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Effortless Effort, Flow-State, Enlightenment?

Nicholas Noble | November 21, 2019

Supplementing our Daily Energy with the Right Brain-wave Fuel

Have you ever felt ‘in the zone?’ There’s a number of ways to describe the feeling of complete immersion, everything from running to reading, even working. Tougher is to achieve this state on demand; from one day to the next we may drawn between effortlessness to dread as we perform our daily duties. Especially for this stressful time of year, including those who are working to maintain cognitive and mental health, wouldn’t it be nice if we could flip the flow switch on, permanently?

While no one can quite offer that, there are definitely ways we can strive in cultivating our ideal ‘flow’ or ‘zone’  — and get it working for us more each day. So, whether you’re bearing down at work to make room for the coming holidays, or generally feeling overwhelmed from a lack of motivation, keep reading for the best ways to help you find that focus.

Ancient Practices, Modern Neuroscience

Between the range of modern psychology and ancient mindfulness practices like Zen meditation (and popularly yoga), we now have the resources to find what works for us like never before. Science aside, those long-standing practices have carefully described and aided people in achieving flow-state for millennia; inward activities encourage us to ‘let go’ of unneeded tension and clear the way for seamless, or ‘effortless’ energy. 

As we’ll find out, modern neuroscience goes further in exploring the relationship between that sought after flow-state and specific types of brain waves. In turn, we may readily understand what those ancient mindfulness practices are developed around — even shedding light how typical energy drinks can make matters worse as shortcuts to focus. 

Actually, coffee and other highly-caffeinated energy drinks make for the best foundation as we learn how flow-state and brain waves are related, but not in the way that we need.

Caffeine and Brain Waves

Research tells us that too much caffeine can mean increased anxiety, insomnia, and is associated with elevated beta brain waves (i.e. fast-thinking). In part, this is why coffee is most commonly a go-to energizer or ‘work fuel.’ Unfortunately, this type of energy only disguises itself as effortless, it’s actually much different. Many people report negative side effects like jitters, anxious thinking, and all too commonly that afternoon crash from coffee. Does that sound like flow to you? [1] 

The caffeine rush may better be described as an unfair exchange; trading our daily stamina for a shorter and hard to control burst of energy. On the rebound, withdrawal from high doses of caffeine causes an increase in theta and delta waves, and critically decreased alpha waves. The former two are associated with rest, deep sleep, and reduced physical energy. [2]

On the other hand, neuroscience tells us that alpha waves are one of the most important links between mindfulness practices and the experience of being in the zone, flowing, and feeling effortless. [3] 

When we are in an alpha brain wave state, we’re more easily able to relax into ourselves while maintaining alertness and quick physical energy. Interestingly, multiple studies have reported that abundant levels of L-theanine, found in the highest natural levels in matcha green tea, are able to significantly elevate alpha brain waves.

This finding is suggested as an explanation for the extensive use of matcha in Zen meditation, even its role in martial arts due to its ability to reduce resistance and improve mind-body acuity. Furthermore, while matcha and other tea do contain levels of caffeine, they do so more appropriately for our biology than does the average coffee, let alone synthetic energy drinks. 

The synergy of caffeine and L-theanine has also been investigated for its effect on our brain waves, commonly believed as an ideal blend of energy for daily drinking. The effects of tea high in L-theanine, like matcha, are even more beneficial when incorporated with mindfulness practices to achieve flow more, each day. 

One study measured that unlike caffeine alone, the combination of L-theanine and caffeine was more effective in lowering reaction times; associated with alpha-waves, this suggests a pharmacological mechanism in the brain behind the vastly different effects reported in tea drinkers versus those who prefer coffee or other caffeine-only beverages. [4]

The bottom line

As they are commonly described, the experience of being in a meditative state in many ways is uncanny to how people tend to describe the feeling of being in the zone. Seen as different settings for what psychologists share in calling ‘flow-state,’ it’s important that we develop ways to help ourselves achieve and maintain this way of mind more frequently each day.

Arguably in what’s long been coined as ‘enlightenment,’ it may not be possible for us mere mortals to remain in such a state of effortless effort permanently, but it doesn’t hurt to try. 

When we incorporate mindfulness practices, such as daily meditation, yoga, and other inward activities, we can actively change our neurochemistry and thus the way that we interact with ourselves and our environment. Better yet, we can supplement the effectiveness of these routines by choosing the right brain fuel. 

Matcha is nature’s finest source of L-theanine, biologically appropriate caffeine levels and a host of potent antioxidants. That means you can double down on that good feeling of flow — just as the Zen Buddhists have done for the past millennium. 

So, whether it’s you or a loved one who’s feeling the effects of a lack of flow, especially in this time of year where both work and family are asking more of us, matcha makes the perfect helping hand and is even better when made part of a daily mindfulness practice. 

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