Tapping Into The Flow

“The inner you is found in the darkest recess of your subconscious where the true self lives free of all outside influences and as such is both the most terrifying and most enlightening of places you can ever visit…” 
— Iain miller

The flow state is real. Built atop a foundation of understanding the deeper levels of consciousness as they pertain to optimized physical and mental performance, many have been working to chip away at the enigma surrounding this mysterious concept for decades. 

And, despite what the innumerable coaching institutions and neuro-optimizing influencers would say about their expertise, the way by which our consciousness can transmute itself so drastically is still puzzling to say the least. While we may know the hardware that goes into it (neuronal imaging can surely indicate how different parts of the brain shut off or take off), we still don’t fully appreciate and understand the software that drives this in the first place.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had been the first to introduce the flow state in 1976 and package it into a school of thought; since then, an industry has begun to form around this intricate and elusive concept — mental optimization organizations, flow coaches, mental trainers — more than ever, professionals are realizing the potential underlying focus and the need to emphasize the mental side of innumerable endeavors, no matter how physical or non-physical they may be to begin with.

Fortunately, real work is being spearheaded by those who employ this thought process on the daily — namely, athletes, but also artists, musicians, and countless other performers. Because, really, it all ties into performance. Our need to perform at a task at hand, one whereby we’re fully and wholly engaged, entranced, engrossed with. 

There’s something surreal and totally unbelievable about entering that peak state of performance — where time hypnotically slows, whereby every muscle fiber in the body is aligned, every neurochemical firing is synchronized, and every effort is on point, whether it’s a bullseye or concerto, a physical act or a mental feat.

“The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals.” 

— Steven Kotler, The Neurochemistry of Flow States

In the continued exploration of this subject, and in an effort to contribute to the overall community dialogue with respect to understanding this riddle of a concept, it may be worth presenting some opinions from those who rely on their unwavering focus and ritualistic tenacity in accessing the flow state — how they do it, what helps them trigger it, how they maximize their time within it. 

Presented below are some of the insights extracted from a select group of individuals that I’ve reached out to; interestingly, they all seem to share some common denominators, those that validate Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s endeavor to understand, dissect and classify this elusive concept.

On Motivation

Cody Young, an Olympian surfer for Team Canada, had this to say when I asked him about his particular experience:

“I’ve definitely had events where I’ve tapped into the flow state and those events are the ones that I ended up winning or doing really well. To be honest I don’t know the secret as to how to get into that state. I think sometimes it just comes naturally. When you’re in that state it almost feels like autopilot; things just happen so easily and you don’t really even feel like you’re trying…

…I’ve been working with some mental coaches to figure out how I can unlock my flow state. I think there’s a different recipe for each person. I’m excited to learn and improve my mental game.”

I wasn’t surprised to learn that there’s a whole industry sprouting around the desire for performers to tap into their deeper subconscious, one that’s being eagerly driven by coaches and trainers. NFL quarterback Kirk Cousins has been working with Dr. Tim Royer (of Royer Neuroscience) to optimize his game; Tiger Woods dabbles in various forms of self-hypnosis to amplify his cognizance; Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Mark McGwire - they've all used some form of sports psychology to up their game. 

Numerous organizations have also sprung up, like The Flow Coaching Institute, The Flow Centre, The Flow Genome Project. While it’s clear that some seek to just profit off of the convenient idea of ‘coaching’ their patrons to be more focused and engaged, there appears to be a genuine demand to access deeper parts of our consciousness that can make us more effective in our day to day. 

What’s clear is that motivation itself is a key factor. Athletes, whether motivated by fame or fortune or competition, are in a prime spot to rely on the flow state. Olympians, world-record setters, top performers in any field — competition and passion seem to blend together the perfect motivational concoction to enter this state of hyper-awareness.

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On Self-Awareness

All of this happens to fall under a general umbrella of self-improvement, as do concepts like micro-dosing or meditating, healthy living and mindful being. It’s trendy, today, to self-improve ourselves rigorously. Yet the flow state is different — in entails something more entirely. 

Beyond mere self-enhancement, it signifies that there’s something much more at play than we realize, something that Iain Miller, a world-record holding sea-stack climber, explained to me better than I could have imagined when I asked him his take on the subject:

“The inner you is found in the darkest recess of your subconscious where the true self lives free of all outside influences and as such is both the most terrifying and most enlightening of places you can ever visit…”

Iain works alongside his subconscious with every climb, some of which he free-solo’s. Understandably, drawing yourself so close to the brink of death is something that can surely prompt a tremendously potent sense of self-realization and an enhanced self-perspective. 

“…This is flow and it is a type of subconscious immortality and what this means in real-time is flow allows an outrageous heightened awareness of both the inner and outer realms both conscious and subconscious. It is during these visits to the inner realms is when you will meet the true you and the true you allows you to potentially see the links between everything in our real-world existence…”

For Iain, it’s clear that the flow state is something else entirely — something much deeper than the sub-surface level tool of enhancing and optimizing performance. He values it as a life philosophy, as we all maybe should, but in his descriptions can be evidenced an unrelenting dedication to self-awareness and self-analysis. 

“…The answer to pretty much everything is internal, it is perhaps there where we need to look. It is alas way too easy to blame external reasons for our perceived failures, thus removing the need to search for you…”

Hand in hand with motivation, self-awareness seems to be a must when tapping into the flow. That awareness works to spawn certain realizations and understandings that emanate from our deeper, if not deepest recesses of consciousness. 

In his book, Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes:

“The human organism cannot survive as a bundle of neural reflexes, or even of stimulus-response learning pathways. In order to perform within the infinitely complex ecosystem to which it became adapted, it needed to establish autonomy from the genetically determined instructions that had shaped its behavior through the long eons of its evolution.”

This autonomy is often overlooked by coaches, trainers, and the easy-fix promoters of the flow state. Whereas motivation can be carried atop financial gain or reputation, the truest of experiences with this sub level of consciousness seem to require a vehement devotion to laborious self-cognizance. 

On Time

Today, we all acknowledge this as a hard fact: time slows to a crawl in that very immersive moment of execution. So I sought to catch an insight from someone who would be able to really differentiate, someone who had been engaged in an activity whereby the most clutch moments were a bit more drawn out.

Fraser Corsan, who holds the world record for the fastest speed flown in a wingsuit, and who has achieved a multitude of tremendous jumps throughout his life, had a very peculiar point to describe to me regarding his experience, when I asked him whether or not he had noted any perceptual distortion during his jumps with respect to time:

“I have not seen any formal studies, but on some flights, time does seem to stretch out. Admittedly, I am talking about flights that are 3–4 minutes long already, but I can be in a very aware but relaxed state and the flight seems more like 10 minutes…

…in the early stages of training, this phenomenon appears reversed, so a high adrenaline jump with limited experience appears to take seconds rather than, say, a minute. We generally refer to this as sensory overload and find when debriefing students in this area they can remember very little from the jump itself, hence why video debriefs are so useful as training aids.”

The lack of memory is something also worth noting here, as it’s something that both Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Steven Kotler note as a happenstance when portions of our mind (such as those that create memories or reflect) are shut off, given the sensory experience undertaken by the other parts of the brain, fully engaged with the task at hand. 

Where time seems to become the most distorted, however, is in the splitting of seconds. Jasmine Baird, an Olympic slopestyle-snowboarder with Team Canada, described her experience to me this way:

"Right away three things happen, the frontal lobe basically shuts down so many of our normal processes stop happening including things like fear and doubt, entering you into a state of heightened awareness and consciousness, then time as we know it disappears and seconds can feel like hours, and the third main change is that your brain starts to release a bunch of neuro-chemicals including dopamine, serotonin, norepinepherine, anandamide and endorphins... The second my board leaves the takeoff of the jump, time comes to a halt and I can see everything around me, feel where my body is in space, how fast I'm spinning, how far I'm going, how high up I am, and I know exactly what I need to do to to land my trick."

Time itself probably the most tangible intangible form of evidence with respect to accurately describing an immersion into the flow state. Everyone who undertakes some kind of passionate activity experiences this distortion to one extent or another. 

Ultimately, we know the flow state is real, and we know of how the brain functions, neuro-chemically, under this state. But we don't know much else. While some seem to have it pegged down as a second nature, there are still many blanks in the equation. How do we activate it? How do we maintain it? Even the Michael Jordan's and the Wayne Gretzky's have had horrible performances. 

As technology begins to allow us more detailed glimpses into the actual structure of our minds at work, more insights can be decoded into workable solutions. For now, however, the mind remains as beautifully enigmatic as it has always been.