Two paths leading to one truth: Neuroscience & QiGong
As I slipped deeper and deeper into my body’s intuitive intelligence, I experienced existence in a dimension of consciousness devoid of time and self.
My arms moved fluidly, hands pushing a ball of invisible energy across my body, hips rotating and feet gently touching the floor. We moved effortlessly, like kelp swaying with the ebb and flow of ocean currents.
I was moving in patterns inspired by thousands of years of Chinese tradition, but in a rhythm that was entirely mine. I find these moments of flow to be profound: Fleeting glimpses of my full human potential.
This article explores how the science of flow and the Taoist philosophy of Wu Wei (effortless action) can be channeled into direct experience, to create a life of greater productivity, efficiency and performance.
The Neuroscience of Flow States:
Flow is a psychological state of peak performance. The term, “flow state” describes what it feels like. We flow from task to task effortlessly without the resistance of mental obstacles. We flow through time without registering it’s passing. We flow through complexity without worry of failure. The task, whatever it may be is performed with a graceful ease.
So on a neuro-scientific level what is the difference between moving and moving in flow?
When in flow the parts of the brain that control our system of analytical thought shuts down, in a process called “transient hypofrontality.” This allows us unhindered access to our subconscious, resulting in spontaneous and flowing action. When we flowed in that QiGong class, our actions flowed directly from our intuitive self.
The Philosophy QiGong & Flow:
One of the main purposes of Qigong practice is to develop awareness. According to a master I study with,“moving slowly allows us to pay attention to how the energy of the body naturally raises our vibration, which allows us to attract good things and be highly conscious in the flow of changing events.”
A central concept in Taoism is “Wu Wei”. This can be translated as the “Action of non-action.” Wu Wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in harmony with the ebb and flow of the natural world.
Chinese poet and philosopher Lao Tsu seemed to be describing transient hypofrontality when he wrote in the 6th century BC:
“He doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being.”
Cutting edge neuroscience and ancient eastern philosophy agree on how to flow: Transcend your ego and thoughts to unleash your potential on life.
Now that we are clear on the power of flow and have some understanding of how and why this state occurs from a modern and ancient perspective, lets explore how we can set up our daily life so that our actions flow from the core of our being.
Speed, Precision, Intensity:
In any given activity or movement there are 3 factors we can adjust to create more flow in our lives:
Speed, precision and intensity.
This applies to making a cup of tea, moving through a yoga sequence, writing a poem, balancing on a tight-rope, driving a car, rock-climbing, putting your underwear on, ironing a shirt, cleaning your dishes, peeling the potatoes or flying a jet.
We can always adjust the level of challenge by tweaking any or all of these factors.
The Golden Rule of flow is the “Challenge: Skills” ratio. To achieve flow, the level of challenge must stretch your level of skills, but not too much. If there is too little challenge, you get bored. If the challenge is too great, you will become frustrated and ineffective.
The Japanese martial arts have a word for this balance: Zanshin. This means “the mind with no remainder”. When I moved through a movement sequence that became progressively more complex, my consciousness became more absorbed by the movements. My mind had less and less remainder for thought. This meant that I was able to be in a state of non-thinking harmony with the universe. This is Wu Wei, what we call the flow state.
Proactively Set Conditions for Absolute Focus:
Our attention spans take a battering from the digital, fact paced world we live in. This means we have to be ever more vigilant and determined to retain our powers of focus. Whilst reading this article have you once been distracted by a beep, a buzz or an urge to check the Likes on your latest social media post?
Achieving flow requires a deep immersion into your activity, and that type of immersion can only happen through concentration and single-tasking.
When we are in a yoga or QiGong class, it is relatively simple to turn attention inward. But in daily life we have to be more proactive and plan ahead to create the space to have uninterrupted focus so you can flow. Depending on the demands of your life, this could mean putting headphones in to block out noise, or shutting down your emails and phone for an hour, having a silent/digital free Sunday. Figure out what will work best for your set-up.
Find Joy in Small Perfection:
Doing things well feels good. It doesn’t matter what that thing is. If we know we are smoothly nailing it the task becomes autotelic, which means it becomes self-fulfilling. Auto-telicity is a key feature of flow states. When in flow you can slip into an enjoyable rhythm of process, which is the reward itself, and in doing so you start doing things with even greater focus and perfection. Auto-telicity creates a positive upward spiral.
Finding joy in the small things in life is a skill and to get better at it requires practice. Writing about what you are grateful for and making a note of the things you have done well are two simple ways to re-train our brains away from the default state of not giving ourselves credit where credit is due. Our psychology is such that when we amplify the feel-good factor through actions like this, we start to enjoy the activity more and more. Enjoyment and flow is a self-perpetuating cycle.
The Art of Conscious Living:
Over time, through practice slipping into a state of effortless action becomes habitual. Practicing movement arts such as QiGong, Yoga, dancing, boxing, surfing or similar become part of your spiritual practice. When the Taoists talk of Wu Wei, they talk of the totality of life being encompassed by effortless action. Everything we do, from brushing our teeth in the morning to switching off the light before bed becomes part of our practice.
This is the Art of Conscious Living. Through this practice, we learn to transcend our ego and thinking mind. Accessing our intuition becomes natural and we develop a higher level of consciousness and energy that awakens our true human potential.