EDEN, Utah (NYTimes) - One morning last month a group of roughly 60 people, including doctors, CEOs and internet entrepreneurs, gathered under a big white dome to hear the mission statement of their host, a 45-year-old man named Jamie Wheal.
As he paced back and forth in front of an altar bearing shiny Buddha heads, Wheal talked about the perils of information overload in our content-rich era. "A literate person in the European Middle Ages," he said, "consumed the same amount of content in their entire lives as we do reading a single edition of the Sunday New York Times."
Sinewy and tanned from a life of outdoor pursuits, Wheal was offering attendees the chance to "upgrade" their nervous systems to meet this incontrovertible information overload. How? With "flow". But what is flow?
First popularised decades ago by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an elusive state cultivated by artists, athletes and others, that of being so absorbed in what they're doing that they lose track of time and thought, finding themselves guided rather by instinct and intuition. It has also been referred to as the Zone - not to be confused with the diet of the same name - or just "being in the moment". And for those who have experienced it, there is no denying its magic.
Csikszentmihalyi, who turns 83 this month, is a deeply philosophical academic formerly of the University of Chicago (now at Claremont Graduate University) and still publishing. In 2004 he gave a Ted Talk that has been viewed over 4 million times.
Wheal has taken a somewhat brisker, more commercial approach. He has advised members of the United States Navy Special Operations, top-ranked athletes and executives of technology companies on "optimising performance" through flow, receiving six-figure fees for some of his consultations.
His five-day retreat, at a sprawling, privately held property known as Summit and convened the day before the solar eclipse, cost almost US$5,000 (S$6,757) and was a sort of beta test for spreading his gospel to a larger public audience. (He also offers free assessments and videos on his website.) Attendees were housed in white tepee-like tents, with portable toilets set up down a dirt path. The camp had been erected quickly by the "glamping" company Aether Camp, to Wheal's specifications.
Wheal, who said his father was a test pilot for the British royal navy, came to the US from England at age eight and speaks rapidly in a mash-up accent, dropping idiosyncratic phrases and erudite references to Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, Roman statesman Cincinnatus and English novelist Aldous Huxley. At moments he is given to phrases that are not immediately comprehensible, like "we are broaching the possibility of midwifing humanity into the infinite game".
But his larger message came through clearly. In our digital age, loud with bottom-feeder commentary, the ping of incoming emails and bleating social media, the pursuit of flow is all the more urgent.
"Honestly, have we abdicated our purpose just because of these insistent micro asks?" Wheal said. "Have we just completely ceded our centre, completely ceded clarity, and it was all just based on 20-something bro-grammers trying to crack our attention spans?"
To fulfill his flow-finding mission, he wants to bring what he calls his Dojo Domes to locations around the world. Next year, he and his partners hope to build a 1-million-square-foot complex in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a medical emphasis, combining brain-imaging technology with simpler equipment.
He began to envision gatherings of this sort in 2007, while he was teaching at Esalen, the spiritual retreat in California. With journalist Steven Kotler, he founded the Flow Genome Project, based in Austin, Texas, and dedicated to gathering the latest science behind flow states. Its board of advisers includes neuroscientists, film-makers and a kiteboarder.
It was his book, Stealing Fire, written with Kotler and published earlier this year, that attracted many of the flow campers to Utah. In it, Wheal and Kotler consider the question of peak human performance, describing how so many powerful companies and individuals are now trying to optimise their own brains, in ways both legal and illegal.
They offer case studies from the Navy Seals and Google, arguing that what the world today faces are "wicked problems", unprecedented and complex, that require creative solutions, the kinds that are most likely to come not from staid meetings in conference rooms but rather from "non-ordinary states". "Flow", they write, is associated with six neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine, anandamide and endorphins. Knowing the neurochemical profile of flow means, in theory, people can devise ways of achieving it more often, more reliably and more quickly.
The new generation of flowsters are excited, perhaps, that using the advances of neuroscience, they might not have to meditate every day for 10 years to gain access to these layers of their brains.
"This was a significant investment of time and money for me - this tells you how compelled I was to come here," said Alexandre Lang-Willar. At 28, Lang-Willar is in some ways the embodiment of Wheal's target demographic: the high achiever who grasps the brass ring, only to discover he craves something more. Lang-Willar quit his job as a Goldman Sachs analyst and has created a dating app with his father called Invite and Meet, centred on live activities, that will be introduced later this year.
Reading Stealing Fire, Lang-Willar said, he became convinced that nothing less than a "cultural awakening" was underway.
By 8am each morning, the flow campers lay prone and shoeless in the Dojo Dome, moving back and forth on brightly coloured foam rollers. Other daily activities included balancing and bouncing on big yellow balls; acro-yoga, in which partners learn to lift each other in the air; and strapping into special contraptions, like Wheal's 360 Swing, which allows those courageous enough to propel themselves, standing up, all the way around the swing's axle in a complete loop.
All of these undertakings were in the service of honing a crucial element in flow, what Wheal refers to as "embodied cognition": integrating our whole minds and bodies through specific exercise, based on the science showing that physical movement directly affects how we think and feel.
"They are tapping into spiritual intelligence that before now was only really talked about in a religious context," Kristen Ulmer said, sitting outside the Dojo Dome one morning. Ulmer, formerly the top ranked extreme skier in the world, has also written a book, The Art Of Fear.
She went on: "A lot more people are saying they're spiritual but not religious - but what does that really mean? I would say sports and movement are the most oft way we access a spiritual experience and transcend our ego, but they're the least discussed and least understood."
On the third night of camp, attendees gathered in the Dojo Dome for a night of heavy breathing. On their backs, as the lights changed colours and music pulsed from the speakers, they practiced a technique developed by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, involving intense hyperventilation for 15 minutes. People were transported into altered states, gyrating their pelvises, bursting into peals of unrestrained, almost feral laughter, even leaping to their feet to dance.
The group had succeeded, Wheal announced afterwards, in "defragging our nervous systems". In addition to exercise, lectures and breathing, there were some fairly X-rated activities on the programme. One evening after dinner, Wheal spoke about a set of sexual practices that he has found particularly effective for transporting oneself well outside of humdrum daily rhythms. (They are further detailed in a chapter of Stealing Fire called "Taking the Kink out of Kinky".) All of these are what Wheal calls, apologetically, "hacks": techniques for busting out of the overwhelmed modern condition into a place of creativity, passion, focus, tranquillity, vitality and self-refinement.
"The genius of what we're doing here is we're combining ideas about how to get into flow with actually doing physical things to experience it," said Kora Kinard, 29, an orgasmic meditation practitioner from San Francisco who attended. "The flow state and the orgasm state are very connected."
Indeed, Wheal, having wearied somewhat of the term "flow", prefers "ecstasis", an ancient Greek term for "stepping beyond oneself". "It's a giant irony of my life that everyone wants to come and talk to me about flow and I have no interest in having that conversation," he said. "I don't want to be hemmed in."
The neuro-chemicals that define flow or ecstasis are powerfully alluring, and he warned they are not always used for good. He argues, for instance, that Donald Trump instinctively knew how to manipulate them in gathering support for his presidency.
"Trump hacked ecstasis," Wheal said. "Light, sound, movement, repetition, scapegoating the other. People said if you haven't been to his rallies, you're missing what's actually happening in this movement. And what does Hillary say? 'I've got a policy binder.' While Trump pulled all the strings."
Politics aside, Wheal suggests that we seek daily not a fleeting non-ordinary hour or two, but rather, a permanently altered mindset. A trait, not a state, a means of incorporating these methods into our lives so that flow, or ecstasis, is threaded through all our months and years.
Flow camp ended with a shoeless closing ceremony, with participants sitting cross-legged in a circle passing a tiny sculpture of Tara, the female Bodhisattva, from person to person and sharing memories of their experiences that week. The room was thick with emotion and warmth.
But the last thing Wheal wants to produce, he said, are more "bliss junkies and epiphany whores", for whom he reserves a particular antipathy. It's not enough, in other words, to eat magic mushrooms, experience oneness with nature and humanity, cuddle a Buddha statue and then go right back to how things were.
Or, for that matter, to parachute into Burning Man - where many of the flow campers were heading next - melt down your ego on the playa, and then fail to integrate the experience into the rest of your life.
"Everyone lines up for the peak experience," Wheal said. "But no one does their push-ups on Monday morning."