Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal has been the most well-written book I’ve read that synthesizes subjects around transformative technology, psychedelics, and state-shifting practices. They have packaged many of these underground topics residing within the confines of niche sub-cultures, into an easy-to-read, robustly-researched, no-nonsense guide for the masses.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve experimented with some of the consciousness hacking tools I’ve written about – from holotropic breathwork to access the unconscious, to brainwave entrainment to accelerate meditation. As transformative as these tools can be, chances are Joe from next door hasn’t heard of any of them. Reading books like Stealing Fire are beyond exciting as they become crucial catalysts to bring these ideas to the mainstream.
Kotler and Wheal report on the latest findings in neurobiology, psychology, and psychopharmacology to legitimize these controversial tools to the most skeptical of readers. In this article I’m going to give an overview of Stealing Fire, highlighting some of the most important ideas, people, and resources mentioned in the book.
Stealing Fire starts off with a fascinating glimpse inside the inner-workings of the U.S. Navy Seals. We all know the Seals are comprised of the world’s smartest, strongest, and mentally toughest individuals, but what I didn’t realize was finding and training these superhumans isn’t the secret sauce behind this elite group.
What makes this organization so effective is their uncanny ability to bring individual parts together, and make them cohesively work as a single, synchronized unit. In the midst of a mission, no one person is assigned the leader, yet rely on the team’s moment-to-moment decision-making for an individual to step up and take the lead, with the rest of the team moving behind.
This hive mind mentality allows the group to stay nimble, fluid, and execute better in unknown environments. Their success is directly hinged on each members ability to get out of their head and into a collective awareness. Kotler and Wheal described a Greek word that sums up this state – Ecstasis – the act of “stepping beyond oneself.”
It’s the same state you experience when skiing down a mountain and flow kicks in. Or when you’re dancing to your favorite song in a nightclub, and you suddenly lose yourself to the music. Or when you’ve taken a powerful psychedelic, and the walls of self and other suddenly dissolve, leaving you feeling connected to the cosmos.
Although these scenarios are vastly different on the surface, the “Ecstatic” processes inside your brain, nervous system and consciousness at large are strikingly similar. Kotler and Wheal describe four distinct characteristics of Ecstasis (abbreviated as STER):
- S – Selflessness: Quieting of the constantly chattering monkey mind, and feelings of connection with your environment.
- T – Timelessness: Ruminations of past or future events come to a halt and you enter into the present moment.
- E – Effortlessness: Athletes call this being “in the zone.” Jazz musicians call it “playing in the pocket.” This is when thoughts cease, and effortless action takes place.
- R – Richness: Brain waves slow down to alpha/theta range, neurotransmitters like dopamine gets released, we become hyper-focused, and bits of information from our environment we normally are unaware of suddenly become available to us.
Why does Ecstasis matter?
Now that you have a better idea of what Ecstasis is, the next question many would ask is why does it matter? Sure, losing yourself surfing a wave or experiencing the ego dissolving qualities of Psilocybin sound fun, but are there tangible, long-term benefits of entering these altered states? Research has shown that Ecstatic states can be looked at as a swiss army knife of sorts, leading to a bevy of mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits:
- Stress and anxiety relief
- Depression management
- Enhanced immunity
- Increased focus
- Better memory
- Enhanced cognitive ability
- Emotional healing from past traumas
- Removing negative habits
- Easing end of life anxiety
- Positive lasting personality change
- Life changing mystical experiences
One of the best arguments Kotler and Wheal makes is the ability to enhance creativity and ability to solve what they refer to as “wicked problems.” In 2013 the largest meta-analysis of creativity research was conducted, reviewing over thirty thousand papers and interviewing hundreds of experts in the field. They concluded that 1.) creativity is essential for solving complex problems and 2.) we have little success training people to be creative, as creativity is a side effect from being in an ecstatic-like state of consciousness.
Conventional tools like logic and reason are ineffective to tackle Wicked problems, where the information around the problem is either incomplete, contradictory, and constantly shifting. In order to solve these problems, you must approach it from a radically different perspective. By shifting your state of consciousness, you’re able to view old problems from new vantage points, coming up with novel solutions in the process. As Albert Einstein once wrote “I didn’t arrive at my understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe through my rational mind.”
Practices like meditation, psychedelics such as LSD, or technology such as floatation tanks allow us to tap into these hyper-creative states, bypassing the confines logic or reason. Kotler and Wheal talk about this idea in their book:
“Wicked problems are those without easy answers—where our rational, binary logic breaks down and our normal tools fail us. But the information richness of a nonordinary state affords us perspective and allows us to make connections where none may have existed before. And it doesn’t seem to matter which technique we deploy: mindfulness training, technological stimulation or pharmacological priming, the end results are substantial. Consider the gains: a 200 percent boost in creativity, a 490 percent boost in learning, a 500 percent boost in productivity.”
The Four Forces of Ecstasis
Kotler and Wheal talk about how accelerating developments in four fields are allowing Ecstatic states to become more accessible and experienced with greater understanding than ever before. These “Four Forces of Ecstasis” include psychology, neurobiology, psychopharmacology, and technology, all dedicated with its own chapter. Let’s go into a brief overview of what each of these Ecstatic fields is all about.
Over the last several decades, the pursuit of personal and spiritual development has been radically adopted by our culture at large. National figures like Oprah have championed spiritual advisors such as Eckhart Tolle, Fortune 500 CEO’s are advocating the benefits of meditation to their employees, Yoga has become one of the most popular ways to enhance the body and mind.
With the stigma of “self-exploration” unshackled by society, we’re able to explore the Ecstatic terrain with greater freedom. This chapter describes the collective process our culture underwent to arrive at this stage and some of the major discoveries made along the way. Here are some of the key individuals mentioned:
- Eckhart Tolle and the growing adoption of personal development in America.
- Dick Price, the co-founder of The Esalen Institute – regarded by the NY Times as the “Harvard of the Human Potential movement.”
- Nicole Daedone, founder of OneTaste, which practices an orgasmic meditation to gain entry to ecstatic states
- Neuroscientist Willoughby Britton on how near death experiences (NDE) can rewire the brain towards greater happiness.
Advancements in neurobiology have allowed us to gain a clearer picture of what goes on inside the brain and body during states of Ecstasis.
Electroencephalography (EEG) headsets strapped to Tibetan monks have found brain waves slowing down to alpha and theta states during meditation. Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) analyzing Franciscan nuns deep in prayer show a deactivation of the brain’s parietal lobe, responsible for creating a sense of self. fMRI scanners have found both the amygdala and hippocampus (controlling emotions, survival instincts, and memory) have heightened activity in states associated with spiritual enlightenment.
This chapter outlines these major discoveries, which give us a clear roadmap to enter Ecstatic states with greater precision. Here are some of the major players mentioned:
- Amy Cuddy and the power of body language to affect mood.
- The world’s first artificially intelligent (AI) shrink named Ellie created by DARPA able to read participants facial expressions to uncover psychological conditions.
- Advanced Brain Monitoring using EEG and HRV monitors to detect precognition and group flow in the US military and top business schools.
- Dr. Andrew Newberg, a pioneer in the field of Neurotheology and using advanced brain monitoring technology to understand what the brain undergoes during a religious experience.
It can be argued that the desire to enter altered states of consciousness is an intrinsic aspect of the human experience. For thousands of years, mind-altering substances are one of most immediate (and powerful) methods people have fulfilled this natural desire.
In this chapter, Kotler and Wheal explore how various substances can powerfully trigger Ectasis, including the major players in the current psychedelic renaissance. Here’s some of the key people mentioned:
- Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin on open-sourcing psychedelic recipes through his cult-classic books PiHKAL and TiHKAL
- Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt of Imperial College London on discoveries using fMRI scanners to study the brain under psychedelics
- Hyperspace Lexicon (from the site dmt-nexus.me) helping to create a new language around ineffable psychedelic experiences
- Lee Cronin on the potential of 3D printing psychedelic drugs
Although the current psychedelic renaissance is giving people a reliable and immediate door into powerful Ecstatic states, technological innovations are allowing people to enter those same non-ordinary states of consciousness, but in a way that’s legal, safe, and accessible.
As Kotler and Wheal state “Technology is bringing ecstasis to the masses, allowing us to taste it all, without having to risk it all.” From VR experiences to transport you of your body to biofeedback training that can hack your nervous system, emerging technology is allowing us to scale ecstasis. Here are some the exciting technologies and key players mentioned in this chapter:
- Tony Andrews (founder of Funktion-One speaker system) on using audio to tap into trance states
- Android Jones (of Microdose VR) on creating immersive, VR experiences to induce awe
- Mikey Segal of Consciousness Hacking & Transformative Tech Conference on emerging technology to innovate spirituality
- Flow Dojo, a training & research center that merges many of the technologies mentioned in this article to hack flow states
Ecstasis As a Tool For Harm
As a hammer can be used to either build a house or break into a car, so too can Ecstasis be harnessed for a range of positive and negative effects. We’ve outlined all the amazing benefits state-shifting can have on your life, but Ecstatic inducing tools also have the potential for harm and abuse.
Psychedelics such as marijuana have the potential to be addictive, technology like virtual reality can quickly turn into an isolating escape from reality, even practices like meditation can make you feel more stressed without proper guidance. These tools are powerful and need to be handled with care. Proper education, training, and mentorship should be practiced to maximize benefits while minimizing potential negative side effects.
On a collective level, Wheal and Kotler talk about two organizations that have the greatest vested interest to deploy Ecstasis: the military and marketers. The military has been known to:
- Use LSD to control minds
- Show great interest in mind control technology such as John Lily’s “Lily-Wave”
- Use state-shifting tools like flashing lights and sounds to mentally break prisoners of war
- Conduct multi-year intelligence program on Burning Man
Marketers are also using Ecstatic technology for their own profit pursuing-agendas:
- Studies have found the same emotional regions of the brain light up for religious icons and brand logos
- Companies like Jeep are creating product demos fueled by Ecstasis – passengers travel through a Mud hog, with music blasting, lights flashing, and crowds around you – leading to a peak state of arousal (and then later sold on the car).
- Biofeedback devices have been used by video game designers to make the experience as addictive and dopamine/adrenaline filled as possible
- As Virtual Reality develops, heart monitors and brainwave devices may track your nervous system and subliminally use this against you to sell you on various product/services.
Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal is one of the best books I’ve read that beautifully synthesizes many of the topics I’ve written about on this site. It’s a manifesto of sorts for the consciousness hacking community, which makes compelling, well-researched arguments of the benefits of Ecstasis – which cannot only transform an individual but potentially society at large. It gives a balanced look at technologies and practices that can get us into Ecstasis – covering the possibilities and dangerous pitfalls associated with each. If you’re a fan of warrior.do, you’ll love the book.
- Jason Silva eloquently praising Stealing Fire
- Jamie Wheal TED Talk: Altered States to Altered Traits: Hacking Flow
- Engineering Super Human Traits | Jason Silva and Steven Kotler
- ONE Series | Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal on Stealing Fire
Cover Art by: Seamless