FEAR as a stepping stone to FLOW
Flow or “being in the zone” is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we’re able to perform as the best version of ourselves (and sometimes beyond) effortlessly. The world record holders, Olympic champions and extreme athletes when in the zone appear completely at ease and with a seemingly innate fearlessness. The rest of us, not endowed with such a gift, find ourselves spending time and energy just trying to remove, reduce or avoid fear, rather than leaping from tall buildings or running the 100 metres in under 9 seconds. But what if I told you that fear is a pre-requisite for peak experience. What if I said that fear is the gateway to flow and being in the zone? Does that change how you think about it?
Most of the research on flow is in extreme sports where the risk of getting hurt is very real and fear is inextricably linked to that risk. But risk is relative, it isn’t limited to the potential for injury. It’s also the risk of getting it wrong; the risk of looking silly or sounding stupid; the risk of falling flat on your face; the risk of being rejected; the risk that the struggle isn’t worth it. All of these, and more, can lead us to being fearful. But, if we can move through fear to flow we find ourselves in a state of heightened performance and enhanced decision making. We’ve moved from the safety measures of the conscious mind – the voice of doubt, the inner critic, the hesitation, the risk reduction mode of conscious thinking to the instinct, gut feeling, hunches of the unconscious mind drawing on the skills, experience and pattern recognition learnt over those years of struggle. This is the time when action and awareness merge, where you just know the right thing to do without even thinking, considering or debating. Where one right decision leads towards the next right decision, you are totally focused and absorbed in the task at hand, whatever that might be.
Sounds pretty good doesn’t it but how do we get there? Well, risk heightens focus and flow follows focus. This means that the fight or flight response actually primes your body for the flow state. You move through one to get to the other. It’s not about facing fear head on, it’s a gentle lean into that fear, a tickling of the edges. Your aim isn’t to conquer fear because that sounds like an end point you just move the goal post a little and those tiny increments allow the brain to get better at recognising patterns and problem solving and being creative. If you’re feeling anxious it’s likely you’re in a situation where the challenge you face is right on the edge of your current skill, there’s an element of risk and risk leads to focus and focus leads to flow. So not only is focus the key to getting to flow it’s also the key to getting past fear, it’s an opportunity not a threat.
“Once fear becomes its own reward, risk moves from a threat to be avoided to a challenge to be risen toward. An entirely new relationship to fear begins to develop”
The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler