“While there appear to be considerable differences between individuals with regard to the conditions and tasks that are conducive to flow, the state itself is described in remarkably similar terms regardless of socioeconomic status, age, culture and ethnicity”-“Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence”, Ullen et al 2012
Flow state is a known experience associated with positive feelings, a sense of timelessness, and a loss of conscious thought. But does that mean that if we have a sense of timelessness, positive feelings, and a loss of conscious thought, that we are in flow state? Is it possible that the attempts to reverse engineer this experience have missed the mark? Those who are strong proponents of flow state would like to distinguish between the negative sides and the positive sides and suggest that we can somehow separate the two. That one can perhaps live purposefully in pursuit of flow state, without losing themselves in that pursuit. Perhaps this is possible, or perhaps not. But in order to determine that, we would have to first understand what flow state actually is.
Thankfully, serious research is being done on this, at least from the perspective of its potential benefits, and many of the mechanisms are being identified. In general, flow state is associated with a cycle of several pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters being released. Brain activity in regions responsible for conscious thought and complex decision making are reduced, while motor skills and attention are severely increased. Other common self-reported statements include low self-awareness, while also experiencing a sense of control. But there are some issues with many of these studies, particularly ones focused on identifying brain activity. There is the possibility that there are different, but perhaps related, states which we are lumping into one blanket discussion.
From personal experience, I have felt like there are different magnitudes of flow, where some can be particularly intense while others are practically mundane. On the one hand, there are tasks that are perhaps boring and repetitive but require a sufficiently fast response that a minor distraction helps to keep focused on the otherwise boring task. At the other end of the spectrum, some tasks are so challenging that there simply is no time for paying attention to anything else.
Since it is assumed that there is a single flow state, most of the academic interpretations are focused on inducing it from activity engagement. This angle makes sense, as finding the triggers which induce flow state automatically can help us to get into flow state and understand how it feels. However, once we know how it feels, can’t we just put ourselves into flow state on command when it benefits us?
While many modern youtubers and twitterfeeders hype up flow state as “peak performance” and say it “optimizes your life”, it cannot be emphasized enough that there is more to this story than just life-hacking our way into perfection. Some of that story comes from the historical perspective of Zen Buddhism, and the samurai who also spent a lot of time being concerned with peak performance.
“The experience of satori, or awakening, is referred to as the entry into principle, or noumenon, and the obliteration of the artificial inhibitions of intellect this produces gives the impression of mastery. There are many examples of people who have evinced extraordinary capabilities after experiencing satori, such as the ability to master an art without being taught, but there is considerable individual and conditional difference in this, and the confusion of awakening with enlightenment has always been an issue in Zen“-Thomas Cleary
Thomas Cleary translated various texts from Eastern philosophies, including many books which were written by samurai about how to live according to their code of honor. As Zen Buddhism was a tremendous influence on the samurai, much of their culture was based on achieving Zen. They too, believed in a mental state where conscious thought was suppressed and actions were effortless. They felt it was central to victory in combat.
The above quote comes from Cleary’s commentary in his translation of Yagyu Munenori’s “Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War“, and it is taken from a passage where he summarizes some issues with the samurai flavor of Zen. There is a lot of information to unpack in this single quote, but it is key to understanding the similarities between flow state and the Zen empty mind.
The description of satori as the entry into noumenon indicates that it is the first time an individual experiences complete understanding of a thing. This experience of complete understanding coincides with the suppression of intellect, and the conclusion of the samurai was that this meant the intellect was holding us back from our true potential. And most importantly, this state is not enlightenment, it is merely a step on the path to enlightenment.
This final point is crucial. Enlightenment takes active pursuit, it is not just accidentally stumbled upon. The path can be found on accident, but it is still an arduous journey afterwards. But some experience tremendous ability in merely being awakened, without achieving enlightenment. This is a danger.
In samurai Zen, the main problem produced by confusion of realization in principle and in fact is the notion that it is only necessary to stop thinking and to react automatically to be in accord with principle in fact. The result is an unconscious amorality that can be manipulated externally unaware of its aberrations.
The last line is particularly foreboding. Someone who focuses entirely on acting without thinking may be happier, more satisfied, and even more skilled at what they do. But without thinking, how can they recognize when they are being played like a fiddle?
For the samurai this probably was not an issue. Their entire code was focused on loyalty to their leaders, and servitude to the extent that they effectively worshiped the idea of dying in combat. They were acutely aware that they were merely tools of war, that their responsibility was to fight and die, and they embraced that role wholeheartedly.
The ideal “empty mind” state that the samurai spent their idle time chasing featured a suppression of conscious thought, and an alignment of body and mind which made activity seem effortless. These same features are also consistently associated with flow state. Moreover, both states appear to carry similar negative consequences which are rarely discussed in comparison to the discussion of their positive effects, and these consequences are a danger to the individual themselves. Flow state is Zen. But the experience alone is not equivalent to enlightenment.