We hear about flow state a lot, or getting in the zone, commonly associated with peak and creative performance. I would hear about it a lot as an athlete, but it wasn’t until I became a singer and concurrently delved into the world of mindfulness that I really understood what it was and how to access it. I just completed a certification in Mindfulness and Well being Strategy, which synthesized western psychology and eastern spiritual practice, heavy on meditation. Music and mindfulness/meditation have been the biggest teachers in understanding and accessing flow state.
It’s important to note that “the zone” is a concept that has long been in existence, notably in Daoism and Buddhism. In positive psychology today, flow state refers to a state of consciousness achieved when someone is fully engaged in any complex task with an energized, all-consuming focus which alters brain state and bends a sense of time. Studies show it has almost the same effect on the brain and self as meditation. It is, strictly speaking, a meditative state. We often achieve flow in our daily lives while playing a game, listening to music, creating, or playing an instrument. The sticky part is finding Flow when it’s time to perform in public. So how do we find this balance of calm but intense engagement and focus?
The answer came for me while I was singing once, standing on a stage, during the middle of a French art song, when I became aware in some part of my brain that the next line of French was nowhere to be found. I had no idea what the next word was, but the music always keeps going so you just have to jump and hope for the best. In what might have been the greatest gratitude I’ve ever felt for my past self and her hours of practicing, the next line came tumbling out, perfectly elocuted even its foreignness by my tongue and lips which seemed to move of their own accord. It was an out of body experience to watch my lips move and my body work without consciously commanding them to, which many performers of all kinds talk about fairly often. This moment itself was not the miracle, as it is mostly attributed to muscle memory. The miracle was what happened after.
A bumble like that onstage, though very common, is terrifying because it alerts you to your own lack of control. If there is anything you want while hundreds of eyes are staring at you, it’s control. This is the one sided ego- wanting to get things right, wanting to get approval, wanting to impress and be liked. Such an obvious lack of control induced a mild panic attack, but my singing changed for the better. After my mind’s control was wrested from my grip, my unbalanced ego went with it, and presence descended. I stopped trying to get everything correct, I started to actually feel my body, to stay in the moment, to listen to all the information in me and around me, and respond to it in real time, rather than just following a preset path in my head, sitting in the cockpit with a white knuckle grip on the controls, micromanaging every move. My brain switched from task completion to the seamless integration of all hours of practice and information gathered. My breath deepened and the sound could resonate much better in a calmly engaged body, rather than one rigid with regulation and restriction. I knew what to do, I had studied this technique for hours, and my body was familiar with the flow of the melodic line. I stopped caring suddenly what everyone was thinking and started to let my brain and body work without consciously commanding them every step of the way. I even started to explore the edges of my performance abilities. It was an immensely enjoyable experience. Understanding the phenomenon of this moment and the brain switch that occurred has been incredibly interesting to venture into in the years since then. What I have discovered is that the work of mindfulness has been my greatest ally because of the concept of presence.
Presence, in my opinion, is the key to flow state, and it is harder than we think. If you think presence is easy, try sitting down to meditate for 10 minutes. Sit still, no distractions, silent time with yourself, keeping your thoughts and attention on your breath. If you are like most people, this is hell at first. We are swamped by our perpetual fear that we have to be doing something, thinking something, otherwise we are nothing. It is, again, the ego screaming to identify with the material world. Presence requires that we willingly put down our stories that we tell our self every day. Presence requires we stop thinking of the past and the future and become expert listeners to the now. Presence requires a willingness to look in the mirror of Self and see what we find. Presence is an opening to the reality of uncertainty, and it is incredibly hard because we surrender our firm grip on our identity, on how others perceive us, on how we perceive ourselves (which might just be the hardest of all).
So how can we help ourselves get present? If presence is the key to flow, but it is annoyingly hard, then what is the key to presence? What would induce in someone the desire for the at-first-unpleasant task of being present? My only answer is the willingness to be vulnerable. Vulnerability, as Brene Brown says, is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change. And the unknown, as Deepak Chopra says, is the only place creativity can live. Vulnerability is essential for any endeavor desiring greatness or newness. If I am not willing to take a chance, if I am not willing to see myself in a different light, if I am not willing to change my story, open myself up to anything new, or share something of myself with the outside world- regardless of how they receive it- then I cannot truly be present, because, quite simply, I will be unwilling to listen to the reality of what is. I will be afraid of anything outside the regular, normal story my brain has written for maintaining control and certainty. This precludes the possibility for flow state. So, if you want to improve athletic performance, start to consider welcoming vulnerability, practicing meditation, and watch the self-acceptance this necessarily brings. The only way we will ever be ok with putting ourselves out there is if we accept ourselves as we are.
So we’ve traversed a lot of meta territory. Here are the takeaways:
- Flow State depends upon our ability to be present
- Presence requires a willingness for vulnerability
- Vulnerability hinges on our own self-acceptance.
So now to really wrap it all up with the best news: once you’ve done the hard work here and are ready to just do your thing in front of an opponent or onlookers, listening to music can actually catapult you into a flow state before you perform. I think music is a meditative act in itself. It provides a certain dissociation needed to distract your brain from its anxiety about the task at hand, and it provides that essential paradox needed for flow state: total engagement and presence, yet not task oriented obsession. The one caveat would be- you have to actually listen to the music, not just have headphones in and think about what you ate for dinner. I think because music lights up so much of our brain in activity that it probably is able to keep our neural networks firing in remarkably helpful ways, so we don’t go to our fight/flight/control freak pathways. My intuition tells me that music gives us an actual kinesthetic experience of where our heads should be, so that we can try to replicate that during our athletic performance. It basically trains our brain. People don’t often talk about the kinesthetic experience of mental states, but if you pay attention you can feel them. So listening to music is training our networks for where they should be when we perform. If you give a quick google, there a ton of helpful articles to suggest the beneficial links between music and athletic performance- a fair amount of research has been done. But in terms of flow state, I would say the secret strategy is meditation and mindfulness as a daily practice to do the harder work that needs to be done, and music for sure when you’re up to bat to help your brain transcend the micro-managing ego and stick to the zone!
Sarah graduated with a degree in Music from the University of Virginia. At UVA she participated heavily in choir and mentoring youth in the arts. In her other time now, Sarah is a swim coach, preparing for a masters in vocal performance.