Book review: Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal
I’ve set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 new non-fiction books in 2017.
Book number eleven was Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work, by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal.
As a fan of Kotler’s work, I pre-ordered this the minute I heard about it, snapping it up as the Kindle edition for the bargain price of 99p.
This is a book all about ‘ecstasis’; their term borrowed from the Ancient Greek ἔκστασις, “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere” from ek- “out,” and stasis “a stand, or a standoff of forces”) is a term used in Ancient Greek, Christian and Existential philosophy.
It’s slightly different from ‘flow’, the subject of Kotler’s earlier book The Rise of Superman, but there’s a great deal of similarity.
The book itself is made up of three parts; an exploration of what ecstatis is and why it is so elusive, a description of the four ways in which people are finding ecstatis (psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology), and then consideration of how ecstasis can be sustainable, given the considerable risks associated with some of the techniques used.
Stealing Fire is a well researched and carefully structured book, which is detailed yet highly readable.
Before reading, I was slightly sceptical it might focus too much on the pharmaceutical approach to finding ecstasis, which seems to have become trendy amongst Silicon Valley influencers in recent years. Whilst the ‘take drugs, get high’ approach to ecstasis is covered, the conclusion to the book uses a simple equation to put this in context regarding the time needed to achieve ecstasis with the risks and rewards involved.
To give you a flavour of the book, here are some of the passages I highlighted on my Kindle:
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.
The final characteristic of ecstasis is “richness,” a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of non-ordinary states.
The Greeks called that sudden understanding anamnesis. Literally, “the forgetting of the forgetting.”
Umwelt is the technical term for the sliver of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive.
Initial studies showed eight weeks of meditation training measurably sharpened focus and cognition. Later ones whittled that down to five weeks.
And, as Ferriss explained on CNN, it wasn’t just the cofounder of Apple who made the leap. “The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis. These are people who are trying to be very disruptive. They look at problems in the world and they try to ask entirely new questions.”
So potent is the urge to get out of our heads that it functions as a “fourth drive,” a behavior-shaping force as powerful as our first three drives — the desire for food, water, and sex. The bigger question is why.
Ecstasis only arises when attention is fully focused in the present moment.
If we want to train for stability in all conditions, the science suggests, it’s essential to practice with instability first.
When deeply religious subjects view sacred iconography or reflect on their notion of God, brain scans reveal hyperactivity in the caudate nucleus, a part of the pleasure system that correlates with feelings of joy, love, and serenity. But Lindstrom and Calvert found that this same brain region lights up when subjects view images associated with strong brands like Ferrari or Apple.
If “focus-group politics” leaves us with a bad taste, how will “biofeedback politics” go down?
In nonordinary states, dopamine often skyrockets, while activity in the prefrontal cortex plummets. Suddenly we’re finding connections between ideas that we’ve never even thought of before. Some of those connections are legitimate insights; others are flights of fancy.
This leaves us with four rules of thumb to carry into our exploration of these states. It’s not about you and it’s not about now help us balance ego inflation and time distortion. While don’t become a bliss junky and don’t dive too deep ensure that we don’t get seduced by the sensations and information that arise in altered states.
Value = Time × Reward/Risk
In this equation, Time refers to the learning curve, or how long you need to invest in a particular technique until it can reliably produce the experience of STER. Reward refers to how well we retain the insights that arise and how consistently they drive positive change. Risk refers to 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.
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.
The Japanese get at this same idea with the concept of wabi sabi — or the ability to find beauty 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.
My next read is Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular, by Derek Thompson
Here are links to the reviews of the books I’ve read to date in 2017:
Book review #1 — Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics by Richard H Thaler
Book review #3 — Reinvent Yourself by James Altucher
Book review #10 — Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, by Tim Harford.