Suffering | Walking in Flow


“Many lives are disrupted by tragic accidents, and even the most fortunate are subjected to stresses of various kinds. Yet such blows do not necessarily diminish happiness. It is how people respond to stress that determines whether they will profit from misfortune or be miserable.” (192)


“It would be naively idealistic to claim that no matter what happens to him, a person in control of consciousness will be happy. There are certainly limits to how much pain, or hunger, or deprivation a body can endure. . . . The relevant point to be made here is that a person who knows how to find flow from life is able to enjoy even situations that seem to allow only despair” (193)


“A major catastrophe that frustrates a central goal of life will either destroy the self, forcing a person to use all his psychic energy to erect a barrier around remaining goals, defending them against further onslaughts of fate; or it will provide a new, more clear, and more urgent goal: to overcome the challenges created by the defeat. If the second road is taken, the tragedy is not necessarily a detriment to the quality of life.” (198)

Whether you are in the most ordinary of circumstances or the worst of circumstances, try thinking about this: “Lost in Antarctica or confined in a prison some individuals succeed in transforming their harrowing conditions into a manageable and even enjoyable struggle, whereas most others would succumb to the ordeal. Richard Logan, who has studied the accounts of many people in difficult situations, concludes that they survived by finding ways to turn the bleak objective conditions into subjectively controllable experience. They followed the blueprint of flow activities. First, they paid close attention to the most minute details of their environment, discovering in it hidden opportunities for action that matched what little they were capable of doing, given the circumstances. Then they set goals appropriate to the precarious situation, and closely monitor progress through the feedback they received. Whenever they reached their goal, they upped the ante, setting increasingly complex challenges for themselves. . . .


Essentially the same ingenuity in finding opportunities for mental action and setting goals is reported by survivors of any solitary confinement, from diplomats captured by terrorists, to elderly ladies imprisoned by Chinese communists. Eva Zeisel, the ceramic designer who was imprisoned in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison for over a year by Stalin’s police, kept her sanity by figuring out how she would make a bra out of materials at hand, playing chess against herself in her head, holding imaginary conversations in French, doing gymnastics, and memorizing poems she composed. Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes how one of his fellow prisoners in the Lefortovo jail mapped the world on the floor of the cell, and then imagined himself traveling across Asia and Europe to America, covering a few kilometers each day. The same ‘game’ was independently discovered by many prisoners; for instance Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect, sustained himself in Spandau prison for months by pretending he was taking a walking trip from Berlin to Jerusalem, in which his imagination provided all the events and sights along the way.


An acquaintance who worked in United States Air Force intelligence tells the story of a pilot who was imprisoned in North Vietnam for many years, and lost eighty pounds and much of his health in a jungle camp. When he was released, one of the first things he ask for was to play a game of golf. To the great astonishment of his fellow officers he played a superb game, despite his emaciated condition. To their inquiries he replied that every day of his imprisonment he imagined himself playing eighteen holes, carefully choosing his clubs and approach and systematically varying the course. This discipline not only helped preserve his sanity, but apparently also kept his physical skills well honed. ” (90-91)


As crazy as this sounds, this actually makes sense. Turns out visualization is an essential flow hack that is backed by science. “Back in the 1930s, [Edmund] Jacobson, [Harvard physiologist], found that imagining oneself lifting an object triggered corresponding electrical activity in the muscles involved in the lift. Between then and now dozens and dozens of studies have born this out, repeatedly finding strong correlations between mental rehearsal-- i.e. visualization-- and better performance. . . . We also know that the benefits extend beyond the psychological (increased confidence and motivation) and into the physiological.


In 2004, for example, Cleveland Clinic physiologist Guang Yue wanted to know if merely thinking about lifting weights was enough to increase strength. Study subjects were divided into four groups. One group tried to strengthen their finger muscles with physical exercise; one tried to strengthen their finger muscles by only visualizing the exercise; another tried to increase arm strength through visualization; while the last group did nothing at all. The trial lasted twelve weeks. When it was over, those who did nothing saw no gains. The group that relied on physical training saw the greatest increase in strength--at 53 percent. But it’s the mental groups where things got curious. Folks who did no physical training but merely imagined their fingers going through precise exercise motions saw a 35 percent increase in strength, while the ones who visualized arm exercises saw a 13.5 percent increase in strength. How tightly are imagination and physiology coupled? Strength is among the most baseline of all performance measures and we humans can get stronger simply by thinking hard about it. [!!!!!!! - emphasis, mine]


[Furthermore,] neuroscientists found no difference between performing an action and merely imagining oneself performing that action--the same neuronal circuits fire in either case. This means that visualization impacts a slew of cognitive processes--motor control, memory, attention, perception, planning--essentially accelerating chunking by shortening the time it takes us to learn new patterns. Since the first stage of the flow cycle--the struggle state--involves exactly this learning process, visualization is an essential flow hack: it shortens struggle. Visualization also firms up aims and objectives, further amplifying flow. ” (175-176, rise of superman)


So when every hope and dream are exhausted, when misfortune and hardship threaten to cripple us, we need to re-establish control over our our consciousness by seeking a new and meaningful goal in which to invest our psychic energy and organize the self. A goal that lies outside the reach of external forces. “Then, even though that person is objectively a slave, subjectively he is free. Solzhenitsyn describes very well how even the most degrading situation can be transformed into a flow experience: ‘Sometimes, when standing in a column of dejected prisoners, amidst the shouts of guards with machine guns, I felt such a rush of rhymes and images that I seemed to be wafted overhead. . . . At such moments I was both free and happy. . . . Some prisoners tried to escape by smashing through the barbed wire. For me there was no barbed wire. The head count of prisoners remained unchanged but I was actually away on a distant flight.’”


Okay, so if it IS possible to transform hopeless situations into ones of meaning, then why don’t more people do it? Why can some people achieve this while others can’t?


“Basically the answer is simple: those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal. There are three main steps that seem to be involved in such transformations:

  1. Unselfconscious self-assurance: As Richard Logan found in his study of individuals who survived severe physical ordeals . . . one common attitude shared by such people was the implicit belief that their destiny was in their hands. They did not doubt their own resources would be sufficient to allow them to determine their fate. In that sense one would call them self-assured, yet at the same time, their egos seem curiously absent: they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously. This attitude occurs when a person no longer sees himself in opposition to the environment, as an individual who insists that his goals, his intentions take precedence over everything else. Instead, he feels a part of whatever goes on around him, and tries to do his best within the system in which he must operate. Paradoxically, this sense of humility--the recognition that one’s goals may have to be subordinated to a greater entity, and that to succeed one may have to play by a different set of rules from what one would prefer--is a hallmark of strong people. . . . Basically, to arrive at this level of self-assurance one must trust oneself, one’s environment, and one’s place in it. (203-204)

  2. Focusing attention on the world: It is difficult to notice the environment as long as attention is mainly focused inward, as long as most of one’s psychic energy is absorbed by the concerns and desires of the ego. People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They are not expanding all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings. The focus is still set by the person’s goal, but it is open enough to notice and adapt to external events even if they are not directly relevant to what he wants to accomplish. An open stance makes it possible for a person to be objective, to be aware of alternative possibilities, to feel a part of the surrounding world. . . . In a threatening situation it is natural to mobilize psychic energy, draw it inward, and use it as a defense against the threat. But this innate reaction more often than not compromises the ability to cope. It exacerbates the experience of inner turmoil, reduces the flexibility of response, and, perhaps worse than anything else, it isolates a person from the rest of the world, leaving him alone with his frustrations. On the other hand, if one continues to stay in touch with what is going on, new possibilities are likely to emerge, which in turn might suggest new responses, and one is less likely to be entirely cut off from the stream of life. (204 - 207).

  3. The discovery of new solutions: There are basically two ways to cope with a situation that creates psychic entropy. One is to focus attention on the obstacles to achieving one’s goals and then to move them out of the way, thereby restoring harmony in consciousness. This is the direct approach. The other is to focus on the entire situation, including oneself, to discover whether alternative goals may not be more appropriate, and thus different solutions possible. . . . But these transformations require that a person be prepared to perceive unexpected opportunities. Most of us become so rigidly fixed in the ruts carved out by genetic programing and social conditioning that we ignore the options of choosing any other course of action. Living exclusively by genetic and social instructions is fine as long as everything goes well. But the moment biological or social goals are frustrated--which in the long run is inevitable--a person must formulate new goals, and create a new flow activity for himself, or else he will waste his energies in inner turmoil. . . .But how does one go about discovering these alternative strategies? The answer is basically simple: if one operates with unselfconscious assurance, and remains open to the environment and involved in it, a solution is likely to emerge. We all start with preconceived notions of what we want from life. These include the basic needs programmed by our genes to ensure survival--the need for food, comfort, sex, dominance over other beings. They also include the desires that our specific culture has inculcated in us--to be slim, rich, educated, and well liked. If we embrace these goals and are lucky, we may replicate the ideal physical and social image for our historical time and place. But is this the best use of our psychic energy? And what if we cannot realize these ends? We will never become aware of other possibilities unless . . . we pay attention to what is happening around us, and evaluate events on the basis of their direct impact on how we feel, rather than evaluating them exclusively in terms of preconceived notions. If we do so we may discover that, contrary to what we were led to believe, it is more satisfying to help another person than to beat him down, or that it is more enjoyable to talk with one’s two year old than to play golf with the company president. (207- 208)


In summary, “The most important trait of survivors is a “non self-conscious individualism,” or a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. People who have that quality are bent on doing their best in all circumstances, yet they are not concerned primarily with advancing their own interests. Because they are intrinsically motivated in their actions, they are not easily disturbed by external threats. With enough psychic energy free to observe and analyze their surroundings objectively, they have a better chance of discovering in them new opportunities for action. . . . Narcissistic individuals, who are mainly concerned with protecting their self, fall apart when the external conditions turn threatening. The ensuing panic prevents them from doing what they must do; their attention turns inward in an effort to restore order in consciousness, and not enough remains to negotiate outside reality.


Without interest in the world, a desire to be actively related to it, a person becomes isolated into himself. Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of our century, described how he achieved personal happiness. ‘Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.’ There could be no better short description of how to build for oneself an autotelic personality.


In part such a personality is a gift of biological inheritance and early upbringing. Some people are born with a more focused and flexible neurological endowment, or are fortunate to have had parents who promoted unselfconscious individuality. But it is an ability open to cultivation, a skill one can perfect through training and discipline.” (92-93, flow)


So how can we cultivate this trait and deal with stress?


“In trying to sort out what accounts for a person’s ability to cope with stress, it is useful to distinguish three different kinds of resources. The first is the external support available, and especially the network of social supports. . . . The second bulwark against stress includes a person’s psychological resources, such as intelligence, education, and relevant personality factors. . . . And finally, the third type of resource refers to the coping strategies that a person uses to confront the stress. Of these three factors, the third one is the most relevant to our purposes. External supports by themselves are not that effective in mitigating stress. They tend to help only those who can help themselves. And psychological resources are largely outside our control. It is difficult to become much smarter, or much more outgoing, than one was at birth. But how we cope is both the most important factor in determining what effects stress will have and the most flexible resource, the one most under our personal control. There are two main ways people respond to stress. The positive response is called a ‘mature defense’ or ‘transformational coping.’ The negative response to stress would be a ‘neurotic defense’ or ‘regressive coping.’” (198-199)


“. . . Few people rely on only one or the other strategy exclusively. [When Jim gets fired from his comfortable job at age forty], it is more likely he would get drunk the first night ; have a fight with his wife, who had been telling him for years that his job was lousy [immature, regressive coping]; and then the following morning, or the week after, he would simmer down and start figuring out what to do next [mature, transformational coping]. But people do differ in their abilities to use on or the other strategy. [Some] are masters at transformation coping. Others, however, when confronted by much less intense levels of stress, might give up and respond by scaling down the complexity of their lives forever.


The ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it is a very rare gift. Those who possess it are called “survivors,” and are said to have “resilience,” or “courage.” Whatever we call them, it is generally understood that they are exceptional people who have overcome great hardships, and have surmounted obstacles that would daunt most men and women. . . . It makes sense, of course, that people should look up to this one quality more than to any other. Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge. To admire this quality means that we pay attention to those who embody it, and we thereby have a chance to emulate them if the need arises. Therefore admiring courage is in itself a positive adaptive trait; those who do so may be better prepared to ward off the blows of misfortune.” ( 200-201)

“The integrity of the self depends on the ability to take neutral or destructive events and turn them into positive ones. . . . In each person’s life, the chances of only good things happening are extremely slim. The likelihood that our desires will be always fulfilled is so minute as to be negligible. Sooner or later everyone will have to confront events that contradict his goals: disappointments, severe illness, financial reversal, and eventually the inevitability of one’s death. Each event of this kind is negative feedback that produces disorder in the mind. Each threatens the self and impairs its functioning. If the trauma is severe enough, a person may lose the capacity to concentrate on necessary goals. If that happens, the self is no longer in control. If the impairment is very severe, consciousness becomes random, and the person “loses his mind” -- the various symptoms of mental disease take over. In less severe cases the threatened self survives, but stops growing; cowering under attack, it retreats behind massive defenses and vegetates in a state of continuous suspicion.


It is for this reason that courage, resilience, perseverance, mature defense, or transformational coping--the dissipative structures of the mind--are so essential. Without them we would be constantly suffering through the random bombardment of stray psychological meteorites. On the other hand, if we do develop such positive strategies, most negative events can be at least neutralized, and possibly even used as challenges that will help make the self stronger and more complex.” (202)


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