Flow State: Part I

Achieving Maximum Mental Engagement and Immersivity

“The superhuman power which exhilaration and hypnosis bring to a dancer is shown especially clearly in his almost inconceivable staying powers in a state of high tension. “In the dance even the weakest can do wonders.”
— Curt Sachs

There’s something I’ve been working on for the last few years, a realization more than a concept. I’m sure it’s already been figured out and elucidated in a number of ways but a part of me doesn’t want to externally contextualize it through the words of another — so I haven’t really gone out of my way to look for it outside of my own experience. [Update -  Colin O'Brady - recently becoming the first man to cross Antarctica alone - summed it up nicely, per his words that can be found in Part II]

I first noticed, long ago, that this zone which we tend to get into when our adrenaline is flowing can be expanded upon and better understood. It happened as I had been mountain biking — a hobby that I admire for the imposing way that responsiveness, split-second decision making and muscle-reflex all come together in a complimentary way to prevent the cyclist from facing serious physical consequence - if all pans out.

I don’t want to say that I began to manipulate it, to somehow operate against the laws of physics and time within this zone that I would find myself in — though that makes for a more riveting blog post. It’s more like there’s a quiet observation happening, whereby my mind flows through these various states of enhanced consciousness, akin to some kind of hyper-awareness in the present moment, while always maintaining focus on an end-point or end-result. 

This in itself isn’t anything remarkable, and I’m certain that a psychologist can explain it concisely using neuro-functional terms that weave together an illustrative account of what’s happening [another update - Part II explores how this works]. But eventually, as I exercised this intangible muscle, things became more interesting.

“Problem-solving, inventing, hacking and coding is more of an adrenaline rush of endorphins rather than a feeling.” — Walter O’Brien

You can call it awareness²

If we separate ourselves from the typical interface of routine thought and overcome the limitations imposed by language, this may help to make more sense. Thus, there are some necessary elements to the equation:

  • A) self-awareness of our action and our intent to move in a certain direction, towards a certain opportunity, or to spur a chain of events into being.
  • B) A relentless awareness of time from our subjective standpoint. Time can either make or break our momentum, so to speak— this point becomes irrefutable so long as we suspend our standard objective perception of time.
  • C) Our continual awareness of the two previous points; that we’re aware of the state of our maneuvering as well as being aware of our presence and course in time.

In sports, I use this to my advantage. I routinely rely upon my hyper-awareness to make a necessary play or move, or to willfully provide the reins of my motor control to my instinct in a crucial moment (while being conscious of doing this). When mountain biking, I’ve come to stop looking 20 feet ahead of me so as to be in the full immersive moment of the innumerable obstacles I have to navigate around as I speed downhill. The more trust I place in my natural reflex, the better I perform and, the more I’m aware of all of this, the more immersed I become in the activity.

“Adrenaline is so strong that none of us understand it.” — Jerry Lewis

Awareness of both movement and circumstance, aim and opportunity, all under a context of time, will equal our desired result.

It doesn't only hinder upon athletic performance - the flow state is entered by means of any activity that captures of full and unwavering attention. Any creative activity, any enthralling endeavor. In a way, it seems to correlate to those activities in which we find ourselves truly and unquestionably living, doing what we want to be doing, finding ourselves in a sacred sanctum of personal ambition and achievement. 

For me, this is all sort of akin to those innumerable Eastern philosophical sayings that tout fluidity in movement through life’s many obstacles or challenges — to be like water, to move like a gust of wind. Though this isn’t necessarily like trying to be the water that goes around an obstruction with ease — this is rather like being the entire river itself.

Read on: Flow State Part II