Book Summary – Stealing Fire (How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work)

For US Navy SEAL Team Six, flow means entering a state of “collective awareness.” The team must act as one – at peak performance and with absolute focus – to execute its most dangerous missions. Only by entering this state of “merged consciousness,” can SEALs multiply their intelligence and prevent the actions of one individual from jeopardizing the whole mission. Their brains release powerful chemicals, including norepinephrine and dopamine, which make their responses razor-sharp. A SEAL’s ability to merge consciousness with the team, especially in the dangerous, difficult conditions, matters more than any other skill or ability he or she possesses.

“Advances in science and technology are giving us unprecedented access to and insight about the upper range of human experience.”

Google invested millions in a mindfulness facility to help employees attain flow and remain within their heightened focus. The benefits of ecstasis drive an “altered states economy” that features coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, immersive experiences, virtual reality, online porn and social media. It accounts for a $4 trillion chunk of the US economy annually.

The “Four Characteristics” of Ecstasis

Everyone experiencing ecstasis shares the same four feelings that make up the “STER” acronym:

  1. “Selflessness” – In evolutionary terms, the brain’s prefrontal cortex formed relatively recently. It enables humans to act thoughtfully at the cost of heightened self-awareness. The opportunity to escape churning thoughts, however briefly, drives the quest for altered states. Respites from your critical self can provide “a few moments of relief” from your inner clamor. Shutting “off the self” lets you see yourself clearly and objectively.
  2. “Timelessness” – People obsess about time more than they do about money or sex. In an altered state, you live in the moment and forget past failures or future possibilities. You perform better because you access clear data – information from the “now” rather than fuzzy data from the past or unreliable predictions about the future.
  3. “Effortlessness” – In achieving a state of ecstasis, your brain releases six neurochemicals – “norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, anandamide and oxytocin.” These make you feel great and more capable, so you want to keep doing whatever it was that released them in the first place. You can reach flow and ecstasis through sexual techniques, “micro-doses” of psychedelic drugs, jumping off a cliff in a wingsuit, advanced meditation and yoga, or engaging deeply with purposeful work.
  4. “Richness” – The neurochemicals of flow heighten awareness and help you draw connections you might otherwise ignore or miss. This provides euphoric feelings of understanding and oneness, including the ability to bring disparate ideas together, to see things in a new light and to generate ideas and solutions.

Flow-Inducing Experiences

Despite the adverse health effects intoxicants can have on humans and other animals, they both take drugs. For example, bottlenose dolphins toss puffer fish back and forth to ingest small doses of their “neurotoxins” and to get high. Cats use catnip. Dogs lick toads, and goats eat “magic mushrooms.” Use of drugs in some of the animal kingdom suggests a natural, biological drive.

Society’s Strictures and Endorsements

For most people, psychedelic drugs remain “beyond the pale” – that place where demons lurk. Achieving euphoria has risks. Researcher Robin Carhart-Harris uses fMRI scans to assess subjects who are high on psychedelics. Scans show that parts of the brain responsible for ego and self-consciousness shut down, allowing other parts that normally don’t connect with each other to form links, thus leading to novel ideas and creativity. Carhart-Harris asserts that these insights should help relax taboos against drugs so humanity can solve its hardest problems and discover more about the unknown universes within each person.

“Under normal conditions, with an active prefrontal cortex constantly scanning scenarios in the past and the future, we spend very little time living completely in the present.”

British physician David Nutt encountered resistance when he determined that horseback riding is many times more dangerous than using the drug Ecstasy. The press vilified Nutt, and he had to explain himself to Parliament. He tested legal and illegal drugs and found heroin harmful, but second to alcohol. He ranked LSD, mushrooms and ecstasy as far lower risks than tobacco. After this study, the government fired him as Britain’s drug czar even though the nation’s most prestigious medical journal published his findings.

“When our attention is focused on the present, we stop scanning yesterday for painful experiences…We quit daydreaming about a tomorrow that’s better than today. With our prefrontal cortex offline, we can’t run those scenarios.”

Substantially identical drugs – illegal “meth” and legal Ritalin – have very different paths. One can lead to addiction, overdose, jail and death; the other is prescribed to millions of children. Society endorses Ritalin, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, which keep the workforce and the economy humming. But when people go too far, the results can include addiction and overdoses. Efforts to escape within yourself, reach ecstasis, or find elation can lead to great harm.

Mainstream Ecstasy

Just as the printing press made religious teachings available to all and undermined the Church’s power in the 15th century, today the “Four Forces of Ecstasis” – psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology and technology – combine to break through the mysteries of consciousness. Evidence is replacing superstition as technology enables more people to experience ecstasis more often. Entire communities have evolved around the quest for altered states. The founders of the Summit Series, an event similar to Nevada’s counterculture Burning Man festival, purchased a Utah mountain to foster a permanent place where ideas and creativity could flow year round.

“If you train your body and brain, and manage your energy and attention, you’ll be able to get into the flow more frequently and perform better at work and at home.”

If you attend Burning Man, you’ll see a wide range of possible altered states, but a lot more goes on than wild parties. Most attendees report at least one “transformative” experience during festival events – and with lasting effects. Burning Man generates new ideas each year, including Elon Musk’s Hyperlink train and Tony Hsieh’s redesign of corporate culture at Zappos. Altered states regularly lead to applicable innovations and to solutions to big problems. When Google searched for a CEO, it put candidates through the grinder. Ultimately, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page settled on Eric Schmidt, who first proved his mettle by attending and understanding the Burning Man festival. Once on board, Schmidt’s ability to enter Google’s consciousness rather than feed his own ego paved the way for his astounding success as CEO.

“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.”

Schmidt’s intangible qualities don’t lend themselves to measurement or easy description. But the work of some “rebel” scientists reveals a better understanding of how and why flow and ecstasis occur. Almost half of US employers promote “mindfulness meditation,” saving millions in medical costs. Harvard professors teach happiness. Some 36 million Americans practice yoga, and neuroscience is booming. Cognitive supplements are a billion-dollar industry. Despite society’s abhorrence of drugs, 10% of Americans use psychedelics, and marijuana is the basis of the fastest-growing US industry.

“We have terabytes of information available to us; we just can’t tap into it in our normal state.”

New scientific knowledge has opened the door to altered states for the masses. Today, millions achieve other levels of consciousness more often, “on demand” and for longer times. The enormous field of personal development promises access to altered states while remaining safely within the bounds of mainstream society. Ecstasis penetrates the popular culture. For example, the finale of the popular television series Mad Men concludes with its protagonist, Don Draper, at Esalen, a famous 1960s spiritual retreat that epitomized the New Age movement. Here, Draper enters the zone and comes up with the legendary ad slogan, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”

The New Forces of Flow

Exploring flow may require shedding some of the bonds that hold you back, say, from total immersion in an engrossing activity, but it doesn’t require trespassing social norms. Leverage what science knows about your body: Get sunlight. Exercise to lift depression. Stand in a power pose so you feel confident. Don’t wait to feel better to go take a walk; walk now. Don’t wait until after you ace a sales call to pump your fist in the air. Pump yourself up first. Science suggests inducing feelings of triumph beforehand, to prepare, rather than afterward to celebrate.

“If we remember that our unconscious processing can handle billions of bits at once, we don’t need to search outside ourselves to find a credible source for all that miraculous insight.”

Psychology reveals the possible range of consciousness; neurobiology explains which levers trigger which results. The connections between body and mind operate in both directions. Botox injections – which can freeze facial expressions – can cause significant mood changes and even impair users’ ability to empathize. In other words, if you can’t smile, you won’t be happy, and if you can’t frown, you can’t feel sad. Thinking requires the whole body system, including your gut, which acts as a “second brain” if you let it. Just striking an open, powerful physical pose can change your brain chemistry, making you more confident and more willing to take risks. For thousands of years, yoga gurus have used the body to master the mind. To tap your full potential, try to regain the powerful connection between body and mind.

“When altered states trigger timelessness, they deliver us to the perpetual present – where we have undistracted access to the most reliable data.”

Like other flow-inducing techniques, meditation can deliver “unity” – that feeling of oneness with the universe. Studies with fMRI and PET scans show that during intense meditation, energy moves from the part of the brain normally devoted to a sense of self to the part of the brain reserved for focus and attention. This dissolves the boundaries between self and everything else, creating a sense of deep connection. Similar scientific experiments in neurotheology – using “modern brain science to…study…religious experience” – help explain spiritual phenomena like “trances” and “speaking in tongues.”

Privacy and Self-Control

Government and big business remain a threat to ecstasis. Neuromarketing research reveals how consumers react subconsciously to brands and messages. In the emerging “transformation economy, “ as author Joe Pine calls it, marketers will tap your aspirations to sell you what you want to become.  “In the transformation economy,” he says, “the customer is the product.”

“Timelessness, devoid of reference points, can feel a lot like paranoid schizophrenia.”

Researchers now can use biometrics to gauge and manipulate people’s emotions and actions. Neuromarketing tools measure pupil dilation, galvanic skin response, heart rate and other subconscious indicators of arousal. The implications for politics, population control and advertising might give anyone pause, especially when combined with addictive entertainments like virtual reality. These flow-inducing technologies deliver an addictive experience. Many people trade their privacy for more ecstasy. Government and corporations have everything to gain by controlling access to altered states. For the first time in centuries, access to ecstasis lies within your easy grasp. Use it responsibly. Stay on your guard, and join with others to make sure authorities and corporations don’t take your access away.

“The ecstasy will always come with the agony; that’s the human condition.”

Practice self-control by policing your transcendental moments carefully. In an ecstatic state, your self-awareness drops and dopamine can make your minor ideas and patterns feel significant. Evaluate any insights you gain a day, a week or even a month later before acting on them. Life and work enrich you and keep you grounded, but living in a constant state of flow could cost you your mind and maybe your life. Seek balance.