The quest for altered states
A great deal of experimentation is happening right under our very noses, some of which could even be considered revolutionary. And it’s happening in areas where we might least expect it. Areas of cognitive experimentation previously associated with “hippies,” counter-cultural bohemians and other “subcultures” are becoming mainstream now, with CEOs, top-performing organizations and the special ops community among the practicing “psychonauts.” What am I talking about? I’m talking about change and shortcuts that can provide inspiration and improve information. I’m talking about that somewhat mysterious, controversial and difficult-to-define level of consciousness referred to as altered states. I’m talking about the quest for altered states. I touched on altered states earlier, but I’d like to explore this subject further in this post. But let’s start off by trying to pin down what we mean by altered states.
There are numerous definitions, but I think the following are accurate for our purposes. Psychology Today defines altered states of consciousness, “as mental states in which the mind can be aware but is not in its usual wakeful condition, such as during hypnosis, meditation, hallucination, trance and the dream stage.” Closer to Truth says “altered states of consciousness are not normal states of mental awareness or experiences. These include dreams, hallucinations, induced mental alterations such as by meditation, alcohol, drugs or disease.” And we can even include “club-trans-dance-drug” states. Get the picture?
The quest for altered states has been around for a long time, starting as early as 415 BCE in Athens, Greece with the fabled drink “Kykeon.” Since then, people have used dancing, singing, chanting and meditation to alter consciousness. When you add to that all the shamanistic rituals – using psychotropic plants like mushrooms and cacti – practiced around the world in nearly every culture, you can see the path to today’s pill-popping students looking for more focus, relaxation and better grades. And that’s not considering our three most popular “drug rituals” of today: the coffee break (caffeine), the smoke break (nicotine) and the happy hour (alcohol).
Cultivating these states
Steven Kotler and Jaime Wheeler, authors of the amazing book, Stealing Fire, point out that trailblazing organizations and individuals are deliberately “harnessing rare and controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges and outperform the competition.” But just what is it they are gleaning from these induced periods? Put simply, it’s insight! And insights make all the difference, according to them. “Ecstatics” (individuals experiencing or characterized by ecstasy or a state of sudden, intense, overpowering emotion) are becoming increasingly visible in our “mainstream world.” But why all the bruhaha about ecstasis? What’s wrong with following your bliss?
Ecstasis refers in this case to several different states of consciousness “characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in the thought processes and behavior brought about by a variety of psychosomatic manifestations, ranging from profound terror to ecstatic rapture…” While we know that the conscious mind is a powerful tool, it’s difficult to fathom that it is less efficient than the subconscious. And that’s what makes ecstasis so important. In ecstasis, the subconscious can handle and process much more information in a much shorter timeframe. When the conscious mind takes a break, the subconscious kicks in and takes over, things really get interesting, especially if you’re a “peak-performance” freak like me.
Give me those good-time pleasure chemicals
In ecstasis, performance-enhancing neurochemicals, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, flood the system to increase focus, pattern recognition and muscle reaction times. Egos fall by the wayside, and a team can move as one. But wait, there’s more! Other neurochemicals arise in collaborative experiences when you’re in the “zone.” Serotonin, endorphins, anandamide and oxytocin are also unleashed to help achieve tighter bonds and heightened collaboration. In fact, you can only get many of these six “pleasure chemicals” at the same time when you’re in an altered state such as “flow.” Flow, of course, is defined as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” So, who are some of the organizations looking for ways to achieve flow, group flow or get in the zone via altered states. You might be very surprised.
Altered states and Jedi warriors
While Navy SEAL teams are generally recognized as one of the best collections of warriors in the world, one team, in particular, stands out as being the cream of the cream – DEVGRU – often referred to as SEAL Team Six. These are the best of the best, the level to which all SEALs aspire to reach. So, what do these “Jedi warriors” have to do with altered states? Well, when your everyday job (there is no such thing as a normal day at the office for these guys) involves the chaos of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) conditions, you need more than passion, individual toughness, the ability to suffer and mental toughness, all of which are often referred to collectively as “grit.” You also need cutting-edge training, training and more training. That’s why SEALs say, “you don’t ever rise to the occasion, you sink to your level of training.”
“Shutting off the self”
An anonymous SEAL commander told Kotler and Wheeler what they are looking for: “At every step of training – from the first day of BUD/S to the last day in DEVGRU – we’re weeding out candidates who cannot shift their consciousness and merge with the team.” It’s all about working as a team! It’s about “flipping the switch” or “shutting off the self” and entering a state of collective awareness. It’s about ecstasis! In ecstasis, “I” is replaced by a feeling of “we.” Once a SEAL joins DEVGRU, the quest for ecstasis continues in the Mind Gym, which contains state-of-the-art tools and technology for training body-brain function and reaching the “zone” faster. Sensory deprivation tanks specifically designed to help SEALs “shut off the self” are also being used to accelerate learning, cutting the time required to learn a foreign language from six months to a mind-boggling six weeks! That’s what they claim, but I’m not going to argue with them! SEALs have found that by “training your body and brain and managing your energy and attention, you’ll be able to get into flow more frequently.”
Ok, I devoted quite a bit to SEALs (some might say way too much). Those of you who know me will understand why. But I would be remiss not to mention some of the other organizations at the cutting edge of exploring altered states. Google, Red Bull and Nike are some of the other top-performing organizations Kotler and Wheal describe in Stealing Fire. Taking a page out of the SEAL handbook, Google went unconventional when looking for a new CEO by using attendance at the Burning Man festival as a key criterion. Google also looked for a type of “communal vocational ecstasy” that can only be found when brain function changes, i.e., in an altered state. They took their top candidate, who was already a “Burner,” (a previous attendee) to the festival to see if he could manage the chaos of Burning Man, figuring if he handled that well, he’d likely merge with his team rather than stand in their way and smother their creativity. More and more, we’re seeing top-level executives using alternate states to “defrag their mental hard drives boost performance.”
Red Bull and Nike
Red Bull conducted one of the largest creativity research projects in the world to see if they could determine and define the elusive trait called creativity. Red Bull recognized that creativity was necessary for solving complex, dynamic problems, and they also realized that they had little success at training people to be creative. “There’s a pretty simple explanation for this failure: we’re trying to train a skill, but what we really need to be training is a state of mind,” according to Dr. Andy Walshe, who heads up the Red Bull High-Performance team. Nike operates their own innovation group that goes on what they call “creative field trips” to learn about cutting edge research in other fields that could help provide insight into their own design activities.
Keen to learn more?
The more I read about altered states, micro-dosing (which I’ve written about previously) and the pursuit of ecstasis by the organizations I’ve already mentioned and many others, the more I become intrigued about what the future holds for us. Whether you’re a world-class athlete, extreme-sports junkie, gamer (yes, gamers achieve flow. That’s why they keep going back), artist, musician, warrior, CEO or anyone else interested in contemplative and mystical states, you can’t ignore the ongoing revolution driven by psychology, technology, neurobiology and pharmacology that is prompting us to rethink with an open mind how we can become better and perhaps happier through altered states. Discussion about non-ordinary states of consciousness is going public, and there’s a wealth of information out there just waiting for you. If you’re interested, go out and get it! I know I’m going to.