Editors note: The Flow Genome Project is a trans-disciplinary, international organization committed to researching and mapping the “genomics” of “flow,” the state in which “time slows down, self vanishes, and action and awareness merge.” We know it as “runner’s high” or being “in the zone” — and it’s a state that to date has not been well-documented. To find out more, neuroscientist, writer, and entrepreneurial thinker Jessica Marie Carson attended the Flow Genome Project’s recent workshop titled “Prometheus Rising: How to Harness Peak Experiences to Become Your Greatest Self.” Here’s her account of a transforming experience that’s attainable for anyone.
The week started with a warning: “This is not a personal growth, get in touch with your inner dolphin workshop… This is the psychological equivalent of base-jumping.”
The bus teeters along the treacherous roads of Big Sur, Calif., as we snake our way around cliffs en route to Esalen Institute. I try not to wake the kid asleep on my shoulder, but I’m pulsing with excitement and anticipation. A recovering cynic who’s been called “cheeky” more than once, I relish the pre-arrival email forewarning a potentially profane, uncomfortable, offensive, disconcerting and ego-disrupting experience. Self-help isn’t on my agenda – or theirs.
I inhale deeply. The bus smells of aromatherapy oils and marinated tempeh, and its inhabitants’ shining eyes convey an unmistakable personhood and presence. We’re headed to Flow Genome Project’s five-day Prometheus Rising workshop, and the self-selecting process has skimmed the top of the intellectually hungry bucket. One part academics, one part tech entrepreneurs, one part creatives, I note the presence of multiple millionaires and geniuses on this bus. I feel a brief pang of self-consciousness in my East Coast yoga getup. There are clearly few travelers from D.C.
My background in neuroscience drew me to Flow Genome Project, with its fierce loyalty to a scientific approach, technological innovation and unapologetic bluntness. Far from the snake-oil salesmen of the life-hack industry, FGP is hacking experience on the level of brain and behavior, neuron and nature, action and awareness to “open-source” human development – that is, make it available to everyone, not just an elite group of some kind. With the world’s top athletes and scientific thought-leaders behind them, FGP is studying the deep science of ultimate performance. And I can dig that.
LANDING AT ESALEN | THE FLOW LOW-DOWN
“Optimal performance happens when we get the self out of the way.”
The bus pulls into Esalen. Its surreal features, overwhelming and exaggerated, evoke primitive and potent visceral reactions. If there’s a place to experience flow, this is it.
We settle in for the first meeting, and darting eyes survey the tribe for the week. I joke that if we were recruiting an ideal cast for the next season of Lost, this would be it – we have top doctors, world-class athletes and their trainers, head execs from companies like Facebook , and innovators in every field. FGP’s founders Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler are the antithesis of stereotyped self-help evangelists. They have an undeniable cool factor. You can’t help but want the juice they’re drinking.
With what can only be described as a free-style rap, “idea-DJ” method of instruction, Jamie and Steven dive right in. They explain flow as an optimal state of consciousness: an information technology that gives us reliable access to more data. The self disappears, time dilates or speeds up and action and awareness merge – your senses soak up more information per second, far-reaching connections become accessible, the prefrontal cortex (your inner Woody Allen) shuts down and hyper-focus emerges. If typical consciousness is an operating system where the ego is used to understand the ego, then flow is a user interface that allows all browsers to be viewed simultaneously. The neuroscientist in me grows giddy at this description.
Flow states first entered my life in theory, as a research topic in my neuroimaging lab. But over the past few years, I repeatedly stumbled into “peak experiences” through my writing, yoga, and other active practices. First, I was curious. Then, I was hooked. Timeless, effortless, selfless, intrinsically motivating and mediated by a cocktail of norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins, the top five pleasure neurochemicals, flow is the most addictive state on earth. It’s the ultimate life hack, and I wanted to be first in line.
SETTLING INTO STRUGGLE | FALLING AS A PATH TO FLOW
“Only when you forget to think of your steps do you truly dance.”
Ocean-side breakfast is complete with a playful baby whale cresting just off shore, a bowl of oatmeal and the company of a ninja. Travis Brewer is a calisthenic athlete, social entrepreneur and American Ninja Warrior finalist, and I hang on his every word as he describes hacking flow states as an extreme performer. If you’re not in flow as you play on the edge of cliffs and buildings, you won’t live to flow another day. I admit to him that the greatest mind game in my yoga practice is my fear of falling. “I have the strength,” I tell him, “but I don’t know how to fall.”
Travis pulls me onto Esalen’s sweeping lawns for an impromptu crash course in falling, and I flop around like a fish. But after a few minutes of struggle, as if by magic or possession, my body starts hacking tricks I didn’t know it contained. These poses were latent in me, but required a recipe of ingredients to move past struggle and into flow. Pleasantly surprised expletives and “I fell and didn’t die” became the day’s mantras.
Letting a stranger teach me to fall was one of the most vulnerable and liberating experiences of my life – I’d prescribe it to anyone.
Fresh off a play-induced high, we head to a class that explains the neurochemistry of my experience. On a chemical and experiential level, I progressed through the four stages of the flow cycle — struggle, release, flow and recovery — because I had a key balance of skills and challenge (strength to do poses/difficult execution), clear goals but undetermined path (one pose/challenge to find it), rich environment (radical novelty/big nature), deep embodiment (body awareness) and high-stakes consequences (falling on my head). Without realizing it, a ninja and the grounds at Esalen provided a perfect storm to fuse action and awareness.
As Jamie and Steven would say, I did the hard thing, struggled more gracefully, and found my flow.
“For anyone truly interested in their health and wellness it’s important to first consider what the driving force is behind the actions and choices. Guilt and vanity are typically the biggest motivations, but neither are sustainable and this is a big reason why so many well-intended efforts and plans fail. Instead, we suggest you give yourself permission to try another path — the path of flow. The secret of flow is that when you do something that puts you into flow state it becomes effortless and rewarding. Flow fuels our efforts forward rather than fighting to keep up. We still struggle, but the struggle is more graceful. So find first what you love to do and connect that with the big project of moving and training and staying fit and well.”
-Jamie Wheal, Director of the Flow Genome Project
NAKED & BEWILDERED | FLOW THROUGH HEDONIC ENGINEERING
“We will deconstruct regular ego awareness and replace it with more Flow-friendly configurations. It sounds awesome, but in practice can leave us feeling naked, raw and bewildered as we stagger around like newborns without our comforting narratives and habits.”
Following a nutrient-dense dinner harvested from Esalen’s farms, the group buzzes with late-night plans for the sulfur hot springs. Clothing not encouraged. In the veil of darkness, on the peak of a cliff overlooking the crashing ocean, I fight my way out of stretchy pants and tiptoe through sulfurous puddles. I find myself seated between two attendees who kid about their participation in a Jesus look alike contest at Burning Man. Within minutes, I lose my self – and any scrap of self-consciousness – in a deep state of conversational flow. After hours of wildly stimulating conversation with my biblically groomed new friends, they ask my name. As I pull my pruned hand from the water to introduce myself, I laugh at the irony of the formality.
Naked and bewildered, perhaps. But in the best way.
Experiences like this primed me to view my self and boundaries with newborn eyes. True to their word, Jamie and Steven flung us past our comfort zone at full speed with hedonistic engineering lectures strategically timed for 10 p.m. each night. However, far from dad giving you permission to get high or information for gratuitous shock value, they explained that hedonistic hacks like sex, drugs, music and breath work should be practiced intelligently and with the same respect as meditation. From a hallucinogenic experience with a deep breathing hyperventilation practice that gave us access to non-ordinary states of consciousness, to daily mealtime conversations about all things taboo, we collectively smashed through our conventional understanding of peak experiences.
Flow’s not just for the gym, kids.
HACK IT, PACK IT & TAKE IT BACK | LESSONS IN FLOW
Every moment with Flow Genome Project was richer than the next, with each morsel of knowledge more relevant and cumulatively colorful than the one before it. My meditations grew more powerful, conversations more potent, dreams more vibrant and yoga practice more inspired. Experiences as simple as walking became a playground for sensory potential and awareness.
The workshops taught no easy life hacks. Nothing was given freely. But the information’s value, redeemable with deliberate effort and focus, proved invaluable. We learned to outsmart struggle, hack into and out of our own habits, identify our optimal flow rhythms and triggers, reconfigure our perception and prime ourselves for ultimate performance. The combined effect of the workshop’s content, our surroundings at Esalen, the detoxifying diet, activity, hot springs and our tight-knit tribe built momentum that led to a delicious, self-sustaining, 120-hour-long high.
It’s the end of the week, and I’m driving us from Big Sur to San Francisco – in a car full of glowing, alert new friends. Somehow more upright in their bodies, literally and otherwise.
WHAT IS FLOW: Very simply, an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
WHO USES FLOW: Athletes and extreme performers, like Tony Hawk and Serena Williams; CEOs and executives, like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs; intellectuals and creatives, like Steven Hawking and Beethoven. Flow is accessible to any person with the proper set of triggers and motivation.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT FLOW: The FGP website; the FGP Flow Profile quiz; Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler.
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