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“When you step outside your normal cognitive state and experience life in an altered way, an awakening of sorts happens.”–Mark Divine
This week, Commander Divine is on his own, reading the first draft of his upcoming book “Unbeatable Leader.” His book is about tapping into the flow state, so that you can maximize performance both for yourself and for the people you lead in business or anything else by being able to tap into the flow state at will. This dovetails with Mark’s in the Unbeatable Mind program, martial arts and spiritual practices. Hear what the Commander is currently working on, and get a look into his process as he writes. Get Mark’s insights into flow and peak states at the same time.
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Transcript & Shownotes
Hey this is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Welcome back. Thank you so much for your time, I am super-stoked to have you by my side today as we get into a solo cast. Some of you know that I do this on occasion. And I have decided to solo cast my new book that I’m in the process of writing. So keep in mind, this is a very rough draft. But it’s a book called “Unbeatable Leader.” And my intention is to help leaders understand how to evolve consciousness to what I call the fifth plateau, which you’ll learn about as this book rolls out over a number of podcasts, probably through the course of the year. I’m hoping to get this… I’m intending I should say to get the book done by the end of the 2nd quarter and to release it this summer. Or thereabouts.
Okay. Here we go.
Wake up to your why[02:37]
The title of the book is Unbeatable Leader. Part one. Wake-up to your why.
You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep rereading the last one. I arose at the crack of dawn, my plan set. Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks peered down on me. I was going alone and planned to power it out. Running the arduous trail as much as possible.
First, I lightly jogged down to the dock at our family summer-home at Lake Placid, upstate New York. Plunging into the frigid waters I free-styled around Gull Rock and back. Then cranked out a hundred push-ups. The sun threatened to peak behind Saddleback mountain to my rear, lighting the lake with an odd glow. The clouds on Whiteface Mountain painted a perfect mirror in the lake. It was utterly silent, beautiful and peaceful. Only me, a few fish and the animals stirred.
In that moment, I felt alive and connected. But my life outside of that moment felt anything but alive and connected then. I lacked direction under the blanket of a depression that I wore. I saw no motivation beyond the extrinsic drive to prove myself to my parents, society… whoever cared.
But they only cared about their own perceptions and needs, which is common. I don’t mean to say that my parents didn’t care about my health and safety, etc. They were good people. They just didn’t care about what I needed and desired, because they couldn’t. They wanted the son they saw in their eyes–perfect–the one who looked like Dad. The one who my Mom kept home while other siblings shipped off to boarding school.
I didn’t realize then that nobody in my life really cared about me. And I would say that’s true with most. And the baggage f negative and confusing messages had caused my own existential crisis. I should have felt on top of the world. If I was a 23 year-old, fully employed, MBA student at an elite business school, I wasn’t feeling it.
In fact, I was fumbling through my job as an auditor at Coopers and Lybrand. Struggling to like the work and the environment. I’d only done it to be noticed and to keep up with my smart friends from Colgate University. The goal of earning that MBA and CPA and attaining financial independence at an early age, was not something that I had consciously thought through. But there it was, anyhow. It drove my actions like a robot programmed by masters with designs of how it would serve them.
My father’s program to finish what I start became my mantra and helped me stay focused. My future was so bright, I should have worn shades, but I felt like shit.
Now I had this long weekend break, and knew that if I could run to the top of Mount Marcy, I would feel alive again. Like Lake Placid and all of nature for that matter.
I desperately needed a wake-up call. Something to snap me out of my misery. I couldn’t discern the programming from reality. On that morning, I didn’t know the mountain was to graciously provide my first wake-up moment.
Many more awakenings would come over the years, and in greater frequency. Each one opening me up to my “why.” My reason for existence. My Dharma. Each evolving my consciousness and providing new perspectives, liberating me to follow my essential nature. Away from that pre-programmed mental and emotional pattern of my youth.
But wow. That first awakening, on the peak of Mount Marcy. It didn’t change my trajectory right away, but it set it all in motion. It was the moment that I realized I had the power of choice.
I set off on the trail with my backpack and supply of water. And a PB and J sandwich. The trail started flat, but soon turned its rocky routed face upward. 24 miles total, no problem. I could jog forever. Bouncing around and over the obstacles provided an amazing concentration practice. A single misstep could result in a sprained ankle or painful walk back.
The day wore on and I kept my focus. Slowing to a fast walk on the steeper part. Passing other hikers like they were standing still. I was silent. Inwardly focused. My mind replaying the latest confusing scene with my broken relationship. I went quiet for long periods of time as I concentrated on the rocks and hand-holds. Hours slipped by until suddenly I emerged from the tree line and saw the summit looming. I quickened my pace in spite of my exhaustion, motivated by completion now.
Summiting, I quickly found a ledge to sit on, powered-down a sandwich and a water bottle and intended to lay back on my rocky bed to rest. But I was stunned by the beauty of the 360 degree panoramic view over the 6 million acre Adirondack Park. And I began to experience a radical shift in my perspective. A cascading experience where I was moving away from my brain’s thoughts. Backwards and upwards. At least, that was the sensation anyhow.
It was as if I was sitting on a different rock watching myself sit on that ledge. And in that moment, I could suddenly see my life clearly, as if the forest and the lake was the movie screen, and my life was playing over it. I felt amazingly alive. Deeply connected to nature around me. I was so utterly exhausted though, that I seemed to be hallucinating. But that hallucination felt more real than the thoughts in my head. In that moment I experienced a separation from my thinking mind. A first for me.
But what separated? Who was watching the thinker? I didn’t have the answers. I just knew, for the first time, that my story–what I watched from afar then–was not me. Then I fell asleep.
When you step outside your normal cognitive state and experience life in an altered way, an awakening of sorts happens. The most powerful and positive forms of awakening result in peak non-ordinary states. And they shift in perception of what it means to live fully, authentically and in connection with others.
In a performance environment, these peak states result in a well-documented experience of “flow.” I had a peak state on that mountain top that led to an extended flow experience. And though I was not performing to win anything, the characteristics to performance moments in that moment was distinct.
I will discuss how to awaken to peak states and to train to activate flow in more detail later. But for now, hang with me as I peel the onion and what it means to experience awakening, and to awaken fully.
Recently, I was approached by the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company after a speech on the subject of this book. He said to me, “I don’t know how this team will resonate with your speech. I mean, we’re all peak performers. What do we need to wake up from or to?”
His tone was sarcastic to say the least. As if he had it all figured out, and my message missed its mark. Well, maybe it had. After recovering from that less than positive feedback, I realized that he, personally, was not ready to hear the message. And this was confirmed when I received an enormously positive response from his younger, perhaps less fixed-minded, subordinates. I would say that this man had not had an awakening in the way I’m talking about here. He was able to navigate the business environment of the industrial age perfectly well due to his horizontal learning of the strategies and tactics of leadership. But was asleep to the vertical learning of the softer, emotional, intuitive and spiritual skills of leadership.
And he was acting out of the closed-loop story of his upbringing in strict religious conditioning, leaving enormous potential and fulfillment of being a more open and inclusive leader on the table. Stepping out of one’s normal state of cognition can have a profound effect on your sense of self, including your relationship to the core myths and stories that you take for granted.
Now we all have core stories, but most don’t know how those stories drive their behavior. Not that those stories can be changed. They are bedrock facts to them.
But you know you have the choice to determine entirely new stories to guide your life in more powerful directions. And altered state infused with deep meaning can give you a glimpse of the story-lines, helping you realize your power to rewrite them. This “self-realization” is similar to waking up from a dream to a new reality.
My first awakening experience on the top of Mount Marcy showed me that my core story was flawed. It did not define the real me. I saw clearly in those moments of shifted awareness that I could choose a different story. This set me on a path to discovering a more authentic drama for my life. I would kill off aspects of my old story and create new beliefs around myself or of myself, about my potential future. This was my first true taste of freedom. And to say it was exhilarating is an understatement.
I had a second awakening soon after that mountain top experience, but instead of a sudden awakening through a peak experience such as I described, it dawned more like a beautiful sunrise creeping into my awareness. It happened through a series of short moments of deep awareness, insights and bliss over a period of three years during Zen meditation training, with Zen and karate grand master, Tadashen Nakamora. I described that in my book “Unbeatable Mind.”
Now that training slowly refined the mirror of my mind, and ground down my ego developing in me a more refined awareness. And the flow states that came during these moments were more frequent, and I found that I could activate them intentionally. And also welcomed a surprising side-effect from this training. I could finally hear the soft, inner voice of a more insightful part of my mind, which I now call “higher mind.” And this higher mind whispered the new story-line that would propel me in a vastly different direction in life. From CPA to Navy SEAL.
Peaks and Plateaus[14:27]
Let me clarify some terminology before going much further. Cause there are different views on what peak states, flow state and awakening means. These terms have been used in religious and spiritual, developmental, sports and other contexts. And the science behind them is just beginning to be understood.
Now my views are based on my personal, subjective experience, as well as through observing the effects of Unbeatable Mind training on thousands of students.
As mentioned, I also have a deep connection through a lifelong practice of things like Zen, the martial arts, yoga. As well as long experience with Western psychology. Now the intersection of east and west is where that magic is found. Though I have no formal academic background in the objective sciences in the workings of the brain, there are many excellent research authors that I have become acquainted with and who are cited in this book. I rely on these experts to provide that brain/body research to support what I assert here, may be happening at the mind/emotion/soul or spirit subjective level of the Unbeatable Leader.
Now a peak state is the experience of an elevated mental and physical performance. Flow occurs when a peak state is extended for some time during a period of performance. Typically, we say someone is in flow, when the peak state is positive. Now a negative altered-state, such as one induced by a bad trip, alcohol, torture or severe depression, we would not call a peak state. That would be a valley or a bottom.
Now for our definition, a peak state resulting in flow, much occur naturally, i.e. not be produced by drugs or virtual reality–though this later may become an effective training tool. And it’s stimulated by voluntary acceptance of a challenge met by competency for that task, which will help us avoid the crippling effects of fear.
These conditions are typically seen in elite and extreme sports performance, military operations, and other situations where as author Mihaly points out in his book “Flow,” the intersection of one’s skills and the situational challenge level cause a magical harmonizing of internal energy leading to stunning results with apparent ease.
My friend Jamie Wheal with co-author Steven Kotler wrote a great book on flow recently called “Stealing Fire.” From their deep investigation of flow states in various settings, including with the SEALs, they tell us that studies show that positive peak states which activate flow can boost motivation and creativity by an incredible 400%. Not only do these states boost performance, but they will cut learning times in half.
I have experienced this accelerated learning induced by flow states through our Unbeatable Mind training. With Spec Ops candidates, elite athletes and executives. Now working with SEAL team 6, the authors observed the team using isolation float tanks, and neurofeedback to produce peak states of consciousness with the practical purpose of speeding up learning.
Now SEALs are routinely deployed deep in enemy territory, as you know, where understanding the nuance of the local language can be critical for survival. By combining the sensory deprivation with biofeedback and entrainment of the local language, the elite SEALs learn to train operators in foreign language fluency in 6 weeks, rather than the 6 months it normally takes. Wow.
Kotler and Wheal use the term ekstasis to describe the states of flow that they explore. Ekstasis means both to stand outside oneself and to be filled with inspiration. And it describes a range of non-ordinary states. From peak performance and flow, to contemplative and mystical states, to psychedelically shifted states, that from a scientific perspective, share a remarkable neurological and biological overlap.
When these states are induced, stress chemicals are washed out of the system. Specific regions of the brain are activated or deactivated. Alpha brain-wave patterns are stimulated. And 6 key neurochemicals are released.
These factors cause a subjective experience that has 4 essential qualities. All those studied had these qualities in common. First is a sense of selflessness. Now normal sense of self disappears.
Second, a feeling of timelessness. This is that experience of time-shifting or time-warping. Usually a slowing down of time.
And the 3rd is an ease of effort. The sense of struggle fading away. Effortless perfection. The Japanese term shibumi speaks to.
And the last is a richness of the moment. Access to a level of detail and insight that appears inaccessible under other conditions. Now my experience on the mountain top of Mount Marcy met all of those qualities, as did those peak moments on the Zen bench. And during SEAL training. And a multitude of other moments since.
While Jamie Wheal and Kotler have investigated the “why” of these peak, ecstatic flow states, I have focused my research on “how” to train someone to activate them on demand for performance. My experience is that you don’t need to be an elite athlete to experience the benefits of peak or flow states. We can all train to activate flow on demand. Further, this same training, when coupled with an integrated development model such as Unbeatable Mind will cause not only accelerated learning to occur, but also–and this is key–accelerated development.
That is the difference between horizontal and vertical learning. In the next chapter I’m going to describe how we all develop through multiple stages of conscious awareness during our lifetimes. Each one allowing for more complexity, nuance and perspective taking than its earlier drama. However, this growth is not a guarantee, and more often than not someone settles into a plateau dictated by family of origin or culture.
Worse, development can be halted or devolved by the adverse effects of say early childhood trauma, such as a lack of emotional connection, abuse or shaming. Things like that.
So though you may experience a peak state at any plateau, and awakening, so to speak, it doesn’t mean you will grow to a new permanent stage of integration. It is more common to peak into a higher way of seeing and living, only to be pulled back to the lower self at the first stress trigger.
Another way to look at this is that though we may awaken to our true reality, we also fall back asleep rather quickly. Now the beauty is to constantly awaken, again and again, and extend the duration and frequency of those awakenings. And to notice.
Now it’s my goal here to help you unlock accelerated growth, to experience flow at what I call the “fifth plateau” of integrated awareness. Then and only then can we say we are truly awakened fully and permanently, which would be akin to the old school notion of enlightenment. Now who wouldn’t want to be a fully awakened, enlightened leader? Trust me, I believe it’s imperative for all of us leaders to work toward this goal, given the immense complexity, chaos and speed of the world that we face today.
There is one trigger to awakening that many of you have reluctantly experienced. And that is suffering a real loss. Loss of a loved one, a sense of innocence, of wealth or health can have a profound effect to wake up that same experience of connection and time-warping, ease of effort and richness, albeit through pain and usually after the pain. Instead of some pleasurable experience.
One of my mentors, Ken Wilber beautifully describes this in his book “Grace and Grit” which chronicles his mindful navigation of his wife’s journey through cancer and beyond. When approached with awareness and opening, suffering can lead to a new plateau of consciousness. A deeper appreciation of why things are the way they are, and what you need to do about it.
Though hard pill to swallow, they are difficult to dodge as a human. If you face these situations of suffering with contracting fear and denial, that suffering will lock into a negative resentful or fearful mindset, where growth is impossible. However, when faced with humility and grace, as Ken Wilber describes they trigger awakening, and allow you to see the underlying cause of the suffering, and offer a remedy leading to mental, emotional and spiritual growth.
Author Eckhart Tolle in his book “The Power of Now” tells a beautiful story of spontaneous awakening caused by his own intense suffering. An existential crisis similar but more pronounced, I think, to what I was experiencing as a young graduate was the trigger for Eckhart. He was a university student in England, deeply depressed without knowing why or even that he was. And one day he sat down on a park bench and began to observe the pigeons simply being pigeons and had a shift like I experienced on that mountain top. But his didn’t end like mine did. It went on for weeks. And it shattered his foundation of meaning. He was literally like a homeless man, living on that bench with the birds. But when he finally emerged from that extended peak state, he found himself in an enlightened stage of development, where he saw the world very differently from when he first sat down.
Spontaneous awakenings to this level of consciousness are rare. In my experience, awakening more often occurs in small increments where one incident causes a momentary transcendence of previous stories or perspectives, which changes part of you but not all of you. You’ll still access all of your former meaning and stories, but you’ll gain new perspectives on those stories. Which affect your sense of self, and leads you to deeper meaning.
Past notions of pain and suffering are understood more clearly. New energy and insights are accessible, and tired, old drama loops are let go of, or interpreted more powerfully. If you stack enough of these awakening moments on top of one another, and the individual will eventually break through to a new plateau, where those perspectives become a permanent part of their personality. And their personal ethos evolves dramatically. We’ll investigate.
Training to Wake up[27:16]
Here’s a question I’d like to explore with you. Can awakening be purposeful? And my answer to that is yes. Let’s discuss how.
Training to wake up. You could say that extreme sports and extreme training like the SEALs or SEALFIT is voluntary suffering for the purpose of growth. I know first-hand that this approach will unlock awakening from my own Navy hell week experience. It is the basis for my company SEALFIT’s Kokoro training. And these suffer-fests are meant to test the mettle of the participants, and more importantly to evolve their awareness. In fact, each structured event is called an “evolution” for that reason. The Navy is seeking to weed out and evolve the true warriors from the student population by mimicking the demands of combat.
Our SEALFIT program is specifically designed to grow character and deepen team connection. In both programs, the students submit to intense but controlled experiences which require that they access willpower, emotional and spiritual strength that otherwise may lay dormant. Recall Mihaly’s intersection of competence and challenge. I was competent when I went into the 130 hour, non-stop Hell week. And the challenge was severe beyond anything I had imagined. As a result, I experienced extended flow states during Hell week, and when I emerged from the evolutions I was a different person. I had experienced a radical shift in self-confidence, connection to my team-mates, more attention to detail of the little things that were important. I adopted the slogan, “If it doesn’t kill me, it makes me stronger.” And though I did not emerge from Hell week enlightened like Eckhart Tolle, I definitely jumped from what I call the “achiever,” 3rd plateau to a sensitive 4th plateau. As I mentioned, we will explore the nuances of these plateaus in the next chapter of this book.
As effective forced or voluntary suffering is, it is fortunate for us that peak states, flow and awakening can be triggered in more fun and approachable ways. The phrase “ecstatic technique” coined by University of Chicago anthropologist Marcia Elaydi refers to any technology or practice that induces peak state, flow or awakening. These can include drumming, dancing, chanting, fasting, meditation, even ayahuasca and neurofeedback among others. All these are proven, reliable tools that will shift a practitioner’s state of consciousness from the default waking state into a non-ordinary peak or flow state. To this list I would add nature immersion, yoga, martial arts, chi gong, breath work, massage, religious experience and also Western psychotherapy.
Popular programs like Tony Robbins, “Unleash the Power Within,” are an excellent example of programs designed to wake up participants to their core stories and combine several of those practice elements and tools. Unbeatable Mind training employs or promotes many of these practices and experiences as long as they are safe and done with professional guidance. Experimentation is okay, but some of the above list should not be done without an expert guiding one. Specifically, extended fasting, psychedelic plants like ayahuasca, and breath work. Taking an active role through training and practice in your own awakening and embracing an integrated development plan to get firmly standing on that 5th plateau is what our journey is about here.
And in the next chapter we’re going to take a walk to the 5 plateaus and observe what leadership and service looks like from each. But first let’s pause and do the following work:
Question: Who am I?
Don’t do this if you’re driving, but when you get home, or if you’re at home, grab your journal and turn to the page for exercise one. Or just open a journal. This is a contemplation exercise, so try not to rush through it. Wait until you can avoid distractions.
Now start with a question “Who am I?” and just write down what comes to your mind. I want you to begin with the outer notions such as “I am a man or a woman.” “I am a father or a mother.” “I am Mark or John.”
See how many identifiers you can come up with. My bet is you’ll fill a page.
Now after you exhaust that list of external identifiers, close your eyes, begin breathing deeply through your nose. Four count in, four count out. Do that for a minimum of 5 minutes.
Now tell yourself you’re not those things that you listed. And ask yourself again, “Who am I?” And just sit with that question, knowing that you’re not those external identification rules, roles. Just feel for the answer. Don’t try to think of one. And just journal what comes up. This practice in itself can be an awakening moment.
Hooyah. Thanks for your time. So that’s chapter 1 of my new book Unbeatable Leader. Titled “Awakening.” Section 1 of the book is titled “Wake up to your why.” Hope you enjoyed it. If not, let me know. If you did, let me know. That’s what Facebook’s for. Drop me a line at [email protected] And I look forward to unfolding the whole drama. But be patient. It’ll take some time.
Till then, stay focused, train hard. Do the work, day by day in every way you’re getting better and better.