BOOK REVIEW: Running Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, et. al.

Running FlowRunning Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines how Flow can be achieved by runners. Flow, in this usage, means a specific state of mind in which the activity at hand becomes effortless, self-criticism quiets, and one becomes pleasantly fixated on a task. It’s a term coined by the book’s lead author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, based on his research into how some people were able to slip into a mental state in which even mundane activities could become an almost blissful obsession. This was part of a broader inquiry into how people can achieve a higher quality of life at work or at home.

The book is divided into two parts. The first four chapters lay out the concept of Flow in detail, and provide the necessary background for readers who may not be familiar with the concept. These chapters describe the role Flow can play in running, examine the components of Flow (i.e. necessary conditions and outcomes), and explain what personality traits are most conducive to achieving Flow.

The second part consists of five chapters, and it delves into how a runner can achieve Flow. Chapter five explores in detail three of the nine components that were introduced in chapter two, and tailors the explanation for runners. These three are the antecedents of Flow: clear goals, a match of challenge level and skill level, and immediate feedback. Chapters six and seven suggest the ways in which Flow can be facilitated in non-competitive and competitive runs, respectively. Chapter eight discusses the limits of flow. Because Flow is associated with feelings of effortless performance, some think of it as a sort of panacea for all that plagues their running. Furthermore, it’s not a state that easily happens and consistently returns; it’s often fickle and elusive. This chapter not only disabuses one of such notions, but also explains how failing to achieve Flow need not be the end of the world (or of one’s race.) The final chapter takes Flow beyond the concept of running and suggests what it’s pursuit can do for an individual more broadly.

The chapters use mini-case studies in which the authors describe the experience of professional runners in races and the effects of Flow on their performance and their experiences of races. There are numerous graphics. Many of these are color photos of the athletes who the authors spoke to, but there are also diagrams used to clarify key concepts. There is a glossary and references section as well.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve always thought of running as a task for which Flow would be hard to achieve because the matching of skill level to the amount of challenge is so crucial to achieving Flow and the movement pattern of running is so repetitive and monotonous. (The reason this matching is important is that if one’s skill level is far beyond the challenge, then one is bored, and if it’s the other way around, one is frustrated and overwhelmed – and neither boredom nor frustration facilitates Flow.) The book is a quick read that offers runners everything they need to make their mental experience of running more enjoyable and productive.

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BOOK REVIEW: Head in the Game by Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest AthletesHead in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes by Brandon Sneed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.

We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.

Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)

The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.

The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.

For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.

The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.

The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.

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BOOK REVIEW: Missing Link Discovered by P. Marer, Z. Buzady, and Z. Vecsey

Missing Link Discovered: Planting Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory into Management and Leadership Practice by using FLIGBY, the official Flow-Leadership GameMissing Link Discovered: Planting Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory into Management and Leadership Practice by using FLIGBY, the official Flow-Leadership Game by Paul Marer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

So, you’re a leader and you’ve experienced Flow. Self-criticism vanished. Time fell away. The task was challenging, but the performance felt effortless. Your attention was rapt, and any craving for distractions disappeared. Maybe you even had a spate of creativity. You come away feeling great. Clarity reigns. Maybe you found Flow at work, but maybe it was skiing, golfing, or composing haiku. Either way, after thinking about how to repeat the feat, your next thought is, “What could my business [or organization] achieve if my people were in this state of mind for even a fraction of each day?” Increased productivity? Decreased healthcare costs and / or disruptions from sick days? Maybe, you’d see fewer complaints between stressed co-workers, or coming from customers? Regardless, you know that Flow is elusive and fickle. It may seem that the harder you seek it, the less success you have. You pick up a couple of books on finding Flow—maybe you watch some TedTalks on YouTube–and they provide helpful tips for finding the state for yourself, but most don’t have much to say on facilitating Flow for others.

 

That’s where FLIGBY comes in, and “Missing Link Discovered” is a companion to FLIGBY. [Note- “FLIGBY” is short for “FLow is Good Business for You,” which ties it into the work of positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who both coined the term “Flow” and wrote a book entitled “Good Business” about both achieving Flow in the workplace and how some businesses succeed in the simultaneous pursuit of profit and virtue. Csikszentmihalyi was actively involved in the development of the FLIGBY game. The “missing link” referenced in the title is between leadership and Flow.] FLIGBY is an educational video game in which the player assumes the role of General Manager (GM) of a winery. The last GM was a hard-driving pursuer of profit who left the winery’s mission and values in a muddle and its employees stressed out and at each other’s throats. The player makes about 150 decisions over the course of the 23 scenes that map to a timeline of one’s first half a year as GM. While the player still has to consider the usual business objectives–such as profitability–to succeed one also has to help one’s employees find Flow. The game is used by both by professors of business education courses (e.g. in MBA programs) and by corporate trainers.

 

As this is a review of the book and not the FLIGBY game, I won’t talk too much more about it beyond this paragraph. However, I did have an opportunity to play the game and found it to be both educational and engrossing. The scenes are live-action, and the cast did a great job of creating the emotional tension necessary to make one feel a stake in the decisions. There’s a narrative arc that unfolds over the course of the game, and so it appeals to the way our brains best take in information. Of course, the game also pays attention to those factors that facilitate Flow, such as offering immediate feedback and an increasing challenge such that the difficulty rises with one’s skill.

 

I’ll now clarify what I mean by the book being “a companion” to the FLIGBY game. It’s not a game manual. [i.e. The nuts and bolts of how to navigate the game as well as general background information are provided within the game itself as well as through a series of digital appendices—a list of which is included in the book.] Rather, “Missing Link Discovered” is intended to bring readers up to speed in three areas relevant to the FLIGBY game. These areas are delineated by the book’s three parts. Part I (Ch. 1 – 3) introduces Flow and explains how its pursuit fits into the larger scheme of leadership responsibilities. It begins with an introduction to Flow and Csikszentmihalyi’s research, then links Flow and leadership, and—finally–describes the set of leadership skills used in the game.

 

The second part (Ch. 4 – 8) introduces the game, situates it in the context of serious games (those for which entertainment is a secondary concern), and discusses the topic of feedback in great detail (Note: feedback is a crucial issue because delayed or inadequate feedback is one of the major reasons that people have trouble achieving Flow–particularly in a workplace setting.) The last chapter in this section is a collection of captioned photos that charts the development of the game from the first meeting with Professor Csikszentmihalyi to the game’s use for both instruction and research.

 

While the first two parts of the book are relevant to all players, the last part is aimed at Professors, corporate trainers, and researchers. It consists of two chapters. Chapter 9 discusses such issues as where in an individual’s education or training the game should be situated, and how it should be presented. The last chapter (Ch. 10) is a bit different in that it opens up a discussion about the research potential offered by FLIGBY. Given the game’s widespread use in both academia and the corporate world, a great deal of data is collected that can be used anonymously by researchers to study interesting research questions (e.g. how players in differing demographics or job positions make decisions.)

 

The book offers a number of ancillary features that increase its usability and clarity. The first of these features are two single-page summaries that introduce readers to Flow and FLIGBY, respectively. Besides the aforementioned photo chapter, the book has many diagrams and other graphics to clarify concepts addressed in the text. The book is footnoted throughout, and provides a glossary of key terms. It should also be noted that there is an introduction by Professor Csikszentmihalyi in which he describes his involvement in the project and presents his thoughts on the value of FLIGBY.

 

I recommend this book, particularly for those who will be playing FLIGBY or who are in the process of determining whether FLIGBY is right for one’s students or employees. From corporate programs in mindfulness to interest in Flow-based leadership, all signs point to a workplace revolution in which there is a long overdue convergence of incentives and objectives between employees and employers. It’s been a long road from Henry Ford’s plan to make sure all employees could afford the cars the company made to the explosion of Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program and others like it, but this revolution is picking up steam and if you’re unaware, you might want to look into it.

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5 Thoughts on the Conscious Mind in Martial Arts Training

In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to quiet the conscious mind in order to let the subconscious do what it does best. There’s a lot of terminology that’s used to describe the mind state in which one’s actions are effortless and one can adjust swiftly to unforeseen challenges: e.g. “in the zone,” the Flow, Zen mindset, and (in the Kotler and Wheal book I just reviewed) ecstasis. However, regardless of the name, one key to this state is a reduced activity of the part of the mind that’s self-critical and overly cautious, and that requires not letting the conscious mind do what it’s prone to do.

 

However, taking a course on mauythai advanced fundamentals recently has reminded me of the important roles the conscious mind plays in learning. The challenge is to use the conscious mind effectively–without letting it running amok.

 

The conscious mind is largely driven by anxiety about uncertainty. This makes the conscious mind a planner and worst-case scenario generator extraordinaire. (In meditation, I’ve begun to not only note what thought popped into my head before I dismiss said distraction, but I also have a classification scheme of kinds of thoughts, and “planning thoughts” are probably the most common type of thought to hijack my mind.) This planning / forecasting  proclivity can be beneficial if one is doing a job that requires such planning, anticipation of possible hazards, and the need to adjust to complex difficulties. However, it can also make one neurotic, overly risk-averse, and pessimistic.

 

So, here are my five thoughts on the conscious mind in martial arts training.

 

5.) Feed the right wolf:  There’s a well-known story about a Native American man telling his grandchild that inside each person there are two wolves at war, one good and one evil.

The child asks, “Which one wins?”

The old man replies, “The one you feed.”

 

This is a variation on the theme–not so much about good and evil as about positive and negative outlook. In martial arts training there are often competing emotional states. On one hand, there is often anxiety about either being injured or even about the embarrassment of being bested. (Surprisingly, it seems like the magnitude of the latter is often greater than the former.) On the other hand, there is an intense thrill that comes with making progress. For those who don’t understand how martial artists can put themselves through what they do, this is the part for which you’re probably not understanding the intensity of the high. When it clicks and you’re getting it right more often than you previously did, the feeling is transcendent.

 

So, when one sees either of these two feelings arising, choose the latter. If one notices the anxiety, remind oneself the promise of that awesome feeling of having it fall together.

 

4.) Scanning for lapses in form: The process of learning a martial art–like any movement art–is repetition of the movements until they become ingrained in one’s procedural memory. Early in the process, this feels clunky as one has to scan for imperfections in form with one’s super-intelligent but slow and cumbersome conscious mind. However, increasingly, the body begins to incorporate these movement patterns and they start to become second nature. The trick is to keep this in the moment and not let one’s thoughts linger on what one just got wrong, or any perceived ramifications of getting it wrong.

 

3.) Try visualization: This once would have been thought hippie guff, but now it’s entered the mainstream. Of course, the advice from #5 must be kept in mind. When I think of the technique of visualization, I’m reminded of a story that Dan Millman told about a girl that he was coaching in gymnastics. He came to check on her only to find her repeatedly cringing and grimacing. He asked what was going on, and she said she kept falling off the balance beam whenever she visualized her routine. It sounds silly, but attitude is a powerful thing, and I lot of people sabotage themselves in ways not much different from this. It’s your mind, you have the power to do the move perfectly every time, if you take the proper mindset.

 

2.) Conscious mind as governor of action and agent of trust: The subconscious mind can be feral. As one spars, one has to match speeds with one’s opposition so that learning can take place. While sparring looks reminiscent of fighting, the goal of sparring is learning, whereas the goal of fighting is winning (or–as a minimum in actual combat–not being destroyed.)

 

This is another role for the conscious mind. It can keep reminders to the fore to keep one’s movement appropriate to the occasion. It can inject an awareness that there’s a relationship of trust rather than warring competitiveness between. That one needn’t respond at the same magnitude that one would under attack.

 

1.) Dropping the Conscious Mind Out of the Equation: While the conscious mind is critical in the learning process, eventually one must do something that feels uncomfortable, which is shifting subconscious operations to the fore and quieting the conscious mind. Overthinking can be death in tests, competitions, not to mention, I’m told, actual combative situations. At some point you’ve got to have some trust in what you’ve trained to do up to that point. It might fail you, but not necessarily as spectacularly as if you let your conscious run amok, getting caught in a death spiral of self-criticism and futile guesswork.

 

Since I’ve been watching quite a few muaythai fights recently at the Rangsit Boxing Stadium, I’ve begun to wonder just how useful corner advice is. I know that people think it’s beneficial because it’s done in droves. Not only is the fighter’s trainer trying tell them what to do, but also his parents, his siblings, his granny, and a hundred random people who may or may not have put money on him. It would be interesting to see a scientific study of how fighters performed who tuned everything out between rounds versus those who tried to take in all the advice. I tried to look up whether any such study had been done, but a cursor Google search came up empty.

 

What comes of all the corner talk?

What comes of all the corner talk?

BOOK REVIEW: Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal

Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and WorkStealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

“Altered states of consciousness” conjures visions of rogue scientists hitting hallucinogens and then sealing themselves up in sensory deprivation tanks until they either have a breakthrough or a breakdown. This book may touch on such activities, but it’s about something else. It’s about the states of consciousness in which the part of the mind that is critical, overly cautious, and always creating worst case scenarios fades into the background, allowing one to be more effective, happier, and to drop one’s neurotic tendencies. Kotler and Wheal refer to this as ecstasis, borrowing from the Greek word meaning “to get outside oneself.” They differentiate it from the Flow of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi with which it clearly has overlap. (One of the authors, Kotler, wrote a great book on the exploitation of Flow by extreme athletes entitled “The Rise of Superman.”) [I’d love to see a Venn diagram of how they see these states overlapping, but—alas—one isn’t provided, though there is some discussion of it.]

 

The book is organized into three parts. The first part consists of three chapters and it both explores what ecstasis is and why it’s so hard to find. The story of how the Navy SEALs designs training to build group Flow states on command is illuminating as is the second chapter’s discussion of how Jason Silva found ecstasis through freewheeling philosophizing. The third of the chapters describes three prominent barriers to achieving these states of mind. These barriers are among the reasons for the rarity of these altered states even though they’re available to everyone.

 

The heart of the book is the second part which describes four avenues by which people pursue these altered states of consciousness: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology. The chapter on psychology uses a dialogue series between Oprah and Eckhart Tolle as a stepping off point, probably more because of what it tells us about the scale of yearning for ways to get outside of one’s head than because of the dialogues’ value in facilitating that condition. Positive psychology as recipient of a mantle once held by religion and spiritualism is an important theme in this chapter.

 

The neurobiology chapter isn’t just about the biology of the brain and nervous system; it’s about the integration of brain and body. In it, we learn about how expressions, postures, and gestures can influence our state of mind.

 

Many apparently believe that the story of pharmacology is a much bigger part of this book than it actually is, but it’s a part that’s hard to ignore. As one who seeks non-pharmacological approaches to Flow (I’m more about yoga, meditation, and movement) I still found this chapter fascinating, and perhaps most so in its discussion of other species’ pursuit of chemically induced highs [particularly that of dolphins.]

 

The technology discussed covers a range of approaches from biofeedback devices designed to help one navigate one’s way into the zone, to gear to help one engage in trigger activities at lower risk. For example, the mix of defiance of gravity and high-speed gliding experienced wing-suiting seems to be a potent trigger for ecstasis. It also seems to kill anyone who keeps doing it long enough. So the question is whether one can create the sensation and still achieve the trigger without inevitably experiencing an untimely demise.

 

The grimness of that last paragraph is an apropos lead-in to discussion of the book’s final part, which considers how one can organize one’s pursuit of ecstasis without running into the many pitfalls that coexist with it—from becoming a pleasure junky to dropping out of life to killing oneself. The first of three chapters in the final part discusses the Burning Man festival phenomena in great detail as well as other avenues by which people find themselves drawn into the pursuit of altered consciousness. The next chapter describes how both government and commercial firms have sought to exploit the bliss of these altered states. The last chapter is about how to merge daily life and pursuit of ecstasis in a balanced way so one avoids becoming a pleasure junky who runs his life aground on rocky shoals in pursuit of the next ecstasis fix.

 

The book is endnoted, and has some nice ancillary features—a number of which are available online with the link being given at the back of the book. An appendix that I found interesting was one entitled “Notes on Inside Baseball.” This section discussed a number of controversies that were outside the scope of the book, but which readers might wish to research in greater detail.

 

I found this book to be highly engaging. The authors use the narrative approach throughout to keep it interesting, while at the same time conveying complex ideas in an approachable fashion. They scour many disparate realms in search of this altered consciousness, and so there’s never a dull moment.

 

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about how to shut down that perpetually critical and gloomy part of the brain so that one can achieve one’s optimal potential.

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5 Ways to Manage Your Email & Social Media Addiction

Addiction? That seems harsh. It feels like I’m equating a person who has his phone in hand several times every hour with a heroin junky or a nymphomaniac. But, the difference is in the word “Manage.” I wouldn’t write a post entitled “How to Manage your Heroin Addition.” I’d write one called, “Quit that Shit Before it Kills You.”  I’m not suggesting that one needs to do away with checking email and social media. These are great tools that allow us to be much more productive (potentially.)

 

Still, if we’re honest about it, most of us at some point get caught up in the compulsive checking of emails, social media, internet feeds, click-bait sites, sale pages for online retailers, and stats pages. There’s no denying it. A pile of evidence has accumulated about the extent to which people are dismayed by their own e-world activities. I just started reading Kotler and Wheal’s “Stealing Fire” (out February 21, 2017) and they site a study that found that about 2/3rds of those surveyed admitted checking their status page when they woke up in the middle of the night. It might seem off topic for book about altered states of consciousness to report on such matters, but its not because it’s all about the pursuit of a neurochemical bump. (Also, as I’ll discuss, a major problem of this addiction is in keeping one from slipping into the Flow with one’s work, family, or hobby activities.)

 

So, below are five methods I’ve found useful in my own on-going struggle with this addiction.

 

5.) Set a timer:  The problem with this addiction is that when one falls into habitually checking one’s status, one isn’t able to stay on task, and that means that one won’t achieve that elusive state of optimal performance called Flow. One needs time to immerse oneself in a task.

 

When I’m writing and editing, I set a timer, and until it beeps I do nothing off topic. I don’t make it some Herculean effort. I use 60 and 90 minute intervals. After the alarm rings, I can check email, do Tai Chi, get a cup of coffee, or work on my handstands. A longer time period may be more–or less–beneficial for you. (Isaac Asimov was said to only take a break after 5,000 words, but few writers have that in them.) The point is to make it long enough that one can get into a focused state of mind, but not so long that you become distracted and run down.

 

 

4.) Know your high energy period: This point relates to the last because it’s about blocking one’s productive time, and putting the more Flow-demanding activities when one is at one’s best. e.g. Are you a lark or an owl? (i.e. morning person or evening person.)

 

For example, I’m a morning person. This creates a potential problem. While I find it easy to get up with the sun, I’m at risk of saying, “Oh, I’ll just check emails, Facebook, my blog stats, a couple YouTube channels, and then I’ll get to work.” Then it’s noon, and the hours in which my mind was at its very best are gone. From 7pm until I go to sleep is when I should check these feeds because by that time my mind isn’t good for editing or writing tasks that require a high level of attention to detail.

 

 

3.) Go Cold Turkey [for a few days]: Sometimes it’s easier to make changes when one is forced by circumstance to quit. Then one can be more conscientious in resumption of the activity in question. (Moving to India helped me break a lot of bad habits.) If nothing else, this will help to give you confidence that the Earth won’t roll off it’s axis just because you aren’t checking on it twice an hour.

 

I can offer two examples from my own life. Every year my wife and I go on an extended trek in a place where there are no bars and saving batteries is essential. The past couple years, this has been in the Himalayas because we’ve been living in India, but anywhere remote will work. I also did the Vipassana Meditation Course last year. (If you’re interested in the latter, you can read my account of it here.)

img_1397

 

 

2.) Meditate: Why? Because when you start meditating regularly, you tend to do less and less out of mindless habit. You become conscious of what you’re doing, and that’s the first step to making changes. You also start to become attuned to those very subtle dopamine bumps, and in that way you  aren’t fighting it the impulse blindly. The high of the click is infinitesimally more subtle than taking mind altering substances, and so it’s easy for this all to take place below the waterline (analogizing the mind to an iceberg but instead of the majority of the mass of ice below the waterline, it’s the conscious mind above and the subconscious below.)

img_1556

 

 

1.) Substitute: In the immortal word of the rock band “The Who.” If your problem is so extensive that it does more than block your attempts to hit the Flow, you may need to find a healthier alternative to wean yourself away.

 

What does one look for in a substitute? If it’s going to fill the same space, it requires immediate feedback and a mix of “fails” mixed in with “successes.” These are the components that make the e-world so addictive. We know immediately whether we got something or not, and that keeps us clicking–not unlike the famous rats that would keep pressing a button for pleasure even to the point of forgetting to eat.

 

Some people may work on games that will help build their brain. (Warning: just don’t trade one unproductive addiction for another.) I’m an advocate of working on physical activities (e.g. trying to develop new capabilities in calisthenics or yoga), but these often involve a demoralizing amount of fails to reach the optimal level (the optimal being that one has enough fails to keep it from being boring but not so many that one is brutalized.)

5 Books to Improve Mind-Body Performance

It’s the time of year when people think about how to be better, fitter, and smarter; so I thought I’d drop a list of books that I found helpful and thought-provoking.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about any of these books, the hyperlinks take you to my review in GoodReads, and from GoodReads you can get to Amazon page.

 

1.) THE RISE OF SUPERMAN by Steven Kotler: How do extreme athletes achieve Flow when one false move will kill them?

RiseOfSuperman

 

2.) FASTER, HIGHER, STRONGER by Mark McClusky: How do elite athletes squeeze the most out of the potential of the human body?

FasterHigherStronger

 

3.) BECOMING BATMAN by E. Paul Zehr: What would it take, physically and mentally, to become the Caped Crusader?

Becomingbatman

 

4.) FLOW by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: How does one achieve that state of relaxed and confident concentration in which we perform our best called Flow?

flow

 

5.) Extreme Fear by Jeff Wise: How does one overcome anxiety and fear to perform one’s best?

ExtremeFear

5 Lessons One Learns Teaching Kids Yoga

During the last half of April, I taught a kid’s camp at a1000 yoga‘s Kormangala studio. Below are some ideas about my experience.

Playful Scorpion

The Playful Scorpion

1.) Kids can’t down shift from 4th to 1st like adults. This was once a major point of frustration for me in teaching kids. When you ask kids to settle down after an activity they were really excited about, there’ll be a lag. There’s a temptation to see this unresponsiveness as a lack of respect, but it probably isn’t. (Which isn’t to say that the kiddies never attempt to test the waters.) The fact is that adults don’t get so amped up, and so it’s not so difficult for them settle down. Instead of getting frustrated with the kids, maybe one should feel sorry for the adults.

 

2.) Kids need a more advanced class, but not because they’re more advanced. Attention to detail isn’t a child’s strong suit. They have difficulty focusing on the finer points of alignment and breath–unless they’ve found a fun challenge in the pose. During the camp, we played with vrschikasana (scorpion pose) during the first few days. That’s not something I would do with adults. Kids get in the zone and, therefore, they don’t tense up and injure themselves so easily.

 

3.) Kids are natural flow hackers. If you don’t know what “flow” is, I’d recommend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, or Marer / Buzady / Vecsey’s Missing Link Discovered. (Depending upon your point of interest: psychology, athletics, or business, respectively.)  However, in a nutshell, flow is the state of mind in which we perform at our best because of a combination of concentration and the quieting of one’s inner critic. One of the keys to catching the flow is finding a challenge of the appropriate level. The challenge should be just beyond one’s current capability. If it’s too easy, one gets bored. If it’s too difficult, one gets frustrated. Children instinctively seek out the Goldilocks’s zone in challenges.

I noticed this when we were playing a game in which each kid had to cross the floor walking only on wooden yoga blocks. This helps with balance, which tends to be a weakness among kids. Every time all the kids have finished crossing, a block or two is removed. So, the game gets harder the longer it goes on. The position of the remaining blocks can be adjusted, and, after a while, the kids wanted to adjust the blocks themselves because I was making it too easy. In other words, they wanted to make gaps that they would have to stretch to their utmost to succeed.

 

4.) Don’t assume that kids experience fear the same way you do. I suspect there may be some readers who will say, “that guy had kids doing scorpion on their second day of yoga, he must be a complete lunatic.” But, adults superimpose their fears on children. Kids’ excitement more easily overcomes their anxieties. In my last post on yoga, I referred to a FaceBook meme that I saw recently that said, “A child who falls down 50 times learning to walk, never says, ‘I don’t think this is for me.'” Somewhere along the line, people become mortified of failure or the risk of a bruise, but it’s not in childhood.

Have you ever seen a child fall down and start to get up–everything apparently fine–until he or she sees the gasp from mom (or another adult,) and then the child bursts into tears? If you’re the adult in the aforementioned scenario, let me suggest that teaching kids physical activities isn’t yet for you–at least not until you can manage your own anxiety a bit better. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with such people, but a teacher’s job is to show the child a world of possibilities and not to infect them with his or her own limitations.

 

5.) Finding the balance between inner child and outer adult can be a challenge, but is necessary. My working theory is that kids don’t trust an adult whose inner child doesn’t show through at least a little bit. Kid’s yoga is typically taught differently from the adult version. When teaching adults, one doesn’t practice alongside the students, but that’s the norm in teaching kids. (Kids can mimic better than they can follow complex verbal instructions.) The kids enjoy having the teacher participate, but one must also ensure that it remains clear who is the teacher. Otherwise, kids may be confused. When you’ve been participating in practice, playing games, and letting the children have some say in what they do (which is also a sound practice to some degree) they may gradually start to forget about your role as authority figure.

The 4% Rule, Yerkes-Dodson, and Finding the Sweet Spot in Martial Arts Training

I was watching one of Michio Kaku’s Big Think videos recently that addressed American science education. The question of interest was how America continues to do so well in science and technology given that the American (primary and secondary) educational system isn’t up to par in science and mathematics with its technological competitors. The bulk of his talk (re: the H-1B visa and importation of brain power) isn’t germane to this post. It’s Kaku’s mention of a second secret weapon that caught my attention, and that’s how America is able to do a better job than many of its competitors in identifying and nurturing top talent. While math and science education is better in many Asian countries, those countries (e.g. Japan, Korea, or China) don’t excel at skimming off the cream of the crop. Dr. Kaku explains that this is because Confucian values teach students to conform, and students are loathe to stand out–even for exceptional performance. Even if a student wanted to show their talent in hopes of having it fostered, the large classes, lecture-centric teaching, and testing of memorization and standardized processes doesn’t offer much opportunity to grow one’s individual strengths.

 

Kaku’s statement resonated with me because I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of traditional approaches to martial arts instruction. I’m particularly interested in the gulf between the traditional approach and what martial arts teaching would look like if one took advantage of the wealth of scientific knowledge about mind and body development. Most of the martial arts instruction I’ve received over the years is consistent with Confucian thinking. All the students are doing the same practice (or faking it to the best of each’s abilities if it’s beyond one’s current capacities), and each is trying to closely emulate the teacher-presented ideal as much as possible. There’s not much consideration of the individual student’s weaknesses or strengths. Emphasis is on trying to convey as high-fidelity a replica of the techniques that have been handed down through the ages. (While this may be a laudable goal, I’ll later offer explanations as to why I think it’s both death for retention of students and ultimately counterproductive.)

 

Let me first say that there are a number of advantages to the traditional approach to martial arts instruction. First, it’s easy to teach many students at once. This was probably a huge advantage when there were armies of men having to learn these skills. Second, [theoretically] it helps students reduce their egotism through discipline and conformity. The highly hierarchical nature of this approach means students spend years in a lowly position, with the hope that some humility may stick. (NOTE: I’m not certain that this works out in practice.) Third, it creates a disciplined learning environment that is conducive to helping a student keep his or her head in the game.

 

What the traditional approach isn’t so good at is producing students who all perform at the best of their abilities. I suspect that the traditional approach doesn’t do so well for student retention either. It’s a system in which new students are forced to drink through the fire-hose; while students who’ve been around for a while often feel like they’re stagnating.  As I’ll get to below, there’s good reason to believe that a proper match between the challenge of a task and the performer’s skill level is critical to creating an intrinsically rewarding activity and to helping students perform at their best.

 

My thoughts on this topic have been heavily influenced by learning and teaching yoga. While one’s vision of a yoga class may be rows of students doing the exact same posture (and huge classes and / or poor instructors may result in that condition),  but there’s often a degree of variation in a class. This variation results from two concepts that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately, namely modifications and capacity building.

 

Modifications are a two-way street. If the task at hand is beyond the student’s current abilities, he or she may be given an easier variant that allows him or her to work toward the fundamental form. On the other hand, if the task of the moment is old hat, a student might be offered a more challenging version on occasion. I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t drill the basics throughout one’s martial arts career. Repetition of fundamentals is key to drilling them down into one’s nervous system. However, the brain loves novelty and hates drudgery, and it will become harder and harder to remain engaged if the overall challenge level doesn’t rise. The science suggests that one needs to keep upping one’s game if one wants to perform at one’s best.

 

The nature of modifications in martial arts may not seem as clear as it is with respect to yoga postures. For randori, sparring, and other free-form training, it’s easy to envision how one can adapt the practice to reduce or increase the challenge to a level more apropos of the student’s skill level. One can practice a restricted form. For example, one may work only on sparring with boxing rules to kicks or grappling out of the equation until a student builds up his or her confidence and abilities with recognizing and responding to punches. Alternatively, an advanced student might be presented with armed or multiple attackers. There are some practices, such as specific techniques, for which modifications may not be an option, but that doesn’t necessarily let a teacher off the hook for helping a student who’s challenged by the technique. That may be where capacity building exercises come into play.

 

Capacity building goes beyond offering an easier modification to suggesting exercises to help the student build the physical capacity to do the technique repetitively WITHOUT INJURY. I emphasized those last two words for a reason. In some martial arts, the need for capacity building exercises maybe clear because of the acrobatic insanity involved. However, practitioners of more pragmatic martial arts may say, “We don’t do all those fancy spinning back kicks, so we don’t need capacity building. Anybody can do our techniques because they’re simple and direct.” Maybe that’s true, but if multiple members of your school have the same (or similar) repetitive stress injuries, it’s not true at all.

 

What kind of capacity building are we talking about?  If the technique involves jumping or leaping and the individual is gravitationally-challenged, then plyometrics might be the prescription. On the other hand, if the problem is the inability of the student’s joints to withstand the technique, there might be need for exercises that build up stabilizing muscles, help him / her to cut weight, or both. If a student can’t do a throw without risk of injury, maybe that individual needs to spend time practicing with elastic bands or inner tubes or working on their balance.

 

RiseOfSupermanWhat is this 4% rule? I read about it in Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman. As background, there’s a state of mind called “Flow” that’s associated with performing at one’s best. In this state of mind, which some call “the zone” and others probably once called satori or samadhi, one’s concentration on the task at hand is at its greatest, unnecessary features like sense of time and sense of self fall away, one’s inner critic shuts the hell up, and–at least afterwards–there’s a blissful state. Flow can be described as the shutting down of specific elements of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC)–largely involved with the consciousness mind. It can also be defined neuro-chemically by the hormones released (i.e. Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, Anandamide, and Norepinephrine) and neuro-electrically in terms of one’s brainwaves (around 8 Hz.)

 

There are conditions that favor achievement of Flow, notably: 1.) clear goals, 2.) immediate feedback, and 3.) a good match between the level of the challenge and the level of one’s skill. Flow is a key factor in why some activities are intrinsically rewarding (whether or not they are rewarding in other ways) and why almost any activity can be intrinsically rewarding if it’s sufficiently challenging relative to one’s abilities. What’s sufficiently challenging? That’s where 4% comes into the picture. While it’s by no means an exact or universal value, it turns out that when a task presents a challenge that is roughly 4% above one’s present skill-level is when this state of mind is most accessible. This is why one may see students drop out if they find the level of challenge stagnant. On the other hand, one may not keep new students either if the challenge is constantly beyond their abilities.

 

How about that Yerkes-Dodson? The two early 20th century scientists for whom the Yerkes-Dodson Law are named discovered that performance increases with arousal (one might do best to think of this as anxiety level rather than the colloquial use of that word) up to a certain point, beyond which performance either levels off or plummets–depending upon the nature of the objective.  The point is that keeping the training environment too sterile has it’s disadvantages. In free-form practices like sparring, a little nerves can be a good thing, but being overwhelmed can be detrimental.

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Adjusting one’s instruction to the abilities of one’s students is challenging. Traditionalists may hold that it’s far more important to keep the tradition intact than it is to cater to the individual needs of students.  That is, said teachers may prefer to focus on the aforementioned high-fidelity transmission of the teachings of the lineage. There was a time during which I probably would have echoed that sentiment. However, it increasingly occurs to me that producing the best and most engaged students is the best way to keep a tradition alive.

6 Science Books That Martial Artists Should Read

When one has a passion for an activity,  it’s easy to get tunnel vision and miss out on the many avenues of information by which one might improve oneself.  I’ve done many posts on martial arts books, but I thought it might be useful to do one about books that aren’t about martial arts per se, but which have none-the-less contributed to my thinking as a martial artist.

 

1.) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dave Grossman

OnKillingWhat it’s about? Psychologically, it’s a lot harder to kill another human being than one might think. Even when one is a combatant in a just war, the reluctance to kill–even one’s sworn enemy–is intense. Grossman examines the roots of this reluctance, what methods have been employed to get soldiers over it, and what the cost of doing so is.

The book also goes into a topic one might find surprising: video games. Not to give too much away, but military researchers discovered that getting infantrymen to kill required conditioning them to shoot targets that look human. This resulted in moving from bulls-eye targets to silhouettes, pictures of humans, and even Firearms Training Simulators (i.e. FATS, systems that run shoot / no-shoot scenarios on a screen, like an interactive movie.) It turns out that shoot-em-up video games may contribute to a child’s conditioning to be willing to shoot another human being.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Martial arts vary radically in realism and relevance to combative situations, but it’s easy for students of the martial arts–even martial arts that seem “hardcore” and self-defense oriented–to have unrealistic notions about the realities of combat. As François de La Rodefoucauld said, “One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.” By reading this book one might, perhaps, begin to rethink one’s assumptions, and change how one prepares to defend oneself and others.

Further reading on related topics:  I’ve heard good things about the works of Rory Miller–particularly Facing Violence and Meditations on Violence, but I haven’t gotten around to reading his books yet. If you have, please feel free to comment with your thoughts.

 

2.) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

RiseOfSupermanWhat it’s about? Kotler examines a state of mind that is widely call “flow,” and how extreme athletes are tapping into flow to achieve unprecedented advances in performance. There are a number of ways by which this state of mind can be defined, e.g. neurochemically (i.e. a neuro-cocktail of serotonin, anandamide, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine), neuroanatomically (transient hypofrontality), neuroelectrically (high theta / low alpha wave–i.e. between meditation and resting wakefulness), or psychologically (intense concentration on a challenge that’s just beyond one’s present skill level.)

Kotler proposes that risk is an important trigger for entering a deep state of flow, and that this is why extreme athletes are proving so much better at achieving these states (and translating them into radically increased performance) than many other groups who seek to master flow.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? It should be noted that not only is flow not a newly discovered state of mind, but it sounds a lot like the state of mind that martial artists have sought for centuries in the practice of their arts–often in conjunction with disciplines such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. What is new, which makes this book worth reading, is an understanding of the science behind flow states. By moving beyond the hazy mix of truth and falsehood embodied in systems of spirituality, one may be able to find a way to more reliably increase one’s performance.

Further reading on related topics:  Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances is a book that is co-authored by the granddaddy of flow research Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

 

3.) Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr

Becomingbatman

What it’s about? (Arguably, this is a martial arts book, but I’m including it because one wouldn’t get that from the title or blurb.) This book’s central question is whether a real life person could achieve the level of crime-fighting bad-assery that is the Batman, and–if so–what combination of genetics, training, and conditioning would be required. It also addresses what would be the cost in terms of wear and tear on one’s body and how long one could be expected to maintain said abilities. (Also, for the martial artists of feminine persuasion, how Batgirl or Catwoman might fair in combat against Batman.)

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?   There is tons of great information relevant to martial artists about the toll of extreme practice and regular fighting on one’s body (e.g. concussions, broken bones, etc.), what the limits of human performance are, by what means those limits are approached, and how realistic it is to have an unreciprocated policy prohibiting lethal weapons.

Further reading on related topics: Actually, if you know of any books on related topics, I’d love to hear about them. There are a number of such books, but they’re on textbook pricing (i.e. insanely expensive.)

 

4.) Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise

ExtremeFear

What it’s about? This book is about the mental and physical effects of mortal peril, and why some people’s performance excels under dire threats while other people just let themselves die while cowering in a fetal ball. The book asks what we can all learn from those people who manage to keep their heads about them when death seems certain.

In the interest of full-disclosure, as of this writing I’ve not completed this book. I just started it and am only in the second chapter. However, so far it’s been both informative and interesting.

 

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Much like On Killing, I think this book may be valuable because there are many martial artists with daydream-induced misconceptions about how they will perform in dangerous situations. This book may help one evaluate one’s true state of preparedness, and discover how to go about making changes to improve one’s level of preparedness for a worst-case scenario.

Further reading on related topics:  If you want a scholar’s account, the book Anxious by Joseph E. Ledoux may be more your style. (Wise is a popular science writer.) I see that Ledoux is cited a lot in books I’ve been reading as of late, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his books yet. However,  I know he’s widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on fear. It looks like his book isn’t so much on mortal peril as Wise’s book, and covers all kinds of anxiety and fear.

 

5.) Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

FasterHigherStrongerWhat it’s about? The super-long subtitle says it all. It’s about how athletic performance is being improved by bringing scientific methods to the study of sports, and–as the second half of the freakish subtitle suggests–it explains how amateurs can put this information to good use. There are some methods used by elite athletes that aren’t at all suitable to the run-of-the-mill martial artists (e.g. don’t consume mass quantities of baking soda.) However, there are other approaches to nutrition and training that are readily translated to amateurs without much downside.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? You may or may not think of yourself as an athlete. I can hear some martial artists saying, “I don’t practice a sport, I’m a martial artist. I deal in lethal combat, not games. yada, yada, yada…” Maybe so, but fitness, nutrition, and conditioning matter. If you want to be able to hold your own against more skilled opponents, you need to improve your capabilities and capacities. Fitness matters. If you think technical proficiency will get you through any situation, you haven’t run up against someone who is both technically skilled and highly fit–and when you come up against said person, your disillusionment will be swift.

Further reading on related topics:  As with the Becoming Batman book, most of the books on this subject are textbooks and are outrageously priced. If you know of other books in this vein, I’d love to hear about them.

 

6.) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson et. al.

BuddhaBrainWhat it’s about? This book turns the lens of modern science on the serene, immovable state of mind that martial artists have historically sought out through Buddhist and yogic systems. It discusses how Buddhist practices help people to be more cognitively effective and less prone to emotional manipulation or disturbance.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?  If one reads the works of warriors–ancient and modern, one will discover that the greatest warriors place a premium on the importance of the mind.

Consider the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was exceedingly successful in defeating his enemies by making them angry. He would show up late and behave disrespectfully, and he would make his own mind imperturbable. This allowed him to easily defeat warriors who were considered at least his equal in terms of technique.

Further reading on related topics: There are many books that look at similar questions.  Zen and the Brain is probably a better book in terms of the amount of information / insight provided, but it’s a much more daunting read. I wouldn’t put the latter in the category of “pop science” as much as just “science.”  (Zen and the Brain is also a much older book.)

 

These are my recommendations, I’d love to hear about yours in the comments section.