This is what Tibetan monks and Navy SEALs have in common—and how we can use it to our advantage

By Steven Kotler | Feb 28, 2017



Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and
Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and

Abraham Maslow once famously said, “When all you’ve got is a
hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” What he meant was,
when it comes to problem-solving, we tend to get locked into
using familiar tools in expected ways. The technical term for
this is the Law of the Instrument. Give someone a hammer and,
indeed, they’ll look for nails to pound. But present them with
a problem where they need to repurpose that same hammer as a
doorstop, or a pendulum weight, or a tomahawk, and you’ll
typically get blank stares.

We may be facing a similar situation when it comes to our
minds. At least as far back as the French Enlightenment and
Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore, I am), we’ve
relied on our rational selves—what psychologists call our
“egos”—to run the whole show. It’s a Maslow’s hammer kind of
reaction. Every issue we encounter, we try to solve by

And we know it’s not working. Even a quick glance at today’s
dire mental health statistics—the one in four Americans now on
psychiatric medicines; the escalating rate of suicide for
everyone from ages ten to seventy-eight—shows how critically
overtaxed our mental processing is these days. We may have come
to the end of our psychological tether. It might be time to
rethink all that thinking.

With the recent advancements in neurobiology, we now have
options: Embodied cognition teaches us that how we move our
bodies affects our brains and minds. AI therapy proves that our
subconscious expressions can reflect our inner state more
accurately than we do. Precognition demonstrates that we can
anticipate how we’re going to feel and think in the future by
tracking (and even altering) our biometrics in the present.
Neurotheology integrates all of these findings and lets us
reverse-engineer a whole host of nonordinary states, just by
working backward from our neurophysiology.

Rather than treating our psychology like the unquestioned
operating system (or OS) of our entire lives, we can repurpose
it to function more like a user interface (or UI)—that
easy-to-use dashboard that sits atop all the other, more
complex programs. By treating the mind like a dashboard, by
treating different states of consciousness like apps to be
judiciously deployed, we can bypass a lot of psychological
storytelling and get results faster and, often, with less
















Take, for example, one of the most common ailments of the
modern world—mild to moderate depression. Instead of moping
around, hoping for things to get better on their own, we can
scan our UI and choose an alternate program to run. We could
get on a treadmill (studies show exercise is effective for
depression in all but severe cases), or get some natural
sunshine (70 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D,
which has a direct impact on mood), or practice meditation for
fifteen minutes (a paper in the Journal of the American Medical
Association found it as effective as SSRI’s and without the
side effects). None of these approaches require thinking about
our thinking, but each of them can significantly shift our

Choices like these are available not just in our personal
lives, but in our professional lives, too. Instead of nervously
waiting for a job interview and obsessing about all the things
that could go wrong, we can take a page out of Amy Cuddy’s book
and stand up, breathe deeply, and power-pose our way to lower
cortisol, higher testosterone, and more confidence. Instead of
using trendy leadership books and a new mission statement to
fire up employees, we can follow ESADE’s lead and use
neurofeedback to heighten group coherence and prompt more
productive strategy sessions.

But most of us, when challenged, will do none of these things.
We’ll think more, talk more, and stress more. We’ll wait until
after we feel better to go for that walk in the sun, rather
than going for that walk in order to feel better. We’ll wait
until after we get that job offer to pump our fists and
stand tall, instead of the other way around.

That’s because, at first, reorienting from OS to UI can be
downright disorienting. If I can change the “wallpaper of my
mind” by deliberately shifting my neurophysiology—my breathing,
my posture, my brainwaves, or any number of other
interventions—what good are all those stories I’ve been telling
myself? If I am not my thoughts, then who am I, really?

This idea, that our ego isn’t the be-all and end-all,
flourished in Asia for centuries before landing in California
in the 1960’s. Thoughts were illusions, the swamis and lamas
maintained, and nirvana lay on the other side of ego death.
But, for modern Americans, all those earnest (and sometimes
addled) attempts to transcend the self didn’t turn out to be
that practical. To make sense of today’s fast-paced world, we
need our egos to navigate our relationships and
responsibilities. We just don’t need to use them like Maslow’s
hammer, turning everything around us into a psychological
problem to beat on.

Instead, we can stay above our storytelling mind and simply
monitor the knobs and levers of our neurobiology. And while
this may seem far-fetched, top performers are already there.
Tibetan monks can shut off their default mode network (or inner
mind chatter) almost at will, SEAL snipers tune their
brainwaves to the alpha frequency before locking on to targets,
extreme athletes smooth out their heart rhythms right before
dropping into a mountain or wave. They’re deliberately doing an
end run around their conscious minds. They’re accessing more
efficient and effective ways of being, and they’re doing this
exactly backward from how most of us have been taught.

Which brings us back to ecstasis. When we step beyond our
conventional egos and experience the richness of altered
states, it’s essential to upgrade our software. Those
monkey-suit personas we thought were us (until we suddenly
realize they aren’t) don’t need to confine us or define us. “To
diagnose . . . yourself while in the midst of action requires
the ability to achieve some distance from those on-the-ground
events,” Harvard Business School professor Ron Heifetz
maintains. “‘Getting on the balcony’ . . . [provides] the
distanced perspective you need to see what is really

And this is what moving from OS to UI delivers: a better view
from the balcony. When we consistently see more of “what is
really happening,” we can liberate ourselves from the
limitations of our psychology. We can put our egos to better
use, using them to modulate our neurobiology and with it, our
experience. We can train our brains to find our minds.

Steven Kotler is co-author with Jamie Wheal of the new
Stealing Fire: How
Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are
Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work
is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning
journalist, and the cofounder and director of research for the
Flow Genome Project.

This article originally appeared at

Tags: ego, embodied cognition, stealing fire, steven kotler, the law of the instrument

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