Zen and the art of running a business

What ancient eastern philosophy – and a bit of modern psychology – can teach us about performing our best in business, sport and life

By Alison Coleman on 12/04/2019

A woman finds her flow state
Credit: Brooke Cagle

It’s been called many things over the centuries in both Western and Eastern philosophical writing, but the concept of being 'in the flow state’ or ‘in the zone’ is almost universal across civilisation.

Today businesses and individuals are embracing it as a solution to productivity challenges, but the concept of flow state probably dates back to the earliest humans on the planet who had to achieve a collective state of resonance simply to hunt in a group and focus on their goal of finding food.

Over time as humanity evolved, people recognised the value of flow state to their spiritual and creative practices, and it was adopted by early philosophers and religious figures to achieve peak performance and continual improvement.

The ancient Japanese martial artists are credited with coining the term ‘mushin’ which originates from ‘mushin no shin’, a Zen term for ‘mind of no mind’, describing a heightened state of awareness where thoughts or emotions no longer get in the way of achieving peak human performance. This concept still remains central to Japanese martial arts today.

In Chinese history, the philosophy of flow is referred to as ‘wu wei’, which means effortless action or effortless doing. In some traditions of ancient India the concept of samyama is a form of flow state, sharing many similarities with mushin and wu wei.

The scientific study of flow began early in the 20th century when Harvard researcher William James began exploring and recording how the human brain can alter consciousness to improve performance. It was while studying the human fight or flight response that one of his students, physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon, discovered a link between mind and body that helped to explain how the brain is able to reach a state that amplifies performance.

However it was the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who dubbed this highly focused mental state as the flow state. During his own research work in the 1980s and 1990s he was intrigued by artists who could become so lost in their work they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep.

His studies led him to conclude that happiness is an internal state of being, not an external one, and his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is based on the premise that happiness levels can be shifted through the introduction of more flow and being in the flow state, when people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.

In the modern age the state of flow is more often described as being in the zone, but the effect is the same. Studies have shown that when humans are performing complex tasks – whether that’s a developer pulling an all-nighter to launch a new app, or an athlete attempting to cover the longest distance in the shortest time – the outcome can be significantly improved by attaining a state of flow.

We now understand the biology behind flow – when the brain releases norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, all of which impact performance. Norepinephrine and dopamine heighten focus, helping to block distractions, endorphins block pain, and serotonin is the famous feel good chemical.

Not surprisingly, the flow philosophy is now being adopted in business, with many companies making it a fundamental part of their core philosophy.

The eight characteristics of flow identified by Csikszentmihalyi

  • Complete concentration on the task
  • Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  • Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  • The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  • Senesations of effortlessness and ease
  • A balance between challenge and skills
  • Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  • A feeling of control over the task