Over the last few months I’ve written a lot about the subject of flow states, but I haven’t written much on why. I haven’t really created any context as to why I’m so fascinated in this subject.
I guess I touched upon it a bit in How Flow States changed by understanding of Meditation, but I don’t really feel that captures the whole essence of the story.
I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, so let’s flip things around a bit and let me give the complete picture in it’s proper sequence of events. Let’s make a story out of this…
***Disclaimer – this is a long introspective stream of consciousness brain dump, so read on only if you’re in for a fun journey into the mind of Troy 😉
When I think back to the events of my life that shaped my understanding of flow states, naturally, the first thing I look back to is sports. The “in the zone” or “tapped in” effect and when it happened.
I could probably say Hockey, as that was the first sport I was any good at. Maybe I caught some glimpses in Soccer or Basketball, but those weren’t really my sports. I never thrived, or better yet, dominated, in those sports.
Domination, yea – my first flow state was when I dominated someone in a sport for the first time.
As a kid I always used to play my neighbour in street hockey. He would kick my ass.
Then one summer I met a guy who would become my childhood best friend – a guy who was really fucking good at hockey.
All summer we played each other one on one. I sucked, but I loved to play. I wanted to beat him withe every ounce of energy in my system.
Actually now that I think about it, my first flow state probably happened because my best friend was a guy who lived in flow. He dominated in every sport he touched.
My dad always used to say that he had the “eye of the tiger” when he played. He was a focus machine. He was tapped in. It really was a beautiful thing to watch.
I remember sitting in awe and fascination as I watched greatness. I watched grace and beauty as he fucked everyone up on the court.
I wanted that for myself. I wanted to be able to do the same to others. I wanted to become as good as him – better.
I loved watching him, and playing against him.
And that summer he kicked my ass every day.
And then when I went home, I kicked my neighbours ass in hockey. I began to kick everyone’s ass in hockey.
Because I was a kid playing in a flow state against the master flow artist himself.
Not to dwell on this too much, but now that I reflect on this, I realise that he was probably the most important piece of the puzzle for me. He gave me my foundational core experience in flow.
I became a relatively good hockey player over the years, and throughout that time definitely had my moments of being in the zone.
I learned what flow is by seeing it embodied by my best friend, and then I tried to model myself after him so that I could experience the same. It makes me realize how grateful I am that I had someone I could learn from, who showed me what flow looked like from a young age.
But when I think about other activities that gave me flow, and the where the real journey with flow begin, I look back to the individual activities. The things I did by myself.
The next thing that comes to mind is that I’ve always loved art.
Some of my earliest memories involve sitting with my brother and drawing cartoons.
He was an INCREDIBLE artist. One of the best I’ve ever seen.
We would sit in his room for HOURS looking at comics and doing our best to imitate our renditions of the superheroes we saw.
Again – I was witnessing a master of flow. I was witnessing greatness in action.
Again – I wanted that for myself. I wanted to study greatness, copy greatness.
I would sit there and trace his drawings. I’d put tracing paper over the top and then try to make get it as exactly close as I could to his.
I think that this was my first artistic/focused/concentrated/in the zone experience of my life.
Hours would pass by in minutes. I would be acutely aware of every movement.
Because I was tracing, it wasn’t too challenging, but it was also not easy as well to get it that perfect. I wanted others to think I drew it myself.
Now that I think about the challenge skills ratio, this makes a lot more sense.
Over the years I developed into a decent artist. I would lose hours making elaborate pictures.
I still love to draw. It’s been a tool for me my entire life.
A tool that got me started on the journey to flow.
Then the next experience that comes to mind is Juggling.
I remember as a kid in elementary school one of the themes we would dive into are the various forms of juggling. There were Chinese yo-yo’s and spinning sticks and blocks and of course, juggling balls.
For one reason or another, one day I was in between tasks, feeling bored with the yo-yo and the sticks and the scarves were too easy.
I remember walking up to someone who was already able to juggle. I was impressed. I wanted to learn how to do it too.
I remember that this person showed me that if you can juggle two balls with one hand, on both hands, you can easily do three.
This person showed me a technique of one handed juggling, and it made sense to me.
I became determined to learn how to juggle.
This person also recommended that I practice using sock balls.
I remember sitting in my house practicing endlessly with sock balls until I could juggle.
And then when I got bored with sock balls, I started to use lacrosse balls (something my mom always hated and still reminds me of to this day 😛 )
This was the first time where I simply spent hours and days and weeks and months practicing, immersed in the learning of a new activity.
This was truly the first time that I had a flow state only after practicing for hours and months – a starting from scratch with intention kind of thing. The kind of learning that comes from sucking at something and then overcoming it.
Thats the type of experience that this was. This was me immersed in the learning of juggling.
I got pretty fucking good too.
This experience with juggling is also what would then lay the foundation for me to learn hacky sack – aka footbag.
At around 15 I became OBSESSED with hackysack, which eventually became footbag.
In short, this is a sport where instead of kicking the hackysack, you “stall” it on your foot, and circle your legs around it while stalling it on your foot.
I became obsessed with this for about two years.
At first, just like juggling, I sucked. But I was hooked.
The cool thing about footbag, is that it is a sport where you can eventually begin to “string” tricks together.
Once I got pretty good at this, I was able to start hitting strings of 5-10 tricks at a time.
At times, I could push that number to 15-20 to beyond. I would hit tricks that I didn’t think I was capable of. Hit strings where I felt like nothing would make me drop. Where I was SURPRISED that I dropped it because I felt so tapped in and relaxed.
It was a beautiful feeling. This was one of those times that I became addicted to flow.
It was also around this time that I discovered my favorite flow of all of them? VERBAL FLOW.
Yes, freestyle rap.
I’ll never forget the first rhyme that went down in infamy between my friends and I
“Troy e gonna kick you in the knee” (to the tune of inna godda da vida or hip hop is dead)
Over the years I’ve become a pretty damn good freestyle poet. I wouldn’t quite call myself a rapper. I guess I’m just a good rhymer.
I got flows and create shows, leave audiences on their toes and the shook ones froze, who knows, where I will be next, this flow is ceaseless, Im greateful I breathe this – air, without a care in the world, as I got sand in my hand I’m swept up in a whirl 😛
When I lived in India I did this at corporate events for companies like Microsoft and Paypal and Wipro and Akamai and Infosys and all these big name tech companies. I would go to their events and rhyme for them. They loved it! I’ve done a TEDx talk as well about how rhyming is like building an anthill inside of the brain.
Rhyming is another flow of mine. Over the years I’ve dropped into the zone many times and I’ve had countless experiences of going for 2-3 minutes straight and not remember a word I said. I can remember many of the best freestyles I’ve ever had.
At this point in my life, rhyming is probably my most reliable flow state. I can, more or less, drop into it on command. I can pull the trigger of rhymes and flows without any notice.
Are all rhymes as good as the next? Absolutely not.
Are all flows an on command full blown flow state?
This is my most potent vehicle for flow. And it has been for many years.
Then the next one?
As I write this I feel like I’m falling into my computer. I have tunnel vision. The words are flowing out of my hands and I can’t keep up with the thoughts as they come to me.
As I write this I am creating in motion – receiving new insights as I type and then building them into the article.
Before I sat down to write this I didn’t know that I always had a “flow model” to replicate across many of these experiences. I didn’t realize that my best friend was a Mr. Miyagi of flow. It’s only as I write this and drill into the depths of my mind that I find this out.
And that’s one of the core qualities of flow states – new, novel insights. Effortlessness.
When I write stream of consciousness like this I don’t really have to try. It, quite literally, flows out of me. It’s a beautiful feeling. Cathartic.
I feel calmer after I write too – which also makes sense again because flow happens in Low Alpha and high Theta brain waves – waves also correlated with calm and relaxation.
I’ve always loved to write, but I never really prioritised it. Over the years Ive dabbled with it here and there but never really took it seriously. Never gave it the weight that it deserved.
But over the course of the last two years I’ve become a writing machine. I’ve published over 200 articles. I try to write at least 3 new articles every week, and release 2 of them.
Now I prioritise it because it makes me feel great and I thoroughly enjoy doing it.
Would I love to become a writer professionally? Make money doing it and have a best selling book of some kind?
But that’s just a cherry on top. I write mostly for myself. Anyone who reads this shit is just a bonus to me.
This article for example. It’s probably useless to anyone reading it.
But I LOVE writing this one. It flows off my fingers. I don’t care if it’s an article that has value or can be monetised or become part of a book at some later point in my life.
I write for the sake of writing.
I seek flow for the sake of flow.
Any professional or monetary bonus is just that – a bonus. A cherry on top.
And when did I start writing initially?
My first blog posts were written when I was in Argentina. I had a blog of my notorious debauchery. I wanted to be the next Tucker Max.
Which brings me to my next flow state – TRAVEL!!!
Travel is rich with all of the flow triggers that I’ve mentioned in previous articles. Novelty, deep embodiment, rich environments.
When we travel we get out of our normal day to day routines, we leave our normal minds behind, and instead are immersed in the present moment.
It’s why I love to travel. It’s why I’ve lived abroad for so many years. It’s why I’m always in new countries trying new foods and immersing myself in new conversations with people from all walks of life.
Every new environment shuttles me into the now. Every crazy experience like bungee jumping or drinking snake blood or riding in a rickshaw or hiking through the forest or to the top of a mountain brings me into a state of pure presence.
I lose myself in my travels. I become a spectator on my own life.
I become immersed in the flow of novelty and excitement – and I’ll often stack some other flow states in there as well such as rhyming while traveling or writing about my travels – I mix them together for maximum potency.
As I reflect on all these threads of flow, whether it be hockey, art, juggling, footbag, rhyming, writing, travel – I realize that I have been chasing flow states my entire life.
Better yet – I’ve been DESIGNING a life around flow long before I even knew what a flow state even was!
And how the fuck can I talk about flow without mentioning my favorite flow substance – MARIJUANA!!!!
I’d be lying to you if I didn’t mention this important ingredient in my chasing of flow states.
I discovered hackysack shorty after I started my pothead phase. My first freestyle raps were when I was high. I love to write while I’m stoned. Smoke a joint in a foreign country and everything takes on a slightly more italicized look.
Marijuana has been my gateway into the zone for a long long long time.
To be honest, I don’t think I would have discovered these flow states without the use of marijuana.
I’m not the only one either. Marijuana + Caffeine is largely considered the best way to hack a flow state amongst extreme sports athletes.
Marijuana also triggers a beautiful nerurochemical known as Anandamide – which also pops up in the neurochemistry of flow states. By activating it on our own we could accidentally be accelerating the process into flow.
Rather than relying on the brain to produce it on it’s own, we put it in there and it becomes a gateway into this elusive state.
Marijuana is the secret ingredient that underpins all of my experiences with flow. It’s weed + flow activity that gets me there, rather than the flow activity on its own.
Can I freestyle without weed? Yea – but it’s often not as good.
Can I write without weed? Yea – I’ve written the majority of this article without the use of any marijuana (key word – majority 😉 )
Can I footbag and get a string without weed? Yea absolutely.
But in all of these experiences weed just makes things a bit juicer 😜
However – I do believe that a big reason I am able to access these states WITHOUT marijuana, is also because of my intense practice of meditation.
Meditation – specifically attention to breath and awareness of sensations in the body – has taught me how to be the master of my own world. How to create flow without anything else other than me, myself and I.
BUT I can’t lie – I’ve never really had any flow states with meditation. It’s very rare that I reach a deep meditative state, and when I do it is fleeting. By the time I notice the effects it’s already gone. It’s hard to maintain the state continuously.
Nonetheless, meditation has been a powerful tool that has helped me have better control and awareness of all these other activities.
Meditation has helped me with focus and concentration – and the age old saying in flow circles is “flow follows focus”.
Meditation gave me control over the monkey mind and taught me how to focus deeply and intensely on one thing at a time. How to combat my monkey mind.
This focus via attention to breath has had countless ripple effects into other areas of my life.
It’s helped me with my work, helped me as a listener – and most recently – has helped me find my favorite flow activity of all…
I feel like this journey of flow states really crystallized when I discovered the Slackline and started to make some good progress on it.
The slackline is my ultimate gateway into flow. Hands down the juiciest of all of the activities I’ve mentioned thus far.
I’ll have runs on the slackline that can last for 5-10 minutes. Everything is timeless. My surroundings drop away. I do things that I didn’t know I was capable of doing, and I do it with less effort.
I have moments where I feel like I’m one with the line. Where my body is a fluid machine that knows exactly what to do without me paying any conscious attention to it.
Why do I mention this after meditation?
Because when I’m walking on the line, I’m paying attention to my breathing. It’s my core focus.
I’ll have moments where the line starts giving me trouble, I take a deep breath, and suddenly I’ve walked three steps.
It’s like my body takes over and makes me walk without me needing to think about it.
Again – it feels like an out of body experience where I am a spectator on my own life. It’s like I’m watching myself walk.
The slackline has given me consistency, depth, and duration to my flow states.
My flow states on the slackline happen at least once every session. They are deeply intense and immersive. I get tunnel vision. When I have runs of 5-10 minutes, they last a long ass time too.
It’s like I’m lost in the zone and then when I finally fall off the world around me instantly snaps back into focus.
And as the world falls back into focus, I’m left with a feeling of peaceful calm and ease. I often laugh and giggle to myself. I’ll have a huge smile on my face.
The feel good effects of the neurochemical bomb that is a flow state 😉
Lastly – I also believe a HUGE part of my not only my understanding, but more importantly IMPLEMENTATION of flow states has a lot to do with what I wrote about in How I overcame ADHD.
I frequently experience flow while working, and that’s because of the systems I’ve outlined for myself. 2 years since writing that article and I still block out distractions, leave my phone on airplane mode, work on one thing at a time, and use meditation as a tool to keep myself focused and on track.
The principles that apply in work to create flow are the same principles that have helped me in all of these other areas of my life. By creating discipline in my work it’s made me more disciplined in my flow activities. Likewise my flow activities have taught me how to improvise my work and let things flow within the disciplined structures I’ve set up for myself.
The two work synergistically with each other to have ripple over effects into where the other one is lacking and create balance.
I flow before work to have more flow during work and then flow after work to ensure that I can have flow again the next day. One cycle into the next feeding the other and building momentum along the way.
Finally – the most fascinating part about all of this is that I never even knew what the hell a flow state even was.
It’s why I’m so grateful to have discovered the work of people like Josh Waitzkin and The Art of Learning, and then Steven Kotler and his books Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire.
These books put into context what I’d been putting myself through. Gave me an understanding of my life that I never previously had.
It’s only in hindsight that I can connect these dots together and be like – “ah shit that explains what I’ve been experiencing for all these years!”
It also explains why I’ve designed my life the way that I have.
Flow is addicting as fuck – and it’s all my brain and body wants. I’m willing to chase it to the edges of the world – for good or for bad.
It’s also given meaning to other micro-activities and hobbies that I had previously dismissed as unproductive or a waste of time. Other activities like dancing, making weird voices, and getting weird.
Now I realize that it’s not unproductive if it produces flow.
In fact, it’s actually the exact opposite.
Flow enhances my productivity. Makes me happier. Makes me a better person.
So if dancing and acting like a moron produces flow – YOU BET YOUR ASS IM GOING TO DO IT MORE OFTEN!!!
I can show a bunch of studies on how flow improves productivity and performance, but now is not the time for that. I’ve written enough about it’s benefits all over my blog in the last few months.
I know from EXPERIENCE the benefits that it gives me.
If I give myself a flow state early in the day, I have a better day.
If I’m in a funk and not feeling quite like myself – I need to go get myself into flow and get those feel good chemicals flowing through me.
The benefits are self evident.
So I guess thats where this meandering stream of consciousness rant starts to wind down.
I’m so fucking passionate about flow states because it’s why I’m such a happy person. These activities of flow give me JOY.
People always ask me how I have so much energy, how I’m always in such a good mood, how I’m so bubbly and how I’m a never-ending machine of ideas and insights.
Now I realize that it’s because of flow states that all of this was possible.
If you want to live a happy life, chase the shit that BRINGS YOU JOY!
But I’m not here to give advice in this article, I do enough of that.
I’m just here to share this story because I love writing about it and pulling on the threads of my past to better understand who I have become today.
So this is my story of my lifelong journey with flow states. I could write more, I could write about studies my brother showed me about marijuana and the in the zone effect or maybe other experiences with bodybuilding and the mind-muscle connection, but I think I’ve already built the picture to the fullness it deserves.
No need to over-spice an already delicious dish 😉
I’m grateful to myself for having written this, for having explored these flow states, and for being the insane motherfucker I am.
I hope you enjoyed, and I hope it inspires you to go chase flow in your own life.
Thanks for reading, and happy flowing 🙂
Want to dive more into the applied neuroscience of Flow State? Join my Free Course Foundations of Flow. In it I teach you all of the methods to get into flow on command.
Also published on Medium.