The “flow” state occurs when you’re totally immersed in a task. The body moves automatically, requiring very little conscious thought. Its preoccupation with repetitive movement “frees” the mind to wander or focus.
The state of “flow” is harder to achieve while sitting still, except for those educated in mindfulness practice. But for novices (like me,) a shortcut to total mental immersion is repetitive physical work.
For many, manual labor can be the easiest path to concentration. Some enjoy running, some like repetitive movement like Tai Chi or dance. But everyone experiences the flow state: if you’ve ever thought, “I do my best thinking while I’m driving” or “I have all my best ideas in the shower,” you’ve experienced the flow state. In those cases, your body moves reflexively, leaving your brain clear to think.
In Thinking Body, Dancing Mind, author Chungliang Al Huang discusses the path to “flow state” through mindfulness training, and also yoga (which originated as physical exercise to prepare the body for long periods of meditation.) I prefer a more down-to-earth method: a big pile of dirt.
Years ago, when my business was faltering, my wife bought me a truckload of dirt. I didn’t have the money to pay a builder, so I tasked myself with leveling our driveway. It was hard work, done in small amounts on my rare time off. But as I worked, I considered different options for restructuring my business. As the weeks passed, I became eager to “hit the dirt” on Sunday afternoons after the gym closed. In fact, I felt guilty about spending time with the dirt pile instead of my daughter, because I was enjoying it so much!
When our son’s hockey team failed to secure ice time for practices, I volunteered to enlarge the rink in our backyard. Relatives ask why I choose to shovel the dirt into place myself instead of using a tractor, which is readily available. But I consider the opportunity for physical labor a luxury; it’s recreational time for my brain. The pile of pit-run gravel requires just enough focus to block out distractions. I wrote three blog posts in my head in a single hour yesterday.
How can you enter a “flow” state? Simple labor. Walking is enough for some, but if you add external load (a weighted pack) to the task, you’ll have to work a bit harder physically and your mind will be free to focus. Try it: a simple mindfulness trick from a poor student.