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?

 

Just One Hour of Mindfulness

People want the quick fix. That’s why short-term diets and five-minute self-help plans are always popular. I would say that in almost all these cases, quick fixes are not great fixes.  But I read this week about recent research on people who deal with anxiety may experience psychological and physiological benefits from a single introductory mindfulness meditation session.

It is a small study, but after participating in an hour-long guided intro session to mindfulness meditation, the participants with high levels of anxiety experienced lower resting heart rates and other cardiovascular risk markers. They self-reported feeling less anxious than at the start of the study.

Maybe more importantly, a week later, the participants still reported anxiety levels that were lower than the levels pre-meditation.

All that from a single mindfulness meditation session. Imagine what a regular practice might accomplish.

Mindfulness means being aware of where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, withholding judgment, and paying specific attention to breath.

The study I read about had participants meditate for 20 minutes before being led through a 30-minute “body scan” (similar to progressive muscle relaxation). They concluded with 10 minutes of self-guided meditation.

Lately, I’m reading more about “revised meditation.” There are methods that don’t involve sitting motionless on a pillow for hours. In one approach, you just find moments of gratitude and awareness in your day.

Though I may still be somewhat doubtful of a quick fix, I would agree that if you can get in a few minutes every day of mediation in some form, you will benefit.

If meditation just doesn’t work for you, you can do some everyday tasks more mindfully It may sound silly, but you can meditate while you eat. Mindful eating means slowing down, paying attention to your food, and listening to your body.

Mindfulness and Children

Adults have been telling children to be mindful for generations, in the sense of them being more conscious or aware of something. Mindfulness, that mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, is at another level of awareness.

You can find a variety of definitions of mindfulness, but it is more associated with meditation and other practices and involves acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It is used to combat stress, improve attention, and often used as a therapeutic technique as well as a spiritual and religious practice.

But is it something we can, or should, teach kids?

benefits: it increases optimism and happiness in classrooms, decreases bullying and aggression, increases compassion and empathy for others and helps students resolve conflicts.

Forbes magazine, an unlikely source, had an article on the benefits of meditation for children, which I don’t think is exactly the same thing as mindfulness.

Research on mindfulness for children is not as extensive as research on adults brains, but what I have seen is positive.

There certainly is no lack of articles online or books for parents and teachers on how-to mindfulness. If you read some of the popular books, such as I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness and Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents)  or the more serious Mindfulness for Children, you will find suggestions and exercises that sound pretty similar.

One caveat: to teach mindfulness to a child (yours or others), you should practice it yourself.

For example, there are listening exercises where you focus on a single sound, such as a bell. It doesn’t have to be a special Zen bell or “singing bowl” but you want a long sustained tone that kids will listen to and signal when the sound disappears. Then you focus on all the other sounds surrounding you. As in meditation, it is hard for beginners to turn off all the “noise” of thoughts in their mind and clear it to focus on one single thing. This exercise does that with a literal thing first.

Another activity is to use your sense of smell as the focus. You give the child something fragrant. Not perfume or anything artificial – orange peel, a sprig of mint, a flower. Close your eyes, breathe in and focus only on the smell. Not quite aromatherapy, but a powerful thing to focus on.

Other activities to teach kids mindfulness focus on the other senses and, of course, on breathing. Following your breath is standard in mindfulness practices. With kids, you might have the child put a small object on their belly as they lie on the floor. They breathe in silence for a minute and watch how the object moves up and down. They observe their breath. One article suggests that you tell them that if any other thoughts come to them to turn the thoughts into bubbles and float them away.

I can imagine some parents or teachers saying ” How do i get them to sit or lie still and be silent?” Will mindfulness eliminate tantrums and make a hyperactive child calm? They may become calmer, but that was never an objective of mindfulness or meditation, though it may be a “side effect.”

On the leftbrainbuddha.com site, there are more activities there are some that I learned in adult classes. With kids, you might call this the “squish & relax” exercise. I learned it as a way to relax and it has helped me fall asleep. Lying down with eyes closed, you tense (squish) each muscle in your body starting with your toes and feet and moving up. You hold the muscle tight for a few seconds paying attention to how that feels, and then release. It relaxes the body and is a very real way to understand and be “in the present moment.”

, tighten the muscles in their legs all the way up to their hips, suck in their bellies, squeeze their hands into fists and raise their shoulders up to their heads. Have them hold themselves in their squished up positions for a few seconds, and then fully release and relax. This is a great, fun activity for “loosening up” the body and mind, and is a totally accessible way to get the kids to understand the art of “being present.”

Of course, you would hope these tools would be useful for a child who has trouble sleeping, concentrating on an activity or relaxing, but sharing these activities with your children or your students together is also a way to connect on a different level.

 

TM

ripples pex

I have tried many meditation techniques. There are distinct differences between techniques. Some are formal. Some are religious. Some require great effort.

Most meditation affects the brain, though benefits may vary or be disputed. A study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition identified 3 meditation categories, based on measured brain wave differences.

Under concentration or focus, they placed  types such as Zen and Vipassana.

Under the category of open monitoring is Mindfulness and Kriya Yoga.

Under self-transcending is Transcendental Meditation (TM).

I first became aware of TM like many Americans when The Beatles connected with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968. It was the Summer of Love and flower power was in full bloom and consciousness was being opened through TM and drugs. I didn’t take it very seriously.  The Maharishi got some criticism from stricter yogis who thought he went commercial. But it seemed to work for them.

The Maharishi died in 2008 but TM continues to promise health, stress relief and spiritual enlightenment and grow its followers. Transcendental Meditation is one specific form of silent mantra meditation.

I rediscovered, honestly just discovered, TM this year. It came to me through Jerry Seinfeld. Yes, the comedian.

Interview by Transcendental Meditation teacher Bob Roth
with Jerry Seinfeld discussing his 40+ years of practicing TM.

Celebrity TM practitioners still get more attention, but there are millions of ordinary folks using the technique. I think that many of them are like me and have tried other techniques but find TM to be completely different.

It never appealed to me with any mediation practices that you needed to “join,” pay money or continue to take classes with experts. I never took to strict rules or rigid practices.

Compared to other techniques, TM is almost effortless. It is easy to learn. Children adapt to it well.

Comparing it to my own Zen experiences, I immediately took to the idea of not having to concentrate. TM is not about the control of the mind. You don’t monitor your thoughts as in any mindfulness practice.

Thankfully, you don’t have to “empty your mind.” I had a lot of trouble with the empty mind and dismissing thoughts. In my last formal Zen session at a monastery, I finally relaxed because I just let the thoughts come – and stay.

My initial excitement with TM was cooled when I started to investigate deeper and found out that you are officially supposed to learn the technique through a standardized seven-step course over six days by a certified TM teacher at a cost of almost $1000. That shut me down.

TM requires that you use a mantra. You would think that you could make one up or get one from a friend who practices, but this item is something no TM practitioner is supposed to ever reveal. It starts to sound like a cult. I found online that:

It is important to receive the mantra from a fully trained Transcendental Meditation teacher because they have been given a selection of mantras which have been passed down through a long line of teachers over thousands of years. The effects are therefore well known both historically and currently to be always positive and life-enhancing.

I don’t like the sound of that.

But the Internet is the place where all knowledge now lives. Do some searching and you can find sites and videos on how to practice TM. You can find sites with mantras.

I suppose this unofficial path may be lacking something, but it works. After all. the seeking is part of finding the path.

The Art of Relaxation

Shouldn’t relaxing be easy? But it’s not.

We live in stressful times, but I imagine that times have always been stressful. It could not have been relaxing to have lived in an age when you spent most of your waking day gathering food and trying to survive.

I  have written here a number of times about things that would fall under mental health or relaxation techniques, such as meditation. But I haven’t written about several of the ways I have tried to manage stress or even relax in order to sleep.

This was all inspired by watching a yoga class and seeing the people go into the Savasana or Corpse Pose. It is one that looks to be incredibly easy and yet is sometimes called the most difficult of the asanas. It is “simply” lying on the floor.

How easy is it for you to turn off stress and the world around you and just say, “I’m going to relax now” when you mind is racing with thoughts and your body is tense?

I know that some nights when I am trying to go to sleep and can’t, it seems like trying to relax is actually making me more stressed out.

Some people would tell you that relaxation can be zoning out in front of the TV. But brain research always shows that watching TV actually activates parts of the brain and doesn’t help the areas that control things like sleep. Of course, I will admit to falling asleep while watching TV, but it seems it is not so much the programs that are putting me into sleep mode.

Some relaxation techniques are not at all “New Age” thinking but the result of scientific research. The Mayo Clinic recommends some relaxation techniques.  One of those techniques is one I actually did first learn in a yoga class. The medical term would be progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. I was taught that lying in that corpse pose, I should begin by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes. You then progressively work your way up your body – the calf muscles, knees, thighs, buttocks, fingertips, arm, shoulder, chest, neck and finally even the parts of your face. I was taught to tense muscles for a count of five seconds and then relax them completely before moving up the body.

Doing this while lying on a soft mat after a yoga workout made me want to take a nap. Though I no longer practice any true yoga, I do still use this technique when I want to fall asleep – both for a nap or a night’s sleep. It doesn’t work all the time, but it has about a 50% success rate for me.

Stimulating breath (sometimes called “bellows breath”) is often a yogic breathing techniques designed to raise energy and increase alertness rather than relax you.

Breathing should be easy. We do it all day without even thinking about it. Anyone who has taken a meditation class knows that thinking about breathing is something that is really emphasized. Though I never became convinced that counting my breath was helping me, several breathing exercises have stuck with me as practices.

Most of us breathe quite shallowly. Taking a deep breath is something out of the ordinary.  Sometimes we sigh a deep breath. the doctor asks us to take a few in our checkup. We suck in a big breath after exerting yourself physically. But it is extraordinary rather than ordinary.

Think about how someone who is hyperventilating is told to breathe into a paper bag. Though most of us take shallow breaths and deeper breaths is probably a good practice, hyperventilating is “overbreathing” and in that case it is not a good practice.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is very simple and can be done at almost any time. Some people recommend it as a stress break while seated, perhaps at your desk. I know someone who told me that if he tries to do it before he goes to sleep, he rarely gets past 6 repetitions before he falls asleep.

Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
Exhale, completely emptying your lungs through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth, inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely again for a count of eight.
This one breath will have an exhalation that is twice as long as inhalation.

I know that this ratio of 4-7-8 is always said to be important, but I find the counting distracting. I modify it to an untimed maximum lung capacity inhalation, hold for four, and then totally empty my lungs. I had my wife time it once and it came out to be about 5-6-8 for me without counting, which is pretty close. A friend told me that rather than counting she repeats a phrase that times out at about the 4-7-8 cycles.

The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that is the opposite of the stress response. When the relaxation response is activated, your heart rate slows, breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your blood pressure drops or stabilizes, your muscles relax and blood flow to the brain increases. It is definitely something to strive for in your day and night.

 

My Monkey Mind

A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.

On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.

When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.

I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind  and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.

“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”

It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.

Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.

You need the monkey.  That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.

How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.

When I’m writing, especially poetry,  I let the monkey take me other places.

When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.

 

Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.