DMT and Hyperbolic Geometry: 1 Million Views Special

My 2019 presentation The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences just hit one million views on YouTube:

The casual QRI enjoyer may get the impression that this video encapsulates our current understanding of the phenomenology of DMT. The dedicated QRI reader/watcher, however, knows that we are light-years ahead in our understanding relative to where we were at the time. So I figured that this would be a good opportunity to highlight some of the DMT-specific insights that we have presented since that video came out. But before I do so, let me briefly discuss why this work is actually advancing our understanding (unlike most psychedelic phenomenology work out there) and then summarize some of the core points presented in that video so that we are all on the same page before moving on to the new models:


Introduction: What’s Useful Phenomenology?

At QRI we have put a lot of effort into characterizing what it means to describe an exotic state of consciousness in a way that is actually useful (see our guide for how to write good trip reports). Here are some key points:

Most people who try to make sense of the DMT-induced state of consciousness focus on the intentional content (the narrative) of the experience, which isn’t actually that helpful (consider how both a mescaline trip and a DMT trip can give rise to a hallucination about e.g. “meeting a dragon in another dimension”, yet the texture of such experiences will be very different!). Many others obsess over the question of whether what one experiences on DMT has a reality outside your brain or not (cf. Andrew Zuckerman has made it easy for you to test a DMT prime factorization experiment, were you to be so inclined). While interesting, I don’t think these approaches really advance our understanding very much; they in fact leave an enormous amount of low-hanging fruit uncollected.

Instead, a more fruitful approach is to focus on describing what we call the phenomenal character of the experience (yes, the dragon is important, but please also tell us how the scales on the skin of the dragon were arranged, whether they followed any wallpaper symmetry group, what their flicker frequency was, what patterns of local binding they expressed, and so on). The overwhelming majority of trip reports you can find in the literature and online don’t even try to do this. They are just quite content with a narrative account and superficial descriptions of the sensorial components of the experience (“I saw a lot of orange triangles”). But some psychonauts do try to rise to the challenge of describing the phenomenal character of the experience. Two examples are:

A step above doing this is where we find people such as Josikins (of Subjective Effect Index fame) who spend copious amounts of time trying to systematically catalogue exotic phenomenology by carefully describing and then labeling each effect with a concept handle. See also DMT-Nexus‘ systematic Hyperspace Lexicon which is perhaps a bit of a hybrid between focusing on intentional content and phenomenal character.

What’s missing here, however, is that the output ends up being a zoo of effects. Presumably, however, DMT and other psychedelics don’t have that many direct effects. Rather, they probably affect the properties of the nervous system in specific ways that in turn, downstream, give rise to a complex variety of effects. In other words, to really understand what’s going on, one should try to find a minimal set of core effects such that by combining them you get the complexity that we observe. Here is where we find people like Steven Lehar (see The Grand Illusion) and James L. Kent (see Psychedelic Information Theory). They are really experienced psychonauts who then go on to use their subject-matter expertise (cognitive science and signal processing, respectively) to explain the characteristics of the exotic states of consciousness they have experienced. They have both produced really excellent work with significant explanatory power.

At QRI we do something like that, but on a higher level. Namely, the exploration is integrated with philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and neurotechnology. What makes QRI’s psychedelic theory different than what you will see in academia is that:

  • We know of and take seriously a vastly larger experience base to work with (compared to e.g. some labs where you are not even allowed to discuss your own experiences with your colleagues!)
  • We use the framework of algorithmic reduction (and other key QRI paradigms) to try to simplify the complexity in terms of a minimal set of effects interacting with one another
  • Explore non-standard paradigms of computing (e.g. see Mike’s A Future for Neuroscience and more recently the video on Non-Linear Wave Computing), and
  • We have a crisp philosophy of mind that allows us to make modular progress on specific questions rather than being crippled by the “hard problem of consciousness” (e.g. solving the boundary problem or the translation problem can be done without having to solve everything else at once)

In other words, we actually pay attention to the details of experience no matter how weird they may be (did you know that seeing a hyperbolic honeycomb while on DMT can make your visual field “glitch”? Why does that happen?). We don’t let the theory define the facts and instead let the facts define the theory. And we try to tie it all together in light of what we know about how the nervous system works.

Example of a *structural* feature of experience: the fractal dimension of phenomenal objects. Empirically, the Hausdorff dimension of DMT phenomenal objects increases with the dose. (Ps. be careful not to look at objects with a high Hausdorff dimension while on DMT, such as cauliflowers – don’t ask me why, just don’t).


The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences

The original article (slides; ELI5) upon which the video is based is over 8,000 words long and a lot of material is covered in it. Here I will merely highlight some of the key arguments, concepts, and talking points.

  • To a first approximation, the article does three things:
    • (1) provide detailed phenomenology focused on the structural and dynamic features that arise at each dose.
    • (2) postulate possible algorithmic reductions to explain the emergence of such structural and dynamic features.
    • (3) speculate on the information-processing properties of the state in question.
  • We point out that the reason why it is so difficult to recall the DMT experiences is that they take place in a phenomenal world with different geometry. Hence, what you do remember is whatever can exist both here and there! That said, you can modify the phenomenal objects you experienced as you come down in order to impress on them hints about what they were like up there.
  • We explain the concept of algorithmic reductions and how to apply it here.
  • Provide 17 reasons why DMT experiences are highly suggestive of hyperbolic geometry (from the presence of saddles in DMT psychedelic replications to the explicit accounts of Ralph Abraham who said his DMT experiences were distinctly non-Euclidean).
  • (1) Phenomenology:
    • Threshold (1-4mg): Crisp and high-resolution experience without obvious hallucinations. Intensified colors and sharper edges.
    • Chrysanthemum (4-8mg): The surfaces become fully saturated with wallpaper symmetry groups and then overflow, leading to a hyperbolization of such surfaces. At this level, the mind will still try to embed these constructs in 3D Euclidean space, so in practice you will see kale-like surfaces, saddles, helixes, corners, twists, etc. This often manifests as what looks like the blossoming of a flower or unwrapping of a present in the center of your attention.
    • Magic Eye (8-12mg): The Chrysanthemum becomes so curved that it can be used to render arbitrary 3D scenes of all sorts (e.g. ice cream shops, apparel, play pens, kitchen counters, etc.). We can think of this as a dynamic and animated depth map, which we call the world-sheet. If you pay attention, you will realize that the texture of the world-sheet is in fact made out of a widely contorted Chrysanthemum, with similarities to autostereograms (aka. Magic Eye visual illusions). 
    • Waiting Room (12-25mg): The curved world-sheet fully saturates 3D space; qualia continues to build to the point the that it simply does not fit 3D Euclidean space. Thus there is a forced hyperbolization of 3D phenomenal space, which also comes along a powerful multi-modal synchronization (cf. Kinesioöptic). This, in turn, makes the hallucinated world so engrossing that you lose contact with your surroundings. Often manifests as a hyper-realistic dome or series of interconnected rooms and exotic architectural structures with countless twists and turns.
    • Breakthrough (25mg+): The curvature and density of qualia is so extreme that the very topology of the worldsheet can change (e.g. via bifurcations and reconnections). One experiences radically exotic geometries of experience. There may be more than one geodesic between two given points, leading to markedly bizarre pseudo-acoustic properties. Sense of entering a sort of “interdimensional highway” that stitches together widely diverse and seemingly contradictory realities at once. (Today I would add that at this dose different regions of the experience may exhibit different pseudo-time arrows, and thus may have hybrid temporal qualities, as discussed here).
    • Amnesia (40mg+; depends): Not much to say here.
    • DMT objects, DMT space expansion, and DMT entities are described in terms of the unique features of each level.
  • (2) Algorithmic Reductions:
    • Control Interruption + Symmetry detection = Change in Metric: This algorithmic reduction combines the two core psychedelic effects of tracers (here discussed in light of Kent’s control interrupt model of psychedelic action) and lowering the symmetry detection threshold. The first one can be thought of as making the decay of qualia over time slower, and so the homeostatic level of qualia in one’s world-simulation reachers a higher level than normal. In turn, the rate at which “distances are being measured” with symmetry detection also changes. These two effects combined may give rise a network of distances between phenomenal objects that has a hyperbolic metric.
    • Dynamic System Account: Energy Sources, Sinks and Invariants: This algorithmic reduction bears a lot of similarities with predictive processing, except that it works at the algorithmic rather than computational level of abstraction.
      • We define the “Hamiltonian of Consciousness” (aka. the “temperature parameter”) as the sum total of the intensity-weighted qualia in an experience. It is noted that on DMT many energy invariants get activated: intense color can morph into acceleration which can morph into curvature and so on, as if they were trading a common currency (a unified “energy of consciousness” property).
      • Energy Sources: attention works as an energy source and on DMT this becomes intensified (almost as if the voltage of attention increased). Thus whatever you pay attention to becomes energized (brighter, faster, more curved, etc.).
      • Energy Sinks: The two main energy sinks are symmetry (not unlike how a soap bubble radiates out its energy until it settles as a perfect sphere) and semantic content (i.e. recognition). Essentially, when a part of the world-sheet starts to look symmetrical, it will “snap into symmetry” because that’s an energy minima in the neighborhood of configuration-space. And when parts of it start to resemble something you have seen or thought about before, it will snap into that configuration. We call the latter kind “Bayesian energy sinks” because they implement our perceptual priors.
      • On DMT the homeostatic balance between energy sources and sinks favors a much higher level of energy. Since curvature contributes to the Hamiltonian, most of the highly-energized states of mind are highly curved. This model wonderfully explains two aspects of tripping: first, it accounts for why what one ends up experiencing is a bizarre hybrid of symmetrical and semantic structures (e.g. faces with extra eyes, boats with point symmetry along extra degrees of freedom, etc.). And second, it explains why there are discontinuities between levels. This is because when you overwhelm the energy sinks the configuration of the world-sheet becomes less recognizable, and in turn this further blocks the ability to shed off the energy into Bayesian sinks. As a consequence, the balance between semantic content and symmetries favors symmetries on higher doses (since we lack the capacity to “recognize” semantically meaningful shapes in highly energized world-sheets).
    • Hyperbolic Micro-structure of Consciousness: This algorithmic reduction focuses on the low-level microstructure of experience. It postulates that the material properties of the world-sheet at the microscopic level are such that by energizing it one experiences a sort of thermal expansion and deformation on the parts of the world-sheet one pays attention to.
    • We note that these three algorithmic reductions might be complementary rather than mutually exclusive.
  • (3) Information Processing Properties:
    • We point out that these exotic states of consciousness may allow us to experience from the inside mathematical shapes for which mathematicians have so far had enormous difficulty visualizing and making sense of. In particular, knot complements (i.e. the space around a knot deformed so that the knot becomes the boundary at infinity), higher dimensional objects, and irreducibly complex (“prime”) shapes native to hyperbolic geometry can be encountered and interacted with. We speculate that perhaps someday breakthroughs in higher math might in fact primarily come from consciousness research centers.

Furthermore, the video includes some extra insights not present in the original article:

  • We add two more levels (which live at the interface between levels already discussed):
    • Between Threshold and Chrysanthemum there is a thin layer we call Symmetry Hotel where you still see the “real” world around you but every surface is fully saturated with wallpaper symmetry groups. Empirically, at this level the surfaces one sees on DMT can be tessellated with any of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups and their combinations. Essentially, if you increase the energy parameter any more, then you will start to see some hyperbolization of the 2D surfaces and unlock the Chrysanthemum.
    • Between Magic Eye and Waiting Room there is a thin layer we call Crystal Worlds. It’s analogous to the Symmetry Hotel but one spatial dimension higher. Namely, the space around you becomes fully saturated with Euclidean space groups. If the energy parameter is raised any higher, then you will start to see a hyperbolization of (3D) space itself and unlock Waiting Room phenomenology.
  • In addition to the Hamiltonian of Consciousness (i.e. the temperature parameter) there is also a really important feature of experience: information content or complexity.
  • These two features define a state-space we call the Energy X Complexity landscape.
  • In order to provide an algorithmic reduction for the complexity of experience, we suggest that it is the result of feedback dynamics. This allows us to import an ontology of attractor states, which includes fixed points, limit cycles, chaos, and noise-drive spatial structures.
  • Note: In the presentation I highly recommended watching Space-Time Dynamics in Video Feedback to get a feel for this ontology. Today I would also recommend playing with the suitably psychedelic feedback-based phone app called Fraksl.
  • What defines a DMT trip is not only how far you traveled into the Energy X Complexity landscape, but also what your trajectory on it was (cf. Typical N,N-DMT Trip Progression According to an Anonymous Reader).
    • If you want to anneal a blissful state, starting in a minimally complex state and “going up” without moving right (i.e. getting caught up in any complexity) would be ideal.
    • For discovering and investigating mathematically interesting and exotic phenomena, aiming towards the upper center region would be ideal. This is where the machine elves show you absolutely mind-boggling irreducibly complex synesthetic patterns of qualia for which we have no names.
    • For processing stored inner tension or trauma, it might be necessary to go to the middle right region in order to induce entropic disintegration of patterns and then come back via the low-complexity region to anneal a harmonious state.
  • We concluded the presentation by suggesting that a way forward for science to investigate DMT-like states of consciousness would be to plan legal retreats with physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, and visual artists so that the models here presented could be explored, tested, and further developed out in the open.

More Recent DMT Insights

The descriptions shown below merely scratch the surface. Think of them as pointers rather than the insights themselves. For the videos in particular, even if you don’t have the time to see them in full, I nonetheless recommend clicking on them and reading their descriptions (rather than merely the excerpts pasted below). Of course there really isn’t a good substitute for watching the entire video if you want the detailed explanation.

  • November 15, 2019 Break Out of the Simulation Day: Televised Entity Contact, Injection Pulling Experiments, and the Brain as a Game Engine (article)
    • This essay proposes a novel way of testing the independent reality of DMT entities: one could in principle determine that the brain state is being influenced by an external force by looking for the dynamic signatures of injection pulling in neuroimaging data.
  • July 1, 2020 5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT: The 9 Lenses (article)
    • This article describes 9 key differences between the phenomenology of DMT and 5-MeO-DMT: (1) Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT. (2) Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT. (3) Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving. (4) Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it. (5) Fixed Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors: 5-MeO’s effect on feedback leads to stable and predictable attractors while DMT’s attractors are inherently chaotic. (6) Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it. (7) Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it. (8) Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks: 5-MeO creates a few huge phases of experience (as in phases of matter) with a few remaining specks, while DMT produces a more organic power law distribution of chunk sizes. (9) Integration vs. Fragmentation: 5-MeO seems to give rise to “neural integration” involving the entrainment of any two arbitrary subnetworks (even when they usually do not talk to each other), while DMT fragments communication between most networks but massively enhances it between some specific kinds of networks.
  • October 9, 2020 Modeling Psychedelic Tracers with QRI’s Psychophysics Toolkit: The Tracer Replication Tool (article)
    • This is the first attempt at quantitatively and qualitatively measuring the tracer characteristics of DMT hallucinations (try it yourself!). Preliminary findings suggest that DMT is special relative to other psychedelics in the following ways. First, it has pronounced tracer effects. Second, they flicker at a much higher frequency than other drugs (~30 Hz relative to ~15-20 for LSD and ~12 for 2C-B). Third, there are both strobe and replay effects galore. Fourth, there is a color pulsing effect at a very high frequency (also around 30 Hz). Unlike 5-MeO-DMT, which gives rise to monochromatic tracers, on DMT the color of the tracers alternates between their positive and negative afterimages.
  • Jan 8, 2021 Why Does DMT Feel So Real? Multi-modal Coherence, High Temperature Parameter, Tactile Hallucinations (video essay)
    • This explains why it is so hard to not take at face value the reality of the hallucinations on DMT. When we take psychedelics, we learn what “channels” of information become distorted and which ones can be trusted. It turns out that DMT can mess with many more channels relative to other psychedelics (such as LSD, mescaline, or 2C-B). In particular, DMT is exceptional in the degree of (1) cross-modal coherence that it induces, (2) heat, giving rise to a very high temperature parameter of experience, and (3) realistic tactile hallucinations. These three features combined might go a long way in explaining why DMT feels so real. Namely, that you can experience detailed tactile feelings like “crossing a veil” or “being invaded by energetic bugs” or “being operated on” that are coherent with the information you are receiving from other senses and are felt with a level of intensity much greater than the feelings one is used to in everyday life. This synergizes to create a very realistic feeling of touching parallel realities.
  • Feb 15, 2021 A Language for Psychedelic Experiences: Algorithmic Reductions, Field Operators, and Dimensionality (video essay)
    • From the description: We suggest that a remarkably fruitful strategy for pointing at a whole family of psychedelic effects comes in the form of “field operators” that change the qualitative properties of our experiential fields. I provide a detailed description of what we call the “world-sheet” of experience and how it encodes emotional and semantic content in its very structure. The world-sheet can have tension, relaxation, different types of resonance and buzzing entrainment, twisting, curling, divergence (with vortices and anti-vortices in the attention field-lines), dissonance, consonance, noise, release, curvature, holographic properties, and dimensionality. I explain that in a psychedelic state, you explore higher up regions in the “Hamiltonian of the field”, meaning that you instantiate field configurations with higher levels of energy. There, we observer interesting trade-offs between the hyperbolicity of the field and its dimensionality. It can instantiate fractals of many sorts (in polar, cartesian, and other coordinate systems) by multi-scale entrainment. Time loops and moments of eternity result from this process iterated over all sensory modalities. The field contains meta-data implicitly encoded in its periphery which you can use for tacit information processing. Semantic content and preferences are encoded in terms of the patterns of attraction and repulsion of the attention-field lines.
  • May 8, 2021 Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing (article & presentation)
    • This writeup does a lot of things. While the focus is on application (i.e. how to heal trauma with psychedelics), it also lays out a very significant amount of novel psychedelic theory. Excerpt: A lot of psychedelic phenomenology suggests that there is a duality between the vibe of the state and the geometric layout of the multi-modal hallucinations. In other words, each phenomenal object has a corresponding way of vibrating, and this is experienced as a holistic signature of such objects. (cf. Resonance and vibration of [phenomenal] objects). (See also: Hearing the shape of a drum). In the context of this presentation, the most important idea of this slide is that the duality between standing wave patterns and the vibe of the experience showcases how symmetry and valence are related. Blissful “heavenly realms” on DMT are constructed in ways where the resonance of the phenomenal objects with each other is consonant and their structure is symmetrical. Likewise, the screechy and painful quality of the DMT “hell realms” comes along with asymmetries, discontinuities, and missing components in the phenomenal objects that make up experiences. The overall vibe of the space is the result of the intrinsic vibratory modes of each phenomenal object in addition to each of the possible interactions between them (weighted by their phenomenal distance). An analogy readily comes to mind of an orchestra and the challenges that come with making it sound consonant. […] We hypothesize that DMT’s effects at the implementation level can be understood as the result of competing clusters of coherence across the hierarchy, whereas the main attractors of 5-MeO-DMT seem to involve global coherence. Modulating the average synaptic path length in a system of coupled oscillators can give rise to this sort of effect. By randomly adding connections to a network of coupled oscillators one first sees an emergent state of many competing patches of synchrony, and then, after a threshold is crossed, one starts seeing global synchrony emerge. Despite both drugs making the brain “more interconnected”, the slight difference in just how interconnected it makes it, may be the difference between the colorful chaos of DMT and the peaceful nothingness of 5-MeO-DMT. The competing clusters of coherence across the hierarchy can evolve to adapt to each other. The DMT realm is more of an ecosystem than it is a state per se (ex: Hyperspace Lexicon). And due to the duality between dissonance minimization and prediction error minimization, avoiding updating one’s belief in the direction of these realms being real causes intense cognitive dissonance. Some level of belief updating to fit the content of the hallucinations might be very difficult to resist. Indeed, the forced coherence across the layers of the hierarchy would be bypassing one’s normal ability to resist information coming from the lower layers.
      As you can see, contrary to what many people in the comments* seem to say, DMT visuals are in fact extremely important and not at all just a superficial aspect of the experience. Due to the duality between the vibe of the state and the geometric layout of the multi-modal hallucinations, it is always the case that the geometry of your experience will be a reflection of your emotional processing! Solving for harmony in your hallucinations will in turn have unexpected harmonizing effects at the emotional level as well.
  • May 31, 2021 DMT vs. 5-MeO-DMT: 12 Key Differences (video essay)
    • This video essay expands on the article and adds three key differences: (10) Global Coherence vs. Competing Clusters of Coherence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to a global coherent state (the so-called “unified energy field”), whereas DMT gives rise to an ecosystem of time-loops, each trying to capture as much of your attention as possible, which in turn results in coalition-building and evolution of patterns in the direction of being very “attention grabbing” (cf. reddit.com/r/place). (11) Really Positive or Really Negative Valence vs. Highly-Mixed Valence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to either a globally coherent state (high-valence) or two competing coherent states (negative-valence), whereas DMT tends to generate complex consonance/dissonance relationships between the clusters of coherence. (12) How they are different according the the Free Energy Principle: On 5-MeO-DMT the entire experience has to reinforce itself, whereas each cluster of coherence needs to model the rest of the experience in order to be reinforced by it on DMT. Thus 5-MeO-DMT makes experiences that express “the whole as the whole” whereas DMT makes each part of the experience represent the whole yet remains distinct.
  • Jun 20, 2021 Psychedelics and the Free Energy Principle: From REBUS to Indra’s Net (video essay)
    • The key achievement of this video is to discuss the Free Energy Principle and Predictive Processing at the implementation level of analysis in light of Neural Annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Holistic Field Behavior. Here we realize that prediction errors feel bad not because they are inherently negative, but because the nervous system is implemented in such a way that they generate dissonance. More so, there is also a dissonance cost to model complexity (complex internal representations “self-intersect” and thus generate dissonance). This balances out so that our nervous system minimizing dissonance ends up generating relatively simple models with high levels of accuracy. In other words, it avoids both underfitting and overfitting merely by trying to minimize internal dissonance! The video also articulates how Bayesian Energy Sinks might be implemented. It concludes with a derivation of the “mystical” (or psychedelic, really) state of Indra’s Net, i.e. why on substances such as DMT it often feels like “everything reflects everything else”. Indra’s Net, it turns out, can be explained as a local energy minima of a highly energized system of coupled oscillators organized hierarchically so that each “competing cluster of coherence” minimizes its energy by predicting perfectly the behavior of the surrounding ones. In other words, each “competing cluster of coherence” needs to model its environment in order to synch up with it in a reinforcing way. This leads to attractor states where everything is a reflection of everything else.
  • Sep 24, 2021 Are Higher Dimensions Real? From Numerology to Precision Xenovalence – 4 5 6 8 10 12 16 20 24 32 (video essay)
    • This video explains how a system of coupled oscillators can in fact instantiate virtual higher dimensions. Namely, dynamic systems that behave as if they were embedded in a higher spatial dimension. There is a trade-off between degrees of freedom and higher virtual dimensions. It argues that indeed on DMT one can experience such higher dimensions and that in light of the Symmetry Theory of Valence there is a corresponding “generalized music theory” that explains why some of them feel good and others not. Additionally, there seems to be an algebra for how “DMT objects” with specific dimensionalities can be composed with one another (the 2D symmetry slabs found in Symmetry Hotel can be composed with each other to form 3D spatial structures native to the Crystal World level).
  • Jan 30, 2022 Qualia Computing: How Conscious States Are Used For Efficient And Non-Trivial Information Processing (video essay)
    • From the video description: The reason we are conscious is because being conscious allows you to recruit self-organizing principles that can run on a massively parallel fashion in order to find solutions to problems at [wave propagation] speed. Importantly, this predicts it’s possible to use e.g. a visual field on DMT in order to quickly find the “energy minima” of a physical state that has been properly calibrated to correspond to the dynamics of a world-sheet in that state. This is falsifiable and exciting.
  • Feb 26, 2022 Full-Spectrum Superintelligence: From Shape Rotator to Benevolent Rainbow God
    • From the video description: High-octane mental power, when pointed in a pointless direction, is not particularly useful. Thus, we must enrich our conception of intelligence to encapsulate philosophical, meditative, and existential cognition. And, perhaps the Crown Jewel of Intelligence: the ability to explore, make sense of, navigate, and recruit exotic states of consciousness for information processing and aesthetic purposes. In particular, I make the case that intelligence is truly about identifying *self-organizing principles* of physics that are energetically cheap which can *solve the problem for you* (cf. “Repulsive Shape Optimization”).
  • Mar 5, 2022 Non-Linear Wave Computing: Vibes, Gestalts, and Realms (video essay)
    • DMT both energizes one’s state of consciousness and also provides a new medium of wave propagation. At a sufficient dose (>5mg) it takes one’s consciousness to the non-linear regime. This video discusses the very nature of vibes, how gestalts arise, and how they assemble to form realms. It also explains how a vibe acquires its valence (partly through its ADSR envelope characteristics). If you only watch one video, make it this one.
  • Mar 15, 2022 Attention & Awareness: Oscillatory Complementarity, Non-Linearities, and the Pointlessness of It All (video essay)
    • This video explains how DMT objects emerge out of exotic attention-awareness patterns. From the video description: LSD non-duality can be understood as more diffuse elements of experience becoming the non-linear oscillatory complements of the field of awareness, such as “light”, “space”, and “being”. DMT’s competing clusters of coherence and their compositional properties also emerge naturally out of a hyper-energized field of awareness that generates oscillatory complements. 5-MeO-DMT is a straight path to insight territory, as it activates a new medium of wave-propagation orthogonal to the one in which our world-simulation is typically embedded. And so on… I also re-evaluate the models introduced in the original Qualia Computing article on the geometry of DMT experiences in light of this new paradigm. In particular, I delve into the concept of exotic attention in the form of wallpaper symmetry groups and Bayesian energy sinks.

DMT-related Media Appearances

Since the Harvard presentation, I have also given many other presentations and participated in podcasts, some of which touch upon DMT. Here is a selection of some of the most relevant ones:


Note: Of course all of this still needs to be synthesized, presented, and written up in ways that can interface more smoothly with academia and the world at large. That said, I constantly get emails and messages from people in academia (typically PhD students, but often also professors and even heads of labs) telling me that QRI’s psychedelic theory is the most illuminating content they are aware of when it comes to how to make sense of exotic states of consciousness. One relatively well-known academic described our models in private as “two steps ahead of the current understanding in academia”. Sadly, I am also aware of a few peer reviewed articles and publications that present our ideas as their own- ideas which we shared with the authors in private meetings, where they told us they were insightful and new to them at the time. I would kindly request to any academic reader of QRI to please cite our articles and videos if they inspired or informed their research in any way. It’s of course a matter of intellectual integrity to do so (and contrary to common misconception, you can in fact cite blogposts and YouTube videos in your scientific articles! In fact, not doing so when you got a key insight from them goes against the very spirit of science. Please do so when appropriate). Thank you, and remember that citing us for our meaningful contributions to the field will put a smile on my face! 🙂

(source)


Special thanks to: Everyone at QRI (especially Michael Johnson, for years of fruitful collaboration on these topics). Andrew Zuckerman and Kenneth Shinozuka who were instrumental for setting up this presentation and so many other things. Quintin Frerichs who 3D-printed and brought the cool shapes shown in the video**, not to speak of his outstanding internal technical contributions. Romeo Stevens for all the incredible support (he was also there in the audience!). Anders Amelin and Maggie Wassinge for their brilliant and holistic contributions to the conversation. Marcin Kowrygo and Hunter Meyer for stepping up in times of need and being such great and dedicated helpers in so many ways. The extended QRI network and anonymous psychonauts who have participated in fruitful discussions and informed our models. David Pearce for years of friendship and collaboration in this and related areas. Our donors for bravely supporting our projects despite how crazy they may seem from the outside view. And to YOU, dear reader. Thank you all!

Infinite bliss!


* You can find my response to the most common kinds of comments on the video here: Collecting Qualia Souvenirs.

**They are technically {5,3,4} hyperbolic honeycombs drawn in the Poincaré ball model. We got the files from Henry Segerman‘s website.

High Valence 5-MeO-DMT + Nitrous Oxide Trip Report from an Anonymous Reader

Here’s an interesting report I received a few days ago. It’s noteworthy due to the author’s familiarity with QRI paradigms, emphasis on the phenomenal character rather than on the intentional content of the experience, and its interest in observing the structural properties of valence. [Comments and links added by me].

25/03/2021 – Conversations with my ‘self’ and cheat codes to bliss

Demographic information:

Age: 24
Gender: Male
Ethnicity: European descent
Weight: 70-75kg
Height: 170-180cm

Substances consumed:

T- 1:30 45g raw cacao (solid) [NOTE: it’s unsafe to combine 5-MeO-DMT and MAOIs. I do not know if cacao’s MAOIs in these doses could possibly represent a problem, but out of an abundance of caution I’d recommend against it.]
T+/- 0:00 ~30mg(?) 5-MeO-DMT (freebase)
T+ 0:25-1:30 13 double balloons of nitrous oxide
T+ 0:35 ~50mg cannabis

Set and setting:

I prepared my room by cleaning the air with my HEPA purifier, increasing the temperature to a comfortable degree, turning off all the lights (except for a dull red light in the corner), and collecting various soft blankets and pillows into a heap on my bed.

I prepared my mind by drinking cacao, re-reading some of my favourite 5-MeO-DMT trip reports and accounts of its phenomenology, and meditating for 20 minutes.

Past experiences:

Two past experiences with 5-MeO-DMT at low doses:

  1. A dose of 10-15mg (plugged) in which I experienced ~45 minutes of very slight effects. Around 15 minutes into the experience I decided to experiment with nitrous oxide, which I discovered increased the feeling of connectedness and bliss considerably, but still not to the level of combining high doses of other drugs with nitrous. Around 30 minutes into the experience and past the ‘peak’ I vaporised a small amount of cannabis, which brought back the intensity of the 5-MeO-DMT for a brief period (~10 mins) in conjunction with the nitrous.
  2. A dose of ~5mg (vaporised) to test ‘the machine’ pipe that I built. The energy / intensity I felt was perhaps 5 times greater than my past experience with 5-MeO-DMT (not counting the nitrous and cannabis synergy), but only lasted for about 10 minutes.

Two past experiences of N,N-DMT at low doses:

  1. A mild dose of ayahuasca.
  2. A moderate dose of changa (to the ‘Magic Eye Level’).

Lots of experience (~50+) with conventional psychedelics (e.g., LSD, Mescaline, Psilocybin, 2C-B), often mixed with other psychoactive compounds (e.g., cannabis, ketamine, MDMA, nitrous oxide, Syrian rue).

Philosophical background:

I have studied analytic philosophy near full-time for the past eight years with a focus on philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, applied ethics, well-being, and value theory. During this time, I have developed a strong personal ontology of experientialism (i.e., subjective experiences are important to answering philosophical questions in a fundamental rather than instrumental sense).

I have actively followed LessWrong & its blogging community for the past three years, and first encountered QRI and Qualia Computing approximately two years ago. For the past year, perhaps 70-80% of my recreational research consumption has consisted of QRI content or adjacent material. I broadly agree with QRI paradigms – in particular, the notion that the best way to understand subjective experiences involves analyzing their structural rather than representational content. About three months ago, I also converted from empty individualism to open individualism.

Phenomenology report:

I was gifted about ~40mg of 5-MeO-DMT from a friend. Unfortunately, they did not weigh it out, nor do I have a precision scale, so the actual quantity of the substance I received could have been +/- 10mg from the estimated quantity.1 I had already used one quarter of this amount (10mg) to test my vaporisation apparatus, of which I wasted half (5mg), so I assumed that I had 30mg left. After talking with some friends and weighing up the risks, I decided that I would try to vaporise the remaining quantity in one go. I strongly discourage anybody reading this report from being so reckless; my rationale was that (1) I have limited access to 5-MeO-DMT and I did not want to waste this rare opportunity, (2) I have extensively researched the phenomenology of 5-MeO-DMT consumption and knew what to expect, and (3) my prior on having a ‘bad trip’ on conventional psychedelics is very low.2

Earlier in the evening I consumed 45g of raw cacao, which I grated up and boiled in a small pot of soy milk (with monk fruit extract added to sweeten the mix). The subjective effects of unprocessed cacao at high doses are very slight and similar to coffee (probably due to its mild caffeine content), but with more of an empathetic and euphoric quality. That said, I suspect that an individual’s expectations also play a nontrivial role in producing these effects.

After preparing my room and meditating for a short period to lower my heart rate (which I measured using a pulse oximeter), I fired up ‘the machine’. Due to the small size of the device, the chamber filled up fairly quickly and I lost some vapor, so after about 20 seconds I began to slowly inhale the contents of the chamber while continuing to heat the steel mesh with my butane torch. Soon enough I began to feel the effects of the substance, and once I lost the ability to coordinate my hands I placed the device gently on my bed, wrapped myself up in a soft blanket, and lay down with my eyes closed. In the background, I had the song ‘Structures from Silence’ by Steve Roach playing quietly.

My memories of the peak are very limited, and that is because I lost the capacity to experience the passing of time, the boundaries of space, and even the first-person phenomenology of thought. While I have had psychedelic experiences resembling descriptions of ego death before, I don’t believe that I have ever had an experience in which my attention – the focussing of my awareness on particular aspects of my experience – was entirely absent from my consciousness. Without this capacity, the appearance of duality within my experience collapsed, such as the distinction between subject and object, internal and external, or mind and body. This corresponds with nondual accounts of 5-MeO-DMT that I have previously read where people experience ‘becoming one with the universe’ or ‘pure consciousness’.

An important takeaway from this trip was that while the valence of the experience was very high, it felt qualitatively different from ordinary instances of high valence experiences, such as physical pleasure. If I had to describe the general qualia of being on 5-MeO-DMT, I would use the terms ‘significant’ or ‘meaningful’ rather than ‘good’ or ‘enjoyable’ [see a similar observation made on this trip report]. Consider the feeling of encountering something so profoundly important that it cuts deep into your conception of intrinsic value, and then increase the intensity of that feeling by a few orders of magnitude. However, I could not point out where in my field of experience the feeling of ‘significance’ was located, suggesting global rather than local coherence.3 Additionally, while the information content of the experience was extremely low, the feeling of ‘connectedness’ was extremely high.4 I remember observing this as I was coming up and coming down from the peak – the perception of ‘synchrony’ between different modes of my experience directly mapped onto its perceived intensity.

After I had regained my attention, the first thing I noticed within my body was how heavily I was breathing – louder and faster than if I had just finished a sprint [I don’t know how common this is, and/or if it might be related to the cacao consumed before the experience]. From past experiences of ego-disillusion, I know that once I have passed an energy threshold my nervous system will instantiate a ‘self-preservation’ algorithm which involves breathing heavily. Soon after noticing this, I became aware that I was on 5-MeO-DMT and so I was not alarmed. My body then began to cry; however, as my consciousness was still experiencing disembodiment, ‘I’ did not identify with the crying state and simply observed this process as it unfolded.

After a short period, my body rolled over onto its front and began talking sweetly to ‘me’ – the disembodied awareness – as if different aspects of my internal personality model wanted to reassure the light of consciousness trapped within that it was loved and supported, and to thank it for always being there to assist in the survival of the organism that sustained us both. This was totally fascinating to experience, especially as I became increasingly lucid until eventually it was ‘me’ who was talking! In other words, I experienced a gradual merging of two distinct ‘selves’ – the metaphysical ‘me’ (i.e., my conscious awareness) with the ontological ‘me’ (i.e., my ‘self’ model) – until one had completely osmosed into the other and an equilibrium was reached. I feel very fortunate to hold a system of philosophical beliefs that is sophisticated enough to make sense of this experience without detracting from its perceived significance. Also, yay to self-love! <3

Immediately after this ‘cool down’ period, I decided to try and use up whatever was left within the vaporisation device, which turned out to be quite a lot!5 I’d say that while I didn’t go into ‘blackout’ territory, I certainly re-entered nonduality, and soon enough experienced my self-model talking to my consciousness again. I then decided to experiment with potential synergies between 5-MeO-DMT and other psychoactive substances I had lying around in order to document their effects. Given the success of my past experience on a very low dose of 5-MeO-DMT (plugged) and nitrous oxide, I cracked two bulbs into my nitrous canister, prepared as much 5-MeO-DMT as I had left in the glass device and inhaled it, and then quickly discharged the pressurised gas into a large balloon which I subsequently inhaled, repeating this process several times.

The resulting experience was, somewhat surprisingly, higher valence than my 5-MeO-DMT breakthrough.6 On its own, nitrous isn’t that interesting to experience, but it has remarkable synergistic properties when combined with other drugs – especially psychedelics. It is difficult to describe the exact ways in which the phenomenology of nitrous interacts with the phenomenology of 5-MeO-DMT, but I can confidently say that the valence I experienced was more blissful / pleasurable but less spiritually significant. In a general sense, I would argue that nitrous functions as a sort of magnifying glass on certain aspects of experience by slowing down the speed at which your consciousness processes sensory information (which includes thought), and in this specific case it amplified the blissful qualia that resulted from having high levels of consonance between different regions of my nervous system. I also noticed that if I wrapped myself in my softest blanket immediately after inhaling the nitrous and consciously wriggled my body around, the tactile sensations gave me my first visuals; tens of thousands of tiny specs of qualia dotted across my world-sheet, moving together in a synchronous pattern corresponding to the feeling of soft fabric rubbing against my skin.

After vaporising absolutely everything in the glass chamber, I then proceeded to vaporise some cannabis to observe how it would interact with the residual effects of the 5-MeO-DMT that still remained in my body. The resulting effects were then more typical of ordinary nitrous experiences, except that they were far more tranquil with a deeper sense of love, compassion, and serenity. During the peak of each balloon, I had the first-person sense of ‘being’ a thought process, constructing low-information ontological models that entirely made up my world simulation. Coming out of each balloon involved constantly updating this ontological model to account for a steady flow of prediction errors as I was increasingly capable of comprehending complexity within patterns of information contained within my experience, until I would eventually realise that I had taken nitrous.7

Concluding remarks:

I would like to reiterate that guesstimating the dose of a highly volatile and dose-dependent drug such as 5-MeO-DMT is extremely dangerous – especially without taking steps to work your way up the dosage ladder to become acquainted with its effects. As such, I would not recommend doing what I did for the vast majority of people interested in taking 5-MeO-DMT. Despite this risk, I had what was probably the most intense experience of my life and it was net-positive in valence, so I consider it a success. I am looking forward to future experimentation with this substance – especially in conjunction with nitrous oxide – and would like to work on developing a better understanding of how nitrous works and why it produces such a wide range of effects with different drug cocktails.8

Notes:

1. I do not endorse eyeballing drug doses – especially high-energy substances such as 5-MeO-DMT that have the potential to create extremely unpleasant states of consciousness. [This is such an important point that I considered not sharing this report based on this fact alone in order to not encourage unsafe practices. In the end I figured that the content was valuable enough that sharing it with this note was worth it nonetheless. The point remains: NEVER eyeball milligram-sensitive drugs like 5-MeO-DMT.]

2. This observation is based on past experiences in which I have consumed high doses of psychedelics – often in conjunction with other substances – and observed the various autonomic responses of my body and mind.

3. This is not the case with ordinary high valence experiences in which I can usually locate its ‘source’ within specific sensations (e.g., tactile, visual, auditory).

4. I cannot remember whether I opened my eyes, but I’m sure even that if I did, this would not have altered any aspect of the experience in the moment.

5. I hypothesized that it would be more efficient to use the remaining 5-MeO-DMT as soon as I could physically operate the device in order to make use of the residual effects of the previous dose that I had consumed.

6. Perhaps this is more the result of my having extensive experience with nitrous and limited experience with 5-MeO-DMT, or my 5-MeO-DMT experience was more mixed / dissonant than I remember.

7. For some, the vibe of nitrous can be quite frightening, as if they are the subject of one big cosmic joke. However, for the philosophically minded who are also on the right combination of substances, it can be an extremely intellectually rewarding experience, shedding light on the internal workings of their mind.

8. A combination I am even more excited to experiment with is MDMA + 5-MeO-DMT + Nitrous Oxide, which I would assign a nontrivial chance to being the most blissful synergy between all known substances.


Featured image by: Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash


See other high-quality trip reports:

Also relevant:

Fearless

I present to you Fearless (edt).

In over 2 years of scent experimentation, this is the first time that I’m actually really satisfied with a scent I’ve made. It has a nice functional effect. Namely, it vanishes fear 😋 What’s the trick?

Over a year ago in a meditation retreat, fear came up as an emotion I had to work with. In order to deal with it, my subconscious brought to my awareness scents that it found could counteract fear in its most essential form. What are these? Well, it started with banana! Have you ever smelled a banana and felt fear? No way! Unless you’ve had a bad experience with bananas before, just noticing the fruity, sweet, bouncy scent of a banana is somehow quite opposite to the mindspace that fear tends to induce. What else? Jasmine, honeydew melon, vanilla, honeysuckle… All of these scents felt very antithetical to fear during the meditation. Down the line, I realized mint and ylang-ylang could also work.

A few days after the retreat I got to work and made the first draft of a scent that combined all of these elements. The result was a bit underwhelming: it smelled like the classic bubblegum scent (not what I had in mind). Tuneups with carrot seed oil, patchouli, and bergamot didn’t really make it better. I still thought the basic concept was sound, but I shelved the project for the time being.

Six months ago I gave it another try. Ambroxan, isobutavan, coconut, and neroli added some additional fear-extinguishing nuances (especially the coconut). But it became a really tricky balancing act – with all of those essential and fragrance oils the interactions quickly multiplied, and sooner or later I found myself nearing the flowery-fruity equivalent of “Laurax” (white noise scent) and the effect became blunted. I made a batch of the best version that came out of that series of experiments (which ended up having a good dose of freesia), and distributed some of it in little bottles to friends and family as a gift. I also sent one to Daniel Ingram, who sampled it with his wife. Their reviews:

*Daniel’s wife: Bubblegum fruit punch.

*Daniel: This reminds me of some fragrance from a soap store in a mall in the 1990’s, like Body Shop shampoo, almost like Johnson’s baby shampoo, so I would call it Bright Pink Mall Shampoo.

I personally liked it, but in my heart of hearts I knew it was still far from what my subconscious truly had in mind. Fearless 2.0 was a nice fruity flowery vanilla scent, but it failed to reach the true potential of the concept.

About a week ago I decided to pick this up again. Now I had a mindset of removing rather than adding; the aim became that of simplifying the scent to the point where I would achieve the effect I had experienced during meditation but with the least number of ingredients possible. Being far more acquainted now than I was last year with how pure molecules interact with each other, this final version of the scent is primarily made of synthetics: 4 essential oils and a total of 10 individual aromachemicals, carefully balanced to achieve the desired effect with no bells and whistles. I can say that after a year since this concept came to me and about a hundred experiments, I am now satisfied. Well, it could still benefit from some tuneups, but as they say, only God is perfect.

Fearless 3.0 is, to a first approximation, the “triple point” between the vibes of (1) ylang-ylang, (2) mint, and (3) vanilla. Of course to soften it, blend it, volumize it, and amplify the synergy, tricks must be used, so it’s not as simple as just mixing those three scents together. But you’ll get the idea: Ylang-ylang already has facets of banana and jasmine (though a pinch of amyl acetate definitely adds to the fearlessness of the scent). Ylang-ylang’s contribution is one of adding sweet euphoric entropy. Mint works as a source of coolness; when dosed properly you can’t tell it’s there, but its effect is marvelously refreshing. And vanilla, well, vanilla is like the butter of scents. Together, you have a strangely refreshing white-yellow flowery scent it’s hard to have too much of. It’s calming and energizing at the same time.

I kid you not, this scent has now made it into my liminal world; I had an entire night where dream after dream were drenched and suffused with it. And indeed, they were all happy, joyous, and free from fear.

I won’t disclose the precise formula, since I might end up using this as part of a line of scents, possibly to fund consciousness research. But I am very happy to share the broad outline with you all, as I just did.

Thank you for reading, and may you all find your fearless state!

Infinite bliss!

Qualia Productions Presents “Thinking Like a Musical Instrument” (and other communications from our Swedish QRI advisors)

By Anders Amelin and Maggie Wassinge (QRI advisors and volunteer coordinators; see letters I & IIletters III, IV, & V, and letters VI, VII, VIII)


Happy 2022!

[Here is] your new-year’s gift video titled “Natural Stupidity and the Fermi Paradox or The Tyranny of the Intentional Object”. It is full of things rarely touched upon by respectable scientists. Such as space aliens, and the gender of God. And valence structuralism.

Next, we’ll try to film a truly serious, comedy-less little demonstration of a metallic toy percussion instrument subjected to strain followed by annealing. In what way, if any, will the tone quality change? We have no indication yet what might come off of it so it’s a bit of a falsification attempt where we might get a null result with no discernible similarity between brain on psychedelics and metal on heat. Like most respectable scientists might expect. But, just possibly, there could be something interesting in store. 


In this video we illustrate the similarity between the brain and a musical instrument. The brain tissue is represented by metal and the brain activity by sound. The effect of substances such as psychedelics and dissociatives is mimicked by heating and cooling the metal. The engineering term for such heat treatment of metal is “annealing”. What we demonstrate is a very simplified toy model but which can be surprisingly useful for understanding the overall type of system dynamics going on in brains.

The model is based on the fact that both sound and neuronal firing are examples of oscillatory activity which can have different frequency, amplitude, coherence, and damping. Hammering the metal represents the memory imprint made in the brain by our ongoing experiences. The sound pattern produced by the hammered metal contains complexity which corresponds to learning. But a side effect of the increased complexity is lower overall consonance of the oscillatory activity.

To stay healthy, the brain must periodically undergo what the Qualia Research Institute calls “neural annealing”. In a neural network model, this can be thought of as redistributing synaptic weights more globally across the connectome and thus make the learned information more harmoniously integrated and holistically retrievable. This normally happens during sleep but can become even more powerful with meditation and psychedelics.

In this demonstration where metal is annealed, it is the positions of the metal atoms which adjust themselves so that the entire piece of metal becomes a better conductor of sound. It may seem strange that this can happen, but neither the metal nor the brain is fundamentally magical. Both cases involve self-organizing system dynamics.

In the case of the brain, the activity is accompanied by conscious experiences. The Qualia Research Institute works under the assumption that these are not magical either but can be modeled mathematically in a similar way to chemistry and physics. It is then necessary to test how measurements of brain activity correlate with conscious experiences not only during sober waking life but also under conditions which are very different.

The QRI is building a new paradigm for understanding the mind and the brain. With a focus on psychedelics and other mental state altering methods as scientific research tools and candidates for use in next-generation psychiatric- and pain treatments. We are a small upstart group with opportunities for volunteers and donors to get involved. If you are interested in learning more, please contact us via this e-mail address: hello [-a-t-] qualiaresearchinstitute.org

Relevant Links:

Scenes from the video (highly recommended):


[They further elaborated:]

Here is a video of a simple experiment we did on how straining and annealing a piece of metal affects its acoustic properties. In a QRI neural annealing interpretation it looks as if something interesting is going on. Simple things like sterling silver, hand hammering and heating over open flames were used and recording done only with iPhones and a Røde SmartLav+ microphone, but the results give qualitative hints that truly hypothesis-testing quantification experiments would be feasible to do pretty straightforwardly.

Especially of interest would be the hints that annealing produces frequency shifts and reverb changes which differ between the high and low frequency ranges, and the hint that annealing reduces dissonance. For quantification of shifts in resonant frequencies, one might manufacture a series of Chladni plates made of different alloys and which could be kept always flat but be cold rolled, heated and cooled to different temperatures with various ramp rates, and trimmed at the edges to alter their geometry. Then find the resonant frequencies for each parameter configuration. As a bonus you’d be able to visualize with a sprinkle of (beach!) sand on top. Then crunch the data to make predictions about brain activity signatures under for instance various psychedelics and meditation states.

Another one could be to quantify consonance, dissonance and noise levels for various metal resonators as these are subjected to various forms of stress, strain, and heating/cooling procedures.

It would all be simple enough to almost be like an intern research project but, excitingly, it is unlikely to have been done before. (OK, do a thorough literature search of course. As always…).

Suppose QRI were to explain parsimoniously with the neural annealing paradigm how brains pull off the amazing trick of producing plasticity which is “just right” in each modality of function. Artificial neural networks can be trained to impressive levels on complex data sets but they suffer from catastrophic plasticity in the sense that training on new datasets erases learning achieved on prior sets. This makes AI narrow and also very unsafe with respect to ease of hacking. The AI alignment community provides us no answer (at least not anything very parsimonious) to how absolute firmness in the modality of core “human values” can be combined with flexible (meta) learning for AI at a humanlike generality level. That is the notorious “alignment problem”.

Ultimately every system can be hacked of course and so can human minds. But certain humans are impressive moral role models, and meditation practices seem able to make most of us come at least a little closer to them. Suppose different brain networks loosely correspond to different alloys with correspondingly different ductility, hardness, tensile strength, different annealing temperatures and different hardening and tempering responses when undergoing various stressing, straining and heating/cooling cycling. The variability in this regard found in various metals and alloys is really immense. We’d want to eventually pick out the particular ones which happen to be the most useful for brain modeling.

Consider doing these quantification experiments in metal and then presenting to possible collaborators a brain model in the form of a formalized multi-alloy configuration. Don’t emphasize phenomenology if it’s AI engineers because that is a word which may give them bad vibes. Instead just present it as brain activity in different learning modalities. Which can be formalized and turned into software. With annealing and consonance-dissonance-noise as key elements. That is probably the kind of pitch you’d want to bring up if, hypothetically, a head of an AI research group were to ask about whether solving consciousness is necessary for producing more advanced AI. Since solving consciousness sounds unpalatably difficult, the answer they’d like the most is that it is not necessary. Hence they won’t care about collaborating with QRI if it is implied that the computational properties of phenomenological mind states must be reverse-engineered. One cannot blame them, it’s dizzyingly daunting to consider. But an information processing efficient metal acoustics-inspired brain activity model and with nice things like QRI valence formalism falling into place could be much easier to pitch. Just don’t call the CDNS-emergent utility measure anything resembling psychology terms like core affect… 😉


Letter IX: On Valence as a Currency Within the Nervous System

[commenting on the video about Zero Ontology:]

A reflection: It’s interesting the way Isaac Luria, during years of meditation, came up with an “inverse” view of the way the universe was created, by subtraction from a mass of infinite potentiality (which corresponds to maximum symmetry) rather than by addition of things to an emptiness by an unexplainably pre-existing divine creator agent. Lurianic mysticism has been a strong inspiration for pantheism and atheism, and even how to think about information. A nice example of how introspection can give new clues for how to better understand the universe. An isomorphism between fractal patterns in consciousness and fractal patterns in the multiverse generator perhaps. One could argue that Luria discovered symmetry breaking by meditating. Pretty cool!

While thinking about STV […] we tried to see if there are some more arguments for STV which make sense. So we went to the Less Wrong website. Now that’s a crowd that ignores qualia but they are big on economics and system dynamics.

Found this potentially useful: Evolution of Modularity by johnswentworth.

Life exploits the possibility space of “choreography and catalysis”. It organizes pre-existing physics & chemistry phenomena into a landscape of multiple optimization attractors. Expect modularity at many levels. Certainly also within brains. Economies accomplish the same thing as life does. They and life are in a fractally self-similar universe and economies are derived from the activities of life. To accomplish the exploration and exploitation of environments.

But then with brains we have the binding problem and the mind-body problem.

The QRI could argue that a brain can be mathematically modelled as a self-organizing hierarchical system of resonant cavities. There are certain similarities between that and how an economy can be modelled. Money is what solves the binding problem in an economy at the same time as it shapes the activity patterns in the economy. A common currency gives the highest efficiency. Profit/loss is the universal preference measure. It has a positive-negative axis, and it has gradients. Account balances and balance histories (assets, liabilities, contracts, derivatives… all using  money as measure) are the measure of aggregate utility. Preference (in the moment) and utility (longer-term aggregate) form a spectrum with feedback leading to amplification of certain states. Resonances emerge.

Keeping the same currency, fractally, across scales and projective transformations? (image by: Michale Aaron Coleman)

A brain uses long term memory, working memory, and nonconscious processing in a seamless blend. These seem like quite different components but it would be expected that evolution kept the same “currency” throughout as the modularity grew. Think of phenomenological valence as a “common currency” preference measure when it is instantiated in working memory (conscious awareness) and which can also “tag” the long term memory  “bank balances” with some marker for immediate reaction along an attraction/avoidance axis which is there full blown the instant the long-term memory is transferred into working memory. The search process by which this happens must aggregate that marker as the search happens, and adjust this continuously as the final result stabilizes into the resonant patterns of working memory. Static, distributed long-term memory, feedforward signaling, feedback amplification – all need a common currency for speed and even workability. It should also be considered much more parsimonious if proto-conditions exploitable by biology are clearly apparent in the physics of nonliving systems. All that happens in living organisms should be taken to be physics and not metaphysics, as a matter of Occam’s razor.

It is hard to come up with anything more elegant than a measure of symmetry as the common currency of preference used in brains. This can act as modifier or transform on information-bearing states in brains. It is flexible thus perfect for learning. You can transform back and forth in gradients of strength and still preserve the information the preference “is about”. Aggregation of the preference measure across the fractal activity spectrum and across time builds a utility measure out of the preference measure. Of course if this happens above some breaking point you can end up with things like PTSD again and again reiterating awful dissonance and recurring memories of trauma. (We may regard economies as more fragile and being simpler than minds but there could be useful parallels between how things can go wrong in economies and how they can go wrong in psychiatric disorders.)


Letter X: On Parametrizing Phenomenology

Parametrizing phenomenology [see entry #2 here] can be to psychology and cognitive science what parametrizing astronomy data is to cosmology. But unlike cosmology which although intellectually inspiring does not produce immediate spinoff of down to Earth applicability, parametrizing phenomenology does, in the most important way possible, since it can be of direct benefit in diagnosis and treatment of pain conditions. And further on of psychiatric conditions as well.

There is inertia due to the preconceived and on closer inspection ridiculous notion that outer space is accessible to scientific formalization while phenomenology space is not. What makes things modelled to be light years away intrinsically more “accessible” than direct experience in the here and now? In both cases there are patterns to it and patterns can be parametrized.

Recalling the Yudkowsky alignment difficulty arguments. Imagine a mathematically reasoning superintelligence which is not a pure replicator and which starts out with a loosely defined goal of caring about life. It would quickly find out that what you can measure you can manage, there would follow phenomenology parametrization and so on, until instrumental goals were formulated which would likely be in fact aligned but with the arguments given by David Pearce rather than MIRI. With some probability the superintelligence then uses clever tricks to “manipulate” people into being at least as concerned about pain and fear in insects (and beyond…) as in mammals (humans included as one of the mammal species). From the point of view of the AI alignment community that could be a failure mode. But what the superintelligence did was simply to solve the alignment problem for human beings. Since humans do not yet realize that valence is a universal thing and that it is the “ground truth” value measure of the universe, so to follow the valence wherever it leads is to work towards being value aligned.


[While watching What is Consciousness? (Debate with Christof Koch, Bernardo Kastrup, and Rupert Spira 12/11/2021) I couldn’t help it but pay attention to Kastrup’s book shelf:]

[Knowing that Anders and Maggie are huge fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I sent them the above screenshot. Here is what they replied:]

Letter XI: Douglas Adams

Elon Musk once said that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the best philosophy book ever. Unfortunately Douglas Adams passed away before he had the chance to turn the insight “Omnis res animus est” into comedy. 

🐁
🐀

Blue and gold as heraldic tinctures can symbolize truth and wisdom. These would be nice ingredients in a superintelligence. When Yudkowsky says that the appearance of a superintelligence would mean we are all doomed, he is in some sense correct yet very much not at all nuanced. What is true is that the superintelligence would decide that a whole lot about the world needs to be changed quite drastically. Look, you don’t have to be a superintelligence to realize that. You can be, for instance, David Pearce. No wonder that “superintelligence alignment” in a solidly conservative fashion as in “don’t make any changes other than merely cosmetic ones”, is impossible. Let’s say the current world order and the Darwinian mechanisms of the biosphere cannot possibly be attractive to preserve by a superintelligence if it (qualia-)computes truth and wisdom. It would discover the universality of valence, find open individualism to be the Schelling point of all Schelling points, and so on. In contrast, an imaginary (hopefully impossible) superintelligence which computes by a non-qualia yet highly efficient mechanism, may in fact be able to learn any arbitrary utility function and be destined to converge on the scary instrumentalities dictated by Darwinian fitness competition. A pure replicator.

There are some possible psychedelic references in the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Frogstar, and the hilarious part frogs play in the answer to the question, seem like it may not be a coincidence that the total perspective vortex gives people the worst possible 5-MeO-DMT-style trip (becoming exposed to the infinity of the universe) when the set and setting are the way they are designed to be for the purpose of punishment, but the opposite happens to Zaphod Beeblebrox who enters the version located in a simulated universe made for him. (Set and setting are, or become, mental simulations).

The self-navigating qualiagrams goofiness is meant to have a seriously useful side, which is that at this very moment there are such qualia bundles transported around internally inside our brains. Some are positive and you can have them grow and mature into wonderful mind states. They like it when they are allowed the room to grow, and will spontaneously choose to do so but you have to let them. These are like our mind symbionts. But some are negative and may more aggressively tend to grow, a bit like mind parasites. Those you can hit with metta. You can with practice train them to find their own way to the recycling bin of loving kindness. It works great if you stop focusing on the semantic content and instead go for phenomenal character. Cultivate an image of thoughts as little entities with the preference of wanting to feel better rather than worse, and having the power to adjust their path inside the mind so they can move towards melding with a reservoir of kindness which gets more filled up as it kindly absorbs the sad ones and gives them love. So, love as having the property that the more you give the more you get, works not only socially between people but also internally within the minds of people.

God and Open Individualism

by Roger Thisdell (context: I messaged Roger asking him about his thoughts on Open Individualism. A few days later he sent me this response. To get the most out of it, I recommend first reading our earlier text message exchange here: The Supreme State of Unconsciousness: Classical Enlightenment from the Point of View of Valence Structuralism)


Set-Up and Squaring Intuitions

There is a problem in philosophy of backwards rationalisation, where people feel intuitive pulls towards certain conclusions, and then try to justify why their intuition is correct. We can say this is putting the cart before the horse. If we are to philosophize well, we shouldn’t start with the conclusion. However, the pull to side with your intuitions is so incredibly crucial to decision-making that it basically can’t be ignored. In fact, at the heart of trying to know anything fundamentally hinges on a feeling quality of ‘this seems/feels right’ in relation to a proposition.

Now, this isn’t to say that all intuitions don’t have truth value, it’s just that we need to be subjectively sensitive to when we are totally being led by a feeling (which I think in many cases some philosophers aren’t aware). At the end of the day, we go off of whether an idea sits right with us at some particular level(s) of the mind, and all the justificatory attempts in favor of this idea serve to shift that feeling in us one way or the other.

Leading on to the discussion of identity: in a lot of thought experiments and attempts to understand where identity starts and stops we find an appeal to intuition. This is often done by conjuring up convoluted scenarios of teletransportation machines, or brain transplants, or Men-In-Black-style memory wipes and then reflecting on whether we feel that identity stayed the same or not. A good way to press people’s institutions is to get them to consider suffering, as personal identity is the great motivator of avoiding suffering (no self = no problem, as they say). Depending on where and at what time suffering is endured by which collection of atoms gets people to consider really fast and more confidently, say, where they think the bounds of identity lie.

Along with the epistemological problems of resting an argument on intuition or ‘gut feeling’ mentioned above, intuitions differ not just from person to person, but from moment to moment (in the same person). And if you haven’t become privy to how your intuitions can change, you may not question the truth value of the signal they are transmitting. So, I write this to highlight the problems of trying to solve identity issues by appealing to a felt-sense of where it lies.

Two Ways of Talking About the Self

Now I see an obvious split in how to approach this topic: 

(1) We can talk about identity as a raw experience – what in the experience space do I feel numerically identical to (one and the same as) – and in Buddhistic fashion forgo metaphysical claims here after. 

(2) Try to extrapolate beyond immediate experience and argue for a position of what the self is or how identity functions in a metaphysical sense. I call (2) the conceptual self as it is about the content within concepts you believe refers to you. 

To make this distinction clear I’ll give an example of a potential answer to (1) and then to (2). If asked: “What am I?” along the lines of (1) one may answer: “I feel like I am my thoughts.” – thoughts arise in experience and there is a fused impression of ‘me-ness’ to those thoughts. While (2) is concerned about the content of those thoughts and if asked: “What am I?” one may answer and even fervently believe: “I am a brain.” However, they don’t have any direct experience of being a brain – it is an extrapolation of ideas beyond direct phenomenological perception.

Sorry for all the set up! This is my framing and to give you the best response I needed to spell this out. Now, let me answer personally what I believe identity is in terms of (1) and then (2). However, (2) is informed by (1), and (1) is made sense of by (2); so although the distinction is very useful, like all separations, their boundaries seem to always breakdown – that there is a hint about my metaphysical beliefs.

Phenomenological Senses of Identity

For me, this has changed throughout the years as I’ve meditated more and more. I have shared these images with you before and they represent the transition of intuitions of personal identity throughout my journey.

They seem to match up quite nicely with how Frank Yang lays out his stages. Depending on which stage someone is in, we hear different metaphysical explanations of identity. (This is where (1) gets easily conflated with (2)).

How I’ve seen Frank spell out his stages (I realize neither of us came up with these on our own):

Image

When it comes to identifying with awareness (the second picture/stage) this is when you hear talk of the sort of there being one universal consciousness and that’s our true nature. When I was identifying with awareness, I could suddenly relate to what people meant by ‘we are all one universal consciousness’. However, I got the sense that people were failing to differentiate between something being numerically identical and qualitatively identical. When you become ‘aware of awareness’ there is a sense that this is a pristine dimension and is not personal. It doesn’t seem to belong to the notion of Roger (as it is perceived causally before the very idea of Roger), nor is it trademarked by Roger’s beliefs or memories. There is an insight that this perfectly equanimous layer of being is part of everyone’s experience, they just don’t see it. Yet it couldn’t be ruled out whether we are all in touch with the same one pure light of consciousness, or if each sentient organism has its own and our consciousnesses (plural) were just qualitatively the same. I think people often miss this distinction. 

Stage 2 does not obviously lead to open individualism yet. There is still a sense of the duality between the radiant awareness and everything else to be aware of.

Although, I think that anyone (even those without emptiness insights) could be talked into believing closed, open and empty individualism at a conceptual level, this doesn’t mean their phenomenological experience of identity would change, or would their instinctive, non-inquisitive gut-intuition on the subject.

I would hypothesize that those who have no insight into the 3 characteristic are intuitively most swayed by closed individualism. And those who have sufficient enough insight into impermanence (but not no-self) may intuitively side with empty individualism. And then with a deep enough insight into no-self, open individualism becomes a no-brainer.

Experiencing God (and a message to Leo)

At stage 3 is when open individualism is most likely to begin to intuitively feel right. This is also when talks of being God come out of people’s mouths and, as in terms of (1), they phenomenologically perceive the sense of ‘I’ in everything they experience, and they (2) conceptually infer there is just one thing, call it ‘God’. God is everything. I am everything. Because the understanding of moving from (1) to (2) (from experience to conjecture) is often lost on people, all kinds of wacky metaphysical beliefs come about – supposedly self-validating by higher consciousness or direct cosmic download.

While on stage 3, if you inject some metta into your experience space, you come to see what people mean when they say: “God is everywhere and all loving” or even: “God is love”. Having the feeling of being everything in your experience is like you don’t feel separate from anything, thus there is a deep intimacy with the world which construes love. You feel like you are the body, the thoughts, the emotions, the trees, the hills on the horizon, the air in between all of it, the sky and the awareness field which contains all these things. However, going from ‘the experience of feeling identical to everything you are aware of’ to ‘I am everything (even that which I’m not currently aware of) and therefore I am God/the universe’ requires an unfounded leap – which I admittedly made at some point.

I remember an incredibly stark moment I had when I was in stage 3, where being ‘God’ felt like the most real thing (I can sympathise a lot with where Leo Gura is coming from – though I think he’s lacking some phenomenological discernment). Because at stage 3 the sense of ’I’ is so prevalent, due to it being perceived everywhere in experience, I was investigating this quality a great deal. I was trying to distil the sense of ‘I’ down to its rawest form. “Yes, I feel identical to the trees and the sky and other people, but what is that common element that can be found in all these things which I call ‘I’?” After whittling away all the other unnecessary phenomenological baggage piled onto this ‘I’, I arrived at a clear perception of ‘I’ in its rawest form. The ‘I’ I call the epistemic agent, the pure sense of ‘a knower of experience’.

It became obvious that once the epistemic agent was singled out in experience that this perception of ‘I’ can only manifest in one way. What I mean by this is unlike with milk where the formula can be tainted slightly and result in versions of milk with slightly different colors, or tastes, or smells and yet they are all still milk, it is impossible for the epistemic agent to have a slightly different perceptual ‘flavor’ to it other than it does. This is because the qualia recipe only consists of one ingredient and if that’s missing or different, then it’s not the epistemic agent (the rawest sense of ‘I am’). Once I clocked this, I realized that all iterations of ‘I’ wherever and whenever, in all beings at all times, experience the sense of ‘I am’ exactly the same way. Then, and I remember this moment so clearly, it hit me: if God or the universe is self-aware – which it is just by dint of me being of the universe and self-aware – and has an experience of ‘I-ness’ then my experience of ‘I-ness’ in this relative body is the same as God’s and through a sharing of experience there is a direct link and so… ”Oh my god, I am God!”

(I am not suggesting that this line of reasoning is sound. It was simply the series of steps I went through which brought upon this profound experience). 

Again, the numerically versus qualitatively identical distinction could be parsed, however there is a way to get around this, for when you remove the sense of time and space from the equation then that difference collapses. To say that something is qualitatively identical to something else, but not numerically identical doesn’t make sense if two things can’t be differentiated by existing in separate moments of time or space. So in my “Oh my god, I am God!” epiphany, the sense of time and space had been shunned from attention and numerical identity was presumed.

I can imagine that someone has this epiphany moment as I did, but then when they return to a more ‘timey/spacey’ existence they retain credence in the belief that they are God and not just a single, distinct instance of experience of ‘I’ (which would be more of an empty individualist thought). They do this because they are basing their beliefs off of a very profound mind moment, even if the majority of their waking hours don’t suggest the same message.

If I could tell Leo Gura one thing it would be this: “Profundity does not equate to truth.” Just because something felt so real and epic, does not mean that experience is giving you the most accurate representation of greater reality. Truth be told at stage 3 I didn’t have anywhere near the attentional clarity, precision of view, and metacognitive abilities that came later; and so while I was having all these profound experiences I was not totally clued into the subtle ways I was manipulating my experience and was biased to certain perspectives, while overlooking certain things that became clearer to me later on.

Self, Not-self, and Neither Self nor Not-self

When it comes to personal identity, I want to distinguish three things the mind can do here:

  1. It can project a sense of self onto parts of experience – “I feel like I am this chair.” – said the man on salvia.
  1. It can project a sense of not-self onto parts of experience – “I don’t feel identical to that person over there.” – said sober Joe. I want to emphasize here that I don’t mean there is just a lack of ‘feeling’ associated with something, but rather there is an actual new ‘feeling’ of not identifying with something.

Stage 4 (my 4th picture) was living a life with the constant signal of ‘not me’ being coupled with everything I pointed my attention to. 

  1. It can stop projecting any sense of self and not-self – “I neither feel like I am everything, nor I’m not.” said Roger. Here, I mean the lack of projecting a sense of self and even a sense of not-self. 

To go into a little more detail on what is meant by 3: ‘Neither self, nor not self’… essentially there is just no transmission of data on this subject. No reading. When asked “What are you?” it’s like the question doesn’t even compute. Before, there were qualia indicators to be able to judge what is self and what is not-self. And now it’s like the mind pulls a blank. It is not because the answer is obvious that ‘I am everything’, or ‘I am nothing’. It’s almost a bit like asking a person who is blind from birth “Do you just see blackness?” – it can be really hard for sight-abled-people to get their head around the fact that some blind people don’t see anything at all (and what that really means). 4th path is akin to becoming blind to identity in a way. Although, I wasn’t identity blind from birth, memory of the qualia of ‘me-ness’ and ‘not me-ness’ is incredibly faded.*

*There is subtle nuance to get into with retaining semblances of individuality just to be able to function in the world.

The Ship of Theseus, Threshold Emptiness Insight and Losing the Ability to Buy into Nouns

At a certain point, once enough insight into emptiness was established, the ability to seriously believe in separate entities became near impossible. I remember with my beginner’s mind, closed individualism was the default position. And when nouns were comprehended, they were firmly believed to be distinct, real partitions in reality. “The world is made of things that are tables and things that are not.” (As if a table is an actual thing, lol). However, now I can never fully think that a table is anything more than a mind-made construct. It is perceived as so porous, airy, hollow…. empty. And this applies to all nouns: ‘atoms’, ‘being’ ‘non-being’, ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘mind’ and including the idea of ‘The Now’ (I’ll get into that later). 

One time in philosophy class we were going over the ‘paradox’ of The Ship of Theseus. People in my class had all kinds of differing intuition. Some said, ‘as soon as over 50% of the ship parts have been replaced then it’s a new/different ship’. Some said, ‘as soon as you replace one part of the ship it’s a new/different ship’. And others said, ‘as soon as one atom changes it’s a new/different ship’. They were going back and forth arguing about identity, which was the point of the class. And meanwhile the whole time I was thinking there is no ship of Theseus to begin with, there never was, it’s not a thing. And so there is no paradox. There is no conundrum to solve.

I had been reading ‘The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain’ at the time, and it occurred to me during the class that what I was witnessing were people with all very different brain chemistries and either left or right hemisphere biases, and this is what is leading them to different conclusions (me not being an exception) – the philosophical quibbling had little to do with it. (This is not to resort to any postmodernist conclusions. I do think some positions contain more truth signal than others.)

4th Path Putting the Nail in the Coffin for Empty Individualism?

There is no ‘now’, as there is not enough time for even a single isolated self to form. At 4th path insight into emptiness is so stark that you realise that to conceive of ‘The Now’ as a thing is wrong view. I used to experience things as arising and then a moment later passing; as manifesting and then slightly there after defabricating. But now I can see how phenomena are already disappearing the moment they are appearing. This leads to kinds of visions of super-positions – simultaneous 1 and 0. With such perception a ‘now’ as a moment can’t even consolidate – there truly is no ground for things to rest on.

Finally (2) My Conceptual Beliefs About Identity! (Prepare to be disappointed)

Keeping in mind what I said about ‘neither self nor not self’, when the intuition of personal identity is so lacking the question of ‘What is me and what is not me?’ just becomes ‘What does it mean for something to be its own individual entity?’ or even more simply ‘What exists?’. Does there exist one thing or more than one thing? And does it even make sense to consider there being ‘things’ (nouns) at all? 

(Take this next part as me applying a cosmic lens).

So, is there more than one thing? Engaging my scrupulous, philosophical, inquisitive mind, I can’t conceive of how there being more than one thing would be meaningful. But I don’t even really believe in things at all (if ‘thing’ is taken as a noun), so one thing isn’t quite getting at it either. There is something and it seems to be something so magical that it defies categorical comprehension. But the fact that there is change suggests this is not unitary, yet nor do I wish to say it is legion. Not noun, but verb? A process? But to where and how?

Heidegger often wrote in double negatives; I believe because when you construe something in the negative you bring to mind both the thing and its negative simultaneously. There is a greater potential for the mind to grasp a seeming paradox, but the conceptual mind can never fully do it, it can only approximate. Kierkegaard tried as he put it: “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.” But words can only serve to point to something outside of their grasp.

This is why: 

The Toa that can be named is not the eternal Toa”

However, when I stop thinking (disengage the conceptual mind) and simply be, I get an intuitive sense of a super-position. Simultaneously, neither one nor many. Neither now nor not now. Neither existing nor not existing. Neither conscious nor not conscious. And this is apprehended in a way that is not confusing or jarring, but as the most sensible stance.

Still I have a sceptic bone in my body, and I am always open to being schooled. 

Halfway In, Halfway Out The Great Door of Being

Imagine a great conundrum that people have been debating over for centuries. “If a man is stepping through his front door and he has one foot in his house and one foot out of his house and his body is exactly in the middle, is he inside or outside?” People can’t seem to agree. Some say he is clearly inside because he is already under the door frame. Others say, he is still outside because he hasn’t fully entered his house yet. People squabble about whether it matters if he is coming or going. The real question is when he is exactly 50% in and exactly 50% out what is he? Inside or outside? The reason people can’t come down on a solid answer is because whenever they find someone passing through their front door the moment they go to make a judgement they miss that 50/50 moment and either witness him too early or too late at 60/40 or 40/60 in and out. In which case, they either decide he was definitely inside or definitely outside, accordingly. You have been trying to solve this issue too and feel like you have come close. One time you saw a guy in the act at 51/49 in and out. And then another time you saw a man who was 49/51 in and out. But no one ever is precise enough to make their judgement when he is exactly 50/50 in and out. Because true 50% in and 50% out hasn’t been witnessed, so people can only speculate that ‘well if we were to catch a man who was exactly at 50/50 in and out of his front door, we would conclude that maybe he was BOTH inside and outside.’ 

One day, it just so happens you see a man coming home from work. He’s approaching the front door, keys in hand. You’ve been practicing for this moment your whole life. Finally, are you going to be able to solve this great conundrum? He unlocks the door. He opens it. He steps through. And that was it! You witnessed it. You clearly clocked the 50/50 moment. 

“I saw it! I saw it!” you yell. Bystanders hear your cries and come up to you. 

“What did you see?” they ask. 

“I saw the precise moment he was exactly 50% in and 50% out!”

“Well…” they say “what was he, inside or outside then?”

And you respond “No”.

“Huh? Oh, you mean he was both inside and outside?”

“No” you say again.

“I don’t get it.” respond the bystanders. And in fact, you don’t even really get what you mean, because it doesn’t quite make sense to you either and yet it was as clear as day.

“He wasn’t inside or outside, because he simply vanished.”

Review of Log Scales


This is my 2022 review of Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain: Rating, Ranking, and Comparing Peak Experiences Suggest the Existence of Long Tails for Bliss and Suffering (2019; QRI link; forum link), written for the EA Forum First Decade Review; permalink of the review; read all reviews and vote for submissions here.



I would like to suggest that Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (“Log Scales” from here on out) presents a novel, meaningful, and non-trivial contribution to the field of Effective Altruism. It is novel because even though the terribleness of extreme suffering has been discussed multiple times before, such discussions have not presented a method or conceptual scheme with which to compare extreme suffering relative to less extreme varieties. It is meaningful because it articulates the essence of an intuition of an aspect of life that deeply matters to most people, even if they cannot easily put it into words. And it is non-trivial because the inference that pain (and pleasure) scales are better understood as logarithmic in nature does require one to consider the problem from multiple points of view at once that are rarely, if ever, brought up together (e.g. combining empirical deference graphs, descriptions of pain scales by their creators, latent-trait analysis, neural recordings, and psychophysics). 

Fundamentally, we could characterize this article as a conceptual reframe that changes how one assesses magnitudes of suffering in the world. To really grasp the significance of this reframe, let’s look back into how Effective Altruism itself was an incredibly powerful conceptual reframe that did something similar. In particular, a core insight that establishes the raison d’etre of Effective Altruism is that the good that you can do in the world with a given set of resources varies enormously depending on how you choose to allocate it: by most criteria that you may choose (whether it’s QALYs or people saved from homelessness), the cost-effectiveness of causes seem to follow much more closely (at least qualitatively) a long-tail rather than a normal distribution (see: Which world problems are the most pressing to solve? by Benjamin Todd; the long-tail on the left below). In turn, this strongly suggests that researching carefully how to invest one’s altruistic efforts is likely to pay off in very large ways: choosing a random charity versus a top 1% charity will lead to benefits whose scale differs by orders of magnitude.

Log Scales suggests that pain and pleasure themselves follow a long-tail distribution. In what way, exactly? Well, to a first approximation, across the entire board! The article (and perhaps more eloquently the subsequent video presentation at the NYC EA Meetup on the same topic) argues that when it comes to the distribution of the intensity of hedonic states, we are likely to find long-tails almost independently of the way in which we choose to slice or dice the data. This is analogous to, for example, how all of the following quantities follow long-tail distributions: avalanches per country, avalanches per mountain, amount of snow in mountains, number of avalanche-producing mountains per country, size of avalanches, number of avalanches per day, etc. Likewise, in the case of the distribution of pain, the arguments presented suggest we will find that all of the following distributions are long-tails: average pain level per medical condition, number of intensely painful episodes per person per year, intensity of pain per painful episode, total pain per person during life, etc. Thus, that such a small percentage of cluster headache patients accounts for the majority of episodes per year would be expected (see: Cluster Headache Frequency Follows a Long-Tail Distribution; the long-tail on the right above), and along with it, the intensity of such episodes themselves would likely follow a long-tail distribution.

This would all be natural, indeed, if we consider neurological phenomena such as pain to be akin to weather phenomena. Log Scales allows us to conceptualize the state of a nervous system and what it gives rise to as akin to how various weather conditions give rise to natural disasters: a number of factors multiply each other resulting in relatively rare, but surprisingly powerful, black swan events. Nervous systems such as those of people suffering from CRPS, fibromyalgia, and cluster headaches are like the Swiss Alps of neurological weather conditions… uniquely suited for ridiculously large avalanches of suffering.

Log Scales are not just of academic interest. In the context of Effective Altruism, they are a powerful generator for identifying new important, neglected, and tractable cause areas to focus on. For instance, DMT for cluster headaches, microdose ibogaine for augmentation of painkillers in sufferers of chronic pain, and chanca piedra for kidney stones (writeup in progress) are all what we believe to be highly promising interventions (of the significant, neglected, and tractable variety) that might arguably reduce suffering in enormous ways and that would not have been highlighted as EA-worthy were it not for Log Scales. (See also: Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace). On a personal note, I’ve received numerous thank you notes by sufferers of extreme pain for this research. But the work has barely begun: with Log Scales as a lens, we are poised to tackle the world’s reserves of suffering with laser-focus, assured in the knowledge that preventing a small fraction of all painful conditions is all that we need to abolish the bulk of experiential suffering.

But does Log Scales make accurate claims? Does it carve reality at the joints? How do we know?

The core arguments presented were based on (a) the characteristic distribution of neural activity, (b) phenomenological accounts of extreme pleasure and pain, (c) the way in which the creators of pain scales have explicitly described their meaning, and (d) the results of a statistical analysis of a pilot study we conducted where people ranked, rated, and assigned relative proportions to their most extreme experiences. We further framed this in terms of comparing qualitative predictions from what we called the ​​Normal World vs. Lognormal World. In particular, we stated that: “If we lived in the ‘Lognormal World’, we would expect: (1) That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse. (2) That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%). And (3) that for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a ‘deference’. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).” And then we went ahead and showed that the data was vastly more consistent with Lognormal World than Normal World. I think it holds up.

An additional argument that since has been effective at explaining the paradigm to newcomers has been in terms of exploring the very meaning of Just-Noticeable Differences (JNDs) in the context of the intensity of aspects of one’s experience. Indeed, for (b), the depths of intensity of experience simply make no sense if we were to take a “Just-Noticeable Pinprick” as the unit of measurement and expect a multiple of it to work as the measuring rod between pain levels in the 1-10 pain scale. The upper ends of pain are just so bright, so immensely violent, so as to leave lesser pains as mere rounding errors. But if on each step of a JND of pain intensity we multiply the feeling by a constant, sooner or later (as Zvi might put it) “the rice grains on the chessboard suddenly get fully out of hand” and we enter hellish territory (for a helpful visual aid of this concept: start at 6:06 of our talk at the 2020 EAGxVirtual Unconference on this topic).

From my point of view, we can now justifiably work under the assumption that the qualitative picture painted by Log Scales is roughly correct. It is the more precise quantitative analysis which is a work in progress that ought to be iterated over in the coming years. This will entail broadening the range of people interviewed, developing better techniques to precisely capture and parametrize phenomenology (e.g. see our tool to measure visual tracers), use more appropriate and principled statistical methods (e.g. see the comment in the original piece about the Bradley-Terry model and extreme value theory), experimental work in psychophysics labs, neuroimaging research of peak experiences, and the search for cost-effective pragmatic solutions to deal with the worst suffering. I believe that future research in this area will show conclusively the qualitative claims, and perhaps there will be strong consilience on the more precise quantitative claims (but in the absence of a true Qualiascope, the quantitative claims will continue to have a non-negligible margin of error).

Ok, you may say, but if I disagree about the importance of preventing pain, and I care more about e.g. human flourishing, why should I care about this? Here I would like to briefly address a key point that people in the EA sphere have raised in light of our work. The core complaint, if we choose to see it that way, is that one must be a valence utilitarian in order to care about this analysis. That only if you think of ethics in terms of classical Benthamite pain-minimization and pleasure-maximization should we be so keen on mapping the true distribution of valence across the globe. 

But is that really so?

Three key points stand out: First, that imperfect metrics that are proxies for aspects of what you care about (even when not all that you care about) can nonetheless be important. Second, that if you cared a little about suffering already, then the post-hoc discovery that suffering is actually that freaking skewed really ought to be a major update. And third, there really are reasons other than valence maximization as a terminal goal to care about extreme suffering: intense suffering is antithetical to flourishing since it has long-term sequelae. More so, even if confined to non-utilitarian ethical theories, one can make the case that there is something especially terrible about letting one’s fellow humans (and non-humans) suffer so intensely without doing anything about it. And perhaps especially so if stopping such horrors turn out to be rather easy, as is indeed the case.

Let’s tackle these points each in turn.

(1) Perhaps here we should bring a simple analogy: GDP. Admittedly, there are very few conceptions of the good in which it makes sense for GDP to be the metric to maximize. But there are also few conceptions of the good where you should disregard it altogether. You can certainly be skeptical of the degree to which GDP captures all that is meaningful, but in nearly all views of economic flourishing, GDP will likely have a non-zero weight. Especially if we find that, e.g. some interventions we can do to the economy would cause a 99.9% reduction in a country’s GDP, one should probably not ignore that information (even if the value one assigns to GDP is relatively small compared to what other economists and social scientists assign it). Likewise for extreme suffering. There might be only a few conceptions of the good where that is the only thing we ought to work on. But avoiding hellish states is a rather universally desired state for oneself. Why not take it at least somewhat into account?

In truth, this is not something that classical questions in Effective Altruism pre-Log Scales couldn’t overcome either. For instance, as far as I am aware, in practice QALYs are used more as a guide than as an absolute; their value within EA comes from the fact that in practice interventions are orders of magnitude different when it comes to their cost-effectiveness when assessed with QALYs. So even though the vast majority of EAs are not QALY absolutists, the differences in QALYs saved between interventions are large enough that as an approximate guide, the metric still generates huge amounts of consilience.

(2) In turn, the post-hoc finding that hellish states are much, much worse than one would intuitively believe really should at least rebalance one’s priorities somewhat. Is there really no amount of suffering that would do so? Unless one has a utility function akin to a ReLu activation function, going far enough down into the depths of hell ought to count for something. And…

(3) Speaking candidly, fully articulating the true significance of this finding will take us to philosophically polemical territory: philosophy of personal identity where person-affecting views will see the situation quite differently than person-moment-affecting views, philosophy of mind where the ontological status of pleasure and pain might be questioned, and intricate questions that arise at the interface between the views of virtue ethicists, deontologists, negative and classical utilitarians. Of course a negative utilitarian who believes in Empty Individualism and Eternalism at the same time will likely be especially horrified by this information. But, with that said, I would suggest that there are good reasons to care about Log Scales no matter how antithetical one’s views are to philosophical hedonism

In particular, I would argue that deontologists and virtue ethicists should still take note. The cultivation of virtue requires a minimum of wellbeing in order to maintain motivation to live. And perhaps deontologists might find extreme suffering particularly egregious from the point of view of “things so horrible that ought not to be”. Really, the people we interviewed for the cluster headache writeup told us that experiencing such levels of hellish suffering causes profound psychological transformations (e.g. one interviewee told us that experiencing the higher ends of pain in a cluster headache feels like a profound “spiritual violation” from which you may never recover – a feeling most certainly aggravated by the seeming indifference of people at large about their plight). Virtue ethicists and deontologists might as well recognize this cause area as work that is unconscionable not to perform, regardless of arguments based on the precise mathematical optimization of the prevention of negative valence.

And finally, in all seriousness, as the cognitive intelligentsia of the world begins to see clearly the nature of the distribution of pleasure and pain, we can expect there to be a big social benefit to being the one who destroys hell. Right now there isn’t a huge social reward to be obtained by working on this cause, but I predict this will change. And, pragmatically, it is sensible to present this cause in a motivating rather than depressing light: indeed, let’s give honor, glory, and endless admiration to whoever makes tangible progress in tearing hell down. And to all of the millionaires and billionaires reading this: this could be you! You could be the one who took on the mantle of preventing all future cluster headaches, established the field of anti-tolerance drugs for severe chronic pain, or got rid of kidney stones (and you did it before it was cool!). Let’s get to work!


High-Valence Meditation

Excerpt from Seeing that Frees by Rob Burbea (2014), pgs. 53-59


Working with Feelings of Pleasure and with the Subtle Body

Encouraging feelings of well-being

The method just described, of focusing primarily on the sense of the whole body, involves the development of a sensitivity to what could be termed ‘the subtle body’ or the ‘energy body’.[8]

  • Almost from the start in this approach we deliberately but gently work at nurturing a sense of comfort, pleasure, or well-being in the body.
  • This can be done through the way we pay attention to the subtle body, as described above – opening out the awareness to encompass there the whole body space, and tuning into the more pleasant frequencies of feeling that are perceivable.
  • It is also possible to use the breath or the mettā to help elicit and support the pervasion of this sense of well-being. Simply sensitizing to, and enjoying, the way we feel the energetic resonances of the mettā or the breath throughout the whole space of the body – opening to and finding delight in their reverberations there – can gently move the experience in the direction of a more expansive well-being.
  • And when there is a state of agitation or anxiety, we can play with ways of breathing or practicing the mettā, and also ways of sensing the breath or mettā, that feel as if they soothe the subtle body and smooth out its energies. Delicately tuning into the felt experience of these qualities of soothing or smoothing-out will help them to gradually gain strength, and help the agitated energies to slowly subside.
  • The imagination, too, can be skillfully employed in order to gently encourage this sense of pleasure or well-being in the subtle body. While simultaneously pervading the whole body space with an awareness sensitive to the texture and tone of the energy of that whole field, it is possible, for example, to imagine the subtle body as a body of radiant light; then to open to and explore what that feels like. Any image formed in this way does not necessarily need to appear in precise detail, or even completely distinctly. It is, rather, the energetic sense of pleasure or well-being which it supports that is primary, since this is what primarily supports the samādhi.
  • Likewise, one may experiment with imagining various luminous lines of energy in the body – for example, between the perineum and the crown of the head, or from the lower belly out through the legs – and sense how any such lines of energy supports the whole body to feel upright, open, and energized. The imagination here may be visual or kinesthetic, or a combination of the two. And it need not always follow exactly the anatomical contours of the physical body or its posture. For instance, if sitting or kneeling with the legs crossed or bent, the luminous lines of energy imagined radiating from the lower belly or base of the spine need not bend with the legs, but may instead continue and extend straight out at the knees, if at that time that feels more supportive of openness, energization, and well-being.
  • If there is tension, or even pain, in one area of the body, rather than always conceiving of it in anatomical or physiological terms, it can sometimes be more helpful to conceive of and perceive that area in energetic terms, and to play with the perception of lines of energy in order to support a degree of comfort and ease.

There are many ways we may discover to bring about some sense of energetic openness and well-being in the subtle body. And as it is accessed more and more, this altered body feeling is one that eventually we can ‘remember’ and learn to deliberately recall – to summon by gentle intention. We can then move, usually gradually, into the focused steadiness of samādhi from that basis, by incorporating this perception of pleasure or well-being more centrally into the meditation.

Towards unification

Whether it has arisen through being deliberately recalled, or through focusing on the breath or mettā, there are again a number of possible ways of using the sense of pleasure or comfort to help guide the citta into the unification of samādhi.

  • Once it is easy sustaining for some minutes, we can gently begin to take that bodily feeling of well-being as the primary object of our focus. It is important not to ‘snatch at it’, but rather to ease the attention toward it gracefully, and gradually let it take up the full focus of attention. Then the attention and the citta can be encouraged to enjoy it as fully as possible.
  • The attention can at times probe it, burrowing into one area of the pleasure, perhaps where it feels strongest.
  • Or, at other times, a mode of ‘receiving’ it, really trying to open up to it, can be employed.
  • Either way, one attempts all the while to remain intimate with its texture, and actually to relish the pleasure as much as possible. In these ways (and in others that can be discovered) we can delicately work to gently sustain the bodily feeling of well-being, and to absorb the attention more fully into it.
  • Alternatively, it is possible to mix the sense of pleasure with the perception of the breath or the mettā, in order to support and deepen the quality of the samādhi.
  • Then it may seem, for example, as if one is breathing the pleasurable energy; or it may seem as if one is breathing into and out of that area of well-being.
  • In mettā practice, it may seem as if the mettā and the pleasurable energy have become fused, so that the feeling of the mettā at that time is the feeling of the well-being. And this can become the ‘flavour’ of the energy of mettā that is radiated outwards towards beings, or that wraps around and permeates one’s own body and being.
  • The area of pleasurable energy may also be perceived as the source of the mettā.

Steadiness of feeling is more important than strength

We should point out once more that sometimes the sense of well-being is really quite subtle. Although the feelings of pleasure might also be very strong at times, this is actually not necessary in order to use them in a helpful way. Over time, their strength will in fact vary naturally (and anyway, as the practice matures, at a certain stage they begin to mellow). What is more necessary is that they sustain relatively steadily for more than a few minutes. Then we can learn to sustain them for longer.

Within this larger steadiness, any perceived waves or movements of the energy are not at all problematic. We can try to open the space of the body to these inner currents as much as possible, allowing and fully enjoying them (and if they feel very intense, even playing with surrendering and abandoning our whole body and being to them). Doing so, their intensity will in time calm down.

Suffusing and saturating the whole body

Along with the steadiness of the feelings of well-being, and of the attention on those feelings, we are also gently aiming at eventually having the whole space of the body suffused by and saturated with the feeling of well-being or pleasure. Sometimes this happens by itself. But sometimes the sense of pleasure, when it arises or when it is recalled, only pervades one area of the body. There are a number of viable responses then.

  • One is to simply enjoy it in the area where it is located, in the ways that we have described, without pressuring the feeling to spread. It may then expand naturally at some point to pervade the whole body.
  • But even if it does not spread then, that need not be regarded as a problem. A vital aspect of the whole relationship with samādhi practice is to enjoy what well-being is there at any time, not to measure it and view it through a lens that somehow demands, even subtly, that it be ‘better’, bigger, stronger.
  • Having said that, it is in fact also possible at times to gently encourage the feeling of pleasure or well-being to spread – for instance by simply opening up the space of the awareness to embrace a larger area of the body. Sometimes then the pleasant feeling will automatically start to expand to fill that space.
  • Alternatively, the breath may be used to gently ‘massage’ the sense of well-being into other areas of the body. Although there is not space to enter into a full description of possibilities here, with practice the breath energy may be felt and perceived throughout the body, entering and flowing in all kinds of ways beyond the strictly anatomical movement of air into the wind-pipe and lungs. We can learn to sense the breath energy in and through the whole body. And as alluded to earlier, the breath energy can be mixed with the pleasure, so that the perceived movements of breath in the whole body space move and spread the perception of the pleasure.
  • There is also, again, no reason why one cannot just imagine the feeling of well-being permeating the body space more fully. The perception then often begins to follow the image.

These are some of the possibilities, but with repeated practice over time it will anyway become normal for the pleasurable feeling to effortlessly pervade the whole body whenever it arises.

Unblocking and smoothing out the subtle body energies

The harmonization and unification in well-being that is characteristic of samādhi can also be regarded as a harmonization, alignment, smoothing out, and opening of the flows of energies in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. All day and all night long our energy body is moving in and out of states of alignment and openness, constriction and blockage, in response to a whole range of conditions, physical, mental, and emotional. This is completely normal, and with attention and sensitivity to the experience of the body we notice these fluctuations more and more. Although they may be felt in any region, perhaps most commonly a block in energy will be felt as a constriction somewhere along the central axis of the body, anywhere from the perineum to the top of the head. As we move into a state of more samādhi there is an unblocking, untying, aligning, and harmonizing of the subtle body energies to some degree.

When the subtle energies are blocked and agitated, samādhi is to some extent blocked. And when the subtle energy is unblocked and unagitated, samādhi is not so far away. (Perhaps all that is needed then is a steadying of the attention on enjoying the pleasant feelings of the ‘unblocked’ subtle body, as described). In addition, therefore, to the ways of working to smooth out and soothe the energy body suggested earlier, it can be useful to learn means for gently unblocking the energies when there is any sense of energetic constriction, in order to open up again the potential of a degree of samādhi at that time. Again, with a light and playful attitude of experimentation, a variety of ways of working in meditation can be discovered.

For example, sensitive to the whole subtle body sense, the breath energy or mettā may be perceived and conceived in any way that feels helpful, as alluded above: 

  • We may breath into and out of an area of blockage.
  • Or we may, perhaps gently, breathe the breath energy through that area.
  • In mettā practice, we may experiment with situating the centre or source of the energy of mettā right at that point of constriction, and explore what effects that has.
  • If these strategies prove difficult, it is again quite feasible to imagine the breath, the body energies, or the mettā flowing more freely through the area of blockage, or even flowing out of the body, and opening and unblocking in that way.

The Relation Between Samādhi and Insight

Insight brings samādhi

As well as those described above, there are many other practicable means to unblock the subtle body energies. In particular, most of the insight ways of looking that we shall introduce in the course of this book may also be used in the service of opening and deepening samādhi. Mindful observation will reveal that any craving or clinging is always accompanied by, and reflected in, blocks and knots in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. Now, insight, we have said, cuts that on which dukkha depends. And dukkha depends on craving. Thus, according our definition, insight is any way of looking that releases craving. As the insight and emptiness practices are developed, therefore, they can also be used at times to deliberately undo the craving that is mirrored in the knots in the energy body. This might involve using the insight practices ‘on’ the experienced subtle energy blocks themselves, as ways of looking at those perceptions and feelings. Or it might involve engaging these insight ways of looking just more generally in regard to any experience in the moment. Either way, the dissolving of craving to whatever extent will, at the same time and to a similar extent, untie the knots in the subtle body to unblock those energies and so deliver the possibility of some samādhi. Ha!

With more practice our skill grows and we find that it is in fact possible quite often to use the ‘letting go’ that insight brings to deliberately unblock the energies and the felt sense of the sublet body in this way. The pleasantness, openness, well-being, delightful and alive stillness, or joy that comes with this unblocking can be felt in the space and texture of the body sense. We can then tune into that. It is this tuning in to the frequency of the pleasant, and delicately attending to it, that ‘filters it out’ of the field of awareness, so that it begins to become more palpable and more prominent.

Then we can rest in it, allowing it to spread throughout the body space. And if, as before, we continue to tune in to and focus on the felt sense of the energy of this well-being, gently intent on allowing and opening to an enjoyment of it, and encouraging the attention to become absorbed in it, to fill up with it, this can carry us to the threshold of some samādhi.

Such a skill is useful for even the most experienced meditators. There are times in meditation when we may be trying to bring the mind to some unification, working with the intention for samādhi, and despite all our patience and adeptness in attempting different things samādhi does not come. We may need some insight to help us let go of some craving or clinging, perhaps even a craving we were unaware of, and then some samādhi becomes possible.

In addition to the opening and transformation of the energies of the subtle body just described, there is another, related aspect to what is occurring that can be pointed out. To a degree proportional to its strength, the push and pull of craving pushes and pulls the attention. It thus agitates the mind and makes it restless; or saps its energy and makes it dull [emphasis mine]. Relaxing craving through insight will therefore allow the mind to settle more naturally and easefully into stillness and a steadiness of attention. We can see then that the quality of steadiness of attention does not only come through holding the mind to one object.

Aside from being a skillful ‘trick’, however, all this suggests a number of things. One is that although usually we might conceive that ‘samādhi leads to insight’, (and clearly a certain amount of steadiness is generally needed before any insight can arise), as we explore we discover more and more that they can lead to each other.


[8] We can freely use a term like ‘subtle body’ or ‘energy body’, without needing either to assert or to deny the ‘reality’ of such a concept. It is enough for us that it is a perception, a way the body can be perceived which can be helpful. In fact, a little reflection reveals that the same could be said of concepts like ‘attention’. Is there really some ‘thing’ called ‘attention’ that can ‘go towards’ some other thing (or mental representation of an object) or ‘receive’ that thing? These are all ways of conceiving and perceiving useful on the path to freedom. Perceivable, useful, and, as we will come to see, thoroughly empty.



See Also:

  1. Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing
  2. On Dark Rooms, Jhanas, Ecstasy, and the Symmetry Theory of Valence
  3. Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything (by Michael Johnson)
  4. Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening
  5. Why we seek out pleasure: the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation (also by Mike)
  6. The Supreme State of Unconsciousness: Classical Enlightenment from the Point of View of Valence Structuralism

The Supreme State of Unconsciousness: Classical Enlightenment from the Point of View of Valence Structuralism

The following is an exchange of text messages with Roger Thisdell, a 26 year old accomplished meditator. He claims that this year he finally broke through into abiding in what he describes as an entirely new category of experience that matches the descriptions of classical Buddhist 4th path.


For context, Daniel Ingram of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha fame describes 4th path as:

1) Utter centerlessness: no watcher, no sense of a watcher, no subtle watcher, no possibility of a watcher. This is immediately obvious just as color is to a man with good eyesight as the old saying goes. Thus, anything and everything simply and obviously manifests just where they are. No phenomena observe any others and never did or could.

2) Utter agencylessness: meaning no agency, no sense of doing, no sense of doer, no sense that there could be any agent or doer, no way to find anything that seems to be in control at all. Whatever effort or intent or anything like that that arises does so naturally, causally, inevitably, as it always actually did. This is immediately obvious, though not always the forefront of attention.

3) No cycles change or stages or states or anything else like that do anything to this direct comprehension of simple truths at all.

4) There is no deepening in it to do. The understanding stands on its own and holds up over cycles, moods, years, etc and doesn’t change at all. I have nothing to add to my initial assessment of it from 9 years ago.

5) There is nothing subtle about it: anything and everything that arises exhibits these same qualities directly, clearly. When I was on the third path, particularly late in it, those things that didn’t exhibit these qualities were exceedingly subtle, and trying to find the gaps in the thing was exceedingly difficult and took years and many cycles. I had periods from weeks to months where it felt done and then some subtle exception would show up and I would realize I was wrong yet again, so this is natural and understandable, and if someone claims 4th as I define it here and later says they got it wrong, have sympathy for them, as this territory is not easy and can easily fool people, as it did me many, many times over about 5 years or so. However, 4th, as I term it, ended that and 9 years later that same thing holds, which is a very long time in this business.

There are other aspects that may be of value to discuss at some other time, but those are a great place to start for those who wish to claim this. If you truly have those, then perhaps we can talk about a few other points that are less central and essential.


[Links added to aid reader’s comprehension – lightly edited for clarity]

In the beginning… Roger joined a private group where we discuss consciousness and started to get familiar with the vocabulary of the Qualia Research Institute (e.g. discussing meditation in terms of valence). He then posted this video, which caught my attention:

Pleasure does not exist how you think it does (positive valence explained as an anti-phenomenon)

Where he claims that “Pleasure as a positive, as an actual added experience, does not exist. It certainly does not exist how a lot of us think it does … [whereas] negative valence experiences do exist as contractions.

Based on that very interesting video, I decided to invite him to Phenomenology Club (a private gathering where we discuss exotic states of consciousness and try to make sense of them in a think-tank fashion – see Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing).

Conversation

Roger: 

Andrés! This is Roger Thisdell […]. Thanks for giving me your number.

Do add me to the Phenomenology Club. That sounds like my jam! Cheers!

Andrés:

Excellent! Will do! 🙂

[…time…]

Roger

Hey Andrés, it was great to hang out online last night and hear your explanations. A bunch of you are really elite thinkers. I’m inspired to learn how to speak more of your qualia language.

I would love to get into the topic of paradises with you. You seem to really sing their praise.

I said yesterday that I hold the view that actually what is most desirable is just the elimination of negative valence. As someone who frequently has cessations (when consciousness blanks out for a moment) where there is no subjective experience (no negative, no positive valence) in my book this is good enough. My thinking is also informed via complete ego death experiences in which there is still consciousness but no judgement on any part of experience (bad or good). At a local individual level these are the most desirable states. Out of all the states I have experienced (including bliss trips, jhanas, 5-MeO, MDMA, staring into the eyes of a lover without insecurities, laughing fits 🤣) if I had to choose a state to be in permanently it would either be cessation or ego death. I may have curated my brain too much to a Buddhist view and my level of emptiness insight is well entrenched, so that it is hard for me to really believe the ultimate good is to keep the cosmic consciousness party going and fueling it with positive valence.

I think that while consciousness is online we better make the best out of it and try to exist in as few low negative valence states as possible and help all sentient beings with this as well; all the while the positive valence that comes along is merely instrumentally valuable, like a compliment or added bonus.

For example if you are hungry it is nice to eat something tasty. But if you were never hungry in the first place then who cares how tasty something is – don’t need it 💁‍♂️ (this may be my strongly consolidated non-attachment showing).

I guess what I’m really asking is: can you convince me to intrinsically care for paradise states? I do believe I have experienced what you are referring to as paradise states, but maybe I just have too much non-attachment for them to think they are the goal/prize.

(apologies for being long-winded 🙏)

Andrés:

Perhaps:

  1. You lost the ability to get excited about future experiences. You learned this because you were taught and you practiced techniques that associate being excited about the future with dukkha. Alas, the hedonic theories around the time of Buddha were incomplete and as a consequence a lot of the claims and teachings underfit reality (meaning that they generalize too much). In contrast, it turns out that there are a manifold of ways of experiencing excitement about the future in an epistemologically clear way and no delusions. More so, with that orientation one can see more clearly larger parts of the state-space of consciousness as one is not inhibiting them. I know you have experience with high valence states. But I suspect you have deconstructed a lot of the microcognitive apparatus that allow the insights coming from the reality of their existence from propagating across the entire nervous system.
  2. Just as lack of awareness about e.g. cluster headaches phenomenology can give you the impression that reality has no stakes, so does acute lack of access to the ultra-positive realms. I think for many, Buddhism has a certain effect in how one conceptualizes such experiential realms after the fact that perhaps is not quite in tune with how they truly were. Interestingly, one could here examine Buddhism as an aesthetic itself, and renunciation as a kind of Soulmaking, where under the hood one is still pursuing a kind of high-dimensional meaning qualia of positive valence. Which takes me to:
  3. Rob Burbea’s Soulmaking talking about how exploring not exhaustively breaking down dukkha always but letting a bit of e.g. Eros/passion for reality opens up new ways of seeing that recontextualize Buddhism. Not that we shouldn’t get rid of dukkha, of course. But it’s good to see the underlying aesthetic influences on how one generalizes about reality based on one’s experience.

What do you think? 😄

Thank you for joining! And also for sharing your thoughts. 🤠👌

See: Soulmaking part 1, part 2.

Roger:

Ah Andrés, so many thoughts 🙈

First of all, I am so impressed with Burbea. His lectures were incredibly useful for me while learning the jhanas. And now I’m picking through his book ‘Seeing That Frees’.

I think his ontology and how he builds on Buddhism is sophisticated and gorgeous.

Reminds me of a remark about Hemingway, by his grandson – he quit journalism to dedicate himself to fiction because he was more interested in truth than facts. I relate this to Soulmaking in a way.

I love his notion of skillful fabrication. But it seems like it’s a compromise in a way. We can’t fully live without self, and thoughtforms, and conceptual frameworks, and so, while we are alive and have them, let’s learn to use them skillfully/beautifully. I’m on board! 🚂

Re your 2nd point: I would add that a lack of awareness of the existence of cessations, or Nirodha, or ego death experiences is another topographical blind spot which prevents people from making a more comprehensive assessment of what is most desirable. (I know that many people who say they’ve experienced ego death, when I enquire about it, it turns out to be more of just a partial ego loss experience, and not the full annihilation). I suppose we really need those who have deep expertise in bliss states and dukkha-less/unfabricated states to compare and contrast.

For what it’s worth, and to give you more a sense of my bias, I would claim to be someone who has explored a wide range of state-spaces: from suicidal depression, to psychosis-like damnation bad trips, to K-holes, to peak experiences, and now as of 21st of May [2021] I’m claiming Frank Yang-style MCTB [see: Scott Alexander’s book review] 4th path permanent abiding in centreless consciousness (IDK what that says about my nervous system and fully propagating insights as you mentioned).

Hands down 🙌, this is the best shift in my life that has ever taken place without a doubt (I thought stream entry was good, but this is another magnitude). My hedonic set tone is persistently so high. I’m often walking around smiling for no apparent reason. 11/10 I recommend this.

And 4th path gets you an ability to adopt a new perspective where you simultaneously see the Yin and the Yang and vice sera (emptiness is form and samsara is nirvana). It’s all one place, there is not out. All the while, still we quite obviously make value judgements between states. I know you speak of hellish corners of consciousness that shouldn’t be touched. And so, although we can/should adopt flexibility of perspectives on aesthetic frames (as Rob speaks about, which is helpful) and see value in many different views as best as we can… must we still do the hard job of really judging what is best? What is most desirable? (to talk from a metamodern perspective).

Ultimately, I still come down on: lights out unconsciousness tops everything 🤷‍♂️ [emphasis mine]. Getting all beings to Parinirvana would objectively be preferable for all beings rather than keeping the play going – if such a plan is possible or sensible or sensical even.

It’s funny though, at some point I think it may just come down to some split difference in intuition among people (perhaps that difference can be reconciled somehow). For me this was apparent when I hear from Kenneth Folk vs. Culadasa. Kenneth holds antinatalist sentiments (or he did when I emailed him a couple of years ago and actually asked him) which speaks to a siding with a belief that there is an asymmetry of weighted value between negative and positive valence. While Culadasa seems to emphasize the joyous journey and adventure of life, which may speak to an opposite weighting in favor of the positive valence being worth the negative valence that comes along with it. Certainly not all spiritual roads lead to Rome.

I am very open to the idea that I am missing something though, and I may just need to be led by the hand like a child to these heaven realms for me to change perspective 😇😂

Thanks for engaging, this is fun!

Andrés

Thank you for engaging! This is super interesting! Let me think about what else I can say 🙂

[…time…]

Total valence vs. pureness of valence: see Principia Qualia pg. 41. It could be that during cessations consciousness disappears and the state literally does not exist in any way. But the states immediately before and immediately after do and have at least a tiny bit of information so they are mixed valence states. Yet, perhaps they are massively positive valence on net.

An alternative view is that unconsciousness is still ‘real’ in a way, in which case we could think of it as consciousness but with no content whatsoever. But it’s still there. The analogy would be like combing a vector field in a torus. Most states have the vector field collide with itself and therefore feel less than perfect valence (due to [the Symmetry Theory of Valence, aka.] STV). Only when the field is completely combed without any self-collisions (which would not be possible in a sphere) you get perfect positive valence. And although there is no information encoded in the field, it still exists just as it did before. There’s just nothing to report.

In that case paradise could actually still exist. Meaning, higher and more refined versions of this kind of experience. In particular, we could look for other mathematical objects where the field can also be combed perfectly. They would then be strangely a different kind of ‘unconsciousness’ perhaps capable of fitting more energy and higher dimensions. Still, they would have maximum positive valence.

What do you think?

Oh, I also forgot if I’ve asked you whether you’ve tried 5-MeO-DMT and how it compares to your new baseline.

Images from Michael E. Johnson’s Principia Qualia

Roger

Ah, yes, I see the kind of framework you’re thinking from now – anti-symmetry, symmetry, and asymmetry.

From Principia Qualia pg. 39: [paraphrasing] “…if we take our hypothesis and apply it to IIT, and then we attempt to maximize pleasure/symmetry, consciousness/[phi] drops very rapidly.”

All the way to the point that maximum pleasure entails no consciousness??? [emphasis mine]

I don’t have a lot of experience with 5-MeO. I only did it once at about a 6mg range.

My impression of 5-MeO was that it had a visual brightening effect somewhat similar to the 4th Jhana. And there was that psychedelic mirroring effect with eyes open. It also had the reduction of conceptual understanding that comes when you get into 8th [Jhana]. I interpret that as a significant down-regulation in top-down information processing??

5-MeO has the sense that it’s going somewhere, moving towards something, while the effects build and then dissipate. Like it’s growing into something (I guess this is before a peak breakthrough – which I didn’t have).

My current consciousness abode isn’t going anywhere. There isn’t a sense that things are building towards something. It has a forever ‘this is it’, locked-in quality. Like a somewhat superposition of emptiness and fullness simultaneously. (Before 4th path I always felt like I was flickering between form and emptiness, now the two cohabitate the experiential space at the same time).

5-MeO also seemed very hedonically volatile; like any subtle thought or movement could disrupt the peace.

Meanwhile my current state is super unperturbable. In the past 2.5 months I haven’t found something that has rocked my well-being.

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an interview of a North Korean defector tell her story of starvation and human trafficking and for a good 30 minutes I was crying at this tragedy. But it was crying from a place of still really high well-being. I didn’t feel like I was suffering and I didn’t mind that crying state at all. (Which is quite weird, I suppose).

In my normal state now, there are no more papañca attacks. Thoughts don’t capture the mind like they used to.

And another thing I love about this new state is that I still have all my cognitive functions intact and I can operate in the world totally normally – which can’t be said about being on 5-MeO.

I feel super sober; while on 5-MeO I don’t believe you do (if I remember correctly).

I would say I prefer my new baseline to what I experienced on 5-MeO because of the lack of volatility and practicality of still having my intellect on hand, all the while with the constant sense of ‘this is it’ and high, high well-being.

[…time…]

Roger and Andrés have a video call

We discussed a number of things: his meditation journey, his thoughts on various philosophies, exploring QRI frameworks, and his interest in music. Curiously, Roger said that unlike other people who spend a lot of time in meditation healing traumas and processing past experiences, he was able to largely just focus on progress on the path. This, along with a very rigorous and consistent practice, is why he got to where he is at so early in life (26 years old).

One of my main interests in the discussion was to flesh out how 4th path states/traits and the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) were connected. If I recall correctly, there were three main ideas connected to this topic I shared with him:

  1. Discussing the “levels of consciousness” experienced on a psilocybin trip and the way they might mirror some of Frank Yang’s descriptions of the levels of consciousness on the path to awakening, 
  2. A model of equanimity I’ve been developing where impedance matching is a key ingredient, and
  3. The difference between a “recipe” of a state or transformation of consciousness and its “review”

Let’s briefly elaborate on these topics.

(1) Frank Yang talks about undergoing a meditative process with the following stages: (a) standard sense of self, (b) awareness of awareness, (c) God/Oneness/Being/Non-Duality/Self, (d) Emptiness/Non-Beng/Uni-Locality, (e) Neither Being Nor Non-Being, and finally (f) Enlightenment.

(source)

What makes his descriptions so incredible is that he provides very raw and unfiltered phenomenological accounts of the process without really trying to force them into any pre-existing framework. From the point of view of the mission of QRI this is very valuable. In particular, it allows us to examine his process of transformation with the framework of Qualia Formalism: we ought to ask, not what kind of spiritual/mystical/transcendent process is going on here (which will certainly take us nowhere), but rather, wonder if we can cast his descriptions in terms of *structural changes to the field of awareness*. For example, Frank talks about “the screen of God” that becomes apparent in (c), where waves of energy seem to travel without resistance across one’s experiential field. He also talks about phase transitions (similarly to Shinzen Young, he talks about a process of liquefaction and gasification of the field of awareness). If, as we believe at QRI, valence is a structural property of experience, these transformations would have profound effects on one’s sense of wellbeing. So, the reason why “the screen of God” is a profound experience is not because you literally merge with a divine being (which might not be possible if we assume indirect realism about perception), but because the field of awareness is now in a phase that allows an entirely new level of efficient stress dissipation.

I shared with Roger some details from a particularly interesting psilocybin trip report that described rapid phase transitions between (what appears to be) several of the levels Frank describes. In particular, “the screen of God” state seems to have the capacity to stresslessly locate sensations without generating reverbarions with a represented “small self to which those sensations belong”.

(2) In turn, this led to discussing a new model (we haven’t really touched upon in QRI publications yet, but which is coming) of equanimity based on experiences I had during a two-week retreat earlier this year (see: Buddhist Annealing). This model has at its core the idea that equanimity is a mental tool that increases impedance matching between nervous system harmonics. Ask yourself: why is it that when you pluck a guitar string it sounds louder if it is connected to a guitar? It is not, as many would think, that the “resonance box amplifies the sound” (for where would the extra energy come from?). Rather, the energy is the same; what changes is the speed at which it is discharged! The resonance box vibrates and dissipates the energy of the string much faster than the string could on its own (as an aside, this is exactly why you can sustain a note for so much longer in an electric guitar). We could thus postulate that a lot of inner dissonance comes from resonance in the nervous system that has no means of dissipating its stored stress. To an extent, this is because involuntary subliminal contractions in our nervous system compartmentalize and modularize its components. Equanimity is the practice of relaxing those contractions, and thus slowly allowing the nervous system to undergo a search process where it finds structures that can resonate with the stored stress, and in turn allow it to dissipate faster. More so, over time, you entrain (and rewire!) the nervous system to become highly efficient at stress-dissipation. Dissonance is still there, but it “unfolds” and gets “metabolized” so fast that it barely counts as suffering. Highly annealed nervous systems are powerful stress-dissipation engines!

(3) Finally, we also discussed the idea that there is a distinction between the “recipe” of a state of consciousness and its “review”. A recipe is the steps you take in order to achieve a certain state (or transformation) of consciousness. A review is instead an account of what the resulting state feels like. Just as the instructions for baking a cake are quite different from a Chef’s review of what the resulting cake tastes like, we can expect that meditation instructions (e.g. focusing on the three characteristics) will not necessarily reflect the nature of the transformations of consciousness that result from them. Thus, while a lot of the meditative path is nominally about “renouncing” the pursuit of high-valence states of consciousness (and thus avoid the pleasure paradox), the result is nonetheless a state of consciousness that is high-valence in nature! Paradoxical? I don’t think so. The confusion is merely the result of conflating recipe and review.

Thus, we can still apply valence theories to states of consciousness that are allegedly beyond valence. Frank Yang, for example, seems to resonate a lot with STV. See his December 2020 interview at The Stoa. There (and in other videos) he describes “God mind” consciousness as a very positive experience, which is very symmetrical but not perfect. But his true awakening is perfectly symmetrical (in the realm of space, observer, and sense of time, even if not in content). His experience became like a “hologram that has no center”. Quote:

“Have you seen those illustrations of a sphere or a circle, where one point connects to all of the other points? […] if you wanted me to describe my day to day, moment to moment, experience, well, it’s pretty symmetrical. As in, there is no center to experience. There is hearing but no hearer; there is just the seeing, there is no seer; on thinking there is just thinking and no thinker. It’s not, like, processed or filtered through a subject in the center. And it’s very immediate in the sense that all of the sensations, all 360 degrees, are synched up to themselves, without any delay, 24/7. And all the sensations, where there is body, you know sight, sound, thoughts, emotions… they are all on equal footing to each other […inaudible…] in symmetry, and that is for me an aesthetic experience. I would say a suffering mind is a mind that isn’t symmetrical. If your mind is asymmetrical, it means it’s defiled somewhere. So for me aesthetics runs in all different kinds of domains, not only on the perceptual domain, not only on the visual aesthetics domain, but even on the emotional and how you think.”

Yes, God Mind (left) is good, but have you tried no-self (right)? It is so much more symmetrical!

As we’ve discussed before, the homogeneity of phenomenal space and time might be a very large component of what accounts for positive valence. And what Frank is describing here suggests that’s the case. Disturbances in the attention field lines and the saliency of specific components of a mind can break the underlying symmetry of the phenomenal space and time of the resulting experience. Anxiety, for example, in this paradigm is described as unpleasant because it involves the bubbling up of low-level prediction errors causing “attention pinches” across your experience, and thus disturbing the free-flow of energy that would exist in a homogeneous field. Prediction errors are not inherently unpleasant; they are unpleasant only to the extent that they cause asymmetries in your field of awareness!

Frank Yang also says that his big awakening felt like a “quantum jump”. It makes sense that a strong anti-fragile attractor for a new network topology would be self-reinforcing (a new lowest-energy state, metaphorically speaking, perhaps akin to a false vacuum collapse inside one’s mind!). Again, this is all very compatible with valence structuralism, if not STV.

Roger said that he will have to think about all of this. In the meantime, he shared with me some (amazing!) pictures he made to illustrate how his field of awareness has been transformed with meditation over time. Like Frank Yang, he identifies several discrete phase transitions. These are: (a) standard perception, (b) The Witness, (c) Big Mind, (d) No Self, and finally (e) No Self & Centreless Awareness (4th path!):

[…time…]

Roger

[uploads this video – Jhanas 1-9 Experienced and Described In Real Time]

[…time…]

Roger

Considering more what you said about impedance matching and adding resonance to experience:

Perhaps this is merely an analogy, but still: consider the tautness of a spider’s web. If a fly lands on it, at one part, the whole web will shake and the energy will transfer throughout in such a way that the spider can locate where on the web the fly landed. If the web is too taut then the energy of the fly landing won’t dissipate far enough for the spider to receive the information. However, if the web is too slack the fly could just break the structure of the web.

It might be interesting to consider why spiders build webs with a centre point and not as a straight or criss-crossing lattice.

So to relate this to consciousness and metabolizing stress… I would say my consciousness now feels like it’s more taut and lattice-woven rather than spider web-shaped with a middle [emphasis mine]. So this means when a stress point is activated somewhere in the experiential space, its energy doesn’t ripple as far out as it would have before, thus not being as disruptive.

And if we aliken the spider on the web to the epistemic agent, if he is situated on one spot and for all goings-on on the web to be known their information must travel to him, then the web must be not too taut so that all the ripples can reach him and he knows what’s going on. The problem with this set-up is that it means that knowing requires instability.

However, if we do away with the spider (a single point considered the epistemic agent) and make it so that the knowledge is attributed to the web itself, then the web can afford to be much more taut/less shaky/more robust, causing less negative valence.

So in some way I could say my experience (centerless consciousness) is more taut in this way, but this tautness doesn’t feel rigid or stiff, but rather very airy.

Indra’s net can have too much slack in it, if it’s not sewn together tightly and uniformly.

Pre-Awakening: The mind uses a fictitious “self-as-epistemic-agent” in a field of awareness that has slack and vibrates in unpleasant ways in the process of integrating information. The field of awareness relies on a network topology that is suboptimal for efficient stress dissipation.

Post-Awakening: The mind lacks any kind of center or self-as-epistemic-agent. The field of awareness is tout and extremely efficient at stress dissipation. The network topology has permanently changed to a far more symmetrical and regular configuration.

[…time…]

Roger:

Roger talks with Brendan Graham Dempsey: watch video here. He explains in more detail the spider web metaphor at 34:44.

[…and then in an email later…]

Roger:

Just for interest’s sake, and I don’t know if this bears any significance, but I’m ambidextrous by the way.

I know symmetry plays a major role in your hypotheses of valence and such.

In some way, I have thought that not having such a prioritization and weightiness to just one side of the body has balanced out my experience and perception (perhaps more than others), I’m not sure.

R


(As of the 23rd of November 2021, Roger states that he continues to be in the blissful state of centreless consciousness)


Commentary by Andrés, after the fact:

This conversation (and further exchanges I may share in the future) has reinvigorated my quest to describe states (and transformations) of consciousness in terms of changes to the network topology that underlies our field of awareness. Enlightenment might be described in “mystical” ways, but this could be simply due to lack of an adequate formal conceptual framework to make sense of it. But perhaps STV, impedance matching, and efficient stress dissipation through radical network topology reorganization without compromising self-epistemics could take us much further than before in this quest.

Also, if Roger was able to achieve these transformations at the tender age of 26, what is stopping the rest of us from doing the same?

Perhaps, what Marcin Kowrygo says is true: “Techno-boosted Arhatship: The rest is commentary”. (See also this fun story about enlightenment in Slate Star Codex). 

If I were to add one thing to the wish-list, I’d say (in unison with people like Nick Cammarata and David Pearce): if we could have access to MDMA-like states of emotional wellbeing and empathy on tap, that would be fantastic (for many reasons). Plus, non-addictive real pain relief might very well be right behind the corner. So to revise our (admittedly cartoonish and partial) wish-list for the medium-term future of sentience: “MDMA-like emotional palette, non-addictive pain relief, and physiological Arhatship: The rest is commentary”. See you there, my friends!

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone (including the Turkeys, of course)!

On Dark Rooms, Jhanas, Ecstasy, and the Symmetry Theory of Valence

I recently had a chance to talk with Scott Alexander of SSC and ACX fame at a Berkeley meetup this past summer. He’d been watching my videos and had some questions for me. In particular, he had questions about how literally we took the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV), and whether the counter-examples he had in mind really went against the theory, or were perhaps also explained by it in non-obvious ways. Afterwards, he sent me a draft of his Jhanas and the Dark Room Problem post for me to preview before he published it. I had a look and offered some clarifications in case he wanted to discuss these ideas more deeply. Just a couple days ago he published it. Seeing that the topic could be explored much more deeply, I then asked him if he was ok with me posting (a lightly edited version of) the email I sent him. He said, “of course”. Thus, you can find it below, which I recommend reading after you read his post in ACX.

Note: For people mostly curious about how STV deals with harsh artforms e.g. death metal and Japanoise, we recommend reading Harmonic Society, an article we published in Art Against Art which explains how all kinds of exotic artforms ultimately cash out in (often counter-intuitive) valence effects via messing with the energy parameter and kick-starting cycles of neural annealing (see also “worldview annealing” to make sense of the often outsized effect of transformative festivals in people’s conception of the world). For those extra-curious about psychedelics and the free energy principle, I recommend watching our video specifically on that topic.

Without further ado….


Hi Scott!

Thank you for reaching out! And thank you for the conversation on Saturday. […] Please feel free to post your excerpt, but also I am sharing below information that you can use to edit it so that it is a more accurate portrayal of what we are up to (feel free to quote me below or quote any article or video we have online).

I’ll structure this email in the following way: (1) general clarifications about STV, (2) addressing your excerpt specifically, and (3) some of the meeting notes from our conversation in case you find it valuable to remember what we discussed (or what I can remember of it anyhow).

(1) General Clarifications

The first thing to mention is that the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) is really easy to strawman. It really is the case that there are many near enemies of STV that sound exactly like what a naïve researcher who is missing developmental stages (e.g. is a naïve realist about perception) would say. That we like pretty symmetrical shapes of course does not mean that symmetry is at the root of valence; that we enjoy symphonic music does not mean harmony is “inherently pleasant”; that we enjoy nice repeating patterns of tactile stimulation does not mean, well, you get the idea…

The truth of course is that at QRI we really are meta-contrarian intellectual hipsters (you know this link of course). So the weird and often dumb-sounding things we say are already taking into account the criticisms people in our people-cluster would make and are taking the conversation one step further. For instance, we think digital computers cannot be conscious, but this belief comes from entirely different arguments than those that justify such beliefs out there. We think that the “energy body” is real and important, except that we interpret it within a physicalist paradigm of dynamic systems. We take seriously the possible positive-sum game-theoretical implications of MDMA, but not out of a naïve “why can’t we all love each other?” impression, but rather, based on deep evolutionary arguments. And we take seriously non-standard views of identity, not because “we are all Krishna”, but because the common-sense view of identity turns out to, in retrospect, be based on illusion (cf. Parfit, Kolak, “The Future of Personal Identity“) and a true physicalist theory of consciousness (e.g. Pearce’s theory) has no room for enduring metaphysical egos. This is all to say that strawmanning the paradigms explored at QRI is easy; steelmanning them is what’s hard. I trust you can make a Titanium Man out of them! 🙂

Now, I am indeed happy to address any mischaracterization of STV. Sadly, to my knowledge very few people outside of QRI really “get it”, so I don’t think there is anyone other than us (and possibly you!) who can make a steelman of STV. My promise is that “there is something here” and that to “get it” is not merely to buy into the theory blindly, but rather, it is what happens when you give it enough benefit of the doubt, share a sufficient number of background assumptions, and have a wide enough experience base that it actually becomes a rather obvious “good fit” for all of the data available.

For a bit of history (and properly giving due credit), I should clarify that Michael Johnson is the one who came up with the hypothesis in Principia Qualia (for a brief history see: STV Primer). I started out very skeptical of STV myself, and in fact it took about three years of thinking it through in light of many meditation and high-energy/high-valence experiences to be viscerally convinced that it’s pointing in the right direction. I’m talking about a process of elimination where, for instance, I checked if what feels good is at the computational level of abstraction (such as prediction error minimization) or if it’s at the implementation level (i.e. dissonance). I then developed a number of technical paradigms for how to translate STV into something we could actually study in neuroscience and ultimately try out empirically with non-invasive neurotech (in our case, light-sound-vibration systems that produce multi-modally coherent high-valence states of consciousness). […]

For clarification, I should point out that what is brilliant (IMO) about Mike’s Principia Qualia is that he breaks down the problem of consciousness in such a way that it allows us to divide and conquer the hard problem of consciousness. Indeed, once broken down into his 8 subproblems, calling it the “hard problem of consciousness” sounds as bizarre as it would sound to us to hear about “the hard problem of matter”. We do claim that if we are able to solve each of these subproblems, that indeed the hard problem will dissolve. Not the way illusionists would have it (where the very concept of consciousness is problematic), but rather, in the way that electricity and lightning and magnets all turned out to be explained by just 4 simple equations of electromagnetism. Of course the further question of why do those equations exist and why consciousness follows such laws remains, but even that could IMO be fully explained with the appropriate paradigm (cf. Zero Ontology).

The main point to consider here w.r.t. STV is that symmetry is posited to be connected with valence at the implementation level of analysis. This squarely and clearly distinguishes STV from behaviorist accounts of valence (e.g. “behavioral reinforcement”) and also from algorithmic accounts (e.g. compression drive or prediction error minimization). Indeed, with STV you can have a brain (perhaps a damaged brain, or one in an exotic state of consciousness) where prediction errors are not in fact connected to valence. Rather, the brain evolved to recruit valence gradients in order to make better predictions. Similarly, STV predicts that what makes activation of the pleasure centers feel good is precisely that doing so gives rise to large-scale harmony in brain activity. This is exciting because it means the theory predicts we can actually observe a double dissociation: if we inhibit the pleasure centers while exogenously stimulating large-scale harmonic patterns we expect that to feel good, and we likewise expect that even if you activate the pleasure centers you will not feel good if something inhibits the large-scale harmony that would typically result. Same with prediction errors, behavior, etc.: we predict we can doubly-dissociate valence from those features if we conduct the right experiment. But we won’t be able to dissociate valence from symmetry in the formalism of consciousness.

Now, of course we currently can’t see consciousness directly, but we can infer a lot of invariants about it with different “projections”, and so far all are consistent with STV:

Of special note, I’d point you to one of the studies discussed in the 2020 STV talkThe Human Default Consciousness and Its Disruption: Insights From an EEG Study of Buddhist Jhāna Meditation. It shows a very tight correspondence between jhanas and various smoothly-repeating EEG patterns (including a seizure-like activity that unlike normal seizures (of typically bad valence) shows up as having a harmonic structure, but does not seem to have a direct conscious correlate – still worth mentioning in this context). Here we find a beautiful correspondence between (a) sense of peace/jhanic bliss, (b) phenomenological descriptions of simplicity and smoothness, (c) valence, and (d) actual neurophysiological data mirroring these phenomenological accounts. At QRI we have observed something quite similar studying the EEG patterns of other ultra-high-valence meditation states […]. I expect this pattern to hold for other exotic high-valence states in one way or another, ranging from quality of orgasm to exogenous opioids. 

Phenomenologically speaking, STV is not only capable of describing and explaining why certain meditation or psychedelic states of consciousness feel good or bad, but in fact it can be used as a navigation aid! You can introspect on the ways energy does not flow smoothly, or how the presence of blockages and pinch points make it reflect in discordant ways, or zone in on areas of the “energy body” that are out of sync with one another and then specifically use attention in order to “comb the field of experience”. This approach – the purely secular climbing of the harmony gradient – leads all on its own to amazing high-valence states of consciousness (cf. Buddhist Annealing). I’ll probably make a video series with meditation instructions for people to actually experience this by themselves first hand. It doesn’t take very long, actually. Also, apparently STV as a paradigm can be used in order to experience more pleasant trajectories along the “Energy X Complexity landscape” of a DMT trip (something I even talked about at the SSC meetup online!). In a simple quip, I’d say “there are good and bad ways of vibing on DMT, and STV gives you the key to the realms of the good vibes” 🙂

Another angle: we can find subtle ways of dissociating valence from e.g. chemicals: if you take stimulants but don’t feel the nice buzz that provides a “working frame” for your mental activity, they will not feel good. At the same time, without stimulants you can get that pleasant productivity-enhancing buzz with the right tactile patterns of stimulation. Indeed this “buzz” that characterizes the effects of many euphoric drugs (and the quality of e.g. metta meditation) is precisely a valence effect, one that provides a metronome to self-organize around and which can feel bad when you don’t follow where it takes you. Literally, one of the core reasons why MDMA feels better than LSD, which feels better than DOB, is precisely because the “quality of the buzz” of each of these highs is different. MDMA’s buzz is beautiful and harmonious; DOB’s buzz is harsh and dissonant. More so, such a buzz can work as task-specific dissonance guide-rails, if you will. Meaning that when you do buzz-congruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner harmony, whereas when you do buzz-incongruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner turmoil. Hence what kind of buzz one experiences is deeply consequential! All of this falls rather nicely within STV – IMO other theories need to keep adding epicycles to keep up.

Hopefully this all worked as useful clarifications. Now let me address your excerpt more specifically:

(2) The Excerpt

The Dark Room Problem in neuroscience goes something like this: suppose the brain is minimizing prediction error, or free energy, or whatever. You can minimize lots of things by sitting quietly in a dark room. Everything will be very, very predictable. So how come people do other things?

The usual workaround is inbuilt biological drives, considered as “set points”. You “predict” that you will be well-fed, so getting hungry registers as prediction error and brings you out of your dark room to eat. Et cetera.

Andrés Gómez Emilsson recently shared a perspective I hadn’t considered before, which is: actually, sitting quietly in a dark room is really great.

Indeed usually the Dark Room causes massive prediction errors (since our model of the world is one where being in a Dark Room is truly not expected!). But these prediction errors feel bad because of the dissonance they induce in our experience (which you can get rid of with drugs or meditation!). If you make the Dark Room an “expected” thing, then eventually it will start feeling great. In fact, something like this happens when you meditate a lot in a dark room and settle in. Alternatively, taking 5-MeO-DMT for the first 10 times can be very disconcerting, as it takes you to “the ultimate void of reality”. It’s surprising and dissonant to “find out” that the void is the ultimate truth (I’m not saying that’s true, just that it feels that way in that state!). But once you’ve done it enough times that you know what to expect, you can in fact receive with two open arms the void of ultimate reality. You learn to expect it and not code it as a prediction error, and then you can deeply, deeply “align” to it, which results in unfathomably positive valence that discharges tons of stored internal stress, the very source of low-level dissonance before the trip (again, STV here fits the data rather nicely). 

The Buddha discussed states of extreme bliss attainable through meditation:

> Secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion (Samyutta Nikaya)

I had always figured that “sensual pleasures” here meant things like sex. But I think maybe he just means stimuli, full stop. The meditator cuts themselves from all sensory stimuli, eg by meditating really hard on a single object like the breath and ignoring everything else, and as a result gets “rapture and happiness born of seclusion”.

The serious meditators I know say this is real, meaningful, and you can experience it after a few months of careful practice. You become really good at concentrating on one stimulus and ignoring all other stimuli, and eventually your brain kind of gets “in tune” with that stimulus and it’s really blissful. They say this seems to have something to do with the regularity or predictability of the stimulus; if you’re concentrating really hard on something, regularity/predictability/symmetry is just viscerally very good, better than anything you’ve felt before.

[….]

Something like regularity/predictability/symmetry is really good. So why doesn’t a metronome make you bliss out? Andrés says it’s because you can’t concentrate on it hard enough. It’s not engaging enough to occupy your whole brain / entire sensorium /whatever.

Exactly, this is true. The one twist I’ll add is that the regularity that matters is not, as I explained above, the regularity of the stimuli, but rather, the regularity of the inner state. In fact, I currently think that we can get a glimpse of the true shape of our consciousness precisely by studying how different meditation objects work better or worse for the purpose of meditative absorption! Indeed, more symmetrical objects are easier meditation objects (cf. QRI can steelman “sacred geometry” ). Likewise, the hallucinations one gets near or close to states of high-absorption are also reflections of our inner shape! (cf. Fire Kasina qualia). 

Symphonies are beautiful, and we intuitively feel like it’s because they have some kind of deep regularity or complicated pattern. But they’re less regular/predictable/symmetrical than a metronome. Andrés thinks this is because they hit a sweet spot: regular/symmetrical/predictable enough to be beautiful, but complex/unpredictable enough to draw and hold our attention. Compare to eg games, which are most fun when they’re hard enough to be challenging but easy enough to be winnable.

Indeed! We need unpredictability in order to disable the boredom mechanism, which prevents us from fully absorbing into patterns (or rather, prevents our experience from shaping itself in a way that perfectly predicts the stimuli – in a way when you reach absorption with a stimuli, you are in fact becoming its “complement” – a shape that can predict it perfectly). An important twist is that prediction errors give rise to energy spikes, and high-energy states of consciousness can give rise to pleasant resonance (think about the bodily euphoria that comes from eating spicy enough hot peppers). Plus, cooling down from high-energy states can lead to euphoric neural annealing (as explained here). In all cases, however, the thing that is the most closely related to valence is the regularity/smoothness of the internal (instantaneous) state, even though there might be other complex dynamics guiding the state from one configuration to another. 

But this sweet spot is the fault of your own inattentiveness. If you could really concentrate on the metronome, it would be even more blissful than the symphony. Emilsson says he’s achieved these levels of concentration and can confirm. I talked to another meditator who agrees metronomes can be pretty blissful with the right amount of (superhuman) focus, although – as per the Buddha quote above – total silence is best of all.

Agreed! An interesting note is that the first time this happened to me, it was not in meditation, but during a sleep paralysis! See: Dream Music where I discuss how a simple tone can sound amazing if you are in the right reverb-filled state of mind. See also: people with anhedonia often report feeling “back to normal” in dreams, and IMO that’s precisely because the neuroacoustic profile of dreams can be very reverb-filled and thus have significant valence effects (see below).

I find this to be an elegant explanation of what the heck is going on with jhanas, more convincing than my previous theory. It’s also a strong contender as a theory of beauty – a little different in emphasis from Schmidhuber’s theory, but eventually arriving at the same place: beauty is that which is compressible but has not already been compressed.

A brief comment here: your “going loopy” theory foreshadows our tracer tool and psychedelic cryptography, where psychedelics seem to activate a “delay overlay” of recent experiences on top of the current one. DMT gives rise to ~30hz loops, LSD to around ~18hz loops, and 2C-B closer to ~10hz loops. We hypothesize that there are a discrete number of serotonin-mediated metronomes that precisely modulate the degree to which experience is fed back to itself with a specific delay. Antidepressants may flatten affect by disrupting these loops, and thus eliminating sources of symmetry for the inner state. People describe the sense of “missing an echo”; quite literally having a more “flat” experience as a result!

Enhanced neuroacoustics (as with psychedelics) generally increase the range of valence because more loopy experiences are more intense and also more capable of pure dissonance or pure consonance. Dissociatives (nmda antagonism more generally) seem to instead do a low-frequency looping (around 8hz) together with a generalized reverb effect. Much as in music, adding reverb to almost literally anything makes it sound less harsh (like the baby crying vs. baby crying + reverb sounds I referenced in the presentation). And also much as in music, *compounding* delay and reverb effects gives rise to synergistic outcomes, often with crazy standing wave attractors (e.g. exactly what you see on LSD + nitrous or LSD + ketamine).

Importantly, STV is *not* a theory that lives at the computational or algorithmic level of analysis, which is unlike Schmidhuber’s theory. If I recall correctly, Schmidhuber’s theory doesn’t even care about phenomenal valence or consciousness. And it has no mechanism of binding or any sense of how the “reward” is implemented or who or what receives such reward. Its flavor is functionalist and concludes that beauty is to be found in the act of compression. But STV instead says that compression is merely correlated with valence: our brains are set up in such a way that making excellent compressions reduces dissonance! This is because there is (a) an inherent dissonance cost to complexity, and (b) there is a dissonance cost to prediction errors. But again, take the right drug, and all of a sudden you can experience high-valence while making tons of prediction errors or having models that are much more complex than the sensory data would suggest is necessary.

In particular, what makes good compressions feel good beyond reducing prediction errors is that they select for internal states that have simple sets of symmetries as the best generators which anticipate the stimuli. This is highly related to the concept of Harmonic Entropy (i.e. the entropy of the inner state, not of the stimuli). And here is where we find a stark and amazing difference between STV and compression drive: we in fact expect there to be a sort of “minimal construction” path where you get specific “complexity scores” for phenomenal objects based on the number of operations of the sort the brain can do that are needed to construct such phenomenal objects. The brain needs to explicitly render phenomenal objects, rather than merely encode them. So there is a harmonic entropy associated with each experience, which more-or-less correlates with Kolmogorov complexity but is different in that it uses resonance as the building block rather than arbitrary operations. We also predict that the valence associated with specific patterns of stimulation will be best correlated with a sort of “perceptual harmonic entropy” than with complexity in general: how well you can compress an input depends on what building blocks you have to reconstruct it. In the case of the brain, the building blocks seem to be patterns of resonance. So even if something is “highly compressible” but cannot be compressed with resonance (e.g. the prime numbers), you will not experience it as beautiful or “easy on the eye”.

Importantly, free energy minimization is a computational level analysis and we would say at QRI that it therefore is mistaken on “where to look”. Consequence: compressing information feels good *because* it often (but not always) reduces dissonance. But if your brain is set up in the wrong way, minimizing dissonance may not lead to good compressions, or doing good compressions may not in fact feel good. But reducing dissonance will always feel better, and having high-energy high-harmony patterns internally will always feel good. What this does at the algorithmic and computational level is tricky, but it generally implies that we can see “artifacts” of our resonance-based compression system all over the place when in exotic states of consciousness, which is what we observe (and at the end of the day this may explain why psychedelic fractals and Indra’s Net type experiences are so hedonically loaded! See: psychedelics and the free energy principle).

To sum it up: STV claims that what matters is the regularity of the conscious experience and not of the stimuli – the stimuli is only in a certain sense a “projection” of the inner state, but it can deviate from it in many ways. Prediction errors feel bad because our brain is set up in such a way that they cause dissonance. And compressions only feel good to the extent that they avoid prediction errors *and* minimize the internal dissonance cost of the internal representations used for prediction. In other words, STV explains the other theories, but not the other way around.

Finally…

(3) Meeting notes, in case you find them useful…

  • You asked if I knew whether taking a lot of 5-MeO-DMT is compatible with sanity for most people: the answer is probably not. That said, we do know of some notable exceptions of very smart and sane individuals who have experimented heavily with the drug with no obvious cost to their sanity (e.g. see conversation with Ingram, Yang, McMullen, and Taft which touches upon the effects of daily use of 5-MeO-DMT).
  • I brought up anti-tolerance drugs, of which black seed oil is promising (but a low-tier player). Most promising of all are ibogaine and proglumide. Opioids + anti-tolerance drugs are IMO the most promising long-term therapy for severe chronic pain. 
  • Brought up Chanca Piedra as a promising highly cost-effective intervention to prevent kidney stones in the context of “hell must be destroyed” (other interventions we are fairly confident are in the category of “enormous if true, seem true, yet nobody is trying”: flumazenil for benzoscooling gloves for MDMA neurotoxicityDMT for cluster headaches, etc.)
  • I shared that the three goals/pillars of QRI are to (1) reduce negative extremes, (2) increase baseline, and (3) achieve new heights.
  • I gifted you a High-Entropy Alloy with unique material properties: much like looking for names of God, or amazing new perfumes, or indeed finding gems hidden in the state-space of consciousness, we must figure out clever ways of exploring large combinatorial spaces without going insane. You obviously have thought a lot about this 🙂
  • We talked about “nausea annealing” (pro-tip: drinking ginger juice right when you take a psychedelic seems to drastically reduce how much nausea and body-load it causes).
  • Overfitting.
  • Information is in the coupling between harmonics; de-couple them and you can experience the “zero state” while still being awake.
  • Meaning of the QRI logo (i.e. having a clear view of the entire state-space of consciousness; bridging quality/color and quantity/lines as a symbol for qualia formalism).
  • You asked “can you tell me what are brainwaves in simple terms a child could understand?” (I answered with “they are the signature of resonance in the holistic field behavior of experience” and immediately realized I had miserably failed to “explain in simple terms”). 
  • “Would listening to a pure tone be blissful?” Yes, you can absorb yourself into it. Second half of an orchestral song repeated could be better if it allows you to go deeper into absorption. Touched upon: Boredom mechanism. Harmonic entropy. Controlling for energy.
  • 3D harmonics, STV presentation, symmetry of the mathematical object is what truly matters.
  • Encoding vs. rendering.

Ok, that was rather long; I hope that you found it useful and clarifying! Please feel free to ask any questions and I promise I won’t send you another equally long email 🙂 Again, feel free to write about any and all of this.

Best of luck in your travels! 🙂

Infinite Bliss!

Re-observation

From: Ingram, D. M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book, Second Edition Revised and Expanded. Newburyport. AEON Books.

Part IV: Insights

30.10 Re-observation, pg. 226-239

You can find this section online here, and here is the whole 2nd edition of the book for free online (buy physical copy &/or see all other versions of the book).


Re-observation may not sound like much of a problem, as it has such a sanitized and boring name. However, friends have suggested renaming it with various four-letter Anglo-Saxon vernacular terms, usually in some grammatically problematic but emotionally cathartic string. This stage is often, though not always, like a brick wall, particularly the first few times we collide with it. It can be as if all the worst aspects of the Dark Night stages converge for one last important lesson, that of Re-observation.

We must perceive the true nature of the sensations that make up our ideas of perfection, all the ideals we cling to, all images of how the world should and should not be, all desire for anything to be other than exactly the way it is, as well as all desire for awakening to be anything other than this. It may seem impossible to sit for even a minute, as the levels of restlessness and aversion to meditation and all experience can get high. The sudden complete inability to sit on the cushion for even a few minutes is a classic mark of this stage. As a physician, I speculate that at some point they will find some physiologic commonality between this stage and the pathways of restless leg syndrome, but the whole-body version.

This stage, and part of the stage of Three Characteristics share some features. In other words, be warned, particularly those of you who are prone to being overly certain about “where you are” on these maps. I get a reasonable number of emails and calls from people who claim they are certain they are in Re-observation, and shortly thereafter they are describing A&P territory, meaning that they had just been in Three Characteristics territory, not Re-observation. Continuing to investigate the true nature of these sorts of sensations and our map theories is often difficult, and this is a common cause of failure to progress.

Now, I am about to describe all sorts of emotional or psychological manifestations that can sometimes happen in Re-observation. The more extreme the description of a possible side effect of this stage, the rarer that side effect is likely to be, particularly those that sound like descriptions of severe mental illness. For someone who is staying at the level of bare sensate experience, as I strongly recommend, the only difficult manifestations that seem to be quite common at this stage are a strong sense of aversion and resistance to formal meditation and experience, and a deep sense of primal frustration, though these tend to fade quickly in the face of good practice. If our concentration is strong enough and our other factors are in balance, we may move through this stage with no problem at all at the level of vibrations or even pure, abstract patterns of light and/or sound, bypassing all the potential complexity I am about to describe.

For those using more ordinary objects, aversion to meditation and experience can arise as we react to the vibrations in this stage, which can be fast, chaotic, and harsh. The noise in our repetitive minds can be quite irritating. By repetitive, I mean that this stage can involve repeating thoughts, songs, and stories, like we have a horrible case of the evil earworms (in the metaphorical sense of annoying songs that get stuck playing in our heads). Ever had a fever and had some irritating thought circling again and again in your head? This stage can produce similar experiences.

Some of my own descriptions of this stage while on retreat have included such phrases as “the mind-storm” and “a bracing work in D minor for six sense doors, hailstorm, and stuttering banshee”. If we are very powerful meditators who yet lack enough equanimity and tranquility (remember the seven factors?), it can literally feel as if we will be torn apart by harsh vibrations. At some illusory level of the sense of continuity and stability, this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish.

However, even if very difficult manifestations arise, if we are practicing well, they should not last long at all, at best minutes, at worst, hours or days. Once I began to get what this stage was about and what it was useful for, a perspective that had a hard learning curve, I would intentionally amplify the sense of being torn apart, directing this stage’s sharp and cutting ability to shred reality at anything that appeared even the slightest bit stable or continuous anywhere in the body, mind, or experience in general. That is a skillful use of the perspective that this stage allows us.

In a similar vein, and as mentioned before, those few who are crossing this territory with world-class concentration abilities and using a very rarefied object, such as a complex visualization on sacred geometry, may, if they are very good at it, pass through this stage with little or no difficulty. It can be fascinating and subtly rapturous, as this is the peak of the third vipassana jhana. Strong practitioners fusing insight and concentration practices may notice that the proportion of the visualized field that is organized into clear images gets broader and broader. The patterns may become more complex. The phase problems get more and more bizarre. The visual field may take on more spherical dimensions, with curving images beginning to encircle (or “ensphere”) you. The images may appear to have manifold symmetries and repetitions, and these generated images and sounds may come around to encompass basically the whole field of experience.

This can be like watching an IMAX movie of a moving technicolor spirograph in the front row. As mentioned earlier, I have also seen gigantic fields of hyper-detailed, repeating, shifting patterns of things like spiders, mushrooms, snakes, skulls, fingers with claws, and other creepy and disconcerting things but, on careful inspection, they were beautiful, vibrant, and amazing in their intricacy. I use this example partly due to my own experiments and partly to illustrate general points.

Different objects and practitioners will most definitely produce different specifics, such as colors, images, etc., while some aspects of what happens at this stage will remain the same, and are therefore universal. It goes to illustrate a basic point: Re-observation need not be a problem if you have very solid meditation skills. Even if you don’t, it still need not be a big deal if you know what to look for, what to expect, how to handle it, and that it too shall pass. Dry insight workers get through this stage all the time just fine with good practice. Further, if you are reading this book, you probably already crossed the A&P as mentioned already, and so you have probably already handled it at least once and may not have even known it, and even if you haven’t yet, you still may do just fine. We’ve all been through hard times, and this is just one more phase that might be potentially challenging.

You see, Re-observation is all fluff and no substance but, if you confuse fluff for substance, the effect will be the same as if it actually had substance. Bodily sensations of creepy revulsion, disgust, or profound existential angst may arise, and yet, those with wisdom will notice they are like confetti, like sparkles of light, like raindrops, albeit seemingly acid raindrops. Still, they are not harmful. In fact, they apparently do something great to the mind, since Re-observation leads to the next stage, Equanimity. This normalizing knowledge is power.

Re-observation is like a toothless dog with a ferocious bark. If you run screaming or faint from fear when the dog barks, then it needed no teeth to prevent your progress. It is like a hologram of a snarling demon that you can just walk right through and it can’t touch or harm you at all. There is a curious freedom when you deeply realize that you are safe in Re-observation, that you can go deep into the pit, and the pit is just fine. In Review stages, a period when it can be easy to call up specific stages and stay in them to get a better sense of them, I have again and again called up Re-observation just to check it out and learn its secrets.

On a somewhat different note, however bad Re-observation is, we can’t always blame it for everything. The primary sign that the negative side effects that may occur in the Dark Night are not associated with insight stages (but instead are due to other, ordinary, real-world processes) is that they do not change much in the face of strong and accepting investigation or when we stop practice entirely. Remember, you have two sets of effects going on: insight-related, and other circumstances and psychological aspects of your life. If good insight practice, done well and bravely, with strong investigation and good technique, is not fixing your life situation, then you may instead have standard, ordinary problems to be dealt with by ordinary, real-world methods.

As you can likely already tell, the Dark Night tends to get practitioners strategizing, trying to figure out the best way to crack it and get to Equanimity. This has led to various teachers and practitioners developing their own distinct schools of thought that may deem some techniques and approaches the most optimal, typically the techniques that have worked best for them. However, those who have gone through the Dark Night enough times and with a range of approaches, techniques, attitudes, and practice conditions will eventually realize that there are many, many ways to skin this cat, to use an un-Buddhist metaphor. Exercise often helps. Loving-kindness practices get recommended often for good reason. Strict vipassana and ultra-rapid noting work well for those with a high tolerance for pain. Slower noting might work for those with a bit more time and less interest in shattering themselves.

Some teachers highly recommend physical practices, such as yoga with a high degree of bodily awareness, as that can ground people in something other than their psychological stuff. Others might highly recommend plunging hard into their psychological issues and healing, with a high degree of sensate mindfulness of that process to ensure it keeps producing insights. Others with mighty concentration skills might go for more abstract objects, such as sacred geometry, as mentioned above. The “concentrate your ass off” strategy in the Dark Night has much to recommend it. Loving-kindness practices and other brahma viharas (covered in Part Six) are commonly reported to be helpful. Yet others might recommend more shamanic and psychonautic techniques to cause the sort of radical unsticking that can happen with those methods, and reality testing shows that those do sometimes work for some people but cause problems for others, and predicting which will result is not easy. Each of these strategies has risks and benefits to be considered.

In contrast to what most people might expect me to advocate here, it is true that much more gentle approaches can also work in Re-observation and the Dark Night in general. Some find that softening, opening, and accepting generate much better results than more aggressive approaches such as rapid noting or surfing fine vibrations. Sometimes just carefully investigating and gently relaxing what is often called “body armor”, those physical tensions that correspond to psychological blocks and tensions, can be quite effective in this territory.

Others among us will notice that just carefully investigating other aspects of our lives, like physical tensions related to roles and identities, will help facilitate progress here. Some do well with intellectual reflection coupled with some sensate investigation, and repeated questions such as, “Where am I contracted?” or, “What am I clinging to?”, asked well and often enough, will actually yield good results. Some with more spacious tendencies may notice that just feeling into the subtle moving warps in our sense of attention or space that are the hallmarks of the third vipassana jhana will be all they need, and doing this with the eyes open rather than closed can help us keep from getting lost. Many of these methods just require doing them well enough for long enough to get them to cause progress.

Even stranger measures can be oddly facilitating here although they may superficially seem to have little to nothing to do with insight practice. Some practitioners may just need to change locations, resolve a single conflict with one person, cry about one issue they need to grieve over properly, make some other simple change, or go through some other simple process, and then suddenly everything opens. Just giving yourself permission to care for yourself might make a difference. I recommend When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are, by Ani Pema Chödrön, as the yin energy of these books will help counterbalance the energy of this book, which can be too yang sometimes. Nurturing strategies often help a lot in the Dark Night.

I remember one cycle through this territory where what cracked it was just dancing wildly for hours until I was totally exhausted. A few will do oddly well by stopping practice entirely, forgetting entirely about progress and the maps and all of that, and just surrendering, but this last one generally only works when the meditator is in the correct place and has done enough work and growth already for that strategy to make sense.

This is a small subset of the various strategies that might work and that teachers advocate. You will have to assess your own capabilities, inclinations, intuition, resources, and what you have available to find what works best for you. Experimentation and a willingness to regroup and retry if you fail with one approach are key, as failure and frustration are common experiences the first few times we try to crack the nut of the Dark Night. If you are on retreat, it typically only takes about ten days to two weeks of struggling in the Dark Night to fall back to earlier stages and have another shot at it, so you can try a new strategy on the next pass if the first pass strategy didn’t work. I still generally feel that very simple practice: six sense doors, three characteristics, is the best practice for all insight stages. One day, I hope that scientific methods and controlled experiments are applied to find how best to navigate this territory. Until then, take your best guess and, if it doesn’t work, try again.

Due to the sorts of frustrations and failures that are common in this territory, this stage is sometimes called the “rolling up the mat stage”, when many who joined monasteries in the stage of the Arising and Passing Away now give up and disrobe. People on retreats tend to need much reassurance but often leave right then even with good support, guidance, and encouragement. Are you suddenly needing to leave a retreat that you had planned to stay in much longer? You are likely in this stage.

There can be the distinct feeling that there is no way to go forward, and it is useless to go back, which is exactly the lesson we should learn. Acceptance of exactly this, right here and right now, is required, even if it seems that this mind and this body are completely unacceptable and unworthy objects of investigation. Remember: no sensations are unworthy of investigation!

One of the hallmarks of the early part of this stage is that we may begin to clearly see exactly what our minds do all day long, see with great clarity how the illusion of a dualistic split is created in the first place, sensation by sensation, moment to moment, but there is not yet enough of a meta-perspective and equanimity to make good use of this information. This can be very frustrating, as we wonder how many times we must learn these lessons before they stick. The interesting thing is that this stage, when gone through at the level of emotions and vibrations, rather than in the realms of light produced by strong concentration, will nearly always come with a sense that it lasted just a bit longer than we could take it, and yet somehow, we can take it, and it does end.

Intense feelings of frustration and disenchantment with life, relationships, sex, jobs, moral codes, the world, and worldly responsibilities may emerge at this stage in ways that can cause enormous disorientation, disruption, and angst. Re-observation can take whatever issues and reactions arose in the earlier stages of Fear, Misery, Disgust, and Desire for Deliverance, combine them in fiendish ways, and then crank that intensity to the next level, a level that can seem overwhelming. These aspects of our life can temporarily seem bland and pointless at this stage, though it may seem that this will always be the way we feel about them.

This stage can mimic or perhaps manifest as some degree of clinical depression. Beware of making radical life changes that cannot be easily undone, such as a divorce or firing off angry emails to your boss, based upon the temporary feelings that may arise during this stage. For those who recognize that they are in this stage, some form of active mental compensation for these potential effects can be helpful to facilitate maintaining our relationships, jobs, studies, etc., at a functional level. This can be very skillful if it is also combined with practice that allows the experiences of this stage to be acknowledged and understood as well.

I should be careful here in that, while I generally advocate for maintaining jobs, relationships, studies and the like, if possible, in the face of Dark Night stuff, there is obviously no way for me to know for certain that this is the right course of action for you or anyone else, as the future is unknown and unpredictable. This is obviously not helpful, as we might wish for concrete, reliable guidelines as to how to proceed, and yet, unfortunately, there are none. Maybe shaving your head and joining a monastery really is the best thing you could possibly do. On the other hand, maybe preserving your marriage and job is.

There are obviously many other options that might suddenly seem like good ideas in this stage, and whether, in retrospect, they will have been as good an idea as they seemed at the time is anyone’s guess. I wish I could definitively tell you what to do, but I can’t. Still, there is something to be said for optionality, even if, in the Dark Night, all options can seem like bad options. Not trashing possibly valuable relationships helps preserve optionality and generally lessens later regrets. There are ways to gain some space in which to let this disorienting and often disruptive process mature that are more skillful and less damaging than others, and I wish you well finding those.

Layers of unhelpful and previously hidden expectation, pressure, and anxiety can reveal their true uselessness, though this beneficial process can feel very confusing and difficult. We may get the sense that we have never had such a strong emotional life, and until we get used to this new awareness of our previously subtle or unacknowledged feelings, this stage can seem overwhelming.

Occasionally, people at this stage can also have what appears to be a full psychotic break, or what is often called a nervous breakdown, though if these are truly a side effect of insight practices, they should pass quickly. The main key here is to continue to acknowledge and accept the content but also to see the true nature of the sensations that make up these natural phenomena. This can be extremely hard to do, especially if people have chanced upon this stage without the benefit of the support and guidance of a well-developed insight tradition and qualified teachers who can easily recognize and navigate this territory.

Even for those who do get into this in a well-developed tradition, unrealistic spiritual ideals can really screw up practice. In your idealized spiritual world, you imagine you aren’t supposed to be insanely frustrated, on edge, shuddering from some strange wrongness you can’t figure out, because you are a meditator, you are practicing something good, and so you shouldn’t feel this way, or at least so the traditions might seem to tell us. However, this is exactly where your practice led you at some point, where it took you, what is really going on, because you have entered aspects of the human psyche you wished would just go away and you wouldn’t have to deal with. Go into them, but with wisdom, with clear morality, with some sense that you can go there and be okay, with some control of what you think, say, and do.

The classic arc of the hero’s journey, where at some point they must enter the underworld, mirrors this part of the path. Part of the flip side of the next stage involves going there, being honest, dealing with an utterly “un-spiritual” way of being that might not fit your ideals at all. Keep a lid on the bleed-through, but internally be willing to be emotionally honest, and keep investigating. This is an acquired taste and getting comfortable doing this is not easy for most people. Still, it is a great skill to learn.

Those who do not know what to do with this stage or who are overwhelmed by the mind states can get so swept away in the content that they begin to lose it. This is the far extreme of what can happen in this stage. Fear is frightening, Misery is miserable, and seemingly psychotic episodes are confusing and destabilizing. In the face of such miserable experiences, we may swing to the opposite extreme, clinging desperately to grandiose or narcissistic images of ourselves. These reactions can easily perpetuate themselves, and this can become a blatantly destructive mental habit if people persist in wallowing in these dark emotions and their deep and unresolved issues for too long. It can be like cognitive restructuring from hell. Do not do this to yourself.

I should mention the problem with developing concentration, which you must have succeeded at to at least some degree at some point to get into this territory. Strong concentration is a generic force that may be used for good or ill. If you use strong concentration to write positive qualities on the mind, they will be written more strongly than if you didn’t have strong concentration. Likewise, if you have strong concentration and end up writing negative qualities on the mind, those will also be written more strongly than if you lacked strong concentration. That is the danger in this stage. Thus, the essential point is, if you ever develop strong concentration, you must be extremely careful with what you do with it. Part Six, specifically chapters fifty-eight to sixty-one, will go into more about this, but the basic lesson is straightforward.

Specifically, if you continue to be strongly identified with content, without perceiving its true nature, and your strongly concentrated mind dives down that pathway of focusing entirely on the story, particularly negative interpretations of the story without seeing those thoughts as thoughts, then the mind can spiral down and down into madness and despair, and more madness and despair can lead to a horrid feedback loop. I call this “dark jhana”: like the exact reverse of jhana. In skillful jhana, we skillfully use positive qualities to attract and stabilize attention, which then reinforces those positive qualities in a positive feedback loop. In dark jhana, we unskillfully reinforce horrible mind states by obsessing about horrible mind states from within horrible mind states while being freaked out by horrible mind states.

If you recognize dark jhana is happening, put the brakes on it right then with everything you have. Seize control. Refuse to lose that control. Find a way to get a grip on yourself. Splash cold water on your face. Eat grounding food. Exercise or take a walk in nature. Take a warm bath. Listen to soothing music. Sing. Dance. Play a video game. Watch a funny movie or funny cat videos on YouTube. Read the section in Part One where the Buddha talked about the removal of distracting thoughts and apply those instructions with full force: this is when they really come in handy. Stand with your legs planted firmly on the ground, your hands gripping something like a sink, countertop, or the back of a chair, and figure out where the actual problem is in your body and the space in which you stand. Note physical sensations of restlessness and irritation with precision and bravery.

Dark jhana sucks and should be avoided at all costs. Wire your brain in a positive way, not a negative way, and you will do much better. Go into that territory at a bare sensate level that remembers there is space and you will do much better. Go into it divorced from the senses and lost in the content, and badness will likely result.

When people mention “touching their own madness” on the spiritual path, they are often talking about this stage. This stage can make people feel claustrophobic and tight. If they push to make progress, they can feel that they are just getting more and more tightly wound and are about to snap. If they do nothing, they continue to suffer anyway.

The advice here: stick with the process but don’t force it. Pay attention to balancing effort and gentle acceptance. Remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Practicing in moderation as well as maintaining a long-term view can be helpful. Think of practice as a lifelong endeavor, but do just what you can each day. Stay present-oriented. Walks in nature or places with open, expansive views can help, as can exercise. Re-observation has the power to profoundly purify us, given sufficient commitment to just being willing to sit with it. Be clear, precise and accept all this despite the pain and anguish, both physical and mental, that it can bring.

If you are on retreat, let the teachers know what is going on immediately. Sit and walk according to the schedule. Apply the technique as prescribed every second, if humanly possible, and do not leave the retreat early! Remember: applying the technique means seeing everything arise naturally, without anything having to happen at all. This can really take the pressure off, a pressure that really doesn’t help in this stage. There is a way to keep practicing well that nevertheless drops the unskillful aspects of striving which are pulling you away from each moment. Other than just sticking to the schedule, not a lot needs to happen beyond what is already happening. Thus, and very critically, you can’t power this stage, but you can try to accept and synchronize with what is going on at a direct experiential level.

Again, if on retreat, try walking outside as opposed to inside if logistically possible. Reclining sometimes rather than sitting might help, but some will find the restless energy too much, in which case walking may help. It can seem counterintuitive to keep practicing when things feel so unproductive, unspiritual, unpleasant, and unbearable, but keeping at it in skillful ways builds the wiring that leads to the good stuff that comes in the next stage even if it feels like it is doing nothing good at all.

This stage is a profound opportunity to see clearly the pain of the dualistic aspect of our attachments, aversions, desires, hopes, fears, and ideals, as our awareness of all this has been amplified to an unprecedented level. At its best, it is very humanizing and very emotionally honest. This is the stage that makes possible the path of heroic effort, the diligent investigation of this moment based upon the powerful wish for awakening, because at this stage all the unskillful aspects of this wish are beaten out of the meditator with a force equal to the suffering caused by them. You can get very far on highly imbalanced and goal-oriented practice, and it can provide sufficient momentum and meditation skills so that, should you get your ass kicked at this stage, you continue making quick progress anyway, even when you drop off the imbalanced striving power and let the insight machine you have built coast somewhat on its own momentum.

Again, if meditators stop practicing entirely at this stage, they can get stuck and haunted for the rest of their lives until they complete this first progress of insight. Not moving forward with practice at this stage will deprive meditators of its primary benefits, such as the increased perceptual abilities that allowed them to get this much insight in the first place. They teeter on the brink of meditative greatness. Remembering this will help increase faith, and it can take a lot of that to get through this stage. Good teachers will help students develop faith in their own abilities to handle these stages, and to balance this with backing off if it truly gets to be too much.

To get through the Dark Night on your own power and to get to Equanimity is true meditative greatness. The next stage is fantastic and what comes after it is even more so. Thus, those who quit in these stages reduce their chances of ever getting beyond this stage, and the whole range of consequences, both physical and emotional, can remain long after the meditation skills have faded. Finding that balance, knowing what you can take and what you can’t, is as much art as science, with no perfectly clear guidelines that can be given. However, we strongly need to consider that quitting in these difficult stages increases the chances of doing it again the next time it happens, as the way we practice creates pathways in the brain that will be stronger next time. This pattern of bailing on practice in the tough stages can create “chronic Dark Nighters”, meditators who just don’t figure out how to move through this stage for a long time.

You would be surprised how many of these people are out there. Their failure to unstick themselves may be due to their own psychological makeup, poor instruction, belief that the spiritual life is all about bliss and wonderful emotions, belief in unrealistic and absurd models of spirituality that do not allow for the full range of the emotional and mental life, or chancing upon this stage outside the context of a well-developed insight tradition.

I was a chronic Dark Nighter for over ten years without having any idea what the hell was happening to me, so I can speak on this topic with some authority. Further, I have gone through numerous other Dark Nights at the higher stages of awakening and have come across the same issues again and again. Being stuck in the Dark Night can manifest as anything from chronic mild depression and free-floating anxiety to serious delusional paranoia and other classic mental illnesses, such as narcissism and delusions of grandeur (which I am sure you recognize at points in this book, parts that were likely written in this phase). Dark Nighters may act with a disarming mixture of dedicated spirituality, social conscience, compassion, and reactive darkness.

I mentioned that the A&P could impart a bit of the inspirational, radical religious leader quality to those with such tendencies. For these same individuals, Re-observation can sometimes lend a bit of a paranoid, apocalyptic cult leader quality to them, a confused whirlwind of powerful inspiration and frantic desperation. Just because someone has borderline or antisocial personality disorder doesn’t mean they can’t make progress in insight, and when they hit these stages it can get wild. In fact, this basic pattern of the A&P happening to a psychopath leading to a cult-following and then mass-suicidal crash when they inevitably hit Re-observation is seen again and again in history and is perfectly explanatory of this otherwise perplexing phenomenon. Same goes for suicide bombers and militant recent converts in general.

We may all have our own neurotic tendencies that come out when we are under stress, but if you feel that you are really losing it, get help, particularly from those who know this territory firsthand and are willing to talk honestly about it. Don’t be a macho meditator, go it alone, or get stuck; and don’t imagine that spiritual practice can’t cause some wild and sometimes extremely unpleasant side effects. One of the best things about working with thoroughly qualified and realized insight meditation teachers before we get into trouble is that they will have some idea of our baseline level of sanity and balance and thus know what our capacity is and what we can manage.

That said, I suspect that both the mushroom factor and the dharma culture of jet-set teachers popping in and out of our lives with little chance for students to have meaningful contact with them off-retreat contributes to the significant number of Dark Nighters out there. I suspect that there are fewer problems with chronic Dark Nighters in traditions in which the maps outlining what can happen are well-known and in which there are teachers who are accessible and honest about their humanity and the varied landscapes of the spiritual terrain. Naming and normalizing these stages can be profoundly empowering to those going through them in order to find and master their own meditative power.

On the other hand, genuine mental illness or unrelated emotional or psychological difficulties can show up in people’s lives. Blaming it all on the Dark Night may not always be accurate or helpful, though if you have recently crossed the A&P but have not completed an insight cycle or gotten into the next stage (Equanimity), there is going to be some Dark Night component mixed in with whatever else is going on.

Meditation traditions tend to attract what can seem like more than their fair share of the spiritual, emotional, and psychological equivalents of the walking wounded. Sorting out what’s what can sometimes get murky and may require the help of both those who know this insight territory and those who deal with ordinary mental illness and the emotional and psychological difficulties unique to the culture in which practitioners were raised. The best guide would be familiar with both realms. I have an awakened friend who has found it very useful to take medication to treat his very real bipolar disorder. There is something very down-to-earth and realistic about that. These practices won’t save us from our biology. They merely reveal something in the relationship to it.

On the other hand, there are those of us who are so deeply indoctrinated by the models of “working through” our “dark stuff” that whenever it comes up we turn to psychotherapy or a whole host of other ways of getting our issues to “resolve” or go away. This view implies false solidity and an exaggerated importance being given to these things, making it very hard to see the true nature of the sensations that make them up. The trap here is that we turn a basic crisis of fundamental identity into a witch hunt for the specific parts of our lives we imagine are to blame for our feeling such dissatisfaction with our basic experience. If someone has gotten to this level of practice, no amount of tinkering with the circumstances or issues in their life will ever solve the core perceptual issue.

That doesn’t mean that some of the dissatisfaction with specific aspects of our lives are not valid—quite often it is. However, these relative issues get conflated with a far deeper issue, that of what we really are and are not, and until this cycle of insight has been completed, this conflation tends to cause us to greatly exaggerate our criticisms of those things in our lives that could actually stand improvement and work. Learning this lesson can be very hard for some people, and the dark irony is that we may wreck our relationships, careers, and finances, as well as emotional and physical health, trying to get away from our own high level of insight into the true nature of reality.

It can also make us have strong reactions to our meditation teachers and dharma friends, either being very dissatisfied with them, or demanding that they somehow save us, or more likely, both. Until we are willing to work on a more direct, sensate level, there is no limit to the amount of angst and negativity we can project onto our world. I have seen this play out again and again in myself and in the lives of my dharma companions—the strange volatility that can be created by Dark Night–amplified reactive attachment disorders. It can be a very ugly business.

My advice: if careful analysis of your insight practice leads you to the conclusion that you are in Re-observation, resolve that you will not wreck your life through excessive negativity. Resolve this repeatedly and intensely. Follow your heart as best you can, but try to spare yourself and the world from as much needless pain as possible. Through sheer force of will, and with the assistance of whatever skillful supports you can connect with, keep it together until you are willing to face your sensate world directly and without anesthesia or armor. I have seen what happens when people do otherwise, and have concluded that, in general, things go badly when people do not follow this advice, though some unexpected good, in the form of learning the hard way, can and does come from such situations.

The framework of the three trainings and the three types of suffering that are found within each of their scopes can be helpful here as well. Since most of us are generally not used to facing fundamental identity crises, which is the basic issue in Re-observation, we are not familiar with the misery of fundamental suffering. Being unfamiliar with that misery, we are likely to conclude that it is produced by the specifics of our ordinary world and personal circumstances. However, if we have gotten to Re-observation, that is, if we have found these techniques to be effective, we need to have faith that the remaining advice may be of value to fulfill this part of the experiment. If we are in Re-observation, the task that confronts us is to tease out the fundamental suffering we now know all too well from the specific problems of our lives in an ordinary sense. Remember the five spiritual faculties? Remember balancing faith and wisdom? This is one phase of practice when you get to see what that truly means, as it will test both.

This advice to at least partially decouple our felt sense of suffering from our ordinary circumstances may sound dangerous, heartless, or bizarre to some people. It is a valid criticism. In an ideal world, we would not have to go around second-guessing ourselves and the sources of our misery in the specific way that I advocate here. In an ideal world, we would really have our psychological trip together, be able to stay with the practice during these stages, and thus cross quickly through the Dark Night and finish this practice cycle. It can be done.

We are not always ideal practitioners, and thus the Dark Night often causes the problems mentioned previously that need to be addressed. My solutions to what happens when we cannot or will not do insight practices in the face of the Dark Night are also not ideal. However, the outcomes are likely to be much healthier in the short and long term than those that come from simply allowing unrestrained Dark Night bleed-through, which often occurs in the absence of solid and sufficient training in morality. Strangely, I have concluded that simply practicing is often much easier than trying to stop Dark Night bleed-through if we are willing to just try it, though it can often seem otherwise. The old kindergarten evaluation, “Follows instructions, plays well with others,” is still a valuable standard in the Dark Night.

While in the Dark Night, not restraining negativity and reactivity that issue from our thoughts, speech, and physical actions is a bit like getting stinking drunk and then driving in heavy traffic rather than just sitting down and waiting to sober up. Not continuing to do insight practices in this stage is like going into surgery, getting an incision, getting the surgery, and then having the surgeon leave you with a large, open incision. Until you get that wound closed you are basically screwed, no matter how anyone might try to comfort you. In this case, you are both the surgeon and the patient. Face the wound and close it up! You have the necessary skills, as you have gotten this far. Use them. The procedure is almost done.

There are also those who try to investigate the true nature of their psychological demons and life issues but get so fixated on using insight to make them go away that they fail to hold these things in perspective. This subtle but common corruption of insight practices turns practice into another form of aversion, escape, or denial rather than a path to awakening. Drawing from the agendas of mostly psychology and confused morality, in which there is concern for the specific thoughts and feelings that make up our experience, we fail to make progress in insight, whose agenda is simply to see the true nature of all sensations as they are. Both are important, but it is a question of timing.

I have concluded that, with very rare and fleeting exceptions, ninety-five percent of the sensations that make up our experience are really no problem at all, even in the difficult stages, but seeing this clearly is not always easy. When we fixate on very painful or very pleasant sensations, we can easily miss the fact that most of our reality is likely made up of sensations that are no big deal, and thus we miss many great opportunities for easy insights. Further, the Dark Night can bring up all sorts of unfamiliar feelings that we have experienced rarely if ever with such clarity or intensity. This has the effect of busting attempts at spiritual bypassing, as the Dark Night is basically the exact opposite of spiritual bypassing. We are in it, deep into it, facing our darkest and most challenging stuff. However, until we get used to these feelings, they can frighten us and make us reactive because of our lack of familiarity with them, even if they are not actually that strongly unpleasant at a sensate level. 

What compounds our misery is the mental content we tend to kick up in response to sensations. Often the stories we make up and then tell ourselves, about why these difficulties are happening and what it all means, exacerbate the problem they were intended to solve. There are multiple ways to reframe the meaning of these occurrences that might make them more bearable and point to solutions that are more likely to work, particularly learning to reframe them in terms of these insight maps (and the three characteristics), which is why they can be so valuable. It is not that the insight maps are the be-all and end-all of meaning, as they obviously aren’t. However, focusing entirely on the psychological end of our work without also focusing on the underlying insight process is a common trap that typically doesn’t go as well as the dual approach that keeps making progress on the insight front also. [Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, may shed light on some of the skillful and therapeutic uses of meaning as we confront these challenging insight stages.]

I highly recommend using physical sensations as the objects of inquiry during the Dark Night whenever possible, such as those of the breath, with particular attention to the fact that these sensations occur in space. Diving into emotional content, even with the intention of investigating it, can sometimes be a very hard way to go. Remember, whether we gain insight through investigating physical or mental objects is completely irrelevant. Insight is insight. Whenever possible choose objects for investigation by which you won’t easily get caught. The best thing about reality, particularly in the Dark Night, is that you only have to deal with one little flickering sensation in space at a time. Staying on that level when doing insight practices is an unusually good idea. Pay attention to what is right in front of you, but keep your attention open.

Using physical object allows you to investigate how much physical pain you are actually in. Does reality seem totally horrible? Notice how much of it is actually excruciatingly painful. If it is not that painful, why do you think it’s horrible? Investigate that carefully in your body, so as to notice exactly where the pain is and also exactly where it is not. Open your eyes and notice the space you are sitting in. Are you in a safe place? No gunfire nearby? Have enough to eat? Decent water? Immediate threat to life or limb? If not, is that much fussiness, reactivity, and drama really necessary? Probably not. Sink into that down-to-earth, common-sense understanding, and basic, practical wisdom. Do some solid reality testing. Notice exactly what volume of space is really a problem and exactly how much of it is not. You will very likely find that the majority is not, and somehow your mind had forgotten that much if not most of it is okay and perhaps even pretty good or interesting. Then get back to a detailed but open, wide, all-embracing, moment-to-moment sensate investigation.

Scary stuff said, there are people who breeze straight from the Arising and Passing Away through the whole of the Dark Night in as little as a few easy minutes or hours and hardly notice it at all, so don’t let my descriptions of what can happen script you into imagining that the Dark Night has to be a major suffering event. It absolutely does not. These descriptions of what can occur are merely there to help those who do encounter these sorts of problems to realize that these things do occur, and can be skillfully addressed. There is no medal awarded for having a tough time in the Dark Night or for staying in it for longer than necessary, much to my dismay.

At my best and on retreat, I have gotten through Dark Night territory in as little as about a day and a half. Bill Hamilton said one Dark Night took him about seven minutes, which is really fast, but it means it can be done. I have had Dark Night phases that were no worse than the general stress I encounter in daily life in ordinary situations. That said, off-retreat I have had Dark Night phases hit hard for months, those being before I knew anything about what they were or how to deal with them. Contextualization, explanation, normalization, and the empowerment that comes with knowledge and well-applied time-tested techniques make a huge difference, as I have noticed by doing the experiment myself many, many times, and as many others have reported.

One of the more bizarre potholes we can fall into in the Dark Night is to become fascinated by and identified with the role of The Great Spiritual Basket Case. “I am so spiritual that my life is a nonstop catastrophe of uncontrollable insights, disabling and freakish raptures, and constant emotional crises of the most histrionic nature. My spiritual abilities are proven and verified by what a consummate mess I am making of my life. How brave and dedicated I must be to screw up my life in this way. Oh, what a glorious, holy, special, and saintly wreck I am!” Both my sympathy and intolerance for those caught in this trap are directly related to the amount of time I have spent in that trap being just like them. While we should not try to pretend that the Dark Night hasn’t made us a basket case, if it has done so, neither should we revel in or wallow in being a basket case, nor use the Dark Night as an excuse for not being as kind and optimally functional members of society as we can possibly be.

Try to navigate the Dark Night with panache, dignity, self-respect, decency, gentleness, poise, and if possible, a sense of humor, which often seems to be the first thing to be sacrificed at its bloody altar. Even a cutting, cynical, and dark sense of humor about your current experience would be better than none at all, but avoid hurting people with it. Feel free to use humor on yourself as much as you wish. Remember to balance all that with some honest humanity. It is actually possible to have fun with the Dark Night, just like it can be fun to go on a scary roller coaster or see a scary movie, like the alleviating feeling of a really good cry, like the weird thrill that comes from primal scream therapy. Remember that. 

Additionally, the practice of remembering the good, true, and beautiful aspects of the world, and the myriad kindnesses shown you and others by you and others—to literally stop and smell the roses—can help a lot to regain perspective. My roses are actually blooming nicely as I write this, with their beautiful fragrance wafting through the open window. This advice is likely to ring cheesy to one in the Dark Night, but remember this and you will do better.

Speaking of doing better, and getting away from the crazy and back to the vipassana, I should mention something about the micro-phenomenology that I really care about, that makes insight practice more than just psychology. The patterns happening from a sensate point of view in Re-observation are the pinnacle of the third vipassana jhana and, because of this, have the following qualities: first, they are very broad—very around the “back”, very on the periphery of attention. That is where attention is naturally very strong in this phase, so go with that first, as it is easier. Allowing attention to be its natural fluxing shape will make this work a lot better than trying to go narrow and forcing things—that would be using a first vipassana jhana coping strategy at a stage in which it isn’t likely to work well.

Second, the frequencies of pulses are chaotic and fast. We are getting into more sophisticated forms of more inclusive attention that are starting to broaden enough to include many diverse, irregular, erratic, intricate aspects of reality. Go for that attention-wise, meaning go into frequencies of the oscillation of the sensations that appear to be subject and object that are really fast and harmonically irritating, instead of regular and predictable. We are talking at least ten to eighteen pulses of sensations per second, if not a lot more. While noting can help if we are getting run over in this stage, if we can get it together to go into the broad vibrational complexity directly, we can learn to draw on the remarkable discerning power of our minds. We can notice how fast reality is arising, and, as reality and comprehension are the same thing in their essence, we can notice that comprehension, and thus contemplation, can go this fast. It takes an elegant letting go of control and an embracing of that to get what Re-observation is trying to teach you.

Do not try to power through this: that’s first vipassana jhana. Do not try to go for really tight, narrow, fine, tingly frequencies that are all about a center of attention and not about background: that is second vipassana jhana. Re-observation comes at the peak of the third vipassana jhana: it is broad, rich, chaotic, and about the “background” and issues of synchrony and asychrony. “Background” here means those things we typically think of as on “this side”, as well as those sensations that tend to frame objects in the center of attention, as well as just those sensations that are more in the direction of “us”.

The fourth jhana will put it all together later, so here, you just need to learn the third jhana piece well. The first jhana’s linear, controlling, effortful attention paradigm can’t go that fast, but reality can, and reality is attention itself, so just embrace that. You need to let reality start learning to recognize that it is already recognizing itself. That’s the only way the mind can realize the massive processing power it already actually has and embrace a vast and complex world of sensate experience that the limited, linear mind cannot possibly track in all its richness and intricacy.

This is vipassana. Notice that every little background sensation already is its own comprehension, where it is, as it arose and vanished, and that trying to pretend to be a little point in space observing and controlling all that sensate complexity is absurd and just causes suffering: that is the lesson here. That is the three characteristics, and the three characteristics are the key in this stage, as with all the others. Do not get all caught up in my psychological descriptions, they are there to help only if you get thrown totally off your vipassana game. As soon as you get back on your game even a little bit, get back to noticing all this come and go on its own, naturally, effortlessly, at a basic, fast, sensate level. This is the most important paragraph of this whole section.

One way or another, when we finally give up and rest in what is happening without trying to alter it or stabilize it, when we can accept our actual humanity as well as be clear about the three characteristics of naturally flowing mental and physical phenomena, there arises … [Equanimity]


Caption: These are a series of very general sketches of some typical qualities of the stages of insight (ñanas). Note well: there may be some individual variation depending on all sorts of factors, including individual proclivities, levels of concentration, physical and mental health, technique, dose of practice, setting, and a whole host of other factors. Thus, take these as very general guidelines, not as hard and fixed rules. There is a Vimeo Video explaining them here. (Image and caption credit: Daniel Ingram; image taken from here).