We have about 28, 000 days in our lives, on average…give or take. We have 60,000 thoughts a day. “No wonder we feel like we’re going nuts!”
Many of us may go through phases of feeling stuck in the repetitive nature of our days, wondering what it is all for, trying to navigate either situations that are not ideal, or simply our own mind traps and perceptions.
Tom Peters said, “Intelligent people can always come up with an intelligent reason for doing nothing.”
We’re all craving something—even a fleeting moment where we feel we are in the right place and we are meant to be doing what we are doing. Athletes call it “the zone”, musicians call it “the pocket”, spiritualists call it “being one with the universe”. It is the flow state—and those of us more average in nature call it elusive.
But what is it really? Is it the neurophysiological orgasm that it is made out to be? And is there a tactical and meaningful way that we can prep our physiology to receive this state?
Neurologically, the flow state is characterized by transient hypo-frontality—meaning simply that it is neither driven by intentional thought nor emotions and background noise. Top-down processing begins with the prefrontal cortex where conscious, albeit repetitive, thoughts and actions emerge—that is why even the temporary reduction in its activity assists in flow, with established mastery of skills. More recently, the concept of ‘elastic thinking’ has come to light—the bottom-up process through which creative, expansive thoughts and insights occur, as parts of the brain that do not normally talk to each other are able to connect. Along with that is the concept of inter-leaving—meaning the capacity to be able to leave a challenging task completely and come back to it later, rather than focusing on one problem and hitting the proverbial wall.
Our brains operate in three different modes. The default mode, which consists mostly of those repeating patterns based on past experience—we spend nearly 70% of our time in this familiar and automated state. The cognitive-focused mode, in which we are engaged in problem-solving; and the salient mode, in which the brain is looking for novelty. Optimally, we could be inter-leaving between the cognitive-focused and salient modes—which, in turn, down-regulates the default, and keeps us engaged in focused and novel tasks. This is where we can train the flow state.
Some tips to follow to allow flow to emerge are as follows:
1. Be physically pain-free.
Pain is a big distraction, and a big focal point when we are experiencing it. The less physical and mental space that pain is occupying in our awareness, the more we are able to focus on other things.
2. Be optimistic
The brain is always looking for previous outcomes or experiences to which to relate the present moment. If we have been previously successful, there is less activity in the prefrontal cortex, as there is less over-analysis and worry happening. The less we assume the worst, the more at ease we feel.
3. Have less psychomotor agitation
Minimize what irritates you about yourself and the people around you. The less internal and external negativity we have, the more space for flow to occur. Being in a group that shares your value system and is dedicated to the same perspectives enhances the possibility for flow in everyone.
4. Focus on enjoyable results
Next-level optimism! Actually visualize success and the positive possibilities. Engage in clever execution and practice. This doesn’t happen overnight! Have the patience and self-discipline to train your brain and behaviour—to create a better interface between your body and brain without the incoherence which causes distress.
The problem that we tend to encounter, is that the part of our brain that is supposed to make us evolutionarily superior, is also the part that is contributing to our suffering. It is a uniquely human ability that we are cursed with the capacity to carry our stresses and failures over the course of our lives and continually relive them in self-judgement. Through the various practices listed above, we aim to at least recognize these mind traps, if not find ways to fully escape them.
Achieving the flow state is not just about having the occasional moment—although even a fleeting glimpse into something to which you have not previously had access is encouraging. It is about becoming the person in the process of establishing it who is capable of maximizing your adaptive potential, with elasticity of thought and freedom from crushing expectations; alternating between different states, with a sprinkle of Buddhism in being detached from the outcome.
Many of us know of the flow state only in the abstract, what we have heard from the experience of others. As such, we don’t know for ourselves what the experience of it will be—we’re hoping for a high-five or fist pump from God that says “welcome to ‘club flow’“. But maybe it is just a subtle nod or wink that emerges from doing the work.
Dr. Tabrizi is a chiropractor, osteopath and a passionate member of both the local and scientific community, whose goal is to teach that the pursuit of optimal health and wellness is much more than being symptom-free. His practice is rooted in the philosophy of treating the person rather than just treating the illness or ailment. As a result of his interdisciplinary training, Dr. Tabrizi has developed a neuroscience-based therapeutic education approach to treating his patients, focusing on healing illness from a wider perspective, placing equal responsibility on patient as well as practitioner. Dr. Tabrizi aims to educate his patients and provide them with the tools and framework needed to integrate pain management and healthy living into the fabric of their everyday lives.