Stealing Fire challenges a preconceived conception of how and why people are successful. Instead of grit, better habits, or 10,000 hours, modern trailblazers harness rare and controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges. The authors spent four years investigating the leading edges of this revolution. This revolution spans from the home of SEAL Team Six to the Googleplex, from Burning Man to the United Nations’ Headquarters. All of these groups have been quietly seeking a boost in information and inspiration that non-ordinary states of consciousness provide.
About Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author, an award-winning journalist, and the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective. He is the author of nine bestsellers, including The Art of Impossible, The Future is Faster Than You Think, The Rise of Superman, Bold, and Abundance. His work has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, translated into over 40 languages, and has appeared in over 100 publications.
About Jamie Wheal
Jamie Wheal is a co-founder of the Flow Genome Project, an international organization dedicated to ultimate human performance research and training. In his career in wilderness guiding, he has rescued people from the Atlantic Ocean during a hurricane. Plus, he has taken the youngest group of Americans ever to Camp III on the North Face of Mount Everest.
“When free from the confines of our normal identity, we are able to look at life, and the often repetitive stories we tell about it, with fresh eyes. Come Monday morning, we may still clamber back into the monkey suits of our everyday roles—parent, spouse, employee, boss, neighbor—but, by then, we know they’re just costumes with zippers.” – Steven Kotler
The book starts with the stories of the ancient Greek archdiocese and the myths of Prometheus. Prometheus stole the fire so that he could share it with the world. The fire is considered a metaphor for an altered state of mind and improved knowledge. Hence, Stealing Fire introduces ways you can influence your mind to open up opportunities. Your state of mind and your ability to engage with a flow state depends on your control over specific brain areas. Specifically, the authors highlight that altered consciousness relates to your ability to switch off specific areas and functions. In fact, they argue this action potentially impacts your consciousness more than switching on other areas of your brain. There are particular characteristics associated with effectively switching off certain parts of your brain, which the authors outline with the acronym STER.
- Selflessness – Your precortex is associated with your sense of self and internal voices. Hence, it is also associated with the negative things you associate with yourself. The authors suggest shutting down this area so you can experience collective awareness.
- Timelessness – You can learn to have a total disinterest in time.
- Effortlessness – Things in your life seem to click into place with minimal effort.
- Richness – Removing your ego by switching off your precortex will allow your subconscious to significantly influence your life. Allowing your subconscious to take over will make your data processing faster and your experience richer.
Live in the Present
The authors believe you can reach a state of ecstasy by living in the present. If you remain present in the moment, you will forget yourself and lose track of time. To support this point, the authors talk about the Flow State coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In a state of flow, you are completely focused on the task at hand. To encourage these states, the authors recommend filling your days with tasks that are optimized for pushing you into these states. For example, avoid tasks that are too easy. Easy tasks will lead to boredom, which is not conducive to flow or motivation. On the flip side, also try to avoid tasks that are so challenging they have unattainable goals. If you can find tasks that are challenging with achievable goals, you can reach a state where you are completely present and focused.
Common Approaches for Reaching Ecstasy
As humans, we are all seeking experiences of ecstasy. The authors provide a list of some of the most popular methods for reaching these states:
- Hallucinogenic Drugs
- Risky Undertakings
- Communal Experiences
The list of experiences above are commonly associated with a state of ecstasy because each of them activates the same neural pathways. Specifically, each of these activities is associated with heightened activation of the serotonin system. This greater activation subsequently leads to an increase in the release of serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, norepinephrine, and anandamide. Each of these neurotransmitters make us feel more loved, connected, trusting, and open.
Ecstasy Is Easier Today
The authors believe that recent human developments have made reaching a state of ecstasy far easier than in our evolutionary past. Specifically, they point to four forces that have become increasingly influential with the development of society.
Psychology has advanced considerably in the past few decades. The authors argue the most influential change has been a shift in psychology towards studying human potential rather than human illness. This field of psychology, called positive psychology, has encouraged people to pursue experiences that resemble ecstasy.
“With the prefrontal cortex down-regulated, most impulse control mechanisms go offline too. For people who aren’t used to this combination, the results can be expensive.” – Steven Kotler
Advancements in neurobiology have allowed us to better understand which neurotransmitters create positive states and which do not. Understanding our brains helps us recognize our own experiences. Plus, it also helps us to work out ways to reach personal ecstasy. The authors provide several examples of how hacking your neurobiology is linked to ecstatic experiences:
- The release of norepinephrine and dopamine, like through exercise, can help tighten focus. Subsequently, your pattern recognition ability will increase, and your brainwaves will slow from beta to alpha.
- Shutting your prefrontal cortex down creates something called transient hypofrontality. The authors explain that researchers have found this state to be linked with a sense of peace.
- You can obtain ‘The Deep Now’ by switching off your prefrontal cortex. Switching off this area, your sense of time will no longer support your understanding of past, present, and future.
- At the deeper levels of ecstasy, your brain will start releasing endorphins and anandamide. They decrease pain and distress. Anandamide promotes “lateral thinking” that helps to establish connections between concepts. Hence, this is when many successful inventions are created.
- Finally, as you reach the depths of ecstasy, your brainwaves will shift into quasi-hypnotic theta. These are the brainwaves associated with REM sleep. Then, you will experience an afterglow of serotonin and oxytocin.
We have had natural substances that can produce ecstasy since humans first evolved. However, recent advancements in pharmacology have allowed us to chemically develop substances that impact particular parts of our brains. For example, one can achieve a state of ecstasy from taking MDMA.
“Ecstatic technology isn’t limited to silicon chips and display screens. As John Lilly’s early research established, it’s the knowledge of how to tweak the knobs and levers in our brain. When we get it right, it produces those invaluable sensations of selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, and richness.” – Steven Kotler
Technology has changed the way we experience the world around us by enhancing the positive experiences we already have. However, technology also has the potential to create new realities that are characterized by states of ecstasy. For example, immersing yourself in virtual reality.
The Ecstasy Value Equation
In addition to the positives, states of ecstasy also have their risks. Taking drugs can lead to bad trips which you never recover from, while adventurous sports can lead to death. Therefore, before engaging with ecstasy experiences, the authors recommend setting up a cost-benefit analysis. Consider the risks and rewards associated with each experience. For them, the most
efficient way of doing this is by using the ecstasy value equation:
Value=Time x Reward/Risk
Within this equation, the value will tell you whether the activity is worth engaging with. Time relates to how long it will take you to reach your required state of ecstasy. Finally, the rewards relate to the pleasure you receive, and the risk is the dangers posed for your mind and body.
Try to Avoid Getting Addicted
“The point is not to keep going until you find it all, but to come back before you lost it all.” – Steven Kotler
Even after calculating your ecstasy value equation, you must also consider whether you are getting addicted to experiencing ecstasy. The authors use the example of free drivers. Free drivers claim to experience a huge buzz and feeling of euphoria while diving. However, some divers become addicted to that feeling of being deep in the water. The result is that some divers go deeper and deeper until they go past their limits and never come back.
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