Book Report: Stealing Fire

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Stealing Fire came to me as a suggestion from an entrepreneur friend who is a fellow avid reader. I have no idea what his personal journey with altered states is, and, as will be discussed, there really are natural ways to gain access to the worlds within us. My friend’s suggestion did come with the comment that this book would be good for me due to the things he knows I’m into. He was right. This book was like picking up a textbook that was written to counter all of the war on drugs messaging I received as a child and in support of my own personal journey with the benefits of altered states of consciousness in my younger and more wild days. This book was validation for the world I discovered and often wondered whether or not was real, the one transposed over the world around us, hidden in plain sight from the people who don’t know how to look for it. This book was a sigh of relief, and a hope for a future with a more realistic approach to drug policy and the benefits that can be, and have been, obtained by those who have the cognitive wherewithal to explore their inner minds through natural and chemically imposed altered states of consciousness. First, a little backstory about me.

When I was in the sixth grade I won an award from the D.A.R.E. program for an essay I wrote on the dangers of drugs. I’ll pause now to wait for everyone who knows me to stop laughing and catch their breath.

So a few other sixth graders and I were honored for our compositions at a special assembly. We took turns reading our essays for the school and received a nice certificate and a coupon for a special chocolate record that commemorated our success in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education course. Yes, they actually awarded children for their essay on the dangers of drugs with refined sugar and trace amounts of THC. It was a well intentioned program, but not a well conceived one. D.A.R.E. would eventually be called a massive failure and a waste of time and money, having literally no positive outcomes attributable to it. The cracks in the “Just Say NO” philosophy of the 80’s and 90’s were beginning to become hard to ignore.

Not that I was, at the time, a sixth grader who was into drugs. It would be a few more years before I started dipping my toes in the forbidden molecular fruits around me. I was just a kid who could spell, use good grammar, held a vocabulary well beyond my grade level and had learned to use my intelligence and skills to game adults into handing me grades, awards and refined sugar with trace amounts of THC in it.

I have zero recollection of what I actually wrote and recited. There may be a copy of the essay around somewhere in one of the boxes of memories my mother cultivated for me over the years. I’m about 100% confident that whatever I wrote was 100% regurgitated information from the lectures and materials of the program that, much like the speech I gave, found no lasting place in my memory. It was 100% bullshit.

Somehow I always knew that it was all bullshit. Like praying to a god you don’t believe in just because the adults around you were doing it (which I also did till I was about twelve). I cognitively knew that I was supposed to just say no to drugs, but I never really felt it in my heart. That’s probably why, as childhood evolved into adolescence, I skipped the phase of saying “no” to drugs and went straight to saying “perhaps” to them.

Alcohol came first, naturally, as that was the one that could be swiped from parents and sometimes purchased from less than reputable drive-thru liquor stores (thank you Monti’s on 16th!). I never cared much for marijuana in high school. In retrospect that was probably due to the inability of teenagers under the full prohibition of the 90’s to get anything but dirt weed. It took decriminalization and market regulation to produce access to good herbal medicine. It also took me growing up and becoming a discerning adult to be able to know how to treat that plant right.

LSD was cheap and pretty available in the 90’s. The rave scene was in full swing and still underground enough that a highly motivated 15-year old could infiltrate and find whatever they were looking for. MDMA was around, but too expensive for my allowance. Psilocybin mushrooms were an occasional treat, whenever they could be found. (I can already see my mother shaking her head while she inevitably reads this. Hi Mom!)

At any rate, my early childhood suspicion towards the war on drug’s marketing materials was gaining supportive data in high school and into my 20’s. They tried to throw some Prozac or Zoloft or something to that affect at me halfway through high school for the crime of exhibiting angsty behavior. I quickly threw those things in the trash. They simply made me placid, and placid was the last thing I wanted to be. Between the choice of feeling something vs. feeling nothing, I choose something. Every time.

I’m probably painting myself as being more in control than I was at the time. My early intuition told me that the messages I was receiving about substances didn’t feel right to me, my early experiences with substances supported my hypothesis, but if you were to look back in time through a crystal ball I was just a kid getting high and trying to figure out what all of that meant for me. I know that my experiences didn’t feel bad, they didn’t feel dangerous. It was simply a different way to experience the world around me that I had discovered. I didn’t feel like a dope and, despite my failing grades in high school, I was well aware that I was intelligent. I was simply disinterested in going to class. The flat out lies of the “Just Say NO” philosophy were becoming exposed.

Of course it wasn’t perfectly safe, and not everyone makes it out alive and/or well. That’s true about a lot of things. Studies cited in this book state that horseback riding is more dangerous than recreational drug use on a per capita basis, but I had no idea of that at the time. The risk vs. reward ratio seemed, at the end of the day, worth it. So I continued to have no sympathy for the Devil, buy tickets and take the rides to varying outcomes, most of which I can honestly say were positive and I wouldn’t have changed for the world.

It wasn’t easy. There were certainly forces working against me. Friends who had bought into the every user is the beginning of an addict bullshit of that D.A.R.E. program I aced, parents and teachers who had to be negotiated and sidestepped, authorities to outsmart and black market products to acquire at high risk were all obstacles that had to be overcome. The obstacles weren’t simply functional, though. They were also philosophical and existential. My experience was obviously at odds with the narrative around me. I was smart enough to understand that I may, in fact, be fooling myself into believing that everything is fine when in fact it is not. There were a few times when everything was not fine, even though I thought it was. There was no guarantee I would come out on top of those times, I simply did in the end. How much of that was cognition and how much was luck is impossible to determine.

As I got older, the data became more robust. I noticed that, while a few friends seemed to have taken it too far and ended up burned out, for the most part everyone was fine and seemed to be enjoying themselves as double agents of the counterculture. As I got older still, not only were the overwhelming majority of my drug friends fine, a significant pack of them seemed to be thriving. They were becoming educated professionals, successful non-starving artists, musicians, actors and entrepreneurs. If you are still holding on to the illusion that all the well adjusted people around you must not have done drugs in their life because otherwise they wouldn’t be well adjusted people, then I’m pleased to help shatter your illusion. Having climbed, high, a top the mountain and able to look back, I promise you that you can’t throw a stick into a crowd of well adjusted people without hitting someone who has dabbled with illicit substances and come out the other side better for it.

If you don’t believe there is such a thing as societal benefit that comes from criminalized altered states, then please take whatever device you are reading this on and throw it in the trash. Your computer, phone, tablet, they were all conceived, invented, designed and coded by people who have found creative and innovative solutions to complex problems through natural and artificially altered states of consciousness. Stealing Fire states something that should be implicitly known; that nearly every billionaire in Silicon Valley uses psychedelics to solve problems. But enough backstory, on to the book.

Beginning in ancient times, Stealing Fire (a reference to Prometheus, the Mythological Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans) starts with the story of a party in Greece. At this party, the host distributes a banned substance among his guests that sends them all into an introspective cognitive journey. The substance was called keykeon and until the host, a decorated military commander named Alcibiades, stole it from the Grecian elite and distributed it to his friends, it was a pretty closely guarded secret of the ruling class.

Keykeon was a staple of an ancient ritual called the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secretive nine-day ritual held annually by members of a certain religious cult. The purpose of the ritual was to strip away all known points of reference in the consciousness, to gain new perspective on the world and society and to take that perspective and the learnings from it to go out and lead the world to a better place. It has been suggested that some of the greatest mathematical and philosophical discoveries of the ancient world came out of the Eleusinian Mysteries. While you’re throwing away your MacBook because it was invented by a guy who did LSD, go ahead and burn your house down for all the Pythagorean theorem that was used to build it.

You still with me? You still not homeless? Good.

In this introductory story, Alcibiades is Prometheus and he has stolen the fire of keykeon from the egotistical religious elites who held that they were they only ones fit enough to sit around getting high and think about thinking. For the crime of stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus was chained to a stone and sentenced to an eternity of having his guts eaten out by crows every day, only to have them grow back overnight and go through the ordeal again the following day, ad infinitum. Alcibiades got off light, he was only tried in absentia for blasphemy, a crime punishable by a simple mortal’s death.

This is only one story, from long ago, about the rogue actions of a counterculture leader simultaneously stealing and playing with fire. There are many others throughout the ages that serve to illustrate the ebb and flow of man’s dance with altered states of consciousness, their rituals, the hypocritical vilification of the plants, fungi and synthetic molecules that people have used to reach them and the overall struggle that organized society has had to accept the fact that, no Mrs Reagan, there is not a universally good reason they call it dope.

While this book is obviously meant to help break down the fears and walls surrounding substance-induced consciousness expansion, it does give ample regard to the natural methods of reaching the mental state defined in the book as ecstasis. Ecstasis, whether it comes from a mushroom, a molecule, an ancient Greek elixir, surfing a big wave, free diving to 700 feet, meditating on a hilltop, handling rattlesnakes at church, dancing till you’re drenched in sweat or praising the lord of your faith can be defined as reaching an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence.

This conventional definition permits the authors the ability to define their scope from ancient Greeks to the tea-headed hipsters of the beat generation to the hive-mind operation of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six. As promised, the authors fully recognize at least one truth of the war on drugs, that is You don’t NEED drugs to get high.

As it turns out, brain scans of Buddhist monks in meditation, wing-suit gliders in flight, Christian revivalists chanting in tongues, highly trained special forces military groups,  Jewish pilgrims and many others in a sober state of transcendence look nearly identical to the brain scans of people who took the express route to the dissolution of all time and space by ingesting various natural and synthetic substances. You don’t need drugs to feel at one with the universe, it just turns out to be a faster way to get there.

Playing with altered states of consciousness doesn’t universally lead to positive results, either. The master switch to these mental states is not always controlled by benevolent hippies and harmless gurus. Cult leaders have at times emerged and wreaked havoc, suicide pacts have been carried out by followers who lost their way to life, and recently declassified documents have outlined the experimentation of the government and military with mind control techniques that were not too shy or conservative in values to keep designs to an LSD bomb off the table of possibilities. If you think there won’t be declassified documents in another 50 years that outline the experiments they are certainly doing today (but won’t currently admit to), then you haven’t been paying very much attention.

The marketing industry has gotten a hold of the altered state of consciousness buzz terms recently, as well. Conglomerates of advertisers funded by billion dollar industries have spent considerable efforts the past few years to learn how to hack the brain of the consumer in exponentially more efficient ways than untrustworthy focus groups. This leads to a whole new big book of ethical dilemmas as these titans of industry attempt to circumvent the troublesome task of producing products the consumer wants, and instead look for new and subconscious ways to make the consumer want the products they produce. I seriously doubt that our society is ultimately in much of a position to stop them at the policy level, so maybe think twice before you strap on that cool new VR headset. Subtle programming in your augmented reality could very well be giving you daily Big Mac attacks. Which brings us to what I believe to be the central thesis of this book; what do we do with these altered states of consciousness?

Expanding our minds through various methods, it would seem, is something that is as old as humanity itself. What is humanity except a bunch of walking and talking apes who, somehow, managed to expand their minds enough to gain self-awareness? We often count the discovery of fire as a pivotal moment in our species’ technological evolution, which makes the story of Prometheus stealing fire and giving it to us resonate at least on a fabled level. We could continue to openly deny ourselves a positive relationship with substance-induced altered states, relegating them to hush-hush parties of cults and billionaires in some sort of pseudo-moral campaign against the dangers that do come along with an expanded mind. But that doesn’t just leave the induction of ecstasis in the hands of the few benevolent, malevolent and ignorant innovators in California. It’s highly unlikely that government, and functionally impossible that industry, is going to cease and desist their experiments in citizen and consumer control through the development and understanding of altered states of consciousness. The book does start to sound a little conspiracy theory-ish at this point, but to quote the late Kurt Cobain, “Just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.”

What Stealing Fire suggests, in line with the Burning Man ethos of open sourcing creativity and innovation, is a likewise open source approach to ecstasis. Keep it socialized, keep it out there. The more people are in control of their own states of reality, altered or not, the harder it is to consolidate our sense of reality into one unified, or several partisan, brands. The more we are free to look within ourselves by whatever methods we deem fit, and as long as we harm none but ourselves, then the more our world around us will stay a place of wonder, creativity and innovation. Hopefully that does more harm than good. Fire can bring warmth and permit a society to flourish and evolve. It can also bring death and destroy everything that people have built. Prometheus didn’t give us instructions to build or destroy, he only gave us the tool to do both more efficiently. The key, it would seem, to outweighing the destructive blazes with transcendent light is making sure that more of us can carry the spark.

I highly recommend this book.

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