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)
Seven Factors of Awakening and Wireheading Done Right
The overall idea here is that in order to sustain a state of consciousness where meditation has benefits one needs to have a state of mind that has a lot of control over itself. In particular, there is a zone in the valence / arousal space that is ideal for meditation, namely, the region that is positive valence and middle-of-the-road arousal. In this light, when your mind is too excited and restless you should put emphasis on the tranquilizing factors (concentration, equanimity, and tranquility). When your mind is too sluggish or sleepy, you put extra emphasis on the exciting factors (investigation, energy, and joy). And the balancing factor (mindfulness) is what allows you to keep track of this process without getting distracted by the hindrances. This allows you to cybernetically stay in the zone most conducive to meditative development.
Importantly, I think that the factors themselves are best developed in that zone. So it may be futile to ask someone who is panicking to focus on tranquility IF they have not focused on tranquility before when they were in the optimal zone. So for a lot of people developing the seven factors is going to be a bootstrapping process. Pragmatically, I expect that e.g. people with chronic pain might benefit from actual painkillers in order to reduce the pain enough to then be close to the zone where they can actually practice and develop the seven factors effectively. When the painkillers wear off at least they will have gotten some practice time, and then applying equanimity to the pain will be easier (I think that it is both ineffective and cruel to ask someone in pain to “just have equanimity about it” if they haven’t already developed equanimity when they were in the zone).
In addition to valence and arousal, the seven factors also allow you to cybernetically stay in the zone for two additional key dimensions. Namely the dimension of “clinging vs. letting go” and the dimension of “noise vs. purity”. In this light, we have that energy increases fast euphoria (positive valence and positive arousal), joy increases valence, investigation identifies trends that take you out of the zone and maintains purity, concentration increases purity, equanimity increases valence a little and “letting go” a lot, tranquility induces slow euphoria (positive valence and negative arousal), and mindfulness oversees the whole process while also increasing “letting go”. Together they can help you stay in the optimal zone along these four dimensions! They are, in effect, a “natural way” to do Wireheading Done Right.
Seven Factors of Awakening and Neural Annealing
In addition to the lens of Wireheading Done Right, Neural Annealing also interfaces with the Seven Factors of Awakening quite well. Namely, you can think of them as “welding tools” for wholesome annealing!
In brief, you first need to use “flow” which “melts” the structures of your world-simulation and makes them flexible and amenable to modifications. Then you use the seven factors in order to direct the evolution of the flow into healing and harmonious dynamics. Doing this over and over will, over time, allow you to create a very wholesome and healing flow. More specifically, here are the seven factors as seen through the lens of Neural Annealing:
Maintain flow in the foreground
Focus on the texture rather than the content of flow
Monitor for the arising of hindrances and inclining the mind away from them
This is what happens when you “pluck” the flow. Naturally, this energizes the eigenmodes of the flow! It is like the light that gets trapped between two parallel mirrors. Energy illuminates the harmonics of the flow you are cultivating.
The judicious selection of sets of eigenmodes that are consonant together
Given joyous flow, deepening the joy entails energization, blending, and annealing of the consonant gestalt (cf. Focus on Positive)
Examining the texture of flow. Testing it to determine the presence of hindrances.
It is listening for the ring of the flow (with its objects) and diagnosing what is in it
Cultivating tranquility entails developing highly-efficient cooling structures that channel flow and dissipate energy quickly (cf. Focus on Rest)
Not interfering with energy transit and dissipation by letting it recruit as large of a piece of flow as possible for its diffusion
At a high-enough concentration (in my experience), equanimity undergoes a phase change. It becomes very fluid which balances out the forces inside you. I can see how in large enough amounts this would significantly reduce the suffering associated with intense pain.
It is hard to tell “what you do” to increase concentration. As far as I can tell it requires a lot of skillful rhythmicity that guides awareness in a way that prevents its falling away.
A rough metric for concentration might be: amount of energy of flow that is in phase, in harmonic relationship, and synchronized. Thus, for any level of concentration there are many possible “solutions”. Only on the very high-levels of concentration do experiences become constrained to only a few types. The combinatorial space becomes smaller as concentration increases.
The holy grail here would be the creation of a high-entropy alloy that blends together all seven factors. It’s a bootstrapping process. As you start developing some of the factors, you can use them to weld the flow in such a way that developing the other factors becomes easier. Then you can start developing two or more factors simultaneously (e.g. “tranquil equanimity” or “joyous concentration”). In time, one climbs the gradient that fortifies the presence of the factors in the mind, making it a home for wholesome qualia computing.
Wishing you all a wonderful Sunday!
The Goal: To Anneal a Wholesome Annealing Toolkit (the Holy High-Entropy Alloy of the Seven Factors of Awakening)
A Universal Plot – Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators: Gene Servants or Blissful Autopoietic Beings? (link)
What is the point of it all? What does it all mean?
In this talk I explain how we can meaningfully address these questions with the frame of “consciousness vs. pure replicators”. This framework allows us to re-interpret and unify all previous “scales of moral/conceptual development”. In turn, it makes solving disagreements in a principled way possible.
“Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators” is what I call “the universal plot of reality”; it is the highest level of narrative that determines what is “relevant to the plot” at any given point in time.
Whether consciousness succeeds at gaining control of its destiny and embarks on a collective journey of self-authorship, or whether we all end up being subservient cogs to a self-replicating mega-system whose one and only utility function is to self-perpetuate, is truly up in the air right now. So what can we do to support the interests of consciousness, then?
To aid consciousness we need more than good intentions (though those are still a key ingredient): I discuss how game theoretical considerations entail that in order for consciousness to succeed we will need to judiciously ally with specific replicator strategies. Being a “cooperatebot” towards anyone who claims to care about consciousness makes you liable to being resource-pumped. You need to verify that something makes sense also from the point of view of game theory; without a way to verify the ultimate values of others, coordinating with them at this level becomes extremely challenging. I suggest that a mature technology of intelligent bliss with objectively verifiable effects would be a game-changer. Once you’ve seen “it” (i.e. optimized bliss consciousness) you join everyone else in self-organizing around it.
If the world is to be taken over by something that cares about the wellbeing of consciousness, how this taking over process looks like may blindside us all. The power of “universal love” conquering all obstacles and creating a paradise for all may not be a New Age fantasy after all. Given the appropriate technology, it may turn out to be a live option…
Topics Covered: Kegan Levels of Development, Spiral Dynamics, Model of Hierarchical Complexity, Meta-Modernism, Qualia Formalism, Valence Structuralism, Pleasure Principle, Open Individualism, Universal Darwinism, Battle Between Good and Evil, Balance Between Good and Evil, Gradients of Wisdom, Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators, Wild Animal Suffering, Mistrusting DMT Entities, Super-Cooperator Cluster, Metta/Lovingkindness, State-Dependent Sexuality, Wireheading, Cooperation Technology, Game-Changing as a Strategy.
~Suggestion: Play a music album you like in the background while listening to this talk.~
How do we find the “gems” hidden in the state-space of consciousness?
In this talk I articulate why it is very likely that there is a huge number of undiscovered states of consciousness that are completely unique, irreducible, and wholistically “special”.
In metallurgy, a high-entropy alloy (HEA) is a mixture of five or more metals in high proportions, often giving rise to a single phase. Some HEAs have been found to have extremely desirable properties from the point of view of material science (such as being the best at both yield-strength and ultimate tensile strength at the same time). Given the huge space of possible mixtures of metals, finding these carefully balanced mixtures with unique emergent properties is both a science and an art. It calls for intelligent strategies to explore the state-space of possible alloys!
I suggest that in the realm of consciousness there are also states that would be appropriate to describe as “high entropy alloys of experience”. I go into how this framework can help us understand unique scents*. We then explore how the receptor affinity profiles of drugs, drug cocktails, and drug schedules can give rise to unique HEA-like states of mind. I then also discuss how memeplexes have various degrees of total complexity, and how this makes some more receptive to dealing with complexity in the world than others. I offer that I really appreciate the HEA-like memeplexes that get expressed in places like EAGlobal, The Science of Consciousness, and Psychedelic Science conferences. I conclude by reflecting on how a “productive mindset” or mood optimized for a specific intellectual job is likely to be HEA-like because it requires the careful balance between many different facets of the mind.
Topics you will master after seeing this talk for even just one time**: High Entropy Alloys, Bronze and Iron Age, Equiatomic Alloys, People Clusters in Parties, Scents, Sexual Orientation, Gay Fragrances, Memeplexes and Mindsets, Vibe of Groups, Energy Parameter, Frozen Food, Crystallites, Space Groups, The Science of Consciousness, EAGlobal, Psychedelic Science, Search Heuristics, DMT as “Competing Clusters of Synchrony”, Birthday Cake Flavor, Cellular Automata, Optimal Mood for Productivity.
*(HEAs: Le Male by JPG, Bleu de Chanel, Mitsouko by Guerlain. Non-HEAs: Tommy Girl by Tommy Hilfiger, Habit Rouge by Guerlain, Amazing Grace Ballet Rose by Philosophy)
If the goal is to avoid the formation of such phases, simply mixing together five or more elements in near-equiatomic concentrations is unlikely to be a useful approach. Even multi-component alloys that are initially single phase after solidification tend to separate into multiple metallic and intermetallic phases when annealed at intermediate temperatures.
I estimate that I have experienced between 100 and 200 sleep paralysis, many of which were lucid (meaning that I knew I was experiencing a sleep paralysis). In this video I articulate what I have learned from all of these experiences, share some particularly strange stories, and give you tips for how to get out of a sleep paralysis if you find yourself trapped in one.
Topics Covered: Hyperbolic curvature in pasta, dream music, phenomenal viscosity, DXM, imperfect sensory gating, “radio is playing” hallucinations, Dredg – Album: El Cielo · Song: Scissor Lock, taking psychedelics while dreaming, lucid dreams, dopaminergics, controlling the powerful vibrations of sleep paralysis, recursive depth, false awakenings, whimpering, noting meditation, and techniques for escaping a sleep paralysis.
Niacinamide helps in sleep enhancement as evidenced in a 3-week study of six subjects with normal sleep patterns and two with insomnia using electroencephalograms, electromyograms, and electrooculograms to evaluate sleep patterns at baseline and after niacinamide treatment. There was a significant increase in REM sleep in all normal-sleeping subjects, but the two subjects with moderate to severe insomnia experienced significant increases in REM sleep by the third week; awake time was also significantly decreased (Robinson et al., 1977).
Free-Wheeling Hallucinations: Be the Free-Willed God of Your Inner World-Simulation (link)
Once you realize that you inhabit a world-simulation sustained by your neuronal soil it is natural to ask: why can’t I control its contents? Why can’t I make myself hallucinate whatever I want?
It can be frustrating to realize one lacks control over something that should be truly “ours” – our raw unmediated experience! We could, and perhaps should, be the rightful masters of our very own conscious experience, yet for the most part we remain powerless to explore its possible states at will.
In this video I discuss the existence of some states of consciousness in which you do own and control the contents of your experience. Think of it as acquiring an “experience editor”: an interface with your experience that enables you to modify it at will while keeping the modifications stable.
A lucid dream would be an example of a somewhat fluid and unreliable free-wheeling hallucination. The free-wheeling hallucinations I describe here are much more general, stable, reliable, intense, and hedonic than lucid dreams. More so, to spin up free-wheeling hallucinations could amount to far more than being just a fun activity. Doing so may come to be an extremely valuable tool for a new paradigm of consciousness research! All of the parameters of experience that remain outside of our control under normal circumstances can be studied (both from a first and third person point of view) while in a free-wheeling hallucination! One can conduct a sort of “qualia chemistry” and repeat experiments to get reliable accounts of the behavior of consciousness under exotic (yet controlled) circumstances. Artifacts such as the valence-symmetry correspondance can be inspected in detail. Ultimately, this paradigm may allow us to chart the state-space of consciousness in terms of “edit distances” or “sequence of symmetry breaking operations” away from “formless consciousness”.
I then go on to explain that “knowing everything about your world-simulation” does not entail that the experience will be boring. Hedonic tone can be dissociated from novelty, but we don’t even need to go that far. It suffices to point out that you can set up the parameters of your world-simulation so that it unfolds in a chaotic way, and thus is impossible to predict. Additionally, you cannot really predict what you yourself will think in the future, so the whole setup can continue to generate novelty almost indefinitely (up to one’s storage capacity/size of the state-space/heat death of the universe).
I conclude by exercising my free will.
Topics Covered: Energy Parameter, Predictive Coding, Free Energy Principle, Kolmogorov Complexity of Experience, Principia Qualia, Super Free Will, Quality Trip Reports, DXM + THC Combo, LSD + Ketamine + THC Combo, “Experience Editors”, Qualia Critters, Fire Kasina, Color Control, Qualia Chemistry, Agenthood, Coumarin, Chamomile Tea.
Chamomile consists of several ingredients including coumarin, glycoside, herniarin, flavonoid, farnesol, nerolidol and germacranolide. Despite the presence of coumarin, as chamomile’s effect on the coagulation system has not yet been studied, it is unknown if a clinically significant drug-herb interaction exists with antiplatelet/anticoagulant drugs. However, until more information is available, it is not recommended to use these substances concurrently.
Why Does Anything Exist? Zero Ontology, Physical Information, and Pure Awareness (link)
Why is there something rather than nothing? In this video I take this question very seriously and approach it with optimism. I say (a) this is a meaningful and valid question, and (b) it has a real and satisfying answer. The overall explanation space I explore is that of David Pearce’s Zero Ontology, which postulates that the multiverse is implied by the preservation of “zero information”.
In order to understand Zero Ontology we need to do some conceptual groundwork. So I walk the listener (you, were you to accept this journey) through several concepts that make the question go from “impossible to answer” or even “meaningless” to something that at least conceivably seems possible to solve.
First, we need to sidesteps the common tropes of our habitual modes of thinking, such as expecting answers to come in the form of “causal explanations”. No matter how you look at it, whether the universe extends back forever or not, a causal explanation for the origin of the universe is logically impossible to derive. Instead, we have to think in a radically different way, which is by way of frameworks for implication rather than causation. This opens us up to the possibility that exotic modes of thinking capable of representing what is entailed by “nothing” will show in turn that “something” follows from it. This helps us make sense of Pearce’s argument: the “nothing” we are looking for is not the “common sense” view of the term, but rather a more refined post-theoretical concept that is ill-fitted to the human mind for the time being.
In particular, Pearce focuses on how “no information” may be “what nothing is”. Thus, Zero Ontology attempts to formalize the “fact of inexistence” by reconceptualizing information as “ruling out possibilities”. Based on this alternate concept we see that math, physics, and phenomenology share the common thread of being possible to “construct out of nothing”. In math, the empty set can be used to derive all of arithmetic. In physics the Standard Model is a surprisingly simple theory that can be derived from first principles by imposing the “need for symmetry”. The total energy, charge, momentum, etc. of the universe is zero! And in phenomenology, we encounter a lot of cases where apparently all of the possible flavors of a qualia variety seem to “cancel out” into “pure being” or “raw awareness”. The simplest example is how experiencing “all phenomenal colors at once” (a kind of rainbow effect, but including magenta) seems to be interchangeable with “colorless phenomenal light”.
I tie all of this together and talk about how Zero Ontology allows us to reconceptualize “God/Being” as “unconstrained reality” or “boundarylessness”. I discuss how we could perhaps even probe Zero Ontology empirically in a direct way if we were to train enough physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, computer scientists, etc. to go into high Jhana or 5-MeO-DMT states and then quantify the properties of the fundamental fields implementing these experiences.
I conclude with an analogy to Borges’ Library of Babel (or a quantum version thereof) and why we may be in it. In fact, “be it”.
David Pearce: “A theory that explains everything explains nothing”, protests the critic of Everettian QM. To which we may reply, rather tentatively: yes, precisely.
Topics Covered: The Concept of Nothing, Three Characteristics, Illusion, Limitations of the Medium of Thought, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Redefining Information, Empty Set Arithmetic, Preserved Quantities of Physics, Symmetry and Noether’s Theorem, QFT, Path Integrals, Jhanas, 5-MeO-DMT, Symmetries in Qualia, Quantum Library of Babel, Black Hole Information Paradox.
The Tyranny of the Intentional Object: Universal Addictions, Meaning Abuse, and Denied Self-Insights (link)
What is it that we truly want? Why do so many people believe that meaning is better than happiness?
In this talk I discuss what we call “the tyranny of the intentional object”, which refers to the tendency for the mind to believe that “what it wants” is semantically meaningful experiences. In reality, what we want under the surface is to avoid negative valence and achieve sustainable positive valence states of consciousness.
I explain that evolution has “hooked us” on particular sources of pleasure in such a way that this is not introspectively accessible to us. We often need specific semantic content to work as a “key” for the “lock” of high-valence states of consciousness. I explain how we are all born chronic (endogenous) opioid addicts, and how our reward architecture is so coercive that we often fail to recognize this because thinking about it makes us feel bad (and thus ironically confirming the situation we are trying to be in denial about!).
I go on to provide my current thoughts on the nature of meaning. Beyond “sense and reference” we find that “felt-sense” is actually what meaning is “made of”. But not any kind of felt-sense. I posit that the felt-senses that we describe as richly meaningful tend to have the following properties: high levels of intention, coherence of attention field lines, a “field syntax”, and a high level of “potential to affect valence”. Valence and meaning are deeply connected but are not identical: we can find corner cases of high-valence but meaningless states of mind and vice versa (though they rare).
Meaning is no less liable to be “abused” than hard drugs: we often find ourselves scratching the bottom of the barrel of our meaning-making structures when things go wrong. I advise against doing this, and instead endorse the use of equanimity when faced with the absurd and Chapman’s “Meaningness” approach: to think of meaning as a gradient rather than in black and white terms. Do take advantage of opportunities for high levels of meaning, but do not rely on them and think they are universal. Indeed “meaning abuse” is a recipe for broken hearts and misguided idealistic solutions to problems that can be easily addressed pragmatically.
Finally, I steelman the importance of “high-dimensional valence” and explain why in turn usually pursuing meaning is indeed much better than shallow pleasure.
[T]he heroin addict will do anything to get another fix: lie, cheat, steal and worse. Natural selection has stumbled on and harnessed Nature’s own version of heroin. Our endogenous opioid system ensures that biological life behaves in callous but genetically adaptive ways. […] All complex animal life is “paid” in junk: the addictive dribble of opioids in our hedonic hotspots released when we act in ways that tend to maximise the inclusive fitness of our genes in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). The pleasure-pain axis is coercive. Barring self-deliverance, we can’t opt out. Our “reward” circuitry hardwires opioid addiction and the complex rationalisations it spawns. Human history confirms we’ll do anything to obtain more opioids to feed our habit. The mesolimbic dopamine system enables us to anticipate our next fix and act accordingly: an insidious interplay of “wanting” and “liking”. We enslave and kill billions of sentient beings from other species to gratify our cravings. We feed the corpses of our victims to our offspring. So the vicious cycle of abuse continues.
A Language for Psychedelic Experiences: Algorithmic Reductions, Field Operators, and Dimensionality (link)
Psychedelic experiences are notoriously difficult to describe. But are they truly ineffable, or do we simply lack the words, syntax, and grammar to articulate them? Optimistically, groups who take seriously the exploration of exotic states of consciousness could create a common ground of semantic primitives to be independently verified and used as the building blocks of a language for the “psychedelic medium of thought”.
In this video I present some ideas for a possible “psychedelic language” based on QRI paradigms and recent experience reports. I go over the article “Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States” and the value of breaking the psychedelic experience in terms of a minimal set of “basic effects” whose stacking and composition gives rise to the wild zoo of effects one observes. I point out that algorithmic reductions can have explanatory power even if they do not provide a clear answer about the nature of the substrate of experience. Importantly, since I wrote that article we have developed a far higher-resolution understanding of exotic states of consciousness:
We suggest that a remarkably fruitful strategy for pointing at a whole family of psychedelic effects comes in the form of “field operators” that change the qualitative properties of our experiential fields. I provide a detailed description of what we call the “world-sheet” of experience and how it encodes emotional and semantic content in its very structure. The world-sheet can have tension, relaxation, different types of resonance and buzzing entrainment, twisting, curling, divergence (with vortices and anti-vortices in the attention field-lines), dissonance, consonance, noise, release, curvature, holographic properties, and dimensionality. I explain that in a psychedelic state, you explore higher up regions in the “Hamiltonian of the field”, meaning that you instantiate field configurations with higher levels of energy. There, we observer interesting trade-offs between the hyperbolicity of the field and its dimensionality. It can instantiate fractals of many sorts (in polar, cartesian, and other coordinate systems) by multi-scale entrainment. Time loops and moments of eternity result from this process iterated over all sensory modalities. The field contains meta-data implicitly encoded in its periphery which you can use for tacit information processing. Semantic content and preferences are encoded in terms of the patterns of attraction and repulsion of the attention-field lines. And so much more (watch the whole video for the entire story).
I conclude by saying that a steady meditation practice can be highly synergistic with psychedelics. Metta/loving-kindness can manifest in the form of smooth, coherent, high-dimensional, and consonant regions of the world-sheet and make the experience way more manageable, wholesome, and enriching. Equanimity, concentration, and sensory clarity are all synergistic with the state, and I posit that using “high-dimensionality” as the annealing target may accelerate the development of these traits in everyday life.
Please consider donating to QRI if you want to see this line of research make waves in academia and expand the Overtone Window for the science of consciousness. Funds will allow us to carry out key scientific experiments to validate models and develop technologies to reduce suffering at scale: https://www.qualiaresearchinstitute.org/donate
~Qualia of the Day: The Phenomenal Silence of Each Field Modality~
So, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. Just defining terms so that we’re all on the same page. There’s this thing called core affect which is basically what you get when you apply dimensionality reduction techniques to any one of many areas of psychology. There’s a surprisingly robust pair of dimensions that emerge in co-occurrences of words or even descriptions of behavior. These two axes, arousal and valence, seem to account for about 60% of the variance in terms of what information emotional words contain. And I mean, roughly speaking, arousal is the level of activation, how energetic you are, and valence is how good you feel. Most of what I’m going to be talking about is valence. That said, you need to also consider arousal in the picture to know what this is all about. Just a few examples: you have high arousal, high valence, so that would be kind of excitement and anticipation. But you also can have high energy, but not feeling really good, and that would be kind of anxiety or anger or irritation. Likewise, you have depression, which is low arousal, low valence, and serenity is peaceful, blissful calm, that would be low arousal, high valence.
This is just one example of one of the ways in which you can recover these dimensions of valence and arousal. This was a little study we conducted years ago. We were studying people who have experiences with all kinds of substances online. We were giving them the survey, where they were going to describe a particular substance along something like 70 different dimensions. Then I conducted factor analysis on that data set. Interestingly, we have three core dimensions of valence or valence-related axes, which give you a sense of, okay, what is the space of possible effects that you can get from some substances. There were actually six dimensions that emerged, but three of them are valence-related:
We have slow euphoria, which is equivalent to low arousal, high valence with top terms like calming and relieving. The negative predictors of it would be something like anxiety, producing difficult bodily discomfort. Fast euphoria is the sort of thing you get with stimulants, you know, energizing, sociable, the opposite of feeling spaced out and confused.
The other axis that kind of emerged was this notion of spiritual euphoria. That’s the term I used back then. I also used the term significance, or saliency nowadays. Now I would actually use the term criticality for other reasons that we can go into. There’s this other kind of axis for how you can experience intense valence with substances, which is different from slow and fast euphoria, which would roughly correspond to the psychedelic space. And that, you know, gets marked with things such as mystical, incredible, life changing. The opposite of that is trivial, self-centered, or irrelevant or something like that. This is just to complete the cube. And, you know, in a sense…
This is just a kind of change of basis, where you still get, in a sense, the valence dimension emerging out of this dimensionality reduction analysis. If you were to apply just one dimension, you know, if you ask the factor analysis to just give you one factor, it is going to be the valence factor. That’s the axis that accounts for most of the variance for the effects of drugs.
I’ve got to say that I absolutely acknowledge that emotions are far more complex and intricate than just valence and arousal. This is the result of my master’s thesis where we were analyzing this thing called mood updates, how people feel over time, day after day. I was computing the transition probabilities between emotions, and you can do cluster analysis here and finding attractors. You’ll see that there’s additional information. That said, we concluded that a big chunk of the additional information that is not valence and arousal is actually information about your trajectory in the valence arousal space. For example, we found there would be emotions that because of what they tell you about your emotional dynamics we called gateway emotions, like feeling relieved and feeling hopeful. These terms contain information that you were in a negative, kind of depressive attractor, and you’re moving towards the positive high arousal attractor. In essence, the terms we use for emotions give you not only information about where you are in the valence-arousal space but also what is your trajectory in that space. But in a sense, valence and arousal still account for a very, very big chunk of what an emotion is. Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of valence, at least in this context.
Now, let’s jump into the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The overall hypotheses and the first explicit argument for it appeared in this really, really awesome work by my collaborator, Michael Johnson, Principia Qualia. He has a really interesting skeleton of an argument that points to a lot of research threads that are really worth getting into. I highly recommend digging into this work.
One of the things that it lays out is the kind of conceptual framework to make sense of what type of thing valence might be. I’ll just define a couple terms, which is, first qualia formalism. If there’s one thing at QRI we are married to, you could say, it would be qualia formalism. That is, for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it. We can make an analogy here to something like electromagnetism where we used to have lightning, and electricity, and magnets, and all of that seemed sort of somehow thinly related. But, it turns out that there’s actually just four equations of electromagnetism that tie together all of that phenomena. And you can compare it to something like élan vital, the essence of life. People used to think that maybe there is some kind of a substance that determines whether you’re alive or not. And we would say that, well, that kind of fell through, you know, in the end there is molecular complexity under more molecular complexity. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “life itself”. Life is not formalizable in the same way as electromagnetism is, but something that we would claim at QRI or we could even say something that we assume at QRI, because we believe it is a very generative frame, is that yes, there will be a set of deep mathematical structures to consciousness. In particular, if you expand this into other areas, we also think this is going to apply to valence: that there is going to be a deep and rich mathematical structure to valence, and that notion is called valence structuralism.
In Principia Qualia by Mike Johnson, he has this argument for it, which I definitely recommend reading, especially if you have the aesthetic of a physicist. I think you’ll really like this work, because I think it’s really, really good in that sense. What I’m going to do now is try to give you a kind of intuition for it. And then the whole empirical argument.
Importantly, there are a lot of theories of what valence is. Mike looked at the literature, did a very deep dive into it, and realized that they’re usually unsatisfactory, or at the very least, they don’t get at the true core of what an explanation for valence should be like. So basically, you have these accounts of, for example, valence sees how the brain represents value. Ultimately, that’s just a correlation. Value is a fuzzy abstraction. Some people think valence is the presence of opioids in the brain. But if you inject opioids in different parts of the brain, it doesn’t always feel good. It actually needs to be injected in a very narrow range of stripes in the pleasure centers, and otherwise, it just causes strange feelings or wanting, but it’s not the signature of valence itself. Or, for example, the pleasure centers. Just because you’re calling something “the pleasure center”, and it’s correlated with feeling good, it doesn’t mean you have an explanation. It’s not a very insightful, illuminating, account of valence.
So what could it be? I’ll focus to a large extent on what we are going to call bliss, which is just very positive valence. What is that? What is very positive valence? What is the sense of ecstasy, bliss, intense happiness? There’s a lot of intuitions. Definitely a lot of people think it’s some kind of spiritual signal, and I wouldn’t want to convince you out of that view. But the truth is that there are a lot of different spiritualities, and they sometimes say contradictory things. So it’s kind of strange to expect that there’s this underlying universal spiritual signal that whenever you’re doing something aligned with spirit, you feel good. Because sometimes you can do something very different than somebody else and still have that feeling. Also, the idea that it is “merely” chemical reactions in the brain, again, is not a super satisfactory explanation… same as with pleasure centers, health, few prediction errors, etc. Well, and in the end, I add, yes, symmetry and consciousness, which is what I will be arguing.
I also want to point out, and this is super important, that valence is not the same as healing, and it’s not the same as meaning. However, they’re correlated. I would also go as far as to say that high valence is necessary for healing and for meaning to a large extent. In a sense, you can have a lot of very high valence states that are actually very unhealthy for you. Just an example would be methamphetamine. It can feel great, but it’s unsustainable. To the extent that your nervous system is self-organizing around that high valence experience, it makes it kind of the center of your life. And, you know, it’s a dopamine releaser. It’s obviously unsustainable. You can’t actually do that long-term and expect good results. Whereas, something like meditation, or even psychedelics, because their tolerance mechanism is very, very different. You could say that, yeah, those might be high valence, highly meaningful, and also healing experiences.
So I just want to say that, you know, high valence doesn’t entail healing. And that in that sense, you might say, “Okay, why are we so interested in this?”, but I would say that high valence is a necessary condition for deep healing. And I would even go as far as to say that, for a psychedelic experience to be deeply healing, it has to involve high valence in one context or another. Of course, you may end up processing a lot of very difficult emotions.But ideally, it would be something that basically allows you to heal those difficult emotions and transform them into a state of mind that has many more of the positive qualities.
And more so, high valence, even according to the Buddha, is an important factor for awakening. Of the seven factors for awakening, I would actually say about five of them are very connected to valence. Mindfulness, joy, relaxation, concentration, equanimity; they are kind of different flavors of high valence. They’re different ways in which a very high valence experience can manifest. The Buddha says that these are important things. Even if you only care about awakening, enlightenment, you may also care about the mathematics of valence. It might point you in the right direction as well.
I’ll also mention, there’s a big difference between the recipe of a state of consciousness and what you might call the review, or the description, of that state of consciousness. I’ll make an analogy with cooking: if you have cooking instructions for how to make a cake, sometimes it’s very counterintuitive what the cake is going to taste based on those instructions. Like “add yeast” for example. A lot of things in the recipe you may not know exactly how are going to actually affect the result. So, the recipe may look very different from the review of the state. I would say that for a lot of meditation states, or even just general life advice, this idea of don’t mindlessly chasing pleasure or trying to satisfy all of your existing desires compulsively gives counter-intuitive results. Yeah, chasing pleasure compulsively is not going to result in a sustainable high valence. To some extent, a lot of meditation instructions tell you to neither approach nor withdraw from emotions to develop equanimity. Since you are not engaging with your emotions, it sounds like the result is a fully neutral experience, right? It sounds like it’s unrelated to valence, almost cutting out the valence. But I would say: that’s just the recipe. Those are the instructions for how you manage your attention in order to eventually change your brain to actually generate these very healthy, sustainable, high valence states. So I definitely want to overcome this prejudice of thinking that high valence is unrelated to spirituality. No, I think they’re actually very deeply, intimately connected.
Okay, so let’s go into the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I’ll just read these, but we will go into more depth into all of these. So, you know, we talked about qualia formalism, there is a mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to phenomenology. We believe that, yeah, harmony basically feels good because it’s symmetry over time. And basically, there’s kind of this duality between symmetry and space and synchrony in time. We will go over pleasure centers. The way we explain pleasure centers in this theory is that they are kind of tuning knobs (this was first proposed in Principia Qualia). They are there these bridges that, basically, when they get activated, they enable global large-scale synchrony in the brain. This is something that ultimately is very testable. Because if you can activate the pleasure centers, or inhibit whole brain harmony, we predict that’s going to actually negate the positive valence effects of the pleasure centers. Likewise, if we can induce large scale harmony, without activating the pleasure centers, or maybe even inhibiting the pleasure centers, we expect that to be a high valence state. So, it’s a cool, testable interpretation of what pleasure centers even are.
Boredom is kind of an anti symmetry mechanism. So that’s why even if you look at a cathedral or something like that, you’re not going to be happy forever. You’re going to be happy for a little bit. Because your brain realizes that you’re not learning anything, and adds kind of this dissonance in order to make you move on to something else. We are wired in such a way that what helps us reproduce symmetrifies our consciousness. So, it’s not that high calorie food in and of itself is symmetrical, it’s not that it in and of itself is pleasant. It’s more that the way our nervous system is programmed is such that when you eat high calorie food, it triggers high valence. And that triggered high valence is what would be symmetrical, not necessarily the chemicals that you’re eating.
Importantly, valence, we think, has these three dimensions, which is positive, neutral, and negative. And you can actually have highly mixed experiences. You can have experiences, I don’t know, an example is you’re at a concert, enjoying yourself, but also you have to go to the bathroom, and you just broke up with your boyfriend. You can have these very complex mixed valence experiences, where parts of your experience are very pleasant, parts are very distressing, parts of those are very neutral, and that’s fine. At the same time, it still kind of collapses into this ultimately, “Hey, are you having a good time or not?”.
And something that the Symmetry Theory of Valence would say, and this is a pretty interesting kind of relationship, and I’ll explain it in a couple slides. This is just to kind of put it out there in your head to bounce around as we go on, which is that we expect there to be a very, very intimate relationship between information content, and basically the range of valence that you have access to. So in brief, for very, very high valence states of consciousness, we expect those to have very close to zero information. Whereas, when you have this state that is close to pure white noise, we expect that to be basically zero valence. Hopefully, this will make more sense as we go along.
These are just some illustrations of this principle. Actually, we expect that some of the most negative experiences out there will actually be pretty close to very, very highly symmetrical. I put this disjointed lattice at the bottom. And I would claim that something like a bad 5-MeO-DMT experience is actually something that is very regular, except for some strange disjoints, or imperfections, that cause profound dissonance. Whereas, if you’re in the pure noise kind of range, it all feels blah, it all feels really close to neutral.
When we say the state of consciousness is highly symmetrical and such, you know, let’s say, 5-MeO-DMT, or jhanas, or something like that, we expect these to actually show up in many ways. If you look at the biorhythms, like heart rate and breathing, that’s going to show up, symmetry is going to show up in some ways, being a different kind of projection of the latent state. I mean, ultimately, the formalism, you know, this mathematical object corresponds to consciousness is not observable directly, at least not right now. So we have to kind of rely on these projections, these interpretations of what’s going on, these ways of getting at this unobservable, underlying state. And EEG, connectome harmonics, biorhythms, and so on, are different ways of getting at it. I’ll show you at least empirically that it’s all so far consistent with the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
Here’s kind of the big plan. All of these different projections of this underlying state. So we have basically this stimulus. These are kind of visualized also to give you an intuition. So there’s stimuli, basically more symmetrical stimuli with higher valence, then there’s the endogenous bodily state, you know, biorhythms, as well. The CNS State, the actual, okay, what’s going on in your brain, then the formalism, and then the phenomenology of valence. When you have high valence, we expect (and what we see is) that there’s symmetry all across the board, in each of these different ways of looking at the state of consciousness. In each of these projections of the latent state.
So I’ll go on and start with phenomenology. I know that phenomenology is such a tricky thing. It’s so difficult to do, right. It’s so difficult to do. You make a lot of mistakes in phenomenology, get confused, and become self-deceived. So I mean, hopefully, the observation I’ll relate to you is going to show you that at least we’re taking care of some of the failure modes of phenomenology.
So, first of all, we distinguish between intentional content and phenomenal character. So, if you smoke DMT, and you experience, you know, you say something like “I saw a dragon with my own eyes” that doesn’t mean there was actually a mind-independent dragon out there. And, you know, I take seriously your report that you saw a dragon, but I don’t know how significant that is necessarily. On the other hand, if you describe “Oh, and by the way, the dragon had scales that had a symmetry group of what’s called the glide mirror symmetry group, and it had a 17 hertz strobing effect“. Okay, yes, so we’re getting more into the phenomenal character. You’re actually describing what it felt like, not only what it was about. I would make the claim that these observations of symmetry being related to valence are about the phenomenal character. I don’t care that much about, you know, “What was the journey? What was the content of the experience?” I care more about what it felt like, what are the features of it, and what we observe is that there’s a deep connection here.
So I’ll just give you some examples. Basically, introspect. You know, the difference between massage and bodily pain. Massage is kind of this very, very pleasant, harmonious, tactile pattern throughout your body that gives you these very nice waves of pleasure, as opposed to bodily pain. Bodily pain, if you introspect on it, it’s almost kind of like there’s like pinch points and discontinuities and fragmentations and deformations in your sense of self and the continuity of your skin or your felt sense of your inner organs. Basically, I would make the claim that bodily pain always manifests in one way or another as a kind of symmetry breaking operation. Now, definitely keep this in mind if you ever have a pain again, hopefully not.
Also, let’s say anxiety versus relaxation. Anxiety, you could almost describe it as, constant prediction errors. “Oh, did my heart do something strange? Is my leg positioned properly?”. It’s a state of mind where all of these little imperfections bubble up to your awareness. I would say it’s interrupting the flow of your attention and creating these pinch points and deformations in the way you experience the world. As opposed to relaxation, where you’re almost kind of just completely melted into it. And it’s so regular, you can almost filter out most of your bodily sensations. And in that sense I would argue it has a very symmetrical quality.
There’s also this whole argument Mike brings up which is the phenomenology concerning non-adaptiveness, the non-adaptiveness principle, which is that basically, there’s a bunch of things out there that feel really good, but that weren’t in our evolutionary environment. Those are hints; we consider those hints that hey, if something wasn’t in the African savanna but feels great, it probably means that it’s kind of directly hacking into the patterns of valence somehow. We didn’t evolve to filter those out or to not get absorbed by them. And yeah, here are some examples, but I’ll go deeper into those.
Now, there’s also this exotic valence. Bodily pain, anxiety, relaxations: those would be examples of “normal valence”. It’s the valence that we’re all used to. But I would say that also in “strange valences”, like valences in weird states of consciousness, they also follow this pattern. That in some sense, symmetry explains their pleasantness. And I’ll give you some examples.
So,dream music. I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure, you could say, of having had a lot of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams, and this effect is something you can experience in either sleep paralysis or lucid dreams. If you’ve had a lucid dream, where you were making music, or you heard, you’re hallucinating that there was a radio playing, you will notice that, “Oh my gosh, the music can be beautiful, like… incredible”. And this music, maybe you have heard it before, maybe not. Maybe your brain is generating it on the fly. But it has a quality to it that is extraordinarily hedonic and pleasant. And I remember studying this on myself over many lucid dreaming experiences. At first, I thought, “Oh my gosh, my brain is just unlocking this ability to create awesome harmonies and melodies”. But then I ended up realizing that even if I just make a kind of an “om”, this meditation sound, even though that sound is extremely simple, the quality of the sound in the lucid dream is profound. I mean, it’s almost kind of a surround sound, like 360 surround sound, and stereoscopic and full of reverb and richness.
I would claim that it’s actually because, during a dream state, your brain is more resonant. You can kind of enter into these very, very resonant attractors, and it’s that quality that makes the music so compelling, not the melody. If you transcribe the melody, the melody may not be very significant. It was how it sounded that was so profound in the music in the dream.
Then you have meditation. Even these images, maybe, I don’t know if this is cheating, but representations of meditation, like high attainments, and so on, they usually come with these beautiful symmetries and whatnot. If you examine the phenomenology of jhanas, how they’re described, there seems to be kind of this projection of less and less information content in your experience. Going from having all of your attention concentrated in one point to then the experience of completely perfectly smooth, boundless space to then just pure consciousness, and then the experience of neither nothing nor something. In a sense, that’s kind of approaching the limit of zero information. And then people report these jhana experiences, they’re not pleasant in a conventional sense. It’s not like eating ice cream or something like that, but they’re still very, very high valence. They’re blissful, in an exotic way. But, I do want to point out that there’s this fascinating, strange relationship here between low information content and the blissfulness and the healing quality of the state.
And then there is exotic valence from psychedelics. I mean, again, I don’t want you to focus on the intentional content, what was the experience about. What you thought, of course, can influence your valence, but it’s more about the phenomenal character. There’s this phenomena of tracers, you move your hand around, and you see copies laying around, and in a sense, it’s giving a temporal depth to your experience. It’s almost kind of adding a new dimension of time, where qualia can pile up. And usually, if the trip is good, you’ll notice that these tracers are in a harmonic relationship with each other. That is kind of the essence of what makes them feel so good.
Likewise, there’s a psychedelic texture repetition. You stare at a piece of grass on LSD, and it starts to symmetrify. And I would totally say this is exotic valence because you ask the person, and they will say “the ground was symmetrifying, and I don’t know why, but it was awesome”. There was something really cool about it, and why would that be? Our interpretation here is that psychedelics are, in a sense, unlocking the valence capacity of your visual cortex. It’s kind of transforming your cortex into a pleasure machine, basically allowing it to exhibit these profound symmetries, and that is what actually is making them feel so compelling. People will struggle to explain “Why were the visuals cool? Why were they interesting?”. When it comes down to it, I think it is the symmetry.
Interestingly, these are called the wallpaper symmetry groups. There’s 17 possible ways of tessellating a two dimensional space. From subjective reports, we know that any of these can be experienced on a psychedelic. The ground, kind of chaotically, will arrive at one attractor of symmetry. It could be any of these 17, and they all feel great. They’re all extremely aesthetic and beautiful and blissful in one way or another. But it’s kind of a testament to just how general this effect is.
I would make the claim, and this is obviously a strong claim, but it matters for something like therapy, psychedelic therapy. We recently saw this fascinating research on psilocybin for major depression, and that a lot of these effects are mediated by whether you had a mystical experience or not. I would say that if you did have a mystical experience, and it was healing, I would bet that while you were having that experience, the sense of space and time was basically extremely, extremely symmetrical. And here is kind of why it’s so confusing. Because you come back and you say, “Well, I saw Jesus”, and you think that you got healed because of Jesus. I don’t want to dissuade you from that view, but I would basically ask you “Okay, but when you experienced Jesus, what was the feeling of space and time?”. They might say something like, “Oh, it had a beautiful light. It had this beautiful harmony and rainbows”. And I’ll claim that if you introspect on them then that it’s actually the quality of phenomenal space and time that is healing and blissful. The meaning, the religious meaning, is something that is helping your mind basically concentrate on that space, and take it seriously as a way of propagating this negentropy in your nervous system.
Now, another place where this shows up super, super clearly, phenomenologically, is on DMT. I definitely recommend this article we wrote that basically charts the DMT space. You can know a lot about where you are in the DMT space by describing what is your energy level on the one hand, and then what is the information content on the other. I would say DMT states that have close to zero information content would be kind of these geometric, perfectly repeating, symmetry groups, either 2D or 3D. Whereas, more chaotic states would be kind of in the middle. The energy level would be a matter of dose. The “height” you reach is very, very dose-dependent. But then the valence, I think it’s very, very dependent on actually where in the axis of information content you find yourself in.
Here again, there’s this diagram that the most blissful experiences you may have on DMT are going to be on these kinds of honeycombs and perfectly symmetrical patterns. The most unpleasant experiences are going to be just right next to those, they are going to be kind of dissonant honeycombs. Whereas you know, when you get to complex narratives, like machine elves and alien realms and all of that stuff, those experiences would be very mixed in their valence. There’s both dissonance, consonance, symmetry, anti-symmetry; those are very complex experiences.
Now, the information content, we think of them as basically attractors in feedback systems. You may end up in a chaotic attractor, you may end up in a limit cycle or a fixed point. And that will determine how much information content the state has.
So you have these very rich patterns, and I would say competing synchronies. On DMT, there’s all of these slightly different frequencies that are competing for your attention and creating a narrative out of that. That is like a very mixed experience; it is both blissful and distressing at the same time.
Whereas 5-MeO-DMT, which is described as far more powerful emotionally, tends to give you this sense of pure space, like the feeling of the insight into emptiness, the feeling of infinite boundless consciousness, very little information content. Yet, it’s so emotionally impactful to such an extreme extent.
Interestingly, I would say, the reports do come out that on 5-MeO-DMT, you may have the best experience of your time, or you may have the worst experience of your life. It’s kind of bimodal. It’s either amazing or it’s extremely bad. Often, it starts out really bad and then it gets amazing. I would describe that in terms of kind of this annealing process where it basically starts with dissonance, and, over time, things synchronize, and you do end up where all of your nervous system is entrained to the same frequency, and that feels very, very blissful. Whereas DMT is always kind of in this mixed state. It is very difficult for DMT to be pure negative or pure positive. It’s always this mixed state. So I would say, yeah, this is kind of the phenomenological case for the Symmetry Theory of Valence.
I’m two thirds of the way through the presentation. I’m just gonna walk you through the empirical evidence. So we were talking about phenomenology; that’s one of the projections of this formalism and its symmetry. There’s symmetry in the formalism. It’s gonna manifest in some forms of phenomenological symmetry. Likewise, you know, if you use external stimuli in order to generate a state, like, let’s say, watching a movie, playing music, playing stroboscopic stimulation, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates that the symmetry of the stimuli is the leading factor for how pleasant or unpleasant the resulting state is. We have all of this research in vision.
These are just some examples. It’s so stunning, right? Even if you know the effect, you still get the valence response. You go to a cathedral and think “Okay, I’m not gonna get high valence, I’m not going to get high valence”. You still get the response. It’s pretty automatic. As long as it has this rich, deep symmetry, oftentimes, it’s going to be very beautiful. There’s something very compelling about this.
Just some random pictures to give you a sense of this.
Why does this feel good? It really has very little to do with our ancestral environment.
Anyway, this is such a robust effect that, with the symmetry of faces, for example, even face paint can be used to modify the valence. So, if you don’t have a perfectly symmetrical face, but you add symmetrical face paint with beautiful patterns, you’re going to be judged as more beautiful. It’s just such a strong effect, that it can actually modify your perception of how beautiful somebody is. Likewise, if you add asymmetrical patterns, you look less beautiful. Now, this, I wouldn’t say this is that strong of evidence because this actually does have an evolutionary reason. Symmetry in faces is a marker of mutational load. So I don’t put that much stock in, symmetry of faces being that relevant. But symmetry in other forms is where I think it’s so stunning.
You also see this in symmetry in audio, basically, regular rhythms. Harmony is the leading predictor for whether a sound is going to be pleasant or unpleasant.
You know, this is Helmholtz’s big idea. He was the first one to figure out why playing two notes in a piano that are one semitone apart feels unpleasant. It’s because the harmonics are basically within what’s called the critical window. They generate beat patterns and the beat patterns can be described as basically symmetry breaking operations in the waveform. Those symmetry breaking operations, in essence, cause irritation. So basically, the more beating there is in sound, and the more beating across the spectrum, the more irritating and distracting and rough the sound is going to sound like. Whereas, when you have these harmonic relationships, you play one note, one piano note, and another at an octave of difference, the harmonics line up perfectly. Actually, the sound is very compressible because you don’t have this extra information of where all the other harmonics lie. They’re just the harmonic sequence. And that is universally described as a more pleasant sound.
When you add up all the harmonics, you get these interesting curves. The height here is the amount of dissonance. When you have a relationship of one to two, basically an octave, you have zero dissonance, and that feels really good. Now, music is very complicated. We have to factor in the boredom mechanism. If you just play the same octave over and over, you get bored, and there’s an inner sense of restlessness and dissonance. But if you just hear it for the first time, then there’s a super, super strong relationship between symmetry and valence.
These are just examples of a piano chord.
Dissonant sounds. I can send you a link to all of these sounds after the presentation*, but I have some links for a SoundCloud account where you can kind of get convinced that “Oh gosh, these are actually really bad sounds”. It’s not that I’m saying they’re bad. If you ask 100 people, like 99% of people will say they’re awful.
Likewise, reverb basically symmetrifies any waveform. Reverb is almost kind of this hack that you take almost any dissonant sound and you add reverb to it and is going to sound a lot less bad, a lot less distracting, irritating, and so on. So this is comparing the sound of a baby crying, which by the way, like in our analysis, it shows that babies crying, it’s almost like their sound is optimized for dissonance. It’s almost kind of as dissonant as it gets for a sound made by a human. For good evolutionary reasons, it has to be distracting, and catch your attention, bring the desire to stop it. But you add reverb and to give you a sense, that’s like if the baby was in a huge cave, you get all these echoes averaging out the beat patterns. It sounds way better, way less distracting, probably not good from an evolutionary standpoint. But, it’s just a fascinating kind of transformation you can apply to any waveform.
And here, I just want to illustrate that valence can happen across the spectrum. So I also have this file**, and you’re welcome to listen to it after the presentation where you can have consonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with dissonance anywhere in the spectrum, mixed in with noise anywhere in the spectrum. That ends up basically creating these very mixed states.
So basically, when I say “Oh, I had a mixed experience, a mixed valence experience” that underdetermines what I experienced because we don’t know if the positive part was in the high frequencies or in the low frequencies. We don’t know that. That’s why the full picture of valence would also include the spectrum for positive, negative, and neutral valence. You can have high frequency pleasure, you can have low frequency pleasure, etc. So that kind of explains why there’s a tremendous diversity of possible mixed experiences even though ultimately they’d still come down to symmetry. Deep down, they can all still be explained with symmetry.
Now, endogenously generated symmetry, this is fascinating research. That when you have this “biorhythm coherence” you feel happier. And the way of computing biorhythm coherence is very related to musical consonance. Breathing entrained with heart rate variability is reported as giving rise to a just much, much better positive mood, and is one of the things that long-term meditation achieves. Meditation entrains these biorhythms and basically makes them interlock with one another. That is reported as giving rise to positive mood which is an interesting finding and very consistent with STV.
Here are just some quotes. Cool.
And you know, the heart palpitations. I mean, it’s similar to anxiety in that if you have like this usually regular metronome, and it’s failing, is generating these imperfections, that gives rise to unpleasant states of mind. I’m sure heart disease is terrible for your valence. Likewise, meditation is a wonderful tool for heart disease because it allows you to overcome those imperfections and still feel good despite the problem.
In terms of other endogenously generated symmetry, I will mention orgasm and flow. Orgasm is a powerful generator of endogenous resonance. It’s the entrainment of motor systems to near hallucinations, to synchronizing feedback processes across multiple functional networks. With an orgasm, there’s a deep, deep level of synchrony and symmetry across the nervous system. I highly recommend introspecting on this (not to get into your sex life or anything, though). I mean, it’s something you can actually pay attention to, and it becomes very obvious once you notice it.
Likewise with flow, there’s this evidence that symmetry is deeply related to flow. Two physiological metrics for measuring flow are cortical muscular coherence and a degree of coupling between neural EEG waves and EMG oscillations of muscle activity. So, there’s also these interlocking patterns, lower information content, more symmetry. Yeah, it’s a strong predictor of flow. So like, hey, go figure flow is also symmetrical.
Okay, let’s get into the symmetry in the brain. So this is kind of the other projection you could take of the latent state. If you look at the central nervous system of high valence states, how does the valence show up? And, you know, meditation, like all over the place, basically pretty much any kind of meditation, if done for a long enough time, leads to some kind of EEG coherence. Whether it’s gamma coherence, delta coherence, or alpha coherence, depends on which kind of meditation you do. But they all generate some form of coherence, and coherence in EEG is intimately related with symmetry. I mean, basically, two signals are coherent when they’re both reflections of a shared signal through a reverb pattern, meaning that they’re encoding the same information just through a different filter, which is, again, deeply, deeply connected to symmetry.
Here’s a fascinating study from 2019 that I recommend reading which to me was really stunning. It was stunning in just how clear the connection with the Symmetry Theory of Valence was. The study is about the EEG recordings of the first and second jhanas and the interesting patterns that emerged in them. One of them is this seizure-like activity. Now, seizure-like activity is three to five hertz, and it doesn’t have harmonic structure. I mean most seizures don’t have their harmonics together with them. But the type of seizure-like activity you see on jhanas does have harmonic structure. And the picture here is basically the Fourier transform of the independent components of the EEG recordings. You can see there’s a very clean 5.6 hertz signal, together with its harmonic of 11.23 hertz. This is kind of stunning. Why would this happen? And jhanas feel really blissful. Without the Symmetry Theory of Valence, this is just super surprising and strange. With the Symmetry Theory of Valence it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re, feeling a really great symmetrical attractor of your brain and sustaining it”. So that’s going to feel good.
Even you know, ketamine showing high levels of a gamma coherence.
For 5-MeO-DMT, the only dataset I’m aware of, of EEG and 5-MeO-DMT, shows coherence across the spectrum, not only gamma coherence, but also beta coherence, and especially delta coherence. Again, why on earth? The Symmetry Theory of Valence would explain this. It would say, “Yes, this is expected”. Other theories might struggle a bit. Now, I’ve got to say that just because you have high coherence doesn’t mean it’s going to be high valence. We expect also very negative valence could also be high coherence. Except that when you have total coherence, then we expect that to be always positive valence. Again, it’s going to have that relationship because you could still have a high average coherence, but have half of your channels coherent in a certain frequency and half of the other channels coherent in a slightly different frequency. That might actually maximize dissonance. So just average coherence is not enough. You also need to tell whether it’s in harmonic structure or not.
Pleasure in the brain seems to be kind of this distributed effect that also from our point of view would mean it’s actually a whole brain phenomena.
This is about what I was mentioning about the pleasure centers from our point of view. I mean, there’s this research of if you tried to synchronize clocks, and you tried to synchronize neurons, and you put them in a geometric grid. If it’s large enough, you’re not going to usually get full scale synchrony. You might have emergent patches of synchrony or traveling waves of synchrony. But if you also add these random connections across the network and reduce the synaptic path length, then you can unlock the ability for the entire network to enter synchrony. So we think of the pleasure centers as kind of these bridges that are, in a sense, lowering the average synaptic path length across your brain, and therefore enabling similar synchrony across the brain. And that’s the reason why we think the pleasure centers generally feel good when you activate them.
Okay, getting to the end of the presentation. So I’ll just talk about a few near “enemies”. I put “enemies” in quotes, because we actually admire these people. They’re part of our research lineages. I think they’re a very, very key component of any good theory of consciousness. But I think when it comes to valence itself, there’s some explanations in the space that are really close to the Symmetry Theory of Valence, but they’re not exactly what we’re getting at. So there’s this whole account of computational efficiency. The brain likes computational efficiency, but in a sense, you still have to explain why the brain likes computational efficiency- what does this liking manifest as? We use this argument of “passing the bucket” which ideally your theory of valence should avoid. The theory should explain what valence itself is, not only when it gets triggered. These theories of computational efficiency, energy efficiency, we would claim, they’re telling you under what conditions positive valence gets triggered, but they don’t tell you what positive valence itself is. And that’s what the Symmetry Theory of Valence is getting at.
So yeah, these are some of the issues with those, at least as complete theories.
Finally, okay, counter examples. There’s this whole theory I recommend reading called Neural Annealing (by Mike Johnson). But even very neutral energy that neither has harmony or dissonance, can still give rise to very positive feelings because it can give rise to this annealing process. And that’s actually what we believe is going on with psychedelics. Psychedelics gives you what Mike would call semantically neutral energy. And that gives rise to basically this entropic disintegration, a term from Robin Carhart-Harris and the entropic brain hypotheses, which then gives rise to kind of this search, or self-reorganisation that basically will settle on these basins of symmetry. And it’s those that feel good, not the energy that feels good. It is the end result, the attractor that it takes you to.
And this explains, I think, why even somebody can like hot sauce. Hot sauce is kind of this unpleasant stimuli, but it can lead to euphoria. It can lead to this heightened state of energy. If you introspect on the euphoria of hot sauce, it’s not the unpleasant pain in the mouth, it’s that it raises all of your energy, your entire amount of the intensity of your consciousness. You can then notice these resonant waves, and it is those resonant waves that feel good, not the hot sauce itself. So there’s this kind of a step that basically separates one from the other.
I’ll just very quickly, briefly describe one way we’re trying to test the Symmetry Theory of Valence. It is not the only way to test it. I would even argue that, you know, the argument that I here presented is itself a potentially strong argument. But ideally, you know, we generate novel predictions. And this is one of them, which is that we basically expect that the very positive states of consciousness will have a harmonic relationship, basically a consonant relationship between the brain harmonics. Yeah, using the work of Selen Atasoy.
This algorithm of quantifying the amount of consonance in brain harmonics, which is something we were working with, and hopefully will get resolved soon.
We anticipate that, again, if this is true, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be validated. If it’s not, it doesn’t invalidate it, because there’s many ways in which it can manifest. But when you have harmonics that are in a consonant relationship with each other, and those are the main drivers of your experience, we expect that to be pleasant.
That is, euphoric.
Whereas, when you have harmonics that are dissonant with each other, they generate these intense beating patterns. So we expect that to be described as unpleasant. Again, we don’t know, but we want to check if this is true.
Just a couple testable predictions based on this, which is that we expect psychedelics to enhance the range of valence. Basically, psychedelics enhance energy across the board. Just all of the harmonics have more energy. We expect that some of those combinations will be just very consonant and reported to be very pleasant, some of those will be very dissonant, reported to be unpleasant. Then SSRIs, there’s a lot of research on SSRIs and their blunting effects. They cut the extremes of valence. So, we expect when it comes to harmonics that the SSRIs will be more noisy, less consonant, less dissonant. MDMA, we expect it to be a stable attractor of a few resonant modes that are very consonant with each other. Stimulants would be kind of high frequency consonance. Opiates would be low frequency consonance. Again, this idea that you can be in a good state leaves underdetermined whether there are symmetries in the high frequencies or the low frequencies, and this would disentangle these types of mixed experiences.
These are the last two or three slides which is kind of a case study which is SSRI’s. Roughly speaking, we interpret them as being noise inducers which is why things like orgasm on SSRIs are less intense. Crying is hard. I mean, crying itself is a kind of a dissonant and sometimes consonant, kind of resonant state. On SSRIs you feel kind of spaced out and music enjoyment goes down. So yeah, the way we think of SSRIs is that they’re almost kind of like listening to a white noise machine along your life, so it’s gonna cut off the extremes. It’s gonna blunt both very positive and very negative valence, and it’s gonna just kind of center you in neutral valence.
Whereas psychedelics, they basically kind of purify and intensify your harmonics. And in that sense, you get to have more pleasant and more unpleasant states and both extremes.
Just to remind you: introspect. I compel you, next time you’re on a psychedelic having a mystical experience, introspect on the quality of space and time. I suggest that you will probably be experiencing these kinds of beautiful ripples that are in a harmonic relationship to each other. Please email me if this is true or not true. But that’s the experience so far. And that’s the reason why this can feel so amazing.
The future of mental health, ideally, would be that we can identify, “what are the sources of dissonance in your nervous system?” and then find the shortest path to the smallest change possible that will give rise to sustainable consonance in your nervous system. Whether this is going to be with meditation, a psychedelic session, or yoga, or biofeedback will be person-specific. There’s probably a shortest path from a highly dissonant dysfunctional state to a sustainable consonant state for each person.
And with that I just want to say thank you to other people in the team of QRI. And thank you, Robin, Shamil, and all of you guys for attending this presentation. And to the Centre for Psychedelic Research for hosting this presentation.
Special Thanks to: Mike Johnson who initiated this research direction and has been deeply involved in it for years. To Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, Kenneth Shinozuka, Sean McGowan, Jeremy Hadfield, and Ross Tieman for their contributions to the current work this year. To everyone in the team for their help, support, and love. To our donors for their incredible help. And to you, dear reader. Thank you!
[Excerpt from Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved (published in 1990 and usually abbreviated as PIHKAL) by Alexander and Ann Shulgin, pgs. 98-103]
Part Two: Alice’s Voice
When I finally gave it a name, I called it the Spiral.
This is how it was. Lying down for a nap time (as a child) or at night for sleep, I would have reached that point of relaxation where one is not very much aware of the body. The small itches and discomforts have subsided, and the mind is beginning to drift. When I sensed it beginning (I never knew when it was going to come), I would immediately snap into alertness, excited and pleased, then I would just lie quietly as it unfolded.
The first thing that happened was a change in my breathing. It became increasingly shallow, to the point where my rib cage was barely moving at all.
If someone came into the room and talked to me, as sometimes happened, I could open my eyes and answer normally; the experience continued uninterrupted inside my head.
Every part of it, every stage, was the same each time. It was always in black and white. There was no color anywhere, and try as I did, especially around the age of fourteen, I could not force color to come onto the screen. And I could never extend it, by so much as a few seconds. When it was finished, it was finished.
First came the image-sensation after which I named the entire experience – the spiral. I felt my entire self drawn rapidly into a tiny point which kept shrinking, until it could shrink no further, at which time the microscopic point became a tunnel in which I continued traveling at great speed, inexpressibly small and implacably diminishing.
Simultaneously, I was expanding. I was expanding to the edges of the universe, at the same tremendous speed as that of the shrinking, and the combination, the contraction-expansion, was not only an image, it was also a sensation the whole of me recognized and welcomed. This experience of myself as microcosm-macrocosm lasted exactly four minutes.
The image of the spiral is found everywhere that the human has left his mark on earth. It has been cut into rock faces, painted on huts and clay pots, traced on the walls of initiation caves. I’m certain that it has been important to all the races of man because it is a symbol for the experience I’m describing, and for the concept, the understanding that the intellect forms out of what is initially not an intellectual, but a soul experience of the Alpha and the Omega.
The next stage came abruptly, as did all the changes. I was looking at standing figures which were vaguely human, dark thin figures being pulled into elongated shapes, like the sculptures of Giacometti. They stretched out, arms and legs like black string, until it seemed they could elongate no further, then the scene changed and I was watching obscenely rounded bodies, Tweedledums and Tweedledees without costumes, their small heads and legs disappearing into their puffed, bloated flesh.
The sensation accompanying this stage was one of discomfort, unpleasantness, a feeling of something grating on my soul. I once timed this part and the one that followed; they lasted a total of six minutes. I disliked them intensely.
Abruptly again, the inner screen became white, a horrible dead-white, nasty and aggressive like the underbelly of a sting-ray. After presenting itself for a few seconds, the flat white began to curdle from the outer edges into black, until finally the screen was totally black. A thick, awful, dead black, a pool of tar in an unlit cave deep underground. After another brief pause, the black began to curdle at its edges into the white again. The process repeated itself once, and the sensation was similar in every way to the previous one: irritating, grating, a feeling of unpleasantness that approached repugnance. I always endured it with a mental gritting of teeth, knowing it had to be gone through because that’s the way it always went and it was not to be changed.
And then, finally, I broke out into the last stage, the final part for which I had always been and always would be willing to undergo the middle parts.
Now I was at the edge of an unseen cliff, looking out into a very different blackness, the deep, cradling blackness of the infinite universe, of space which stretched without end. I was completely happy and comfortable in that place, and would have stayed there indefinitely, had I been allowed, breathing in the beautiful darkness and the exquisitely familiar sense of infinity as a living presence, surrounding me, intimate and warm.
After a moment of this pleasure, came the greeting. From the upper left-hand corner of the universe there came a greeting from Something which had known me, and which I had known, since before time and space began. There were no words, but the message was clear and smiling: Hello, dear friend, I salute you with respect-humor-love. It is a pleasure with laughter-joy to encounter you again.
That which greeted me was an entity so far removed from anything in human experience that I concluded, when I was an adult, trying to find a way to describe it to myself, that even the word, “entity”, could not be applied; a word creates boundaries, it says this is the shape of what you are describing, as different from other shapes which are bounded by other words. It had no shape, no form, no definition, no boundaries. It was. It is. It was my oldest friend and it greeted me as its equal. I always replied to it with a rush of love and delight and my own laughter.
Then it was over.
It had taken exactly twelve minutes.
It was something I’d always experienced, taken for granted, and had given no thought to when I was very young. Not until age fourteen did I take a good look at it and recognize it as unusual, something peculiarly my own, my secret private treasure. I also got very analytical about the whole thing, began my habit of timing it and made the first of my unsuccessful efforts at altering it. But I didn’t decide on a name for it until many years later, discarding “Microcosm-macrocosm,” as too long and unwieldy, and settling on the simpler “Spiral.”
It had probably been going on since I was born. There’s no way to be sure, of course, but because it had been part of my life ever since I could remember, I tend to assume it was familiar to me from the very beginning. My mother said something once about having seen a change of some kind coming over me occasionally when I was a baby; she said she didn’t worry about it because when it passed, I appeared to be quite normal.
It always (with one single exception) came under the same circumstances, when I had settled down in bed for a nap or for the night’s sleep, but well before sleep itself took over.
The one exception happened when I was around fifteen, shortly after my father had been transferred to Santiago de Cuba as American Consul. We were staying in a hotel, while those responsible for helping us find a home were still busy with their search. My father and mother, my brother Boy and I were having lunch in the hotel dinning room and my eyes focused on the butter plate on the table. In the exact center of the round plate was a single pat of butter, and somehow the sight triggered the familiar feeling I associated with the beginning of the Spiral. I was surprised and very pleased, because it was a new thing to have it start under such unusual circumstances.
I was also pleased because it was my special thing, and in asking to be excused from the table to go up to my room, I felt a certain sense of importance, which was rare when I was with my family. I said just enough to make it clear that my strange “thing” was beginning, and my parents grudgingly gave me permission for me to leave. I reached the room upstairs in time for the completion, the wonderful last few moments. It turned out to be the only time it ever happened that way – when I was out of my bed, involved with ordinary matters of daily living.
I tried to make it come, searching out all sorts of images of round space with dots in the center, but nothing worked. I never found a way to make it happen. It came when it chose to, unexpectedly, once in a while. The times it chose had no apparent connection to anything else that was going on in my life, either generally or in particular. In twenty-five years, believe me, I looked for every possible connection; I found none. When I was very little, I think it might have happened as often as once a week or so, but as I grew older it came less and less often, until around age twenty-five, when it happened only twice in one year, then never again.
The discovery that I was not alone in my journey into the interior cosmos came as a complete surprise. It gave me a great deal of excited pleasure and opened up a whole new series of questions. I happened when I was around twenty two, and – interesting enough in itself – the two proofs came to me within a single four month period.
The incidents were astoundingly similar.
The first one took place one evening when I went to a party given by a friend in San Francisco. I was in the host’s kitchen with several of the other guests, doing what people usually do in strange kitchens at informal parties – talking, drinking and munching potato chips and carrot sticks – and after a while one young man named Evan and I found ourselves alone, deeply involved in a conversation about unusual experiences, mostly read about or heard from others, the kind of conversation that seems to come about more easily, somehow, in the midst of a high energy, noisy party than at any other time.
Suddenly Evan was telling me about what he referred to as “a really weird thing,” which had been happening to him ever since he was very young. I remember the prickling that spread up my back as he began describing it, and I understood immediately the look that gradually came into his face, a mixture of embarrassment and anxiety (She’s going to think I’m crazy; why am I talking about this?). I tried to make it easier for him to continue by nodding encouragingly and once – when he faltered briefly – I volunteered what I knew was going to be the next image, and he looked startled, almost frightened, drank a bit from his glass, muttered, “Yes, exactly”, and continued to the end. His end was not mine; his journey came to a close after the black and white curdles. I thought, with a touch of pity, that he seemed to have missed the best part, although he did have the wonderful spiral at the beginning. I was glad I hadn’t prompted him further. When he’d finished his story, I told him I’d had every one of the images he had described, and that he was the first person I’d ever met who shared the experience. I said nothing about my own different ending.
He was staring at me, and I wasn’t sure he’d really heard what I’d been telling him. Finally, he smiled and said that I was the first person he’d ever told about this private, “crazy thing,” and he couldn’t believe – it was so extraordinary – that I actually knew what he was talking about. He said that he had always wondered if the experience was a sign of insanity of some kind, and it was such a relief to know that somebody else had had it. Neither of us felt it necessary to add that, in a situation like this, it was also reassuring to see that the person who shares your strangeness appears to be relatively sane and reasonably functional.
I smiled back and said I understood exactly how he felt. We left the kitchen and joined the rest of the party. I never saw him again, and didn’t particularly expect or want to. It was enough to have heard one other person repeating what I knew so well, and it was intriguing to know that my journey, or process, had gone farther, longer, than Evan’s; after all, although I was more than willing to give up exclusive rights to the whole thing, I didn’t mind retaining a little bit of superiority.
The second incident was almost identical to the first, the only difference being that the young man (whose name I forgot almost immediately) was talking to me in somebody’s living room, instead of the kitchen, in the middle of another noisy party, when he began describing the “strange vision” that he, too, had had ever since he was a small child. His, also, ended short of where mine did, and he was astounded and obviously very relieved to know that there was somebody else in the world who knew about it.
Both young men seemed quite unremarkable, although pleasant enough and intelligent. I never saw the second one again, either.
I remember wishing briefly that I could put an ad in the Chronicle or Examiner, something along the lines of, “Seek contact with others who have experienced…,” and of course, the imaginary ad stalled there.
It happened – my beloved Spiral – for the last time when I was twenty-five. I had no way of knowing, of course, that it would not come again. It may or may not have been a coincidence that, within three weeks of the last time, I had my first encounter with a psychedelic material, the Divine Cactus, peyote.
Has the above ever happened to you? Did you experience the Spiral as a kid? If so, please let us know!