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The secret of success? Self-loathing

Last week, I watched Free Solo, a documentary about 33-year-old Alex Honnold’s attempt to free climb El Capitan in 2017. It’s a horror film. You watch squirming in your seat, as this likeable young man dangles by his fingertips 2,300 metres off the ground in Yosemite. Even the cameraman can’t watch.

Yet he manages it, grinning all the way.

What powers this superhero? Honnold is quite frank about the secret of his success. He’s driven, he says, by a ‘bottomless pit of self-loathing’. His father died when he was young, and his rather icy mother didn’t hug him or show him much affection, but instead told him repeatedly that ‘nearly is not there’ and ‘good is not good enough’.

That’s what powered him to success – a critical mother, plus an unusual amygdala which doesn’t really feel fear, plus layers of Stoic armour.

He’s able to climb to the top of his sport because he has no fear, and no attachments. He lives in a van. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He eats his dinner straight from the sauce-pan with a spatula. He is totally focused on climbing. He accepts that ‘everyday you may die, and there’s nothing wrong with that’.

The problem is, Alex falls in love.

He meets Sanni, a beautiful bubbly and basically adorable woman, at a book signing. He decides to give it a go though he is barely committed to her at the start of the film.

Gradually, we see Alex let down his Stoic armour and allow Sanni in.

That’s when he starts to have accidents.

The first is her fault – she lets go of a rope and he falls on his back. The second is his fault. While climbing with her, he just lets go, falls ten feet, sprains his ankle.

He blames it on her: ‘I’ve never had an accident, then I meet her, and I have two in a year.’

He is beginning to feel fear, because he recognizes that he is vulnerable. He has something to lose.

His friend explains. To free solo effectively, you need to be single. Have no attachments, nothing to distract you.

And now he has an attachment. An emotional rope. She loves him, she doesn’t want him to die.

He buys a house with her. She’s excited, imagining where all the furniture will go. He couldn’t give a shit. ‘I could just sleep on the floor’ he shrugs. His indifference drives her mad.

As they become closer, she asks him tentatively, would you consider making longevity more of a priority? Absolutely not, he replies. It’s nice that you care if I live, but no.

He reflects out loud one day, as he drives to El Cap, that Sanni has different goals in life. She cares about things like relationships and happiness and contentment. But ‘nobody achieved anything great by being happy and cosy’.

He tells her he doesn’t want her around in the days before the free climb. She hugs him and drives off. As the camera stays on her, her lip begins to tremble, and then her face crumbles. She can’t bear the thought of not seeing him again.

He climbs El Cap. Sanni calls him at the top, and she bursts into tears with relief and love. ‘Don’t cry, you’ll make me cry. Maybe it’s OK to cry’, he says, trying to figure out what he feels.

Will he settle down now that he’s achieved climbing immortality? Will he commit to a long life with Sanni? Or will he carry on, and probably die in the next decade? I don’t know.

I thought about Alex, and his remark about achievement versus happiness, when I listened to a Tim Ferriss interview a few days later.

Ferriss is a self-declared ‘Type A’ personality.

He’s written five best-selling books, he has several million subscribers to his newsletter, his podcast has been downloaded three million times. He’s been an early investor in companies including Uber, Facebook, Twitter and Alibaba. He’s a world champion of tango, a polymath, a body-builder, an oenologist, an archer.

Seriously, fuck that guy.

I first became Interested in Ferriss back in 2011, because of his love of Stoicism. I wrote about him in Philosophy for Life.

I was interested in him because he’s such a self-improvement freak. There was something fanatical and obsessive about his self-experimentation and his obsession with being the best he could be in all facets of his life.

But I can’t say I liked him. He seemed like a plastic action figure rather than a genuine human I’d want to hang out with.

Since he launched his podcast three years ago, I’ve grown to like him a lot more. In conversation with his guests, he’s warmer, softer, humbler. And he’s opened up about his mental health issues.

It turns out, he’s a mess.

He said in this week’s podcast: ‘For the vast majority of my adolescence and high school I came to the conclusion that I was not designed to be happy. And that was OK – I would be an instrument of competition and learn to be very good at things that were valued at college and in the business world. I would focus on being the best competitor possible.’

While amassing the accolades he went through ‘many bouts of extended depression’, and ‘came very, very close to killing myself in college’.

He carried on being unhappy but mega-successful all through his 20s and 30s, and then burned out after writing The Four Hour Cook-Book in 2012. That’s when he launched the podcast and started exploring mental health, meditation and psychedelics.

Like Alex Honnold, he has reflected on the connection between success and self-loathing. He says:

If I were happy, I wouldn’t be contributing to the things that are very clearly contributing to my success… I don’t just not love myself, there’s a deep sense of loathing – how could you be so stupid, how could you be so lazy. Toughen the fuck up. You may not have control over all things but you could get really get at absorbing pain. Then maybe you can be ‘successful’.

The stories of Tim and Alex show us that self-loathing can be the ultimate life-hack. Self-loathing is the lacerating edge to self-improvement culture.  We hack ourselves into a more acceptable mental, emotional and physical shape, because we’re obviously not good enough as we are.

We don’t see this honestly acknowledged in self-improvement books or workshops. I think it’s a gap in the market. ‘Klutz: How to hate yourself and build the life you dream of’. ‘Blank: how my emotional emptiness powered my success’.  ‘Where’s Daddy? How my absent, abusive father made me the man I am today.’ ‘I’m shit, you’re shit.’

Alain de Botton, for example, has built an international self-help empire, offering lessons in self-love to CEOs and yummy-mummies (and daddies). But what actually drives him, underneath the bonnet? What dirty fuel keeps him motoring? It’s the fact he had a violent tyrannical father who never accepted little Alain or made him feel good enough. All his books, he has said, were an attempt to connect with Pater Horribilis. The School of Life should offer a workshop in Radical Self-Loathing.

Given the close correlation between success and self-loathing, will we lose our edge if we learn to accept ourselves regardless of external achievements?

It all depends on your definition of success. If your definition of success is to have a life that looks incredible from the outside, but which is actually quite lonely and depressing on the inside, then whatever you do, don’t stop hating yourself. Keep that edge of self-loathing well sharpened. You will stay unhappy, toxic, and alone. But you will probably amass some accolades before you die. Woo-hoo!

Alternatively, you can change your definition of success.

To my mind, true success, true achievement, means dedicating yourself to helping all beings suffer less. Helping them be happier, wiser and more liberated.

‘All beings’ includes yourself. The deep well of compassion for others begins when we become kinder to ourselves.

If you’re being unkind to yourself, the poison from your self-loathing will seep out and affect other people, whether you mean to or not.

Imagine bringing all the dedication and energy and drive that Alex brings to climbing mountains, or that Tim brings to being a successful author, to the goal of relieving suffering. That’s what I see happening in Ferriss these last few months. And it’s beautiful. He’s helping millions of people be more aware of mental health.

Of course, awakening doesn’t happen instantaneously. Your ego comes along on the ride. You want everyone to know how spiritual you are. You want to be the best at meditation, have the most intense spiritual experiences, take the coolest psychedelics. Ferriss can’t help name-dropping the famous friends who told him about meditation and psychedelics. He’s still, to some extent, running on the dirty fuel of approval-neediness. So am I.

It’s a long road, which perhaps we travel over many lives. But hopefully we’re heading in the right direction.

 

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New book on ecstatic experience (not by me)

There’s a new book out later this month on the psychology of ecstatic experiences, and why they’re good for us. It’s called Stealing Fire, by two performance coaches, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. It might be disconcerting to have another book on ecstasy published two months before my own, but actually I’m glad others are walking the same path and coming to similar conclusions. I disagree on one or two points the authors make, however. The book isn’t out until later this month, but I heard them on The Psychology Podcast, here. Great podcast by the way.

So why did these two coaches, who specialize in teaching ‘flow’, start talking instead about ecstasy, or ‘ecstasis’ as they call it in the ancient Greek word. Kotler says that they started coming across similar experiences across a whole range of domains – meditation, psychedelics, the arts, sex, extreme sports. ‘It was a broader category of which flow is a subset.’ In fact, the Positive Psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihayli developed his concept of flow (i.e moments where we’re blissfully absorbed into a challenging activity) out of the idea of ecstasy, as he told me in this interview.

Nomenclature is tricky for this domain of experience. William James and Alister Hardy wrote of ‘religious experiences’, defining them as ‘individuals standing alone in relation to the divine’ – but that ignored collective ecstatic experiences, and the fact atheists also have moments of self-transcendence. Durkheim spoke of ‘collective effervescence’ which sounds like a bubble bath. Abraham Maslow wrote of ‘peak experiences’, but that ignores the fact these experiences are often terrifying, and occur to people in life-crises. These days, the few psychologists who explore this terrain still haven’t agreed on nomenclature – some study ‘self-transcendence’, others ‘out-of-the-ordinary or anomalous experiences’, others ‘mystical experiences’, or ‘altered states of consciousness’. Not to mention the related research fields on hypnosis, trance and possession. The topic is so interdisciplinary – from aesthetics to sex to sports to politics – and the authors are to be applauded for recognizing that and not being deterred.

Personally, I’ve also gone for ‘ecstasy’ as my preferred term, because it’s got the longest history. But the risk of that is people think you mean either MDMA or ‘feeling very, very happy’. The authors make the mistake too of describing ecstasius as ‘north-of-happy states’. No! As Gordon Wasson, who reintroduced magic mushrooms into western culture, wrote: ‘In common parlance ecstasy is fun. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. The vulgar abuse the word: we must recapture it in its full and terrifying sense.’ Another risk, which I may have fallen into, is that talking about ‘ecstatic experience’ makes it all about something happening within oneself, something one ‘has’, rather than something transpersonal happening beyond you, an encounter or realization rather than an experience (which sounds more like a thrill).

The altered states economy

The authors are coaches who make a lot of money giving talks and workshops to companies and CEOs on flow and peak performance, so they are quite focused on the practical business applications of ecstasy. They speak of the ‘altered states economy’, and suggest that today we spend around $4 trillion a year trying to get out of our heads and beyond our egos. ‘That’s insane, and no one’s talking about it’, says Wheal. To get to this figure, they added up all that we spend on, say, legal and illegal drugs, the alcohol industry, extreme sports, gaming, immersive arts like IMAX or festivals, gambling, self-help and psychology, and so on. It’s a bit rough-and-ready, but their basic point is right – the human desire for self-transcendence and ego-loss is fundamental, and late capitalism has found many ways to make money from it, including addictive behaviours like drugs and gambling. I’ve also written about what I call (in a nod to Joe Pine’s idea of the experience economy), the ‘ecstatic experience economy‘. There is also a political economy of ecstasy – states and empires use awe and wonder to increase their power, and now corporations like Disney, Cirque du Soleil and Magic Leap sell us enchantment and transcendence.

Tony Robbins and the human potential movement helped to instrumentalize ecstasy as a tool to capitalist success

The authors also want to convince us of how ecstasy leads to peak performance. This is very much in the tradition of human potential coaches like Anthony Robbins, who teaches how ecstatic or peak states can unlock our life-potential (hence his use of fire-walking, pumping techno, trampolines and so on in his seminars). They’re particularly interested in how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs used meditation and psychedelics to unlock their creativity. They quote life-hacking guru Tim Ferriss: ‘The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.’ Tune in, turn on, get rich!

This weird fusion of the ecstatic and the capitalist goes back to Stanford Uni in the 1970s, when pioneers of the digital economy like Jobs, Stewart Brand and Douglas Engelbart mixed coding with Bay Area spirituality. Engelbart introduced LSD boot-camps at his Stanford research unit (after one trip he invented a toilet that played music when you peed in it). This led to the idea that the main route to ecstatic experiences would be the start-up, the dot.commune, the guru-CEO creating a new utopia in cyberspace. A great introduction to this is Fred Turner’s history, From Counterculture to Cyberculture.

I guess my issue with the selling of ecstasy as a way to peak capitalist performance is that, historically, ecstatic experiences have involved a revolution in the self and a revolution in values. St Paul is utterly transformed after his Damascene moment, his values are utterly transformed – he has died, someone new has been born. The instrumental use of ecstasy for conventional goals of success and power seems to me closer to the magic of Simon Magus or Aleister Crowley. But it’s often there in religion too – what is the Prosperity Gospel if not the instrumentalization of ecstasy for worldly aims?

The risk of the psychology or neurobiology of ecstasy is it leaves out the ethics. Most spiritual traditions emphasize that ecstatic experiences are at best a distraction and at worst a serious risk if they’re not grounded in strong ethics. Later psychologists have come to this conclusion too – William James suggested we evaluate religious experiences based on the ‘fruits’. I think the authors understand this, they speak of the ‘dark side’ of ecstasy, and warn it often leads to unbridled hedonism. But that’s not the main risk, historically. The main risk is that ecstasy without humility leads to pride, the feeling that you’re special, chosen, elite, Crowleian supermen. Kotler and Wheal’s book, talking about the special ‘Prometheans’ or ‘supermen’ whose ecstatic experiences prove how wise and advanced they are (and rich! did we mention they’re rich?), could feed this tendency.

The four drivers of ecstasis

The authors argue we’re at a special moment in history, when suddenly we understand ecstatic experiences better than ever, and can get them ‘at a flick of a switch’. Why now? Because of four drivers. Firstly, psychology. Kotler says that, after William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, psychology took a ‘hundred-year detour’ and focused on psychopathology. Altered states of consciousness were dismissed or pathologized, but in the last decade psychologists like Czikszentimihayli and David Yaden have realized they’re actually good for us. This is not quite right – as co-author Jamie Wheal notes, ecstatic experiences were hugely studied in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, particularly through the human potential movement and transpersonal psychology. What’s really happened in the last decade is that transpersonal psychology has gone mainstream, thanks to the rise of contemplative science and the return of psychedelic science.

Secondly, neurobiology. Brain-scanning techniques have enabled scientists to take ecstasy more seriously. Before, it seemed a very flakey topic for research, that led into career cul-de-sacs like parapsychology or after-death-investigations. But look, a brain-scan – something really is happening! This was reassuring for the Doubting Thomases in academia. Now, there is interesting neurobiology on ecstasy done by scientists like Andrew Newberg, Richard Davidson and Robin Carhart-Harris, showing the neural correlates of states of ego-loss and deep absorption.

There is a danger that these very early insights are then uncritically seized upon to argue that ‘the mystical is now neurobiological’, as Wheal puts it, or that the mystical has now been ‘decoded’ as Kotler says. In other words, because something happens in the brain, mystical experiences are nothing but brain events. This would be a big mistake by psychiatry – it has a 300-year bad record of pathologizing and ignoring these experiences, to the great harm of many people and of western culture in general, for which no one has ever apologized. Now, when it starts seeing the positive side of these experiences, it again rushes to a triumphalist scientistic interpretation.

As the podcast presenter, Scott Barry Kaufmann, who researches in this field, points out: ‘Everything is biologically mediated, so that statement is not as exciting as you think. There’s so much we don’t know – we’re at the start, not the end point.’ He’s quite right. Andrew Newberg, for example, has found that ecstatic experiences involve the emotional processing areas of the brain. Well, no shit! How is that useful, besides as a way of getting sceptical scientists to take ecstasy seriously?

The third driver the authors outline is pharmacological – particularly the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ today. No arguments there, though again it’s very very early days in the research. And the fourth driver is technological. New technology makes ecstasy more widely available than ever before, they argue. For example? New amplification technology makes music concerts better. In the old days it was just the Grateful Dead, now we have huge EDM festivals. Uh huh. And new skis make powder skiiing easier. Right….I’m not entirely convinced. Just because electric guitars are more advanced now than the 60s, doesn’t mean people play them better than Hendrix did, or that the experience of the audience is more intense than it was at Monterey or Woodstock (who really thinks that?) It’s partly the shock of the new that creates the ecstatic – the shock of, say, the first use of the Roland 303 in acid house.  I’d say humans are constantly inventing new technologies and scripts for ecstasy, from cave paintings to virtual reality. Our age has developed some new scripts, but so did every age before us.

I also think that, like many secular psychologists and neuroscientists, the authors don’t entirely get the connection between ecstasy and ritual. Like Sam Harris, they’re impatient with ritual, which is all woo-woo. They want an entirely stripped-down, rationalist, flick-of-a-switch mechanistic ecstasy, one liberated from middle-men. Wheal says:

For folks who have mythological or mystical explanations and assumed [ecstasy] came from grace or adherence to religion, we can say, here are the mechanisms. It cuts out the middlemen, the priest class, those who presume to tell us how to get it. This is our human birthright. Mystical experiences can be demystified and we can create them a hell of a lot more often than when people are bowing and scraping to Mecca.

Kumbh Mela. Low-tech ecstasy

Never mind the casual insult to 1.6 billion Muslims, this fails to understand the power of rituals – including pilgrimages – to bring us to ecstasy. You think westerners now have more ecstasy than ever before? Compared to the Middle Ages? Compared to, say, Indian culture today? OK, Burning Man now attracts thousands and thousands of people…The Kumbh Mela in India attracted 120 million people in 2013, and they had no more technology than tents, chillums, bhang and a river. And what the Sixties showed us is you can do away with the ‘middlemen’ of Christianity, but often new middle-men rise up – gurus, artists, politicians, rockstars, dare I say it, even self-help coaches, who ‘presume’ to tell us how to find ecstasy and what it means.

I also think the authors miss out an important cultural driver for why we are talking about ecstatic / spiritual experiences today. The main reason, I think, is the decline of organized religion in the west. This has created a large group of ‘nones’ or ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’, who are just as hungry for spiritual experiences, perhaps even hungrier than before. Hence the fact that, while attendance at church is going down, the number of people who say they have had spiritual or mystical experience in the US and UK is going up.

But a spirituality based on ecstatic experiences and detached from moral dogma and community can mean we become overly attached to them, we fetishize them, we make them the goal of the journey, rather than something which may or may not happen along the way. So what then is a more appropriate goal? Love and awakening to our true selves, I would say. Transhumanists, life-hackers and human potential coaches always speak of ‘peak performance’, and rarely about love, vulnerability, openness.  ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’

Having said that, there’s much that I agree with in Kotler and Wheal’s analysis, particularly their insight that the internet has allowed an open-source big data approach to ecstasy, a ‘crowd-sourced Bible’ – the exact phrase Ive used in my book! I didn’t copy you, guys, I swear. I’ll definitely give the full book a read when it’s out later this month.