Hacking the Optimal Performance State with Steven Kotler | The Cloudfoot Diaries #75

One of the most fascinating Rogan talks this year, without doubt, was with guest, author and flow state engineer, Steven Kotler.

If you’re even remotely interested in optimising your own performance, be it in the movement and sporting world, or cerebral domain of intelligence, you really ought to give this episode a listen all the way through. These guys cover some fascinating topics and much what I write below is in relation to what is discussed.

Enjoy the ride!

Why I hate the word ‘Flow’

As mentioned in this episode, the New Age mafia somewhat hijacked the word Flow to incorporate all sorts of attached bullshit meanings and completely bastardised the word. I first came across the term used in a ‘Woo-Woo’ sense and it put me off immediately. Now I can’t help but cringe and shrivel inside every time I hear it. The term I prefer to use is High Performance State (HPS), simply because it is far more self-explanatory and contains way less shit.

My first encounter with the idea of HPS

I’m certain I had experienced the HPS whilst growing up, perhaps not knowing how to describe or explain it. Years of skateboarding, rugby and martial arts would have produced performance states, even if I hadn’t a clue what was going on.

My first memory of being introuced to the concept of HPS was from none other than wildman and sorely missed daredevil, Dean Potter. In a documentary made by Channel 4, called Skywalker, Dean talks about the HPS and how he has spent a vast proportion of his life hunting it down. Upon hearing his explanation of it, I didn’t immediately relate. However, something inside me knew that I wanted to experience what he was talking about, and soon.

That documentary catalysed a process that would change my life; learning to slackline. From walking slacklines over 100m long, I began to understand more and more what moving meditation really meant and this was further amplified when I started highlining.

Thanks to slacklining, I have made my own personal internal model as to how to identify and stay within the HPS and since have explored how to transfer it from activity to activity.

See ‘Flow breeds Flow’.

Risk is a trigger

The majority of the physical activities / hobbies that I undertake have an element of risk involved with them, centering around the possibility of injury if something goes wrong, or in extreme cases, death. I have always had an attraction to risk, though one that has always been calculated, rarely reckless. I can’t say where this comes from, I just know I need a certain amount of it to function correctly.
I was pleased to hear on the podcast that just the presence of risk, however mild, is enough to trigger the High Performance State. I could immediately relate. It’s as if on a cellular level, my body and mind know that if I’m not focused on the task at hand, a severe problem is not far away. Entering a state of pure focus becomes a necessity for survival, not just fun, although that seems to be the biproduct for me.

Hacking your way to the HPS

I had to laugh at Kotler’s suggestion on how to ‘Hack your way into the Flow state’. Simply by 20 minutes low intensity movement (Yoga, Run, Fast Walk, etc) followed by a cup of coffee and then a joint. My laughing was in support, too, not mockery.

‘Flow Breeds Flow’

As I mentioned above, indentifying your own HPS, I believe, is half the task. It is tricky to identify the HPS without recognising it in such a way that you exit the state, though. It’s more of a reflection after you’ve finished your activity where you can say to yourself ‘Oh, so that was the HPS I was in during skateboarding.’ etc.

Since juggling and slacklining were the activities that disclosed the HPS to me, I have since spent quite some time learning how to transfer the state across different disciplines. After all, the HPS is not necessarily activity-biased. With practice, I believe you can get into a state of Flow doing anything.

I can simply portray how I’ve been exploring this transfer with my current hobbies, below;
Juggling > Slacklining > Handbalancing + Gymnastics > Motorcycles > Grappling >…

Who knows where the arrow points to next? All I know is that I find balance training to be a fantastic outlet to maintain alongside other hobbies and sports that I train and practice.

Balance as an analog neuro-feedback loop + risk + HPS trigger

It was fascinating to hear Kotler talk about neuro-feedback training and how it has progressed learning speeds within test groups.

I have a hypothesis that balance training is an analog neuro-feedback mechinism that triggers the HPS far quicker than other methods, say, learning to meditate on a cushion, for example.

Slacklining is the most basic example; a tensioned piece of webbing anchored between two points. I have used this example with literally hundreds of students over the last four years of teaching one-to-one lessons, so perhaps this is developing into more of a theory than a hypothesis, because I have been testing it and it works!

This deserves a more detailed write up than the one I am going to give here, but a brief insight into what I mean is certainly relevant to Kotler’s mention of neuro-feedback training.

I definitely agree that with feedback, the brain learns to do a task faster. The slackline is a beautiful, analog example of a feedback machine. When you are calm, your physiology is also calm, and so is the slackline, i.e. there are no tremours or wobbles in the line. When you are tense, so is your physiology and so the slackline feeds back this information to you by manifesting as a wobbly, unstable base beneath you.
When teaching, the two most effective cues I have seen work with students have been, in order of effectiveness, ‘Breathe’ and ‘Sink your weight down in to the slackline and keep the line as still as you can’.
Calming a student’s breath down has the most profound effect on calming their physiology, without a doubt. In as little as 20-40 minutes, I have seen students find the HPS thanks to the slackline telling them when they are in a state of flow, and when they are in a state of ‘No’.

Expanding from the slackline, I would go as far as saying that Balance is a neuro-feedback system in and of itself. You are either in balance, or off balance, and your body and brain has a built-in system to know which state you are in. I have experienced the same HPS whilst learning to hold handstands. After the 20 second mark of being inverted, the HPS seems to come around. Arguably, handstands and handbalancing are more difficult than slacklining, but I would argue the principles are exactly the same; breath control and weight displacement.

Meditation and getting out of the way of yourself

My understanding of basic meditation, and emphasis on the basic here, is that it’s really about understanding how to get into the HPS without having the assistance of a trigger, be that risk, balance, entheogens, etc.
However, I would say, and I mentioned this to a friend recently who is starting their own meditation journey, if you know how to find your own HPS, then all you have to do is look for it without your usual triggers, whilst sat meditating (read; focusing on the breath). If you have something to look for then I feel meditation is far easier as a concept, rather than the all too often feedback you hear from beginners ‘What do I focus on?’ and ‘My head is so full of thoughts’; two very valid responses when trying to navigate the somewhat daunting internal landscape without an HPS marker. Simply breathe and pay attention. If you have experience with the HPS in other activities, it will come quickly to you during basic meditation practice.
Overall, a fantastic episode and I look forward to checking out more of Steven Kotler’s work!



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Harry Cloudfoot is a writer and explorer of movement and mind. You can check his social media if you want but you'd be better off going and doing something, instead.
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