WARNING – attempting to replicate some of the activities in this blogpost may cause injury or death. Use the advice and support of an experienced professional.
DISCLAIMER – the effects of this article may cause you to spend too much money on gear, skip work to go out and play, or cause irritation to your partner by waking up in darkness to go and exercise.
Way back in the 1700’s scientists and philosophers debated the separation between body and mind, with the scientific cynics clearly pointing out that it was a physical impossibility to put a probe into a thought, or measure an emotion with an electrode. The body-mind separation advocates continue until today, proposing that our instinct and our rational thinking are separated by physical needs and logical ones. The appreciation of art cannot be explained by Darwinian survival instincts, they claim. Yet thousands of years before these scientists tackled this debate, our ancestors talked about the closely knit relationship between spirit and mind, when it came to remarkable feats that wrote their history. Whether it’s the Native Americans and their accounts of the indestructible Geronimo that survived harsh winters living off the land, or accounts of pacific island dwellers that travelled inexplicable distances spending months on rickety rafts to conquer new territory, or Tibetan monks that trek up and around the Himalayas in sub zero temperatures wearing nothing more than loin cloths, these accounts often defy science; so we poo-poo them as some form of hoax or exaggeration.
Over more recent decades scientists have tried to understand the way some ‘unusual’ people can somehow take control over their autonomic nervous system (i.e. our automatic pre-programmed response to the environment, such as sneezing, shivering, gasping for breath and our hormonal response to stress or pleasure). Physiologically, this is extremely difficult as these responses are in fact, pre-programmed into us over thousands of years of evolution, and have allowed us to survive as a species. With our instinct acting 3 times faster than our rational mind, getting out of danger post haste is not something you want to evolve out of. Our autonomic system protects us in extreme situations by taking over our consciousness in order to, in some instances, save our lives. We have an inbuilt Kill Switch that trips when we overheat, get too cold, hold our breath too long, or in more mundane situations get tickled or need to pee. The switch also stops us pushing hard cardiovascularly, so we ‘tire’ before our limit when running up a hill, for example. This switch is there to help, however as the levels of comfort lower, our ability to stay in control of our internal systems diminishes.
Indeed, the way we live our modern lives is slowly eroding some of our instincts that helped us survive thus far. We now live in temperature controlled environments that rarely shift by a few degrees all year round, with heating homes and hi tech clothing in winter, and air conditioned cars and offices in summer. Our plentiful food means we never experience hunger (in the true sense of the word, not a mild tummy grumble because you missed your mid-morning snack) and our bubble-wrapped physical existence has made us fragile and weak. As a result, we have lost our resilience to nature and the elements. Our kill switch is set so low that as soon as we are out of our very narrow comfort zone, we panic, retreat even further into our mollycoddled existence and never venture back out.
This kill switch has gone from saving us to killing us.
You may think that this is not a real problem. It’s not like central heating or air conditioning is ever going away; in fact, technology is likely to continue to make our lives easier! However as the switch is perpetually lowered, our resilience decreases. This has a severe and very real effect on our immune system and our ability to combat illness. Our overuse of antibiotics has allowed bacteria to evolve around them, making them inefficient and requiring ever-higher doses. Our species is losing it’s ability to metabolise sugars effectively, increasing a widespread obesity problem and spikes in diabetes diagnoses. Many cancers are the result of our immune system failing to fight of earlier symptoms of a disease, or mitigate the pollutants that fill our air, water and food. This kill switch has gone from saving us to killing us.
Whilst it is human nature that tries to make life more bearable, comfortable and enjoyable, the truth is that millions of us are trying to break this comfort zone and are, in increasing numbers, looking for opportunities to ‘toughen up’. We have seen a drastic increase in participating in Ironman and Xterra races by people who are not life-long athletes, but weekend warriors that otherwise sit at a desk all week. The increase into the millions of otherwise city people racing on trails or taking on obstacle course racing, mountaineering, cross fit challenges, apnea diving and mountain biking. All these activities go beyond ‘exercise’ and promise an elevated self that comes from overcoming a personal challenge and taking your mind and body to the next level. (Below is a list of local activities that are growing in numbers of people who repeatedly want to challenge their limits.) Are we just hungry for experiences and an escape from the drudgery, or are we subconsciously trying to hack that self limiter in our internal system and set it to a higher level?
The philosophical debate out meaning of life, living to the full and experiencing life as a whole, encourages these people to search for ever-increasing obstacles to overcome. Bucket lists are becoming more and more extreme. Getting off the hamster wheel has become a trillion dollar industry: from hard physical Book Camp live-ins to Burning Man festivals to Re-wilding survival adventures in remote nature, all taking city-folk back to their primal roots. The philosopher in me is curious about what are we all in search of, and the scientist in me asks if there is a simpler way to get it. Can we drive a wedge into, or hack the mind-body system and take hold of our autonomic instinctive brain? If we could, would that give us a greater sense of free will, mastery, or transcendence? I have some experience from my adventures to the limits of my own physical and mental capabilities that may help shed light onto the matter.
I always describe the point around which I am thoroughly engrossed in the moment, where ego dissipates and I am totally engaged in an activity, as FLOW. It is the place in my mind where I am calm, creative and intuitive, switched on and in that space between conscious and unconscious. I love the place and I experience it a great deal, when I am running, swimming or cycling. I’m typically alone and hovering between the instinct and the rational. Kottler and Wheal describe this as ‘hypofrontality’, where the part of our brain related to self and conscious thought switches itself off. Scott Carney, who spent years studying, and even training with Wim Hof, describes this space as the ‘wedge’, as he claims that such activities that create the blurring of conscious and subconscious drive a wedge in between the autonomic (automatic/instinctive) part of us and the conscious.
Wim Hof, aka ‘the Ice Man’, can use an ancient breathing technique to use this wedge to override the Kill Switch, and control his blood pressure, metabolism, heart rate and even his immune system. His insane activities (swimming 50m laps under 2m thick ice in the arctic, climbing Everest wearing just shorts, and other ‘death defying’ stunts) attracted the scientific interest of top researchers to find out if what he claimed was a hoax. Whilst his showmanship is part of the role, the science backs up his claims (here); and he teaches people how to repeat his feats (for a pretty price, of course!). His system is relatively easy to replicate, by including the 30 minute breathing exercises, taking regular cold showers and running in the cold without too much gear on. Essentially, acclimatising to the cold by ‘being in the cold’ activates your brown adipose tissue for all sorts of health benefits.
While my attempts to drive a wedge in my consciousness comes during extreme fatigue – that, it seems, is where I experience the blurring of mind and body – the breathing techniques Hof and many other practitioners use are a quick way to level up your Kill Switch. The most experienced at doing this are apnea divers. Their practice requires them to override a deeply ingrained kill switch that requires you to gasp for air when you accumulate too much carbon dioxide in your blood (interestingly, it’s not the lack of Oxygen that triggers the kill switch). Their breathing training allows apnea divers to override the instinct and avoid gasping, allowing them to hold their breath for well over 6 minutes. Clearly, the switch is set rather low (typically we would gasp for air between 30-60 seconds) when you consider the extent to which a trained person can remain in apnea. Using these breathing techniques I have seen my clients reach 3 minute breath holds, and my young kids over 2 minutes with just one session of exercises (safely at the surface, not at depth). [A word of caution however; some 300 people die in apnea training or diving every year, making it one of the most dangerous sports even compared to climbing Everest or skydiving.]
With a new year approaching, we set goals and direction with aspirations to achieve greater things. Typically they are not material objectives, but experiences, overcoming challenges, starting something new or discovering a hidden strength. We often don’t follow through as much as we’d like to (70% of fitness centre memberships are no longer used by March!) because we don’t have the right motivation to overcome the excuses. Not enough time, money or resources, other priorities and life generally getting in the way. This is predictable because we are all human; we first aspire, and then settle for a bit less. My advice, if I can give it, is to work on small improvements. Start hacking away at your self-control, working on building up your resilience and strengthening your mindset over time. Learn how to push the wedge, gently at first, in between your instinct and your comfort zone. Step, gingerly at first, out of your nice comfortable heated home for a brisk walk on a cold January morning; then progress over time to only wearing shorts and a teeshirt. Start breathing exercises and breath-holding on land. Exposing yourself to the elements, eating more raw foods, raising your heart rate from exercise or excitement, learning to play music, painting or writing, and getting uncomfortable will all help you raise the limiter on your kill switch, so you have much more room in which to LIVE!
Below are a few local activities that may be a good goal to get you to raise that limiter. If you prefer sticking to your sport, find ‘alternative’ versions of it, such as a hilly road race for runners, or an open sea swim in colder seas for swimmers.
We aim to hold a workshop or live-in sometime in 2018 that will help participants experience Flow, hypo-frontality, autonomic control, energy and nutrition hacks and other high performance tools. Get in touch to know more.
We also organise the following events ourselves, that are organised to take people of any level out of their comfort zone and experience Flow in nature:
Xterra Malta Cross Triathlon – full or beginner distance held on the 15th April (www.maltaxterra.com)
Xterra Gozo Trail run and Ultra Trail run & MTB – 21km or 50km distances (www.maltaxterra.com)
Our pick of other events we love*, held locally include:
The Grid – Malta’s only ORC that promises an all-round experience, and the bragging rights that come with it. (www.thegridmalta.com)
Mountain Bike Racing – A series of events from beginner to advanced that will get your adrenaline going! (www.maltamountainbike.org.mt)
Apnea Dive Schools – whilst exercising caution, one of the best ways to hack the Kill Switch.
Climbing and Sea Traversing – great for all levels, with experienced guides at hand. (www.mcadventure.com.mt)
*Please note that although we know many of the organisers as trustworthy and passionate people, we can’t be held responsible for any eventualities of your participation.
Photo – The Spearfishing Hub
PS We’d really appreciate a share!