What is the nature of being in a flow state of consciousness? How and why do we experience flow? What truly is flow? The term flow was first coined and popularized by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi who is a Hungarian psychologist. He wrote a fascinating book called Flow back in 1990. When we think of flow we think of an athlete, musician, writer, craftsman, or any artist when they appear to have this laser-like focus and precision which is equated with them being in the zone.
But flow is a much more ancient concept going back to the Warring States period of China (475-221 BCE). Its original ancestor is known in Chinese as wu-wei, which is a concept at the heart of Taoism and martial arts. Many of us are familiar with the term flow but not with wu-wei. Understanding wu-wei and the Eastern mind it came from, is imperative for us to truly understand the depth of flow.
Yet, in the modern day, our understanding of flow and how to induce it is at a novice level. The word is loosely thrown around in popular culture. We hear people proclaim that “they’re in the zone,” or more to the point “I’m in the zone” or “I’m in the flow,” which actually implies you’re not in any state of flow if you have time to speak about it. We often hear athletes state after a great performance how they felt they were in a state of flow, where all the external noise of the world was eliminated. They essentially had tunnel vision.
To be highly effective at our chosen skill we need to enter a flow state of consciousness. But the problem for most of us is we have no idea how to enter a flow state. Many of us incorrectly believe this dimension of effortless skill and peak performance is a state of mind isolated to world-class performers. You need to eliminate this way of thinking and really absorb the information I am about to give you.
First and foremost, cultivating skill and reaching peak performance, in other words entering a state of flow, really depends on how we understand the mind and body. This is not some new radical way of thinking. This was actually the primary focus of numerous great thinkers throughout history. It doesn’t matter whether East or West, understanding human thought and the minds function has been a central focus for as long as we can remember. We’ve always been fascinated with why cultures and traditions developed, why certain religions were born to bind community, and why someone is more skillful at a particular craft than someone else. The process of thinking and how and why we think is at the foundation of philosophy, science, religion, and art.
For thousands of years, both in the East and West, there have been numerous systems for understanding the mind. Some have stuck and many have disappeared. But for as long as we can remember there has been a persistent myth pervading human civilization: mind-body dualism. This dualistic model of mind and body has become the standard template for which we study the mind and the body. As a result, it is common for us to feel this split within us, which is evident in our language and actions.
This dualistic model of mind and body is the big reason we don’t understand the nature of flow. We tend to feel we are these rational minds in these completely irrational bodies. Mind-body dualism is the disembodied myth embedded in our modern thinking. This myth has led us to focus and believe firmly in an abstract rationality, where reason trumps all. So we end up believing we are these disembodied rational agents imprisoned within this meat suit we call a body.
The disembodied myth is a philosophical hangover from Plato down to influential philosophers such as Descartes and Immanuel Kant. Philosophers such as these three propelled the dualistic model of mind and body along based on vague intuitions they had about a distinction between people who have minds and the physical world, which apparently doesn’t have a mind according to them. Their metaphysics led to a dualism between a disembodied mind and a physical world of things.
In post-Enlightenment Europe and its colonies rational thought was portrayed as the essence of human nature. Reason became something completely disconnected from the physical world around us. Our mind, and its rationality, is thought to be superior and distinct to the body and its emotions. The disembodied myth has implanted a split within us that confuses us to no end. We have bought into the disembodied model of mind without questioning its validity.
Science also has been handicapped by the disembodied model. Cognitive scientists in the mid-twentieth-century treated the human mind as a brain in a container. Many experiments were concerned with abstract information processing which led them nowhere. It wasn’t until the past few decades that cognitive science began to change its perspective. Cognitive science is slowly moving away from the disembodied dualistic model and instead is beginning to treat human thought as fundamentally embodied.
Cognitive science has shown through extensive research on embodied cognition that we are not the paragons of reason we assume to be. Though, science is just catching up to this perspective. Many sages, artists, philosophers, and even athletes have questioned the overuse of rationality, as the actuality of their experience tells another story. This also might be why many artists, writers, and philosophers are usually considered as having eccentric behavior by the general public.
Many sages from the East, on the other hand, are often suspicious of rational people because rational people often think too much about everything. An artist would say being overly rational destroys beauty and truth. Ask yourself what is rational about a lot of art? Or even for the beauty in sport for that matter? Beauty is intrinsically in the performance, it is not something you have to think about, but instead it is something you appreciate and are inspired by. And yet, though the embodied state of mind may be the normal perspective for sages, artists, philosophers, and athletes, cognitive science has developed a sophisticated model for understanding the mind-body integrated system.
This model is known as dual process theory. It is based on two systems of cognitive function. Psychologists like to create unique terms which define them as different from the rest of the scientific community. So these two systems are known as hot cognition (or System 1) and cold cognition (or System 2).
The hot system is the cognitive function that is automatic, spontaneous, fast, effortless, mostly unconscious, and what is the primary driver of emotions. It is located in the more unconscious regions of the brain. Hot cognition operates automatically and is fast and spontaneous, with little or no effort required. In the hot cognitive process there is no sense of voluntary control.
Cold cognition, on the other hand, is the cognitive control centers within our brain located in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The cold system is self-conscious, slow, deliberate, effortful, and it is the part of our mind we refer to as ourselves, the “I.” Cold cognition, then, is associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
In our growing rational world, we have overcompensated for the cold system and don’t realize that both systems have their benefits and flaws. We need to understand that even though we feel as though we are these subjective agents who have conscious control of our lives, hot cognition is mainly driving us.
In regards to expert skill, it is ultimately the result of the hot system. The time and practice spent on a particular craft cultivates ingrained skill. From the NRL legend Johnathan Thurston’s ability to kick a winning goal in the dying moments of the game onto NFL quarterback Tom Brady’s ability to throw a touchdown pass under pressure, and also the ability of someone like Ida Haendal to play the violin, they all possess an ingrained skill that is as effortless as opening and closing their hand, well for those three individuals anyway. This is expertise.
This is where the skill has become embodied and the cold function of thinking and analyzing has temporarily shut down. Spontaneity takes over and as spectators we can appreciate the natural beauty of their skill. Not only does hot cognition bring the spontaneity of our natural movements to life, but it also brings the peak states of skill to the forefront of humanity, making our world much more beautiful than if we had to think and analyze everything we do as something that should be rational.
Both systems are required to function optimally to develop skill. In music, you need to learn music theory over and over again to the point that it is like reading your mother language. On top of this you need to learn how to manipulate the body to make the noise coming out of the instrument sound like a melody rather than a dying cat. For violin you need to train your body to hold certain finger positions and also learn how to hold the bow. For drums you need to learn how to hold the sticks and how to hit the drums while your feet simultaneously press down on the pedals with a beater attached to hit the bass drum, or kick drum in other words.
As with most things, learning any musical instrument takes time. But after a while the skill becomes embodied. The musical instrument ends up being an extension of your body, like a fifth limb, because it becomes as easy and unconscious as walking. It is the constant focus and repetition exercised by a strong cold cognition that ingrains any particular skill into our hot cognition.
A strong cold cognition can focus on a task for a good length of time. While a weak, or lazy, cold cognition is prone to answer questions with the first thing that comes to mind which leads to intuitive errors. Other characteristics of a weak cold system are impulsivity, impatience, and a desire for immediate gratification.
A strong cold cognition, on the other hand, is essential for cultivating ingrained skill. Once we download the cold cognitive details and theory of a particular skill into our hot cognition, the skill becomes spontaneous and can be accessed without having to consciously think about it. This process is constant in cultivating skill. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains this cognitive phenomenon by stating that “As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved.”1
If you are seriously dedicated to a craft you will continue to develop skill. This process teaches us to disengage from our cold cognition as well, and this is really important to understand. Even though world-class performers use cold cognition to learn a certain skill, once it has become embodied cold cognition is like kryptonite to the effortlessness of the hot system. For example, a musician will perform without the sense of “them” doing it. When they start to think about what they are doing they begin to make mistakes. We, as the cold cognitive conscious self, are in our own way. When we are out of our own way, meaning our cold cognition has downregulated, we are in the zone (downregulate means decrease, diminish, or turn the volume down).
The dizzying height of skill is to have the ability to remain in this state of being in the zone for longer periods of time. Our cold cognitive concentration gives way to a much deeper level of focus. If you are focused, and not thinking, your cold cognition will slowly downregulate and you will be in the zone, in a state of flow.
The effortless cognitive ease we feel in a flow state is the result of the lights being on but nobody is home, meaning the slow cold thinking function that we mistaken for who we are has shutdown. As a result, the aesthetic beauty of the natural world comes alive through your skill. Understanding this modern science of flow demonstrates how human cognition is embodied.
The methods for cultivating skill should be approached with the new embodied model of the self rather than the hangover of an old and dusty disembodied model of the self. And yet, though the embodied mind may appear new to cognitive science, it is only catching up to an embodied model of mind which is much more ancient. To sufficiently understand how to experience flow we need to understand the wisdom and science behind the development of skill first explored in the East.
1. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (Penguin, 2012), 35.
Enlightenment Today episode Flow and Wu-wei
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