The Path to “Flow”

You can observe “flow” in other people and you can hear it too: in a great band that’s “tight,” a military unit that’s “high-speed, low-drag,” a great athlete who is “in the zone.” In a great team where everyone “just knows” what they need to do, and anticipates what everyone else will do.

Experience and Measurement of Flow

Individuals in a flow state all report this:

  1. they were totally absorbed in what they were doing; 
  2. they felt elevated; 
  3. they knew what they needed to do;
  4. they knew they had the skills to do it;
  5. they expressed a sense of timelessness – focused on the present while time passed quickly; and 
  6. they found that in flow the experience itself was its own reward. 

Physiological measurements confirm what practitioners experience. As a performer enters a flow state, their heart rate and blood pressure decrease and the major facial muscles relax. Flow is known in the old literature, in the new research, and in the hearts and minds of practitioners everywhere, as a state of effortless attention. It will not surprise accomplished climbers, rowers, runners, pilots, medics, team athletes, musicians, or martial artists, that the effortless attention and overall relaxation of the body and mind does not impede performance; it enhances it.  

Mimetic Praxis: Flow Hijacked by Entertainment and Remote Managers 

Although performers enter a flow state when they perform, the people watching them – observers, managers, coaches, audiences and fans – do not.  Entertainment hijacks “flow.” Watching images and sounds does not engage the same suite of mental functions as self-directed, purposeful attention which engages your will, analytical and planning functions in goal-oriented action – the conditions which produce a flow state. 

This hijacking of the perceptual and emotional apparatus of flow, without developing it through skills and challenges, is why entertainment can become intoxicating and in the long run, debilitating. 

The distinction between flow and entertainment is obvious: audience members are not engaged in action – they do not have personal control, agency, or a feedback loop – all essential for mastery and flow. 

From the perspective of neuroscience – audience members lack what participants get from training: the harmony of brain wave patterns, the training of the will, cognition and affect, and the union of psychological and somatic action. These happen in a flow state. They do not happen when you watch someone else perform.

Kata, Kumite and Flow

In kumite we concentrate intensely and we get immediate feedback on the quality of our performance. In matches where the skill level of the opponents is close, and the rules and objectives are clear, we can train in flow states. By using kata to deepen our skills, and increasing the level of challenge incrementally over time, with consistent feedback from instructors, we can produce high skills and readily make the phase transition to a flow state. 

This connection between traditional karate training and current science is an excerpt from “Mushin and the Science of Flow: Phase Transformation in Kata, Part II”

The first article in the series is “Damatte Keiko: Phase Transformation in Kata, Part I”

Post and photo Copyright © 2019 Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, L.L.C.

Read Jeff Brooks incredible new book The Good Fight – The Virtues and Values of the Martial Arts available in paperback and Kindle edition

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