In Part I of this article looked at a the shifts in consciousness associated with ‘the zone’ or ‘flow performance’ which are terms referred to in the sporting context. In this second part, I explore the relationship and transition of this conscious shift into ‘mindfulness’ or ‘conscious presence’, which are terms used in a spiritual context for a specific state of consciousness.
The conscious states in these various contexts can enhance wellbeing and performance not just in a demanding situation, but also in normal daily life. They are indicative of a deeper conscious state we can access that provides a deep quality of awareness and enables us to deal with life’s challenges without stress, pain and suffering. What are the elements we can incorporate into our physical activities and lifestyle to help us achieve these conscious shifts?
In this article, I cover three key elements that make physical activities most effective in shifting consciousness and releasing stress.
Shifting Consciousness and Releasing Stress
A different scenario to high acuity and elevated states of awareness during adrenaline sports and activities primarily activating the sympathetic nervous system, are the relaxing synchronised activities that activate the parasympathetic nervous system and train the mind to achieve subtle but sustained states of awareness to those discussed in Part I.
Activities like Tai Chi, Yoga, or Hiking in nature can provide prolonged experiences of this type of awareness. With the right practice and inward focus, they can provide a conscious release from the thinking mind with body movement and mind-body awareness as a transitional focus to get there.
In these instances, a ‘flow performance’ or in ‘the zone’ experience can also occur, albeit not as intense and brief, with gradual progression in stability and duration of the experience, beyond the activity that facilitates it, into normal daily life.
Nonetheless, occasional intense experiences arise at unpredictable times just as they do with more adrenaline oriented activities. I have had some peak moments of flow and awareness arise on days when I was not feeling so good and there was a need to draw more deeply into myself to focus and perform. Such unexpected peak moments may not have even correlated with an unexpected peak performance but left me with a shift that enriched more energised practice over the following days and weeks.
Three Key Elements
There are three key factors that provide a powerful combination for practicing and developing mindful awareness which are shared in a great range of disciplines like those mentioned above. They are:
- Controlled body movement or posture, synchronised with
- conscious and purposeful breathing, along with
- focused but relaxed attention with full inner-body awareness.
In adrenaline sports or dangerous activities, as in high concentration work and activities, the mind is highly focused in the immediate moment and every second. Training oneself to voluntarily be fully focused in the here and now and immediate experience, body awareness and activity at hand, with a mind clear of thought and heart open in presence is the key here.
To do so with a sense of alignment and harmony (the state of mind as primary to the experience as the activity itself) is a universal theme of philosophies and spiritual teachings like zen, buddhism and other approaches that make inward focus and personal experience their primary focus. This is why Tai Chi is often associated with Zen and Taoism, or Hatha Yoga and Pranayama breathing exercises with inner Yogic meditation and Indian Vedanta.
The basic elements however, can be applied to any activity or non-activity like simply sitting which is at the essence of zen practice, or pouring a cup of tea like the more elaborate tea ceremonies of China and Japan. This is simple but subtle, which is why it is hard to conceptualise and is better to be contemplated through practice rather than theory and intellectualising.
The dimension where such practices become truly spiritual, is in the consciousness that opens the practitioner to an authentic sense of deep peace and expansive presence that can overcome suffering (emotional and mental turbulence and pain) and putting the ego in its place as servant rather than master. Becoming immune to anxiety and stress through this transcendent state is coupled with access to a sense of unity with life with a feeling of abiding peace, love and even a consistent underlying blissfulness.
From Movement to Mindfulness
The key in all of this is the super high acuity of the present moment while the sense of self is replaced with an immersion in the entire experience based in the interaction occurring between self, the environment at hand and any interaction with others without separation between them. The experience of all three is occurring within, in the conscious mind. This is where the term ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ is relative. Sages throughout the ages have communicated deep insight into the nature of everything being an experience in consciousness itself.
In this state of high acuity, identification with a self image dissolves. It is replaced with a sense of being the space in which your enhanced experience is occurring, rather than identification with the content of the present moment experience. This comes with a sense of accepting connection or unity with it all. Mental narrative and thinking is replaced with a still open receptivity, that provides for spontaneity and responsiveness that is not consciously premeditated.
This is not a zombie-like state, but a surrender to an innate intelligence and consciousness that alert and full of life. When it is found repeatedly, there is a sense of returning to a home base of consciousness that is there whether we tune into it or not. It is the life and conscious essence of our existence.
Even when a brief insight and awakening is achieved, for example with some professional athletes as discussed in Part I, if the whole focus at the time (and following) for the person is on winning or losing or some external outcome, then it may not transform into anything more than a psychological zone for optimal performance. It either becomes part of the high of winning or is discounted and negated in the disappointment of losing and the conditioned identification with mind content is not transcended.
If the focus of the experiencer is on the pleasure, connectivity and fluidness of the experience as a primary outcome in and of itself, then such a peak state can be appreciated and recognised as a deeper state of being. Being lifted from the conditioned and mundane sense of being a separate self reveals or validates a profound sense of life that many describe as spiritual.
Such peak experiences can be a time when we drop our usual familiar mental constructs and ‘points of reference’ spontaneously. Just a few, or even one experience like this, can open up a new sense of what ‘conscious’ being and doing is. It is certainly a profound shift when a person feels irreversibly, albeit subtly and obscurely changed, and peak moments like these have produced this kind of impact for many.
A sporting challenge, prolonged or extremely acute stress and suffering or a spontaneous and blissfully perfect moment can all provide for a few, an portal to those peak moments when we spontaneously experience a shift in being and awareness that translates into a new level of perceiving and performing something in our life. In a sense, it could be perceived as the purpose for the challenges and struggles of life. Meditative movement or stillness can nurture and train mind and body awareness to be more attuned and prepared for such moments.
These moments can be termed as states of heightened mindfulness or ‘the conscious practice of presence’ as they can produce a recognisably high acuity of here and now consciousness. Other benefits of this sense of higher self is that it imbues life experience, beyond good or bad, with a greater appreciation of beauty, goodness and excellence as intrinsic qualities in nature, other people and life in general.
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