February 24, 2024
233 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 6AB United Kingdom
Article Philosophy

FINDING FLOW

Words: Dr Easkey Britton

It’s early and the light from the slowly rising sun is a pale glow, barely seeping through the blanket of grey-blue cloud that seems to soften the still air. The tide has withdrawn, leaving behind a slick, shiny residue of saltwater, like a glossy glaze over the hard packed sand. The wet sand mirroring the low slung sky perfectly.

The shock of the cold, wet sand stings my skin. Instinctively I try to pull my bare feet away, tip toeing gingerly as if trying to avoid sharp, broken shards of glass. I remember to breathe, my body softens a little and I slowly let my weight sink into the soles of my feet, the sand shifting beneath my body. Soon the sensation of cold is gone. I can’t tell if that’s because my body temperature has adjusted or if my feet have begun to numb. The 200,000 thousand sensory receptors on the soles of each foot send mini, electrifying shock waves of sensory information from the sand through my body to my brain in a long, complex and tangled network of neural pathways. This provides my brain with a wealth of sensory feedback about my environment, helping my body to better ‘read’ the shifting terrain, becoming more responsive to subtle changes.

It’s quiet on this westerly facing Atlantic beach and I try to move my body to bring some warmth into it. My limbs feel stiff and awkward. I close my eyes and breathe. I listen for the sea. The constancy of the rhythmic pulse of the breaking waves have a soothing effect and the chatter in my mind dies down. I let all the sea sounds wash over my body like a sound bath. I listen for the waves, the pulsing white noise hum of the surf, fed by a light onshore breeze.

This moment alone on the beach, is a moment of both ebb and flow. A state of ebb is found in the stillness and aloneness, in the listening to the body and place, and a quieting of the mind. Ebb is the container for flow, allowing us to tap into a state of flow with greater ease, whenever we take those moments to pause and be.

The concept of a flow state was popularised by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, to describe a feeling where you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing, so much so that you lose a sense of time, evoking a feeling of pure joy or ecstasy. When writing my book, ‘Ebb and Flow’, I wanted to better understand how those who are most immersed in watery environments experience flow. If a deeply intimate connection with water, in all its forms (fluid, frozen, solid) could enhance this flow state? I wanted to understand if the fluid nature of water truly plays a role in shaping our own sense of fluidity of mind, body and spirit.

From my years of surfing, I learned that to be ‘in flow’ is not only to be in a state of hyperfocus in the present moment. It is not just a sense of fluidity between the mind and body but also with the environment you are immersed in. To embrace our fluidity and find our flow requires an acknowledgement that we are about to enter into relationship with the aliveness of the world. To surf, is to be in a dance with the wave. My seaconnection and relationship with the ocean comes from years of learning, struggling, practicing so that the energy of the sea might be revealed to me when I surf a wave, a few fleeting seconds the wave expressing its spirit/ essence through the body of the surfer.

Back on the beach, I tilt my head back and look skywards. A seabird — a fulmar, I think — crosses my vision and I follow the invisible line it traces out towards the open water, its wings outstretched in an effortless glide before it banks into the wind. A moment of pause and then it drops, swooping low, circling around its outstretched wing tip.

It is impossible to be in the here and now if you’re not connected to the body. Creating new experiences in the body that counteract old or habitual reactions that have been conditioned into us by our life experiences, history and even geography, allows us to reconnect to our intuitive self. The embodiment of the movement of other animals or the more-than-human world can help free us from the aching bonds of earthly ties and help us be in a state of receptivity — allowing the sound of the waves or the wing beats of the bird to move through the body.

We have something like 30 trillion cells in our body that all need water and movement to communicate with each other in order to be healthy. I move my body gently and softly at first, like I’m testing my ‘wings’. My spine slowly unfurling, shoulder blades sliding up and out, fingertips grazing the horizon line.

In the parts of our brain that feel feelings or sensations in our bodies we have mirror neurons which fire whenever we observe the movements of others. When this happens our capacity to experience kinaesthetic empathy is ignited — feeling what it’s like to be the person you are observing. This doesn’t just apply to other humans, we can extend this capacity to mirror and experience empathy in this way to other animals, and even plants and natural phenomena like the wind and ocean waves. Kinaesthetic empathy recognises our kinship with all living things. It helps explain why I felt so compelled to move how I saw the seabird moving. The felt sense of extending and bending my spine gently backwards and unfurling my arms as if they were wings meant I was able to imagine what it feels like to be a fulmar, for a moment. Our ability as humans to ‘mimic’ or mirror other species, and even water, rainfall and waves, through body movements is called bio-mimicry. It may have its roots in the oldest form of pre-language storytelling that helped our ancestors describe what we experienced in our environment through movement and mimicry.

‘To feel the sacredness of water, we humans must become fluid and feel our fluidity,’ writes theologian and somatic psychotherapist Denise Nadeau. ‘If we are fluid’ she continues, ‘we are harder to control and less controlling.’ On the beach, I begin to sense the water in my body and imagine how water would like to move. Becoming breaking wave, swaying, rippling seaweed in a rush of tidal water, rising and falling with breath, toes tracing circles on the sand — ankles, knees, pelvis, spine, ribs, shoulders, arms, neck, head, and eyes all follow, spiralling like a moon shell. Moon shells found washed up on the tide line once belonged to sea snails. They are round, glossy and with a perfect spiral winding outward from the centre of the shell, the still point in the eye of a storm. My internal process begins to shift. I feel newly unearthed emotions surfacing from some hidden depth, a dance of contraction and expansion.

Dr Easkey Britton is a surfer, writer, artist, film-maker, coach and marine social scientist with a PhD in Environment and Society. She is the author of ‘Ebb & Flow’ and ‘Saltwater in the Blood’ both priced £12.99 and available on Amazon and in all good book stores.

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