Of potential interest to readers: here’s part of an email exchange I recently had with Scott Alexander about Rhythms of the Brain by György Buzsáki, a book I recommended he read to learn more about the neuroscience of brainwaves. This is an essay he published about it; I had a chance to read a pre-publication draft to check whether he was describing the science and my positions accurately. This is part of my feedback on the draft (lightly edited for clarity and consistent formatting):
Andrés – Oct/13/2022
First of all, thank you again for writing a review of Rhythms Of The Brain. As I mentioned, I think your review is spot-on. It’s already really great as it is. But I think the following pieces of information might help you answer some of the questions you pose and enrich the mental model you have about brainwaves. I should also mention that I’m still learning a lot on the topic from a number of angles and my model still has quite a few moving parts.
Without further ado, here are 5 key points I’d like to share:
(1) I think that Susan Pockett‘s Consciousness Is a Thing, Not a Process (link to PDF) is very relevant here. She argues based on neurophysiological and behavioral evidence that conscious perception only happens when Local Field Potentials (LFPs) are generated. The timing, functional correlates, and location of events of conscious perception of sensory stimuli seem to agree with this (pgs. 4-5):
Here’s how I think about this:
Have you wondered why brainwaves track levels of wakefulness? See, in principle you can have a great deal of neural activity without any brainwaves. Raster plots of spike neural networks could in principle look like white noise… which in turn would generate no brainwaves at all because the oscillations in the electric field would cancel each other out at the macroscopic level. Recall that perfectly compressed information is indistinguishable from noise. So, in principle, an optimal use of the state-space of neural activity would look totally like white noise and lack brainwaves.
Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.
The “LFPs as mediators of consciousness” story has a lot going for it. In particular, it is quite elegant in how it can help us make sense of our phenomenological relation to our brain and nervous system. Brainwaves and LFPs are be highly correlated. Coherent neural activity causes LFPs, which in turn mediate/bias activity in neurons, with a causal structure like this:
If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there. But at the same time, we need the coherent neural activity to be booted up. So we are sort of “riding the brain” while the brain is giving us our foundation. Perhaps this gives us another angle to think about the “elephant taming” metaphor for the progression of the meditative path:
(3) The work of Stephen Grossberg (Adaptive Resonant Theory, and more recently his book Conscious Mind, Resonant Brain) as well as that of his student Steven Lehar, have macroscopic resonance as a key computational step. Arguably this is something you can simulate with classical neural networks. But using the EM field would potentially produce a significant computational speedup. Talking to Lehar, he used an interesting analogy, where in which he described “neurons spiking as a kind of sand blasting of the electric field” in order to activate internal representations. Recent research seems to confirm that the information content of internal representations is better captured by the structure of the electric field than by the neurons that sustain it (“Neurons are fickle. Electric fields are more reliable for information.“).
NOTE: One of the contributions to the conversation that QRI is aiming to make (essentially by publishing in academia what’s already discussed in our website) is that while these field theories of consciousness do address the binding problem, they now have to contend with the boundary problem. Our solution is “topological segmentation”, which itself comes with empirically testable predictions. Topological pockets allow for holistic field behavior *and* for solving the boundary problem at the same time, finally rendering bound consciousness both causally efficacious and objectively bounded. [In your essay] you could point out that I claim that resonance is necessary but not sufficient to solve the phenomenal binding problem. So even if AIs were using brainwaves, that might not be enough for them to be conscious, though it would go in the right direction. More on this on our website soonish.
(4) I think that we can use the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) to explain the hedonic properties of different network topologies. This would be responsible for the “intrinsic valence” of a given brain region. You write:
> Why this combination of tasks? Rhythms sort of suggests that brain areas are less about specific tasks than about specific graph-theoretic arrangements, which are convenient for specific algorithms, which are convenient for specific tasks.
Yes! This is a great way of putting it. I think that having diverse network topologies available is one of the key ingredients of a general intelligence like ours. A learning algorithm that patches together the right sections to produce the right kind of structure for internal representations with holistic properties seems like a natural way to construct a mind. More so, some of these patches will cause dysphoric waves and others euphoric waves. The dysphoric parts of the brain, if STV is in the right direction, would have a network topology that work as a sort of frustration generator. The waves generated by these parts sort of “hate themselves”: activating them causes internal dissonance and stress that is then radiated out as waves with unfriendly ADSR envelopes to the rest of the brain. In contrast, the euphoric parts would produce highly aligned waves with soft ADSR envelopes and the right level of impedance matching to harmonize with other wave generators.
(5) Merging with God as a kind of global coherence:
> Andres suggests all of this is a good match for oscillatory coupling between brain regions.
Perhaps add something akin to “which according to him ‘dissolves internal boundaries'”
> Andres thinks this is part of what’s behind “spiritual” or “mystical” experiences, where you suddenly feel like you’ve lost the boundaries of yourself and are at one with God and Nature and Everything.
My strongest phenomenological evidence here is the difference between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT (video): competing clusters of coherence feel like “a lot of entities in an ecosystem of patterns” whereas global coherence feels like “union with God, Everything, and Everyone”. Hence the terms “spirit molecule” for DMT and “God molecule” for 5-MeO-DMT. The effect size of this difference is extremely large and reliable. I’ve yet to find someone who has experience with both substances who doesn’t immediately agree with this characterization. [This can be empirically tested] by blinding whether one takes DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and then reporting on the valence characteristics, “competing vs. global” coherence characteristics, and on whether one gets a patchwork of entities or one feels like one is merging with the universe.
With classic psychedelics, which stand somewhere between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT in their level of global coherence, you always go through an annealing process before finally “snapping” into global coherence and “becoming one with God”. That coherence is the signature of these mystical experiences becomes rather self-evident once you pay attention to annealing signatures (i.e. noticing how incompatible metronomes slowly start synchronizing and forming larger and larger structures until one megastructure swallows it all and dissolves the self-other boundary in the process of doing so).
You will not find academic publications describing this process (because their psychological scales are not detailed enough, aren’t focused on structure, and aren’t informed by actual practice). Nor will you find psychonauts talking much about this, because they tend to focus on the semantic content of the experience rather than on the phenomenal texture [see our guide]. Naturally, one is typically socially rewarded for providing an entertaining story about one’s trip… not a detailed *technical* report of phenomenal texture. Therefore, right now you’ll only find QRI content explaining all of this. But I’m fairly confident about this after talking to very experienced. So I think this will significantly shape the conversation in a couple of years once we start getting some consensus on it.
I could share much more, but I have to restrain myself (taming the elephant!). Let me know if you need anything else.
Scott – Oct/13/2022
Thanks. […] two questions:
> Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.
Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)? Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?
> If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there.
Confused by this too. My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model? Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?
> Thanks […] two questions:
(I’ll answer your questions in a different order than how you asked them, on the basis that my answer to the first one is much more weird and less credible… In other words, I’m answering more or less in order of how weird my responses are so that you are not put off by my first answers. This way you can choose when to stop reading without missing anything useful for your essay):
> My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model?
I think that “brainwaves can be explained as emergent patterns of a cellular automata” is a very good starting model, and it has a lot of explanatory power. But there are empirical and experiential facts that would go against it as a complete explanation. And perhaps, it misses the most important hint for a theory of consciousness that satisfies all of the necessary criteria I consider such a theory must satisfy. And that is, that binding has non-trivial computational effects. I.e. At some level, patterns of organization exert “weak downward causation” on the substrate that gave rise to them. This does not mean there is “strong emergence” or that we’re going against the laws of physics. On the contrary, a key guiding principle for QRI is to be strict physicalists. The laws of physics are causally closed and complete (or at least as good as it gets; the Standard Model can be taken at face value for the time being, until something better comes along). Without violating physicalism, we nonetheless still see instances of weak downward causation in the physical world.
As an intuition, consider the fact that something like TMS can change neural activity. In fact, TMS, and especially rTMS, can cause seizures. This suggests that at a sufficiently high dose, EM oscillations can exert top-down influence on neuronal firing thresholds and phase coherence, and more so when they come in repetitive waves rather than pulses. In the case of LFPs, which are far more localized and less energetic, the influence isn’t huge. But it is there. As far as I understand the neuroscience literature on LFPs (and ephatic coupling more generally), the fact that LFPs change firing thresholds is uncontroversial. The question is “by how much”. Most studies find small effects (otoh between 1% and 20% of the variance, but I can look up more precise and recent figures – e.g. see: Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons).
The more interesting and perhaps significant effect that LFPs have is to change the degree of coherence between neurons. In other words, they may not change much their probability of firing, but do change a lot their probability of firing in phase. You can see how this would lead to interesting self-reinforcing effects. Namely, if neural coherence causes LFPs, and LFPs increase neural coherence, there might be attractors of hypercoherent neural firings coupled with strong and very orderly LFPs. I believe this explains the Jhanas.
Now, can’t you just expand your cellular automata to include LFPs and call it a day? Well, yes, in a theoretical but rather impractical sense. Building a cellular automata that simulates a simple neural network is easy. Building one that simulates water is more tricky. By the time you are constructing cellular automata to simulate EM fields you get into trouble. It’s possible, but you need all sorts of tricks, shortcuts, and handling complex edge cases (e.g. topological segmentation!). Can you construct a cellular automata that simulates physics? Quantum mechanics proper? Yes… if you are Wolfram. But recall that his explorations invoke cellular automata with unusual mathematical primitives. We are no longer in the territory of simple grid-like graphs. We are in Ruliad-space, with hypergraphs and exotic rulesets. Quantum coherent states behave in a very holistic fashion (where the “next step” is the result of solving Shrödinger’s equation in configuration space). So while it’s possible to use cellular automata to think of physics at this level, it isn’t a very natural choice. Rather, I posit that thinking of it in terms of universal principles like energy minimization, extremas, and the preservation of zero information is what takes us closer to the phenomenon at hand. These principles are, by their very nature, holistic. An electron, as Feynman would put it, can sort of “smell its surroundings” to decide where to go. It somehow explores all possibilities at once and “chooses” the one that balances the minimization of energy and maximization of entropy. A truly holistic sort of phenomenon.
I think that if at that point one uses a cellular automata to represent this, one has actually reintroduced the very thing the cellular automata conceptual framework was trying to avoid. And that is, the computational power of holism. This is because even though the Ruliad that simulates physics is in some way a cellular automata, the ruleset itself requires a kind of God-like capacity to integrate pieces of information and “see all at once” entire regions of the (hyper)graph and decide what to do next. My claim is that at this point one has “pushed” the undesired holism to the ruleset in order to avoid seeing it directly. It’s a reductionist sleight of hand.
Now, I’m not saying consciousness is quantum mechanical. What I’m pointing out is that EM waves are sort of in the spectrum between simple cellular automatas and QM, where the waves interacting with one another have all kinds of peculiar holistic effects. Binding, if it involves EM waves, turns out to be computationally non-trivial.
In this model, the brain is physically providing a soil that can instantiate EM waves with many different kinds of properties. Some behave linearly, some non-linearly. And together, they give rise to the vast zoo of possible internal representations, many kinds of binding, topologies, and dynamics we experience (such as the strangeness of “fire meditation“).
> Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?
You can’t voluntarily shut down your brain with conscious control. At least not immediately. But you can direct your attention to two parts of your experience at once, and the resonances in those two regions will slowly but surely begin to synchronize. In other words, from an EE point of view, spreading your attention over a given region of your experience increases the impedance matching between the metronomes in those regions. This, I think, is the influence of LFPs (or similar) on neural activity. This may be subtle, but over enough time and neural rewiring, the process can lead to very interesting effects. Hyperconcentrated states of consciousness, starting with access concentration all the way to single-pointed attention and ultimately to the formless Jhanas are obtained through mental moves that slowly by surely “unify the mind” (i.e. brings coherence between disparate metronomes in the nervous system). This is “us” learning to influence “our brain”.
> Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)?
Two quick things here. The first is that we think brainwaves (macroscopic oscillations in the EM field more generally) are necessary but not sufficient for consciousness. They still need to form a topological pocket, or they will remain unclosed eddies that cannot contain information nor maintain a boundary with their surroundings. The second is that the main point is that the brainwaves track the texture of degrees of wakefulness. More so, it’s not just the spectral power distribution, but also the patterns of spatiotemporal cross-frequency coherence. Thus, two states might look the same in terms of their spectrum, but carry significantly different internal textures since one of them has a high degree of, say, gamma coherence and the other doesn’t.
> Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?
One of the key insights from Stevan Lehar is that using a dynamic, smooth, spatial medium of representation allows us to run spatial algorithms on our representations. One example is the incredibly general reverse grassfire & reverse shock schaffold algorithms that explain a wide range of visual illusions (discussed in The Constructive Aspect of Visual Perception / as well as in his magnum opus video Harmonic Gestalt). Based on the fact that these algorithms generalize to things like breakthrough level DMT experiences and that they apply to hyperdimensional phenomenal objects and their resonant modes, I’m fairly convinced that the local cellular automata view doesn’t explain the facts. The structures that exist in those states follow law-like energy minimization properties reminiscent of fluid dynamics in higher dimensions. To me they seem to necessitate something like Maxwell’s equations; a cellular automaton would need a lot of training and fine-tuning to be able to instantly generate those dynamics right and seamlessly. Combine this with the (not fully verified but tentative) observation that DMT states are phenomenologically similar to those induced by high-dose Fire Kasina. I believe that the mechanism is actually fairly simple: both methods energize the visual field to the point where it transitions from a linear and partially linear state into a fully nonlinear regime. The phenomenon is better seen as what happens when you energize a non-linear optical computer than, say, the effect of changing the ruleset of a cellular automaton.
I know this lacks credibility for the time being […]. I aim to identify crisp and experimentally verifiable demonstrations of this that trained physicists and neuroscientists can both agree on.
In the long-term, I expect humans to figure out ways to use high-energy states of consciousness to tap into the EM field as a computational substrate. Not only will this entail a revolution in consciousness, but also, interestingly, in how we think of computation. The Turing Paradigm will turn out to be a tiny special case of… qualia computing.
Alright, I hope that wasn’t too much, haha.
Thank you again, and happy to answer more questions.
I recently did a podcast with Leigh Brasington (author of Right Concentration) and Wystan Bryant-Scott where we discussed a model for Jhanas in terms of neural annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and the feedback loop between neural coherence and LFPs.
New discoveries? Nothing dramatic. I dutifully flip through Nature each week; wade through turgid tomes of analytic philosophy; and scan Medline abstracts. A lot of the time my heart isn’t in it. Compared to an item from Dr Shulgin‘s library, the illumination can seem trivial. I very much doubt if people who have tried major psychedelics are any smarter on average than the drug-naïve; in fact psychonauts may be cognitively overwhelmed or (rarely) even brain-damaged by their experiences. To complicate comparisons further, many altered states are dross – just like innumerable textures of everyday life. But by opening up a Pandora’s box of new phenomena, psychedelics do confer an immensely richer evidential base for any theory of mind and the world – an evidential base too rich, indeed, for our existing primitive terms, language and conceptual equipment to handle. One compares the laments of physicists starved of new empirical data to test their theories beyond the low-energy Standard Model with the fate of the psychedelic investigator. For in contrast the aspiring psychonaut may be forced to abandon the empirical method, not because he exhausts the range of novel phenomenology it delivers, but because the Darwinian mind can neither cope with LSD / ketamine / salvia / DMT‘s (etc) weirdness, nor weave the novel modes of sentience disclosed into an integrated world-picture.
Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #1
Of course, claims of epochal significance cut no ice with the drug-naïve. Those innocent of drug-induced exotica see no more need to enhance their evidential base than did the cardinals (apocryphally) invited to look through Galileo‘s telescope. An a priori refusal to acknowledge the potential significance of alien modes of sentience is impossible to overcome in subjects whose experience of altered states is confined to getting drunk. Over time, even my own knowledge of these bizarre realms is fading. My ancestral namesake was briefly awoken from his dogmatic slumbers; but DP version-2008 has rejoined the ranks of the living dead in the ghetto of consensus reality.
Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #2
My assimilation isn’t yet complete. Even as a born-again sleepwalker, I sometimes wonder if there may be a first-person method alternative to drug-based investigations that can unlock novel phenomenology latent within excitable nervous tissue. There is a crying need for alternative avenues, I think, since drug-driven self-assays are for the most part not merely unlawful and taboo, but arguably can’t be practised responsibly until the substrates of well-being are guaranteed in a (hypothetical) post-Darwinian era of genetically pre-programmed bliss. I’ve thought about alternatives to using psychoactive drugs, not least because of the shallowness of my own current research compared to the richness of the empirical methodology pioneered by Dr Shulgin. In order to discover both the formal, mathematico-physical and the intrinsic, subjective properties of the world, a dual methodology of third- and first-person research is indispensable. The former can be abdicated to the physical sciences; but not the latter. Natural science offers no explanation of why we’re not zombies, an unfortunate anomaly if consciousness is fundamental both to our understanding of the world and the world itself. By forswearing the empirical method, we effectively guarantee that the mysteries of consciousness will never be solved. Whereas insentience is, so to speak, all of a piece – hypothetical “zombies” in the philosophical sense of the term are all exactly alike in being non-conscious – there are innumerable ways to be sentient: qualia are fantastically diverse in ways we’ve scarcely begun to map out. So I reckon the only way adequately to understand Reality will be both to capture its formal structure – ideally the master equation of the TOE of the Multiverse – and literally to incorporate ever more of the stuff of the world into one’s expanding psyche to explore the state-space of its textures – the “what-it’s-likeness”. Only incorporation and systematic molecular permutation can disclose the subjective features of all permutations of matter and energy: the solutions, I conjecture, to the equations of the TOE. A priori, one could never have guessed that cells of the striate cortex mediate visual experience and cells in the posterior parietal cortex mediate auditory experience, quite irrespective of their typical functional role in the sensory systems of naturally evolved organisms. We know about such phenomena – and full-blown phenomenal sunsets and symphonies – only because we instantiate the neuronal cell-assembles that embody such qualia. Thus to discover novel categories of experience, I think we should construct and personally instantiate genetically enhanced designer brain cells, systematically altering their intracellular amino acid sequences and gene expression profiles to design/discover new categories of experience as different as is sight from sound, making them part of one’s own psyche/virtual world. Or if this incorporation sounds too irreversible, perhaps we might splice in designer genes and allelic combinations for new modes of experience into subsets of our existing nerve cells, systematically coding new protein sequences into discrete areas of the brain and then selectively expressing the designer proteins they code for at will. Eventually, however, systematic manipulation of the molecular ingredients of one’s neural porridge/mind-dust can be harnessed to mind-expansion in the literal sense. This is because we need bigger mind/brains, not just to mirror external reality more effectively, but also to discover more of its subjective properties. Such discoveries can only be accomplished empirically.
New neuron types for new neurotypes.
I suppose what drives me here is reflection on just how (superficially) trivial are the neurochemical differences between nerve cells mediating, say, phenomenal colour and phenomenal sound – and indeed reflection on how (superficially) trivial are the molecular differences in the cells mediating the phenomenology of desire, volition and belief-episodes. How can such tiny molecular differences exert such dramatic subjective effects? LSD, for instance, is undetectable in the body three hours after consumption; and yet a few hundred micrograms of the serotonin 5-HT2A partial agonist can transport the subject into outlandish alternative virtual worlds for 10 hours or more. How many analogous, radically incommensurable kingdoms of experience, mediated by equally “trivial” molecular variations, await discovery? How will the uncharted state-spaces be systematically explored? What will be the nature of life/civilisation when these kingdoms of experience are spliced together in composite minds; recruited to play an information-bearing role; harnessed to new art forms and new lifestyles; and ultimately integrated into communities of composite minds in advanced civilisations? For sure, talk of discovering a “new category of experience” doesn’t sound a particularly exciting kind of knowledge when couched in the abstract, any more than discovery of a new brand of perfume. OK, it’s a new experience; but so what? [Andrés adds: so what!?] One might sacrifice a lot for the opportunity to experience a novel phenomenal colour; but what cognitive value should be ascribed to an unknown category of experience for which one hasn’t even a name? Initially at any rate, the novel modes of experience that we discover within a modified neural proteome won’t be harnessed to senses, either internal or external, let alone harnessed to whole conceptual schemes, cultures and novel languages of thought. So they won’t play any functional role in the mind/brain: they won’t be information-bearing. But then neither are visual or auditory experiences per se; they have no intrinsic connection to sensory perception. Dreams, for instance, can be vibrantly colourful; they don’t reliably track anything in the external world. Honed by natural selection after recruitment by awake living organisms to track mind-independent patterns, visual and auditory experience has taken millions of years to play out; and who knows where it will end. By the same token, the developmental potential of new modes of experience that we discover in tweaked neurons is equally unfathomable from here.
Every scent, every color, every touch sensation, every sound, every novel qualia…
I can understand the impatience of an exasperated sceptic. What interest have novel “tickles” of experience beyond the psychopathology of the subject? Analogously, conventional wisdom in an echolocation (etc)-based civilisation might scornfully ask a similar question if and when post-chiropteran psychonauts first access drug-induced speckles of colour or jarring shrieks or whistles of sound – or perhaps when investigators recklessly explore a new methodology of mind-expansion by incorporating alien nervous tissue into their psyche. The chiropteran consensus wisdom might account the new phenomena weird but trivial – and inexpressible in language to boot. So why should any sane chiropteran mind run the risk of messing itself up just to explore such psychotic states? For our part, human ignorance of what it’s like to be a bat isn’t too unsettling because we know that bats don’t have a rich conceptual scheme, culture or technology. We are “superior” to bats; and therefore their alien modes of experience aren’t especially important. We don’t even give our ignorance much thought.
What is it like to be a bat? An empirical neural tissue insertion protocol to explore nature’s very own echolocation qualia from the comfort of your own home…
But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own. I suspect that accessing the subjective lifeworlds of hitherto alien mind/brains will inaugurate a meta-Copernican Revolution to dwarf anything that’s come before. The textures of such alien minds are as much a natural property of matter and energy as the atomic mass of gold; and no less important to understanding the nature of the world. Needless to say, grandiose claims of new paradigms, meta-Copernican revolutions, etc, should usually be taken with a healthy grain of salt. I am loath to write such expressions, not least because I can imagine both the withering scorn of my hyper-rational but drug-naïve teenage namesake, and likewise the dismissive reaction of my drug-naïve contemporaries today. Such are the perils of a priori philosophizing practised by academic philosophers (and soi-disant scientists) unwilling to get their hands (or their minds) dirty with the empirical method. In each case, our ignorance of the intrinsic, subjective nature of configurations of most of the stuff of the world is fundamental. It’s an ignorance not remediable by simple application of the hypothetico-deductive method, falsificationism, Bayesianism or the usual methodologies of third-person science. If you want to find out what it’s like to be a bat, then you have to experience the phenomenology of echolocation. Knowledge-acquisition entails a hardware upgrade. A notional IQ of 200 won’t help without the neural wetware to go with it – any more than a congenitally deaf supergenius can hear music by virtuoso feats of reasoning alone.
But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own.
I guess one deterrent to investigation of altered and exotic states is the thought that the novel phenomena disclosed “aren’t Real” – as though the reality of any phenomenon depended on it being a copy or representation of something else external to itself. I wonder if I lived in a world of Mary-like superscientists – smart monochromats who see the world in black and white – whether I would dare put on “psychedelic” spectacles and hallucinate phenomenal colour? And could I communicate to my Mary-like superscientist colleagues the significance of what they were missing without sounding like a drug-deranged crank? Probably not.
Literally Expanding Our Mind To Overcome Our Fundamental Ignorance of Alien Modes of Experience
So I reckon that we should, literally, expand our minds. If we do, how far should incorporation go? The size of the human brain is limited by the human birth-canal, a constraint that technologies of extra-uterine pregnancy from conception to term will presumably shortly overcome. Over time, brains can become superbrains; and sentience can become supersentience. Ultimately, should we aspire to become God or merely gods? My (tentative) inclination is that we should all become One [Andrés adds: see David’s Quora response on the topic of Open Individualism]; and not merely out of deference to my New Age friends. Separateness from each other is an epistemic, not just an ethical, limitation: a source of profound ignorance. For we fundamentally misconstrue the nature of other sentient beings, misunderstanding each other as objects to which we fitfully attribute feelings rather than as pure subjects. [Actually, the story is more complicated. If inferential realism about perception is true, then the sceptic about Other Minds is right, in a sense: the phenomenal people encountered in one’s egocentric world-simulation arezombies. But when one is awake, the zombies serve as avatars that causally covary with sentient beings in one’s local environment. So the point stands.] Yes, literally fusing with other minds/virtual worlds sounds an unattractive (as well as infeasible) prospect for the foreseeable future; and not just because of their lousy organic avatars. For we certainly wouldn’t want to Become One with a bunch of ugly Darwinian minds; and likewise, they might get a nasty shock if they tasted one’s own. Infatuated lovers may want to fuse; rival alpha males certainly don’t [unless one eats a defeated opponent, a form of intimacy practised in some traditional cultures; but this is a very one-sided consummation of a relationship]. However, perhaps the prospect of unification will be more exciting if and when we become posthuman smart angels, so to speak: beautiful in every sense. I have no hidden agenda beyond my abolitionist propagandizing; but on current evidence it’s likely we belong to a family of Everett branches that will lead to god-like beings. And thence to God? I’m sceptical, but I don’t know.
Mindmelding with other Darwinian creaturesis kind of a bummer sometimes.
Divinity takes many forms. What kind of (demi)gods might we become? Superhappy beings, I reckon, yes, but superhappiness in what guise? A unitary Über-Mind, or fragmented minds as now? At one extreme of the continuum, posthumans may opt to live solipsistically in designer paradises: an era not just of personalized medicine but personalized VR. [Would I opt to dwell with a harem of several thousand houris and become Emperor Dave the First, Lord of The Universe? And supremely modest too. Yes, probably. I’m a Darwinian male.] Occupying the middle of the continuum is the superconnectivity of web-enabled minds (via neural implants, etc) without unitary experience or loss of personal identity. Such a scenario is a recognizable descendant of the status quo whereby we are all connected via the Net to everyone else. This sort of future is the most “obvious” since it’s an extrapolation of current trends. Extreme interconnectivity is still consistent with extensive ignorance of each other, although expansion and/or functional amplification of our mirror neurons could magnify our capacity for mutual empathetic understanding. Finally, at the other extreme of the continuum, there is presumably a more-or-less complete fusion of posthuman mind/brains into a unitary collective: a blissful analogue of the Borg, but contiguous rather than scattered: there is no evidence spatio-temporally disconnected beings have token-identical experiences. It’s hard enough to solve the binding problem in one mind/brain, let alone across discrete skulls.
Emperor Dave the First, Psychonaut Lord of The Universe, Bliss For All Creatures Under the Sun
I don’t know which if any of these three families of scenario is the most likely culmination of life in the Multiverse. Indeed it’s unclear whether the third scenario, i.e. a unitary experiential Supermind, is even technically feasible. For there is an upper limit to the size and duration of the conjectural “warm” quantum coherence needed for unitary sentience; it’s difficult enough to avoid ultra-rapid thermally-induced decoherence in even a single human mind/brain, let alone a hypothetical global super-mind/brain. Is there a way round this constraint? In spite of the well-worn dictum “black holes have no hair“, I used to play around with the idea that blissful superminds lived on the ultra-cool “surface” of supermassive black holes. All the information content of their interior and information content at the horizon is smeared out across the entire horizon, allowing unitary megaminds of maximum information density – and maximum intelligent bliss: what Seth Baum aptly calls “utilitronium”. This conjecture needs more work. But whether conscious mind is unitary or discrete, I suspect that posthuman modes of existence will be based, not on today’s ordinary waking consciousness, but on unimaginably different modes of sentience. In addition, I predict that these modes of sentience will be as different in intensity from ours as is a supernova from a glowworm. Thus any speculative story we may now be tempted to tell about what life may be like millions or billions of years hence will of necessity ignore a fundamental difference between future minds and us. Human futurology omits the key evolutionary transitions ahead in the nature of consciousness – not only the ethically all-important hedonic transition to superhappiness that I stress, but other modes of sentience currently unknown. The discontinuity promised by any future technological Singularity – or soft Singularities – derives not merely from an exponential growth of computer processing power, but from inconceivably different textures of sentience. Actually, I entertain many bizarre ideas. The art is taking them seriously enough to explore their implications and testable predictions, but sceptically enough not to be seduced into believing they are likely to be true. And what about the nearest I come to a dogmatic commitment? Could the abolitionist project turn out to be mistaken too? I guess so. Yet at least the abolition of suffering is not a phenomenon we will live to regret.
Three families of scenarios for the culmination of life in the Multiverse: #1 everyone kinda doing their own thing in their little virtual worlds. #2 hybrid hive minds of hypersocial connected individuals who choose to retain their (porous) individuality. #3 God, a single mega-mind, that maximally bounds as much matter and energy into unitary superexperiences.
DMT Experience Report — Learning the Nonlinear Wave Computing theory of subjective experience and internalizing the Symmetry Theory of Valence (originally posted in r/rationalpsychonaut by ClarifyingCard).
This was a sub-breakthrough experience with firmly-set “intellectual” (integrative) intentions. So I wouldn’t really call this a trip report, but an experience report. It’s a little more in the direction of a freeform essay. Working through this experience to translate it into written word is proving very fruitful for annealing what I’ve learned, so I hope it can provide some insight to others. Contents include my real-time integration of QRI’s “nonlinear wave computing” model of subjective experience, and some explanatory applications. I also firmed up my epistemological relationship to the Symmetry Theory of Valence during this experience, so there are some insights integrating these with technical meditation & gender transition.
I hope the length doesn’t render this inaccessible, as I feel that there are many genuinely deep insights here. I’m not the type to typically write reports on experiences, but consuming lots of QRI content has seriously energized me! There’s this feeling of “Finally! People are doing the top-down neuroscience that I’ve been quietly building for years in isolation! People are seeing psychedelic experiences as legitimate tools for investigating the nature of the mind!” So, I’m feeling a drive I haven’t felt in a while, a drive not just to consume information & integrate it acausally, but to contribute & collaborate.
Last night I sipped on a sizeable amount of DMT over the course of a few hours. I probably took over 20 hits from the vape overall, paced gently. I wasn’t specifically striving for a breakthrough, though I left open the possibility, and in fact I was deliberate to keep it sub-breakthrough for the first phase of the trip, since I was trying to use DMT to integrate information content from a video.
To me, coming to DMT fixated on a breakthrough feels like entering a relationship with a striving fixation on sex, or entering sex with a striving fixation on orgasm. So, much like taking your time to get to know someone intimately, or moving through a sexual experience without pushing or striving to let it blossom on its own terms, I’ve been flirting with & getting to know DMT on an increasingly deep level over time. This was the first time I’ve really leaned in & let it show me where it wants to take me.
(“wants” in terms of descending energy gradients, not in anthropomorphizing way. This is a central thread of this experience, so more on this below.)
So, I have not broken through yet; this definitely fell on the side of profound insight & bliss. I’m a deep subscriber to the theory of Neural Annealing, and DMT is so high-energy that metaphorically speaking it felt like pure, elemental annealing; anything my mind turned to, I could understand so crisply, with ease & immediacy, like I’m just letting my representations fall into parsimonious (low-entropy) resonant modes, the local minima that my conceptions have already been swirling around.
I also subscribe to the Symmetry Theory of Valence — well, my epistemological relationship to it has been a little fuzzy or hesitant, being sympathetic to it but not yet feeling like it deeply “clicked”, but after this experience, I not only “get it”, but I’ve felt, intimately, what it’s like to watch it play out in real-time. So that process of “spontaneous understanding” of the above paragraph, the symmetrization/entropy minimization felt really, really good. A truly profound bliss of methodically massaging out any point of tension in my representation field that my attention happened to rest upon.
I also want to point out that it didn’t really quite feel like the positive (additive) happiness of e.g. eating the candy bar you went to the store for, it felt like a negative (subtractive) happiness — in other words, relief from suffering. Very Buddhist in flavor, even at just the most basic level of Buddhist theory, the Four Noble Truths. In other words, the dukkha of the Three Characteristics. I’ve now got this idea in my head of maybe identifying dukkha with the mental tension that’s smoothed by annealing, to some degree at least. That correspondence is a space I’ll be playing in for a while, I can see.
So, here’s the actual report.
Genetic heritage: 39% Scotland, 33% England, &c.
Sex/gender: Trans female (late-stage, meaning enough years of estrogen & social transition to have largely reached mental & physical equilibrium in terms of gender/sex characteristics)
Tremendous experience over 8 years with 80+ different psychedelic/dissociative/otherwise acutely psychoactive substances, with a heavy focus on dissociatives. Sizeable understanding of contemporary technical meditation and Buddhism (my understanding is significantly stronger than my actual practice hygiene). Avid consumer of QRI content. History of engagement with Less Wrong-style rationality. Undergraduate education in math & physics, supplemental education in technical writing, linguistics, analytic philosophy (formal logic, philosophy of language, metaphysics, &c.).
Despite my drug experience, I haven’t used DMT proper before. Before this XP, I dipped my toes in the water with 3-4 puffs of this cart over a few hours about 2 weeks before. A few times over the next 2 weeks, I took a few intermittent puffs to continue feeling it out & acclimating.
Two phases here: first on my couch processing a QRI video, 1 on my bed in a mindset of play & exploration.
XP Phase I
Setting: ~930p. On my couch, comfortable. Full lighting. No music.
For a few months, I’ve been ramping up my consumption of QRI content, technical meditation dharma, info about/reports on psychedelics, etc. Aside from general interest, I’ve been mentally preparing myself for a DMT breakthrough (my psychedelic experiences having waned in the past few years, and DMT being such a crown jewel of psychedelic strength/power).
I’ve had the idea to take solid but sub-breakthrough hits of DMT while attempting to integrate some QRI content. The video I chose was this:
I’m thrilled to say this was a great choice & fruitful exercise. I’m going to talk a lot about Andrés himself & his video style; I hope it’s not too effusive & doesn’t come across in a parasocial sort of way. It’s more like a walk-through of the subjective experience of what I happened to be doing, a snapshot of how it felt for my brain to process & operate in this state. It was very easy to feel what facets of experience were positive or negative, like my mental model of my valence system was in crystal clarity & intuited with immediacy. This is why this experience also had such an annealing effect for STV on me.
First of all, I was struck by how crystal-clear his vibe comes through in these videos where it’s just a single take of him talking into the camera for an hour! For the record, I’m saying nothing teleological here; no clue how much of this has been thought through explicitly. When I first started watching them, I was like, this could benefit from some cuts or superimposed visuals &c., but over time I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the style. The exact reasons why crystallized during this experience. It’s because it’s an extremely directed, one-pointed style, and it’s also more faithful to real life. For these reasons you can synchronize your mental representation of the content very deeply with the content itself (i.e. you can model Andrés’s attention with high fidelity, so as he goes through the material clearly & methodically, so are you). There’s no echoes of practice or rehearsal like an academic lecture, and there’s no attentional context-shifting that would be demanded by video cuts or superimposed visuals (though having experience with physics simulations & wave dynamics, I’d love to see some simulation visualizations of toy models exhibiting some of the wave dynamics in play here sometime). Instead, it feels more intimate in a way, like the feeling of someone in real life patiently teaching you a complicated concept 1-on-1. You’re watching Andrés think through material he’s familiar with in real-time. You can even see him spontaneously understand & explain new connections as he works through the existing material, and since your attentions are so synchronized, by watching him demonstrating the explanatory power of these models, you’re learning what it feels like to wield these concepts to refine something else into a simpler representation.
It’s not just the DMT that helped me understand this I think; poetically, the content of this specific video was very relevant. Later on in the video, he mentions the notions of “Metronome Quotient” & “Entrainment Quotient”, which could be seen as a kind of schematic for understanding the general process of one person transfering information, emotion, or other mental “vibe” complices to another. Knowing what I know about harmonic dynamics from physics, this is very intuitive. When conditions are right (person A is a suitable transmitter, person B is a suitable receiver, attention is localized favorably) — i.e. when the process works — it feels very similar to something like orbital resonance (which is why Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, & Ganymede have orbital periods in the ratio 4:2:1 — here’s a Steve Mould video explaining this phenomenon). It’s an application of the “soap-bubble” energy-minimization principle: deviations from harmonic equilibrium inducing restoring forces to drag the system into low-entropy resonant modes.
Something else I noticed is Andrés’s emotional/hedonic vibe. He’s always got a smile, on his mouth & in his voice, you can tell that he’s just thrilled to understand this stuff & thrilled to be able to break it down for a willing audience. First of all, obviously this affects the valence of the experience of watching the video, just like smiling when you’re on the phone eases social friction. I think this emotional entrainment can bootstrap informational entrainment as well, by kindling or contributing to overall synchronization, which is neat. It’s intuitive to me; I already “knew” this because walking people through conceptual understanding, processing difficult experiences, &c. is a general passion of mine, and emotion sync is a big part of doing that effectively.
This power to deeply synchronize attention (acausally!) seems like really powerful way to integrate information. It’d have to be in favorable conditions — written word is right out, most likely. Low-stimulus density is important; you want the extraneous setting details/audiovisual landscape to be easy to ignore (to let fade from salience). I think being able to see facial expressions, posture changes, gestural communication, &c. is crucial to be able to really settle in to the entrainment (this is also true in real life — I have no idea why so many people seem almost blind to body language!). Then, by walking through the content in a deeply synchronized way, you know what it feels like to believe it, to synthesize with or wield it against other concepts. That little harmonic signature, that vibe, is there in your mind, ready to be cultivated or dampened by whatever other representations brush against it.
I should also say, I had lots of visual effects during this time of course. Strong tracers, lots of symmetry extrapolation on surfaces. Tons of shimmering on the edges of objects. When I was especially high, I noticed this really cool effect of lowering visual resolution, like a pixelation effect, but overlapping circular blobs of color & texture. They would resolve if I attended to the region. It felt like the corresponding regions of the visual cortex architecture were too energized to be localized properly, blurring/fuzzing of the wave activity translating to decreased specificity in the encoded content. Really neat. The visuals weren’t something I wanted to work with for the moment, so I let myself just enjoy them instead of striving to analyze or categorize.
PsychonautWiki seems to catalog this as environmental orbism. Interesting that they associate it primarily with dissociatives — I have not experienced it on dissos (or anything else). I wonder if there’s something Fourier transform-ish happening with the visual cortex activity, like higher-frequency activity dominating the encoding — if so, it could be thought of as a sort of inverse of symmetrization. No idea, will think about it.
Anyway, I watched the video for a while, frequently backtracking to process content carefully. Eventually it started feeling laborious, so I moved to my bedroom.
XP Phase II
Setting: ~11p. On my bed, very comfortable. Low purple mood lighting. No music.
CW: Some light talk of sexuality.
I wanted to make some time to play with the drug in a very soft, low-stimulus environment. So I just cleared my bed & spread out the top sheet layer, a lush fleece blanket, flat across the top. The space is full of pleasant, comfortable-vibe stuff, so on one side I was enveloped by super-soft blankets & pillows & stuffed animals, very pleasurable. Very deliberately setting an easygoing, pleasurable, sensual vibe for the drug to energize & amplify.
I started taking more hits, just resting comfortably on the blanket to see where it would take me. I just let myself frolick, enjoying the pleasurable touch sensations of my environment, rubbing my hands & legs against the soft surfaces, massaging my inner thighs, feeling out the effects it had on my muscles & sensory processing. I noticed the way my muscles subconsciously started to tense & tighten in anticipation of a hit, and then as the DMT washed through my mind, noticed how it smoothed & blurred & dissipated that tension & the angular mental prickles associated with it. I did a lot of rhythmic contraction & release for various muscles, just letting myself enjoy how relaxing it felt to let it go. I carry a lot of tension in my inner thighs (especially common for girls), so getting deep into the tissue & massaging it out was immensely pleasurable, almost orgasmic at times.
This made me think a lot about the distinction I was drawing earlier, of what I guess I’ll call “positive” vs. “negative”, or “additive” vs. “subtractive” pleasure. This was very much subtractive pleasure, which could maybe be accurately characterized better as “relief”. In other words, nirvana-wards.
I decided that I was in a good state for a breakthrough. I wasn’t sure whether it would happen, since my acute tolerance was probably increasing, so I set the intention that I wasn’t striving for it to happen and that it would continue being a wonderful XP if it didn’t. So I took several (3-4) puffs in succession and lay back to watch.
Here, I noticed a some decoupling of drug effects. I was still getting visuals from each hit, though the open-eye effects were a little less intense, and the CEVs perhaps more. I was still getting positive-valence mental effects — bliss, equanimity, parsimony, &c. However there was a dramatically lowering of that “roller-coaster” feeling, the overwhelming-ness, the sense a drug has seized your experiential field & is now in charge. It’s possible that this was due to me simply becoming more comfortable.
However, the missing qualia is a pretty somatic one, so I think it’s probably acute tolerance attenuating different effects at different rates. Is DMT norepinephrinergic at all? Or is this an endogenous NE effect, or not related at all? Unsure, will research later. That’s a neurochemical I don’t have as much of an intuitive feel for as much as serotonin/dopamine/GABA. Also I should get to know glutamate sometime. Maybe it’s more of a “roller-coaster” feeling because you’re feeling the pull of a novel attractor.
So, a breakthrough didn’t happen; I think that feeling is probably integral to a breakthrough (though I’m speaking from ignorance for now). But I did get huge waves of bliss & felt my all of my mental representations get highly energized. This felt “hyperbolic” in the sense of there being “too much” to fit neatly in onto the mental workspace, so things start jumbling & intersecting and “space” itself expands into itself to accomodate. This is on the level of conceptual representations, so what exactly “intersecting” and “space” mean is left unspecified.
Here’s 2 tangential paragraphs about this. I’ve had this effect before, especially on 4-AcO-DMT and other 4-subbed tryptamines — most extremely, on a truly stupid dose of 160 4-AcO-DMT several years ago, combined with a heavy dissociative I don’t recall (perhaps diphenidine). Never do this! This was many, many years ago, before I had my relationships/career/gender transition/life together, when my thirst for spiritual revelation & relief was matched by my thirst for annihilation & urge to self-harm. Every mental concept just got hopelessly jumbled together and I couldn’t parse a single aspect of my experiential field. It overtook [my model of] my body & external reality, violently smashing together and shredding them and blending them into uncountably many infinitely thin, infinitely long threads all furiously tangling and colliding. There was a sensation of being flung & pulled along this sharp, fast stream along with all the other shreds of my world. As high-entropy a state as I can imagine.
In other words, the entire modeling mechanism of reality, inside & out, underwent a catastrophic system crash. It was immensely physically painful — I felt every bit of physical reality smashing through each other — and it collapsed into this extremely dissonant state with very few experiential components: a 1-frame flashing of pale green & red, an unbearably loud Hypnotoad-esque droning, and sheer unimaginable physical pain. This went on for subjective eternity — to abuse some math notation, I had this intuitive, unshakeable knowledge that S(t + Δt) = S(t), period. I realize now that I was deep, deep in a hellish & steep local minimum. Perhaps you could consider this a “hell realm”. Combined with the “holing” effect of the dissociative, I think this could fairly be considered a seizure-like state. I’m not sure if I was physically moving in reality, as I didn’t have any thrashing marks & I was alone (don’t do that!!), but I do think I wet myself a little. It was one of the worst eternal moments of my life. Walking through this experience with ~5 years of learning & growth behind me, writing this out has actually helped me understand the experience a lot better, so forgive the tangent. Come to think of it, STV has a lot of explanatory power w.r.t. why this was so dysphoric & traumatic, lots of little clues sprinkled in here — my representation system smashed into a catastrophically high-entropy, short-term-unrecoverable state of unfathomable dissonance, inducing physical & psychic agony.
Anyway, back to DMT.
After those 3-4 hits, maybe another part of why it wasn’t overwhelming was related to the notion of “entropy sinks” mentioned in the DMT + hyperbolization video above. I was getting enormous energization of all my representations, but I had no difficulty in skillfully directing them, in applying them to existing mental & physical tension points & smoothing them out, so there was no runaway accumulation. Symmetrization was also very dramatic in CEVs, planar hyperbolic geometries all interweaving at different angles, and the experience of this geometry was itself immensely blissful & high-valence, another strong point in favor of STV. I’d like to strive for brighter, more defined CEVs soon — if I had looked for them earlier, I think they’d’ve presented.
I then took some time to play around with & appreciate my body some more. I let myself explore my body & just revel in my love for it. Lots of transition-centric thoughts here. I played with my breasts, just lightly rubbing & poking them, feeling them jiggle, reveling in how good & right it felt that I had finally grown them after all this time. I felt along the curves of my hips, groping & squeezing, reveling in how good & right it felt that I have this deeply estrogenic body & mind. How, like, over these years I’ve finally found myself falling into the attractor of this cute, bubbly, exciteable, empathic girl I’ve always been meant to become.
I remembered feeling the slightest inscrutable tugs towards it, all those years ago. I remembered blundering around in the dark trying to interpret those gradient descents towards peace with my identity & body. I remembered starting to discover, reveal, & construct this second “persona attractor”, finding this spark of hope & understanding & rightness that I would kindle & cultivate over the coming years. And I remembered the moment I felt myself at the inflection point between the two local minima, the realization that the I could just let myself fall into it, and the immeasurable relief washing over me. I’m nearly in tears recounting this to you, contextualizing this deep consonance & harmony I feel, realizing just how much literal blood, sweat, & tears were demanded of me to achieve it.
I think I annealed a deep understanding of the nature & valence structure of gender transition (at least for my personal case study). It’s not like this isn’t something I’ve thought about in intricate detail for years, so I’ve already earned a very clear picture for myself, but it’s even crisper now, such a simple story once it clicks. STV honestly seems to have tremendous explanatory power w.r.t. gender transition, something I’d like to think & write about more in the future.
I also played around a lot with my representation/experience of sexual pleasure, which I don’t need to get into toooo much detail about, but it was incredible playing around in that space. One weird thing about my mind is that I kind of have a mental “button” wired up for sensual, sexual, submissive pleasure. In other words, I can just push the button whenever I want (I have dissociatives to thank for getting this circuitry wired correctly) — I can feel this submissive pleasure at will. It’s especially effective if I fantasize, so I spent some time letting myself revel in fantasies about various partners of mine doing various things to me, letting the vividity of the feelings wash over me. This wasn’t especially, ah, “intellectual” work, so I’ll leave it at that.
(Side note: I theorize a lot of the “attainments” of technical meditation essentially come down to programming buttons like this. I’m thinking particularly of the brahmavihara (“divine/sublime abodes”). They’ve been conveyed to me as like finding a housekey, so that you can enter anytime.)
Here’s another phenomenon I noticed during this period. A few times I felt a different piece of neural machinery start to whir up — specifically this notion of “self-consciousness”, what I would conceptualize as the submodule of your reality model responsible for modeling the way others would model you back. In other words, I felt this tugging from my self-consciousness engine, nagging with questions like “Don’t you look ridiculous, writhing around alone in your panties? Aren’t you being frivolous, frolicking in pleasure without any thought to intellectual work? What would <Person X> think if they saw you like this? Do you really deserve to consider yourself cute?”
What I’m trying to point out with this is that I found it extremely easy not to engage with this submodule. I could simply fail to regard it, not energizing that representation. Politely say “no thank you” to that mechanism & gingerly place its suggestions on the ground. In the language of NLWV, I noticed this perturbation, but I let it play out & be gone instead of batting down the ripples of the pond. Very anicca-flavored protocol, very familiar to me from meditative experience.
I found I had this ability with all sorts of mental mechanisms. I’m generally mindful of & moderately good at this, but it was cranked up to 11. I had great control over which facets of experience I did or didn’t engage with. If I had a thought about work-related stress, or guilt over lapses in my exercise hygiene, or anxiety about my thumb (which has a damaged ligament), I could so easily say “It’s not skillful for me to engage with & feed this story right now. Now’s not the time.” Strong equanimity. In this sense, I felt ease with & authority over which representations composed how much of my awareness. This is one sort of skill that samatha meditation cultivates, I think. It makes me realize how much I’ve slipped w.r.t. this skill over the past few years, once my life started going well & started growing more complacent.
So, in that moment, I found it easy to cold-shoulder those nagging feelings tugging me out of animal-pleasure-mind. I was able to let myself indulge in the luxuries I’ve cultivated for myself, without shame, which is actually really hard for me usually. I struggle with strong guilt about deserving any success or happiness I achieve. This is something I know I need to work on — being blissful when it is skillful to feel bliss; suffering when it is skillful to suffer.
Speaking of that equanimity, I’ve made a lot of progress towards “skillful sex” (lol), sexual dysphoria being a central theme of my journey from androgenic to estrogenic libido. Allowing your mind to cloud is always a great way to derail sexual pleasure or orgasm, so I’m happy to pick up more skills here.
Anyway, after a while of this, it felt like a good time to pack it up & let the afterglow run its course, starting to integrate the experience. So I put on some music (Strange Diary by Psychic Twin), lay down, & chilled for a while, eventually turning on a light-complexity video & eating some snacky food (which I typically avoid). I took 0.5 mg clonazepam to help still my mind. This XP kept me up till about 2am, but once I lay down to sleep, it didn’t take too long.
[T + 1 day]
I awoke & got up with ease, which is unusual for me. Perhaps residual stimulation combined with the benzo wearing off during the night, but this is also a known fruit of metta meditation which I’ve cultivated for long periods in the past, so this is something I’ll keep an eye on next time. Metta is something that I’ve practiced skillfully before and it’s at the top of my priority list for improving my meditation hygiene.
Mentally, I feel good. I took my standard 10 mg adderall & 300 mg gabapentin after waking, and I’ve had the energy & focus (and desire!) to write this report, which has taken several hours lol.
I do also have this sensation of being drained, too. It’s hard to explain because it’s not really valence-negative or preventing me from action. It kind of feels like a flatness; my closest approximation is not a recreational drug or crash but how I feel if I’m late with my estrogen injection. But in any case, I do know I need to have patience with & take care of myself today.
Damn! This bliss-stick is extremely powerful — not just in terms of how powerful its psychedelic grasp is, but in terms of the applicability of that power. I can see DMT helping me smooth out all sorts of specific (tactics-level) things about my life, and deliberately integrate all sorts of content, in addition to the sheer spiritual blastoff effects. A central theme in this XP is that feel of rounding out “angular” points of tension in mental representations, slipping down those parsimony gradients, massaging the joints of your mind.
I do get the strong intuition that this is a substance to be taken seriously. I won’t be using it casually… (well, for the most part. We’ll see). It’s funny to me that I tried so many drugs so many years ago before finally trying DMT, but I’m honestly glad I’m getting to know the crown jewel at this point in my life, with many different avenues of life experience to synthesize for interpretation & integration.
My cart is running fairly low. I’ll be getting more. I think if I had really gone for it right away, I would have had a breakthrough, so I’ll probably go for it soon 😊
Related trip report by Cube Flipper (pseudonym of an anonymous reader):
Vaping the Genderfluid: Exploring Gender Identity on DMT
Some background on me: I’m in my early thirties, AMAB, somewhere on the autism spectrum (which mostly manifests as skin sensory issues), and a long time Qualia Computing reader.
Sometime last year, my “egg cracked”, to use the parlance of our day. I’d read in the past how autism and gender dysphoria were heavily correlated. I revisited events from my past and decided it was worth exploring whether or not some of my experiences could be explained by gender dysphoria. I suspected that leaning into a more feminine gender identity might feel more comfortable and help me to “vibe” better.
I shaved my legs, got my ears pierced, and started adopting a more feminine identity internally. This felt not unlike flipping a Necker cube on myself from masculine to feminine. I figured out how to see a more female face in the mirror. I started to move differently. I experimented with my voice. I would mostly do this in social settings, though I’m not sure how noticeable it was from the outside.
I even spent three months on estrogen at one point, hoping that its use would help with my sensory issues (it did), before discontinuing its use for a number of unrelated reasons. The phenomenological effects were too numerous to go into detail here; I hope to write up a detailed “HRT trip report” at a later date. Long story short, I found estrogen to be anti-dissociative – like the opposite of ketamine (this assessment is informed by Zinnia Jones’ writeup comparing the effects of HRT with Lamotrigine). My senses felt more tightly integrated – less skin sensitivity, less “noise”, less annoying prediction errors – it was euphoric.
However, my gender identity still felt in flux, unstable. I wasn’t even sure ‘identity’ was a real thing – what is the qualia of identity?
Anyway, I recently gained access to a DMT vape pen, and have been using it on a daily basis to perform a low level annealing on myself, usually in the mornings after a bit of exercise.
I should describe my practice: I lie down, remove any uncomfortable clothing, and ensure my body is relaxed and in a symmetrical position with no muscles under tension. I take one or two puffs on the vape pen – not enough to see more than faint visuals – but enough to feel the bodily vibrations arise, settle, and crystallise throughout my body. I should be clear that my gender identity was not the focus of these experiences, high valence and annealing was.
I am a believer in Leharian force fields: Our sense of touch, bodily awareness, and space is embedded in something like a three-dimensional vector field. As we experience various stressors throughout our daily lives, various contractions, foldings, and distortions can work their way into the “force fields” which guide the way we move and the way we direct our attention. When I smoke DMT like this, I sometimes feel these contractions unfold themselves. This can be kind of unsettling at the time, but in the wake of these experiences I notice my awareness is more expanded and I feel I am navigating a much smoother, less crumpled “possibility space” as I go about my life. Notably, these “unfoldings” don’t tend to happen a second time after vaping DMT again afterwards.
Additionally, colours felt more vivid, and my senses felt brighter – not unlike how I felt on estrogen!
I continued this practice for perhaps a couple of weeks. Something I began to notice was that I was no longer flipping the Necker cube on myself; I was no longer bothering to lean into the feminine identity I had been experimenting with in social settings.
I theorise that the annealing process had drawn my self-model – a giant tree of priors – back towards the stable attractor of my pre-existing masculine identity. Imagine tuning the parameters on a slightly distorted Sierpinski pyramid, bringing it into alignment with itself. I felt comfortable with my masculinity again.
I hope nobody misunderstands me, I don’t mean to say that if you are transgender DMT can draw you back to a pre-transition identity. Quite the contrary, I think DMT can grant you the bandwidth necessary to assess which identity feels most internally robust to you. It’s quite likely that estrogen also can give you the boost required to explore and stabilise your sense of identity.
I had fun exploring my feminine side, and there’s parts of that experience which still stick with me; I still wear earrings and I still shave my legs (because it feels good… and it helps deal with sensory issues). I may yet return to these experiences someday.
By an anonymous reader (this was sent by someone who was formerly deeply skeptical of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. The experience described below made them reconsider QRI’s explanatory frameworks and paradigms. In their own words: “[this experience I] recently had made me think “hmm so maybe there _is_ something to the STV”).
There was a sequence of going back into old experiences, each of them somehow positive or negative. The very earliest one that came to mind was a memory of my mother talking to me with love and delight when I was maybe one year old. There was a sense that my mind and body had been in a particular kind of position when that had happened. Ever afterwards, they had been trying to shift themselves back into that same position, on the theory that the same internal configuration would recreate the same external environment and recreate the same experience of being loved.
There was a sense of the bodymind holding a pattern that was a snapshot of that moment of love, and that the bodymind had been trying to also align the external world into the same kind of a position, out of an understanding that the pattern could only be completed – the puzzle piece matching the rest of the puzzle – if the external world provided the right fit for the bodymind’s internal configuration, letting them interlock in the way that would recreate the old pattern.
In the moment of completely seeing this, there was an understanding of the wisdom that the stuck pattern held – it had correctly seen and recorded a facet of reality, of what I had been like and how that had gotten me love – and also of the fact that its vision had only captured an incomplete facet, with it being impossible to go back to being a baby and replay the same experiences.
As this was seen, seeing the pattern that the stuck energy had been trying to complete caused it to be completed, the parts interlocking once more. There was a sense of the stuck energy pattern being released and melding back into a pattern of universal harmony and love that could be felt in the body. There was an understanding that the stuck pattern had previously acted as a constraint, trying to repeatedly pull the bodymind into a particular configuration whenever possible in order to recreate the original harmonic pattern, when the harmonic pattern had actually been available all along.
Something shifted and the legs felt like they opened and spread out, a pull relaxing that the mind hadn’t even known was there.
There was a sense of tapping into the universal harmony that could now be felt in the body, as a stream of energy trying to run up from the root chakra to the top of the head. As the body tried to upright itself to align with the energy, it found more stuck patterns interrupting the flow, each of them associated with a past experience and a particular configuration of the bodymind that was at odds with the one that the stream was trying to upright the body to.
There was a seeing that the bodymind’s configuration would affect the bodyminds of the people around it, all other people also moving in a constant process of trying to recapture particular configurations, trying to pull their environment into shapes that would complete specific patterns. In seeing this, there was a sense of testing possibilities. If this bodymind wanted to upright itself, what positions would that pull the bodies of others into? How would those positions constrain this body’s positions, and what was the shape that it would be pulled towards in turn?
Each of those considerations brought up a new pattern of stuck energy, a time when the bodyminds of others had been in a particular position, and this bodymind had learned to adapt or avoid a particular position in response. Whenever such patterns were found, they temporarily turned into reality, with the bodymind reliving the experience and seeing both how the pattern held within a piece of wisdom – a true fact about what reality had been like – and how that pattern was at the same time incomplete and unintegrated with the rest of the bodymind’s knowing.
Sometimes that lack of integration caused the pattern’s understanding to be a mistake overall. There were situations when an energy pattern had been scanning for signs of others reacting negatively and stored that as the primary interpretation of the experience, seeing only that and missing out on the way that the thing had been too minor to matter, or missing out on the way that others had been able to see the positive aspects as well.
There was a sense that the act of trying to assume specific configurations required selectively taking in information, so as to not see things that would destabilize the desired postures. There was a sense that the content of consciousness gets selectively filtered so as to create particular mindstates, to allow certain configurations to be reliably recreated.
There were fears around the possibility of being seen, a sense that others would not necessarily take well to a bodymind that was standing upright, and would try to bring it back down. There was a sense that the configurations of their bodyminds had constantly been pulling this bodymind back into more cramped positions, as a way for it to stay safe.
There was a sense that many of the configurations the bodymind has been trying to contort itself into have been physically impossible, different people requiring different physical positions that have been impossible to satisfy at once. There was a thought that it’s no wonder that this bodymind has been grinding teeth at night, given all the contradictory expressions that the jaw and the face have been trying to take at once.
There was also a sense of how some other people’s erratic behavior had been a result of them trying to twist themselves into impossible sets of overlapping configurations. There was a sense that bodyminds will allow the tension of the physically incompatible postures to tear themselves apart, so that different parts of the whole can get split off to adopt different postures at once.
There was a sense of people occasionally catching from the corner of their eye a glimpse of something that a part of them thinks they absolutely cannot be allowed to see, their bodymind instantly making a sharp angle to rotate away from the sight of it and blocking all line of vision, in a single movement of pure terror.
There was a perception that despite everything, the positions of other people didn’t need to matter, and that if this bodymind could tap into the universal resonance of harmonious energy, then that resonance would pull at the body stronger than any other bodyminds can.
There was a sense that if the bodymind tapped into the universal resonance, it wouldn’t need to contort itself to others, but would rather dance together with others who were part of the same resonance, standing effortlessly upright at all times if it so desired.
The bodymind tries again to align with the resonance, to find a stable flow of energy going up from the pelvis through the body.
As stuck energies stored in different parts of the body are released, those parts test whether the rest of the body is capable of holding their full energy. The body parts trash against their restraints, then relax as they become assured that it is safe to do so. Waves of laughter and contented sighs bubble up through the system, a flavor like warm pleasant honey.
There’s a seeing that all the different holds and stuck energies have been attempts to capture the universal resonance and that the way to relax them is to lean into them until they meld back into the resonance, each of their energies containing a fragment of home that shows the way back.
As one leans into them they each become more like reality, are reality, and then there is a recollection and recognition of their essential truth as it’s merged into the whole. Each such merging allows one constraint to be released, for the dynamic system that is the bodymind to move more fluidly between positions, no longer forced to twist and contort itself into a particular rigid shape whenever it comes near to that region of configuration space.
Rather it can do what bodyminds exist to do, weave a smooth and graceful path between configurations that make sense in any given situation, dancing in a way that still repeats specific configurations but with a fluidness that is every human’s birthright.
To have too many constraints is to be torn apart; to have no constraints is to be a newborn incapable of action; to have just the right amount of constraints, pulling the bodymind into configurations that are the right expressions of its essential self, is to be a mature and competent adult.
As this happens, it is as if resonance patterns spread across the body, connecting parts that were previously disconnected. The feet start drumming together, remembering that they are brothers who can do their own thing. The throat spontaneously joins the chants and the song of the people around. The pelvis finds more of its energy, though large parts of it still feel blocked off.
As constraints are dropped and the bodymind manages to better tap into the universal harmony, it begins looking for a new shape, one that would be harmonious both with the universal resonance and the bodymind’s own pattern of energy. Parts of the body try tuning themselves into the song and music and try what it’s like to be in harmony with the universal resonance, what it’s like to generate their own resonance patterns that are separate from the universal resonance but harmonious with each other, how to create something of one’s own that combines with that which is not one’s own. The bodymind explores a role and an identity as a bard-shaman of earth, song and myth, sees where parts of that would fit and where they would not.
There is a sense of harmonious delight and love, of everyone in the room being connected to the same universal resonance that is pulling everyone together, each of them also contributing a piece of their own unique essence into the whole. There is an experience of seeing this bodymind from the outside, and a feeling of it being beautiful and lovable. These new patterns are absorbed into the bodymind to act as the foundation for a new way of being.
Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing might help explain this quote: “There was a sense that the act of trying to assume specific configurations required selectively taking in information, so as to not see things that would destabilize the desired postures.” In particular, note the proposed duality between physiological dissonance and resisting information discussed in that article (special emphasis on “denial”).
Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening (video). This might help explain: “As stuck energies stored in different parts of the body are released, those parts test whether the rest of the body is capable of holding their full energy.” Namely, that one key aspect of equanimity is increasing impedance matching between various parts of the nervous system so that one part can process the stress stored in another one.
Non-Linear Wave Computing: Vibes, Gestalts, and Realms. This video provides a conceptual framework capable of making sense of “stuck patterns” that “need to be completed by environmental circumstances”. In brief, these are stored non-linear patterns of resonance that require their oscillatory complement in order to become harmonious. Dissolving them allows you to instead rely on the natural harmonics of your nervous system and thus to not be dependent on external circumstances for positive valence.
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
Age: 24 Gender: Male Ethnicity: European descent Weight: 70-75kg Height: 170-180cm
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.
Two past experiences with 5-MeO-DMT at low doses:
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.
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.
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).
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 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
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
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.
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):
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:
It can project a sense of self onto parts of experience – “I feel like I am this chair.” – said the man on salvia.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.”
Andrés! This is Roger Thisdell […]. Thanks for giving me your number.
Do add me to the Phenomenology Club. That sounds like my jam! Cheers!
Excellent! Will do! 🙂
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 🙏)
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.
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:
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. 🤠👌
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  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!
Thank you for engaging! This is super interesting! Let me think about what else I can say 🙂
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.
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.
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:
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,
A model of equanimity I’ve been developing where impedance matching is a key ingredient, and
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.
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!):
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.
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.
(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?
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 ishappening 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]
Excerpt from Awakening Your Ikigai: Howthe Japanese wake up to joy and purpose every day (2017) by Ken Mogi (pgs. 67-73, 79-81)
NOTE TO THE READER
The Five Pillars of Ikigai
Throughout this book, I refer to the Five Pillars of ikigai. They are:
Pillar 1: Starting small
Pillar 2: Releasing yourself
Pillar 3: Harmony and sustainability
Pillar 4: The joy of small things
Pillar 5: Being in the here and now
These pillars come up frequently, because each one provides the supportive framework—the very foundations—that allows ikigai to flourish. They are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive, nor do they have a particular order or hierarchy. But they are vital to our understanding of ikigai, and will provide guidance as you digest what you read in the forthcoming pages and reflect on your own life. Each time they will come back to you with a renewed and deepened sense of significance.
I hope you enjoy this journey of exploration.
CHAPTER 4: The sensory beauty of ikigai
A starry bowl in good condition, if put in an auction, would fetch millions of dollars. Of the ones that remain, the Inaba starry bowl (inaba tenmoku) is regarded as the finest of the three. It was handed down from the Tokugawa Shogunate to the house of Inaba, and would fetch tens of millions of dollars if put on the market today.
Koyata Iwasaki, the fourth president of Mitsubishi Conglomerate, and one of the richest men in modern Japan, became the owner of that particular bowl in 1934. However, considering himself unworthy of it, Iwasaki never used it at his tea ceremonies.
The Japanese certainly make a fuss of pretty bowls. After all, a bowl is just a bowl, and its function is to contain liquid.
In terms of that capacity, it is no different from any ordinary bowl in the market. And while the enthusiasm surrounding these receptacles would surely find parallels in other cultures, one feels that there is something unique in the Japanese culture that makes the passion for them quite extraordinary. Where does this kind of sensory enthusiasm come from?
In Chapter 1, we referred to this lexical hypothesis, which states that expressions for important personalty traits in life gradually and eventually come to constitute a part of everyday language, as is the case with ikigai. There is another interesting aspect of the Japanese language, worth focusing on and particularly pertinent here.
In Japanese, a dog barks wan wan, while a cat goes nya nya. In English, they go bowwow and meow respectively. Every language has its share of such onomatopoeic expressions, but it is generally considered that the Japanese language has an inordinately abundant variety of them.
They are sometimes referred to as Japanese sound symbolism, and they are often made up of the same word said twice.
For example, bura bura means a nonchalant, carefree way of walking, while teka teka describes a shiny surface. Kira kira refers to the glittering of light, whereas gira gira refers to a more intense, almost blinding source of light, such as the headlight of a motorbike at night. Ton ton refers to a light tapping sound, whereas don don refers to a heavy, thudding one. A dictionary of onomatopoeia edited by Masahiro Ono lists 4,500 instances of sound symbolism.
With the growing popularity of Japanese manga and anime, an increasing number of people around the world are interested in Japanese sound symbolism, as many of the expressions are frequently used in popular manga and anime works. However, Japanese onomatopoeia is difficult to master, partly because of the subtlety in the way it is used and partly because there is so much of it. Unlike in some cultures, the Japanese continue to use sound symbolism in their adult life, as well as in childhood. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the Japanese to use sound symbolism when discussing things in a professional context. Such a perception structure has certainly developed more in some fields of industry than others, for example, in gastronomy. You can imagine sushi chefs such as Jiro Ono and experienced fish brokers such as Hiroki Fujita using onomatopoeia in their conversation, because sound symbolism is often used to describe the texture and flavor of food. Similarly, you can be sure samurai warriors used onomatopoeia to discuss the quality of swords, from the glitter to the texture of the blade surface. Manga artists make frequent use of it, too, using words such as ton ton and don don to reflect the subtle nuances of the actions of their characters.
The fact that there is so much sound symbolism in the Japanese language implies, according to the lexical hypothesis, that there is a correlation between it and the way in which the Japanese perceive the world. The Japanese seem to distinguish between many different nuances of experience, paying attention to the plethora of sensory qualities. The proliferation of onomatopoeia reflects the importance of detailed sensory nuances in the life of the Japanese.
Such attention to detail has nurtured a culture in which craftspeople continue to receive respect in an era where waves of innovation promise to change our lives.
Japan continues to have a large number of traditional products made by craftspeople. Craftspeople, although no outspoken or flamboyant, are held in high esteem and play pivotal roles in Japanese society. Often, their lives are regarded as the embodiment of ikigai—lives devoted to creating just one thing properly, however small.
The work of craftspeople is often very labor-intensive and time-consuming. As a result, the product tends to be highly refined and of excellent quality. Japanese consumers recognize that time and effort has gone into the creation of these goods and appreciate the quality, in such diverse areas as the crafting of knives, swords, blades, ceramics, lacquerware, washi paper, and of weaving.
The ethics and work of craftspeople continue to have an impact on a wide range of economic activities. Similarly, the Japanese understanding and handling of the great variety of sensory qualities have led to correspondingly fine artisanship and manufacturing techniques.
Although Japanese companies have been losing out for many years in the field of consumer electronics, one area in which the Japanese are still preeminent is the manufacturing of intricate instruments such as medical cameras. High-end precision engineering and commitment to perfection makes Japanese medical cameras among the best in the world. Likewise, in the case of semiconductor devices, Japanese manufacturers have the advantage, the accumulation of knowhow and carefully coordinated operations being a must for efficient and high quality production.
Paying attention to the multitude of sensory experiences is necessary to execute the finely tuned operations supporting craftsmanship and high-tech manufacturing. As with craftsmanship, these cognitive capabilities are reflected in the linguistic make-up of the language. The richness of the Japanese language as regards onomatopoeia reflects such fine-tuned sensibilities.
As we will see in Chapter 8, in the Japanese mind, each sensory quality is equivalent to a god [emphasis mine]. The Japanese tend to believe that there is an infinite depth to the nuances displayed by the multitudes of colors in nature and artifacts, just as the story of God creating the whole universe is deep.
The Cambridge-based neuroscientist Nicholas Humphrey, who discussed the functional significance of consciousness in his book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, argues that consciousness is functionally significant because it gives us sensory pleasure—a reason to carry on with life. Humphrey takes up the extraordinary example of the ritual prisoners’ last breakfast before their execution in the United States. The prisoners have the final privilege of choosing their own personal menu. Humphrey quotes the prisoner’s last menu as posted on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website. One inmate might select fried fish fillet, French fries, orange juice, and German chocolate cake, another might go for a plate of chicken katsu. The point is that they give considerable thought to the very last meal of their life, a testimony of the importance of the sensory pleasures we derive from our food. It can be said to be an ultimate form of being in the here and now. It is almost as though finding ikigai in a given environment could be regarded as a form of biological adaptation. You could find your ikigai in a wide range of conditions, and the key to that resilience is sensory pleasure.
In the contemporary science of consciousness, sensory qualities that accompany an experience, including those in culinary consumption, are called “qualia”. The term refers to the phenomenological properties of sensory experience: the redness of red, the fragrance of a rose, or the coolness of water are all examples of qualia. How qualia arise from the activities of neurons in the brain is the greatest unsolved mystery in neuroscience, or, indeed, in the whole of science [emphasis mine]. Nothing turns us on like a great mystery. If you put a strawberry in your mouth (it does not have to be one of the expensive perfect fruits sold at Sembikiya), you have a certain spectrum of qualia, which would presumably give you pleasure. And the pleasure is equal to the mystery of life.
Earlier, we drew our attention to the fact that there are many examples of onomatopoeia (sound symbolism) in the Japanese language. Onomatopoeia, after all, is just representation of various qualia encountered in life.
There is a deep link here. In a mysterious way, releasing oneself is linked to the discovery of the sensory pleasures. The Japanese culture, with its abundance of onomatopoeia, has cultivated this linkage, nurturing a very robust system of ikigai in its course. By relieving ourselves of the burden of the self, we can open up to the infinite universe of sensory pleasure.
High Entropy Alloys of Experience (where we can perhaps think of the deliberate practice of embodying the Five Pillars of Ikigai as the cultivation of a beautiful high-entropy alloy of experience, or perhaps a self-organizing landscape for sustained harmonious creativity)
The elucidation of the origin of qualia-rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C. P. Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.
Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from their very foundations.
Excerpt from The Science of Enlightenment (2005) by Shinzen Young (p. xv-xvii)
It took me quite a while to get to the point of publishing this book — many years actually. That may seem like a strange statement. How can someone not get the point of publishing something they themselves wrote? Let me explain.
A central notion of Buddhism is that there’s not a thing inside us called a self. One way to express that is to say that we are a colony of sub-personalities and each of those sub-personalities is in fact not a noun but a verb–a doing.
One of my doings is Shinzen the researcher. Shinzen the researcher is on a mission to “take the mist out of mysticism.” Contrary to what is often claimed, he believes that mystical experience can be described with the same rigor, precision, and quantified language that one would find in a successful scientific theory. In his opinion, formulating a clear description of mystical experience is a required prenuptial for the Marriage of the Millennium: the union of quantified science and contemplative spirituality. He hopes that eventually this odd couple will exuberantly make love, spawning a generation of offspring that precipitously improves the human condition.
Shinzen the researcher also believes that many meditation masters, current and past, have formulated their teachings with “less than full rigor” by making unwarranted, sweeping philosophical claims about the nature of objective reality based on their subjective experiences—claims that tend to offend scientists and, hence, impede the science-spiritually courtship.
Shinzen the researcher has a natural voice. It’s the style you would find in a graduate text on mathematics: definition, lemma, theorem, example, corollary, postulate, theorem. Here’s a sample of that voice:
It may be possible to model certain global patterns of brain physiology in ways that feel familiar to any trained scientist, i.e., equations in differential operators on scalar, vector, or tensor fields whose dependent variables can be quantified in terms of SI units and whose independent variables are time and space (where space equals ordinary space or some more esoteric differential manifold). It is perhaps even possible to derive those equations from first principles the way Navier-Stokes is derived from Cauchy continuity. In such fields, distinctive “flow regimes” are typically associated with relations on the parameters of the equations, i.e., F(Pj) → Q, where Q is qualitative change in field behavior. By qualitative change in field behavior, I mean things like the appearance of solitons or the disappearance of turbulence, etc. Through inverse methods, it may be possible to establish a correspondence between the presence of a certain parameter relation in the equations modeling a field in a brain and the presence of classical enlightenment in the owner of that brain. This would provide a way to physically quantify and mathematically describe (or perhaps even explain) various dimensions of spiritual enlightenment in a way that any trained scientist would feel comfortable with.
That’s not the voice you’ll be hearing in this book. This book is a record of a different Shinzen, Shinzen the dharma teacher, as he talks to students engaged in meditation practice. Shinzen the dharma teacher has no resistance at all to speaking with less than full rigor. He’s quite comfortable with words like God, Source, Spirit, or phrases like “the nature of nature.” In fact, his natural voice loves spouting the kind of stuff that makes scientists wince. Here’s an example of that voice:
The same cosmic forces that mold galaxies, stars, and atoms also mold each moment of self and world. The inner self and the outer scene are born in the cleft between expansion and contraction. By giving yourself to those forces, you become those forces, and through that, you experience a kind of immortality–you live in the breath and pulse of every animal, in the polarization of electrons and protons, in the interplay of the thermal expansion and self-gravity that molds stars, in the interplay of dark matter that holds galaxies together and dark energy that stretches space apart. Don’t be afraid to let expansion and contraction tear you apart, scattering you in many directions while ripping away the solid ground beneath you. Behind that seeming disorder is an ordering principle so primordial that it can never be disordered: father-God effortlessly expands while mother-God effortlessly contracts. The ultimate act of faith is to give yourself back to those forces, give yourself back to the Source of the world, and through that, become the kind of person who can optimally contribute to the Mending of the world.
Shinzen the hard-nosed researcher and Shinzen the poetic dharma teacher get along just fine. After all, they’re both just waves. Particles may bang together. Waves automatically integrate. Just one problem though. The researcher is a fussy perfectionist. He is very resistant to the notion of publishing anything that lacks full rigor. Spoken words return to silence from where they came from. Printed text sits around for centuries waiting for every tiny imprecision and incompleteness to be exposed.
So it took a while for me to see value in allowing my talks to be published in something close to their original spoken form.
This video discusses the connections between meditative flow (any feeling of change) and the two QRI paradigms of “Wireheading Done Right” and “Neural Annealing“. To do so, I explore how each of the “seven factors of awakening” can be interpreted as operations that you do to flow. In a nutshell: the factors are “energy management techniques”, which when used in the right sequences and dosages, tend to result in wholesome neural annealing.
I then go on to discuss two fascinating dualities: (1) The dual relationship between standing wave patterns and vibratory frequencies. And (2) the dual correspondence between annealing at the computational level (REBUS) and annealing in resonance networks.
(1) Describes how the crazy patterns that come out of meditation and psychedelics are not irrelevant. They are, in a way, the dual counterpart to the emotional processing that you are undergoing. Hence why ugly emotions manifest as discordant structures whereas blissful feelings come together with beautiful geometries.
(2) Articulates how simulated annealing methods in probabilistic graphical models such as those that underlie the synthesis of entropic disintegration and the free energy principle (Friston’s and Carhart-Harris’ REBUS model) describe belief updating. In contrast, annealing at the implementation level refers to a dissonance-minimization technique in resonance networks. In turn, if these are “two sides of the same coin”, we can expect to find that operations in one domain will translate to operations in the other domain. In particular, I discuss how resisting information (“denial”, “cognitive dissonance”) has a corresponding subjective texture associated with muscle tension, “resistance”, viscosity, and hardness. Equanimity, in turn, allows the propagation of both waves of dissonance, consonance, and noiseas well as bundles of information. This has major implications for how to maximize the therapeutic benefit of psychedelics.
Finally, I explain how we could start formalizing Shinzen Young’s observation that you can, not only “read the contents of your subconscious“, but indeed also “heal your subconscious by greeting it with enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity”. Negentropy in the resonance network (patches of highly-ordered “combed” coherent resonance across levels of the hierarchy) can be used to heal patches of dissonance. This is why clean high-valence meditative objects (e.g. metta) can absorb and dissipate the internal dissonance stored in patterns of habitual responses. In turn, this might ultimately allow us to explain why, speaking poetically, it is true that love can heal all wounds. 🙂
~Qualia of the Day: Nirvana Rose~
(Skip to ~10:00 if you don’t need a recap of Wireheading Done Right and Neural Annealing)