Flow states in body and mind
Flow states are best described as an optimal state of conscious awareness, where you feel fluid in body and mind, offering you a more continuous sense of health and well-being. It might also be described as a being like a stream of consciousness, which helps you remain alert, relaxed and in-tune with the present moment, present in your own life and less prone to getting caught up in anxieties about the past or future; less sensitive to change, more adaptive to the unexpected and improving your performance in your daily activities.
In practice, this kind of awareness includes being able to experience your sensations and emotions, as well as observe them at the same time, meaning you are able to create a connection between what your body feels and how your brain perceives or interprets those feelings. Examples of inducing flow states may include what you feel during a meditation, a hypnotic trance, being intuitive, dancing in tune with music, having an epiphany, or ‘being in the zone’ during sports and high-octane activities.
The simple truth is that anyone can achieve flow states as an ordinary part of human experience, such as how the brain unconsciously regulates the balance of your blood sugar levels, oxygenated blood and body temperature throughout the day. This includes your conscious ability to self-soothe intense and disruptive emotions (such as anxiety), or restore a sense of calm and safety after a personal crisis. This is extremely helpful after a prolonged period of stress, illness, bereavement, or a relationship breakdown. It helps to restore your confidence and self-awareness, rather than keeping you stuck in a state of fear and dependency.
You can also train your body and brain slowly to develop more continuous ‘flow states’ as part of your everyday experience, which may include learning the daily practice of mindfulness of breathing, grounding techniques, stretching and physical exercise. These practices are not elitist, or based on expertise, and can easily be learned through attending classes in yoga, tai chi, martial arts, sport, dance, exercise, swimming and creative arts activities. You can even learn how to induce ‘flow states’ at home listening to podcasts, radio, TV, the internet or YouTube videos. As a psychotherapist and counsellor I help people develop self-awareness through regular mindful practice. Mindful breathing is such a vital aspect of this because it allows us to slow down enough to pay attention to what we are experiencing moment-by-moment, as well as process our thoughts and feelings in a manageable way.
The best way of describing a flow state is this. I feel everything in my body and mind slow down. I am both present and on the periphery of my own experience. Like a participant-observer in my own life. This gives me a sense of clarity, safety and calm. I might sometimes feel a tingling sensation in my body and mind. My conscious beings to flow steady and calm like a meandering river. All my feelings coalesce and I may sometimes feel at peace with myself. I am less likely to be distracted, as I find my focus and attention resting gently on a quiet moment for which I am uniquely grateful, but the beauty is that it is never perfect. Being mindful involves an acceptance of my shadow; the part of me that inhabits the darkness, that can be reactive and in conflict with itself. It creates a conversation between the vulnerable, wounded part of me, as well as the strength and resilience of the survivor. Like many people I have experienced some degree of distress and trauma in my life, and I have experienced the challenges of getting stuck, caught up in vicious cycles of behaviour and trapped in repetitive habits of my own making.
Daily flow states
Being still in the garden – each morning (and evening if I can make it), I go early into the garden just after dawn. I try to wear clothing that is loose and spacious, allowing me as much exposure to the elements without losing my dignity (I hope). I allow my bare feet to come in contact with the wet grass. I focus first on breathing deep and slow, with the full flow and expanse of my diaphragm. Then grounding myself, being stable and flexible, holding myself together whatever the weather and trying my best to embrace it. I pick out one of the five senses, usually sound, and listen intently (but in a relaxed way) to the wind in the trees, the trill of birdsong, the flow of traffic or the rustle of leaves. Then I stand still, quieting down my sensations and allowing the moment to flow.
Walking at depth in the park – I try on a daily basis to get at least half an hour to an hour of walking in. Walking in a park or natural surroundings is best. Before going outside I try to slow myself down and prepare my mind and body in a quiet way, using the rhythm of my breath. But often I may also find myself in the midst of an anxious spike or conducting an angry argument in my head, or worrying. With the first few steps I allow all the distractions to continue at their own pace and consciously observe or acknowledge them. Slowly, I turn my attention to the pace of my arms and legs as I stride along; trying to develop a fluid steady rhythm, and attuning them to the tempo and cadence of my breath. Slowly I find the two merge into synchronicity. I use a still, quiet voice to soothe the dramas in my mind, and slowly let go of my incessant worrying. I pay attention to my five senses and try to find a moment to feel grateful for. These moments don’t last long and I may always return to my anxieties about the past or future, but often I am released enough to feel the flow state, however momentary, is always worthwhile.
Studying the intricate nature of being – I like to study natural objects, living or dead, organic or inorganic, which stimulate my curiosity, awe and sense of wonder. For example, I might use sight as my guide; focussing on the translucent veins in a coloured autumn leaf, the smooth, warm sheen of a burnished conker, the tentative search of a snail’s antennae, the filigree of stamen inside a flower or the dappled reflections of sunshine on flowing water. I try to study objects without prejudice, looking only for whatever I find and searching deeper in the intricate, complexity of natural contours, shapes, colours, lines and the subtle blends of light and shadow.
Listening to water – I like to go to a body of water that has a distinct pace and flow, particularly the ebb and flow of the waves on the ocean, or a river, when I can’t visit the coast. I prepare myself to listen by slowing down with the breath first, closing my eyes and finding a sense of openness to each evolving moment. As I breathe I also listen to the water; not only with my ears, but also with my body – in my chest cavity, in my bones or the vibrations in my skull. I listen to the oceanic roar of the waves and try to synchronise my breath, in and out, with the throbbing ebb and flow of the sea. This is just as easily achieved with a river, a canal or a fast flowing stream. Even a lake or a pond moves and makes sound, if you listen.