In an individualistic culture that places a premium on “hustling” and “being on the grind,” there is a constant pressure to “enter the zone” and to work at a consistent rhythm to produce results. However, what if the phrase “enter the zone” extended beyond confining oneself to a linear, results-oriented routine and instead signified entering a liberating and elastic state of mind?
For many creatives, to “enter the zone” encompasses a subtle but unmistakable drift into a condition called the “flow state,” which Michele Biasutti described as “an optimal psychophysical state” that many describe in terms of “being in the zone, being on the ball, being in the groove.”
Although the phenomenon of the “flow state” has many creative applications, the use of the term spikes within discussions surrounding improvisation. Whether explicitly named or abstractly described, entering a state of flow is integral to creative feats from John Coltrane’s solos to Los Angeles-based rapper Harry Mack’s “off the dome” freestyles.
In an interview with neuroscientist Dr. Niklas Häusler, Mack came up with numerous words on the fly that he associated, however loosely, with the object “pen” to illustrate the confounding process of how the flow state works.
“Even just right there it started kind of slow, and I was sort of intentionally trying to do it, and then at a certain point, I kind of fell into it, you know?” Mack said. “And they started to come quickly, and some of those walls started to come down.”
Mack’s experience of “falling into it” and seeing “those walls starting to come down” invokes one of the mystical characteristics of flow: a reduced sense of self-consciousness and self-inhibition offset by a heightened sense of mindfulness.
The sensation of unconsciously losing track of time within the flow state is common for wine and viticulture junior and Suburban Dropout guitarist and lyricist Cooper Durkey who recounted his typical experience when tapping into the flow.
“I just start playing and before I know it, I’ve been playing for like 2 hours, and by the end of it I’ve got at least a song written, maybe a couple of extra riffs,” Durkey said. “It’s just like you just start playing and eventually it works into something. It’s not really a conscious thought in my head — more just me noodling around, and I end up getting something written.”
Mack’s experience of elevated mindfulness also relates to the artistic enterprise of electrical engineering junior and guitarist Pedro Mendez, who carefully explained how the “flow state” isn’t just an individual phenomenon but a dynamic force behind collaboration and group communication.
“It’s more of a call-and-response type situation where in jazz, when one person solos and then the next person solos, he kind of has to build off of what the first person does while still keeping the same structure of the song, so to speak,” Mendez said. “You can’t be selfish because everyone has a part in the band.”
Although we often think of “entering the zone” as a subjective, individualistic anomaly that transports one into a rhythmic headspace, Mendez’ take on the flow state in the Jazz context raises two important questions: how mindful are we of those around us? And to what extent does it matter?
The answers to these questions are relevant beyond the horizon of musical creativity.
An article published by “Big Think” widens the scope of individual “flow” by introducing the concept of the “collective flow state:” a collaborative experience in which one’s increased mindfulness is used to attain synergy and a sense of connection with others. Although the example is jazz music, the concept can potentially apply to every daily interpersonal encounter that we have.
The flow state, in this sense, is more than just a partly indescribable, creative life force. It is a mutually beneficial phenomenon: a mystical (but still scientifically explicable) power that can help us to help others, as long as we focus more on the process of the swift rush of the current than the self-centered result, or the estuary which it pours into.