There is an old Japanese story about a tea ceremony master who unintentionally insulted a samurai swordsman and was immediately challenged to a duel the next day. The tea master was terrified. ‘I am going to die’ he thought. His wife persuaded him to find someone who could help. He sought the help of an expert swordsman to teach him. All through the night the expert tried to instruct his pupil in the art of swordsmanship but the tea master couldn’t get any of the motions right. As dawn was breaking, the sword expert gave up and said sarcastically: “You’ll just have to approach the fight the way you approach your stupid tea ceremonies.” And with that he stalked off.
The next morning the tea master said a sorrowful goodbye to his family. He knew he was going to die and faced the samurai with dread. Without any skill or experience in fighting all he could do was to approach this situation in the only way he knew how. He simply did what he did at his tea ceremonies. He sat on the floor, closed his eyes, relaxed his entire body, and summoned all of his being into that moment. Then he slowly drew the heavy sword over his head and waited to die. Nothing happened. He opened his eyes. The samurai was in front of him on bended knees, sword on the ground beside him. The tea master asked in astonishment, ‘What are you doing?’ and the Samurai replied, ‘Forgive me. If I had known you were such an expert swordsman I would never have challenged you to a duel”.
Tiger Woods had a famously close relationship with his father. The first OPEN that Tiger Woods played since his father’s death was in Liverpool in July 2006. He was under closer scrutiny than ever and rewarded the crowd by playing spectacularly with utter concentration. Seconds after the final victorious putt, however, he was sobbing uncontrollably on his caddy’s shoulder. When interviewed later, he explained that the deep emotion was, of course, because of his father’s death and how much he wished that his Dad had been there to see his win. The interviewer asked him, “So, were you thinking about your father during the match?” “No” replied Woods. “There was golf to play.”
When we have absolute focus and pure concentration, when we lose ourselves in whatever we are doing at any given moment we give ourselves and our creativity the purest freedom. However, if we rely on external validation or approval we can end up working with half a mind on the imagined judgement of how we are, how we are being, what we look like. The more we are able to switch of this judgement and lose our self in concentration the more creative, happier, fulfilled we are. De Angelis said, ‘Only when your consciousness is totally focused on the moment you are in can you receive whatever gift, lesson or delight that moment has to offer.’
When are people happiest? When we are not questioning whether we are happy or not, whether we are successful or not, good looking or not, doing the right thing or not. When we are just being, creating, in tune with the world, in flow with others. When there are no barriers to what we can achieve, no protection of our ego, no inner voice telling us this is good or bad. Nothing but immersion in what we are doing.
It is ironic that in the era of self help people are more miserable and anxious than ever. We are constantly judging ourselves. How am I doing? How do I compare? Am I happy enough? Rich enough? Am I a good enough parent? What will make me happier? The more we look at ourselves from the outside, judging ourselves then we are not in the place of our greatest power. Ironically the more we are thinking about ourselves, the more we make it impossible to simply be ourselves.
Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi, professor of psychology and education at the University of Chicago has written extensively on the concept of flow – the immersion of ourselves in what we are doing. He says, “A person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than normal. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own.’
One of the first principles of mental freedom is that of ‘awareness’ and bringing a consciousness and choice to everything we do. That is the first step. The second step is to then let go and absorb ourselves to such an extent in a task or in what another person is saying that we cease to be aware of ourselves. It is not as contradictory as it sounds. Developing awareness of ourselves is vital because once we have this level of insight we can make changes on a profound level. It also allows us to be aware of our thoughts about ourselves and to observe whether they are actually impeding our ability to do what we want to do. The world record breaking GB cycle team spends thousands of hours analysing their technique, comparing it to others, adjusting every tiny aspect of their approach. They enter the race with deep awareness of everything that can impact their performance. Then, when the starter whistle blows, none of this information is in their consciousness they are just simply, 100% absorbed in the race, decisions become instinctive, instant reactions drawn from the full power of mind and body.
If our thoughts are focused on ourselves there is little energy for anything outside. While, at the other extreme, the feeling of being in flow is when we are so absorbed in what we are doing that everything else ceases to exist – including (and perhaps especially) any thoughts we have about ourselves. There is a beautiful paradox in this because in a very real sense when we put our whole self into an activity, we lose all sense of ourselves and perhaps at the same time come closest to being who we really are. As Victor Frankl said, ‘Only to the extent that someone is living out this self-transcendence of human existence is he truly human or does he become his true self. He becomes so not by concerning himself with his self’s actualisation but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward’.
We become powerful when we cultivate awareness of ourselves to such an extent that we can turn it on and off when required. This idea of a switch isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. Neurobiologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel found that when the brain tackles a difficult or timed task it focuses all its awareness on the task and only makes introspection possible again once the task is complete (or possibly once the individual has given up). Goldberg who led the study said, ‘The regions of the brain involved in introspection and sensory perception are completely segregated, although well connected and when the brain needs to divert all its resources to carry out a difficult task, the self-related cortex is inhibited.’
It is possible this function may have evolved as a protective mechanism, “If there is a sudden danger, such as the appearance of a snake, it is not helpful to stand around wondering how one feels about the situation” says Goldberg. Thus, if you are cycling for the first time in central London, you are probably putting all your attention into avoiding early-death-by-bus rather than thinking about how such an end makes you feel… And although this ‘switch’ may no longer be required so often to save our lives (Marble Arch notwithstanding), it can help ensure that the full power of our mental capacity can be diverted to what we want to achieve. Improving our ability to focus our mental energy entirely on what we are doing will dramatically increase what we are capable of. In the words of Albert Einstein, ‘the true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self’.
Five ways to ‘lose yourself’
1. Minimise distractions,
Allow yourself the freedom of total concentration on whatever you are doing. Turn off the alarms, the phone, email… Forget what other people are going to think of what you are doing and just do what you are doing for its own sake.
2. Don’t go anywhere grudgingly
Be selective about the situations you allow yourself to be in and make a pact with yourself to be 100% present to wherever you are and whatever you are doing. Practice feeling open and receptive, observe the people you are with, listen to what they are saying and to the messages between the words. If you chose to put your time into something then let the time be well spent.
3. Seek out the activities that absorb you
When you lose a sense of yourself and time you are either in love or operating at the top of your game (or possibly both). Activities that absorb your mental energy completely are to be treasured and sought after because you are carrying them out not for the thought of the potential reward but for the joy of simply participating. These occasions are when many believe we truly come alive and can realise our fullest potential.
4. Switch the focus from yourself to the situation
If you start to feel self conscious and begin to worry about how you are coming across, think about why you are there, what you can contribute the situation, what the best outcome could be and put yourself to one side while you concentrate on making this happen.
5. Gain confidence through action
Commit to not spending another moment worrying about how to become more confident. Instead spend the time becoming more knowledgeable, more competent, more experienced at what you do. The confidence will come automatically and by then it will be the last thing on your mind.