Episode 4

The Promise of Flow – How To Not Be Zoo Animals

Summary

Our lives have changed more in the last one hundred years than in the thousands of years before it, and our system of late-stage capitalism feels like a natural culmination.

Jamie Wheal, executive director of the Flow Genome Project and leading expert in the neurophysiology of human performance, goes down the rabbit hole with us to look at how neoliberalism and technological advancement have essentially turned us into passive zoo animals and how Flow can bring us into a cleaner human consciousness.

About the guest

Jamie Wheal is the author of “Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex and Death In a World That’s Lost Its Mind”, and the Pulitzer-nominated global bestseller “Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work”. He is the founder of the Flow Genome Project, an international organization dedicated to the research and training of human performance.

His work and ideas have been covered in The New York Times, Financial Times, Wired, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc., and TED. He has spoken at Stanford University, MIT, the Harvard Club, Imperial College, Singularity University, the U.S. Naval War College and Special Operations Command, Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, the Bohemian Club, and the United Nations.

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The human species has evolved into big, passive Zoo animals. We have traded in a free and active consciousness for mindless consumption — a golden cage. As it turns out, however, the keys to the cage are also the keys to the kingdom.

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At our current point in human history, it can feel like we’ve arrived at an end-point — or at least we are quickly hurtling towards it. Our lives as human beings on this planet have changed more in the last one hundred years than in the thousands of years before it and our system of late-stage, free-market capitalism seems, to many, like a natural culmination. A ceiling. 

Jamie Wheal, executive director of The Flow Genome Project and leading expert in the neurophysiology of human performance, elaborates on where this perception might come from. „In 1989 Francis Fukuyama wrote ‘The End of History and the Last Man.’ In the book, the philosopher wrestles with the assumption that free market democracy won. The idea that the system we are living in now is the peak of human organization and it’s a steady state from here. We’ve literally ended history. There’s nothing more to figure out.“

This school of thought actually has long, historical precedent and goes back to our perception of time itself. To explain this, Jamie goes back in history. 

„It goes back to the Hebrew invention of the Alpha in the beginning,“ he says. „Everything started. And then the Omega at the end — everything will culminate. This ideology is so profoundly baked into Western philosophical thought that it created time’s arrow. It went from cyclical time, and the serpent that eats its tail, to time’s arrow. This structure of thought is so deeply embedded in our cultures that all of our stories are stories of triumphant ascent and progress.“

This perception of time — presupposing a start and end-point to everything — extends even further because where every beginning has a definitive end, every question also has a definitive answer and every problem has a definitive solution. This is largely the way we have approached meaning in our societies and it has driven humankind to great achievement for centuries. Our discoveries, our progress and the way we organize our lives are all built on that ideology. It has driven us to the point that we are at now. Most importantly, as Jamie points out, it has given our consciousness a very rigid and singular focus. “The post-French-enlightenment idea of ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ — I think therefore I am — the five senses and scientific empiricism. All of those things were an incredibly powerful focusing lens that has created all the innovation and all the breakthroughs and all the developments that we live in and enjoy. And it’s also a terrible thing to be stuck in exclusively all the time. It’s a little bit like the radio dial of our consciousness, the range of our consciousness has become rusted shut in just one position only.”

In other words, our societies have developed rapidly and we have gotten stuck in the state of consciousness that has made these developments possible. The effects are clearly visible: Increasing Inequality, looming environmental disasters and the fact that those of us who live in giant cities with the world at our fingertips are as unhappy as we have ever been. “We’ve defined our 21st century normal like this,” Jamie continues. “It’s a lot of cortisol, stress hormones, norepinephrine and adrenaline, fight-or-flight response, vigilance, micro PTSD, and trying to solve things mentally, cognitively. But when you get to shift that dial, you actually get to pick up a different bandwidth of information, and we get to shift our physiology. So Robert Sapolsky at Stanford, who’s a brilliant neuroscientist, wrote a great book called ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,’ where he talks about how animals face threats. One minute they are grazing, the next minute a lion is picking one of them out of the group. But fifteen minutes later, the other ones are back to grazing. This means, they task-switch. They have a range of ‘run for your life’ vs. ‘this grass is good.’ Humans don’t. We get fixated. So, we’re driving back through traffic or we’re lying in bed at night, rehashing a conversation from work or with our spouse or whatever it is. And we just don’t have an off switch.”

 

Flow State – Finding an Off-Switch

“A flow state is really just a placeholder for what has gone by a hundred different names throughout history and different times and places. The Greeks would talk about the muses descending. And then there would be this extraordinary ability to express or connect or invent or create. In the Christian tradition in the middle ages, it would be notions of grace or current. Then, however, Abraham Maslow did a series of studies wherein he talked to people with different religious or spiritual beliefs and to atheists. Speaking with the latter, he realized: ‘Wow, you guys have the same exact experience. You just don’t attribute it to a divine or supernatural presence.’ So that’s when Abraham Maslow postulated that the term ‘peak experience’ has to be a little bit broader. It isn’t just faith-based. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a professor at the university of Chicago, continued that work. He started interviewing everybody from rock climbers and alpinists and action sports athletes, to Japanese motorcycle gangs and Korean grandmothers. He talked to many different populations all around the world, with different abilities, different physicality, different areas of interest and found that all sorts of people were getting into these experiences. And one of the consistent adjectives or descriptors of that experience was that it’s fluid or that it was flow-y. That it wasn’t forced but that it just kind of effortlessly emerged from this experience.”

We all experience Flow in our lives. We all have peak experiences, as few and far between as they may be. Flow is about being fully in the moment. Moment to Moment. I know you’ve probably read that embroidered on a pillow somewhere but if we can manage to actually do it, it can be life-changing. It means that some of those aggressive, overly critical voices in our head will recede into the background. Until they’re not there at all.

“And there’s fascinating neuroanatomical reasons for that,” Jamie elucidates. “Basically we get drawn into the deep present. We cease obsessing about the past or the future. Our inner critic, that constant narrative voice in our minds, goes quiet. As a result, we tend to have access to more information and inspiration than we normally do.”

So, this is what Flow actually feels like. But how do we get there? We go to places that actually require our undivided attention.

“In the mountains, feedback is instant. When we get outside of the civilized world, past where the sidewalk ends, we get much tighter feedback loops on our leadership and on our choices and our actions. It can be as simple as, ‘I didn’t look where I was going and fell off a cliff.’ Getting to go into the natural sublime, a wild and rugged place where you’re literally outside of clock time and you’re in geologic time. You’re looking at a million years’ worth of stories told in the sandstone. You’re seeing sunrises and sunsets and shooting stars. It’s a profound reset. People have gone to the wilderness to seek inspiration and renewal for thousands of years. That’s not a new approach but it can be profound. It also means that we get deeply into our bodies and experience the sharp edge of surviving and thriving versus feathering our nest, adding one more feature to our gilded cage. That can be profoundly inspiring and renewing. And it is even more profound to do it with peers that are not dependent or beholden to you. People that are equally capable and competent and can offer you feedback when you’re not sitting in your corner office, trying to control the narrative. With the ability to support each other, to find where our deeper edges are and begin polishing them, comes a profound gift of renewal.”

What Jamie is getting at here is that you don’t have to do any of this all by yourself. We typically see any kind of personal growth or self-actualization as something very intimate and personal — which it is — but that doesn’t mean it should take place in a vacuum. One of the most inspiring things about all this is the idea of Group Flow.

 

Group Flow and Interdependent Play

Jamie explains that “Group Flow is about the idea that having an experience at a potter’s wheel or composing music or sliding down a mountain on skis is twice as rewarding with other people. We actually get twice the neurochemical boost than when we do it by ourselves. On the one hand there is what would be called Parallel Play, which means that we’re both doing the same thing within eyesight, next to each other. Interdependent flow, however, is much more like a jazz band or a football team, where we’re doing the thing together. And that’s actually 300% more rewarding than just doing it by ourselves.”

Now, while finding Flow and entering that different state of consciousness will make us a more aware, more awake and more productive people, we still live in a world that’s built on neo-liberal ideology. A world that has conditioned us to put our focus on financial returns, spreadsheets and bottom lines. Ultimately, the most vital part in all of this is that we direct our newfound productivity at something long-term meaningful. It all goes back to our perception of time and our perception of meaning. Late-stage, free-market capitalism might not be the end-all-be-all, after all. Maybe there is more of a future that we have the power to shape.

“The most important moment for me was the revelation that, maybe the universe doesn’t pencil out with no remainder,” Jamie says. “Maybe it’s an irrational number. Maybe it keeps going. Maybe it’s not neat and tidy. And I realized that I had spent at least a couple of decades hammering on that mathematical theorem of life and the universe with a naive presumption that it did pencil out. And that sense of ambivalent mystery is probably a better fit for us than some perfected, absolutely symmetrical — comprehensible by human consciousness — bottom line or final answer.”

Consequently, once we start seeing that there is a future that we can help build, we can start pouring our resources and our innovations into things that make life better for the people living on this planet in the long run. If we want to keep being creators, innovators and entrepreneurs, we have to find a way for our endeavours to service other people —our communities. These communities have to stay alive for us to serve them.

Jamie concludes that “we don’t need more plastic widgets or more weapons of war. We don’t need more apps that replace our mothers, doing our laundry or delivering our groceries or cooking our food. There’s a very long list of things that we actually desperately need on this planet right now. Let’s put our efforts into innovating those. During COVID, for instance, there was this massive contract amongst big companies that went towards making ventilators and generating masks. We have got all this infrastructure, we have got all these logistics, we have got all this know-how. What if we directed it away from mindless and unsustainable consumption into actually innovating with the best we’ve got. We have the power and the resources to change the system for the better.”

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