The wave is peaking up and there is no time to think. Countless hours spent in the ocean provide the surfer with predictive power: this is the right kind of wave. The surfer turns and paddles, aiming the surfboard slightly to the right-hand side. Without a conscious decision, he knows the required angle for a successful drop on a wave of this size and shape. As he stands up, he doesn’t worry about exactly how to position his feet, or how to balance on the board, or even what he’ll do if he doesn’t make the drop. The surfer is completely immersed in the present moment, super aware and yet completely detached from everything beyond the current experience. His senses are dialled in and attuned to the movement of the water underneath him, but his sense of time and individuality are gone. For just a few moments, his mind is totally clear.
When the surfer caught the wave, he entered an altered state of consciousness called flow state. When we’re performing at our highest capability without worrying about our surroundings, when we know what our next move will be without planning it, when our creativity and confidence is reaching a peak, that’s when we know that we’re in flow.
“The idea is that flowing water never goes stale, so just keep on flowing.”
When someone is in a flow state, the efforts they are putting forth don’t feel like work. The experience is intrinsically rewarding. Understanding what a flow state really is and how to master this mindset is key. If we want to perform to the best of our abilities, we need to embrace the flow state.
Table of Contents
The Science of Flow
Is a flow state just a vague concept in the world of psychology and self-help? Nope—there is plenty of scientific research that reveals the way our brain function actually changes when we get into a flow state. When it comes to flow, our actions quite literally shift our mindset—once you get over the initial resistance to starting a project or task and give yourself time to really dig into it, time will fly by, and you’ll be amazed at how well you’re able to focus.
So, what’s really going on inside our heads when we get into a flow state? To understand how it works, we have to explore the concept of transient hypofrontality. This is when the parts of our brain that are responsible for focusing actually get a “rest,” while other parts of the brain take over the bulk of our cognitive function for a temporary period. This essentially puts us in an altered state of consciousness.
If you’ve ever experienced a “runner’s high”, you already understand the effects of transient hypofrontality. Generally, this state elicits feelings of peace and being fully present. We become blissfully unaware of potential distractions in our environment—we’re able to tune them out without consciously trying. When a surfer drops into a wave we enter this state. It is rare that we consciously consider the options available to us on a wave. For the most part, the experience is a timeless experience where the noisy part of the mind drops away, allowing us to express ourselves creatively in the moment.
Flow Genome Project
Getting into a flow state is a slightly different process for everyone, but one thing is for certain—if someone wants to perform at a high level and reach the top of their field, learning how to enter this state is a necessity. The Flow Genome Project is a citizen science project run by a group of researchers from diverse disciplines who are dedicated to unlocking the secrets of peak human performance. And the most important thing that they’ve uncovered so far?
I am interested in those moments where everything clicks, where life is joyful, effortless and inspired.
Whether you’re an artist or an athlete, a mathematician or a marine biologist, a writer or a doctor, getting into a flow state is non-negotiable if we want to produce our best work. This state of consciousness allows us to be creatively productive in a way that we usually cannot, allowing us to make impressive breakthroughs.
Far from being woo woo pseudoscience, Flow state is a real phenomenon. The chemical cocktail it produces in the brain would get you arrested if you carried it around in pill form.
Psychology of Flow
Is getting into a flow state merely accidental or a matter of luck—or is it something that we can learn how to do on purpose? Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who recognized and named the concept of flow, explained how we can do just that in his groundbreaking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. According to Csíkszentmihályi, it is completely possible to cultivate this mindset through conscious action.
So, how can we get into flow? First, learning how to truly focus is key. This may mean committing to a daily meditation practice in order to train your brain. Today, our attention spans are shorter than ever, so it takes deliberate effort to exert focus for long periods of time. Meditation enables us to spend time with our thoughts and to recognise just how busy our minds can be. By continually drawing focus to the breath we develop the ‘muscle’ of concentration and can bring this skill into our daily lives.
The other key component? We need to direct our focus toward activities that engage us creatively. Our skills need to match the challenge. If we attempt to surf waves that are beyond our perceived skill level we will quickly become anxious. This activates the sympathetic nervous system and puts us into ‘freeze, fight, flight mode’. In this state, we will struggle to find flow. A better approach is to sink to the level of our training – a method used by Navy Seals when they need to respond to challenge with a calm, composed mindset. How do they manage to stay calm in intense situations? Through deliberate practice, simulation and exercises that switch the nervous system into a parasympathetic, or relaxed, state.
How does a surfer, therefore, stay calm and composed in intense situations? Through gradually increasing their skill level by spending time in conditions that nudge them constantly forward. Surfing is conducive to flow state because we are always quite naturally always chasing a slightly bigger thrill than last time. We quite literally get hooked on flow state.
You’re not going to get into a flow state by scrolling through social media, reading a book about a subject you find boring, or doing a workout that you don’t get any joy out of. Csíkszentmihályi found that one of the defining characteristics of the flow state was a feeling of deep enjoyment. Flow isn’t just a state of concentration—it’s a state of happiness. We can find our flow when we’re focused on work, play or activities that bring us a sense of real fulfilment.
“From a quality-of-life perspective, psychologists have found that the people who have the most flow in their lives are the happiest people on earth.”
Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance
Types of Flow
There are an endless number of ways that someone can experience flow. We might get into a flow state while working on a project in a classroom setting. We might feel it while playing a musical instrument or writing a song. Athletes definitely experience flow while practising and while playing at their best. People can even experience flow while playing a video game. Children are flow junkies who can slip into worlds of creative play almost instantly.
Several religions acknowledge the existence and value of flow states and one could potentially enter a flow state through engaging in spiritual practice. In conclusion, there is no one specific way to get into flow—as long as you combine concentration, skill, adequate challenge and passion, you can find flow.
The Philosophy of Flow
Although Csíkszentmihályi was the first modern researcher to explicitly label the concept of flow, philosophers throughout the ages have understood this mindset—they simply described it differently.
The Ancient Greeks had a name for a state of being that is very similar to what we would call “flow” today: eudaimonia. Eudaimonia refers to “human flourishing.” The word sums up the feeling that one gets when they are happy, healthy, and prosperous—they are content and creatively abundant. The mind is quiet yet productive. It’s a form of euphoria, but it’s not quite as intense and overwhelming.
The stoics discussed eudaemonia and similar concepts in their writings. For example, Marcus Aurelius essentially referenced what occurs when a creative person becomes totally focused in their work and experiences flow, stating that “true lovers of their art” become so engrossed in it that they can forget everything else. He also believed that when one was experiencing a flow state, they wouldn’t need to “make noise” about their projects. They would simply seamlessly move from one task to the next, not wanting to interrupt their flow.
Seneca also referenced the flow state. He stated that when one is in love with their work and able to fully concentrate, “the very absorption affords great delight.” When someone is in a flow state, they’re not deriving joy from the finished product of their work. They are feeling fulfilled by the process of creating or practising. From the early days of civilization, human beings have had an understanding of flow states, and the work of these ancient philosophers proves that some discoveries about human psychology aren’t so new after all.
The Way of the Samurai
It wasn’t just the ancient Greeks who understood the value of experiencing flow—the Japanese samurai also understood how getting into this state of mind could further one’s performance and skills. Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai who lived in the late 1500s, was widely known for creating and refining his own unique sword techniques. He was an expert at throwing weapons, and he was also a dedicated Buddhist. He felt that samurai should study a wide variety of disciplines in order to learn more about their own path from different perspectives, so he became a student of arts like calligraphy and Zen brush paintings.
Several books have been written about Musashi. InMusashi: The Way of the Samurai, Musashi is sentenced to three years of solitary confinement. He emerges from his time away as both master swordsman and a stoic. With nothing around to distract him and all the time in the world to engage in the pursuits he truly wanted to master, he was able to use the flow state to his advantage and come out stronger than before.
Immersion in an activity is the key to building a capacity for flow state. Like martial arts, surfing encourages complete immersion. We become obsessed with environmental variables such as wind and tide. We choose our surfboards as a samurai might select their swords, always seeking to better understand the nuances of fin selection, shape and volume.
Time spent in this state of flow, which is practice, play and performance combined, is the reward for choosing a pastime like surfing. Perhaps this is why it is difficult to define what surfing is. It’s more than a sport, hobby or lifestyle. It is a gateway to flow.
Religious Perspectives on Flow
The concept of flow is not just discussed in the context of psychology—plenty of religious traditions also understand the importance of the flow state. Of course, when looking at flow from a religious perspective, followers of these religions may believe that this is a divine phenomenon rather than a neurological one—in other words, getting into a flow state means that one is in touch with their inner divinity.
In the Christian tradition, the word “meditation” has a different context than what we usually think of. Rather than clearing the mind, to meditate on a Bible verse means to focus on that specific concept, often repeating it over and over. Done properly, the person is intended to enter a flow state where they are completely focused on the prayer, barely paying attention to anything else going on around them. It is supposed to help cultivate a deep connection with God.
Interestingly enough, meditating according to the Buddhist tradition is not supposed to put the practitioner into a flow state. But Buddhists do recognize the importance of the flow state. Buddhists believe that entering a flow state is necessary in order to master any art form—just as researchers today have found. In fact, the idea of getting joy from the process of creating something (or learning a new skill) without being too attached to the outcome also follows the Buddhist idea that suffering is derived from attachment. When one is not too attached to a specific outcome, they can simply enjoy the process itself.
From the Hindu perspective, getting into a flow state might be seen as a sign that for a temporary period, one has overcome the duality of self and object. Instead of feeling that we are separate from our art or other products of our creation, we can recognize that we are all one. Experiencing a flow state is also a way to experience our natural connections to the world around us.
In this specific mystical tradition of Islam, the perspective on flow states is similar to the views held by Hindus. However, there is another dimension to it. Sufis believe that when one becomes completely dedicated to their work, to the point where their attention is completely focused and they feel only joy towards their process, they are also cleansing their heart. Their anxieties and worries melt away, and they can dedicate themselves to their talents and strengths. Music and dancing were considered especially important methods for getting closer to the divine. Overall, it is seen as beneficial for the spirit.
Surfing is my religion, if I have one. The barrel is really the ultimate ride for any surfer. It’s the eye of the storm. Some guys say it’s like being in the womb.
For me, it’s sort of like time slows down. You become hyper-aware of a lot of different things — the way the wave is breaking, timing, putting yourself in the right part of the barrel. It takes all of your mental capacity to do it just right.”
If you have ever sat on the shore and watched a surfers catch waves, you already know that this sport perfectly demonstrates what flow is all about. The surfer has to literally flow with waves—and to do this well, they have to get into a flow state. Since surfing engages the entire body and demands focus, far away from most sources of distraction, it is an ideal way to experience a flow state.
These surfers illustrate what it really means to be in flow.
Rob Machado is known as a free surfer. Although he used to participate in surf competitions, he no longer chooses to do so. Why? At this point in his career, he says that he is simply surfing for the love of it. He is probably the most stylish and well-known free surfer in the world, but the chances that he will ever return to competing are quite low. He wants to improve his own skills and gain more experiences out on the water, but he doesn’t see why going up against other surfers has to play into that.
It’s rare to come across an athlete of Machado’s talent who actively chooses not to compete or retire from their sport. Sometimes, we get the idea that if someone is an exceptionally skilled athlete, their ultimate goal should be to prove that they are better than everyone else. But for surfers like Machado, getting into flow state and becoming one wit the wave is more than enough of an accomplishment on its own.
Stephanie Gilmore is an Australian surfer and seven-time world champion. She is considered one of the most stylish surfers competing right now—and no, that does not refer to her fashion sense. She has her own unique flair when she’s in the water—standing out from almost everyone else in the competition. In fact, she’s even been called “the queen of style and flow.”
Yes, Gilmore’s ability to just flow with the wave always shines through. When she’s competing, it is obvious to everyone around her that she is experiencing flow. She is able to tune out the rest of the world and totally focus on the wave. The result is an effortless style that glides in harmony with the surface of the waves she rides. There is definitely a sense that Steph is not overthinking when she weaves her way down the line.
When doing what we most love transforms us into the best possible version of ourselves and that version hints at even greater future possibilities, the urge to explore those possibilities becomes feverish compulsion. Intrinsic motivation goes through the roof. Thus flow becomes an alternative path to mastery, sans the misery.
We’ve all been in flow states before—maybe you’ve recognized it, or maybe you haven’t. The key is understanding that we all have the ability to get into this state. The challenge is purposefully doing so on a regular basis and engaging in targeted practice that can move you closer to your goal.
Moral of the story? We do not have to be masters of our crafts in order to experience the magic of the flow state. In fact, everyone from the total beginner to the expert can get into a flow state. But it’s true that we can’t actually master anything until we learn how to get into this mindset and use this state to our advantage. Once we do, the tasks we are focusing on become second nature, and we learn what we are truly capable of. We elevate the quality of our challenges, and of our lives.