Thursday, June 08, 2017

Stealing Fire, Ultrarunning, and the Pursuit of Ecstatis

Fellow Prometheans...if you are reading this, then YOU ARE A RECEIVER. 

Have you ever reached a transcendent state by engrossing yourself in a passion? Immersing yourself so deeply that time and effort just slips away? Perhaps you know the feeling by another name -

achieving flow
getting in the zone
the runners high
being in the pocket
creative immersion
finding your groove
a oneness with the universe/your God

It seems we all have a way to get there. My jam is the runners high (trail running, preferably 90 minutes or longer), but I find it uncanny that nearly every person I know has a way to achieve a similar state, and does so regularly through music, code, art, meditation, writing, church, racing cars, cooking, travel, you name it. It's to the point I wonder if this pursuit of transcendental joy is a fundamental need of the human condition.

This is exactly what authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore in Stealing Fire, a fascinating new book that resonated with my favorite passions. The authors go in depth on the human desire (need?) to seek altered states of consciousness, and how this journey connects high performance athletes, Burning Man participants, Navy SEALS, psychedelic tripsters, EDM concert goers, artists, monks, and Silicon Valley elites alike. It's a fascinating read, and I found a lot of parallels to the joy and mindfulness state found in distance running.

Their framework for explaining flow is called STER, based on the four characteristics of Selflessness (loss of the sense of self), Timelessness (loss of the sense of time), Effortlessness (little or no perceived effort), and Richness (boosted creativity and connection making). As they apply it to people deep in the pursuit of flow, it sounds a lot like why and how we like to run. Their in-depth explanations of the neurochemistry also helps explain why we like to run together - when serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and oxytocin all get triggered, it increases our feelings of trust, openness, and intimacy, and promotes tighter bonds and heightened cooperation. Yup, that sounds like an ultramarathon! We may call it the runners high or “long run revelations”, but the foundation of the experience is strikingly similar.

The “exploration of ecstatis” (ecstasy-like states) is far more universal than one would think, with a history that goes back thousands of years. No matter how each generation or culture pursues ecstatis, it delivers incredible ramifications to creativity, teamwork, global empathy, and shaping humanity. Cutler and Wheal propose that those who partake and share it’s secrets are the modern day rebels, stealing fire for the masses like Prometheus stole fire from the gods (thus the title). It's not just a fringe thing either - today, the altered states economy is north of $4 trillion annually.

For those looking for a new read outside the normal running texts (although those are also good), I think you might like Stealing Fire. The book is full of so many anecdotes, stories, and studies, it’s hard to put down once you get started. For example, did you know:
  • Some people with depression can get instant relief from taking botox in their frown lines because if your face can’t be sad, you can’t be sad? 
  • A deciding factor for Larry Page and Sergei Brin (founders of Google) to hire CEO Eric Schmidt was he was the only candidate that attending Burning Man? 
  • Only four days of meditation can produce significant improvement in attention, memory, vigilance, creativity, and cognitive flexibility? 
  • You can boost dopamine 400 percent by teasing about sex before the act? 
  • Flow, in its extreme, can achieve “transient hypofrontality”, a complete shut down of the self more akin to taking extreme psychedelics?
Yeah, it gets a bit crazy in a few parts, but it’s a page turner. If you like it, there's plenty more in Kotler’s previous book, The Rise of Superman, or at the Flow Genome Project where you can get guided tours (particularly attractive if you like the opening line of this post - there's a lot of engrossing language like that).

The spiritual journey of trail running, and sharing its extremes with fellow warriors, continues to be a limitless source of joy and perspective for me. It’s nice to know there are many others walking a similar path, that it has positive outcomes for our world in general, and that we all continue a journey that has been going on for thousands of years. Looking forward to sharing more about this with you on the trails!

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