Superfluidity: Peak Performance Beyond a State of 'Flow'
The Magic of Performing With Zero Friction and Zero Viscosity
Posted October 29, 2011
Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian Philosopher, once said: " A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of discussion." I agree. "Superfluidity" is one of these words. I hope that adopting this word from physics to the realm of psychology and performance begins a new discussion about various stages of "Flow."
The concept of Flow was coined by professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 and expanded on in his seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The word Flow is synonymous with ‘being in the zone' or in the ‘Flow channel' or in a state ‘fluid performance'. Superfluidity is the supreme Flow experience. It is an ego-less state of "Super Flow" marked by zero friction (rubbing/slowing), zero viscosity (resistance to flowing) and Superconductivity (zero loss of energy).
All of us know the feeling of having your skill level completely match the challenge at hand to the point that you lose yourself in what you are doing. It is a relaxed state of complete concentration and absorption where you become ‘one' with the task at hand — your sense of time becomes warped, anxiety diminishes and your day-to-day worries evaporate. Any regular form of aerobic exercise can induce a state of Flow in most people, as long as you keep the level of challenge matched to your skill level so that you neither become bored nor filled with anxiety.
The concept of Flow has been an invaluable tool for me, but I always felt that my real athletic breakthroughs happened in a state one step above the daily Flow that I experienced in workouts. There were moments in sport when I felt like I had pierced through to another dimension where I felt like I practically had elemental superpowers that you might read about in a comic book. Whenever I have achieved something as an athlete that seemed ‘Superhuman', the experience seemed as much like science fiction or something out of a Marvel movie to me as it did to onlookers. I didn't have words to describe how my body metamorphasized -- much like Spiderman might feel, I imagine. It wasn't until I learned about Superfluidity in a BBC documentary that I finally had a word to describe the upper-tier of Fluid performance.
It is important that you watch this short video clip before proceeding so that we have a similar reference point to why a word from the world of physics so aptly applies to human peak performance:
As you can see, Superfluidity not only feels like it sounds, it also looks like it feels! I define Superfluidity as the episodic upper-tier of the Flow experience. Creating a state of Flow is the springboard for piercing through to a state of Superfluidity. It is a state of performing with zero friction, zero viscosity, and superconductivity — it is a state of absolute harmony and endless energy. Superfluid performance in sports or the arts are moments that you want to replay in slow motion so that you can deconstruct the play-by-play details of how someone did something that seemed almost humanly impossible.
Superfluidity Is an Ego-Less and Ecstatic Process
Superfluidity is to Fluid performance as orgasm is to coitus—it is an episodic and ecstatic climax that strikes you like a lightning bolt when you are in a state of Flow. Having language to tag an experience is helpful because once you identify something it's easier to make it a tangible reality. This is why breaking "Flow" into two tiers of regular "Fluid" performance and "Superfluid" performance is helpful for continuing to maximize your potential and breaking through plateaus. At a certain point of mastery, becoming Superfluid should become a goal because regular Flow becomes de rigueur for every master. Seeking Superfluidity will make you stand out and accel in a hyper competitive world.
Superfluidity is a state of perfect harmony. When you are so immersed in what you are doing that you completely become one with the task at hand to the point that your ego dissolves you are in a state of Superfluidity. This may sound like a familiar definition of Flow—however, this tier needs to be re-categorized as something supreme inside the flow experience.
Abraham Maslow ran into a similar problem of differentiation when defining ‘Peak Experiences.' There was a misconception that a Peak Experience had to be isolated to things like being on top of Mt. Everest. The definition was too ambiguous and lofty. To avoid this, Flow should be looked at as having various levels. Regular Flow is accessible daily, Super Flow is more episodic but still readily available.
There is a feeling of spontaneous joy when you are in a state of of Flow—but regular Flow is not necessarily ecstatic. Csikszentmihalyi describes an "ecstatic state" or a feeling that artists and musicians have of being outside of what they were creating with their hands under the category of Flow, but I differentiate this by calling the ‘ecstatic state' as entering a state of Super Flow or Superfluidity.
The word ‘Ecstasy' comes from the Latin root "to stand outside oneself." Superfluidity is an ecstatic process because you are truly standing outside yourself when it occurs. When you are inside the ecstatic channel of superfluid performance it is feels like an out-of-body experience and it feels as though a mysterious outside force is actually running the show. To achieve this state it is necessary that you ‘let go' and get out of the way of your ego stored in the prefrontal cortex. It won't happen otherwise. Having faith that there is a Source outside of yourself that will deliver you to a higher plane is a fundamental part of the mindset necessary for Superfluid performance.
My Discovery of Superfluidity
My ability to do ‘superhuman' things with my body was ultimately about my ability to open up a channel inside myself that could plug into a universal Source of energy we all have access to. In many ways the only ‘skill' that separated me from other elite athletes and enabled me to break a Guinness World Record was my ability to tap that energy source. I learned how to use this infinite energy as my prime moving force. Much like the frictionless fountain in the BBC video. I could keep going and going and going without getting tired because my energy was coming from outside of my physical body.
One of the reasons that answering the simple question from strangers of: "How did you run 154 miles on a treadmill in 24 hours or win the Triple Ironman three times?" is *so* difficult is that ultimately "I" (Christopher Bergland) don't feel like I actually did it. I credit some cosmic energy with pulling me through those races more than my own flesh and bones. Sure, I worked really hard in training and there was a lot of grit and determination to keep digging and pushing myself in competitions, but I couldn't have done it without some divine intervention.
In order to ‘go where no man had gone before' as an athlete, I trained methodically to condition my body and mind to be able to withstand the surreal, and terrifying places you go when your psyche and body are pushed to the absolute outer limits of what seems humanly possible. Being mentally prepared—and not afraid—to pass through to the ‘other side' was key to keeping it together when 'the wheels came off the bus.' In many ways the ultrarunning I've done was like a near death experience. My peak record breaking athletic achievements have all been out-of-body Supernatural experiences with a very strong spiritual component.
Part of my winning formula on race day was to make those ‘peak experiences' sacred and almost religious. From well before sunrise on race day I would begin a ritual that put me in a state of synchronicity. I would bow to the spirit of athleticism and invited the spirit of athleticism to bow back to me. Usually it did.
During almost every race I would have Superfluid experiences. A handful of races have seemed almost entirely Superfluid to me. Like the first time I won the Triple Ironman, which was probably my only ‘perfect' race. Only with proper preparation and life experience was I able to handle the novel experience of going through the ‘pinhole' to a mystical and ecstatic state of feeling like I was tapped into an endless source of energy coming from outside my own physical being—it took years of practice and dedication to fully get a grip on it. I made the quest for Superfluidity my life's work for decades.
As a college student I traveled to India as part of my course work at Hampshire College. I was studying ‘cultural imperialism' and the impact of multi-national corporations on indigenous culture. I was also seeking spiritual enlightenment and spent a lot of time meditating in ashrams. I was never able to achieve Nirvana in the lotus position or through yoga like many masters of those disciplines can...but I did learn how to find it through endurance sports.
When I first experienced the ecstatic breakthrough of Superfluidity as a runner I knew for the first time what those Indian gurus had been describing all along because I had finally felt it. This was a major "A-ha" moment for me. The combination of complete Zen-like inner peace co-existing with a sense of infinite energy—like I felt during Superfluid moments of running—is almost identical to my impression of what happens to Helium as it approaches absolute zero. There is a mystical and religious component to Superfluidity that cannot be denied in physics and as a human experience.
My favorite book in college was by Marghanti Laski and was called Ecstasy: in Secular and Religious Experiences. Laski found that the most common triggers, for transcendent ecstasies, come from Nature: water, for instance, and mountains, trees, and flowers; dusk, sunrise, sunlight; dramatically bad weather. All of these have the ability create an ecstatic feeling of Superfluidity especially when you are doing something physical outside. I used to love running on treadmills, I don't anymore. Now, I much prefer to be outside. For expanded reading on the topic of ecstasy in religious experiences check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_ecstasy
Superfluidity is supernatural. It breaks through the Flow channel and opens into a magical and mysterious fourth dimension -- much like going through the wardrobe into Narnia -- which is what makes it so exciting and fun to explore. It is exotic but not esoteric. We all know the feeling of watching someone performing at a level that seems humanly impossible. Often it happens when you are watching people who have practiced their entire lives to become exceptionally good at something—like David Freese in the World Series. It's inspiring to see Superfluidity in action because it captures the incredible potential human beings have to do phenomenal things. The pursuit of Superfluidity brings out the best in people.
When You Witness or Experience Superfluidity.... Tag it!
At the elite level of sports it is a given that most of the time (if the players are having a good day) that they are in the ‘zone' or performing in a state of Flow. This level of performance becomes the daily routine at a certain point when you are a professional athlete. Something important to remember when watching professionals on TV is that these players are the crème de la crème at their sport. Because they are in a state of Flow most of the time, it is helpful to have words like Superfluidity or Super Flow to differentiate moments that send shivers up your spine, make your jaw drop and cause you to exclaim: "WOW!!!"
Without a vernacular to describe the upper echelon of Flow there is no way to have a discussion about the differences between regular day-to-day Fluid performance from moments that stands out as being exceptional on the highest level. One important note here is that degrees of Superfluidity are all relative to your baseline of ability. It is accessible to everyone. Within any Flow experience there is an opportunity for a burst of Superfluidity. You don't have to be world-class at something to experience Superfluidity within your own game based on your skills and the level of the challenge.
Keep your antennae up for moments of Superfluidity inside your own process and also when you observe anyone who does something extremely well. As you continually raise the challenge level and your skill improves you will create a state of Flow-be on the lookout for episodic breakthrough moments of excellence. Tag them as being "Superfluid" and say: "YES! That's it!" Then, pause and take inventory of all the components that went into creating that moment so you can recreate it next time. By doing this regularly you will maximize your individual potential and become the absolute best that you can be.
Superconductivity: Becoming a Human Conduit for Energy
Superconductivity is another component of being Superfluid. One year when I was racing in the Badwater Ultramarathon (a 135-mile run through Death Valley in July in 120° degree heat) I relied on using my imagination and visions of Superfluidity to pull my body out of Death Valley and across the finish line. During the race the entire soles of both feet became a solid sheet of blistered skin due to water in my socks and pavement hot enough to fry an egg. Beginning at about mile 108 (with another marathon to go) the pain was excrutiating. Every step felt like I was pressing my foot against a scalding iron. I sat in the back of the support van feeling crippled and mulled over the prospect of crawling the next 26.2 miles. Standing on my feet with that level of suffering did not seem like an option. I thought: "How in the hell am I supposed to go another marathon in this condition? I can't even walk 20 yards. I'm screwed. This race is over for me. I'm going to DNF."
I went through the Rolodex of all the tricks I had in my bag from years of race experience and suddenly the image of that BBC Superfluidity YouTube clip popped into my head. I decided that I would use my imagination and become a Superfluid by pretending the soles of my feet to be ‘superconductive' conduits to an omnipotent Source energy stored the core of the earth. This visualization worked!
Instead of stepping gingerly and limping, I decided that I would stomp my feet into the ground and embrace the searing sensation as a gift. I decided that the electrifying jolt in my feet was no longer ‘pain' but was rather a euphoric radiant heat that symbolized I was successfully 'plugged in' and channeling the energy from the earth and the sun into my body. I felt myself become superfluid and filled with a superhuman energy, which brought me to the finish line. This energy surrounds everybody, everyday. It is everywhere and is available to all of us.
One caveat here, by pushing my body and feet to this point, I was literally bed ridden for an entire week following the race and had a slight case of PTSD. Like orgasm, being Superfluid is designed to be an episodic experience. Spending too long in that state fries your synapses and makes it tough to relate to the work-a-day world.
Use Music to Take Yourself Ever Higher
As an athlete the song Like a Prayer has been an anthem for me. I got a bootleg copy of a live version from my friend David at Rebel Rebel records on Bleeker St. back in 1990 and played the song at full volume in my headphones before every competition I entered for almost two decades. It was an important race day ritual for me. You should create similar rituals for yourself using music that ‘takes you there.' Music is an incredible catalyst for going from Fluid performance to Superfluidity. Make playlists of songs that you love and use them inside your daily process to help maximize your performance.
I have been a huge Madonna fan since 1983 when I saw her perform live in a small gay club in Boston called ‘The Metro' on a rainy Sunday night to an audience of about 30 people. As a teenager in the 1980s. Madonna laid the brain chips in me of: hard work, resolve and the self-confidence to be fearless in the face of adversity as being key to success.
As a role model, she inspired me to stay hungry, push the envelope, to never be afraid to try and to always be true to myself. There were times when I was so completely immersed in my training for ultra-endurance sports that I lived in a bubble that could be very isolating and lonely. Her music and persona kept me company and inspired me everyday. I am eternally grateful to Madonna for that.
I include this live performance of Like a Prayer not just because it has significance to me personally, but mostly to illustrate that Superfluidity can be seen anywhere....from high brow performances at Carnegie hall, to Pop music concerts in a football stadium. Also, the religious undertones of Like a Prayer highlight the mystical and ecstatic aspects of Superfluidity. I believe in the power of prayer. I believe that Madonna's lifelong commitment physicality and spirituality is something that makes her a superstar with staying power who is in a league of her own. She is a force of nature and someone we can all learn from—whether you like her as a performer or not.
This live performance of Like a Prayer is a perfect way to deconstruct the difference between Fluid and Superfluid performance. I have watched this video dozens of times and have tagged the specific points in the performance when I see Madonna transition into Superfluidity. As you watched it for yourself, when did you see her click over? Learning to identify the episodic moments of Superfluid performance inside an otherwise entirely fluid performance is a helpful tool for identifying ways that you can take your performance to a higher level. Learn from the greats by watching them closely and emulating them.
This video was filmed at the zenith of Madonna's career near the end of a grueling world tour that was hampered by nagging throat problems. Madonna shows complete grace under pressure throughout the performance. She is totally in control, but also has the ability to be completely uninhibited and ‘let go' which allows her to hit it out of the park, just like David Freese would.
The Superfluidity Skillset Is Transferable
A fundamental part of The Athlete's Way philosophy is that what you learn in through your daily workouts is a skillset that is transferable to any challenge you face in life. If you learn how to create Flow and Super Flow on the playing field it will be easier to create it in the board room, the operating room, sales floor, dance studio....
We all have access to create Superfluidity in our lives if we make it a goal and consistently create a state of flow in anything we are trying to master. You don't have to be a superstar or extraordinary to make it happen. But it is important that you find one thing in your life that you love to do, stick with it and master it. Once you understand what goes into creating a state of Flow and identify moments of Superfluidity in one discipline it becomes easier to transfer that skill to any challenge you face in life or sport.
Superfluidity has a mystical and divine element to it. If you seek it out, and chase it down, and invite it in, you will experience it. Superfluidity is not something elitist that is reserved for a select few. It is egalitarian. Any human being who works hard, trusts him or herself, learns to let go, and have grace under pressure can create Superfluidity. Stay internally motivated, relaxed, focused and fully aligned with the task at hand and you will have Superfluid breakthroughs, I guarantee!