WARNING: what this article talks about is not for everyone. Be careful, this writing can be dangerous. Know your limits.
The instinct to survive drives us
The survival instinct is one of the most powerful forces inside a living organism. It should never be underestimated nor neglected as a valuable tool. Amazing unbelievable feats have been performed by humans when they’re trying to survive or overcome danger. The shift in consciousness afterwards is arguably even more important than the momentary actions.
Secretion of adrenaline, or epinephrine, is a key factor in achieving this heightened state: your pupils open, your heart beats faster, more blood courses your muscles and reaches your brain. Essentially a dormant super-mode of being activates, propelling you to unrivaled levels of performance. It can also be overwhelming, disorienting, and put you into an autopilot fight-or-flight mindset. Naturally this is an emergency mechanism to save one’s life, and since most of us don’t go day-to-day with our lives at risk, we don’t experience many adrenaline rushes.
Military personnel in war situations do experience this daily, and some of the greatest stories of heroism and human achievement occur under the stresses and dangers of war. This is not coincidence. When it’s all or nothing, the stories convey that people do amazing things that rational thinking under less stressful conditions would deter. Our freedom has been secured by this, our position as a species in the food chain has been secured by this, and I believe our individual standing in society can in fact be secured by it as well.
Harness the inner beast
The first step in harnessing the power of our built-in beast mode is to control it’s activation.
How does someone do that?
The short answer: put yourself under stress. Stress is the trigger to release adrenaline. Fear and pain are the entry points, we can call them gateways. For some people the response can be triggered with will, or a challenging situation they knowingly put themselves in. This is what I think can be leveraged for increased performance.
On a wrestling mat, this is the way. It took some experience in live matches to deal with the stress and rush of a single combat situation. My first match was a blur–the lights, the clock, the score, the crowd all mixed together. I didn’t know what was going on but my body reacted to defend itself and not before long everything was over. I had my arm raised and went straight to the locker room to throw up. My second dual was less messy, and after my first tournament with multiple matches in one day I had acclimated to the tough situation. I was able to think under the stress, execute moves, and work a strategy. I kept an eye on the clock, was aware of my position in the circle, tracked the score, and still fought for victory.
Professionally, I have pushed myself to work harder and longer by entering into difficult situations and forcing myself to get through them. These are situations that have a degree of real danger or pain. Tough conversations, hard technical challenges grappling with complex distributed systems, public speaking in front of hundreds with sales and revenue on the line. I once took on an impossible zero-day demonstration for a new product launch, that the consensus was ‘we shouldn’t try.’ We tried (crunched, rather) and succeeded in delivering.
Outside work I use the same technique. A simple example is running hills (ideally in the sun with strong headwinds): I run to a hill close to my house; I start at the top, run to the bottom, and force myself back up again to get home. I literally put an obstacle between me and my family that I must overcome to make it back on time (before the baby wakes from her nap, usually).
That’s a simple example for a simple person, but others have risen to overcome enormous challenges under dire circumstances:
- The thousands of Medal of Honor recipients who’ve accomplished feats most people can’t imagine. Including Desmond Doss. As well as the countless combatants who’ve fought and survived armed conflict.
- Berserkers, Teutons, and the Riastradh especially went into frenzied trances while entering combat
- David Blaine uses danger to reach new peaks of human potential. His stunts have pushed the boundaries of what humans can do if they’re willing and have put his life in danger repeatedly. In fact he almost died earlier this year attempting to catch a bullet in his mouth. In the end, and without any guarantees, he’s come out looking like a real superhuman.
- Harry Houdini constantly risked death and danger to build his legendary reputation.
- Aron Ralston sawed off his own arm to escape being trapped while hiking alone.
- The Apollo 13 crew who survived an event that is now known as “NASA’s finest hour.”
- Free divers, BASE jumpers, skydivers, ultra marathoners
- Kenjutsu/iaido masters who train with shinken
- Fighter pilots, motor cycle riders, race car drivers
- People new to public speaking or fighting
- Sick parents caring for multiple children
- People who fast, or go long periods without food or sleep
- This list can go on and on…
Expansion of consciousness
Not only in these moments of stress and challenge do people accomplish extraordinary things with heightened abilities and reflexes, afterwards there is significant inner growth.
Frederick Neitzche spoke of this growth as becoming profound:
Only great pain, the long, slow pain that takes its time… compels us to descend to our ultimate depths… I doubt that such pain makes us “better”; but I know it makes us more profound… In the end, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns newborn, having shed one’s skin…
Victor Frankl unbelievably referred to the challenges of the death camps as an opportunity to grow:
it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.
With enough exposure and experience passing through the stress, a new layer of awareness develops. It’s like your consciousness (or brain) expands. Where once the stress is all you experience of an event, after multiple doses you become aware on a higher level that oversees the stress and accepts it as normalcy. This is what I’ve called becoming comfortable being uncomfortable. You develop a heightened awareness that is larger than the temporary stress on your mind, and you know that “this too shall pass.”
This is what we’re after. The knowledge that you will survive, that there is more to come even when in the moment it is uncertain, painful, frightening. After the event, you may need time to recover, but in the long run you are strengthened. With new strength comes higher tolerance for more, and the cycle begins again just as it does with strength training.
Weights for the soul
When lifting weights your current muscles breakdown under tension, damage, and stress. During recovery they grow and become stronger. More weight (and maybe some anabolic steroids) is needed to keep them progressing. I think the same is true for stress and consciousness. I’d even say experiencing stress is weight training for the soul, and when endured it progressively builds inner strength.
Before you know it, you’re doing things you previously thought weren’t possible. And then those things become easy and you need more. You acclimate to the work and strive towards the next event, which needs to be bigger, harder.
Nietzsche is also attributed the famous expression that describes this: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Be careful not to get maimed and crippled in the growth process, but generally I agree with the thought.
Passing through the gates
This growth can’t be conveyed in words, it must be experienced directly. Writing about it is simply a pointer; to undergo it for real is the goal. Those who’ve endured, know. Those who have not, don’t. When you have this knowledge, however, it shows in your face. In your eyes. In your words and attitude. You carry it without having to show it, there’s something about you people detect but can’t quite put into words. It’s like you know something they don’t and that changes things in how you’re perceived and in what you can do. It can change your reputation and your ability to succeed where once you (and others before you) may have failed.
So, for those brave enough to build their souls (hopefully along with their bodies and minds), go forth and conquer your inner beast. Know that what you experience is temporary, but the gains are irrevocable and permanent. And when done in full view of others, you’ll gain a reputation for doing shocking things.
Once you have crossed the gates of pain, there is no going back. Take heart that when you arrive on the other side alive, you’ll never want to return to your weak origins anyway.