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Channelling FLOW - effortless inspiration

When stuck in a rut, we need to look outside of ourselves to a grander source of inspiration. The inner voice, the self, the ego, these all conspire to restrict creative energy that ought to flow forth from that higher source. If we want to achieve our potential, find fulfilment and lead aspirational lives we must recognise our duty to keep the channel free and unblocked and allow the source to flow in abundance! This is where the magic can happen...

I've been setting out a philosophy in my blogs which promotes the concept of an Adventure Mindset as a means to thrive on life's challenges. This incorporates an understanding of how the brain functions under stress (from my research into cognitive neuroscience), with techniques and concepts from coaching practice that help people achieve goals and overcome sticking points. The ambition is to help folks unlock potential and live happier, more fulfilled lives! In short, being more adventurous in thought and action.

“The bottom line is that there are ways we can access more efficient modes of being that are supported by converging notions including: spiritual practice (such as meditation), psychological strategies (focusing attention on meaningful tasks), and physically-derived means which can include taking part in strenuous or stretching activities – for instance, long distance running, but also environmentally-mediated pursuits such as we find in adventure challenges "

An effortless mode...unblocking the channel

Where does the magic happen? This has been the burning question that has driven me since time immemorial. It has taken me on a scientific and personal quest into extreme environments, and into the world of extreme sports and adventure, to fathom how people thrive at the edge. Where risk meets reward.

But it’s not ‘just’ about ultimate performance of an elite slice of the populace: rather it’s to do with being inspired, and energised to fulfil potential!

The end scene in the movie Whiplash encapsulates this. The tormented protagonist, after much abuse and admonishment finally achieves greatness in a sublime improvised drum solo, turning the tables on his abusive mentor. It is a moment of transcendence, a peak experience.

People talk about finding their flow. I see this in terms of optimal performance, and accessing an effortless state.

What this means is becoming super-efficient in using the mental resources at our disposal. We know that when we are mentally cluttered, pulled this way and that, or putting in too much work for too little reward, we aren’t at our most satisfied. Athletes who ‘get into the zone’ achieve their personal (or world) best. Something clicks, all the ducks are in a row so to speak, to coin a phrase!

I ran a workshop some years ago on the concept of effortless, asking participants to think back to times in their lives when they could say they experience this. What activities were associated? What was the context, how did they feel, during, after?

I can access this in my sea kayak, when the rhythmic paddling propels me smoothly through the water, or jamming in a band, flowing with the go (inspired by Whiplash)! Equally, a damn good conversation on the nature of life and the universe with an equally enthusiastic counterpart spawns a flurry of excited lines of thought to pursue further!

You come away supremely satisfied, possibly transformed. It stays with you and makes you want to get back into that state whenever you can!

Effortless-ness is a perceptual thing – we might feel like there is an absence of having to work to attain the goal, but it’s more about momentum, hurtling down that ski-slope, muscles engaged to the purpose they are required. When we work at something and we move forward, we don’t really feel like we are exerting effort.

It is also about being absorbed in the activity, the moment of performance. When we become consumed by the present, our attentional focus is entirely on doing the task at hand, we lose our sense of self. And that is an important criterion for ‘going effortless’.

I’ve talked at length about the brain mechanisms that come into play that relate to self, including ways to tune this down (the so called default mode network). Suffice to say there are ways and means to address this notion that the self gets in the way of achieving a happy and successful life.

Of course, there is a long spiritual tradition along the lines of Zen and it’s ilk, that refers to the hindrance of self, including meditative practices to dissolve the self. There is also a fascinating area in the psychopharmacology of psychedelics pertaining to neural processes involved in self-hood, which I have a strong interest in and can address in future pieces.

The bottom line is that there are ways we can access more efficient modes of being that are supported by converging notions including: spiritual practice (such as meditation), psychological strategies (focusing attention on meaningful tasks), and physically-derived means which can include taking part in strenuous or stretching activities – for instance, long distance running, but also environmentally-mediated pursuits such as we find in adventure challenges. (Examples including mountain walking, rock climbing, sailing and so on.)

There are several ways to skin a cat, but my work looks at the underlying mechanisms by which these different approaches find common purpose. And practical applications including through coaching, of these approaches.

Mindfulness practice helps tune down the distracting inner voice (that finds origin in the default mode network) and can allow ideas to emerge through the clutter and noise. Such ideas can become creative insights that motivate and energise to grander purpose.

Focusing on goal-directed tasks – be that solving a problem that has a higher goal (aspirational, for the good of others) - can engage and absorb, turning ‘off’ the default mode in which the self resides, as the brain networks involved tend to be mutually exclusive. Something as simple as weeding the garden, tidying the house can help one stuck in a ruminative rut, but striving for something higher and more meaningful is the ideal. Helming a sailing yacht out at sea in the middle of the night might be a more extreme way to do this, but it certainly allows one to slip into a Zen-like state of mind, focused only on the task at hand, inner voice silenced.

Participating in an environmentally modulated adventure challenge places the individual in a situation where they must work to overcome intertia, pull resources in a unified direction to prevail, in a situation where ‘self’ is rendered insignificant and helpless against the overawing scale of nature.

In everyday life, striving to ‘get out of your head’ can pay dividends, shifting attention to the outside world and the opportunities it affords for purposeful action.

Also acknowledging that there is a grander scale to things is paramount in this – take yourself out to the edge of the wild and put your toe over the invisible boundary between order and chaos to get a taster.

I facilitated a coaching conversation recently, on the subject of procrastination and demotivation. A drive for passionate creativity was being stifled by concern that someone else would take the credit for the idea that was being promoted. We arrived at a realisation that being over protective of the creative spark was causing tension and unhappiness. And that the way to overcome this was to instead go back to the original source and tap into the abundance of creativity and strive to flood this forth into the world, banishing any reticence or holding back. The point is, we act as channels for a higher source of energy and inspiration, we are not per se the source itself. And we can tend to block the channels – the ego/self does this to protect its terrain. Our job is to keep the channel open and free-flowing.

The self, ego is a master of hindering expression, protecting itself. Yet progress can be achieved by stripping this away – becoming effortless, finding flow.

Flow, optimal performance, effortless, peak experiences. These are all notions that we can refer back to in order to find the inspiration and impetus we need to tap into a fundamental source of energy and motivation from which ideas gush forth.

Think about times when you have felt effortless. How can you draw on those memories to re-evoke the conditions in which the state flourished.

And when you feel demotivated, lethargic, apathetic, consider that the self is playing its tricks on you, trying to keep you in a state of blockage, protective of its own interests. Flood it out! Wander outside and look outwards, upwards at the grandeur of nature. Set yourself a task to engage your attention, tuning down the limiting critical voice in your head. Find some quietude and mindfully attend to your breath, noting thoughts that come and go, turning down the chatter and spotting the golden ideas that push through and start to spark excitement.

If you get a bit stuck, going for walk in nature and being mindful of the sights, sounds, smells can soon yield creative insight and a sense of momentum you can prosper from.

Of course, this is something I promote and facilitate, so please get in touch if you want to delve deeper into that source and find ways to effortlessly move through life!

The magic can happen if you allow it access...


Bruya, B. (Ed.). (2010). Effortless attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action. MIT Press.

Gold J, Ciorciari J. (2020). A Review on the Role of the Neuroscience of Flow States in the Modern World. Behav Sci (Basel). 10(9):137.

Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Boston: New Harvest.

Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142–1152.

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