“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs most is more people who have come alive.”
Howard Thurman, Civil Rights leader. From, The Rise of Superman, by Steven Kotler
The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, by Steven Kotler, has been an inspirational and poignant way to end the most significant and impactful year I’ve ever experienced. It’s a book about how people achieve the incredible, to test human limits and find we have no idea how far our depths and resources extend. It’s a scientific look into how and why people are able to do the seemingly impossible, to find their optimal state of consciousness, to perform at their best, to make the correct split second life and death decisions over and over and over again, all while feeling a profound sense of unity and joy.
Kotler quotes psychologist Abraham Maslow: “During a peak experience, the individual experiences an expansion of self, a sense of unity, and meaningfulness in life. The experience lingers in one’s consciousness and gives a sense of purpose, integration, self-determination and empathy.”
Exactly one year ago, in the midst of personal crisis, I kissed my parents goodbye and boarded a flight to Santiago de Chile to embark on one of the most daredevil and challenging adventures I could then imagine. My instincts told me something drastic had to be done; I would find peace, solace and answers on a journey by motorbike that would take me across two continents and nearly half the world.
It was instinct, a force that seemed beyond me, which led to this decision. A decision I hoped would bring about a sense of strength and accomplishment, freedom yet unity, that I was in desperate need of. And the allure of an adventure that would help me find strength again didn’t fail me. I learned to blast down sand roads, explode through cold rivers, stare down the gauntlet at speeding sleep-deprived semi drivers on one-lane mountain passes with hideous cliffs and sheer drops promising death with just one small wrong move. Dozens of times I was faced with the sudden realization of imminent danger, yet a millisecond later instinct would have taken over and I’d find myself riding away, unscathed, not knowing how I had just survived. Rock walls would loom, cliffs would beckon, 80 mile an hour gusts would shove towards death, trucks would barrel by at an inch from my life, yet I experienced not a scratch. Simultaneously, when I was on my bike, a feeling of such awe would overwhelm the senses, a feeling of total wonderment, bursting joy and unity with everything around, from the lethal mountain roads to the armadillo scurrying across the dusty road to the flat, barren and grueling days across the desolate deserts of Argentina’s eastern Patagonia. Experiences that would drive some half-mad with boredom one week, to fearing for their lives the next. A grinding horror to some. When I was alone on my bike in the wilderness, my mind became somehow sharper, crisper, clearer, and more joyous.
I’ve often wondered how I made it through so much, unscathed, and with such tremendous delight. Was it dumb luck, or, like the wrinkled and hunched white-haired grandmother told me in one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (“magic towns”) did I really have a guardian angel next to me? Clearly I did, she declared, or I would never have made it so far.
Or is it as author Steven Kotler says, that great emergencies and crisis bring out our true strengths? Our best and most accurate intuition and reflexes? Our best consciousness, the state known to scientists and athletes alike as Flow? Many of us have had fleeting instances of great intuition and quick reflexes, but how many of us have experienced it for minutes at a time, even hours, day after day?
I’ve often tried summing up the experience as friends ask about the trip, and find myself unable to describe it. “How was the trip”, they ask? It was wonderful, fantastic, like nothing else I’ve ever done- I can’t find words beyond those. But what was so wonderful about it? Was it the adventure? The cultural exchanges? The exotic locations and people? The glorious scenary and riding? Sure, those things played a crucial role, but there was something far greater: It was the frame of mind I found myself in that was so rewarding and powerful. It was a new state of consciousness I had only ever truly experienced at one other time. It came nearly daily, for months. It’s important to note that a state of flow ins’t necessary to have survival instincts that save you from near-death experiences. But as Kotler describes, “The peak experience is felt as a self-validating, self-justifying moment… It is felt to be a highly valuable- even uniquely valuable- experience, so great an experience sometimes that even to attempt to justify it takes away from its dignity and worth… So many people find this so great and high an experience that it justified not only itself, but even living itself. Peak experiences can make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence. They give meaning to life itself… It often involves painful, risky difficult activities that stretch the person’s capacity and involves an element of novelty and discovery.” Instead of just experiencing survival instinct, the state of Flow provides joyous peace and quiet amidst the chaos.
What the world needs is more people who have come alive. So I ask you, what makes you truly come alive, and how can we get to that elusive state of presence on a regular basis?
Nearly four months after the journey has ended, the details begin to fade, some of the memories slip away like sand through a sieve, but what lasts is an altered state of self and even consciousness that I never expected, nor could ever have explained before reading this book. I discovered another realm- a paradise- of the mind.