How long can you stay in flow state?
I personally don’t know, and it also depends on what activity it is linked to.
But while I’ve always been interested in “flow state” anything, I’ve always had some questions… And this episode is definitely more of an open thought process than a teaching or anything like that.
On flow-state, balance, open awareness and sailing…
The flow state is always presented as an extra-ordinary state, like something on one hand easy to be in, but at the same time not sustainable for a long term. And often it involves being focused on one thing, entirely absorbed. I had a few experiences of that, and that was awesome. I can also see how it can be really addictive.
But it’s also connected for me to a certain type on being extraordinary, having “super powers”, hacking your mind and your body… A certain want to become a kind of at least superhuman, and maybe superhero. Why not, I am an advocate for personal growth.
But it usually is presented in a way that makes us forget that it is extra-ordinary. That it is only one side of the picture, and that any “extra”, “super”, “hyper”… thing, is not made to last, by essence it is not sustainable in the long term. It is a wonderful adaptation to a moment in time that requires a special focus. And that implies the ability to then regulate back from that hyper focused and hyper vigilant state.
It reminds me of my sailing years, when I was living on my boat. One day I was on someone else’s boat, sailing along some friends and playing a gentle “who’s faster”. We had a sail up, that is only possible to put out in the right conditions, but gets you really faster. It also demands a lot of care, it is not the kind of sail you can put up and go do your thing as easily as with the others sails. I was mentioning I didn’t use it a lot on my boat because I was more on “cruise” mode.
My friends had a laugh, because he understood: “I don’t give a damn about going fast and I can’t be bothered.” But what I meant was:”I’m sailing days and sometimes weeks at a time, and my priority is safety. I seldom can have this up with all the attention it requires.” While on a regatta, you can afford focusing intensely, because it is going to be a short period in time, but on a long passage, you need to balance the need for going as fast as you can, with your need to be rested enough so that you can actually operate.
The mindset is different, because the purpose is different. Coming back to flow state, which is sometimes presented as a panacea, it feels to me like it is presenting regattas as sailing. And it makes me think about balance (no surprise, I know, balance is my thing!). Because for me, balance, in a way, is long term flow.
In what we usually call flow state, which is a peak performance state, the emphasis would be on results first. In balance, seen as a long-term flow state, the emphasis would be on sustainability first. In a way I see them as very alike, but also very different. And being in this long-term flow state is actually supportive of the peak performance flow state. A lot of my experiences of the later occurred when I was sailing.
Balance as a long-term flow state
One of the principles of balance for me is a sustainable rhythm, between action and rest. And that means adaptation to our conditions. That means having a regulated nervous system, switching to sympathetic mode when action is needed, and able to switch back to parasympathetic mode as soon as we’re done, to resource.
This how we are supposed to function as humans. Sadly in modern life there so many opportunities to have an unregulated nervous system, stuck in action mode (and over-thinking is an action).
But when we have a regulated nervous system, then it gets easier to play with state regulation: Instead of changing directly what we do and how we do, changing how we feel first, before doing something. And this absolutely changes the action that follows.
I’m talking about making sure we regulate in some way our state, so that we get the results we want. This would be the basis for this vision of balance as a kind of long-term flow state. It is easy to sustain because it is a generative way of doing: Doing from being, acting from the inside out.
How to cultivate flow
As stated before, regulating our nervous system seems a good idea on where to start.
But right now, we can already play. We all have at least one experience, even short, of being in this peak performance flow state. And we also know moments of sustainable rhythm. Now the question becomes, how to integrate some aspects of the performance flow state into a daily life, not linked to a specific outcome.
We can play with the sense of focus that is present in both states, in a different way. When we look intensely at something, for example trying to discern a detail, we have a very narrow, but also very precise, vision; and when we are in a crowd, we use our peripheral vision, we loose the details, but we have a global sense of what is around us. The first is like the kind of focus we develop in a peak performance flow state, while the second is like the open awareness that supports a gentle alertness, a relaxed state yet ready to response to anything it needs to.
So one way to play with this could be just noticing in our day, when we use an intense focus, and when we switch to an open awareness. Some of us never switch back, they use a lot of energy staying focused when they could relax. Over-thinking is just one example of that.
Noticing it is a way to let it evolve. Just like when I gave Shiatsu sessions, I just needed to make my client aware that s/he was contracting the arm, for her/him to relax immediately. S/he did know how to relax, s/he just forgot s/he was holding it in the first place.
The more we notice what happens in these flow state experiences, be it peak performance like or the more long-term balance version, the more we learn how to switch from one to the other when needed, and how to use them so that they support each other.
How can you adapt this in your daily life so that you can have this experience of flow but in a much more open way, and live in a kind of generative experience, daily. That’s an open question to you (and me!).
(Intro music for the podcast: “Tiny people”, by Alexei De Bronhe )