From Freestyling to Finding Zen: The Art of Flow in Hip Hop and Meditation
Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, Slim Shady… the Dalai Lama, and Sadhguru. How could these two arenas of hip-hop / rap music and meditation / mindfulness possibly overlap? One is an art form supposedly only devoted to material success and status (or at least bragging about it), and the other is a practice devoted to what is arguably the complete opposite. Except that isn’t necessarily true. Both share one fundamental, meaningful, soul-enriching quality, “Flow”!!
Why “Flow” Matters?
Maybe you love hip-hop / rap or listen to it on occasion. Maybe you aren’t a fan at all. Whatever your musical or artistic preferences are, though, you’ve probably heard the term “flow.” It can pertain to any genre of music, but rappers and hip-hop artists explicitly use the term, and it has profound connotations. What is a good “flow?” Well, let’s consider the significance of rhythm and music altogether- from a 30,000-foot view. Music and rhythms are patterns… patterns across time… patterns of varying complexities and styles… patterns that can unify and invigorate the human spirit or divide it and bring it down. And pattern-detection is as ancient and as fundamental as life itself.
Patterns drive us, and the right patterns can drive us away from nihilistic anxiety and despair. Two half notes and a whole note. Four quarter notes. Three triplets repeated for four measures followed by a rest. The combinations are (seemingly) infinite!
Rap artists follow a similar principle, except they use the term “bars.” An artist may, for instance, “spit” (rap) for 16 bars and then segue into the song’s chorus line. How do the best of the best artists do it? It’s not too different from the best of the best poets. AA-BB. AA-BB-CC. ABABC. And so on. The only difference is that, unlike traditional poetry, hip-hop / rap poetry is specifically written to be vocalized / sung. It’s also not unlike the difference between a novel and a screenplay. Novels are written to be read. You can of course read a screenplay, but a screenplay is written to be produced / shot.
Since I’m in a position to talk to these kids and they listen // I ain’t no politician, but I’ll kick it with ’em a minute // ‘Cause see, they call me a menace, and if the shoe fits, I’ll wear it // But if it doesn’t, then y’all’ll swallow the truth, grin and bear it // Now who’s the king of these rude, ludicrous, lucrative lyrics? // Who could inherit the title, put the youth in hysterics // Usin’ his music to steer it, sharin’ his views and his merits? // But there’s a huge interference, they’re sayin’ you shouldn’t hear it // Maybe it’s hatred I spew, maybe it’s food for the spirit // Maybe it’s beautiful music I made for you to just cherish // But I’m debated, disputed, hated and viewed in America// as a [expletive] drug addict like you didn’t experiment?Lyrics from “Renegade,” released by Jay-Z on The Blueprint album(2002), featuring Eminem (a.k.a. Slim Shady).
There’s a lot to unpack here, but, basically, Eminem is- in his own trademark way- passionately advocating for free speech—even and especially when free speech presents difficult and/or painful truths. Content aside though, his rhyming structure is also very impressive. It’s not just a simple AA-BB. It’s an AA-BB with a few alliterative, hard-sound CCCs in between (“rude, ludicrous, lucrative…”), followed by a similar CDC pattern 6 bars later (“debated, disputed, hated…”) and plenty of other prosodic complexities.
Bear in mind, this isn’t his entire verse, but suffice to say, he ends it with a striking verbal punch! And that is ultimately what constitutes a “good flow”: the right words strung together in the right order; vocalized with the right timing, intensity, and punch. A “good flow,” in essence, moves of its own accord. You don’t have to force it!
Now…what is “flow” in the world of meditation and mindfulness?
It’s a different- but altogether similar- concept. We’ve all undoubtedly heard of the “flow state.” Writers. Athletes. Actors. Musicians. They enter a zone. A “meta” zone if you will…one that is both wholly present and goal-focused. The batter’s attention is entirely on the pitcher’s throw or the gymnast on his/her aerial stunt. The drummer is locked into each beat and the author into each word and paragraph.
So, what’s going on here? Well, dopamine is going on here. Dopamine is one of the four primarily “feel good” neurotransmitters… the others being serotonin (the stabilizer), oxytocin (the love hormone), and endorphins (the pain-reliever). Dopamine is the encourager… the heightener… the invigorator. Dopamine is what skyrockets on cocaine or crystal meth (or, perhaps sometimes- much less dangerously, albeit- even caffeine). But dopamine is also a “doing” molecule, and not all mindfulness is oriented towards “doing.”
Meditation is basically the exact opposite. You don’t reach your “flow state” through meditation by writing a novel or running a touchdown or cleaning the entire house. You reach it by simply sitting quietly (usually with your eyes closed). What do you “do” then? You “notice.” You notice your breath. You notice sights and sounds and smells. You notice different physical, and bodily sensations like vibration, pressure, and temperature. You notice your emotions, thoughts, and memories. And, throughout all of it, you strive not to eradicate what you notice but to notice what you notice without judgment or attachment. It’s undoubtedly very difficult.
I meditate from time to time and struggle with it every time I do. Reaching that state where you notice the “contents of [your] conscious experience” like a “(perfectly reflective) mirror” (as neuroscientist / philosopher Sam Harris puts it) is no easy feat but, as any expert in the field would assure you, it can be done with the right amount of diligent practice! And, when you can do it correctly, you do reach the “flow state.”
So, in closing…
The “flow state” is the go state, the slow state, the show state… The urgent and emergent presentation of the present, post-haste... The vital ingredient to a mind steeped in waste… unpleasant memories, predictions, prejudices, and hate.
Okay, that’s probably not the best set of bars you’ve ever read. I guess it’s a good thing I never pursued rapping as a career (although I did dabble in it in high school. It wasn’t a serious thing, but it was fun!!)