Stealing Ecstasis

Prometheus
L’Homme formé par Prométhée et animé par Minerve (Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena, detail), 1802 by Jean-Simon Berthélemy

According to the ancient myth, Prometheus risked eternal torment to bring mankind the gift of fire that would unlock the secrets of civilization.

That myth supplies the title for Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.

I think the authors actually see themselves as modern day Prometheus bringing us a new secret knowledge. I think of the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus.  The doctor also believed that The title and subtitles doesn’t really let you know where they are headed 

The recurring theme or word in the book is ecstasis. This is an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence. In the book, they examine people who achieve it through various paths from taking controlled substances, to participating in extreme sports.

It is an elusive state of mind. You may have had moments of ecstasis. Have you ever been so engrossed in a task (not in a movie or book) that everything around you, including time, disappears? Performing artists, athletes, writers, scientists report a highly creative state that we might casually call being “in the zone” where their consciousness reaches another plane.

The philosophy of ecstasy is not new. Ecstasy, from the Ancient Greek ekstasis, meant “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere” coming from ek– “out,” and stasis “a stand, or a standoff of forces.” It is a word that occurs in Ancient Greek, Christian and Existential philosophy, though different traditions using the concept have radically different perspectives.  

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.”

In our time, it has also become a buzzword philosophy. The authors mention that billionaires “in Silicon Valley take psychedelics to help themselves solve complex problems.” 

It has even entered the business world, as one Forbes article points out, as the result of “finding your natural fit” in the world or in the world of work. 

It is not surprising that ecstasis is associated with drugs because the state, even if not induced by chemical substances taken, sounds like a drug-induced state. There is even a drug called Ecstasy (MDMA). Certainly, there are naturally occurring neurochemicals in the brain released when people report ecstasis. And so, with a kind of logic, people believe they can gain a shortcut to this state by taking these or similar chemicals. 

Though some turn to microdosing mind-altering drugs, others turn to meditation. The book, in its attempt to be comprehensive, looks at many methods and related approaches that have their own buzzwords, like grit, flow and tipping point:.

You have to accept a modern premise that human achievement, discovery, success and enlightenment have some algorithm that can be found and used.

One review of the book that I read suggests that it is a kind of self-help book, but rather than just offering self-improvement, ecstasis looks to improve the nature of humanity and transform the world.

The examples in the book of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, or Bill Gates or Navy SEALS seem to be outliers who have assets that almost none of us can access.

It is a bit frightening to me that this philosophy has had the most research into generating “flow” and getting “into the zone” has become the domain of elite organizations and individuals, including the military. The book was a bestseller and was CNBC and Strategy + Business Best Business Book of 2017.

Kotler’s earlier book The Rise of Superman, was more about the concept of flow, but there is definitely crossover. In Stealing Fire’s middle section, they examine four ways in which people are finding ecstasis: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology.

The last section of the book that interested me the most, but was ultimately most disappointing. It considers how ecstasis can be sustainable, and bridge the extreme (and sometimes dangerous or illegal) examples, and the mainstream.

Another esoteric term I picked up in reading the book is umwelt. This is a technical term for the piece of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive. It’s just a sliver of the world around us.

The authors note that studies of people who did eight weeks of meditation training measurably sharpened their focus, cognition and flow. Not necessarily a state of ecstasis, but on that path.

Some believers say that in addition to our three basic drives (food, water, sex), we should consider this drive to “get out of our heads” as a fourth drive.

Because ecstasis seems to arise when attention is fully focused in the present moment, the immediate connection is to meditation of practices such as Buddhism that also contain that philosophy.

A kind of equation – Value = Time × Reward/Risk has been used as one way to explain the path, where “time” refers to time needed to learn a particular technique until it can reliably produce ecstasis.  They also point to those who do not use one technique but use many; the person who does extreme skiing and psychedelics, along with meditation and yoga, living in extremes. This contrast is thought to make it easier to spot patterns.

Is ecstasis making it into the mainstream? The authors would say yes, as evidenced by a trillion dollar underground economy of exploration. Are you on the path?

 

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Ken Ronkowitz

Random by design. Predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente. A lifelong educator.

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