In my research on what triggers the Flow State, that is - The optimum conscious state of doing an activity, at the highest level of performance, while feeling a sense of ultimate well being - (The connection between doing and being is important) I came across an unexpected connection to the onset of the flow state.
Many years ago I was travelling in Cuba and had been visiting the University of Havana, one of the prominent examples of the finest classical architecture in the city. As I was leaving the building I came across a woman mopping the floor at the just watched her at work.
My initial instinct as a travel photographer was to reach for my camera and document another Life in the Revolution image. But for some reason I stopped and Maybe it was the setting, the location, the fact I was travelling in a f
oreign exotic country, slightly jet lagged, with some degree of risk, that had shifted my mind into a different gear of consciousness.
The point needs to be made that travel is one of the fastest ways to disconnect yourself from the known and predictability of the Tick Tock familiar world, and drop you into an uncertain zone of discovery. And when that happens, we either Freeze or Flow.
And here’s what happened, just by watching the rhythmic hypnotic too and fro of her mopping movement, triggered a micro state of flow within me. This was a woman who appeared to be completely at one with her task, executing her movements with a flowing precision and total commitment. There was no half hearted distraction in her application to the job. Simply mopping a floor. I am well tuned to the feeling of flow, the onset of a euphoric calmness, a letting go of ego control, an acute sense of situational awareness, a deep connection with the world, empathy and rapport with what ever I am looking at, an effortless focus, a creativity that seems to be self generated, and a dopamine / serotonin rush that feels like ‘Fuck Yeah’ this is it! - without any pharmaceutical intervention.
I just watched her intently, and by seeing someone else in flow with an activity as mundane as mopping a floor, I felt it too. This Seeing to Feel flow is more common than we can imagine. It happens a lot when for example we watch athletes compete in a sporting event, or ballerinas perform effortless spirals on point, skiers rac
e the gravity of a mountain, surfers ride big waves or ... a woman mops a floor. I maintain those of you with pets especially cats can feel this from just watching a sentient animal in fluid motion. And here’s the connection with being and doing - watching someone else being in flow is like doing it in your mind. I later found out that there is a cognitive reason for this universal co dependant response, and it goes back to research done in the University of Parma in Italy, in the 1990’s where Mirror Nuerons were first discovered. Mirror neurons fire in brain of an observer in sync with the feelings of the person being watched. This is the cognitive chemistry of empathy and compassion. When we see someone in pain we feel it too, as we do when we see someone
ecstatically happy, we feel happy. But the interesting thing discovered is that this is not a delayed reaction, it happens spontaneously, in synch with the other person’s feelings. So by watching someone else in flow you are going to fire those mirror neurons in your brain that cause you to feel like you are in flow. It’s not a full bl
own onset of course, but a micro dose if you will, that can alter your brain chemistry firing dopamine and serotonin, those neuro transmitters that enable you to feel good by just watching. It’s subtle but a very tangible response to something that just happens to catch your eye, and takes you out of your everyday distractions. So the take away from this is - make the time to be fully present with the act of looking, especially at someone who it totally absorbed in a task. It could be a cobbler mending a shoe, it doesn’t have to be an epic performance. Someone mopping a floor is a mundane activity, for someone not fully present doing it you would dismiss it and walk by. But with someone totally present with it - you are witnessing the Zen of Mopping. Videos of people performing inspiring activities, in slow motion set to music, I have noticed illicit this response quite profoundly.
Back at the University of Havana my photographer's mind eventually engaged to record a short clip with my iphone, of the woman mopping the floor, simply because I thought at the time it was hypnotically beautiful to watch someone so fully engaged, in such simple activity. Flow is all around us, when we have eyes to observe.