In positive psychology, flow, also known as zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields, though has existed for thousands of years in other guises, notably in some eastern religions.
One of the great things about writing and performing music is the potential to reach these sorts of "flow" or "zone" states. When we're fully immersed in activities like music, dance, surfing and even work that is extremely engaging, we tend to be so focused on what we're doing that we enter a state known as "flow" where our worries, repetitive thoughts and stress disappear while we're engaged in what we're doing.
When you're lost in the moment, trying to capture a new song that you're writing, it's very hard to simultaneously be worried about other things. While you're on stage in the middle of a song, while the crowd is singing and dancing along, it's pretty hard to do that and think about the bills you have to pay or the problems you're having at home, at the same time.
For the last few years I've been heavily influenced by writers like Eckhart Tolle, Allan Watts and Ram Dass. Although they all express it in slightly different ways, these and many other authors all point to the same idea, that much of our suffering in life comes with overly identifying with our egos. We all have a constant stream of thoughts running through our head at any given time, some of it is positive, some of it is negative, but none of it is really who we are in our essence. When we overly identify with the thoughts we think we tend to get lost in our own drama. Of course, this doesn't always leads to suffering, but when we experience stress and difficult events, it's easy to get lost in our thoughts and not see the forest from the trees.
I look at thinking as a very useful problem solving tool. We all encounter challenges and obstacles as we move through life and we need the analytical, thinking part of our brain to assist us in working through these challenges. Take a goal like pursuing a career in music, we need to be able to think our way to logical choices that will help us move forward. We need to be able to sort through the myriad of choices we have in front of us and arrive at the choices that will help us most effectively get to where we're trying to go. It's when we get "lost in thought" that we tend to have problems. Or when we develop negative thought patterns and get stuck there.
Meditation, like flow states, is a useful tool for loosening the grip on our thoughts and over identification with our thoughts. Anyone who has tried to "quiet the mind" through meditation can attest to just how difficult this actually is. The mind thinks. It's simply what it does. But by meditating you can learn to develop an awareness of the thinking self and see it for what it is, a process that although is a part of you, is certainly not all fo you. This is a very subtle but profound realization, one that in my own experience you need to have over and over to really "get". Our thinking minds are extremely powerful and in my own experience I tend to fall back in its grasp over and over. But through things like meditation and "flow states" I'm able to loosen the grasp of the mind over time.
Although the meditative state and the flow state are different, they're similar in that they both tend to focus the mind and make it more difficult to stay in negative or "stressed out" states while we're engaged in either activity. So why meditate and engage in activities that lead to more flow states? Well, simply to lead happier more fulfilling lives. According to Wikipedia, "Flow is an innately positive experience; it is known to "produce intense feelings of enjoyment". An experience that is so enjoyable should lead to positive affect and happiness in the long run. "
The flow state has also been documented to improve the performance of musicians while simultaneously decreasing their heart rate and blood pressure. In other words, while musicians relax and enter into more of a flow state, their performance improves. Here's another quote from Wikipedia:
"Musicians, especially improvisational soloists may experience a similar state of mind while playing their instrument. Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance as opposed to when they are not in a flow state. In a study performed with professional classical pianists who played piano pieces several times to induce a flow state, a significant relationship was found between the flow state of the pianist and the pianist’s heart rate, blood pressure, and major facial muscles. As the pianist entered the flow state, heart rate and blood pressure decreased and the major facial muscles relaxed. This study further emphasized that flow is a state of effortless attention. In spite of the effortless attention and overall relaxation of the body, the performance of the pianist during the flow state improved. "
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about "following your head vs. following your heart". It's a similiar concept. We need the analytical, thinking parts of ourselves to navigate our way through life in the same way we need our egos and sense of self to make sense of our lives. The problem is when we mistake that part of ourselves for who we truly are.
More about the "Flow" state:
Ted Talk on the "Flow" state:
Want more articles like this one? Be sure to sign up for my newsletter and I'll notify you when I publish new articles, videos and music.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.