As you may well know, the concept of flow is a fascinating and highly revered topic amongst anyone on their journey to mastery. Yet there appears to be a lot of misinformation on this topic; people often find they have to psych themselves up to ‘get in the zone’, or shift into this state through an extensive warming up procedure. The problem with this concept is that flow is not a destination, but a kind of awareness.
When Bruce Lee wrote about state, he quoted Alan Watts, saying it is “A state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a mind or ego standing over it with a club.” That is to say that state is precisely the egoless state of mind, the mind which carries no story. When people do warm up approaches, what is actually happens is that the ego slowly becomes desensitised by exposure therapy and therefore ceases trying to protect you. This is why warming up does get people into state, but what they don’t realise is that the mechanism by which this works is almost entirely not due to the brain warming up. In fact, there is a more direct way to do this than exposure therapy, as Zen gives you the ability to never be out of state.
But before we begin to explore Zen intellectually, I want to show you exactly what I am going to talk about. Right here, right now. I want you to pretend that you know absolutely nothing, like a newborn baby. Don’t try to stop your thoughts – you don’t know the difference between the noise of a car outside and the incessant story of the chattering of opinions and naming of things inside your skull. You don’t even know who you are as you don’t yet have any concept of yourself. Similarly you don’t have any knowledge of the passing of time, nor any notion of past or future as these too are concepts. There is nothing you can do other than simply be aware of whatever is happening right now. Let all the sounds around you play with your ears, let the light play with your eyes, and let all of the sensations you feel and thoughts that you experience happen. You don’t even have to actively let everything happen. There is nothing you can do about it, and there is nothing you can not do about it as everything happens whether you let it or not. You don’t have any idea of voluntary action versus involuntary action. Whenever you make a decision, how does that decision come about? Do you decide to decide? If so, how does that decision come about? You eventually tire yourself out from taking steps back until you realise that it just happens. You feel that everything is happening of itself. You don’t really know what this happening is, but I will tell you that the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi called it the Dao “for lack of a better name”. He said “the scholar learns something every day, the man of Dao unlearns something every day, until he gets back to non-doing [Wu-Wei].”
Sound familiar? This state you just experienced is the state of Mushin, literally meaning “No mind”. However it is far from a state of blank mindlessness withdrawn from experience. It is a state in which the mind flows freely and effortlessly that is commonly referred to as the state of flow. This state of flow is the foundation of Zen.
So now you may be thinking: “How do I maintain this state of flow all the time?” And you’ll be glad to hear that it is remarkably simple. Since the Zen mind is the egoless or storyless mind, all you have to do is drop the story, which is the same thing as not believing the next thought. Let’s put it this way: Your mind is like a lake. The question that you pose is: “How do I stop these ripples on the lake?”. Think about it (or rather don’t)! You wouldn’t try to smooth them out with your hands, or flatten them with an iron. Rather, it seems obvious that the best thing to do is to do nothing at all. By way of non-interference, the ripples clear by themselves and the lake becomes clear and serene. This is the kind of non-interference or non-doing called Wu-Wei, and it is the key to living in the state of flow.