I guess I just couldn’t leave this one alone. For part one, click here, but don’t forget to come back and read this one too, because it’s going to blow your mind! Seriously though, you don’t want to miss it. Trust me.
Alrighty then. Let’s dive right in, shall we? There is a new term in neuroscience, which actually describes a state of consciousness most prevalent among extreme sports athletes. The state is called “flow.” If you don’t know what flow is, it’s what athletes describe as “being in the zone” or when your conscious mind and actions are completely aligned.
In other words, flow is when you are only aware of what’s going on around you and what you are doing, much like having blinders on, completely blocking out the rest of the world. As a former competitive athlete, I know exactly how this feels, and I’m guessing that many of you do too, not just the athletes out there.
The reason this state is so significant is because the deeper we go into it the more efficient and productive we become, and the easier it is to get lost in the moment, literally having the best results in our entire lives, no matter what we’re doing or what’s going on around us. Honestly, I believe I am in a state of flow at least 90% of the time while writing. In fact, I’m am probably in flow as I’m writing this.
Flow of Superman
My current reading consists of a book entitled The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, in which Steven Kotler’s anecdotal embarking on a journey of exposition and high intensity adventure is quite exhilarating to say the least, complete with a plethora of scientific data and citations to support his ideas.
Anyway, during flow creativity is at its peak, performance is literally unparalleled, and the evasive sense of being “at one” with the environment is not only obtainable but a qualifier of being deep in the state. Many of us have heard the stories of a samurai becoming “one” with his sword, his foe, the ground beneath his feet, and so on. To illustrate let me steal a line or two from the book:
“In 2006, for example, a team of Israeli scientists discovered that when people lose themselves in a task…a part of the brain called the superior frontal gyrus starts to deactivate…” which “helps produce our sense of self, that introspective feeling of self-awareness.”
You literally feel like you are a part of your environment when in a deep enough state of flow. It is my belief that everyone who has ever lived has experienced flow to some degree or another. It is the extreme sports athletes that experience it most, because when your life is on the line, as is so often the case in the aptly named sports category, flow is almost an automatic response to life threatening danger.
Extreme States of Flow
The following is another clip from The Rise of Superman, regarding a whitewater kayaker by the name of Doug Ammons, in which he rafted the Stikine, one of the world’s most ferocious and dangerous whitewater rivers, this section regarding “Wasson’s,” what legendary kayaker Gerry Moffat calls “a million-dollar hole”:
“Ammons was out of options; he let himself get swallowed. ‘It was the most unbelievable sensation, this thing I knew was impossible, that just couldn’t work, I got to watch myself piece it together. I could feel all of the river’s reactions and could feel myself melding with them. My goal was to do this inconceivable thing, to be a drop of water. Surviving Wasson’s was proof I had done it. From that point on, I knew the impossible was possible.’
The sensation Ammons is describing is the ‘paradox of control,’ another of flow’s defining characteristics. The paradox is real power in places we should have none. It’s that sense of controlling the uncontrollable familiar to day traders and emergency-room surgeons, only here taken to its farthest extreme.”
For anyone who has seen Days of Thunder, the NASCAR movie starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, this should sound familiar. When Cruise says to Kidman’s character, “To control something that I know is out of control,” he is referring to being in a state of flow, and the reason Kidman thinks this to be illogical is because of the paradoxical nature of the experience.
The High of Flow
For many people, being in flow is not only thrilling but vastly euphoric, many thanks to the cocktail of neurotransmitters dumped into our system at the time, namely dopamine, norepinephrine (adrenaline), endorphins, anandamide (an endeogenous cannabinoid), and last but not least seratonine.
Quite literally, you feel the most amazing natural high unparalleled by even the strongest drugs known to mankind. In fact, many scientists believe there are so many drug addicts due to so many people’s lack of experiencing the exhilaration that being in flow grants. Many of us are not living up to our full potentials, mostly due to our inability to access this mystical experience, called flow.
Free Your Mind
What, then, is the secret? How do we tap into this wellspring of creativity, ingenuity, and all around ultimate performance and live up to our greatest potential? We can do so by trying new things, doing old things in new ways, and doing anything that gets us outside of our daily routine of “default settings” as exemplified by David Foster Wallace.
We are literally operating on autopilot most often, but getting out of the habit of thinking inside the box and running the same old programs, if you will, can cultivate an awareness of what you are doing right now and how you are doing it, which is a prerequisite of flow, instead of worrying about the past or the future.
If your mind is somewhere else, you cannot be in flow, and most of us literally live our entire lives not being where we are physically. We are too busy thinking about what’s going on at home while we’re at work, and vice versa, or totally immersed in what’s happening on whatever screen we are currently staring at.
If we could all be where we are both physically and mentally, we would literally be flowing through life like water in a ravine, but, instead, we’re running into invisible obstacles that either no longer exist or may never even exist in the first place.
For similar ideas on how to live up to your life’s potential, check out my ebook Holistic Health in the Modern Age, and learn how to tap into the mechanisms of your body and mind’s resources for maintaining optimal performance in every endeavor.