I devoured the whole thing instantly in one sitting at the library.
It was everything I wanted and more.
This was back in college, when I met Dr. Bill Compton, a professor who studied positive psychology and entertained my fixations of researching altered states.
Positive psychology is basically all about what ‘normal’ people can do to become better and it seemed like a no-brainer to want to learn more.
He encouraged me to go to the school library in search of books about positive psychology and somehow I stumbled upon The Rise Of Superman by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.
You see, I had recently decided to do everything I could to skydive as much as possible outside of my studies (including transferring schools to be closer to the dropzone) and this book was here connecting the dots and providing the language to explain why I was so obsessed with skydiving and precisely why I wanted to study neuroscience.
It explained why my friends and I were having those experiences up in the sky and gave me a way to talk about it more clearly.
That’s what the book is all about and up until then, I hadn’t ever really heard or used that word.
This book, and what I learned from it, sent me off on a couple year venture creating shirts, stickers, and podcasts all about flow with people that interested me.
Some of my ‘Day 1s’ will recognize this picture 😂 :
This was about 10 years ago.
What’s crazy is that I learned back then that the inspiration for the The Rise Of Superman was actually a book called Bone Games by Rob Schultheis.
And just recently, I finally got it.
Whereas Rise of Superman was more about the intersection of modern action adventure sports and science, Bone Games is all about the intersection of extreme sports, shamanism, and zen.
It all points to this phenomenon at the edge of culture where people are reliably entering flow states.
Let’s take each in turn so that we may reverse-engineer them back into our own life for more flow without having to necessarily ski off a cliff, dance around a fire, or sit crossed-legged for a decade.
(Although, maybe that too)
Flow states, in this case, are all about high arousal in the nervous system - it’s the baseline to entry.
Whether it’s skydiving, skiing, or mountain climbing (pick your sport), pushing beyond our comfort zone flips the switch to our sympathetic nervous system - the one responsible for our fight or flight response.
When this system gets activated, our bodies release a potent cocktail of neurochemicals, including adrenaline, that help us to focus on the present moment. And sometimes, depending on how well your skills match the challenge you’re facing, you can drop into a flow state, where you feel a sense of effortless concentration, complete absorption in the task at hand, and can react quickly to the environment in a spontaneous & intuitive way.
The main flow factor with extreme sports is risk.
Schultheis, in Bone Games, talks about how his best flow state happened while mountain climbing when he had a near-death fall down a cliff and then had to scramble all the way back down to safety. He spent the whole descent in the most magical state, full of presence and unparalleled performance. (Something he spent the rest of his life attempting to recreate.)
So if you want more flow in your life, one way is to raise the stakes.
You’ll have to do something challenging, whether it’s a new hobby with creative risks, a social activity with reputational risks, or a difficult project at work with professional risks.
Flow is going to show up if it’s truly risky, demanding your full attention. Which makes this pathway less appealing as you’re always having to step it up to drop in.
Another way people enter flow is by taking a more tools-based approach.
Shamans have a 1000+ year head start on all of this and different cultures have found ways to build up whole ceremonies and traditions around altered states.
Things like drumming, dancing, deprivation, and plant medicines.
These are all meant to alter our perception and play around with our senses.
The rhythmic nature of drumming and music can induce a trance because our sense of time and space becomes shifted.
Deprivation of light, with things like darkness retreats, or fasting, with vision quests and extended periods without food, can put us into a flow from the body stress alone.
Schultheis shares examples of this with insane stories about different cultures using everything from ayahuasca to months of fasting to even literal torture to induce these states.
I’m not recommending that! There’s simpler ways to get there folks.
Psychedelics get us there by tapping us into what feels like a whole new set of senses and occasionally even dissolving the ego temporarily.
This unique, unusual view of the world is enough to take over our complete attention and immerse us in the present moment like never before.
Plenty of ways to get into this altered state type of flow in your day to day with cannabis, cold plunging, saunas, mushrooms, ecstatic dance, music festivals, safe fasting, float tanks, or especially breathwork.
Zen is about the art of focusing.
The two main paths to flow with this mindfulness approach are meditation and yoga.
Let’s be honest. Most of us are too worried about the apps, mats, and accessories to go hardcore and devote ourselves to a monastery.
But, that doesn’t mean there are some gems of wisdom we can still latch onto and implement.
There are a thousand different ways to meditate, with most boiling down to just sitting still and breathing. I know it’s politically incorrect to have a ‘goal’ with meditation, but the real aim is to heal your attention span and not be so distracted by the thoughts emerging in your mind.
The more we intentionally practice being in the moment, the easier it’ll be ‘off the cushion’ to drop into the present moment and access flow.
Yoga. Yoga uses bodily practice to tune you into the present moment.
Yoga is a way to re-embody your conscious mind. To literally reconnect with the here & now in the most direct way - your 3D avatar.
Practicing yoga will radically increase your interoception and help you better sense your internal state of the body.
All of this leads to a more dynamic relationship the moments coming into your life and will therefore aid in your quest for flow.
Turns out there can be a lot of overlap between building design and building a life. John Ruskin (unknowingly perhaps) tells us how to live life better.
It's never too late to stumble upon an underlying principle of reality. (Especially one that can be put to use immediately)