Updated: May 2, 2020
Have you ever spent half an hour searching the internet which, as you find out afterwards, lasted three hours? Or opened a book shortly after breakfast and a little while later noticed that the room was getting darker?
Think of a moment in your life when you were so involved in what you were doing that the rest of the world seemed to have disappeared. Your mind wasn’t wandering; you were totally focused and concentrated on that activity, to such an extent that you were not even aware of yourself.
Time disappeared too.
Only when you came out of the experience, did you realise how much time had actually passed (usually much more than you anticipated, although sometimes it could be less).
Most people can remember experiencing such a state. In fact, about 90% can easily recognise and associate it with one or more activities. Athletes call it:
‘Being in the zone’, others a ‘heightened state of consciousness’.
Psychologists call these fully absorbing experiences flow states, which were discovered and named by a world-famous psychologist with the most unpronounceable surname I have ever encountered – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Flow is the optimal state of consciousness where you feel and perform your best. Flow is when you are in the zone. During a flow state time stops, one’s sense of self vanishes, and a person is absorbed in the moment. Long credited for amazing breakthroughs in the sport’s arena and extreme sports, flow is making its way into Fortune 500 companies, elite military units, and Silicon Valley companies as a way to increase performance and happiness.
At Floating Point, we have been obsessed by the idea of flow. As explained by the cofounder of the Flow Genome Project, Jamie Wheal, the key to flow is silencing the inner critic, or inner noise. Nothing can happen if you are stuck in your head. Floating is an ideal tool to escape this inner chatter. Justin Feinstein, chief Neuroscientist researcher at the Laurette Brain Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma believes that “floating could be a shortcut for many people to reach a meditative state and reap some of its proven benefits. ‘Floating has given me hope that a whole chunk of our population that normally would never be able to meditate could now achieve those sorts of deep meditative states’.”
As a result, floating can be a great practice to cultivate and enter your own flow state. This explains why the Navy Seals, who rely on flow to achieve peak performance, use float tanks at the core its Mind Gym “a collection of some of the best tools and tech for training body-brain performance in the world.” (Kotler and Wheal p26 - Stealing Fire). Like the Navy Seals, we believe that that the float tank allows you to more easily slip into that same flow state elsewhere in your life.
The more you float, the easier it is to quiet your mind. The more you quiet your mind, the easier it is getting into the zone. This creates better performance and allows you to be more immersed in a project at your job, or playing pick-up sports with your friend, or doing the hobby you love. Ultimately, we believe this leads to a more enriching life. As the initial researcher of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, found that flow in whatever activity you are doing is the secret of a sustained happiness in life.
You are probably wondering how you can enter the Flow state, well the state of flow happens under very specific conditions – when we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge.
So, both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.
If challenges exceed skills, one can become anxious. If skills exceed challenges, we usually become bored. Neither of these two cases result in flow.
He came to the conclusion that flow is a universal experience, which has several important characteristics:
Clarity of goals and immediate feedback on the progress. For example, in a competition you know what you’ve got to achieve, and you know exactly how well you are doing, i.e. whether you are winning or losing. (During a float there aren’t any particular goals, but clients have an aim to relax mentally & physically. They receive immediate feedback through the slowing down of their breathing, the feeling of calm and tension being released physically and mentally. Whether they drift into an NREM sleep state and are woken up by music or the filter at the end of a session. All of the feedback highlights the fact that they have achieved what they set out to do)
Complete concentration on what one is doing at the present moment, with no room in one’s mind for any other information. (This is the same as floating, all that exists is the present moment)
Actions and awareness are merged. A guitar player merges with the instrument and becomes the music that he plays. The activity becomes almost automatic, and the involvement seems almost effortless (though far from being so in reality). (Once you merge with the water your float becomes almost effortless)
Losing awareness of oneself or self-consciousness is also a common experience but, interestingly, after each flow experience the sense of self is strengthened and a person becomes more than he or she was before. (Clients report that they feel more complete post float and have a deeper connection with themselves)
Sense of control over what one is doing, with no worries about failure. (There is some control over what one is doing during a float, in terms of breathing and arm positions for example. There is no need to worry about failure as your mind and body knows what it needs)
Transformation of time. Usually, time passes much faster than expected. However, the reverse can also be true. (This is frequently reported post float, their sense of time disappears, and they feel as though they have only been in for 20 mins)
Activities are intrinsically rewarding. This means they have an end in themselves (you do something because you want to), with any other end goal often being just an excuse. (This is the same with floating, people float because they want to & they know the session will end in an hour or 90 mins)
What is also interesting in flow is the almost total absence of emotions during the actual process. One seems to be almost beyond experiencing emotions, most likely because the awareness of self is not present.
One philosopher describes his own experience of flow:
‘A good discussion often brings a sense of flow. I am not aware of myself, the world around, or the passage of time. I get totally involved in the conversation. Everything goes smoothly. It is a challenging but not a rough ride. Yet, like with all truly fulfilling experiences, you know that you were in flow, not while you were there, but because of missing it after.’
Activities that lead to a flow experience are called autotelic (from Greek: auto=self, telos=goal), because they are intrinsically motivated and enjoyable; they have an end in themselves, rather than in some other end product. Which is the case with floating.
Flow is not the only optimal experience that we know of. A humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, (1908-1970) coined the term peak experience to describe intensely joyous and exciting moments in the lives of every individual. In these moments, we feel more whole, integrated, aware of ourselves and deeply happy.
We have a sense of transcendence, awe, unity and meaningfulness in life. Often these experiences have a spiritual quality about them. The peak moments are often inspired by intense occurrences – moments of love, exposure to great art or music, the overwhelming beauty of nature or even tragic events or in our case a deep and intimate float session.
Maslow, like Csikszentmihalyi with regard to flow, believed that all individuals are capable of peak experiences, but those who achieved self-actualisation are more likely to have them. Although many characteristics are shared (e.g. absorption, spontaneity, loss of time), peak experience differs from flow in the presence (rather than loss) of the sense of self, the rarity of its occurrence and having almost a mystical quality about it. Whilst flow experiences are encouraged, Maslow cautioned against seeking peak experiences for their own sake.
One of the most invaluable qualities of the flow state is the loss of self-awareness (similar to a float session). Our critical waking neurotic inner self goes offline and for that moment we get to breathe and be without thinking and critiquing. The technical term for that is called transient hypo-frontality, for just a while our mind goes offline, and it is like shutting a bunch of really complicated programs on our browser. The central processor runs smoother and faster, this means we get richer, cleaner information processing. But the problem is how can we use our complex waking self to get rid of our complex waking self? (Combination of floating, self-hypnosis and good skill level in the task you are undertaking).
The Flow Genome Matrix (Image), these are like levers and knobs that we can play with (Jamie Wheal - TEDx). Focus on the levels of development and the various capacities we have and let’s optimise them. Rather than being stressed out with rapid shallow chest breathing, pumping cortisol and adrenaline, having an erratic heart state and being in an un-resourceful brainwave state running mental maps and models that are clusters of cul-de-sacs and error messages. What if you learn to optimise all of them? What if you moved your brainwaves into alpha and theta? If we can tap into these waves to help optimise our self-system then we can have more resources, more often. The reality is the people that win, the people that succeed in life have learned to master states of being first and we can too through the act of floating.
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