The Rise of Superman: 17 Flow Triggers is an interesting review of essential ‘flow triggers’ as the author Steven Kotler calls them in his book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Anyone comfortable with the Zen(1) point of view will recognize them right off. Steven rephrases them in a religiously neutral way. Such rephrasing of core truths ‘outside the religion box’ helps reconsider them anew.
As good as this sounds, leaving out ancestral connections has its downside. Right off the bat, I’d imagine the utility of pursuing total religious neutrality by ignoring ancient teachings on this subject is limiting.
There is more than meets the eye
Consider this modern ‘Superman’ phenomenon from a symptom’s point of view. What is causing this historically sudden increase in athletic performance cited as examples of ‘Flow’? I mean, we are the same animal we were tens of thousands of years ago. Yet, all of a sudden athletes are breaking record after record? Something feels lopsided about this, if not downright fishy — Superman indeed. It feels more like a rapid descent into becoming an even more specialized species of cultural ‘idiot savants’. (See Why Do Idiot Savants Run Things?)
The dawning of the electric age propelled exponential increases in science and technology, especially in the developed world. This led to a significant increase in human comfort and security, which effectively removed many more elements of Mother Nature’s “push back” on humanity — almost overnight.
Let’s be honest. Every living organism strives to maximize its survival advantage. That includes us, and we’ve certainly done just that over many millenniums. We are at the top of the food chain. This blind push on the part of each species to maximize its advantages relies on natural “push back” in the wild to maintain balance. Interestingly, humanity appears to be the only species that manages to sidestep much of nature’s uncomfortable yet vital counterbalancing influences.
Our greatest failing all along is that we ignore potential consequences. We not only ignore them, we vigorously put our head in the sand to avoid facing them. Admittedly, there is nothing new in saying that. What is new is the extent to which we’ve accelerated this rush forward. I expect we’ll be seeing a slew of unintended and unforeseen consequences heading our way. This tells me that pushing athletic limits is not the wondrous blessing it may seem, but rather a symptom of how quickly — exponentially even — we are managing to thwart nature’s “push back”.
When optimal is not optimal
Buddha’s eight truths address an optimal state of consciousness not unlike these “17 Flow Triggers for optimal state of consciousness”. However, these truths apply to the whole of life, not to a narrow set of particular activities or occasions. “17 Flow Triggers” appeals to the ambitious side of human nature that needs to gain an advantage on what is a cultural road to increasing specialization. The price we pay for this is a loss of living a well-rounded life. Of course, we left that behind when we traded hunter gathering for agriculture. The question is, when will we have enough ‘progress’?
Balance is the key ingredient that I sense missing from this “17 Flow Trigger” presentation. Too much attention is just as lopsided as too little attention. Buddha’s Right Action, and the rest, does not mean having an intense and narrow life focus. That borders on obsession.
Speaking of obsession, perhaps spending too much time in the illusions of self, of the future, of the past, of our judgments and beliefs present more of a problem for us. Animals are attentive when conditions necessitate otherwise their attention wanders, allowing predators out there to take a bite. In short, perfection in anything is not balance. A blend of the perfect and the flawed is ‘taoist perfection’. Our emotions have great difficulty appreciating this balanced wholeness. Emotion always clamors for more advantage.
“Entering the way seems like moving backwards”
A balance of the perfect and faulty is the constant perfection. To paraphrase chapter one, The perfect possible to think, runs counter to the constant perfect.
Balance is the name of the game. On the other hand, instinct always drives living things to seek more. In the wild, nature limits that drive and maintains balance. Without such limits, unhealthy consequences result. Humanity’s problem is that we are too capable and clever for our own good. “Flow Triggers” by themselves only seem to promise more capability without balance.
We can’t biologically stay 100 percent focused all the time. We can only maintain that for a short period of time. Doing otherwise would be unnatural, yet we always end up expecting more… that is our nature.
To put it another way, a starving man doesn’t seek perfection. He only seeks food. When he finds food, he seeks to enhance it — more and more or better and better. When does it stop? Never! The instinct to want more always drives us for more regardless of how much we have, whether that is food, fame, fortune, or focused attention. Progress, for us as a species, lies in moving backwards rather than pushing onward. Granted we will always have the urge to move forward, but at least we can accept (Right Comprehension) that this drive in a ‘superior’ species like us is frequently not in our best interest. Thus, we say…
The bright way seems hazy and hidden.
Entering the way seems like moving backwards.
The smooth way seems knotty.
Superior virtue seems like a valley.
Great purity seems disgraceful.
Vast virtue seems insufficient.
Established virtue seems stolen.
Truthful promises seem capricious…
Line 6 of chapter 16 speaks to our tendency to get ahead of ourselves, and the rest of the chapter points out an alternative.
Not knowing the constant,
. . . rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.
On a more personal note
We certainly do live in interesting times! (See And Then There Was Fire) I see numerous tangible issues connected to this “Flow Triggers” business, but I fear addressing them would come off as deriding people in their pursuit of excellence… or whatever. We’re all victims of circumstance and innate instinct. However, our innate need to control life makes it almost impossible to see problems and not either blame something or someone, or rush out with an ideal solution. Our need to control leads us to believe we can control, which results in our belief in free will, either explicit or implicit.
I am only able to see the underlying causes for some of the problems we encounter in life. I have no solution, nor do I feel there is a solution other than what I hint at in And Then There Was Fire. ‘Problems’ are part of life, part of evolution. I assume that I often sound as if I blame civilization. Certainly, I point to civilization as not being the great enterprise we assume. It is simply a byproduct of our quest for increasing comfort and security, which in turn arise from primal need and fear. In the end, nature is the only thing I can blame. So yes, I really blame nature, but not in a negative way. Nature is the great experimenter and who doesn’t love an experiment… even if we are the subjects of the experiment.
(1) When Buddha’s way arrived in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) it encountered the way as describing in the Tao Te Ching which was ‘in circulation’ at that time. This resulted in an offspring, Zen (Chinese: 禪; Chán). I feel the Buddha’s way helped to anchor the Taoist way and make it palatable to more people.