Having a Mind Like Water to Achieve Flow


Ever heard of the phrase to have a mind like water? I did, when reading the German translation of Getting Things Done years ago, though somehow when reading it, I didn’t put to much of a thought into it. I don’t even remember how it was translated.

Now I got myself the audio book (which is in English, as I often read that the English version is far better than the German translation) and while hearing it, this concept somehow started to interest me. I started thinking about the mind like water and it’s implications, and I even started googling for it. Getting Things Done author David Allen describes it in the following way:

In karate there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is: Totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.

It reminded me of another concept from psychology that I know of, which is called flow. Flow describes a state that is right in-between the states of mental overload and mental underload – or sometimes also referred to as the states of fear and boredom – and it is described as enduring happiness while in a state of high creativity and/or productivity, where you are highly concentrated while working, but have the feeling of effortlessness, adding a high degree of playfulness to your task. Being in flow, everything else loses importance, one doesn’t even realize how time simply “flies by”. An important factor of flow is, that you don’t try too hard, but also that your tasks are not too easy – there’s a balance between the own abilities and the tasks requirements, so that the requirements are always just slightly (and increasingly) higher then your abilites, making it neither boring nor frustrating. Or to put it in Allen’s words by describing the mind like water: you neither need to overreact nor underreact.

The state of flow is the most desirable state you want to be in, when solving tasks, because it makes you most efficient and effective, unfolds your full potential, and by doing so raises your abilities and yet you are totally relaxed, stress-free, feel content and a inner harmony. You’ll love doing what you’re doing – it won’t feel like work but like recreation.

The term Flow was coined and first researched by the Hungarian psychology professor Csíkszentmihályi Mihály in the 1970s and it is still actively investigated, having stakeholders from various fields, like business (e.g., creating environments that increase the possibility for workers to reach a flow state), medicine (e.g. for helping people with concentration disorders), or the entertainment industry (e.g. figuring out how to create computer games that have a high and long lasting success rate).

In a way flow  has an etymological similarity to a mind like water, as water flows. Still, while thinking about why there are two names for the same thing, how they might differ and researching the web I came to the conclusion that a mind like water describes more than flow does. On the one side we have the ductility of water. In this context you’ll most probably find a famous quote by Bruce Lee:

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Conveyed to our mind and it’s assignment to solve problems and reach goals, this is best put into words by Kevin Tyler Smith:

In order to achieve something spectacular, you have to immerse yourself in it, believe that you are what you want to become, right now. You have to develop the habits of your end result, the mentality of your end result and take the shape of what or who you want to be and do it with undying dedication.

In this context, a mind like water is the ability to have powerful visions of your goals and use them as motivation to reach these goals. Successful people often picture themselves doing a thing before they actually do it. This is especially known of by successful sportsmen and women. But just think about other tasks you might want to achieve: when developing something, you think it through first (instead of just starting at the first line and writing the commands as they come into your mind). Same goes for writing texts – even if you don’t have a structure for the text you are writing, at least you are thinking about the next sentence and what you want to say in that sentence, before writing it. Good chess players are those who are able to think ahead several moves – and still, the strategy is not a fixed path. With every move the enemy makes, the strategy changes, adapts itself to the new situation – behaves like water.

I’ve listened to a lot of self-motivation podcasts and also read some books and one of the standard techniques is to have goals, and make them strong and emotional by picturing yourself actually having achieved that goal, and concentrate on all the feelings and sensory perceptions you’ll have in that moment. “Make it up to make it happen” is a sentence that I’ve heard when dealing with motivation and achieving goals. Allen describes it as outcome thinking or outcome visioning and says that only when you apply an outcome thinking, will you appropriately recognize next tasks and prioritize them properly.

If this is what a mind like water is all about, then of course, it doesn’t have much to do with flow. It’s rather a motivation technique. Something that can be used to achieve a goal to – let’s say – set the direction, while flow is the actual choice of a path that leads to this previously set direction.

Yet, somehow I wasn’t content with that solution to what a mind like water actually is and how it might be related to flow. When Allen talks about a mind like water, he doesn’t use the words that Lee uses. He doesn’t focus on the ability to be as adaptable and ductile as water. What he focusses on is the response that water has, when a stone is thrown at it. Let the stone be an obstacle that comes into your day-to-day life – say a task, you hadn’t planned for. The water still is ready for it. What Allen describes is a readiness for the unexpected. As he says, it’s a concept taken from martial arts: To master martial arts one needs to be able to react to any situation, however unexpected they may come.

How can you achieve this kind of readiness? In martial arts you do it by repetitively performing the same movements until they are hard-wired to your brain, but also by training Randori. And finally, by meditating, with the goal of obtaining an empty mind and high level of vigilance. As Allen points out in his book, thoughts produce stress. One of the goals in Getting Things Done is to empty your mind. An empty mind leads to vigilance, and therefore – at least in terms of martial arts – to readiness. Zen to Done inventor Leo Babauta sees this in a similar way:

I think the appeal is the calmness and peace that you are trying to achieve. Have everything in its place, and empty your mind of busy-ness and junk. Then your are ready for anything that comes your way.

And those characteristics are essential to the flow state. To recap: you need a focussed mind that is in a state of fearlessness and stress-free-ness, where the tasks become playful. If your mind is cluttered, if you have – what Allen describes as loose ends – resurfacing thoughts about things you must not forget, about the amount of tasks you still have in front of you, about not knowing where to start, about not knowing what the next steps are – then you have stress. When you have stress you cannot focus. Moreover, you might overreact, have high levels of adrenaline that hinder you in reaching the calmness and playfulness you need to get into flow. Or you might underreact, by procrastinating or under-achieving by not seizing your full potential.

And that’s how – in my opinion – these two concepts are linked. I postulate that to reach the state of flow, it is essential that you posses a mind like water. Or to put it in my words from the beginning: When your mind is like water, it’s able to flow like water.

I do not consider it a necessary precondition to conciessly having reached a long lasting mind like water – I mean, I would say that I’ve already experienced flow. And I never had a constant mind like water, nor was aware that there is one such thing.

But when look back, over the years I see a rising level of stress leading to a falling level of wateriness of my mind. And this perfectly fits to the fact of me feeling that I had more moments of flow when I was still at school then I had when working or studying. I do believe that I am still today able of experiencing flow – because there are always situations when you at least temporarely are in a mind like water, even if the circumstances would suggest otherwise. Yet, if you try to actively focus on getting into a state of flow as often as possible, I believe that it becomes easier when you actually start with an empty and focussed mind that is clear like water.

How to gain a mind like water? Well that’s a totally different question and there are a lot of “gurus” that claim to know the way to get there. I for my part have tried out a lot. I believe that what worked best was Babautas Getting-Things-Done-Modifying Zen to Done, but today I also believe that Zen to Done alone isn’t enough as well.

It’s the philosophy behind Zen to Done, that one should focus on, once one has worked oneself through Allens excellent book (and I think it doesn’t hurt to add some Stephen Covey while doing so) and implemented the ideas with the help of Zen to Done. And that is: Simplify your life. Drop all your commitments that way you down or even stop you, that don’t help you proceed on your way to reaching your goals and finding your passion. Get balance to your life. Covey separates your life into four dimensions: Body, mind, heart and spirit. Other ways of dividing your live into areas you might find are private life, social life and work life. Or you could look into the different roles you play: father, husband, amateur football player, accountant. Regardless of how you divide it – bring all these areas you find yourself in into balance!

It may sound esoteric when I say that you should maybe also consider having a look into Zen (jap. 禅) or Taoism (chin. 道教). I definitely don’t want to try to convert your believes or anything. But just reading into it may also proof to be quite valuable, as there are many philosophies and practices that may help you and that directly come from the philosophy to simplify things. E.g. Zazen (jap. 坐禅) (one of the Zen Buddhisms practices) is a meditation technique in which you try to free your mind of any thought, whereas in Wu wei (chin. 無爲) (one of the philosophical concepts of Taoism) you are thought to not work against your nature but with it. And of course, what could also help is picking up a technique from the material arts. In nearly every practice you’ll have at least one meditation phase itself to clear your mind (e.g. in Jujutsu before and after the training) and after that you’ll experience a symbiosis of physical and mental workout, that’ll help you to focus. In some (e.g. Iaido) you even have phases in the techniques themselves, called Zanshin, in which after nearly finishing the technique you shortly meditate about what just happened (Iaido is a very fast practice: You sense a dangerous situation, draw fast, block and strike the enemy down, clean the sword, then meditate and re-sheath it – ideally this happens in less than a minute – here’s an impressive demonstration of all 12 basic katas in approx. 7 minutes (the first 1,5 minutes is for show)).

But these are just a few things that come into my mind, when thinking about how to have a mind like water. When you google it, you’ll find that no-one actually has a patent recipe that will always work. Additionally, it is something that you need to practice constantly, i.e. it is not a state that you once gain and then have it for the rest of your life. And I think, the most important step towards the mind like water is realising that it exists and understanding what it means. If you do, you already gained a lot. To (again) quote Babauta:

Sometimes when I don’t feel this way, I look at others around me, and realize that I have come a long way towards Mind Like Water. It will be an ongoing quest.

So, to wrap it up, I believe that the goal of having a mind like water, which derives from the martial arts, positively affects our ability to reaching the state of flow. Flow is something anyone should try to achieve as often as possible, as it allows us to work highly efficient while being totally free of stress. As stress derives from a thought-cluttered mind, I postulate that flow only happens when you have a free mind, thus (temporarily) having a mind like water. To maintain a long lasting mind like water with a readiness for many states of flow one needs balance in ones live as well as good organisation helping you to gain an empty mind, such as provided by the techniques described by Getting Things Done and Zen To Done, but there are many other ways to achieve a mind like water that could aid those productivity methods, e.g. excersizing some of the ancient Asian philosophies.

So, what do you think? If you never heard of this, do you find the idea appealing? Do you think my postulate makes sense? How would you try to achieve the mind like water? Did you already achieve it? What helped you achieving it? And do you feel that you have more states of flow, once you reached a mind like water? Im really interested in your thoughts on this! So please comment 😉


Some articles I stumbled upon dealing with Mind Like Water and that you might find interesting for further readings:

One thought on “Having a Mind Like Water to Achieve Flow

  1. Pingback: Inspiratinsquellen | ~ PygoscelisPapua ~

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