Come and meet other like-minded and like-hearted people who are curious about these topics in order to share fun experiences, listen to a comedy sketch about consciousness, experience exotic scents, and taste the bliss of a heartfelt community in a cozy plant-filled Oasis at the heart of SF!
2PM – Setup (feel free to join and help) 2:30PM – Start, casual (and causal!) hangout 3PM – Drinks, snacks, and music-sharing 4PM – QRI scent workshop delivered by yours truly* 5PM – Comedy sketch and talk about the binding problem and aligning DMT entities 6PM – Participants share the experiences they brought 7PM – Food (catered**) 7:30PM – Participants can give a 5 minute speech (there will be a signup sheet) 8:30PM – Start of takedown 9PM – Everybody out, afterparty***
Please feel encouraged to bring with you an experience to share with others (your ~Qualia of the Day~) at 6PM! This can be exotic candy, spices, perfumes, special massagers or haptic devices, unusual sounds, weird concepts, brief meditation, etc.
One Embarcadero Center (Third Floor, Next to the Cinema), San Francisco, CA 94111. The venue is at the Embarcadero Building furthest away from the water, on the third floor (“promenade level”). You can get there via the elevator (“Floor P”) or by taking the escalator, and then the stairs, following the signs pointing you to the (now defunct) Cinema. It’s a big red building, right next to a large Maple tree.
After mulling it over for a bit and letting reflective equilibrium naturally arise, I came to the conclusion that my strange reaction to these fashion shows was indeed a symptom of spiritual decadence:
This is why we introduced VALENCIAGA by QRI. The first valence-centric luxury brand that aims to focus on the actual pursuit of altruistic bliss. Yes, it’s hot, sexy, and above all attractive. But at the same time, the dopaminergic wrapper hides within a core of real Jhanic bliss (unlike the amphetamine-comedown textures of qualia hiding behind your prototypical New York fashion houses).
Thus, for this QRI meetup you are encouraged to come in a fashionable, qualia-rich attire that makes you *feel* like you just came down from the 7th Jhana or your bliss-state of choice.
Looking forward to seeing you!
Note: We originally kept this meetup low-key on the basis that we were worried that the venue might reach its maximum capacity. After learning more about the venue, we are confident that it will hold up. And if we do experience overflow, don’t worry! There is a park nearby (Sue Bierman Park) which we can use as a buffer where you can hang out with others until there’s enough space for you. This is also why this announcement is in such a short notice. Sorry!
* You will have an opportunity to test (and purchase!) our exclusiveQRI Scents, including the mythical Hedonium Shockwave. ** You can, and are encouraged to, bring vegetarian food, drinks, and snacks to share. *** Location in Berkeley with capacity for up to 40 people (from 9PM): 2042 Hearst ave apt c Berkeley CA very close to the downtown Berkeley BART
Of potential interest to readers: here’s part of an email exchange I recently had with Scott Alexander about Rhythms of the Brain by György Buzsáki, a book I recommended he read to learn more about the neuroscience of brainwaves. This is an essay he published about it; I had a chance to read a pre-publication draft to check whether he was describing the science and my positions accurately. This is part of my feedback on the draft (lightly edited for clarity and consistent formatting):
Andrés – Oct/13/2022
First of all, thank you again for writing a review of Rhythms Of The Brain. As I mentioned, I think your review is spot-on. It’s already really great as it is. But I think the following pieces of information might help you answer some of the questions you pose and enrich the mental model you have about brainwaves. I should also mention that I’m still learning a lot on the topic from a number of angles and my model still has quite a few moving parts.
Without further ado, here are 5 key points I’d like to share:
(1) I think that Susan Pockett‘s Consciousness Is a Thing, Not a Process (link to PDF) is very relevant here. She argues based on neurophysiological and behavioral evidence that conscious perception only happens when Local Field Potentials (LFPs) are generated. The timing, functional correlates, and location of events of conscious perception of sensory stimuli seem to agree with this (pgs. 4-5):
Here’s how I think about this:
Have you wondered why brainwaves track levels of wakefulness? See, in principle you can have a great deal of neural activity without any brainwaves. Raster plots of spike neural networks could in principle look like white noise… which in turn would generate no brainwaves at all because the oscillations in the electric field would cancel each other out at the macroscopic level. Recall that perfectly compressed information is indistinguishable from noise. So, in principle, an optimal use of the state-space of neural activity would look totally like white noise and lack brainwaves.
Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.
The “LFPs as mediators of consciousness” story has a lot going for it. In particular, it is quite elegant in how it can help us make sense of our phenomenological relation to our brain and nervous system. Brainwaves and LFPs are be highly correlated. Coherent neural activity causes LFPs, which in turn mediate/bias activity in neurons, with a causal structure like this:
If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there. But at the same time, we need the coherent neural activity to be booted up. So we are sort of “riding the brain” while the brain is giving us our foundation. Perhaps this gives us another angle to think about the “elephant taming” metaphor for the progression of the meditative path:
(3) The work of Stephen Grossberg (Adaptive Resonant Theory, and more recently his book Conscious Mind, Resonant Brain) as well as that of his student Steven Lehar, have macroscopic resonance as a key computational step. Arguably this is something you can simulate with classical neural networks. But using the EM field would potentially produce a significant computational speedup. Talking to Lehar, he used an interesting analogy, where in which he described “neurons spiking as a kind of sand blasting of the electric field” in order to activate internal representations. Recent research seems to confirm that the information content of internal representations is better captured by the structure of the electric field than by the neurons that sustain it (“Neurons are fickle. Electric fields are more reliable for information.“).
NOTE: One of the contributions to the conversation that QRI is aiming to make (essentially by publishing in academia what’s already discussed in our website) is that while these field theories of consciousness do address the binding problem, they now have to contend with the boundary problem. Our solution is “topological segmentation”, which itself comes with empirically testable predictions. Topological pockets allow for holistic field behavior *and* for solving the boundary problem at the same time, finally rendering bound consciousness both causally efficacious and objectively bounded. [In your essay] you could point out that I claim that resonance is necessary but not sufficient to solve the phenomenal binding problem. So even if AIs were using brainwaves, that might not be enough for them to be conscious, though it would go in the right direction. More on this on our website soonish.
(4) I think that we can use the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) to explain the hedonic properties of different network topologies. This would be responsible for the “intrinsic valence” of a given brain region. You write:
> Why this combination of tasks? Rhythms sort of suggests that brain areas are less about specific tasks than about specific graph-theoretic arrangements, which are convenient for specific algorithms, which are convenient for specific tasks.
Yes! This is a great way of putting it. I think that having diverse network topologies available is one of the key ingredients of a general intelligence like ours. A learning algorithm that patches together the right sections to produce the right kind of structure for internal representations with holistic properties seems like a natural way to construct a mind. More so, some of these patches will cause dysphoric waves and others euphoric waves. The dysphoric parts of the brain, if STV is in the right direction, would have a network topology that work as a sort of frustration generator. The waves generated by these parts sort of “hate themselves”: activating them causes internal dissonance and stress that is then radiated out as waves with unfriendly ADSR envelopes to the rest of the brain. In contrast, the euphoric parts would produce highly aligned waves with soft ADSR envelopes and the right level of impedance matching to harmonize with other wave generators.
(5) Merging with God as a kind of global coherence:
> Andres suggests all of this is a good match for oscillatory coupling between brain regions.
Perhaps add something akin to “which according to him ‘dissolves internal boundaries'”
> Andres thinks this is part of what’s behind “spiritual” or “mystical” experiences, where you suddenly feel like you’ve lost the boundaries of yourself and are at one with God and Nature and Everything.
My strongest phenomenological evidence here is the difference between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT (video): competing clusters of coherence feel like “a lot of entities in an ecosystem of patterns” whereas global coherence feels like “union with God, Everything, and Everyone”. Hence the terms “spirit molecule” for DMT and “God molecule” for 5-MeO-DMT. The effect size of this difference is extremely large and reliable. I’ve yet to find someone who has experience with both substances who doesn’t immediately agree with this characterization. [This can be empirically tested] by blinding whether one takes DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and then reporting on the valence characteristics, “competing vs. global” coherence characteristics, and on whether one gets a patchwork of entities or one feels like one is merging with the universe.
With classic psychedelics, which stand somewhere between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT in their level of global coherence, you always go through an annealing process before finally “snapping” into global coherence and “becoming one with God”. That coherence is the signature of these mystical experiences becomes rather self-evident once you pay attention to annealing signatures (i.e. noticing how incompatible metronomes slowly start synchronizing and forming larger and larger structures until one megastructure swallows it all and dissolves the self-other boundary in the process of doing so).
You will not find academic publications describing this process (because their psychological scales are not detailed enough, aren’t focused on structure, and aren’t informed by actual practice). Nor will you find psychonauts talking much about this, because they tend to focus on the semantic content of the experience rather than on the phenomenal texture [see our guide]. Naturally, one is typically socially rewarded for providing an entertaining story about one’s trip… not a detailed *technical* report of phenomenal texture. Therefore, right now you’ll only find QRI content explaining all of this. But I’m fairly confident about this after talking to very experienced. So I think this will significantly shape the conversation in a couple of years once we start getting some consensus on it.
I could share much more, but I have to restrain myself (taming the elephant!). Let me know if you need anything else.
Scott – Oct/13/2022
Thanks. […] two questions:
> Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.
Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)? Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?
> If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there.
Confused by this too. My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model? Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?
> Thanks […] two questions:
(I’ll answer your questions in a different order than how you asked them, on the basis that my answer to the first one is much more weird and less credible… In other words, I’m answering more or less in order of how weird my responses are so that you are not put off by my first answers. This way you can choose when to stop reading without missing anything useful for your essay):
> My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model?
I think that “brainwaves can be explained as emergent patterns of a cellular automata” is a very good starting model, and it has a lot of explanatory power. But there are empirical and experiential facts that would go against it as a complete explanation. And perhaps, it misses the most important hint for a theory of consciousness that satisfies all of the necessary criteria I consider such a theory must satisfy. And that is, that binding has non-trivial computational effects. I.e. At some level, patterns of organization exert “weak downward causation” on the substrate that gave rise to them. This does not mean there is “strong emergence” or that we’re going against the laws of physics. On the contrary, a key guiding principle for QRI is to be strict physicalists. The laws of physics are causally closed and complete (or at least as good as it gets; the Standard Model can be taken at face value for the time being, until something better comes along). Without violating physicalism, we nonetheless still see instances of weak downward causation in the physical world.
As an intuition, consider the fact that something like TMS can change neural activity. In fact, TMS, and especially rTMS, can cause seizures. This suggests that at a sufficiently high dose, EM oscillations can exert top-down influence on neuronal firing thresholds and phase coherence, and more so when they come in repetitive waves rather than pulses. In the case of LFPs, which are far more localized and less energetic, the influence isn’t huge. But it is there. As far as I understand the neuroscience literature on LFPs (and ephatic coupling more generally), the fact that LFPs change firing thresholds is uncontroversial. The question is “by how much”. Most studies find small effects (otoh between 1% and 20% of the variance, but I can look up more precise and recent figures – e.g. see: Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons).
The more interesting and perhaps significant effect that LFPs have is to change the degree of coherence between neurons. In other words, they may not change much their probability of firing, but do change a lot their probability of firing in phase. You can see how this would lead to interesting self-reinforcing effects. Namely, if neural coherence causes LFPs, and LFPs increase neural coherence, there might be attractors of hypercoherent neural firings coupled with strong and very orderly LFPs. I believe this explains the Jhanas.
Now, can’t you just expand your cellular automata to include LFPs and call it a day? Well, yes, in a theoretical but rather impractical sense. Building a cellular automata that simulates a simple neural network is easy. Building one that simulates water is more tricky. By the time you are constructing cellular automata to simulate EM fields you get into trouble. It’s possible, but you need all sorts of tricks, shortcuts, and handling complex edge cases (e.g. topological segmentation!). Can you construct a cellular automata that simulates physics? Quantum mechanics proper? Yes… if you are Wolfram. But recall that his explorations invoke cellular automata with unusual mathematical primitives. We are no longer in the territory of simple grid-like graphs. We are in Ruliad-space, with hypergraphs and exotic rulesets. Quantum coherent states behave in a very holistic fashion (where the “next step” is the result of solving Shrödinger’s equation in configuration space). So while it’s possible to use cellular automata to think of physics at this level, it isn’t a very natural choice. Rather, I posit that thinking of it in terms of universal principles like energy minimization, extremas, and the preservation of zero information is what takes us closer to the phenomenon at hand. These principles are, by their very nature, holistic. An electron, as Feynman would put it, can sort of “smell its surroundings” to decide where to go. It somehow explores all possibilities at once and “chooses” the one that balances the minimization of energy and maximization of entropy. A truly holistic sort of phenomenon.
I think that if at that point one uses a cellular automata to represent this, one has actually reintroduced the very thing the cellular automata conceptual framework was trying to avoid. And that is, the computational power of holism. This is because even though the Ruliad that simulates physics is in some way a cellular automata, the ruleset itself requires a kind of God-like capacity to integrate pieces of information and “see all at once” entire regions of the (hyper)graph and decide what to do next. My claim is that at this point one has “pushed” the undesired holism to the ruleset in order to avoid seeing it directly. It’s a reductionist sleight of hand.
Now, I’m not saying consciousness is quantum mechanical. What I’m pointing out is that EM waves are sort of in the spectrum between simple cellular automatas and QM, where the waves interacting with one another have all kinds of peculiar holistic effects. Binding, if it involves EM waves, turns out to be computationally non-trivial.
In this model, the brain is physically providing a soil that can instantiate EM waves with many different kinds of properties. Some behave linearly, some non-linearly. And together, they give rise to the vast zoo of possible internal representations, many kinds of binding, topologies, and dynamics we experience (such as the strangeness of “fire meditation“).
> Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?
You can’t voluntarily shut down your brain with conscious control. At least not immediately. But you can direct your attention to two parts of your experience at once, and the resonances in those two regions will slowly but surely begin to synchronize. In other words, from an EE point of view, spreading your attention over a given region of your experience increases the impedance matching between the metronomes in those regions. This, I think, is the influence of LFPs (or similar) on neural activity. This may be subtle, but over enough time and neural rewiring, the process can lead to very interesting effects. Hyperconcentrated states of consciousness, starting with access concentration all the way to single-pointed attention and ultimately to the formless Jhanas are obtained through mental moves that slowly by surely “unify the mind” (i.e. brings coherence between disparate metronomes in the nervous system). This is “us” learning to influence “our brain”.
> Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)?
Two quick things here. The first is that we think brainwaves (macroscopic oscillations in the EM field more generally) are necessary but not sufficient for consciousness. They still need to form a topological pocket, or they will remain unclosed eddies that cannot contain information nor maintain a boundary with their surroundings. The second is that the main point is that the brainwaves track the texture of degrees of wakefulness. More so, it’s not just the spectral power distribution, but also the patterns of spatiotemporal cross-frequency coherence. Thus, two states might look the same in terms of their spectrum, but carry significantly different internal textures since one of them has a high degree of, say, gamma coherence and the other doesn’t.
> Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?
One of the key insights from Stevan Lehar is that using a dynamic, smooth, spatial medium of representation allows us to run spatial algorithms on our representations. One example is the incredibly general reverse grassfire & reverse shock schaffold algorithms that explain a wide range of visual illusions (discussed in The Constructive Aspect of Visual Perception / as well as in his magnum opus video Harmonic Gestalt). Based on the fact that these algorithms generalize to things like breakthrough level DMT experiences and that they apply to hyperdimensional phenomenal objects and their resonant modes, I’m fairly convinced that the local cellular automata view doesn’t explain the facts. The structures that exist in those states follow law-like energy minimization properties reminiscent of fluid dynamics in higher dimensions. To me they seem to necessitate something like Maxwell’s equations; a cellular automaton would need a lot of training and fine-tuning to be able to instantly generate those dynamics right and seamlessly. Combine this with the (not fully verified but tentative) observation that DMT states are phenomenologically similar to those induced by high-dose Fire Kasina. I believe that the mechanism is actually fairly simple: both methods energize the visual field to the point where it transitions from a linear and partially linear state into a fully nonlinear regime. The phenomenon is better seen as what happens when you energize a non-linear optical computer than, say, the effect of changing the ruleset of a cellular automaton.
I know this lacks credibility for the time being […]. I aim to identify crisp and experimentally verifiable demonstrations of this that trained physicists and neuroscientists can both agree on.
In the long-term, I expect humans to figure out ways to use high-energy states of consciousness to tap into the EM field as a computational substrate. Not only will this entail a revolution in consciousness, but also, interestingly, in how we think of computation. The Turing Paradigm will turn out to be a tiny special case of… qualia computing.
Alright, I hope that wasn’t too much, haha.
Thank you again, and happy to answer more questions.
I recently did a podcast with Leigh Brasington (author of Right Concentration) and Wystan Bryant-Scott where we discussed a model for Jhanas in terms of neural annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and the feedback loop between neural coherence and LFPs.
Over a year ago in a meditation retreat, fear came up as an emotion I had to work with. In order to deal with it, my subconscious brought to my awareness scents that it found could counteract fear in its most essential form. What are these? Well, it started with banana! Have you ever smelled a banana and felt fear? No way! Unless you’ve had a bad experience with bananas before, just noticing the fruity, sweet, bouncy scent of a banana is somehow quite opposite to the mindspace that fear tends to induce. What else? Jasmine, honeydew melon, vanilla, honeysuckle… All of these scents felt very antithetical to fear during the meditation. Down the line, I realized mint and ylang-ylang could also work.
A few days after the retreat I got to work and made the first draft of a scent that combined all of these elements. The result was a bit underwhelming: it smelled like the classic bubblegum scent (not what I had in mind). Tuneups with carrot seed oil, patchouli, and bergamot didn’t really make it better. I still thought the basic concept was sound, but I shelved the project for the time being.
Six months ago I gave it another try. Ambroxan, isobutavan, coconut, and neroli added some additional fear-extinguishing nuances (especially the coconut). But it became a really tricky balancing act – with all of those essential and fragrance oils the interactions quickly multiplied, and sooner or later I found myself nearing the flowery-fruity equivalent of “Laurax” (white noise scent) and the effect became blunted. I made a batch of the best version that came out of that series of experiments (which ended up having a good dose of freesia), and distributed some of it in little bottles to friends and family as a gift. I also sent one to Daniel Ingram, who sampled it with his wife. Their reviews:
*Daniel’s wife: Bubblegum fruit punch.
*Daniel: This reminds me of some fragrance from a soap store in a mall in the 1990’s, like Body Shop shampoo, almost like Johnson’s baby shampoo, so I would call it Bright Pink Mall Shampoo.
I personally liked it, but in my heart of hearts I knew it was still far from what my subconscious truly had in mind. Fearless 2.0 was a nice fruity flowery vanilla scent, but it failed to reach the true potential of the concept.
About a week ago I decided to pick this up again. Now I had a mindset of removing rather than adding; the aim became that of simplifying the scent to the point where I would achieve the effect I had experienced during meditation but with the least number of ingredients possible. Being far more acquainted now than I was last year with how pure molecules interact with each other, this final version of the scent is primarily made of synthetics: 4 essential oils and a total of 10 individual aromachemicals, carefully balanced to achieve the desired effect with no bells and whistles. I can say that after a year since this concept came to me and about a hundred experiments, I am now satisfied. Well, it could still benefit from some tuneups, but as they say, only God is perfect.
Fearless 3.0 is, to a first approximation, the “triple point” between the vibes of (1) ylang-ylang, (2) mint, and (3) vanilla. Of course to soften it, blend it, volumize it, and amplify the synergy, tricks must be used, so it’s not as simple as just mixing those three scents together. But you’ll get the idea: Ylang-ylang already has facets of banana and jasmine (though a pinch of amyl acetate definitely adds to the fearlessness of the scent). Ylang-ylang’s contribution is one of adding sweet euphoric entropy. Mint works as a source of coolness; when dosed properly you can’t tell it’s there, but its effect is marvelously refreshing. And vanilla, well, vanilla is like the butter of scents. Together, you have a strangely refreshing white-yellow flowery scent it’s hard to have too much of. It’s calming and energizing at the same time.
I kid you not, this scent has now made it into my liminal world; I had an entire night where dream after dream were drenched and suffused with it. And indeed, they were all happy, joyous, and free from fear.
I won’t disclose the precise formula, since I might end up using this as part of a line of scents, possibly to fund consciousness research. But I am very happy to share the broad outline with you all, as I just did.
Thank you for reading, and may you all find your fearless state!
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]
Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening (link)
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. Whereas 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 noise as 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)
[ps. correction – I wrote a 30 page document about my retreat, not a 50 word document]
Neural Correlates of the DMT Experience Assessed with Multivariate EEG (Christopher Timmermann, Leor Roseman, Michael Schartner, Raphael Milliere, Luke T. J. Williams, David Erritzoe, Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, Michael Ashton, Adam Bendrioua, Okdeep Kaur, Samuel Turton, Matthew M. Nour, Camilla M. Day, Robert Leech, David J. Nutt & Robin L. Carhart-Harris)
The Purple Pill: What Happens When You Take the Blue and the Red Pill at the Same Time? (link)
“The Purple Pill is the pill that gives you both high hedonic tone and an unprejudiced open-ended approach to the pursuit of truth. For losing truth is to lose it all, but to lose it all is only bad because it makes you and others suffer in the wider universe.” – The Purple Pill (Qualia Computing)
In this talk I explain that the “Blue vs. Red Pill” trope relies on a false dichotomy. You don’t need to choose between depressive realism and comforting illusions. Put differently, you don’t need to choose between truth and happiness. High hedonic tone is not incompatible with one’s representational accuracy of causal structures. The world, and the existence of experiential heaven and hell, can be understood without curling into a ball and crying your way to sleep. More so, effective and persistent action towards the good requires that you don’t believe in this false dichotomy, for sustainable altruistic productivity necessitates both accurate models and positive motivations. Thus, the aspiring paradise engineer ought to be willing to take the Purple Pill to move onwards.
I advocate having a balanced portfolio of (1) efforts to minimize experiential hell, (2) techniques to increase the hedonic baseline sustainably, and (3) methods to reliably experience peak states of consciousness in a sane way.
I do not think that spending 100% of one’s time in “destroying hell” is a sustainable approach to life because it does not allow you to “reinvest” in the conditions that gave rise to one’s goodness to begin with (otherwise you become more of a martyr than an effective player in the field!). More so, the relationship between suffering and productivity is non-trivial, which means that to just helping people who suffer extremely does not generally pay off in terms of productive action towards the cause in the future. Hence, improving baseline is just as important: it is precisely what allows people to go from near zero productivity to a high level of productivity. Finally, the benefits of having access to reliable, pro-social ultra-blissful states of consciousness should not be underestimated. They are an important piece of the puzzle because they motivate the “animal self” and are deeply reassuring. Thus, as a “package”, I see a lot of potential in simultaneously reducing negative extremes, improving the baseline, and achieving new heights of bliss. This, to me, is what I see as the path forward.
Topics I cover span: Trungpa’s “Spiritual Materialism” (the attitude of using exalted states of consciousness to “decorate our ego”), optimization problems/reinvesting in the good, sane in-group/out-group dynamics, the game theory of virtue signaling, and the importance of having an explicit commitment to the wellbeing of all sentient beings (to prevent value drift).
What are the differences between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT? And what gives rise to those differences? In this video we discuss 12 different ways to analyze the strange and unique effects of these substances. We go over the 9 lenses already discussed in Qualia Computing* and add three more.
Starting with three new lenses (5-MeO-DMT left/DMT right):
A) Global Coherence vs. Competing Clusters of Coherence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to a global coherent state (the so-called “unified energy field”), whereas DMT gives rise to an ecosystem of time-loops, each trying to capture as much of your attention as possible, which in turn results in coalition-building and evolution of patterns in the direction of being very “attention grabbing” (cf. reddit.com/r/place).
B) Really Positive or Really Negative Valence vs. Highly-Mixed Valence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to either a globally coherent state (high-valence) or two competing coherent states (negative-valence), whereas DMT tends to generate complex consonance/dissonance relationships between the clusters of coherence.
C) How they are different according the the Free Energy Principle: On 5-MeO-DMT the entire experience has to reinforce itself, whereas each cluster of coherence needs to model the rest of the experience in order to be reinforced by it on DMT. Thus 5-MeO-DMT makes experiences that express “the whole as the whole” whereas DMT makes each part of the experience represent the whole yet remains distinct.
And the original 9 lenses:
1) Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT. 2) Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT. 3) Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving. 4) Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it. 5) Fixed Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors: 5-MeO’s effect on feedback leads to stable and predictable attractors while DMT’s attractors are inherently chaotic. 6) Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it. 7) Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it. 8) Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks: 5-MeO creates a few huge phases of experience (as in phases of matter) with a few remaining specks, while DMT produces a more organic power law distribution of chunk sizes. 9) Integration vs. Fragmentation: 5-MeO seems to give rise to “neural integration” involving the entrainment of any two arbitrary subnetworks (even when they usually do not talk to each other), while DMT fragments communication between most networks but massively enhances it between some specific kinds of networks.
I also explain what is going on with the “Megaminx DMT worlds” and when DMT entities bully you into believing in their independent existence.
Digital Sentience: Can Digital Computers Ever “Wake Up”? (link)
I start by acknowledging that most smart and well-informed people today believe that digital computers can be conscious. More so, they believe this for good reasons.
In general, 99.99% of the times when someone says that digital computers cannot be conscious they do so equipped with very bad arguments. This, of course, does not mean that all of these smart people who believe in digital sentience are right. In fact, I argue that they are making a critical yet entirely non-obvious mistake: they are not taking into account a sufficiently detailed set of constraints that any scientific theory of consciousness must satisfy. In this video I go over what those constraints are, and in what way they actually entail that digital sentience is literally impossible.
The talk is divided into three parts: (1) my philosophical journey, which I share in order to establish credibility, (2) classic issues in philosophy of mind, and (3) how we can solve all those issues with QRI’s theory of consciousness.
(Skip to 31:00 if you are not interested in my philosophical journey and you want to jump into the philosophy of mind right away).
(1) I’ve been hyper-philosophical all my life and have dedicated thousands of hours working on this topic: having discussions with people in the field, writings essays, studying qualia in all manners of exotic states of consciousness, and working through the implications of different philosophical background assumptions. I claim that QRI’s views here are indeed much more informed than anyone would assume if they just heard that we think digital computers cannot be conscious. In fact, most of us started out as hard-core computationalists and only switched sides once we fully grokked the limitations of that view! Until the age of 20 I was a huge proponent of digital sentience, and I planned my life around that very issue. So it was a big blow to find out that I was neglecting key pieces of the puzzle that David Pearce, and later Mike Johnson, brought up when I met them in person. In particular, they made me aware of the importance of the “phenomenal binding/boundary problem”; once I finally understood it, everything unraveled from there.
(2) We go over: Marr’s levels of analysis (and “interactions between levels”). The difference between functionalism, computationalism, causal structure, and physicalist theories of consciousness. The Chinese Room. Multiple Realizability. Epiphenomenalism. Why synchrony is not enough for binding. Multiple Drafts Theory of consciousness. And the difference between awareness and attention.
(3) We solve the boundary problem with topological segmentation: this allows us to also provide an explanation for what the causal properties of experience are. The integrated nature of fields can be recruited for computation. Topological boundaries are neither epiphenomenal nor frame-dependent. Thus, evolution stumbling upon holistic field behavior of topological pockets of the fields of physics would solve a lot of puzzles in philosophy of mind. In turn, since digital computers don’t use fields of physics for computation, they will never be unified subjects of experience no matter how you program them.
I also discuss issues with IIT’s solution to the binding problem (despite IIT’s whole aesthetic of irreducible causality, their solution makes binding epiphenomenal! The devil’s in the details: IIT says the Minimum Information Partition has “the highest claim of existence” but this leaves all non-minimal partitions untouched. It’s epiphenomenal and thus not actually useful for computation).
Thanks also to Andrew Zuckerman and other QRI folks for great recent discussions on this topic.
Psychedelics and the Free Energy Principle: From REBUS to Indra’s Net (link)
Friston’s Free Energy Principle (FEP) is one of those ideas that seem to offer new perspectives on almost anything you point it at.
It seems to synthesize already very high-level ideas into an incredibly general and flexible conceptual framework. It brings together thermodynamics, probabilistic graphical models, information theory, evolution, and psychology. We could say that trying to apply the FEP to literally everything is not a bad idea: it may not explain it all, but we are bound to learn a lot from seeing when it fails.
So what is the FEP? In the words of Friston: “In short, the long-term (distal) imperative — of maintaining states within physiological bounds — translates into a short-term (proximal) avoidance of surprise. Surprise here relates not just to the current state, which cannot be changed, but also to movement from one state to another, which can change. This motion can be complicated and itinerant (wandering) provided that it revisits a small set of states, called a global random attractor, that are compatible with survival (for example, driving a car within a small margin of error). It is this motion that the free-energy principle optimizes.“
Organisms that survive over time must minimize entropy injections from their environment, which means they need to minimize surprise, which unfortunately is computationally intractable, but the information theoretic construct of variational free-energy provides an upper bound on this ground truth surprise, meaning that minimizing it will indirectly minimize surprise. This cashes out in the need to maximize “accuracy – complexity” which prevents both overfitting and underfitting. In the video we go over some of the classical ideas surrounding the FEP: the dark room, active inference, explicit vs. implicit representations, and whether real dynamic systems can be decomposed into Markov blankets. Finally, we cover how the FEP naturally gives rise to predictive coding via hierarchical Bayesian models.
We then talk about Reduced BEliefs Under pSychedelics (REBUS) and explain how Carhart-Harris and Friston interpret psychedelics and the Anarchic Brain in light of the FEP. We then discuss Safron’s countermodel of Strengthened BEliefs Under pSychedelics (SEBUS) and the work coming out of Seth’s lab.
So, that’s how the FEP shows up in the literature today. But what about explaining not only belief changes and perceptual effects, but perhaps also getting into the actual weeds of the ultra bizarre things that happen on psychedelics?
I provide three novel ideas for how the FEP can explain features of exotic experiences:
(1) Dissonance-minimizing resonance networks would naturally balance model complexity due to an inherent “complexity cost” that shows up as dissonance and prediction error minimization when prediction errors give rise to out-of-phase interactions between the layers.
(2) Bayesian Energy Sinks: What you can recognize lowers the (physical) energy of one’s world-sheet. I then blend this with an analysis of symmetrical psychedelic thought-forms as energy-minimizing configurations. On net, we thus experience hybrid “semantic + symmetric” hallucinations.
(3) Indra’s Net: Each “competing cluster of coherence” needs to model its environment in order to synch up with it in a reinforcing way. This leads to attractor states where “everything reflects everything else”.
Advanced Visions of Paradise: From Basic Hedonism to Paradise Engineering (link)
This video was recorded as a way for me to prepare for the speech I gave at the “QRI Summer Party 2021: Advanced Visions of Paradise” (see livestream here). You can think of it as the significantly more in-depth (and higher audio quality!) version of that speech.
The core message of this video is: thinking wholesome, genuinely useful, and novel thoughts about how to build paradise is hard. Doing so without getting caught up in low-dimensional aesthetics and pre-conceptions is very challenging. Most of the “visions of paradise” we find in our culture, media, and art are projections of implicit aesthetics used for human coordination, rather than deeply thought-out and high-dimensional perspectives truly meant to elevate our understanding and inspire us to investigate the Mystery of reality. Aesthetics tend to put the cart before the horse: they tacitly come with a sense of what is good and what is real. Aesthetics are fast, parallel, and collective ways of judging the goodness or badness of images, ideas, and archetypes. They give rise to internal dissonance when you present to them things that don’t fit well with their previous judgements. And due to naïve realism about perception, these judgements are often experienced as “divine revelations”.
To disentangle ourselves from tacit low-dimensional aesthetics, and inspired by the work of Rob Burbea (cf. Soulmaking), I go over what aesthetics consist of: Eros, Psyche, and Logos. Then, to explore high-quality aesthetics relevant to paradise engineering, I go over 7 camps of a hypothetical “Superhappiness Festival”, each representing a different advanced aesthetic: Hedonism, Psychiatry, Wholesome, Paleo, Energy, Self-Organization, and Paradise Engineering. For didactic purposes I also assign a Buddhist Realm (cf. “Opening the Heart of Compassion” by Short & Lowenthal) to each of the camps.
Note: the Buddhist realms are a very general lens, so a more detailed exposition would point out how each of the camps manifests in each of the Buddhist realms. Don’t put too much stock on the precise mapping I present in this video.
~Qualia of the Day: Pure Lands~
Picture by Wendi Yan (wendiyan.com) “The Tower of Paradise Engineering” (also the featured image of this post / image to appear in the forthcoming QRI Book)
For context, here is the party invite/description:
Science fiction and futurism have failed us. Simply put, there is a remarkable lack of exploration when it comes to the role that consciousness (and its exotic states) will play in the unfolding of intelligent agency on Earth. This, of course, is largely understandable: we simply lack adequate conceptual frameworks to make sense of the state-space of consciousness and its myriad properties. Alas, any vision of the future that neglects what we already know about the state-space of consciousness and its potential is, in the final analysis, “missing the point” entirely.
Exotic states of consciousness are consequential for two reasons: (1) they may provide unique computational benefits, and (2) they may have orders of magnitude more bliss, love, and feelings of inherent value. As Nick Bostrom puts it in Letter From Utopia:
(1) “Mind is a means: for without insight you will get bogged down or lose your way, and your journey will fail.
(2) “Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.”
In light of the above, let us for once try to be serious consciousness-aware futurists. Then, we must ask, what does paradise look like? What does it feel like? What kinds of exotic synesthetic thought-forms and hyper-dimensional gems populate and imbue the spacetime of awareness that makes up paradise?
Come and join us for an evening of qualia delights and great company: experience and make curious smells, try multi-sensory art installations, and listen to a presentation about what we call “Advanced Visions of Paradise”. Equipped with an enriched experience base and a novel conceptual toolkit, we look forward to have you share your own visions of paradise and discuss ways to bring them into reality.
Ps. If you are being invited to this event, that means that we value you as a friend of QRI ❤
Pss. Only come if you are fully vaccinated, please!
~Music: People were asking me about the playlist of yesterday’s party. The core idea behind this playlist was to emulate the sequence of aesthetics I talked about in the speech. Namely, the songs are ordered roughly so that each of the 7 camps gets about 1 hour, starting in camp Hedonism and going all the way to camp Paradise Engineering: QRI Summer Party 2021: Advanced Visions of Paradise~
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)
Some substances seem to be much better at treating psychological trauma than others, even when they are seemingly similar in nature. We have reason to believe that 5-MeO-DMT is significantly better suited for this task than N,N-DMT (“DMT” from now on). In order to gain insight into why this difference exists, we investigate the phenomenological differences and similarities between the experiences produced by these two tryptamine psychedelics. In particular, we develop 9 lenses that show promise for understanding how 5-MeO-DMT and DMT differ:
Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT.
Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT.
Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving.
Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it.
Fixed Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors: 5-MeO’s effect on feedback leads to stable and predictable attractors while DMT’s attractors are inherently chaotic.
Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it.
Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it.
Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks: 5-MeO creates a few huge phases of experience (as in phases of matter) with a few remaining specks, while DMT produces a more organic power law distribution of chunk sizes.
Integration vs. Fragmentation: 5-MeO seems to give rise to “neural integration” involving the entrainment of any two arbitrary subnetworks (even when they usually do not talk to each other), while DMT fragments communication between most networks but massively enhances it between some specific kinds of networks.
All of this together suggests that 5-MeO-DMT is better at helping you “reconnect with yourself” than DMT. And this may be key to treating trauma effectively.
What is Trauma?
I will start out by briefly mentioning an interesting property of psychological trauma. You see, trauma has a lot of somatic manifestations. Feeling disconnected from yourself, like you are full of blockages, that you have numb regions in your body despite no physical damage, and so on, are all quintessential ways in which trauma shows up in a person’s everyday life. Given these manifestations, do these suggest any new way of treating this? How about using something that facilitates the communication between parts of your nervous system that are not on “speaking terms” with each other? Would giving our nervous system a kind of vibration that simultaneously entrains any two of its regions to make them act as a unit be of any help?
Psychotropic Treatment of Trauma
Based on tens of interviews, hundreds of trip reports, and a literature review, I have arrived at a tentative short list of drugs that have the highest potential to heal trauma (in decreasing order):
They are all synergistic combined with music, vibration, strobes, and olfaction. And when wisely used, they all have the ability to help you move on past pain: stop ruminating, stop feeling like your behavior is inhibited, and stop having panic attacks associated with your past experiences.
At some point in the future I will provide direct empirical evidence for the claim that these three substances are uniquely good for treating trauma. Arguably psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD can be helpful in processing traumatic experiences too. But my claim is that the options I listed are uniquely good at deeply resolving the issues at an emotional level and bringing to you the opportunity to feel a profound and lasting sense of inner peace.
DMT won’t help as much as 5-MeO-DMT.
MDA is not as good as MDMA.
And DXM, ok, perhaps it can also be quite useful for trauma… but ketamine has something “extra” that really helps.
What is this?
The Koan: 5-MeO-DMT, MDMA, Ketamine?
Perhaps we could gain a new perspective by framing this as a Koan: what do MDMA, 5-MeO-DMT, and ketamine have in common? You HAVE to the figure this out in the next 24 hours, or your guru will literally cut your cat in half. Motivated enough?
What do you do? Well, you start out by borrowing psychopharmacology books from the library. But does that help? When it comes to trauma, in traditional textbook neuroscience MDMA is at best just a footnote. Ketamine is not even mentioned for the most part, unless the book is hip, but even then it will be mentioned in the chapter about anaesthetics and painkillers; its psychoactive effects will be glossed over as “emergent phenomena”. No! What are you doing? Wasn’t John C. Lilly already talking about the far-out, extraordinarily bizarre, perhaps even literally inter-dimensional properties of “vitamin K” way back in the 70s? Then why is my 2007 “Drugs and the Brain” textbook so totally lacking in any kind of genuine phenomenological insight about this stuff?
And what about 5-MeO-DMT? You are lucky if the term appears even once in your $800 textbook. And if it does indeed appear, you can bet it will also be in a footnote, this time concerning matters such as “psychoactive animals”, “other tryptamines”, and “mesoamerican entheogens”. You will neither see 5-MeO-DMT mentioned in a personal identity philosophy textbook, nor in a neuroscience treatise on “neural synchrony”, nor in the part of academia focused on “innovation in the treatment of mental illness”.
It is sad to admit, but the official main-lined level of interest in the three most promising therapeutic tools for trauma listed above is a matter of sorting and assembling footnotes.
I am exaggerating a bit, of course.
MDMA’s therapeutic potential is gaining traction thanks to the tireless work of MAPS. S-Ketamine is now approved as an anti-depressant. And while 5-MeO-DMT is gaining popularity at a glacial pace, it is at this point by no means a secret. An increasing number of vocal members of the psychedelic community have been talking about 5-MeO-DMT for some years. People who have publicly emphasized how different five is from other psychedelics include Hamilton Morris, James Oroc, Martin Ball, Leo Gura, and Rak Razam. But what we still lack is rigorous scientific backing for these claims. After all, everyone is likely to want to sell their aesthetic preferences as universal truths about beauty and bliss, right? Thankfully, there are some early scientific indications already:
The above graph comes from a 2018 study that investigated the therapeutic effects of 5-MeO-DMT-containing toad venom relative to psilocybin. The dose used (the amount of buffo venom vaporized) had an estimated content of 5-7mg of 5-MeO-DMT, and the researchers classified 75% of the resulting experiences as meeting the criteria for a “complete mystical experience”. It measured people’s level of response with the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ30), and as you can see from the graph above, in every category 5-MeO-DMT seems to be more powerful than psilocybin. The level of effectiveness was indeed found to be higher than all but the highest dose of psilocybin, and chances are that the study couldn’t show it was more effective than that because it was underpowered to detect it, and not because there is no difference (in other words, the sample size was not large enough for the difference between high-dose psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT to reach statistical significance). Also bear in mind the key difference that the trip lasts under 20 minutes in total, meaning that even if the trip fails to produce full effects, you can still afford to try it again ten more times in the same time interval that it would have taken you to experience a full psilocybin trip. More so, it is important to point out that the dose of 5-MeO-DMT taken by the participants of this study is considered to be at the edge between “light” and “common” in PsychonautWiki’s entry on the drug*. Indeed, for many people the “breakthrough” tends to happen around 10mg, and I’ve heard of people using up to 30mg of it at a time. (Beware: if you ever try this – please don’t jump straight to a high dose, as this can cause serious trauma as a result.) Therefore, I think it is reasonable to expect that future studies will confirm what anecdotal data is currently screaming: that 5-MeO-DMT is more “powerful” and “mystical” in its effects than psilocybin, LSD, DMT, 2C-B, and all the rest.
But what this “power” and “mysticism” exactly amounts to still lacks clear and useful definitions. More so, is there any concrete reason why 5-MeO-DMT may be also superior at healing trauma relative to, eg. LSD or psilocybin? Technically, one could currently argue that since the presentation of “complete mystical states” is a mediating factor in whether psilocybin has long-lasting psychological benefits, that 5-MeO-DMT is more effective simply because it has a higher probability of causing this effect. But I would argue that the texture of 5-MeO-DMT peak experiences is different and not only just more intense, and that the way in which it is different matters for its therapeutic value.
To investigate this particular difference, we now move on to examining the phenomenological difference between 5-MeO-DMT and DMT.
5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT: The 9 Lenses
My experience is that a reasonable ~20% of people I talk to who have a long-standing interest in psychedelics have heard about 5-MeO-DMT’s special properties. However, only a much smaller percentage of people have actually tried it. At Qualia Computing we have talked about its exceptionalphenomenologicalproperties a number of times. Yet it remains that most readers who reach out have not themselves experienced it. Hence I have not really had access to quality trip reports in order to say anything meaningful about the way in which it is different from DMT.
Thankfully, I’ve recently interviewed someone who has a decent level of experience with 5-MeO-DMT (20+ trips), along with a significant level of experience with vaporized DMT (100+ trips), and is also acquainted with the combination (10+ trips with both substances at once).
Given the incredibly intense psychoactive effects of 5-MeO-DMT (both for good and bad), most people struggle to put into words anything meaningful about the state. That said, as it has been the case with a number of other states of consciousness (e.g. LSD, DMT, and MDMA) I feel compelled to try to offer a sane, rational, agnostic, and pragmatic description of its phenomenology. In particular, I think that 5-MeO-DMT’s unique trauma-healing potential really deserves a close look. I believe that it sheds light on a wide range of topics of interest such as neural annealing, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and the pseudo-time arrow (video). With this in mind, I inquired with my interviewee about the differences between N,N-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. Together, after a lengthy open-ended discussion, we found the following ways to compare them:
1. Space vs. Form
One of the first things that stands out when you take DMT at even small doses is the way in which colors get intensified. This is a special case of a very generalizable effect: in fact, every perceptual feature you can point to is enhanced while on DMT, from the sharpness of edges and pointy things to the feeling of movement and rotation. The interviewee indeed said that a brain on DMT “becomes a powerful qualia machine“.
After trying 5-MeO-DMT for the first time, most people already familiar with DMT mention something along the lines of “I was surprised that I didn’t see many colors.” The visual component of five is rarely very colorful; if color appears, it is in the form of a golden or sometimes light faint magenta or green hue. For the most part, the visual component of the experience is black and/or white. At times, one can see rainbow halos, but like rare subatomic particles, on 5-MeO-DMT rainbow colors come in and out of the vacuum, as if somehow equivalent to it. The bulk of the visuals manifest in a dazzling sense of spaciousness, as if there was a cosmic paint called “transparent/translucent”. The space often feels immeasurable due to a lack of a reference frame from which to make a judgement in terms of known comparisons. But what inevitably stands out is that the space seems large, uniform, harmonious, smooth, and luminous. Somatic feelings blend with this space, and the uniformity and symmetry of it allows for energy to seamlessly move throughout it. It really is a remarkable effect, one which can easily give rise to the felt-sense of Open Individualism. Yet, despite the engrossingly engaging character of these feelings, there is very little narrative complexity in sight.
Who knew that empty space could be so much fun? That you could fit so much love and bliss in an (experiential) vacuum? More so, the more you are able to relax into it, the more you embrace the waves of equanimity, the more you allow the space to become perfectly smooth and seamless… the more blissful it all gets!**
2. Crystals and Quasi-Crystals
Here is an interesting thing – ultrasound has been used in order to bias the way in which water crystals form, and thus creating much more “cubical” water than is otherwise possible. More generally, the phenomenon of vibration affecting crystallization processes is worth considering as an explanatory framework. DMT comes with a particular vibe that some have identified as having a characteristic frequency somewhere between 20 and 30Hz, whereas 5-MeO-DMT’s vibe seems to be a notch higher, perhaps in the range of 30 to 40Hz. On these drugs, your attention is jittered back and forth at a certain frequency, and this affects your ability to focus on any given part of your experience. The specific jittering itself makes it harder and easier to construct and manipulate certain thought-forms over others.
Speculatively, this model says that the jittering of attention caused by 5-MeO-DMT and DMT give rise to crystal and quasi-crystal building blocks, respectively, for phenomenal objects in one’s experience.
Phenomenologically, it seems that the vibratory signature of DMT effects doesn’t wrap around your experience an integer number of times. Thus, what we will call, for lack of a better term, the qualia crystals that form while on DMT seem to be inherently unstable and alien to your normal way of cogitating. The fact that the vibrations don’t fit perfectly in one’s experiential field forces it to bend out of shape to accommodate such vibrations. The result is constant chaos – fluid instabilities as the core effect.
On the other hand, with 5-MeO-DMT, it’s as if the vibration activates parts of the field of experience in exactly the right way for them to blend, unite, and resonate with one another. The vibrations fit perfectly inside one’s experiential field, and allows it to relax into its own natural shape. And this allows for perfect crystals of awareness to peacefully grow, multiply, and synchronize.
(d) Quasi-crystaline take-over
(c) Parallel narratives going on in interweaving channels with characteristic microstructure
(b) Irregular worldsheet with ambiguous self-models
It is of course surprising that a tiny difference in the frequency of the vibe could have such large effects in the way phenomenology crystallizes. But this is true for other systems. When one talks about the complexity of shapes in resonant systems, for instance, Lissajou curves can provide a helpful intuition pump: in Lissajou curves, merely changing one of the frequencies by a small relative amount can result in a huge difference between the pictures drawn. From a simple circle to a complex mesh.
According to the interviewee, 5-MeO-DMT would neatly correspond to one of the simplest Lissajou curves above, while the DMT sensations would be better evoked by one of the meshy ones.
With that said, it is worth mentioning that 5-MeO-DMT is probably not hitting the right frequencies merely by chance. It’s probably more that it is activating a system whose attractor is self-correcting and results in the kind of symmetrical crystallization that gives rise to deep feelings of bliss.
3. Attachment to Existence and Non-Existence
5-MeO seems to point at a super general sense of “relaxation”. A meditation teacher, Ajahn Brahm, talking about jhanas said that his mantra to achieve states of deep concentration and peace was: “Relax… to the maaaaaaaxxxx…”.
And according to the interviewee, the thrust of 5-MeO is that it feels like your nervous system is paradoxically injected with a lot of energy and yet the vibe of this energy is that of total and complete- ultimate?- relaxation. But our body and mind are not used to relaxing deeply. The contrast between this energy and one’s usual neurotic state can itself produce a lot of dissonance and resistance. In most cases, this is transient and contained to the first couple of minutes of the experience, though in higher doses and with bad luck, it can also spiral out of control. On small and moderate doses the energetic vibe of “relax to the max” takes over one’s experiential center of mass and teaches the rest of your nervous system how to relax.
It vibrates your nervous system in just the right way that all of your tensions, and hidden knots, and internalized stresses, bubble up to the surface, and you have the chance to try to “unravel” all of that tension.
After taking it a couple of times, you get the very nice feeling of being OK with whatever happens. 5-MeO-DMT might be described as a drug that allows you to reduce “thirst, craving, desire” in a very generalized kind of way. In Buddhist terms, this would be to reduce “Taṇhā“, which comes in three different kinds: “kāma-taṇhā (craving for sensual pleasures), bhava-taṇhā (craving for existence), and vibhava-taṇhā (craving for non-existence).” While we are used to hearing religious figures and moralists talk about the importance of not experiencing cravings for sensual pleasure, popular culture still lacks legible myths about the craving for existence and non-existence. So it comes as a shock for someone who has never developed meditative introspective insight just how much of our suffering has the flavor of either craving for existence or non-existence. Dosing on 5-MeO-DMT gives you a glimpse for what a mind devoid of these more subtle forms of craving feels like.
DMT comes with a vibratory frenzy that directly causes a lot of knots and tiny stress points throughout your entire experiential field. And to a large extent, how the experience unfolds is the result of you trying to manage all of those knots and stress points to avoid having them accumulate and concentrate in painful ways. The effect of this is that DMT acutely increases attachment to existence and non-existence. You wonder “what am I in this world?” and then cling to it, along with an intense fear of losing yourself in the world of vibration. The fear is quite involuntary and primal. And because you are clinging to who or what you are, there is something that you can lose, and that contributes to the feeling that the stakes are very high.
On 5-MeO you look at a landscape- say a tree in a Savannah- and you can see it in the most Zen way you can possibly imagine (and I don’t mean cutting cats in half). You think: “there is neither someone nor nobody in there” and “it’s all just arising and passing of ephemera”.
On DMT you look at the same landscape and you feel: “Oh gosh, what AM I in here? Am I that rock over there? That rock seems threatened by erosion! Am I the tree? But what if something comes and eats the tree?” and so on.
On DMT you feel like you are one of many little beings in a vast ecosystem. On 5-MeO-DMT you step back and you “realize” that you are the entire ecosystem.
In turn, this may explain to some extent the fact that the content of DMT hallucinations is often filled with exotic beings. And almost always, these beings have hyper-specific ways of life, tastes, intentions, and beliefs. The realms you experience on DMT are all saturated with attachment to existence and non-existence, and the beings you interact with are no exception. In fact, they may be a manifestation of those intensified cravings! From the interviewee:
“I’ve taken DMT about 100 times and have encountered many different vibes and kinds of intelligences in those realms. I’d love to map out the possible narratives – there are so many! Loosely speaking, I’ve had many different encounters with intelligent beings: from blissfully angelic and benevolent to outright demonic. Most of the beings I’ve encountered are somewhere in-between, and for the most part, tend to have pretty dualistic mindsets.
There is this whole class of beings I’d identify as harlequins/jesters that just love to play tricks with perception (I’m sure that’s what Terrence McKenna was pointing at).
Then there are “artists” which have a particular style that they explore and can range from emotionally self-sufficient to aggressively in-your-face about their work. The “look at THIS and look at THIS and look at THIS!!” kind of stance, where you are not given enough time to process what they’ve already shown you before they thrust even more stuff into you, and then attach ‘cookies’ into your etheric body to track you in future trips so you “like” and “subscribe” to their “interdimensional channel” or something like that.
There’s also a lot of beings that seem to want to tell you that they are confident that God does not exist and that “everything is allowed”. And I’ve felt that they are really indifferent to morality, but still have powerful abilities and unique qualia of a more scientific bent.
I once also encountered what felt like a true sadistic demon that played some really nasty tricks on my perception, and filled me with “etheric bugs” and had hundreds of little minions to attack me in many unpleasant ways. That said, I blame this on the fact that I was sleep deprived when I took DMT that one time, and it’s never happened before or since. But that experience gave me a lot of respect for the drug.
I’ve also encountered realms where they actually do consciousness research as such, and are benevolent and into engineering paradises. I even asked one of them if they knew my favorite philosopher, and they said “yes, what a nice fellow – we hope he will be more widely known in the future. We just wished that he wasn’t so sad a lot of the time.”
I have found that my pre-existing mood is the single most important variable that determines the kind of intelligences I encounter. So I’d really like to someday try MDMA and DMT combined. I suspect those would be very angelic beings most of the time.
Interestingly, I feel that while DMT feels profoundly spiritual, to a large extent it is less “nondual” than most other psychedelics. A lot of beings I’ve encountered simply don’t seem to care about oneness at all. But on LSD, mushrooms, and of course 5-MeO-DMT, the Golden Rule seems to play a very central role in the experience. Those experiences are much more of a “teaching” than the wacky stuff one encounters in the DMT realms.
When you take 5-MeO-DMT and DMT at the same time, you can really feel the contrast between the dualistic “us vs. them” vibe that underlies DMT and the unitive sense that underlies 5-MeO-DMT. I’ve experimented with the combo and found it to be super informative. And usually, I realize that while DMT turns your brain into a high-octane “qualia machine”, 5-MeO is in fact much more peaceful and happy in a deeper sense. I’d like to understand both, but my preferred “home” would be for sure the 5-MeO realms.”
4. Underfitting vs. Overfitting
One interesting lens with which to make sense of the difference between people who are open to experience and people who are not is that of model complexity, which casts this difference in terms of the statistical concepts of underfitting and overfitting.
Having narrow views, simple explanations, and enduring preferences is very good when the world itself is either very simple or impossible to understand. But having complex views, multi-layered explanations, and flexible preferences is more adaptive than the alternative in a world that is both complex and can be understood with some effort.
Indeed, some speculation about the nature of sleep from the predictive coding paradigm of cognition is that dreaming is a process of model complexity reduction. The information that we accumulate over the span of a day is incorporated in an ad-hoc fashion while awake, and only properly integrated (and pruned) after a good night’s sleep. This at least provides the theoretical precedent for describing a specific state of consciousness in terms of its effects on model complexity. And here we would propose that as a very general effect profile, 5-MeO-DMT reduces model complexity while N,N-DMT increases it.
As a consequence, we would posit that people who take five a lot will converge towards compelling yet over-simplified models of realty, whereas people who use DMT a lot will converge to overly complex and unnecessarily detailed explanation for even the simplest of phenomena.
Perhaps in the future people could be diagnosed as chronic overfitters and underfitters. In turn, these two drugs could be given by prescription, for the maladies of improper model selection practices:
N,N-DMT would be given to the sufferers of too much worldview simplicity. People like this believe that the world is dominated by the struggle between capitalism and communism. They think that there is a 50% chance that God almighty exists. They assign zero probability to unlikely events, such as lizard people power conspiracies. In people like this, DMT is a powerful mind enhancer capable of challenging cartoonishly simple background assumptions and introducing a healthy dose of skepticism in mainstream narratives.
5-MeO-DMT would instead be given to people who are overwhelmingly embroiled in complex interpretations of the nature of reality. Whether it is in the realm of conspiracy theories, religious cults, the biochemistry of aging, or any such hopelessly convoluted field of research, a little five will unscramble the mind of the compulsive overfitter. Thanks to the drug, the Bayesian puncture, the Occam’s cut, and the pragmatic so what coalesce into a decimating hit to the load-bearing hub-nodes that feed unfalsifiable belief systems. The model complexity reduction effect dissolves entire subfields, assimilates clusters, and seamlessly mends discontinuities in the reality mappings of the patient. At moderate dosages and treatment regimes, the sufferer recovers fully. The sufferer often ends up healed of their traumas, and occasionally healed of many more things than expected. At levels much above those of the therapeutic standard of care, there is a risk that the treatment may result in the healing of the fundamental traumas of conscious experience. The drug may offer the patient a chance to relinquish phenomenal reality in exchange for an extemporal “ultimate relief”. To extinguish the flame of existence, as they say.
Importantly, after 5-MeO-DMT therapy, the patient is, let’s say (for the sake of speculating), 20 times as likely as members of the general public to say yes to questions like “Are we all one consciousness?”, “Is the world a process created for the refinement of our souls?” and “Is the universe made of infinite consciousness?”.
So where does that leave us? The good news is that this may have game-theoretical benefits for the side of consciousness in the eternal battle between consciousness and pure replicators. The bad news is that it can overwrite important information obtained from the senses, one’s education, and logical reasoning:
Becoming the God of “I-AM-Now-ness” and filling your entire experiential field with that flavor of awakening is a recipe for ecstasy, not for good epistemology.
Indeed, the patient may become a bit hooked to the simplification of their model complexity; to make reality as they know be replaced by a simpler, yet more intense, version of perceived reality is very tempting. It can be seductive to embrace a view like “you are God and you have created everything for your own amusement” or “you are the dream of God”. Rather than compassion, why not indifference? Being the “way God entertains itself” is both poetically satisfying and super trippy. A lot of people would find that such belief adds some spice to their lives.
But the price of truth is everything. In turn, it would be ideal to complement any model complexity reduction that goes too far with a healthy amount of prediction errors.
5. Fixed-Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors
The brain contains many self-correcting feedback systems. Psychedelics in general can be modeled as drugs that mess with the inhibitory component of excitation-inhibition feedback systems. They accomplish this, quite possibly, by disrupting the inhibitory serotonergic connections coming from the cortex that gate the excitatory input coming from the thalamus. This may account for why tracers look the way they do – the failure to inhibit the thalamus results in looped replays of recent states. This may go a long way in explaining why people find “video feedback” so trippy and fascinating. Namely, because a lot of psychedelic effects can be understood as feedback getting out of control, literally.
More concretely, at the Harvard talk on the Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT experiences I introduced this notion that each DMT experience as a whole can be thought of as a trajectory in the energy vs. complexity landscape. Here, the vertical axis indicates the degree of energy of the experience (roughly corresponding to the intensity, brightness, and amount of qualia), while the horizontal axis represents how much information is encoded in the experience. One interesting operationalization of information is through the concept of symmetry breaking***, in which case the horizontal axis approximately tracks the “distance from perfectly symmetrical spaces in terms of number of symmetry breaking operations”.
I then postulated that we could generate an ontology based on feedback + noise to explain how two DMT trips of roughly the same level of intensity can nonetheless contain very different amounts of information.
What I did not mention at the time was that while DMT does have the ability to send you to any place in the energy-complexity landscape, most of the experiences are in the region of middle-complexity. In fact, especially strong DMT trips tend to become fully chaotic, so there is even a mild correlation between dosage and complexity. On the other hand, 5-MeO-DMT tends to propel you towards the low-complexity region of the space.
Using a feedback system ontology we could thus posit that 5-MeO-DMT modifies the feedback parameters of your brain in such a way that the states it gives rise to are ether fixed points or short limit cycles:
The video above depicts a fixed point (as with the other animations below, I took this from an old 1984 video about video feedback you can see here). A fixed point is a configuration of the system that is stable upon feedback iterations. In the video above we see a fixed point consisting of a cross (presumably the result of the camera having a 90 degree tilt) that is then perturbed and eventually collapses into just a single circular dot at the center.
The above are limit cycles. The first (left) is a comparatively simple limit cycle in that every stage along its reproduction cycle is very similar to each other. The second (right) one is a bit more complex, yet despite a long winded path, it really does repeat more or less perfectly over and over. 5-MeO-DMT limit cycles are more akin to the one on the left, but on occasion may be a bit more complex and rhythmic over the span of seconds. Either way, there is often a strong pull towards a simple resonant pattern with remarkable stability.
Contrast that with chaotic attractors:
Chaotic pseudo-time arrow
When we have actual chaos, the states continue to change indefinitely. We could then posit that DMT’s characteristic jittering seems to prevent the formation of stable fixed points or short limit cycles. Despite both DMT and 5-MeO-DMT disrupting feedback in the brain, the subtle differences in the way parameters of this feedback are modified can make all the difference between perfectly simple and smooth results and the endless generation of chaotic structures.
6. Modulating Lateral Inhibition
Another exciting lens with which to look at the difference between these psychedelics is by allusion to lateral inhibition: according to a couple of recent trip reports I received from another anonymous source, there is a remarkable difference between the tracers of 5-MeO-DMT and those of DMT. In particular, the anonymous tripper points out that DMT tracers are chains of concatenated positive and negative after-images of the stimulation source, whereas 5-MeO-DMT only produces positive after-images.
Stare at the cross. The green ball you see as a result is the “negative after-image” of the missing purple dot.
In other words, when you see a blue ball moving on a screen, on DMT you will see tracers of that ball that change in color from blue to yellow to blue again and so on, all following after the original blue ball. But on 5-MeO-DMT, one will only see a long blue tracer. This is a remarkable difference, and if true, it would seem to be an important hint.****
Orientation selectivity map in the visual cortex
Lateral inhibition in the cortex prevents the overlapping of incompatible features in one’s own experience. For example, the primary visual cortex shows a map of orientation selectivity as shown above. Each hypercolumn is selective to only a specific orientation, and the surrounding hypercolumns are selective to different orientations. More so, via lateral inhibition, when a hypercolumn is activated, it inhibits the surrounding ones.
In this model, DMT would perhaps leave this process untouched, so that when the brain is massively energized, it still maintains this flip-flopping between each feature and its complement. Indeed, some people have described DMT as turning half of your neurons fully on, the other half of your neurons fully off, then inverting the activation so that the off neurons are turned on and the on ones are turned off, and flip-flopping between these two steps many times per second. Could this be the phenomenal expression of having energized checkerboard patterns of excitation and inhibition saturating your cortex? That is, taking a system with in-built lateral inhibition into over-drive?
5-MeO-DMT, on the contrary, seems to allow for “all colors to blend together into pure white light”, and “the past and the future to collapse into the present”, and the “self-other distinction to be dissolved”, and so on. Intuitively, if the drug is biochemically disabling lateral inhibition, that could be reflected as a profound sense of unity and interconnectedness at the phenomenological level, “transcending every last barrier”.
7. Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention
As we mentioned earlier, DMT tends to come with a feeling of “becoming tense” while 5-MeO-DMT has a primary vibe of “becoming relaxed”. One way in which we can model this is in the way the drugs influence whether your attention is focused or diffuse. Now, I should say that this model will be necessarily incomplete because at the peak of a 5-MeO experience one often does in fact feel super focused in some way. But I would posit that this sense of focus is much more holistic than the way our common-sense use of the term would suggest. The focus on DMT, on the other hand, does feel very much akin to the “conventional” sense of focus, where you are able to precisely position figure and ground in such a way that they have as much contrast as possible.
In a way, the beings one encounters on DMT could be thought of as “attentional attractors”. As you create a lot of little focal points during the experience, these begin to build up and define the contents of your mind. Each focal point makes it easier for you to create another one nearby. This snowballs into an effect where there are clusters of focal points that become the “centers of mass” of the narrative. These could very well be what underlies the “beings” on DMT. Using Buddhist terms again, DMT beings might perhaps be thought of as exotic “nimittas“: attention hubs.
Also, because the experience is high-dimensional and changes your sense of what “understanding” even means, it seems that the feeling of super-intelligence on DMT might be a projection of one’s own super-intelligence (of a certain kind) in the state.
In contrast, 5-MeO-DMT makes it easy to de-focus on anything. To let go, and experience it in a diffuse way.
8. Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks
Geology uses the word matrix in way that is very different from either math or science fiction aficionados. In geology, a matrix is the entire mass of materials on a rock within which crystals, grains, and clasts are found. As Anders and Maggie discussed recently, the way in which minerals form depends to a large extent on the presence of water in the process of crystallization. The huge diversity of minerals we see on Earth’s surface is partly a result of the availability of water in the mantle. Perhaps a lens with which to see DMT is as playing the same role in the brain as water does in fractional crystallization. It lubricates the matrix of your mind, which enables the crystallization of countless qualia exotica. 5-MeO-DMT instead homogenizes the kinds of crystals that can form.
In brief, DMT is to 5-MeO-DMT as a matrix of diverse minerals is to a mono-phasic large enclave. DMT is like complex music (cf. music as an ordered phase of sound) while 5-MeO-DMT is like a single mantra repeated over and over. Is this metaphor useful? It seemed to resonate with the interviewee.
9. Integration vs. Fragmentation
In Neural Annealing, Mike Johnson argues that what makes MDMA special for healing trauma is what at QRI we call integration:
On MDMA’s strangely powerful therapeutic effects, I’d suggest MDMA shares the ‘basic psychedelic package’ with substances like LSD and psilocybin (albeit a little weaker at common doses). Anything with this ‘baseline’ package significantly increases the energy parameter of the brain, which both allows escape from bad local minima and canalizes the brain’s core CSHWs, which both should be highly therapeutic. My intuition is MDMA may also have a particular effect on stochastic firing frequencies of neurons, and that this effect essentially acts as an emergent metronome – and this metronome will drive synchronicity between diverse brain regions. Given the presence of such a region-spanning ‘clean’ metronomic signal, brain regions that have partially ‘stopped talking to each other’ will re-establish integration, and some of this integration will persist while sober (or rather, some of the reasons for the lack of integration will have been negotiated away during the MDMA-driven integration). Plausibly this ‘emergent metronome’ effect may also underlie the particular phenomenological effects of 5-MeO-DMT as well, particularly in terms of sense of unity, high valence, and therapeutic potential. (HT to Steve Lehar for pointing at this ’nystagmus’ phenomenon as being somehow linked to MDMA’s mood-lifting effect, and to Andrés for calling my attention to Lehar’s work and suggesting 5-MeO-DMT may also share this mechanism.)
Like most other psychedelics, N,N-DMT also shares the same ‘basic psychedelic package’ and can have beneficial therapeutic effects. But it lacks this ‘special’ ability that allows arbitrary parts of your nervous system to rhythmically entrain with one another. This “emergent metronome” on MDMA and 5-MeO-DMT works as a kind of universal “vibratory currency” and results in a reduction of inner dissonance to a much greater extent than (relatively) simple “energizers” like DMT.
To Wrap Up
We hope that the above discussion has given you an idea about the difference between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT and why this matters for their therapeutic potential. The above is just the start of a deep inquiry into the topic that will certainly take many years, but we believe that it is a novel way of seeing the contrast between these two substances that may be generative for others. We also believe that it is very worth trying: nailing down this difference may be incredibly important to develop novel ways of treating mental illness. While DMT will undoubtedly continue to dazzle and amaze people curious about the state-space of consciousness, the superlative potential of 5-MeO-DMT to heal trauma puts it on a different level of importance altogether.
In the future we shall also explain why MDMA and ketamine have this potential. And ultimately, as we begin to understand what makes these substances so special, we hope to find ways of creating effective therapies from first principles. Stay tuned.
* The toad venom dose was 50mg, with an estimated 5-7mg of 5-MeO-DMT. This is admittedly likely to produce somewhat more potent effects than just 5 to 7mg of pure 5-MeO-DMT. But the extent of this enhancement is currently poorly understood, and you can find many people online saying that the difference is tiny and others who argue it is enormous. Given just how intense and qualitatively unique pure 5-MeO-DMT already is, I think that applying Occam’s razor would tell us that “it’s just the 5-MeO-DMT itself”. So while I am ready to accept the possibility of profound synergy between other tryptamines in toad venom and 5-MeO, I am not holding my breath for it. I, rather, expect that the difference between 5-MeO alone and the full-spectrum stuff will be akin to the difference between drinking 10 shots of vodka and drinking 10 shots of vodka and one chamomile tea. Namely, a real but largely inconsequential difference.
*** This is where information-less states are those which are perfectly symmetrical, and the information content of a state is defined as the minimum number of symmetry breaking operations needed to transform an information-less state into it.
**** This is admittedly very weak evidence so far. If you have experience with both of these compounds and have explored the way in which they give rise to after-images, please let me know if you can confirm or deny the effect here mentioned.
The Qualia Research Institute has the vision of a world free from involuntary suffering in which conscious agents are empowered to have full control over their lived experiences. Its mission tackles this objective by combining foundational research on consciousness with a focus on explaining the mathematical properties of pleasure and pain for a full, formal account of valence.
By relating our mission to existing memeplexes, we could perhaps accurately describe the ethos of QRI as “Qualia Formalist Sentientist Effective Altruism“. That’s a mouthful. Let’s break it down:
Qualia Formalism refers to the notion that experience has a precise mathematical description that ties it with physics (for a more detailed breakdown see the Formalism section of the glossary).
Sentientism refers to the claim that value and disvalue are entirely expressed in the nature and quality of conscious experiences. In other words, that the only reason why states of affairs matter is because of the way in which they impact experiences.
Effective Altruism refers to the view that we can aspire to do the most good we can rather than settle for less. If you examine the actual extent to which different interventions cash out in terms of reduction in suffering throughout the world, you will notice that they follow a long-tail distribution. Thus, research on how to prioritize interventions really pays off. Focusing on the top interventions (and being willing to spend extra time digging for even better ones) can multiply your positive impact by orders of magnitude.
We could thus say that people and organizations are more or less aligned with QRI to the extent that they are aligned with each of these notions and their combinations thereof. More so, QRI also values the practice of rational psychonautics and the study of one’s own mind with meditation – hence we also include lists of rational psychonauts and great dharma teachers.
Find below the list of people and organizations that have a significant degree of alignment with QRI on each front. We also include a list of blogs and websites from readers of our work, which is meant to incentivize community-building around the aforementioned core ideas.
Name of Person/Organization – Blog/Website/Media [if any] (Representative Post of the Author- Sometimes Not from Their Primary Site [if any])
List of current and former QRI collaborators and volunteers not listed above (in no particular order): Patrick Taylor, Hunter Meyer, Sean McGowan, Alex Zhao, Boian Etropolski, Robin Goins, Bence Vass, Brian Westerman, Jacob Shwartz-Lucas.
People and Organizations that Advocate for Sentientism and the Elimination of Suffering
The Wider World of People Who are Friends and Acquaintances of the QRI Ecosystem
Note: I asked (on social media) our readers to share their blogs and personal sites with us. Some of these links are very aligned with QRI and some are not. That said, together they represent a good sample of the memetic ecosystem that surrounds QRI. Namely, these links can be taken as a whole to be suggestive of “the memetic ground upon which QRI is founded”. Please feel free to share your blog or personal site in the comment section of this post.