Imagine your mind uncluttered, happy, and free. For most of us, that’s not a reality. But we used to have a mind like that. At birth, a free-flowing, feel-good mind is as natural to all of us as breathing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his seminal book Flow, defines that kind of flow as “a state of concentra¬tion so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity.” Research shows that we naturally operate in a flow mind-set up to about the age of five, when it usually begins to wane.
In holistic arts flow is often referred to as “empty mind” (mind like water). It is calm yet highly focused and able to move freely and unfettered from one task to another. The water metaphor is used to describe it because water is able to move gently yet powerfully, flowing with ultimate flexibility. This is a coveted state of mind in holistic arts because it does not fatigue easily and because it isn’t much affected by stress. A colleague — and friend — of mine says that he tries to maintain this state of mind as much as possible throughout his day. He believes it is essential for both health and contentment.
The good news is that we can regain a flowing mind at any age. One of the best ways to achieve this mindset is through music. One reason for this is that music has been with us since the beginning. The first music encoded deep within your memory are the earliest vibrations — the comforting rhythms of your mother’s heartbeat and the whooshing, low-frequency sounds vibrating through her placenta and your umbilical cord. These first musical scores began entraining (two or more rhythms synchronizing into one) in your brain and orchestrating the essence of music for your entire being.
These early musical influences stay with us for our entire lives. It’s as though nature has planted a computer chip in our emotional brain that triggers deep, primitive pleasure at the slightest match to sounds that were there during your making. This is literally the flowing music of your own mind and body — sounds so powerful that, years later, they can empty you of negativity and stress in just milliseconds.
Sounds, for example, that made your mother happy can make you feel relaxed and happy. For this reason, mothers from many world traditions are taught to listen to relaxing, peaceful music during pregnancy. The idea is that by doing so they are able to protect their children while they are in the womb and also give them an effective method — music — with which to enter and sustain a flowing mind-set as they grow older.
In our book, Your Playlist Can Change Your Life, my co-authors and I talk about this genetic connection a bit.
“The genetic component [of natural sound and music] is real and very important. Just like medications, various sounds and musical pieces are more effective for us if they have had a positive effect on one of our parents. If you have a close relationship with your mother, you have a great opportunity to explore the songs and sounds your mom was listening to before you were conceived and especially during the time you were in her womb. For example, what made her feel relaxed or alert or happy? What made her mind flow? Listen to those sounds and songs for yourself. If they work well for you, add them to your playlist. Listen to them whenever you want the specific effect they enhance.”
Music makes it easy to get into a state of flow and to sustain it, because music is already programmed into your brain’s wiring. It can trigger and maintain various mental states ranging from highly focused and vigilant to an all encompassing calm and relaxed. Similar to the sense of smell, music is a fast and natural way to influence and reset your brain networks. The effects are virtually immediate.
Additionally, if you play a song over and over before specifically targeted situations — say you are stuck in traffic (and irritated) on your way to the office and you play a tune from your personal playlist that you know has a positive flowing affect on your mind — you can train (and rewire) your brain to automatically send your mind and body new instructions on how to flow whenever you enter that scenario.
Being able to get into and sustain this mindset during times of stress is important. It not only helps get your through, but helps you take charge of the way you respond to similar situations in the future. Training your mind to re-balance before taking on your next task will increases chances for success and leave you feeling healthier and happier.
1. Always pick songs you like. The more you like them the more they will work.
2. Consider songs from your distant past that have a flowing effect.
3. See the song in your mind like a movie.
4. Make your own “story” out of the song and play it in your mind like a movie.
5. Combine with movement if possible (yoga, tai chi, dance, jogging)
6. If you have a good relationship with your mom, ask her what music she used to listen to get her mind into a flowing state during while you were being born and try downloading those onto your iPod.
7. Use natural sounds (water, breeze, etc.) You can find a lot of these on iTunes.