What is Flow?
The state of flow takes place when a person’s attention is so immersed in a given activity, that his sense of self-awareness is lost for some time, replaced by a union of consciousness between the subject and the activity itself.
This absorption into the activity is so complete, that everything else which is going on around the person, is completely blocked out. The person’s attention has withdrawn, or ‘disengaged’ from the outside world and all thoughts which are unrelated to the activity.
The entire person, both body and mind, are fully invested in the activity. Achieving this state of flow enhances the performance of the activity, while creating a sense of genuine satisfaction and happiness.
A ten-year study conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute research organization, a division of the McKinsey & Co. management consulting firm, showed that executives found themselves 500% more effective when in a state of flow.
The experience of flow is actually fairly common and is something which every person has experienced, although some people seem to achieve it easier. After experiencing flow, some have used the popular expression, “I was in the zone”. Older hipsters might remember the expression, “I was in the groove”.
Unraveling The Mystery of Flow
A popular 1990 book entitled, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, by Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is gaining a resurgence of interest amongst active people who are looking to enhance their levels of performance and life satisfaction. For those unfamiliar with Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, and Hungarian surnames, a phonetic clue to his first and last name is: “me-high, cheek-sent-me-high”.
Csikszentmihalyi is considered to be a co-founder of a branch of psychology known as positive psychology, which explores the phenomenon of human happiness and its causes. His journey to positive psychology began while, as a young man in Switzerland, he attended a lecture by the famous Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung.
He was so impressed by what he learned that he began studying all of Jung’s published works. This ultimately led him to emigrate to the United States where he took up the study of psychology at the University of Chicago. Today, he is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University.
In his book, Csikszentmihalyi has identified eight characteristics of flow:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Goals and anticipated reward are clear;
- Disorientation with the sense of time;
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Performing the activity seems effortless;
- There is a balance between the activity’s challenge and a person’s abilities;
- The action itself and the person’s awareness are merged;
- There is a feeling of control over the activity.
How to Get Into the Flow State
Naturally, those who have studied Csikszentmihalyi’s work have become interested in the flow experience, particularly how to enter flow state.
Being in flow state requires a high level of concentration and focused attention. But there are other factors which help determine whether or not a flow state experience is feasible.
The activity in which a person is engaged must be a familiar activity. Getting into flow necessitates moving the intellect out of the way.
When we engage in a new, or relatively unfamiliar activity, our left-brain hemisphere and our intellect are both engaged, because we have to ‘think’ our way through the activity. We are not yet adept enough in it to do it spontaneously and effortlessly.
So, along with the activity being one in which we are already somewhat proficient, there are other factors which can help.
- There is a specific goal or outcome from the activity that we strive to achieve.
- It is an activity that we enjoy or are passionate about.
- The activity offers a challenge, but a realistic challenge.
- The activity offers an opportunity for us to expand our skill level.
Balancing Challenge and Skill Level
There is an important balance which must be struck between challenge and skill level. If the challenge is too far beyond one’s level of skills, he becomes anxious and stressed. His mind becomes diverted and he can’t relax and let go. Conversely, when his level of skill exceeds the extent of the challenge, he becomes bored and distracted.
The optimal relationship between challenge and skill lies somewhere in the middle, where there is sufficient challenge to attract one’s focus, but not so much that the level of challenge creates a distraction.
Activities That Can Lead to Flow
There are many types of activities we can engage in which can offer opportunities to achieve flow. Some of the more obvious examples involve athletic, physical, and recreational activities.
A surfer, for example, who has surfed for many years and who has achieved a level of proficiency in his surfing, can easily experience the flow state.
There is nothing there but him and the ocean. His physical movements, which are needed to balance and position himself on the board as he adjusts to the movement of the water, are all spontaneous, reactionary, and intuitive. His ‘muscle memory’ takes over, and he goes on autopilot.
Each wave is unique so each wave offers him a new challenge. This is one reason why surfers love to surf, because it is an easy way to achieve flow.
Surfing leads to happiness because it lends itself to experiencing flow.
Art & Music
Arts, like music, also provide opportunities to achieve flow.
An improvisational musician, one who plays spontaneously by ear, has already mastered the technical skills of the instrument. When he plays, he goes into the same autopilot that the surfer does.
His intuitive skills take over and he gets lost in his performance. All that exists for him in this state is his instrument and the sounds.
Even an orchestral performer, who plays off of a written musical score, can experience flow, as long as he already knows the music by heart, and he is challenged by it in some way.
Mundane activities, like playing video games, also offer opportunities to experience the flow state. A player, who is skilled at the game, gets lost in the activity.
His muscle memory takes over. His vision and his corresponding, responsive hand movements all happen automatically. He is fully absorbed in the game, and nothing outside of the game itself exists for him, while playing. The big pay-off for video game enthusiasts is flow.
Nootropics and Flow
One question regarding flow which has arisen is; “to what extent can our foods and food supplementation enhance our ability to enter the flow state?”
Nootropics are a class of natural and synthetic substances that are used to enhance cognitive function, especially the ability to concentrate and focus. They are also used to boost memory, creativity, intelligence, and motivation.
Caffeine, Rhodiola rosea, Ginkgo biloba, and Bacopa monnieri are four of the many nootropic compounds that have been shown to improve concentration levels and cotnigive function.
We formulated one of our flagship nootropics, metaFOCUS around helping individuals get into flow state. It has been shown to increase mental clarity, improve our speed and ability to process information, and to augment our ability to enter the flow state.
The product has been especially designed to assist someone engaged in any strenuous or highly-concentrated activity. This includes athletics, physical recreation, bodybuilding, physical labor, artistic activities like music and dance, studying, and intellectual work.
The metaFOCUS Formulation
B-Vitamins – A growing body of research supports the relationship between B-Vitamin supplementation and cognitive enhancement. metaFOCUS contains B5, B6, B9, and B12.
Acetyl-L-Carnitine – L-Carnitine is an important amino acid, produced in the kidney and liver, important in heart and brain function. It acts as an anti-oxidant within the brain. Research has linked l-Carnitine to enhanced mental focus and cognitive function.
Artichoke extract – Artichoke contains a phytochemical, ‘cynarin’, that possesses a variety of pharmacological features including free-radical scavenging and antioxidant activity. It is believed that cynarin acts as a potential chemo-preventive against genotoxic agents in the brain.
DL-Phenylalanine – L-Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid found in a variety of foods. It acts as a neurotransmitter and is a precursor to some vital biological molecules including tyrosine, epinephrine (adrenaline), and dopamine.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid – Alpha-Lipoic Acid is an organic molecule found in human cells, and is involved in transforming nutrients into energy. Supplementation with Alpha-Lipoic Acid has been shown to boost physical energy and mental focus. It has also been shown to have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Cognizin® – Cognizin® has been shown to support healthy, functioning neurons, even helping to repair damaged neurons. One research study supports the ‘neuroprotective’ activity of Cognizin®:
The role of Cognizin® in cognitive impairment
“Cognizin® appears to be a promising agent to improve cognitive impairment, especially of vascular origin. In fact, it appears as a supplement with the ability to promote "safe" neuroprotection, capable of enhancing endogenous protection.”
Phosphatidylserine – Phosphatidylserine is a type of fat compound called a phospholipid, which can be found in your brain. Numerous research studies have linked phosphatidylserine to brain health and cognitive enhancement. One study concluded;
“Phosphatidylserine…safely slows, halts, or reverses biochemical alterations and structural deterioration in nerve cells. It supports human cognitive functions, including the formation of short-term memory, the consolidation of long-term memory, the ability to create new memories, the ability to retrieve memories, the ability to learn and recall information, the ability to focus attention and concentrate, the ability to reason and solve problems, language skills, and the ability to communicate. It also supports locomotor functions, especially rapid reactions and reflexes.”
Ginkgo biloba extract – It has long been known that Ginkgo biloba has brain-boosting qualities. One research study demonstrated its efficacy in treating young people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The study concluded: "Ginkgo biloba is an effective complementary treatment for ADHD. [SOURCE]
Coleus Forskohlii extract - A study conducted by the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that Coleus forskohlii significantly enhanced weight loss. It has also been shown to increase strength and work intensity.
A molecule within Forskolin, known as cAMP, has been shown to regulate alertness and productivity, as do L-phenylalanine and Acetyl-l-Carnitine.
So, can a nootropic supplement, like metaFOCUS, help us get into the flow state? It definitely can.
The supplement was formulated to aid in concentration and focus, both of which are essential components of flow. metaFOCUS can enhance day-to-day activities, such as, work, recreation, study, and athletics.
Flow and Classical Yoga: West meets East
There isn’t anything new about flow, even though a contemporary scholar, Csikszentmihalyi, has expounded on the subject. What is new is how the recognition of flow is being presented to people now, in the twenty-first century, by a modern psychologist.
Csikszentmihalyi has simply observed a natural human experience of consciousness which already existed. He also articulated his observations in a smart and very practical way through his book. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi recognized that when a person is in the state of flow, his performance is enhanced and the experience tends to produce happiness.
If an individual could somehow live his entire life like this, in a perpetual state of flow, he would become a highly productive individual, and he would have achieved that cherished, and somewhat elusive human objective; happiness.
A Brief History of Yoga
Ancient Indian sages understood flow in the context of yoga and their spiritual endeavors. Yoga, when used in this context, refers to ‘Classical Yoga’, also known as ‘Ashtang Yoga’.
Today, here in America in the twenty-first century, when we hear the word ‘yoga’, we think of a room full of (mostly) females with little rolled-up mats and tight pants. When considering flow in relation to Classical Yoga, we would have to agree with Solomon, that there is “nothing new under the sun”.
Modern, Western yoga bears little resemblance to Classical Yoga. Classical yoga is actually more akin to what we today would call meditation. The goal of the practice of yoga is to achieve Samadhi; to merge the lower self with the Higher self, or God.
Classical yoga is expounded upon in the Yoga Sutras, one of six components to the Vedas, perhaps humanity’s oldest collection of philosophical literature.
The Yoga Sutras were written around 600 BCE by a great yogic master named Patanjali. It provides a framework of eight components, or ‘branches’, upon which a multitude of styles and applications of yoga can be, and have been, established.
Four of these eight components of Classical Yoga are in play when we experience flow.
Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the Senses
Pratyahara is the process of withdrawing the attention from outside, and diverting it inwardly, to experience the cosmic realms.
In flow, the attention is withdrawn from thoughts and actions which are not involved in the subject activity.
Dharana: Concentration of the Mind
Dharana is the concentrated focus of the attention.
In yoga, there are many possible targets for the attention, depending on the style of meditation that the person is practicing. In flow, the attention is focused and fully absorbed in the activity itself.
Dhyana: Contemplative Concentration
Dhyana is the ensuing experience of the concentrated attention, moving forward in time.
In yoga, it is contemplation or meditation. In flow, this relates to the performance of the activity, once fully absorbed concentration is achieved.
Samadhi: Higher State of Consciousness
Samadhi is the complete loss of self, a timeless state where the contemplator is merged with the contemplated. It is a state where the witness (awareness), that which is being witnessed, and the process of witnessing (awareness) are unified as one.
Flow is a type of samadhi. It is a distant cousin, but it is related. The principal difference is that true Samadhi can only be experienced in a relaxed, motionless state. Flow is a state akin to Samadhi, but it is experienced in an awakened state of action and movement.
Concentration - The Key to Flow State
The principal element in both flow and yoga is the attention itself. The attention is the most significant, and most powerful component of our consciousness.
It is the essence of our life energy. It is who and what we are. When we concentrate ourselves in our attention, everything is possible. Everything is better, enhanced.
The headquarters of the attention is in the forehead, between and slightly behind our eyebrows. Yogis call this point the sixth chakra, or ‘ajna’ chakra (or third eye). It shares the same physical space with the pineal gland within the brain.
Indian sages claim that the attention is the outward expression of the human soul. It is the essence of life and of consciousness. They also claim that the attention has a quality, which is bliss.
In flow, we are in a state of concentrated attention, and this is why we experience happiness, because the essential nature of attention itself is bliss.