"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." - Mark Twain
“CRASH TACK! CRASH TACK!” A flurry of activity violently erupts just as the squall hits us across the beam. The sea is churning, spray across faces already bitten into by the icy wind. Mr Wilson has gone into the water. We must act fast, keep eyes on his position as our course leaves him in our wake, the churning water obscuring visibility. We mustn’t lose sight or he will be lost to the elements. Crew springs into life, spotter on the stern, another on the radio seeking assistance. Helmsman adeptly spins the boat around to stop before engaging engine and setting sails to return to the casualty. We drift with the wind, and eventually retrieve poor Mr Wilson before the briny swallows him forever. The wind drops right on cue, the squall has passed. Normal service resumes.
Fortunately, Mr Wilson is alright. In fact he is smiling. A permanently cheery crewmate whatever the conditions. His marker pen face on his yellow plastic body keeps us laughing. He is used to it. His name was bestowed by our equally cheery captain, who is an expert sailor hailing from Czechoslovakia. Her favourite film is Castaway, and our resident Man Overboard (M.O.B.) ‘dummy’ is named after Tom Hank’s basketball…
The drill is one of many that are practiced during our voyage around the Sounds of the Firth of Clyde in western Scotland. It’s a course I have been wanting to complete for a long while, and where better to do it than in such spectacular surroundings. Except it’s the middle of winter, and right slap bang in the midst of the series of storm cycles that are blighting the UK this year…Well they say challenge brings out the best in you!
With my ‘Adventure Psychologist’ hat on I like to practice what I preach, and this is what I feel compelled to do during my time out at sea, as it’s all a little bit stressful (at times!). So here is a taster of my approach, some underlying principles based on understanding how the brain responds to (and under) stress. As it happens, sailing and sea-borne voyaging is an excellent metaphor for life, for addressing circumstances that throw obstacles in one’s path, and how to better oneself through prevailing under adversity. It’s no coincidence that the idioms of our everyday speech are replete with turns-of phrase that have been passed down the generations from nautical contexts!
“You’re sailing close to the wind, me-lad” as my dad used to say (usually before I got walloped for getting up to mischief)! “There’s an opportunity in the offing.” “It’s not all plain sailing." “Give that a wide berth!” “Am feeling under the weather.” etc. etc. I could go on for some time as the English language is chock-a-block with such phrases!!!
There is something primal, instinctual about being under sail, right on course, and in that zone where senses are attuned to the power of nature, the vessel is ploughing ahead through the water, and one’s goals are on track. Which fits nicely with the framework I will expand upon to help one manage mindset, emotional state and purposeful, goal-driven behaviours. Into the ‘flow’ state if you like. I have written at length already about the brain functions involved in managing our attention, giving rise to our ‘feelings’ / emotions, and the way we can switch from one brain state to another depending on whether we are ‘task-focused’ or ‘self-indulgent’. This is the foundation for a practical approach to using this understanding to firstly increase awareness of how the brain ‘works’, and secondly to apply that knowledge to take some control over what may otherwise respond reflexively, and to steer our intentions and emotions in the right direction…
To refresh briefly, there are three aspects to this:
So how can we make use of these three components practically in order to make a difference to our daily activities, to achieve aspirations and to inhibit the negative voice inside that threatens to sink the ship?
The Hero’s Quest acknowledges that we have an innate curiosity which prompts us to rove from the comfort of the home, out onto the path (maybe one that is ‘less travelled’ depending on where one ‘lives’). We gather momentum that carries us further from home and the comforts implied. At some point that momentum has taken us beyond where was planned, we are now committed to the course. To turn back is to: a) acknowledge ‘defeat’; b) realise it’s quite a long way back, so might as well carry on! Soon are encountered obstacles to progress, but again one is committed and defeat weighs heavier still on the mind. Ultimately, one progresses but the pressures begin to break one down. To persist through this inevitable stage is to build resilience, find the path home, and become re-invigorated. The ‘experience’ now under one’s belt grants an impetus to pass on that knowledge to others, but also to put to use in future when dealing with one’s own challenges (and aspirations)! This metaphorical journey can be usefully considered as a step towards self-growth and personal development, acknowledging that the cycle is inevitable and challenges help facilitate progress. In short, whilst ‘stress’ is a negatively loaded term, the fact is, stress facilitates growth, and indeed is what motivates us to get up and do things that move us forward in life. Without a degree of stress (arousal for want of a better word) we don’t achieve anything! And as this is a cycle, this means it exists in a finite time period (however much that time might seem to dilate when one is struggling uphill and climbing over the obstacles). This is an important idea I will come back to in the ‘task-focused’ brain state component shortly (time being relative and ‘manipulable’). So even though it seems like things are hopeless, traumatic, stressful, it is vital to recognise that this is something that will pass, and which is indeed facilitatory!
This leads into interoception. The Valence-Arousal model reduces the complexity of emotional/feeling states to two dimensions (one, ‘Valence’ that provokes motion towards – ‘approach’ – or away – ‘avoid’; the other, ‘Arousal’, stipulating how much energy is available in the system to generate the action associated with approaching or avoiding a stimulus). We can use this conceptualisation to effectively ‘decide’ how we feel in a given moment, and how to deal with the source of that feeling (the environmental stimulus if you like). This is easier to visualise as two axes crossing one another (Arousal on the vertical axis, Valence on the horizontal) and forming four quadrants. Each quadrant represents a collection of different possible emotional states, in a clockwise direction from upper right: high arousal and positive valence (associated with ‘positive’ and ‘active’ emotions such as excitement, delight), low arousal and positive valence (more relaxed mood, calm, contentment), low arousal and negative valence (boredom, apathy, lethargy), high arousal and negative valence (frustration, anger, typically described as ‘stress’).
Suffice to say, by sensing the core bodily signals of both arousal levels and implied direction of this energy, in a discrete moment, we can intercept our ‘feelings’ before they become fully formed and described as one emotional state or another. And by doing so, we can divert our attention from one quadrant of this model to another, to effectively shift the valence into a more positive state as desired. A simple example might be where you take note that you are in a state of high arousal (there is a lot of energy in your system) and perhaps your initial reaction is to shy away from, avoid this feeling, this circumstance that is provoking the response. In a state of potential anxiety, one has too much energy coursing through the body and the ‘flight’ response is activated. BUT, by a force of will, and a re-envisaging of what this signal means, one can decide in fact to approach this source, and therefore recognise that this ‘anxiety’ is in fact excitement! This is the principle of shifting one’s perspective by tuning into the basic bodily signals that are the basis for our behaviours. Returning to the earlier analogy, by a small shift in the direction of travel, one can cross from one ‘tack’ to another approaching the wind from different angles, and keeping the course on a positive heading! [A further way you might use the same principle, is, on asserting that you feel 'x' emotion (eg. 'fearful'), to then decide which alternative emotional state you would prefer to 'feel', and then go about shifting in that direction, steering a course around the model and towards the appropriate quadrant - so from 'fear' to 'excitement' for instance.]
Finally, having acknowledged that the journey is ‘on course’, that obstacles are there to facilitate progress purposefully, and that one can ‘take the helm’ by interocepting the source of feelings to change direction positively, the last step is to shift the brain into a ‘task-focused’ state. As it is the ruminating and indulgent ‘self’ that inhibits progress, this needs to be tuned down, turned off. A relatively simple way to do this is to now recognise there is a task to be done, and to be relished. Focusing attention externally is key to this, and to ‘get on’ with the task that is set. Very rapidly the voice of the ‘self’ will retreat into the background, drowned in the wind of progress! You might say this is easier said than done, that ‘wind conditions’ do not favour a rapid formula for success! If so, perhaps the self needs a little help in being tuned down. This is where the tried and tested technique of ‘mindfulness’ comes to bear. By first noticing that one is thinking self indulgent thoughts one now can sit back and acknowledge their arrival and their passage. [This is associated with reduced activity in the major component of the Default Mode Network in the brain known as the Posterior Cingulate Cortex, which thereby frees up energy from such a demanding hub, leaving that supply available to deploy elsewhere towards successful focus and performance on task.] Once ‘mindful’ it is easier to then shift ‘tack’ into task focused state. In such a state, one will lose track of time, for the ‘self’ and it’s obsessive reference to it’s current fixation is the source of awareness of time passing (and dragging). One could almost say we have shifted from a ‘mindful’ to a ‘mindless’ state in doing so (or at least one in which one is attuned to environment and the task proceeds as if effortless, and ‘you’ (‘I’) are not present as a distinct entity (you, the helm, and the vessel are as one!)
So there you have it, a model that can be used practically, drawing on a scientific foundation which can be delved into further elsewhere. Adventure experiences are dynamic and engaging circumstances in which to get the best out of oneself, partially through the harnessing of stress, and providing context to learn new skills and meet the challenges set (hence facilitating ‘flow’). It’s not easy at times, but again that speaks to the facilitatory nature of ‘stress’. But as a useful metaphor for life, one can take the principles outlined and develop a sense of self awareness that can help ‘sail one’s own ship’ towards a better land!
Everyone is his or her own ‘hero’ and everyone has within oneself the capacity to take the helm and set the right course. And most importantly, by doing so, momentum will inevitably occur, time will pass, and progress WILL be made. So pull up the anchor that is holding you fast, cast off the ropes and speed into the wind to leave the shores of despair far behind!
Windward ho, Mr Wilson, if you please!
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.