Dean Potter’s Flow

Photo by James A. Hurst

Dean Potter Photo by James A. Hurst

I was saddened to read the news that BASE jumper Dean Potter had been found dead at the bottom of a canyon in Yosemite National Park. I only learned about Potter a few weeks ago while reading a graphic description of an earlier fall into Mexico’s Cellar of Swallows, enormous cavern 1,200 feet deep and up to 300 feet in diameter.

That injurious canyon fall is one of several stories about Potter in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, a 2014 book written by Steven Kotler.  Until reading the book, I was minimally aware of BASE jumping and completely ignorant of its athletes, risks, and mechanics. During a Sunday dinner, I once watched a 60 Minutes episode on BASE jumping.

The book examines how athletes participating in action and adventure/extreme sports (such as BASE jumping, skiing, surfing, rock climbing) are advancing what science and culture understand about the state of flow – its biological and mental manifestations, its internal and external triggers, its impact on performance in athletics, arts, and typical day-to-day life.  While shamans, scientists, poets, and psychologists had previously noted and described versions of the state, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is considered to be the father of flow. I am now reading chapter 6 and the section about whitewater kayakers passing through flooded ravines stabbed into the earth.

After reading The Rise of Superman, I better appreciate the risks that action and adventure athletes take, from physical forces that flatten their bodies to mental vigor that steels their minds. The book describes the complexity of the flow state in understandable and entertaining language. I am learning about flow’s neurological, neurochemical, and neuroanatomical components; its impact on a person’s mood and perspective; its earlier descriptions in spirituality, psychology, and medicine; its ability to drive improved athletic, artistic, and business performance – and simultaneously grow from the increased performance, creating a cycle of energy.

Fitz Roy Chalten Argentina, Todor Bozhinov 2013

Fitz Roy Chalten Argentina, Todor Bozhinov, 2013

The Rise of Superman introduces Potter with a story about him first climbing the Monte Fitz Roy on the border of Chile and Argentina in 2002. Because he did not want to have another experience of climbing back down, Potter learned and practiced BASE jumping before for his next ascent. I mostly have been moved by Potter’s earnest explanation of how an internal “Voice” directs his efforts through extremely dangerous situations, how flow had helped Potter.

The story of Potter, listening to the Voice, and nurturing his flow over time, is encouraging, and I would like to read more about his philosophies about life in the air and on the edge.

I want to improve my writing and my triathlon training through flow, particularly how to support the conditions that would let me quickly access and develop flow. While Potter and his peers rely on flow to live through incredibly dangerous and risky situations, I believe regular folks can enter that state, if only for a few moments, during and after long, intense training sessions. Somehow, something clicks. The body and mind blend. Time is different. We lose ourselves into something bigger.

Potter should be memorialized for making extraordinary action and adventure sports look simple in a dangerous world. I am grateful for him helping to justify why the rest of us ache to achieve something extreme in our sleep-eat-work world, whether running a half-marathon, swimming across a lake, or riding at dawn.

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