Flow States, Performance and Meditation!
The interests in Flow States has grown tremendously over the last couple of decades. Steve Kotler and his colleagues have done great work to increase the interest and knowledge on this topic. Not withstanding, our own pushing of the boundaries of what is possible as far as human performance is concerned has also aided this increased interest in flow states and meditation.
Mihály Csíkszentmihály, a Hungarian-Americal psychologist, created the term Flow State, and researchers have come to define flow as an ‘optimal state of consciousness,’ a peak state where we feel our best and perform our best. A physiological state in the body that mirrors what athletes have called being “in the zone”, or if you happen to b a runner, ‘runner’s high’. That state where time feels like it slows, your ability to control the variables of your activity increases, from increased power, ease of movement and ability to stay centred and focused. We are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes and all aspects of performance – mental and physical – go through the roof.
What Steve Kotler along with many others have been able to do over the last decade is to recognize and demonstrate that this state is a state that can be reproduced. Meaning it isn’t something that just happens, at random but rather a state you can train yourself to be in more regularly.
In fact, what research has shown is that in Flow you can potentially FIVE TIMES more effective then not.
Triggers to Flow States
There are many triggers to invoking a Flow State. From environmental triggers (high consequences, novelty, etc.) to psychological triggers (clear goals, immediate feedback, etc.), Social triggers (risk, familiarity, etc.) and creative triggers (creativity)!
Trying to create an environment where as many triggers are present helps in fact that ought to be the goal and the exploration of that is outside this post. Instead the intention of this post is what I believe is the single most potent ability to invoke Flow States, the ability to be in the moment.
Your Mind and its Influencers
There are a myriad of stimuli competing for your attention and in doing so taking away from you being in the moment and tapping you of your focus, power and full capacity.
As an athlete in an athletic setting you have various external stimuli (crowd, noise, coach, opposition, event, past failures/successes, equipment, stage, etc) all impacting your physiological state. That physiological state is impacted not because of the external stimuli in and of itself, but rather our internal reaction to those stimuli. Our internal mind chatter and inner dialogue commenting on the external dialogue. That internal dialogue and mind chatter takes you away from the present moment.
Training allows you to deal to some extent with those obstructions to your physical capacity. The greater ease and comfort you create with your athletic requirement and skill requirement, the more comfortable and less internal negative reaction. However, you can aid your physical training with also training your mind to be in the moment!
The Gold Standard
Meditation and meditative practices are the Gold Standard of the training your ability to stay in the moment.
Meditation can be seen as simply your ability to be the ruler of YOU! If that sounds weird, I’m going to pose a question to you to show how little we have control over our own Mind. Take a couple minutes away from reading this, either close your eyes or don’t and…..Don’t think of a pink elephant!
Now…how much time did you spend thinking of a pink elephant?
Maybe you pictured it, maybe you thought of the question, maybe you thought there are no pink elephants, or “how does a pink elephant look like?”. Maybe a pink elephant never popped in your head, but you spent time having a thought or an opinion of that question or of pink elephants. The point is that I asked you not to think of a pink elephant and your Mind did everything BUT listen to you. In fact ALL it did was think of a pink elephant or the idea of one. All of which took you out of the moment.
Your Monkey Mind
We live in this illusion that we have control over our thoughts. Our thoughts like the clouds in the sky come and go. I will make one distinction here, actively thinking of something can be viewed as different then a thought that pops into your head. Nevertheless, experiment for yourself and you will see that you won’t find a point in which thoughts start and end. They just come into existence and then disappear from the moment you wake. Like clouds in the sky they come and go. Mostly we aren’t even aware of the fact that we have thoughts coming and going and that we are riding the wave so to speak from one thought to another.
We may be thinking of something but before we know it our Mind has gone off on its own, on a trail of thoughts. Moments pass before we realize that we had drifted away.
These thoughts are always on something in the past (creating regret, upset disappointment, etc) to something on the future (creating anxiety, hope, worry, excitement, etc). What’s worse, in athletic settings our thoughts flood our Mind with a mix of positivity and negativity that get in the way of our focused attention on the task at hand, and what is in front of us to do in the moment.
That is our Monkey Mind. Like a monkey jumping from one branch to another, our Mind jumps from one thought to another. And when it does that we can get caught giving attention to a thought that negatively impacts us.
Why it may go to a place of negativity is likely because we normally have a portion of our brain that is really active during the day; the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. All you need to know about this portion of your brain is that it is where our self-monitoring occurs. Self-monitoring is the voice of doubt, that defeatist nag, our inner critic.
Imagine Canadian tennis star Bianca Andreescu (who recently won the US Open) being caught in a thought of how great of a tennis player Serena Williams is. That she has won so many majors, dominates everyone, whether she will be able to beat her serve, etc. Pretty soon she would have thought her way out of being able to win. In Flow, we deactivate and reduce activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Thus, we begin to act without hesitation. Creativity becomes more free-flowing, risk taking becomes less frightening and the combination lets us flow at a far faster clip.
Brain Waves and Flow
The scattered mind state, or busy mind, triggers particular brain waves (Beta wave activity) that leads to increased sympathetic nervous system activity. This increased activity in your nervous system leads to fascial constrictions, reduced blood flow, impacts on motor control and reduce force output as well as increase in stress hormones…directly effecting performance.
Meditation is the practice of gaining control over your Mind. And in doing so gaining a sense of control over your Reactions to your thoughts and being in the moment. Meditation allows for you to recognize the gaps between your thoughts, and in doing so, giving you the ability to increase your capacity to decide what thoughts you give attention to!
Being able to give attention to those that will serve you. And even better, being able to have your Mind do its thing and have thought after thought and not have it impact you. Not have it influence you. A negative thought comes and goes with no effect on your internal state.
The practice of meditation increases your ability to maintain brain waves that are associated with focus, calmness and control. Your brain waves when you practice meditation tend to be more alpha and at times theta, these brain wave patterns are associated with grounded, unfettered attention analogous to the state you are in when you show up for an exam and you know all the answers. Calm, cool and collected. Physiologically this enhances neuromotor capacity, motor control in higher brain centres and regulation in sympathetic tone and reduction of stress hormones. ALL direct contributors to performance and how your body moves!
Gamma waves and Flow
What research has shown us is with increased meditative practices athletes increase greater spikes of another type of brain wave activity that for a long time was dismissed as ‘spare brain noise’, gamma brain waves. Gamma brain wave activity is associated with simultaneous processing of information from different brain areas. Gamma brainwaves pass information rapidly and quietly, synchronizing different parts of your brain.
Beta brainwaves, which is dominant during normal waking state and athletic participation, allows for attention to be directed towards a cognitive task, allows us to engage in problem solving and judgement. However, in excess can demand a lot of metabolic and neurological energy and increases self-monitoring. Self-monitoring is a good thing except in some athletic participations where that self-monitoring can become a voice of doubt, that defeatist nag, our inner critic as mentioned above.
With meditative practice, you enhance your ability to be in more of an Alpha brainwave, slower brain functioning where mind chatter slows down, body relaxes. As well, the increase frequency of Gamma brainwaves, which allows the brain to have multiple brain centres involved, connected and quietly process information. Akin to the feeling an athlete has when they are ‘in the zone’, the feeling of things happening effortlessly. In those states you brain is processing information rapidly and effectively allowing body functions to occur with ease and maximum efficiency.
What often leads to inconsistencies in athletic performance for the elite athlete is not a lack of strength, or ability to perform or execute a task, but rather the inability to properly attenuate the enormous amount of information coming in the form of the various stimuli.
Imagine being at the most important event and moment in your athletic career and you can be focused, calm and at ease. Various different triggers around you, like the noise of the crowd, your opponent, the yelling of your coach, your own internal mind chatter, and you are able to have all that BE and still not be effected.
You are not your thoughts!
At first, it maybe hard to see your thoughts, feelings, emotions and desires being separate from you. If so I invite you to see that you have thoughts, but you are not your thoughts. You can see your thoughts come and go and just the fact that you can witness them separates them from YOU.
You have feelings, all different types. Maybe of anxiousness, nervousness, feelings will come, and like guests they stay and will eventually go. Feelings come and go and you just witness them, observe them, thus they can’t be you.
You have emotions. Emotions of anger, upset, frustration, joy. All these emotions come, stay a while but go. And thus, they can’t be you. YOU are constant. Emotions, like thoughts and feelings, are just part of the ongoing barrage of info that the Mind goes through.
The Patterns that we Weave
Unbeknownst to a lot of us, we are made up of habits we have formed over the years. Habits, or patterns of behaviours and thoughts, that we loop through. Triggers, like a competition setting, or a coaches feedback, or a skill you haven’t had success on, come up and we play the same loop of thoughts, feelings and emotions that we have formed through habit. The extent to which we have the ability to CHOOSE to go along with the loop or not is dependant on our ability to recognize the patterns we have woven, the mental loops.
The practice of meditation will allow us to recognize the gaps, provide the opportunity to recognize the mind loops, the habits and patterns of behaviours and thoughts and see it for what it is. What it is is not YOU. It is the record that you have playing and thus you’ll have the ability to choose another record, choose another habit or pattern of behaviour.
Meditation helps you spend more and more time in a Flow State, and easily access the Flow State where YOU are able to BE with the influx of thoughts, feelings and desires/emotions that come and go, with little say from ourselves, and not be impacted by them.
That is the frontier that is yet to be explored fully in athletic training and is THE frontier to train.
So how do you meditate? How do you start? What do you do? How do I stop thinking? Do you have to meditate for years?
There are many schools of meditation and approaches to meditation. As a practice it has been around as long as homo sapiens have existed. The simplest approaches are best at the beginning. And the best news; various universities such as Harvard have shown that as little as 5-10 minutes done daily for 2-3 weeks is enough to start to facilitate the changes that meditation provides.
Approaches to Practice
Here are my suggested approaches:
THE BODY AS A TOOL:
- Find 5-10 minutes daily to practice (ideally the same time). This is the minimum that has been shown to be needed. Obviously if you can work up to more the better you can train. Sit comfortably and be STILL. Sitting still on its own is a tough task. Just being able to sit still for 10 minutes, not moving or reacting to the various thoughts that pull us to move, the various sensations, sensations of itching, achy-ness, etc. This will help strengthen your WILL, your ability to not abide by your thoughts. This is your opportunity to strengthen your will to have feelings, have sensations, have thoughts and not be taken away by them. An opportunity where YOU get to say what happens next. Your job is simply to notice all these sensations, but don’t REACT. Just witness them, observe them. This can be an easy way to start because you don’t have to focus your attention on any one thing.
- Start a scan of your body. Start at the head, move to the face, the neck, shoulders to hands. Front of chest to waist. Upper back to glutes. Down one leg, then down the other leg.
- While you scan, notice sensations, sensations that will pull for you to move, and you sit STILL. You may experience achy sensations, tingling sensations, pressure, warmth, wind, a good feeling sensation. Whatever the sensation your job is to notice and observe and not react. This is one of the components of a buddhist meditation technique, Vipassana.
BREATH AS A TOOL:
- Another approach that can be utilized is that of Focus Attention practice. Take the same minimum length of time, sit still and bring your attention to your breath.
- Use your breath as a way to bring your attention back to the moment. Focus on the sensation of your breath on your upper lip, in your nose, the feeling of air coming in and out. Whatever you would like your attention to be on.
- Focus on the in breath, then the out breath. You can even count the breaths as way to stay focused on it in the beginning.
- And as your mind wanders (and it will) when you notice it bring it back to your breath.
- If your mind is busy, help it out by following this process: Contract and tense your whole body and hold your breath for a few seconds, then relax and breathe out. Repeat at least 3 times. Following that with each exhalation breathe out and relax your feet. Breathe out and relax your legs, then your hips, your abdomen and back, your shoulders. Breathe out and relax your arms, then your neck and head. Finally, breathe out and relax your Mind. Eliciting fatigue helps in quieting the mind
Whether you choose to practice by observing your thoughts, like clouds in a sky, or body sensations or your breath, do understand that your Mind is like what buddhist call a wild Ox. Sometimes your mind will wonder repeatedly and constantly, if that happens just bring it back to your breath each time. There will be days where your Mind will react with frustration and annoyance to the ongoing wandering of your Mind (especially if you are an athlete who strives for excellence), but instead of being frustrated and annoyed be grateful for your Mind that day. It provided you with the opportunity to have more and more practice to centre yourself, bring yourself back to the present moment!
The biggest mistake new meditators (and some old) do is to be frustrated and irritated by the constant wandering of your Mind. The reaction of frustration is the same reaction you are trying to gain a sense of control over. Recognize that wandering mind as the gift it is, to practice Being with the storm and NOT reacting but bringing your focused attention back.
The beauty of this practice is that over time you will recognize your ability to stay centred, grounded and focused in sport. It is subtle how the effects start to positively impact you. So my last bit of guidance is, to practice, daily and consistently and when you are done, you are done!
No need to think about if you “meditated well or good”. There is no such thing. When you are done your training your Mind while meditating, you are done. If you practice the results are inevitable. As a famous meditation teacher would say “you are bound to be successful”!!
In closing I will add this. I strive to speak on matters that I can confidently speak of. Meaning, I ground myself in a level and depth of understanding that will allow me to speak on the matter as an expert. Matters of the Mind, is not my speciality nor where I have expert level understanding. Having said that, I have been meditating myself for 14 years. 10 of which very consistently, 5 years of which I’ve been meditating daily for at least an hour a day. I have been taught in one school of meditation, developing myself in another and have spent 14 years learning many meditation paths, learning about the Mind and increasing my understanding of the neurophysiological reactions to meditation. As such, although I am not an expert, it is something I feel quite confident about when introducing the topic to people.