense of self, our sense of self-consciousness, they vanish.
Time dilates, which means sometimes it slows down and sometimes it speeds up…
And throughout, all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof.
– Steven Kotler, author, journalist, and director of research at the Flow Genome Project
According to Flow researchers like Csikszentmihalyi and Kotler, the Flow State optimizes the brain in order to enhance mental and physical performance.
When we enter flow, a series of events occur within the confines of our bodies and minds that leads to:
– A deep connection to the Self and the withdrawal of the senses, or rather directing the senses inwardly. (This is also known as the yogic principle Pratyahara.)
– The inner world becomes more real, more present, and more influential than the outside world.
– The past and future melt away and what’s left is the present moment.
– Self-consciousness, stories, and triggers dissolve.
– We become inspired and intrinsically fulfilled by the experience of what we’re doing.
– Productivity increases, sometimes by as much as 500% as one ten-year McKinsey & Co. study found. (4)
– Another study by the Flow Genome Project found that people report being 6-8 times more creative when in the flow. (5)
All of this is possible because of the chemical and electrical changes that occur in the brain when we’re in the Flow State.
First, the body releases a cascade of feel-good and performance-enhancing chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and norepinephrine that speed up the brain’s information processing capabilities while also amplifying pattern recognition, and future prediction (for better problem solving). (6)
In an online workshop called The Optimized Brain on Bigthink.com, Steven Kotler explains how these brain chemicals impact the way we think and learn: (7)
In the front end of the Flow State you take in more information, you process it more deeply meaning you process it using more parts of your brain and you process it more quickly. (There is some debate about this, but it does appear you process it more quickly.)
… When people talk about entering a flow state they feel like their senses are incredibly heightened – this is the performance-enhancing aspect of norepinephrine and dopamine.
Where these chemicals really come in handy is how they affect motivation, creativity, and learning.
Besides being performance-enhancing chemicals these are all feel-good drugs. These five chemicals are the most potent feel-good drugs the brain can produce. As a result, flow is considered the most addictive state on Earth…
What that means is that once an experience starts producing flow, we will go extraordinarily out of our way to get more of it which is why researchers now believe flow is the source code of intrinsic motivation.
Another thing that these chemicals do is that they augment the creative process… Creativity is the product of novel information bumping into old thoughts to create something startling new…
At the front end of the Flow State, you have norepinephrine and dopamine. They’re tightening focus so you’re taking in more information per second so you’re boosting that part of the creative process.
Norepinephrine and dopamine do something else in the brain, they lower signal-to-noise ratios so you detect more patterns. They jack up pattern recognition… our ability to link ideas together is also enhanced.
Anandamide, which is another chemical that shows up in flow, doesn’t just promote pattern recognition, it promotes lateral thinking.
Pattern recognition is more or less the linking of familiar ideas together, lateral thinking is the linking of very disparate ideas together…
The last thing flow does that’s really important is it jacks up learning… the more neurochemicals that show up during the learning experience the better chance that experience has of moving from short-term holding to long-term storage.
The other way that the Flow State optimizes your brain is via brainwaves.
As we think and go about our days and process information, the brain’s neurons create electrical impulses.
These electrical impulses can be measured via an EEG (electroencephalogram).
This results in different ranges of electrical impulses or brainwave states.
These brainwave states correspond to different states of consciousness or states of being.
There are 5 main brainwave states:
Beta and Gamma waves are associated with the Waking state.
Alpha and Theta waves are associated with the Flow state. (This is where the sweet spot is – we want to be right here!)
Delta waves are associated with the Deep Rest State:
The Relaxation Response is associated with the slowing down of brainwaves.
The more you get yourself into Alpha and Theta brainwave state, the more you’ll be able to melt stress and overwhelm and enjoy the full healing benefits of the Relaxation Response.
The good news is that most pause activities also tend to get you into Alpha and Theta, provided you’re in the right environment and have fully allowed yourself to be immersed in the experience.
The more pauses you take on the regular followed by the right kinds of challenging actions, the higher your chances of entering the Flow State.
Remember: No mud, no lotus… No challenge, no flow.
Both actions and pauses are needed in order to enter the Flow State.
Here’s the list of top 10 proven activities that help you relax, calm, and pause:
Choose the ones that most resonate with you and your lifestyle and commit to doing them regularly and consistently.
You can also subscribe to enter our insider list so you are notified when new Calm With Yoga alpha and theta-inducing meditations, classes, and activities are up on here 🙂
Be sure to go over the Self-Study section questions to identify how you can increase the psychology of flow in your life today, with things being how they are.
Don’t hesitate to drop me a line or hit me up on the Contact Page if you think you’ll benefit from further assistance applying everything we just went over.