As an ultra-endurance athlete, I often hear the expression “You’re an animal!” when I recount my latest endeavor.
That’s funny… I don’t recall ever feeling like an animal during my events – at least not the image that this expression elicits for me. So I question…
– Why are successful endurance athletes referred to as animals?
– What part of our “animal nature” elicits this reference?
Animal attributes that I conjure when somebody says “What an animal!” are those of:
– Intense, aggressive, even vicious drive
– Absence of thought, intelligence, awareness
– High tolerance for pain
– Savage insensitivity
In summary, the animal image is one of pure physicality and instinct, devoid of self-awareness, logic or reason. To examine how animal nature plays into endurance, lets briefly consider a major theme from my book “Zendurance, A Spiritual Fitness Guide for Endurance Athletes”:
Three Energetic Intelligences
I experience the existence of three aspects of intelligence/awareness. Each aspect of intelligence resonates as an energy field throughout the universe. All beings – human, animal, plant – have unlimited access to these three energy fields. Indeed, these energetic intelligences permeate through and resonate in every cell of our beings, as part of our molecular structure.
I identify these three aspects of intelligence in Zendurance by their Hawaiian terms:
– “Mana’o”: The intelligence of logic and reason, associated with the brain and the Third Eye Chakra. Mana’o is the aspect of intelligence that humans most identify with – particularly western cultures.
– “Pu’uwai”: The intelligence of union and circulation, associated with the heart and the Heart Chakra. On the surface, we experience pu’uwai as emotion and subjective feelings.
– “Na’au”: The intelligence of action and movement, associated with the body and the Sacral Chakra. Na’au is most associated with gut instinct.
Na’au Intelligence: A Closer Look
In Chinese medicine and martial arts, the Sacral Chakra is also identified as “Xia Dantien”, translating as “lower energy center”. Regarded as the primary energy center, it is identified as simply “dantien”. (The Middle and Upper Dantiens correspond to the Heart and Third Eye respectively.)
This energy center is located just in front of the sacral spine, hence “Sacral Chakra”. The sacroiliac joints connect this region of the spine to the pelvic girdle, or iliac. These joints – unlike any other in the body – are the only skeletal connectors between the upper and lower halves of the human body.
Dantien is the physical center of gravity in our bodies and the seat of internal “life” energy. From my years as a Modern Dancer, I came to experience this energetic and gravitational center as the source of all physical movement. To move with grace and ease, I learned to source all of my movements from my dantien.
I chose to study dance because I discovered something profound in my first dance class: I could think in something besides words. I could think in movement! The term I coined to identify this consciousness I was developing through the study of mindful movement is “kinetic intelligence”.
Decades later, it came as no surprise to me that the Hawaiian word for intelligence is “na’auao” which translates to “daylight of the intestines”.
Many Eastern cultures regard this same energy center (this connection of upper and lower body) as the physical location of the embodied soul. In Japan, this center is known as “hara”. The act of honorable suicide, “hara kare” involves plunging a sword directly into this center to immediately release the soul from the body.
Consider that all the neuro-transmitting chemicals found in your brain are also present in your gut. Yet twenty times more signals are sent from your gut to your brain than vise versa.
Hmmm… Where is the thinking really taking place?
Dance Class Survival
I was 19 when I began my studies in kinetic intelligence, pursuing a degree in Modern Dance, and beginning a life-long practice of T’ai Chi. The biggest challenge I faced? The very thing I had relied on for my entire life as my source of intelligence and problem solving – my logical mind – impeded my ability to move my body competently.
Logic was a detriment.
During those first few years of dance study, if I didn’t turn off “the little voice in the back of my head” as I focused on moving my body with grace through the prescribed movements, the result was just short of disaster: A tangled mess of gangly arms and legs on the floor.
It was sheer survival for me, just to avoid embarrassment, and failure. I had to stop thinking in words and begin to think in movement. Gradually and subtly, I came to realize that the surest way to quiet my logical “mana’o” mind was to focus my awareness on my na’au or dantien as I called it then. Kinetic intelligence empowered me in the dance studio, not logic.
Kinetic intelligence – na’au intelligence – was the key to my initial survival and eventual success as a dancer. Tuning into and channeling na’au intelligence has become a lifelong pursuit. One that has grown deeper and more profound through my study and practice as an endurance athlete and coach.
Regarding Pain and Discomfort
A trait we humans often associate with animals is a high pain threshold. It may appear as if some animals simply don’t feel pain, as if the neural system is not actually transmitting pain signals to the brain.
First, I offer a distinction between discomfort and pain: Discomfort is neural activity that signals the central nervous system and brain of stress that the individual can readily recover from. Pain is neural activity sourced from stress that will require an extended recovery and healing process.
Is there a distinct partition between discomfort and pain? In my experience, it is more of a continuum.
The location of a (perhaps nebulous) partition along the Discomfort-Pain Continuum will vary by individual. Those who are very healthy with a strong immune system, will recover faster. For these individuals, the partition slides so the continuum includes a larger arena of discomfort. Conversely, individuals with a weaker immune system, will experience the partition including a larger arena of pain.
As for discomfort/pain tolerance: There is an assumption that tolerance to pain is associated with an ability of the brain to “push back” or ignore such stimulus as the individual continues to pursue her/his goal. In my experience, this is not the true nature of sensation tolerance, or sensation capacity.
True sensation capacity has two components:
Suspending judgement about a stimulus
There is no real difference between the stimulus of pain versus the stimulus of pleasure. The difference is conjured in the brain as judgement. If we are able to simply be present with a stimulus – without judgement – then there is no energy expended in attraction or aversion. Rather, we are empowered with the ability to simply be present with the experience and clearly perceive its nature. Our response – rather than reaction – will be well-informed, appropriate and brilliant.
What can make both pain and pleasure intolerable is neural weakness or fatigue – an inability to sustain the transmission of the electrical stimulus. Without adequate neural endurance, the individual begins to experience intolerable fatigue. In this scenario, the individual is compelled to seek an escape.
To some extent, animal nature includes a freedom from the judgement process that classifies a stimulus as either pain or pleasure. It is simply stimulus, an experience – regardless of the consequences.
Generally, compared to humans, animals have much greater neural endurance. The animal’s neural system is able to continually transmit the electrical signals of a particular stimulus without fatigue.
Both of these capacities – experiencing a stimulus and responding without attraction or aversion, and neural endurance are trainable capacities for us humans.
The ability to disengage judgment, is an element of mindfulness. Quite simply, mindfulness is the capacity to “be here now” in this moment without reflecting on the past, projecting into the future, or judging something as good or bad. In a word, this is the quality of equanimity.
Mindfulness is highly trainable.
As for neural endurance: Athletes train three physiologic systems: metabolic, muscular and neural. Of the three, the neural system is the most plastic – the system that responds and improves the most to training. Hence, neural endurance is more trainable than metabolic endurance and muscular endurance.
What makes the neural system more malleable than the muscular or metabolic? The neural system is a mind-body system. Training mindfulness is the most effective way to train neural endurance.
Steven Kotler recently wrote a book (published 2014) that has been a compelling study for me: “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance”. (I am currently re-reading it meticulously, and taking notes.)
This book focuses on what is identified (even by scientists) as “flow state”. The first book I read on this subject is now regarded as a classic on the subject: “Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience”, by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, first published in 1991.
In The Rise of Superman, Kotler focuses on extreme athletes – big wave surfers, big mountain skiers, mega-ramp skateboarders, free-climbers, etc. His choice is not based on adoration or an attempt to glorify these athletes. Rather, he chose to study them because the breakthroughs they are currently manifesting are beyond any accomplishments in any other field in the past. The barriers, the limits of human performance are being stretched exponentially – far beyond anything we thought possible even a decade ago.
The common thread that enables these tremendous leaps (often literal leaps) is flow state. These athletes must enter flow state to perform these superhuman feats successfully, or… quite simply, they die. Their greatest skill is the ability to consistently and readily enter the flow state.
Or, as Kotler calls it, “hacking flow state”.
“Transient Hypo” What?
For me, the most significant common element he finds among these extreme athletes (and anyone in flow state) is described as “transient hypo-frontality”: Scientific monitoring of individuals in flow state reveals a cessation of neural activity in the frontal cortex of the brain.
But how can that be? This is the very center of what we have traditionally biologically identified as human intelligence!
Transient hypo frontality is not limited to extreme athletes either. Its common in anyone who is in flow state – musician, entrepreneur, teacher, lover…
When the frontal cortex calms down, we become more intelligent and more functional. We experience profound mental clarity. Attentiveness, pattern recognition and the ability to process more stimulus/information at faster speeds all increase.
In short, we become brilliant.
The most valuable intelligence I have as an ultra-endurance athlete is proprioception – the capacity to monitor and respond to where my body is in space and in relation to the pull of gravity. Proprioception is the key to efficiency.
And efficiency is the key to ultra-endurance: Use less energy to go further, with less stress and damage.
Proprioception is incredibly complex. It requires processing a vast array of neural stimuli and responding instantly.
It’s a “No Brainer”
Animals also manifest proprioceptive intelligence. Cats are a great example – so graceful, dexterous, stealthy, efficient. And here’s a surprising fact: Researchers have conducted experiments on cats and found that – even with lesions to the spinal cord at the neck to disable the motor neurons between the brain and body – a cat will still walk on a treadmill (with weight support assistance).
While I am no fan of scientific research on animals, this intriguing research shows that much of the proprioceptive awareness and kinetic intelligence to perform the patterned movement of walking (at least for a cat) are not reliant on the brain at all. That intelligence resides – at least partially – in the Central Nervous System – somewhere “below” the brain.
To some degree at least, proprioception occurs in a state of transient hypo-frontality, just like flow state. The frontal cortex of the human brain cannot possibly handle the formidable task of proprioception. It’s just far too much information to process. The frontal cortex must step and back and get out of the way.
Pro State is Flow State
For all of those extreme athletes that are defying human possibilities, highly developed proprioceptive awareness is vital to success, and to survival. It is a reliable gateway for hacking flow state. In my experience, engaging my proprioceptive awareness induces flow state: Pro state is flow state.
I am a self-confessed “flow-junkie”. That’s why I do this ultra-endurance stuff – not just the events, but the daily training. I seek flow every day. I want to experience my sacral animal intelligence everyday.
Transient hypo-frontality and flow state engage na’au intelligence, our animal nature. This is not the aggressive, out-of-your-mind, vicious drive of the “You animal, you!” characteristic we usually associate with animal nature. It is instinctive intelligence.
What is instinct? I experience it as intelligence that transcends a sense of separate self. Through instinct, it appears that I respond without self-reflection. And this loss of self-identity is for me is liberation. I feel an expansion of awareness, brilliant clarity, and complete presence in the NOW. I am not dwelling in the past, projecting to the future, or wasting energy judging anything as good or bad. I become the experience.
I experience brilliance in the moment. In that way… Yes! I am an animal. A brilliant animal.
This flow state, this animal state, enables me to gracefully and healthfully complete ultra-endurance events. It is not brutal strength, vicious drive, total insensitivity to pain, or aggressive, grit-my-teeth tunnel-vision focus that gets me through.
It is the cat-like kinetic intelligence – na’au intelligence – that guides me. Without this kinetic intelligence, I am limited to the linear confines of logical intelligence. And that cannot possibly get me to the finish line. (Its also just not whole lot of fun.)
Progressing as endurance athletes, we can either go faster, or we can go further. As a metaphor for life, I am drawn towards the longevity of going farther. Given the choice, I will live long, rather than fast.
Going farther (in sports and in life) challenges my approach. I strive to be ever more patient, tolerant, humble, persevering, and gentle in all my endeavors. It is not the glory, the medals, the belt buckles, the t-shirts or the bragging rights that motivate and inspire me as an athlete. It is the acquisition of these meritous qualities like grace and humility, and the consistent experience of flow state that I find most rewarding.
And like a cat stalking pray, or a dolphin gliding effortlessly I engage my animal nature and intelligence to pursue these qualities and this state as I enjoy a long and healthy life.