The very first time I can remember experiencing flow state I was in a rather precarious position. I was all sprawled out, like an octopus on ice. At least, from the perspective of the horse, I imagine that is exactly how I looked. I was a jumble of limbs and various pieces of horse tack strewn across the cold, black, icy ground with my back pinned against the corral fence. She was in full rear as she looked down at me. I saw the panicked whites of her eyes, her nostrils flared, her breath a stream of vapour erupting into the freezing cold air.
It was kind of hypnotic, the way the light from the tack shed turned her body into a menacing yet graceful black silhouette. Up, up, up she rose onto her hind legs, her front legs dangling in the air directly overhead like two spears. It seamed to take a unfathomably long time for the rope that bound her halter to the fence to snapped tight. Once it did, there was no where for her to go but down, and down, was precisely where I was.
In the tenths of seconds that followed I somehow melted into the wooden slats at my back as her hooves grazed my cheek and chest. She tried everything in her power to avoid me. Her broad barrel chest and long neck straining against the fence that pulled her face relentlessly forward. I somehow rolled onto my left hip and pasted my legs to the ground like that iconic image of Princess Laya chained to Jabba The Hutt.
The horse touched down, each hoof squarely in the the centre of each of my femurs. Then she preformed some sort of kinaesthetic voodoo to levitate back into the air as my sister yanked on the tail end of the chain knot freeing the horse and allowing me time to scamper through the tiny gap in the corral fence. Safely on the other side I finally screamed out in terror.
Then I see my mom is running through the snow wearing nothing but socks and I was whisked off to the hospital. I was still in shock and that bafflement only grew as the doctor explained that I had no broken bones, no significant soft tissue injuries, just two monster bruises and a little nerve damage. The horse and I, in those hand full of seconds, entered into flow state and that is what made all the difference.
That dark and scary night when flow first revealed its mystical powers to me was like a switch flipping on. Many times between then and now my ass has been saved by shotgun flow moments. While this, on one hand, I reflect upon with gratitude bordering on reverence, on the other hand my heart is aching as I sit typing this. My left knee is bound in a brace propped up by a chair and numb from the ice pack. It’s early December, the beginning of Canada’s winter hence, ski season.
The knee doesn’t hurt but it doesn’t work properly either. I am a professional Ski Instructor and Yoga Teacher, or at least I was three weeks ago. Now, I don’t know what I am. I feel like a ghost haunting the Rocky Mountains without a tether to reality and it doesn’t make any sense. From the age of five, joint strain has been my primary pastime. Seven years a competitive dancer, seven years an alpine ski racer, and eighteen seasons a professional ski instructor. I guess finally, probability has caught up with me.
If you will indulge me for one more Star Wars reference… flow has a dark side. It is hopelessly addictive and once that addiction latches on you find yourself transforming into something not quite human. You don’t exist by ingesting air, water and food anymore. Rather, the molecules making up your form assemble for one purpose only. To get into flow by whatever trigger life circumstances have gifted you. For me, this is skiing.
It’s only been three weeks and I am practically writing my own eulogy here. How on earth does that make any rational sense! Well, it doesn’t, but that’s the essence of what I am trying to say. I am not in control of this. I am coming to the stark realization that I have fully committed with no safety net and the trapeze rope has snapped. Uh oh!
When I abandoned a conventional linear life path to become a full time ski bum in the Canadian rockies is was all very romantic. I was finding myself and my tribe regularly cruising at 80kph 2800 meters elevation give or take. I was obsessed with training to become the best technical skier I could possibly be, ascending through the levels of the Canadian Ski Instructor Alliance. This at the abject sacrifice of time with family and friends, building equity in a home, putting away savings, accumulating career capital in a sustainable profession, maintaining a marriage, having kids. You know, adulting stuff.
Do I feel bad, fearful or regretful about these life choices? Sometimes… But I ascribe to the philosophy of the Indian Mystic Sadhguru elucidated in his training method, Inner Engineering. This present moment is the only thing that exists, it simply is and it could not possibly be anything else. For me personally I will define my present moment by paraphrasing the words of an unnamed but famous ski guide in the documentary Steep. I am a mountain person, this is how I live, this is who I am. But maybe, just maybe.. there are cracks in this logic. All laid up injured, through these cracks in myself, light is getting in.
The first question is, what hurts and why? The knee does not hurt that much as I already mentioned. Remarkably, given the gruesomeness of the fall, all ligaments and tendons are attached. However, the meniscus is not. There is a gross clunk when I fully extend my leg as this cartilage squishes about like jello squeezed between two fingers. Yucky! What really hurts though is the residual trauma of the ego fragmenting.
As a Yogini I am forced to analyze all of this under the laser microscope of mindfulness. Addiction is attachment and attachment is the lifeblood of the ego and ego cuts oneself off from her highest potential. In yoga, therefore, the aim is to cultivate a state of non-attachment. I should know this. The problem with addiction is it can mask itself as something healthy even noble. Sports are considered socially acceptable flow addictions. Even yoga, quite hypocritically, can fall into this category. The defining line when passion turns into addictive is when it starts interfering with your life in a negative way. That is the first sign you need help.
This is the point of the blog post where I am going to draw the proverbial line in the sand, or on the page as it were. Enough about the problem, on to the fix.
QUIT FUCKING WHINING CHRISTINE!!! THIS MELODRAMA IS FUCKING OBNOXIOUS!!!!!!!!!
Straight from the glitchy neural network of a flow junky in full withdrawal I give you, three tidy life saving tactics for when flow becomes addictive. I have named them Reverse Samurai Death Meditation, Diversification of Flow and Doom Prepping.
Reverse Samurai Death Meditation:
Yamamoto Tsunetomo was a Samurai in Hizen Province during the late 1600’s. He wrote a treatise on Bushido, the way of the warrior, called Hagakure meaning in the shadow of the leaves. Even Yamamoto himself considered this work extremely controversial, advising the reader to burn the book immediately after absorbing its contents or risk becoming very angry every time it comes into sight.
In the first chapter Yamamoto lays it all out. “Samurai is found in death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance.” There are many gems of insight in his writing that will absolutely delight the flow junkie as we are kindred spirits with that ancient and awe inspiring collective. The secret to the Samurai’s incredible will to advance into certain death, forcibly over riding self preservation and unleashing upon their enemies, a breathtaking display of raw human potential, was their ability to leverage flow state. The Samurai made cultivating flow a life discipline and they practiced it religiously.
What I am about to propose is a double edged sword. Please read carefully the following, as misinterpretation might result in a movement ever deeper into flow addiction, instead of the 180 degree about face that is the intended result.
Yamamoto writes extensively about practices to prepare oneself for death. One important practice was to sit in deep contemplation of all the ways one could die, from a simple but tragic fall down the stairs to the most stomach turning visualization of immolation the human mind can conjure. Each mental creation was to be replayed over and over until the visceral recoil from it was neutralized. In the heat of a crisis, Samurai who had prepared extensively by meditating on all the myriad ways he could die, would move automatically and without fear towards the object of his demise. Please do not get any ideas here.
My proposal is the exact reverse of this. Reverse Samurai Death Meditation involves re-sensitizing oneself to the fear and pain commiserate with making big irreversible life decisions to chase flow, sustaining injury chasing flow or, heaven forbid, actually dying chasing flow. Meditate upon every conceivable fate that could await you at the bottom of the mountain, the end of the trail, the top of the jump…. but here’s the trick. Do not visualize it from first person perspective.
Instead, take a Ebernezer Scrooge lead by the hand of ghosts past, present and future point of view. Imagine the impact of your decisions on the people in the wake of your ripple through the cosmos. Your friends, family, team mates, community country etc. You need to do this because if you are a severely hooked flow addict you will find a million and one ways to rationalize your decisions based on how the consequences affect only you.
You’re value on your life measured against the value of the flow high has become skewed. You can not trust yourself to make this calculation objectively anymore than you could trust a heroin junkie in a room alone with a loaded syringe. Do not ask, what consequence can I live with. Ask instead, what consequence can I live with imposing upon my loved ones.
This probably sounds like a massive bummer, and who would ever want to subject themselves to that kind of miserable thought experiment. You may ask, won’t I become a neurotic hyper-vigilant disasterbator? If you are a proper flow addict, probably not. You are currently too far right on the risk axis. The intention of this practice is to give you the option to pull the dot back so it will line up on the graph properly with your level of skill. Chances are, you will actually have to work at getting freaked out in these sessions, but freak out you must!
Furthermore, I argue that re-sensitization has a lot of value not just informing decision making but it can actually make very safe things that have long ago lost their spark, elicit flow again. Ripping a blue groomer on a blue bird day may seam quite a yawn. Try it following a morning meditation where you imagine catching an edge and careening head long into a tree. You better believe you will be both skiing further away from the trees, which is prudent, and you will pay careful attention to how you roll onto that edge.
Even at slow speed, because you are intently focused on balance, you will feel the grip bend the ski. Your body will tip inside the arc. As you bend in the joints that minimum viable amount to release pressure you will experience that glorious deflection across the hill. Vola! Blue groomers made delicious once again.
Diversification of Flow:
Once you are good at imagining all the bad shit that can happen to you out there you have a working model for the various types of broken you could become. While a knee injury sucks it is not the worst I have experienced and certainly not even close to the worst I can imagine. With a concussion, for example, you can not engage in activities to entertain yourself while you are healing. You may need to just sleep, or sit for long periods at a time in a dark quiet room without reading, watching tv or listening to music. My last concussion was a big one and all I could do was sleep and meditate. The really big scary shut down we do not speak of is paralysis. Let that shudder resonate through your cells for a moment.
Diversification of flow is a simple mental exercise that asks one simple question. If this, then what? What flow eliciting activities can you add to your quiver that you can segway to if you loose the capacity to do the one that is now your mainstay. This should be thought about and skills cultivated long before injury happens. If your legs won’t work how about playing the guitar? If you are in severe pain from osteoarthritis can you take up low impact Thai Chi. How about painting, gaining a deep appreciation for Jazz, writing… :)
If it is too late and you have sustained injury chasing flow without establishing a broad portfolio of triggers it’s time to open to the adjacent possible. Let the panic and soul searching fragment you. Everything you thought you were up to this point is in question. You are in agony, disoriented and confused. Good! This is where the adjacent possible lives. However, you must first allow yourself to burn like the Phoenix so that you can rise anew.
If you can surrender to the pain and fear becoming still enough to listen to your inner voice, most likely it will surprise you. You will find that you are so much more resilient and resourceful in this head space than you could ever imagine. So crazy it just might work epiphanies will erupt from deep untouched places like bolts of lightning. You’re inhibition to these notions will be reduced. The sense of urgency in pursuing them will be high.
Remember, you are not who you are in this present moment as a result of continuity and perpetual status quo. You have evolved through a series of traumas that have violently reprogram you from the DNA up. This messiness of life is like miracle grow for human potential. Don’t miss this opportunity! Listen…
This is an activity that, to be effective, must start before crisis. Ask the question if this… then what… but with a bend towards survival needs. Do you have disability insurance? If you are a risk prone flow addict you probably don’t because it is prohibitively expensive. This is especially the case for the most vulnerable of us, the dirtbags of the action adventure sports world. If you do not have disability insurance contribute to a tax free savings account one to six months worth of living expenses starting yesterday! DO IT!!! No ya buts, no would but can’t afford it, no assuming others will take care of you. DO IT!!!
Just as important, start investing in your relationships and your community. I have donated to a few go fund me pages for broken friends / colleagues / members of my community. I have made trips to hospitals to bring laptops and toothbrushes for friends living abroad who have no family close by. I have given and received many heartfelt phone calls and txt messages encouraging recovery and bolstering courage. I have been physically supported, carried and dragged to safety. Nothing will move you to bawl like a baby like the genuine kindness and compassion of your extended flow family. It will be an honour to be able to return the favour on day should the need arise.
It is very simple, and I believe this is the single most important practice to solve the problem of flow addiction. Invest in one another, nurture relationships, build community, share in success and failure and all will prosper. It is all too easy to get sucked completely into your flow universe and to loose touch with everyone in your periphery. You will need them one day and they you.
As for myself, I am deep in the defrag stage of things. Some really big soul searching is taking place. I have been flowing hard writing this for the past two days and it feels great to do so. I have also spent more time with friends and family in the past three weeks than in the last four seasons combine. I realize how much I have missed that. I now see how unbalanced I have allowed things to become. And yes, I have savings and access to WCB that should carry me through recovery and getting back on snow. Good job past self, high five!
From the outside I probably look like I am loosing my shit. I have been doing things like colouring my hair purple. Seeking out mystical / spiritual healing modalities, conjuring spirit animals and calling upon ancestors. I am going soft core savage on the spin bike at super low resistance and RPM in the gym while jamming to progressive super heavy metal. I am very cognizant of potential further injury as I do so and as a result every spin of the pedals is executed with high intensity flow eliciting attention flooded by the brain melting, sensory rich, down tuned epic ness of Intronaught. I am meditating, visualizing, praying (new one for me) multiple times a day. I am eating a super healthy low inflammatory plant based diet and taking all sorts of helpful supplements, begging the question, why don’t I do this all the time? Because the adjacent possible was not possible until now.
I fragment… I burn… I rage… I surrender… I grow…. Onward!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I am now offering Yoga for Snow Sports and Performance Coaching Private sessions at Canmore Health and Wellness. Free phone consultation, 1 hour private yoga for $110 or 1.5 hour private yoga and goal coaching session $160.
Christine Davidson is a Ski Instructor, Yoga Teacher and Peak Performance Coach on a mission to make humans awesome!