The first thing to hit the ground was Dean’s face.
He had gone off a jump on his mountain bike, and on landing both forks had snapped clean in half. Before he could lift a finger from his handle bars, he was kissing rock.
When we got there to help he had just regained consciousness, crumpled face first on the ground. I remember walking around in circles while fumbling with my phone to call for help. I was in a panic. Poor Jonno who was the first on the scene was also in a panic. It looked bad. Neither of us knew what to do.
Dean’s brother Steve, on the other hand was cool as ice. He sized up the situation, decided we would get to the hospital quicker than an ambulance, and gave each of us instructions. His tone was relaxed and fluid, as if we were changing a tyre.
When I look back I realise that Steve was in a state of flow.
Steve’s state of being made a lasting impression on me. How was he able to be so calm? How could he make such rational and wise decisions in such a scary moment?
Fortunately, because he is a good friend I have been able to observe him over a period of many years. His actions that day were an automatic reflex conditioned by many years of conscious and unconscious practice.
So what can we learn from Steve about turning huge pressure into high performance?
1. Perspective is everything: Your attitude determines who you become
On a camping trip down south, we had a big bonfire on the beach. When I got back to my van (house on wheels) I realised I had locked my keys in the van. I occasionally (often) do dumb stuff like this. From previous experience I knew that my van is a very secure vehicle. After trying all the doors about 10 times, I started thinking about smashing a window.
In other words, I had accepted defeat. Along comes Steve. I tell him the situation and I must look dejected. Steve on the other hand is like an excited puppy. He has the biggest smile on his face as though I have just asked him to come on an adventure with me. Well, I have. From Steve’s perspective, someone locking their keys in their van is an adventure. For Steve, problems equal challenge. And challenge means adventure.
His mind goes into problem solving mode as he sizes up the situation. And he enters a flow state once again. In ten minutes, I’m tucked up in bed.
Our choice of perspective is so fundamental to living a life of flow, joy and happiness.
Life throws endless challenges at us, but it doesn’t throw us a single problem. Our thinking mind creates problems.
As Steve says: “You can either look at things as they are big trouble, or fun. What I enjoy the most, whether at work or in my own time is thinking of ways to find solutions. Creating a challenge opens a pathway of exploration rather than a path of fear”.
Remember that reality and the perceived reality that our thinking mind creates are usually two very different things. This is one of the secrets of life. So choose your perception wisely, so that you open the pathway to exploration.
Over the course of time, the perspectives that you choose to take on life’s challenges correlate to the type of human you evolve into. As Lao Tsu the wise and ancient Taoist philosopher said:
This is an ancient way of looking at the modern concept of neuroplasticity, the term that describes the brains ability to change size, shape and functionality depending on the prevailing and consistent thought patterns you have.
If we think about Steve’s flow state when dealing with his brother’s accident it’s evident that his character and brain has been shaped by his lifetime of words, actions and habits.
This meant that in the heat of the moment Steve was able to slip into flow without any sense of fear hindering his performance. Steve’s habits and behaviour over the years have changed the way his brain reacts to stressful situations and he was able to infuse his evolutionary fight or flight response with intelligence.
According to modern research on neuroplasticity, people who meditate regularly, or have certain perspectives on life reshape parts of their brain. It is likely that through Steve’s consistent perspective of challenge over fear, his amygdala (stress detector) will have shrunk, his prefrontal cortex will have thickened resulting in a more intelligent response to this stressful situation.
In other words, through subconsciously training his brain over the years, Steve was able to act intuitively and reflexively, but was able to use more of his brain than the average person would in a high stress situation.
So in daily life, ask yourself if there is another way that you can look at the challenges that crop up?
Is there a perspective and attitude you can choose to take on that will lead to greater joy and flow?
Over time, by choosing to see the silver lining or the rose amongst the thorns your will brain will change, as will your character.
2. Present moment awareness
Steve’s ability to flow when the rest of us were paralysed by panic had a lot to do with his ability to be fully present. He wasted no thought on what might be. He diverted 100% attention to the exigencies of the moment.
To understand the power of staying present when in stressful situations, lets look at an earlier event that has undoubtedly shaped Steve’s character.
When he was 19 he was staying with an uncle in rural Australia. He had gone for a long drive into the bush, and just as dusk was settling in he drove into a ditch. He was unhurt but the car was done. Steve had no idea where he was but he knew he was at least 2 and a half hours drive from home. He had no phone and had not seen any cars or houses or people for a long time.
So what did Steve do? He had one of the best nights of his life of course. He started running in the dark with the absolute certainty that if he just kept going he would come across a house. He ran and ran and ran… with a smile on his face.
It was a pitch black cloudy night, so Steve struggled to see anything. But he listened to the koalas and the sounds of the bush, and at times he saw glow worms. The cherry on the cake was when it started raining. Steve loves the rain. He ran for 12 hours in the wet and dark before coming across a house. What an adventure!
I believe that Steve was so focused on the detail of this experience, that there simply was not any room left in his consciousness for fear.
What can we learn from this?
Every moment of our life is so full of wonder. Take away koalas, glow-worms and rain and we still have our heartbeat, our breath, our senses and so much more. When we learn to tune in, the wonderful kaleidoscope of life reveals itself. The simple and profound key to tuning in to awareness, is to tune out of excessive thought. Simply change the channel.
How do we do this? Spend time in nature, in solitude, engage your senses and meditate. These are the most powerful ways to reclaim your full human powers and step into the flow of life. You can read more about this path here and here.
3. If you live inside the comfort zone, life becomes full of fear.
When you live outside the comfort zone, life becomes full of adventure. Steve was well aware that this brother was in a bad way. He cares deeply about his brother, so please don’t misunderstand me when I say that experiences like this are peak moments for Steve.
He is used to extreme situations. Deliberately placing himself outside the comfort zone is more than a habit: it is his philosophy on life.
Mountain biking is a good example. Steve loves going down hills really fast. But he also loves going up hills. No one loves that bit! Going up is the necessary evil of mountain biking, but for Steve the feeling of utter exhaustion makes him feel alive.
Long distance paddle boarding. Steve was so good at this that he would regularly beat elite professionals in races. He was urged to start training and do more races but for Steve it was never for the glory. He just loves being by himself away from any safety net of civilisation, so far out that he can’t even see the coast. Just him and the rawness of the ocean. That is Steve’s idea of a relaxing Saturday afternoon.
He actively seeks out extreme situations. This meant that when his brother was injured Steve’s automatic reaction was not panic. This was just another situation in which he could perform with skill.
To understand how this works lets take a look at the golden rule of achieving flow states: The challenge/skill ratio.
This rule implies that for you to enter a state of flow the challenge of the situation must match your level of skill. If your skill level is too high for the situation you will get bored. If it is too low, you will be overwhelmed. The sweet spot for flow is on the outside edge of your comfort zone.
The challenge/skill ratio means that you do not have to seek out the kind of challenges that Steve does to find your flow. It is all relative. The borders of your comfort zone are only truly known to you. They are your sacred stomping ground.
So seek out situations that put you outside your comfort zone in the knowledge that when you learn to habitually spend time in this zone of growth and development, your relationship to fear will transform and your ability to deal with high stress situations will evolve. You do not have to do anything extreme or drastic.
According to research, the most effective zone for flow is if the challenge exceeds your skill level by just 4%. In what way can you push yourself 4% beyond your comfort zone?
I hope you find this article helpful. If so, please share it with others. If you have experienced flow during high stress situations please share in the comments below. I'd love to hear about them.
If you want to learn more about training your brain, check out Dr. Rick Hansen’s Positive Neuroplasticity Training.
If you would like to learn more about meditation, get in touch.
Thanks for reading!