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Notes from "Stealing Fire" by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal

These are my notes from "Stealing Fire" by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. This is a book about how high-performing people are using non-ordinary states of consciousness to dramatically improve the way they live and work. Taking us on a journey from Silicon Valley, to Navy SEAL training, to Burning Man, the book describes the history and science of non-ordinary states and the many ways to achieve them.



The Eleusinian Mysteries (in ancient Greece) were an elaborate 9 day ritual designed to strip away standard frames of reference, profoundly alter consciousness, and unlock a heightened level of insight. Specifically, the mysteries involved a number of state-changing techniques: fasting, singing, dancing, drumming, costumes, dramatic storytelling, physical exhaustion, and kykeon.


Flow - Defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, flow refers to those "in-the-zone" moments where focus gets so intense that everything else disappears. Action and awareness start to merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time as well. And all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.


Companies and groups, from Red Bull to Nike's innovation team, have been quietly seeking the same thing: the boost in information and inspiration that altered states provide. They are deliberately cultivating these states to solve critical challenges and outperform their competition.


"The alternative is unconsciousness. The default setting. The rat race. The constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing." - David Foster Wallace


It costs $25,000 to turn an average Joe into a combat-ready US Marine. SEALs cost $500,000. For DEVGRU unit SEALS, the cost is several million dollars, making them the most expensive elite war fighters ever created.


In SEALs, the person who knows what to do next is the leader.


Ecstasis describes a profoundly unusual state - an experience far beyond our normal sense of self.


When we say ecstasis, we're talking about a very specific range of non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC), which Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof defined as "those experiences characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in the thought processes and behavior brought about by a variety of psychosomatic manifestations ranging from profound terror to ecstatic rapture." There exist many different forms of NOSC. They can be induced by a variety of different techniques or occur spontaneously in the middle of everyday life. Out of this broader inventory, we focused on 3 specific categories. First, flow states - those in-the-zone moments including group flow. Second, contemplative and mystical states, where techniques like chanting, dance, meditation, sexuality, and most recently, wearable technologies, are used to shut off the self. Finally, psychedelic states, where the recent resurgence of sanctioned research is leading to some of the more intriguing pharmacological findings in several decades.


Instead of following the breath or chanting a mantra, 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.


Once we get past the narrative wrapping paper, what researchers call the "phenomenological reporting," we find 4 signature characteristics underneath. Selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, and richness, or STER for short.


At the center of this complexity lies our prefrontal cortex - a sophisticated piece of neuronal hardware. With this relatively recent evolutionary adaptation came a heightened degree of self-awareness, an ability to delay gratification, plan for the long term, reason through complex logic, and think about our thinking. This hopped-up cogitation promoted us from slow, weak, hairless apes into tool-wielding apex predators, turning a life that was once nasty, brutish, and short into something decidedly more civilized. But all of this ingenuity came at a cost. No one built an off switch for the potent self-awareness that made it all possible. The self is not an unmitigated blessing. It is single-handedly responsible for many, if not most, of the problems human beings face as individuals and as a species, and conjures up a great deal of personal suffering in the form of depression, anxiety, anger, jealously, and other negative emotions. When you think about the billion-dollar industries that underpin the altered-states economy, isn't this what they're built for? To shut off the self. To give us a few moments of relief from the voice in our heads. So when we do experience a non-ordinary state that gives us access to something more, we feel at first as something less. And that something missing is us. Or more specifically, that inner critic we all come with.


Altered states act like an off switch. In these states, we're no longer trapped by our neurotic selves because the prefrontal cortex, the very part of the brain generating that self, is no longer open for business. Scientists call this shutdown "transient hypofrontality."


By stepping outside ourselves we gain perspective. We become objectively aware of our costumes rather than subjectively fused with them. We realize we can take them off, discard those that are worn out or no longer fit, and even create new ones. That's the paradox of selflessness. By periodically losing our minds, we stand a better chance of finding ourselves.


In flow, 6 powerful neurotransmitters, norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, anandamide, and oxytocin, come online in various sequences and concentrations. They're the 6 most pleasurable chemicals the brain can produce, and these states are one of the only times we can get access to many of them at once.


Conscious processing can only handle about 120 bits of information at once. This is not much. Listening to another person speak can take almost 60 bits. But if we remember that our unconscious processing can handle billions of bits at once, we don't need to search outside ourselves for a credible source of all this 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.


Consider 3 substances that sit squarely inside the State's pale: caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. The coffee break, smoke break, and happy hour are the most culturally enshrined drug rituals of the modern era.


When we lose ourselves and merge with the group, we're in danger of losing too much of ourselves.


"Madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule." - Friedrich Nietzsche


Taken together, all this work, from the NDE studies to the cancer and trauma research to the flow and meditation programs, demonstrates that even brief moments spent outside ourselves produce a positive impact regardless of the mechanisms used to get there. And they can provide these benefits in the face of the deepest challenges imaginable.


"You can't read the label while you're sitting inside the jar." And that notion, that we can't always understand what we're too close to, sums up the relationship between psychology and neurobiology as forces for ecstasis. As substantial as the advances in psychology have been, what they've really done is make the inside of the jar bigger by expanding our sense of what's possible. But the field of neurobiology is doing something else altogether. By giving us an understanding of the ingredients on the label, it's providing a view of our lives from outside the jar.


To make these judgments, our brain must decide where our body ends and the rest of the world begins, essentially drawing a boundary line between self and other. It's a flexible boundary. When racecar drivers feel the road beneath their pedals or blind people feel the sidewalk through the tips of their cane, it is partially the result of the right parietal lobe blurring the boundary of self. What Dr. Andrew Newberg discovered is that extreme concentration can cause the right parietal lobe to shut down. It's an efficiency exchange, he explains. During ecstatic prayer or meditation, energy normally used for drawing the boundary of self gets reallocated for attention. When this happens, we can no longer distinguish self from other. At that moment, as far as the brain can tell, you are one with everything.


We're not smart and we have bodies. We're smart because we have bodies. The heart has about 40,000 neurons that play a part in shaping emotion, perception, and decision making. The stomach and intestines complete this network, containing more than 500 million nerve cells, 100 million neurons, 30 different neurotransmitters, and 90% of the body's supply of serotonin.


Dogs lick toads for the buzz. Horses go crazy for locoweed. Goats gobble magic mushrooms. Birds chew marijuana seeds. Cats enjoy catnip. Wallabies ravage poppy fields. Reindeer indulge fly agaric mushrooms. Baboons prefer eboga. Sheep delight in hallucinogenic lichen. And elephants get drunk on fermented fruit. Pursuit of intoxicating drugs in animals is the rule rather than the exception.


Researchers have concluded that intoxication plays a powerful evolutionary role – de-patterning.


A 2012 study found that encounters with perceptual vastness via the endless spiral of vastness in the night sky, or Android Jones' larger than life projections, triggers a self-negating time-dialating sense of awe. And this happens automatically.


While the field of immersive experience design and training is in it's infancy, early results like this project at Google suggest that by combining all of the advancements in technology, movement, sound, light, and sensors, with an embodied hands-on training program, you can trigger a range of non-ordinary states with far more precision and with much less risk. (Flow Dojo)


If your stalking ecstasis, if you want to see the 4 forces cranked up for full effect, then head out to that same desert festival Larry Page and Serge Brin used to screen Eric Schmidt, Burning Man.


While "Burners Without Borders" and "Beer for Data" marked two of the earliest examples of principles being exported into crisis zones, they're unlikely to be the last. With so much experience in self-organizing their own municipal infrastructure in a hostile environment, burners (burning man attendees) are particularly skilled at functioning in chaotic crises when normal services, running water, electricity, communication channels, and sanitation systems, are not available.


Ecstatic culture has often been spread by an educated elite.


We learned that when you take a bunch of really bright diverse people and let them share a dynamic immersive experience, you get powerful results. One of the things we discovered on that trip is that altered states accelerate business. This one-off experiment soon became the Summit Series. (It's been called TED crossed with Burning Man)


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.


In 2010 Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, discovered that information technologies ranging from the telegraph to radio, movies, and ultimately the internet, tend to behave in similar ways. Starting out utopian and democratic, and ending up centralized and hegemonic. (He has a book, "The Master Switch")


No matter what comes up, no matter how fantastical your experience, it helps to remember it's not about you.


It's not about now.


Enjoy the state, but be sure to do the work. And no matter how tempting it is, don't become a bliss junkie.


What one believes to be true, is true, or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. If there really are no limits to consciousness, then the point is not to keep going until we find it all, but to come back before we've lost it all. Because it really doesn't matter what we find down there, out there, or up there, if we're unable to bring it back to solid ground. So take it all in, but hold it loosely. And most critically, don't dive too deep.


4 rules of thumb to carry into our exploration of these states:

  1. It's not about you.

  2. It's not about now.

  3. Don't become a bliss junkie.

  4. Don't dive too deep.


Value = Time x Reward ÷ Risk

Time - the learning curve, how long you need to invest into a technique

Reward - how well we retain the insights that arise, and how consistently they drive positive change.

Risk - the potential dangers


Hedonic calendaring provides a way to hack the ecstatic path without coming undone. It gives us a method to integrate hard and fast approaches like extreme skiing and psychedelics, with slow and steady paths like meditation and yoga. It's one way to turn ecstasis into a sustainable long-term practice.


By balancing inebriated abandon with monk-like sobriety and extreme risk-taking with cozy domesticity, you'll create more contrast and spot patterns sooner. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.


"Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack - a crack in everything. It's where the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen


Unprecedented access to ecstasis has changed what is possible in our lives. Experiencing the selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, and richness of non-ordinary states of consciousness can accelerate learning, facilitate healing, and provide measurable impact in our lives and work. But we have to revise our tactics and upend convention to make the most of those advantages.

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