This article is a capture of notes from reading Stealing Fire which was published in 2017. This book focuses on maximizing your mind’s peak flow state where time fades away and you are in the zone of high performance and output.
As always, these notes are what I found interesting but might not be the same for you so I encourage you to grab a copy of the book and read it yourself in order to delve deeper. Enjoy!
- The Case for Ecstasis
- The Four Forces of Ecstasis
- The Road to Eleusis
The Case for Ecstasis
What Is This Fire?
Ecstasis is the act of stepping beyond oneself or the antecedent for ecstasy.
From Philosophy for Life by Jules Evans:
Ecstasy comes from the ancient Greek exstasis, which literally means "standing outside," and more figuratively means "to be outside of where you usually are." In Greek philosophy, in Plato and Neoplatonists like Plotinus, it came to mean moments when a door opens in your mind or soul, you feel an expanded sense of being, an intense feeling of joy or euphoria, and you feel connected to a spirit or God. Its closely connected to another word in Plato, enthousiasmos, which means "the God within." So in moments of ecstasy, according to Plato, you stand outside of yourself, and God appears within you.
Plato expands upon this further:
Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence.
In addition, Stanislav Grof — a John Hopkins psychiatrist — says ecstasis is a state of consciousness within a non-ordinary range of:
Dramatic changes to perception.
Unusual and intense emotions.
Profound altered thoughts and associated behavior.
Ecstasis also has an aspect of group flow as explained in Group Genius by psychologist Keith Sawyer where the group is performing at peak ability. This is especially important in moments of rapid change where the group must merge awareness in order to improvise and act accordingly. The Navy SEALs — as written about earlier in Extreme Ownership — rely on this merged consciousness/subconsciousness which is a key ingredient to what makes them great.
The conscious mind is a potent tool, but it’s slow, and can manage only a small amount of information at once. The subconscious, meanwhile, is far more efficient. It can process more data in much shorter time frames. In ecstasis, the conscious mind takes a break, and the subconscious takes over.
With advances in brain science, especially in the last decade, science has been able to understand more of what makes the following neurobiological similarities remarkable:
Flow: What has been discussed thus far which includes being in the zone and/or in group flow.
Contemplative: Includes chanting, meditation, dance, and sexuality. Recently, this also includes wearable technologies which can switch off the self.
Psychedelic: Research blew up in the 1960’s and then was heavily sanctioned. In recent years, these sanctions have waned which has led to new pharmacological findings.
When combined, the above define the main categories of ecstasis but there is more:
Regular waking consciousness has a predictable and consistent signature in the brain: widespread activity in the prefrontal cortex, brainwaves in the high-frequency beta range, and the steady drip, drip of stress chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol. During the states we’re describing, this signature shifts markedly. Instead of widespread activity in the prefrontal cortex, we see specific parts of this region either light up and become hyperactive or power down and become hypoactive.
At the same time, brainwaves slow from agitated beta to daydreamy alpha and deeper theta. Neurochemically, stress chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol are replaced by performance-enhancing, pleasure-producing compounds such as dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, serotonin, and oxytocin.
So no matter how varied these states appear on the surface, their underlying neurobiological mechanisms—that is, the knobs and levers being tweaked in the brain—are the same. And this understanding allows us to tune altered states with newfound precision.
Consider one of the simplest and oldest ecstatic techniques: meditation. Historically, if you wanted to use meditation to consistently produce a state where the self vanished, decades of practice were required. Why? Because your target was nothing more than a peculiar sensation, and hitting it was like throwing darts blindfolded. But researchers now know that the center of that target actually correlates to changes in brain function—like brainwaves in the low-alpha, high-theta range—and this unlocks all kinds of new training options.
Instead of following the breath (or chanting a mantra or puzzling out a koan), meditators can be hooked up to neurofeedback devices that steer the brain directly toward that alpha/theta range. It’s a fairly straightforward adjustment to electrical activity, but it can accelerate learning, letting practitioners achieve in months what used to take years.
As a case in point, the normal cost to train a Navy SEAL is quite costly:
Base (basic): $500,000.
DEVGRU (elite): $4.25 million (with tens of millions wasted along the way).
Even worse, some SEALs are unable to bounce back from failure of not making cut which would ruin their lives and careers. So the SEALs learned how to apply accelerated learning:
By using the [sensory deprivation] tanks to eliminate all distraction, entrain specific brainwaves, and regulate heart rate frequency, the SEALs are able to cut the time it takes to learn a foreign language from six months to six weeks.
Why It Matters
Getting past the standard narrative leads us to what researchers call STER (Selflessness Timelessness Effortlessness Richness) which is phenomenological reporting that focuses on how STER makes us feel. STER is rooted in shared neurobiology.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our self awareness and — when getting into an altered state — we can shut off this awareness and lose ourselves which scientist call: transient hypofrontality. This breaks down as:
Hypo: Less than normal or the opposite of hyper.
Frontality: Prefrontal cortex.
This allows us to achieve a true sense of peace, free of tension, and allows us to look outside of ourselves, without identity, with a fresh perspective. Robert Kegan — a psychologist and chair of adult development at Harvard — calls this "the subject-object shift" and says it’s the most important move we can make in order to accelerate personal growth.
There is a paradox to stepping outside of ourselves and achieving selflessness which gives us a better chance of finding ourselves. By letting go of the self, we open up a way of shedding old skin or creating new skin in order to evolve ourselves.
When in transient hypofrontality, present time is elongated which researchers refer to as: the deep now. Allocation is given to focus and attention instead of temporal processing. More data is processed faster which makes the moment appear to last longer. This also means we are not thinking/ruminating over what happened yesterday nor are we daydreaming about what might happen tomorrow. The amygdala — fight or flight reactor — is completely shut off at this point which means all the neurosis, we might have, is also gone.
Philip Zimbardo’s (author of The Time Paradox) colleagues, Jennifer Aaker and Melanie Rudd, discovered the following through a series of experiments where subjects experienced timelessness:
Felt they had more time.
More willing to volunteer and help others.
Preferred experiences over material products.
Experienced a boost in life satisfaction.
When you have more time — or feel like time is endless — you can more easily find the connections between ideas.
Eight out of ten of us are disengaged or actively disengaged at work, despite the HR circus of incentive plans, team-building off-sites, and casual Fridays.
With effortlessness, we can propel ourselves much farther past our limits of normal motivation. This is because — when in a state of flow — there are six powerful neurotransmitters in play:
These are the six most pleasurable chemicals the brain can produce and the only time we can experience most of them at once is when we are in a flow state. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written in Flow:
When experience is intrinsically rewarding life is justified.
Abraham Maslow (psychologist) wrote in his book Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences:
[Flow] justifies not only itself, but living itself.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi goes on to write in Beyond Boredom and Anxiety:
In a culture supposedly ruled by the pursuit of money, power, prestige, and pleasure, it is surprising to find certain people who sacrifice all those goals for no apparent reason… By finding out why they are willing to give up material rewards for the elusive experience of performing enjoyable acts we…learn something that will allow us to make everyday life more meaningful.
With the above in mind, extreme risk or material reward is not required if a compelling goal is present. John Hagel, cofounder of Deloitte consulting’s Center for the Edge, found:
[I]ndividuals and organizations who went the farthest the fastest were always the ones tapping into passion and finding flow.
Effortlessness breaks the Protestant (suffer now and redeem yourself later) work ethic with a much more enjoyable and powerful form of motivation (also known as Motivation 3.0.0 as written in Drive by Dan Pink).
The ecstatic experience often begins with norepinephrine and dopamine being released directly into your system by your brain:
These neurochemicals raise heart rates, tighten focus, and help us sit up and pay attention. We notice more of what’s going on around us, so information normally tuned out or ignored becomes more readily available. And besides simply increasing focus, these chemicals amp up the brain’s pattern recognition abilities, helping us find new links between all this incoming information.
As these changes are taking place, our brainwaves slow from agitated beta to calmer alpha, shifting us into daydreaming mode: relaxed, alert, and able to flit from idea to idea without as much internal resistance. Then parts of the prefrontal cortex begin shutting down. We experience the selflessness, timelessness, and effortlessness of transient hypofrontality. This quiets the "already know that, move along" voice of our inner critic and dampens the distractions of the past and future. All these changes knock out filters we normally apply to incoming data, giving us access to a fresh perspectives and more potential combinations of ideas.
When we move deeper into ecstasis, both endorphins and anandamide are released by our brains:
They both decrease pain, removing the diversion of physical distress from the equation, letting us pay even more attention to what’s going on. Anandamide also plays another important role here, boosting "lateral thinking," which is our ability to make far-flung connections between disparate ideas. Post-its, Slinkys, Silly Putty, Super Glue, and a host of other breakthroughs all came when an inventor made a sideways leap, applying an overlooked tool in a novel way. In part, that’s anandamide at work.
And, if we go really deep, our brainwaves shift once again, pushing us toward quasi-hypnotic theta, a wave we normally produce only during REM sleep that enhances both relaxation and intuition. To wrap it all up, we can experience an afterglow of serotonin and oxytocin, prompting feelings of peace, well-being, trust, and sociability, as we start to integrate the information that has just been revealed.
And revealed is the right word. Conscious processing can only handle about 12033 bits of information at once. This isn’t much. Listening to another person speak can take almost 60 bits. If two people are talking, that’s it. We’ve maxed out our bandwidth. But if we remember that our unconscious processing can handle billions of bits at once, we don’t need to search outside ourselves to find a credible source for all that miraculous insight. We have terabytes of information available to us; we just can’t tap into it in our normal state.
Umwelt is the technical term for the sliver of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive. And all umwelts are not the same. Dogs hear whistles we cannot, sharks detect electromagnetic pulses, bees see ultraviolet light—while we remain oblivious. It’s the same physical world, same bits and bytes, just different perception and processing. But the cascade of neurobiological change that occurs in a non-ordinary state lets us perceive and process more of what’s going on around us and with greater accuracy. In these states, we get upstream of our umwelt. We get access to increased data, heightened perception, and amplified connection. And this lets us see ecstasis for what it actually is: an information technology.
This last point is important because this means we are finally tapping into the Big Data of our minds.
Wicked Solutions to Wicked Problems
Creativity is fundamental for solving complex problems but there has been little success when it comes to training people to be more creative. The failure is due to training for the skill instead of training a state of mind.
Creative solutions require holding conflicting perspectives at once and synthesizing new solutions from that friction. This is easier said than done but scientists have discovered tools to make this easier:
Meditation: Practicing meditation helps produce gamma brain waves more easily. For example, when meditating for longer lengths of time, scientists discovered with at least four days of meditation that attention, memory, vigilance, creativity, and cognitive flexibility were all improved.
Psychedelics: Micro-dosing enhances pattern recognition and the ability to see more pieces of the puzzle at once in order to solve the problem quicker. These are the gains that are being reported:
There is now seven decades of research, conducted by hundreds of scientists on thousands of participants, showing that when it comes to complex problem solving, ecstasis could be the “wicked solution” we’ve been looking for.
Why We Missed It
The reasons for not detecting ecstasis sooner are:
The Pale of the Church: Religion has prevented this from happening. Maroon 5 and Joan of Arc are used as examples to describe how devastating the consequences of using unorthodox methods to achieve the same thing as the gatekeepers of the church.
The Pale of the Body: Drugs, which enhance our cognitive abilities, are considered taboo or even cheating. Strangely, wearing glasses or replacing worn down bones/joints with titanium and so forth is fine even though these are cyborg-like enhancements. We’re enhancing/upgrading ourselves all of the time both physically and mentally. So using psychedelics to enhance our cognitive abilities should be no different than all of the others things we do to ourselves but, unfortunately, is considered bad.
The Pale of the State: Government institutions enforce our cultural standards despite the fact that some standards are quite damaging such as consuming alcohol, smoking tobacco, drinking coffee, or taking Ritalin/Adderall pills (which aren’t much different than consuming methamphetamine). Professor David Nutt — a psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist who specialized in brain trauma treatment — lost his license due to compiling scientific data which proved how dangerous alcohol and other drugs were when ranked because he dared to challenge norms and policies established by the state.
Safety and security can and does diminish when moving beyond the pale. Here are some considerations:
Groupthink. Example: The booming of evangelical megachurches where people gather to a display of mind-melding technologies that get everyone to do the wave in unison.
Due to the cons, listed above, altered states end up having a checkered history. This is because madness is rare in individuals while more the rule in groups where a large groups of people can be swept up in the propaganda put forth by charismatic and twisted leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Putin, and Trump to name a few.
The Four Forces of Ecstasis
Psychology is not only the study of weakness and damage but also strength and virtue. More often than not, it’s been the study of the former but the latter is just as important for nurturing the best in ourselves.
The length of time it takes you to go into REM sleep is a way to determine what level of happiness you are at:
60 minutes: Depressed.
90 minutes: Normal.
100 minutes: Happy.
110 minutes: Near death experiencers (basically, very high to off the chart levels of happiness).
[E]ven brief moments spent outside ourselves produce positive impact, regardless of the mechanisms used to get there. And they can provide these benefits in the face of the deepest challenges imaginable.
A disproportionate number of them had dabbled in ecstasis: often beginning with psychedelics and, after that, making meditation, martial arts, and other state-shifting practices a central part of their lives. Many of them described their frequent access to non-ordinary states as the "turbo-button" for their development.
Fifty years earlier, Abraham Maslow (psychologist) noticed that the more one had peak experiences, the closer to one came to self-actualization. In short, self-discovery (short term) can lead to self-development (long term) given the right conditions.
Neurotheology is the use of modern brain science tools in studying religious experience. The combining of science and religion — or taking elements of religion to enhance science — allows us to find better ways to reach ecstasis.
The body can drive the mind. For example, practicing Yoga or physical exercise of any kind can help balance and support the mind. By shifting our posture, breathing, and facial expressions this can alter our state of consciousness.
There is an AI — known as Ellie — that is part of an advanced brain imaging and DARPA budget for detecting the gap between our true selves and what we project to the world. This is done through a series of instrumentation that monitors tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, caged answering of questions, etc. All of this helps build a profile of yourself for improved reflection.
Transformational leaders not only regulated their own nervous systems better than most; they also regulated other people’s.
In the same way that multiple clocks on a wall end up synchronizing to the one with the biggest pendulum, emergent leaders can entrain their entire teams and create a powerful group flow experience. In this study at ESADE, this shared experience helped the groups arrive at more creative and ethical solutions (as rated by a panel of faculty and experts). Furthermore, these young leaders’ ability to create group coherence proved to be a reliable indicator of effective decision making later in their careers. Until now, this was a latent, invisible capacity, not predictable, and definitely not trainable.
There is a dark side to our mental health. We’ve all been there and — for some — longer and more often than desired. The antitodes for combating depression are:
Exercise: Quite effective except for severe cases.
Sunshine (Vitamin D): Provides a direct impact on mood.
Meditation (minimum: 15 minutes): Improves mood and well being.
These are all good techniques to prevent ourselves from overthinking and get us out of a depressed state. Additionally, it’s better to act on them in the moment than wait until you feel better since they are the wrong tool for the job at that point.
Pharmacology is about studying the limits of the human condition.
The reason why many animals, humans included, see mind altering drugs as an effort to depattern or force a shift in lateral thinking. This leads to creative but indirect ways of thinking.
Alexander Shulgin (Ph.D.), also know as Sasha Shulgin, was a prolific psychonaut who explored the inner space of the human mind. He wrote about these learnings in the following books:
By the way, both Sasha — and his spouse — Ann Shulgin are a fascinating and unique couple worth learning about further.
Finally, there is Lee Cronin (chemist) who has taken an interest in 3D printers and the ability to print over the counter drugs (i.e. downloadable drugs):
Pharmacology is such a potent force for ecstasis because it changes the nature of this game. With chemical cookbooks, rigorous neuroscience, crowdsourced lexicons, and now, democratized means of production, we’re freed from the geographic and cultural limitations we inherited. By giving us access to not just the botany of desire but the molecules of desire, we can continue to shape these compounds even as they inevitably shape us. It’s coevolution compressed from millennia into minutes.
Technology is making it possible to enjoy new experiences that would normally be dangerous or at least come with high levels of risk. One example is iFly which simulates skydiving in a safe way. Another example is Portugal’s Boom Festival which focuses on sound to meld the mind and body along with the collective body of other dancers and concert attendees.
Mikey Siegel, an MIT and NASA trained roboticist, launched the following:
To quote from Siegel directly:
Consciousness-hacking technology is going to become as dynamic, available, and ubiquitous as cell phones. Imagine what happens if we can use personal technology to shift these experiences on demand, to support and catalyze the most important changes we can make at scale. More and more it’s looking like we can retune the nervous system of the entire planet.
There is also The Flow Dojo by Future Lab which is focused on using technology to help you enter a flow state faster than by doing it manually, through medication, or other means.
The Road to Eleusis
Catch a Fire
By realizing that non-ordinary states are more than just a recreational diversion and can, in fact, heighten trust, amplify cooperation, and accelerate breakthroughs, a new generation of entrepreneurs, philanthropists and activists is fundamentally disrupting business as usual.
For example, mindfulness-based stress reduction is picking up steam and here are some stats for illustration:
18,000,000 use mindfulness as a regular practice.
44% of all U.S. companies at the end of 2017 provide mindfulness training.
$1 billion in revenue is how big the mindfulness industry grew in 2015.
36 million Americans have a regular Yoga practice.
32 million Americans use psychedelics for transcendence, introspection, and general curiosity.
Burning Down The House
With all that has been said so far there is always an equal and opposite negative force to all of this positivity. That has to do with the government taking an interest in using the four forces of ecstatis to control a population. Whether it by chemical, electro, etc. One example is how the World Anti-Doping Agency collects a baseline for hormones, blood, and neurochemicals. It wouldn’t be fun to be monitored like this.
Another example is the wiring up of animals using electrodes attached to their brains to remotely walk a nuclear device into city to kill millions all by using pleasure and pain stimulation to guide the animal.
Even the Pentagon and other officials have monitored Burning Man for terrorism.
More likely than military control is through corporate advertising persuasion. Case in point, big names like Apple, Sony, Nike, Ford, and so forth, funded a neuroscience case study on buying behavior for $7 million. The information economy is definitely attractive to many companies:
Information: Selling of ideas.
Experience: Selling of feelings.
Transformation: Selling of you. You are the product so the potential of what you might become is what is sold.
The video game industry is a major investor in neuroscience research for selling games. An addictive game can raise dopamine to a level that is equal to having sex or even snorting cocaine.
Virtual Reality is another avenue which can mine personal information since the hardware used would be able to study your neurochemistry, brainwaves, hormones, and cardiac pulses. This would be complete surveillance versus what is currently provided when using a smartphone.
Science fiction has warned us of this before:
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: Control by pleasure.
1984 by George Orwell: Control by pain.
The solution to this potential dystopia is to open source the knowledge in order to prevent private and public influence. This gives us the ability — and responsibility — to choose wisely.
The following are a set of guidelines to help you navigate ecstatis by counteracting common problems.
Selflessness: Sometimes you can be overwhelmed and feel like you’re the only one to ever have a particular experience. This can be due to elevated dopamine levels which can lead to apophenia: the feeling of being overwhelmed when perceiving meaningful coincidence between unrelated situations. Take the time to rationalize what you’ve learned/experienced and fold these learnings into your own processes after careful analysis.
Timelessness: There is a time lag from the clarity of experience in ecstasis to when you can make these learnings a reality. To paraphrase Bill Gates, most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year while underestimating what can be done in ten.
Effortlessness: It can feel really good to be in the moment (flow) and go chasing after that experience without doing the work to build yourself into a better person. While it’s easy to get absorbed, you must not forget to do the hard thing first in order to make the change easy.
Richness: Don’t dive too deep is the lesson here. An example of free diving is given where two prominent divers dove too deep and didn’t come back up due to overestimating their abilities or getting too entranced by going deeper and thinking they could still make it back before they ran out of air.
The equation for all of this is:
<time> * <reward/risk> = <value>. This equation helps illustrate if the perceived value and always depends on time, risk, and reward.
Once you’ve calculate your perceived value, you’ll want to put in motion exploring altered states of thinking by scheduling time in which to build good habits and level up your skills. Be careful, though, because these indulgences can be dangerous in terms of blurring the lines between deliberate goals or becoming a bliss junkie. You’ll want to pause for thirty days once a year to go cold turkey. You might even need to do this earlier than a year but doing this will give you perspective in identifying any negative practices.
Altered states are an information technology and what you’re after is quality data. If you spend all of your time blissed out, zenned out, drunk, stoned, sexed up, or anything else, then you’ve lost all the contrast that initially made those experiences so rich—what made them "altered" in the first place. By balancing inebriated abandon with monklike sobriety, ribald sexuality with introspective celibacy, and extreme risk-taking with cozy domesticity, you’ll create more contrast and spot patterns sooner.
Ernest Hemingway once said:
The world breaks everyone.
Having all of what we want while avoiding any and all suffering only leads to having more of it. This leads to what John Welwood — a psychologist — has coined as spiritual bypassing which avoids psychological wounds and emotional issues in favor of spiritual practices. Brené Brown calls this vulnerable strength which is:
Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
The Japanese call this wabi sabi which is the ability to find beautify in imperfection:
If a vase is accidentally broken, for example, they don’t throw the pieces away or try to patch it up to hide the accident. Instead, they take golden glue and painstakingly reassemble the vessel, so its unique flaws make the piece more beautiful.
The human condition is always mix of ecstasis and agony but that is part of the journey in life. It’s a constant balance.
Before wrapping up this book review, here are additional resources that might be of interest. The first comes from John Oliver who provides a humorous and excellent perspective on the beneficial qualities of Psychedelic Assisted Therapy:
Colorado voters legalize psilocybin and psychedelic therapy: While not legal at the federal level these are fine to be used in my home state of Colorado. Assuming we don’t screw up like we did in the sixties — as John Oliver mentions above — I would expect more states to follow.
The Paradox of Psychedelics: The opening verbal essay by Sam Harris is worth listening to.
The Curse of Self by Mark Leary: This explores self-awareness, egotism, and quality of human life.
In Over Our Heads by Robert Kegan: Delves into the subject-object shift which allows us to get outside of ourselves and see the world in a new perspective or hold multiple perspectives at once.
The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo: A pioneer in understanding time perception.
Research shows that these experiences lift us above normal awareness, and propel us further faster. Much of our conventional schooling, personal development, and professional training still miscalculate this fact. It’s hard to fathom how much faster we can go, how much more ground we can cover, if we can only appreciate what high performance now looks like.
As a software engineer, my mind is my most powerful tool so I’m definitely all for exploring new and better ways to solve complex problems quickly. The same goes for healing mental health issues which might be preventing you from doing your best work.