Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Altered states of consciousness” conjures visions of rogue scientists hitting hallucinogens and then sealing themselves up in sensory deprivation tanks until they either have a breakthrough or a breakdown. This book may touch on such activities, but it’s about something else. It’s about the states of consciousness in which the part of the mind that is critical, overly cautious, and always creating worst case scenarios fades into the background, allowing one to be more effective, happier, and to drop one’s neurotic tendencies. Kotler and Wheal refer to this as ecstasis, borrowing from the Greek word meaning “to get outside oneself.” They differentiate it from the Flow of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi with which it clearly has overlap. (One of the authors, Kotler, wrote a great book on the exploitation of Flow by extreme athletes entitled “The Rise of Superman.”) [I’d love to see a Venn diagram of how they see these states overlapping, but—alas—one isn’t provided, though there is some discussion of it.]
The book is organized into three parts. The first part consists of three chapters and it both explores what ecstasis is and why it’s so hard to find. The story of how the Navy SEALs designs training to build group Flow states on command is illuminating as is the second chapter’s discussion of how Jason Silva found ecstasis through freewheeling philosophizing. The third of the chapters describes three prominent barriers to achieving these states of mind. These barriers are among the reasons for the rarity of these altered states even though they’re available to everyone.
The heart of the book is the second part which describes four avenues by which people pursue these altered states of consciousness: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology. The chapter on psychology uses a dialogue series between Oprah and Eckhart Tolle as a stepping off point, probably more because of what it tells us about the scale of yearning for ways to get outside of one’s head than because of the dialogues’ value in facilitating that condition. Positive psychology as recipient of a mantle once held by religion and spiritualism is an important theme in this chapter.
The neurobiology chapter isn’t just about the biology of the brain and nervous system; it’s about the integration of brain and body. In it, we learn about how expressions, postures, and gestures can influence our state of mind.
Many apparently believe that the story of pharmacology is a much bigger part of this book than it actually is, but it’s a part that’s hard to ignore. As one who seeks non-pharmacological approaches to Flow (I’m more about yoga, meditation, and movement) I still found this chapter fascinating, and perhaps most so in its discussion of other species’ pursuit of chemically induced highs [particularly that of dolphins.]
The technology discussed covers a range of approaches from biofeedback devices designed to help one navigate one’s way into the zone, to gear to help one engage in trigger activities at lower risk. For example, the mix of defiance of gravity and high-speed gliding experienced wing-suiting seems to be a potent trigger for ecstasis. It also seems to kill anyone who keeps doing it long enough. So the question is whether one can create the sensation and still achieve the trigger without inevitably experiencing an untimely demise.
The grimness of that last paragraph is an apropos lead-in to discussion of the book’s final part, which considers how one can organize one’s pursuit of ecstasis without running into the many pitfalls that coexist with it—from becoming a pleasure junky to dropping out of life to killing oneself. The first of three chapters in the final part discusses the Burning Man festival phenomena in great detail as well as other avenues by which people find themselves drawn into the pursuit of altered consciousness. The next chapter describes how both government and commercial firms have sought to exploit the bliss of these altered states. The last chapter is about how to merge daily life and pursuit of ecstasis in a balanced way so one avoids becoming a pleasure junky who runs his life aground on rocky shoals in pursuit of the next ecstasis fix.
The book is endnoted, and has some nice ancillary features—a number of which are available online with the link being given at the back of the book. An appendix that I found interesting was one entitled “Notes on Inside Baseball.” This section discussed a number of controversies that were outside the scope of the book, but which readers might wish to research in greater detail.
I found this book to be highly engaging. The authors use the narrative approach throughout to keep it interesting, while at the same time conveying complex ideas in an approachable fashion. They scour many disparate realms in search of this altered consciousness, and so there’s never a dull moment.
I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about how to shut down that perpetually critical and gloomy part of the brain so that one can achieve one’s optimal potential.
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