It might be surprising that I first discovered flow state with a knife in my hand. A year ago, I came home from my first Kali weapons class exclaiming that knife is my happy place. Since then, martial arts has become an essential part of my creative process.
Kali is a style of Filipino martial arts that uses sticks, knives, and bladed and improvised weapons to inform everything from military combat to self-defense. The complex weapons system has developed over centuries to combine ancient Filipino practices with the best elements of fighting styles introduced by invading forces like the Spanish.
The sumbrada is a particular style of Kali drill that repeats a complex pattern of attacks and counters. One student attacks, the other counters and then returns a new attack that the first student counters, over and over again. What results is a mesmerizing flow of movement, a continuous repetition of strikes and responses designed to help martial artists develop particular skills or reflexes.
Sumbrada drills are also highly precise. Every detail is important, from the placement of your own body and the specific point of contact with your partner’s body to the exact angle of the weapon. In my first few knife skills classes, my instructor would remind me: “Be a surgeon, not a butcher.” Wielding a knife requires little force to do fatal damage, but success in the art (or in self-defense) does demand relentless precision.
I first discovered flow state with a knife in my hand.
Anyone can experience flow, but it has become particularly relevant to athletes and artists. The concept was first popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1990s, and a growing body of research into flow defines it as a peak state of consciousness. When you’re in flow, you’re in the zone, feeling and performing your best.
Because Kali movements are so detailed and the movement flows are so complex, there is no way for my brain to be successfully completing a sumbrada drill with my partner while also letting my mind wander to doing the laundry and reviewing my to-do lists and tracking which bills are due—all topics that also distract from the creative process.
Of course, having someone’s knife flying at your face is all it takes to demonstrate that your brain focuses on what’s most important first. Attention and awareness are so highly tuned to a specific series of actions in a sumbrada drill, the flow state is practically inevitable.
No matter how well embedded I am in sumbrada, I lose the pattern immediately in the moment my mind wanders. But in the blissful few minutes spent wrapped up in a flow, I’m not thinking at all. I consider it a true flow state when I realize (after the fact) that I wasn’t even thinking about the sumbrada while executing it. I’m not thinking about the next strike, or my next defense, or technique, targets, strategy, or range. My body is moving in the way I have trained it to move. And as soon as I think consciously about anything, including what my body is naturally doing, flow evaporates instantly.
As a freelance creative professional, my work style requires me to man the switchboard of my mind across a variety of tasks: research to writing, emails to phone calls, drafting to editing, all flipping from topic to topic. But if I switch too often or too fast, I get the kind of mental whiplash that knocks me out of commission for the day. It’s easy to get caught up in the tizzy of the to-do list, without crossing anything off. Just like in a sumbrada drill, the quality of my work suffers each time I lose focus by thinking about something else.
Without the imminent threat of a knife hurtling towards my face, I’ve had to learn to artificially trigger a flow state at my desk.
This kind of ineffective mental ping-pong is also draining. Six months ago, my passion projects were gathering dust and the creative writing I was ostensibly pursuing in my free time was really just piling up in an unruly stack of scraps. I was tired at the end of the day but I couldn’t sleep at night, kept awake by the frustration that I hadn’t devoted any real discipline or attention to my creative ideas. That’s when I started applying the flow state I’d found in martial arts to my creative work.
Without the imminent threat of a knife hurtling towards my face, I’ve had to learn to artificially trigger a flow state at my desk. My phone is a flow killer, as are the alerts and reminders that pop up on my laptop. Turning off notifications minimizes the chances I’ll slip out of my flow state to address a different problem than the one I’m working on right now. Noise is another distraction, so no matter where I am, I work with my headphones on to nestle my focus in a cocoon of sound.
Finding my creative flow state means I stay at my desk for longer hours, accomplishing more meaningful work than I ever could before. I treat each task like a single sumbrada drill, working for twenty minutes or an hour, or until a project is finished. Only then do I decide whether to dive back in or move on to a new task—What deserves my attention now? And I drop back into that optimal consciousness, a state of pure flow, where there is nothing to do but the work in front of me.
Kali is gruesome and effective—we learn targets based on the veins and arteries we’re slicing. And yet, it taught me to focus in a whole new way.
The truth is that Kali is a devastating martial art. It is gruesome and effective—we learn targets based on the veins and arteries we’re slicing. In this way, Kali is perhaps the least likely place to discover a flow state. And yet, trading blows in an endless cycle of movement taught me how to focus in a whole new way. Bringing that flow to my desk, I can triage projects based on urgency, and give each one the attention it deserves, all in a state of ultimate focus that lets me create uninterrupted.
I may have learned how to sink into a flow state at my martial arts academy, but I’m a better writer with the flow state as a tool in my creative arsenal. The quality of my work is better, I finish projects faster, and I can do what I love without succumbing to the temptation of overloading my mental switchboard. I sleep well at night knowing my potential is fulfilled and I did my best work.
Interested in creative thinking? Read more articles about it here.
Header image by Jack Stryker