Keep calm & concentrate: may the Force be with you!

In a paper I presented earlier this year at the 2nd Oxford Conference on Music & Consciousness (the first part of that paper is written up here), I identified remarkable similarities in mind/body/spirit processes across many skilled and creative disciplines. There seems to be a special state of relaxed concentration that is found in the best music-making, drama, sports play, martial arts, Feldenkrais Method, creative writing, painting and many other creative activities. It is sometimes labelled as Flow or the Zone, and it has the double function of optimising learning during training/rehearsal/experiment as well as facilitating top-quality performance/execution in crucial situations.

 

Keep Calm and Concentrate

 

My Oxford paper offered a structured study of these similarities according to a well-known scientific model. There is an extensive academic literature on the subject, with evidence-based research on experiential, neurological, psychological, physiological and social aspects of the phenomenon. But, for reasons that will soon become apparent, I won’t use its scientific name in this article. For now, let’s just call it ‘the Force’.

 

Experts in Force-ology, let’s call them Jedi, recognise the Power of the Force at work wherever there is focused concentration. This Force has its Dark Side, where concentration without accompanying relaxation leads to increased nervousness or a sense of being under threat, described in different contexts as ‘performance anxiety’, ‘writer’s block’ or ‘choking’. Anxiety, trying too hard or an over-aggressive attitude towards fellow competitors can all lead to this dark side.

 

Fear is the path to the dark side

 

Less frequently, a strange and inappropriate excess of relaxation leads to dreamy contemplation, when focused action is needed. A friend of mine just watched, frozen to the spot, as her young baby fell into a swimming pool. Her only conscious thought was: how beautiful he is! In contrast, her husband experienced that Time Distortion which is a feature of the Force: it seemed that time itself slowed down as he dived into the pool and rescued the child. Effective use of the Power of the Force requires a fine balance between concentration and relaxation.

 

In his classic descriptions of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies a balance between high levels of Skill and Challenge as a defining characteristic.

 

 

If the Challenge exceeds your Skill, you are frustrated. If your Skill exceeds the Challenge, you are bored. If Challenge and Skill are balanced, at a high level, you can enjoy the experience of Flow, the Force is with you.

 

Flow diagram transit of Venus

 

My own Jedi-research shows that the various characteristics of Flow (and of other similar manifestations of the Force), first identified by Csikszentmihalyi, operate as apparently opposing pairs, balanced at high level. Challenge & Skill, Concentration & Relaxation, Control & Unselfconsciousness, Goals & Feedback, Awareness & Action, Delayed Gratification & Time Distortion. See Csikszentmihalyi’s Classic Flow & Lawrence-King’s Flow Pairs here.

 

I also identify a new Flow-pair, also apparently opposing and balanced at high-level: Spontaneity and Precision. The Power of the Force allows musicians and actors to improvise elegantly; sports players and martial artists to react quickly, flexibly and accurately; writers and speakers to frame a new idea in just the right words. Indeed, ‘precise spontaneity’ captures the very essence of a performer in full Flow.

 

Pele

 

Csikszentmihalyi associates the ability to use Flow with a basic personality trait, autotelism. Read more about the Autotelic personality here. But what if you were not born autotelic? Are you excluded from Flow? Csikszentmihalyi’s viewpoint seems close to the (now exploded) Talent myth, the mistaken idea that great performers are born, not made. See Matthew Syed’s Bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice here, in support of the idea that even the highest-level skills can be learned.

 

The Jedi recognise that, whilst some people might be born with abundant midichlorians, about 10,000 hours of concentrated & relaxed training is required to learn to use the Force. (See Malcolm Gladwell Outliers here & Daniel Coyle The Talent Code here for more on long-term learning through ‘deliberate practice’.) Whatever the application, wielding a light-sabre or piloting a space-ship, the Jedi are experts in training would-be knights to know the Force itself.

 

Of course, that long Jedi training is not just something you do, it is something you become (I borrow this idea from Sifu John Ding’s introduction to Tai Chi, here.) So, as you continue learning, you may well acquire many of the traits of Csikszentmihalyi’s autotelic personality. One part of the autotelic outlook is that learning is continuous and never-ending.

 

Skill is not a destination, but a journey.

 

The Shakespeare Rose

The Shakespeare Rose

 

What is in a name?

 

Since the same Force is at work in so many applications, in one way it doesn’t matter what you call it. Flow, the Zone, Altered State of Conscious, Mindfulness, Awareness through Movement, whatever. But Jedi practitioners are acutely aware of the power of language, and of the fact that each knight is an individual. Particular vocabulary resonates with some people and not with others; certain words evoke strong resistance from some individuals. Some are repelled by the idea that there could be some mystic or spiritual mumbo-jumbo involved in their craft, others react against dry scientific terms for such holistic mind/body/spirit processes.

 

One colleague of mine, an internationally renowned expert in music-pedagogy and a Flow-researcher, draws attention to ancient practices of Shamanism which use the power of the Force. It is therefore important to him that the word ‘Magic’ is linked to the concept of Flow. I am sure that this will work for some people, and I support his enthusiasm for the nomenclature that is meaningful for him and the groups he works with. But I’m not surprised that some of his academic colleagues are appalled by references to Magic in his formal papers and publications.

 

Since people react strongly for or against particular names, it matters very much what name you choose. That is why I’m trying to maintain a light touch of humour, even in this discussion of profoundly serious matters, by using ‘the Force’. Nevertheless, even this name offends some: there are dedicated Star Wars fans who heartily object to the whole notion of the Force.

 

All this controversy over names is hardly surprising. When you start to alter your state of consciousness, you are delving deep into your innermost self, into that area of mind/body/spirit interactions that is outside your normal awareness. In order to do this, you have to relax and ‘let go’; you have to relinquish conscious control and let the magic happen.  ‘Invest in loss’ is the Tai Chi version of this idea. This can be scary.

 

We have to learn to trust the Force. When we are nervous or threatened – the big concert, a world-championship – there is strong pressure to cling onto control, with the disastrous results of choking. So it’s no wonder that we are suspicious of any name that appears to threaten our most profound personal equilibrium, or that it takes time to learn to let go, to allow ourselves to enter that special zone.

 

Yoda let go

 

Meanwhile, scientific research into what I’m calling ‘the Force’ shows that the precise choice of language has great effect on our holistic, mind/body/spirit processes. Powered by the Force, a tiny change of wording results in utterly different neurological and physiological responses and startlingly diverse physical results in the outer, real world. In this sense too, names matter very much. Each application of the Force – performing arts, sports, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais, Mindfulness etc – has developed its own specialised vocabulary, optimised for the particular needs of that application.

 

Words matter in another way, too. The mental focus required to consider the complex, holistic meaning – mind/body/spirit – of unusual technical terms is itself conducive to this balance of relaxation and concentration that we seek. In this way, what appears to be insider jargon within particular applications (Chinese language for Tai Chi, antique language for Early Music, individual coach’s pet made-up words in any sport) is actually a mantra, a magic spell for calling down the Force.

 

So if scientific terms can be off-putting, and the specific vocabulary of particular applications can be useful, do we even need the Jedi and their specialised knowledge of the Force? One might as well ask if we need Mathematicians, as well as experts in Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, Biology, Geography and all the many other disciplines that depend on Mathematics. Masters of each application are experts in that application, whilst the Jedi are experts in harnessing the power of the Force itself. But you too can learn the Jedi secrets, how to find the Force within yourself: it’s then up to you how you want to use it.

 

Inducting a Knight into the Order

Inducting a Knight into the Order

 

So how do you perform an Induction into the order of the Force, how can you transform yourself into a Jedi knight? Experts in the Force describe countless methods, but I suggest that they all share a common feature. You deliberately (one could almost say, artificially) create some outward Jedi symptoms, and the Force itself will then reverse-engineer the altered state of consciousness required to produce those symptoms for real. In short,

 

Fake it till you make it.

 

But what we are faking here is not a specific application, though this can also be a useful exercise: pretend to perform as a master, as a way of reaching your personal best. Rather we are ‘faking’ the experience of the Force itself, so that (once the real magic kicks in) we can then apply that Force to our chosen application.

 

Thus across all disciplines, many warm-up routines aim to produce focused relaxation, as well as rehearsing particular skills and actions relevant to the particular application. Start-up rituals, established in training and then invoked again at the crucial moment, are vital for another reason too.

 

In the Star Wars films, Jedi knights can activate their light-sabres at the flick of a switch. For our individual applications, we all need a short-cut to the Force, that will work effectively just when we need it most. This might also be the critical juncture when we need to beware the power of the Dark Side, not allowing fear to divert us into disastrous over-control. Like everything else, the short-cut must also be trained, by linking a specific action (perhaps a standard opening move in your particular application) to the experience of feeling the flow of the Force.

 

A musician can link relaxed concentration on rhythm itself (the rock beat, the jazz groove, Tactus in Early Music) to previous experience of Flow. Performers of all kinds can create a chain of trusted actions (putting on special clothes, a warm-up routine, walking into the magic space) that anchor their state of mind securely to the bed-rock of focused calm, so that they can access the learned skills required to meet the challenge at hand. If you create these links in advance, and build their strength with many positive repetitions in training, the anchor will hold you safe, when you most need it.

 

Anchor

 

To reach a high level of performance, you need acquired skills, long experience and plenty of serious training in your chosen application. But whatever your level, the Force will help you perform at your best in any application. The Force also helps make your training, all that ‘deliberate practice’ optimally effective. And the links you forge in training can anchor you to the source of the Force, so that fear cannot sweep you away to the Dark Side.

 

Paradoxical Pairs & Short-Cut

 

Of course, each application of ‘the Force’ uses the power in subtly different ways. In particular, Flow (the optimal state for learning and creative work over a long period) is similar to, but different from the Zone (optimised for high performance in a limited time-frame, i.e. ‘against the clock’). Read more at www.TheFlow.Zone

 

Read about applying the Force to Shakespearian theatre and Baroque Opera in The Theatre of Dreams here.

 

 

The Flow Zone mashup 2015

 

 

If you haven’t already guessed, the proper scientific name for what I’ve called ‘the Force’ in the article above is Hypnosis. For an accessible, authoritative and multi-perspective survey see Michael R. Nash Amanda J. Barnier, The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis: Theory, Research and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). For a more practical approach aimed at clinical applications see Michael D. Yapko, Trancework: An Introduction to the Practice of Clinical Hypnosis 4th edition (Hove: Routledge, 2012). For a ‘friendly and brief guide to the essentials’ see Bill O’Hanlon, A Guide to Trance Land: A Practical Handbook of Ericksonian and Solution-Oriented Hypnosis (New York: Norton, 2009).

 

The art of persuasive language, using the power of words to activate the Force, is the study of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). This is a name that many react against very strongly: some believe it is the Dark Side of Hypnosis. I see it simply as the Force of words, which can be used for good or ill, with scientific caution or to wild excess. In many ways, NLP resembles 17th-century Rhetoric. Read more from the Yoda of NLP, Richard Bandler, in Guide to Trance-Formation: How to Harness the Power of Hypnosis (Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, 2008).

 

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

 

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.

 

Lord of the Strings

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