In 1873, James Clerk Maxwell published a rambling and difficult two-volume Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism that was destined to change the orthodox picture of reality. This treatise did for electromagnetism what Newton‘s Principia had done for classical mechanics. It not only provided the mathematical tools for the investigation and representation of the whole of electromagnetic theory, but it altered the very framework of both theoretical and experimental physics. Although the process had been going on throughout the nineteenth century, it was this work that finally displaced action-at-a-distance physics and substituted the physics of the field.
Like Newton’s Principia, Maxwell’s Treatise did not immediately convince the scientific community. The concepts in it were strange and the mathematics was clumsy and involved. Most of the experimental basis was drawn from the researches of Michael Faraday, whose results were undeniable, but whose ideas seemed bizarre to the orthodox physicist. The British had, more or less, become accustomed to Faraday’s “vision,” but continental physicists, while accepting the new facts that poured from his laboratory, rejected his conceptual structures. One of Maxwell’s purposes in writing his treatise was to put Faraday’s ideas into the language of mathematical physics precisely so that orthodox physicists would be persuaded of their importance.
Maxwell died in 1879, midway through preparing a second edition of the Treatise. At that time, he had convinced only a very few of his fellow countrymen and none of his continental colleagues. That task now fell to his disciples.
The story that Bruce Hunt tells in this volume is the story of the ways in which Maxwell’s ideas were picked up in Great Britain, modified, organized, and reworked mathematically so that the Treatise as a whole and Maxwell’s concepts were clarified and made palatable, indeed irresistible, to the physicists of the late nineteenth century. The men who accomplished this, G. F. FitzGerald, Oliver Heaviside, Oliver Lodge, and others, make up the group that Hunt calls the “Maxwellians.” Their relations with one another and with Maxwell’s work make for a fascinating study of the ways in which new and revolutionary scientific ideas move from the periphery of the scientific thought to the very center. In the process, Professor Hunt also, by extensive use of manuscript sources, examines the genesis of some of the more important ideas that fed into and led to the scientific revolution of the twentieth century.
L. PEARCE WILLIAMS. – Ithaca, New York
James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field is generally acknowledged as one of the outstanding intellectual achievements of the nineteenth century—indeed, of any century. The late Richard Feynman once remarked, with perhaps only a little hyperbole, that “from a long view of the history of mankind […] there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics”. Even the American Civil War, Feynman said, “will pale into provincial insignificance” besides this more profound event of the 1860s. By the mid-1890s the four “Maxwell’s equations” were recognized as the foundation of one of the strongest and most successful theories in all of physics; they had taken their place as companions, even rivals, to Newton’s laws of mechanics. The equations were by then also being put into practical use, most dramatically in the emerging new technology of radio communications, but also in the telegraph, telephone, and electric power industries. Maxwell’s theory passed to the twentieth century with an enormous reputation it has retained ever since.
It is thus perhaps surprising to find that the fullest statement Maxwell gave of his theory, his 1873 Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, does not contain the four famous “Maxwell’s equations,” nor does it even hint at how electromagnetic waves might be produced or detected. These and many other aspects of the theory were quite thoroughly hidden in the version of it given by Maxwell himself; in the words of Oliver Heaviside, they were “latent” in the theory, but hardly “patent.”
Maxwell was only forty-eight when he died of cancer in November 1879. He was only a quarter of the way through revising his Treatise for a second edition, and the task of digging out the “latent” aspects of his theory and of exploring its wider implications was thus left to a group of younger physicists, most of them British. Between roughly 1879 and 1894, these “Maxwellians,” led by George Francis FitzGerald (1851-1901), Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), and Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925), with a key contribution from the German physicist Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894), transformed the rich but confusing raw material of the Treatise into a solid, concise, and well-confirmed theory—essentially, at least for free space, the “Maxwell’s theory” we know today. It was they who first explored the possibility of generating electromagnetic waves and then actually demonstrated their existence; it was they, along with J. H. Poynting (1852-1914), who first delineated the paths of energy flow in the electromagnetic field and then followed out the far-reaching implications of this discovery; it was they who recast the long list of equations Maxwell had given in his Treatise into the compact set now universally known as “Maxwell’s”; and it was they who began to apply this revised theory to problems of electrical communications, with results that have transformed modern life. It was mainly the Maxwellians who gave Maxwell’s theory the form it has since retained, and it was largely through their work that it first acquired its great reputation and breadth of application.
The evolution of “Maxwell’s theory” in the years after Maxwell’s death provides a striking example of a process quite common in science, as in other fields of intellectual endeavor. Scientific theories rarely spring fully formed from the mind of one person; a theory is likely to be so refined and reinterpreted by later thinkers that by the time it is codified and passes into general circulation, it often bears little resemblance to the form in which it was first propounded. The practice in science of naming theories after their originators often obscures the historical process by which scientific syntheses are achieved. One is tempted to seek all of “Newtonianism” in Newton, or all of “Darwinism” in Darwin. One of the main aims in the pages that follow is to trace the formation of such a theoretical synthesis in some detail and to show that “Maxwellianism,” though undeniably built on Maxwell’s ideas, was in many ways the work of his successors. “Maxwell was only 1/2 Maxwellian,” Heavisde declared in 1895; I examine here what it meant to be a Maxwellian and trace the transformation of ideas that lay behind Heaviside’s remark.
Another of my aims is to trace the evolution of the Maxwellians as a scientific group and to show how they stimulated and helped one another, both in their strictly scientific work and in more practical affairs. Science is a more social and cooperative process than is sometimes appreciated, and one of the most effective ways to capture its richness is to examine in detail the workings of a small group. The key to such a study of the Maxwellians is their surviving letters and notebooks, through which one can follow the course of their thoughts and actions almost day by day and see how strongly they influenced one another. In the work of FitzGerald and Lodge on ether models and electromagnetic waves; in Lodge and Heaviside’s joint battles with W. H. Preece of the Post Office Telegraph Department; in Heaviside and FitzGerald’s long collaboration on the problem of moving charges and on the puzzle of the ultimate nature of the electromagnetic field—in all of these, the cooperative nature of the Maxwellian’s work can be clearly seen in their correspondence. Heaviside in particular virtually lived his life on paper; he was something of a recluse, and his letters and published writings were his main contact with the outside world. FitzGerald and Lodge, too, left very full records of their activities. Although all three were pioneers of electrical communications, they lived before telephones were common, and since they were physically separated—Heaviside in London and later Devon, Lodge in Liverpool, and FitzGerald in Dublin—they kept in touch mostly via letters, hundreds of which have been preserved. These enable us to reconstruct not only their work but something of their personalities and to see them engaged in the 1880s and 1890s in the lively business of remaking Maxwell’s theory and of probing, as they thought, into the ultimate foundations of the physical universe.
Maxwell himself is only a minor character in this story; he died before the Maxwellians’ work was well begun. But his ideas pervade the book, as they pervaded the Maxwellians’ own work. Though greatly reinterpreted and recast, Maxwell’s ideas always formed the core of the Maxwellian synthesis. In one of the most interesting of his unpublished writings, Heaviside reflected on the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. In its old religious sense, the idea had, he believed, been thoroughly discredited. But there was, he said, another “and far nobler sense” in which the soul truly was immortal. In living our lives, each of us “makes some impression on the world, good or bad, and then dies”; this impression goes on to affect future events for all time, so that “a part of us lives after us, diffused through all humanity, more or less, and all of Nature. This is the immortality of the soul,” Heaviside said. “There are large and there are small souls,” he went on.
The immortal soul of John Ploughman of Buckinghamshire is a small affair, scarcely visible. That of a Shakespeare or a Newton is stupendous. Such men live the best parts of their lives after they shuffle off the mortal coil and fall into the grave. Maxwell was one of those men. His soul will live and grow for long to come, and, thousands of years hence, it will shine as one of the bright stars of the past, whose light takes ages to reach us, amongst the crowd of others, not the least bright.
This light from Maxwell has come down to us mainly through the Maxwellians; it was they who developed the most important implications of his theory and cast it into the form in which it has become most widely known. In the pages that follow, we trace how this light was refracted and refocused by the Maxwellians and how it was passed along to the next generation, to be transformed and reinterpreted again.
 Feynman 1964, 2:1.11
 Heaviside 1892, 2:393 
 Heaviside to FitzGerald, [Mar. 1895], FG-RDS; internal evidence places this undated fragment between FitzGerald’s letters to Heaviside of 8 and 15 Mar., OH-IEE.
 Heaviside notebook 8, OH-IEE; a slightly different version is quoted in Appleyard 1930: 257. It was probably written in 1886; cf. Heaviside 1892, 2:77 .
Interviewer: As a Grandmaster in Iceland, according to law, you are entitled to a salary. Every Icelandic Grandmaster is being payed salaries, provided that you do some teaching in Chess and possibly play for Iceland…
BobbyFischer: No, no, no… No, I hate Chess very much. I don’t need the money, I don’t need it. I’ll skip… I hate Chess, I hate Chess.
Interviewer: So you are not planning on claiming the Grandmaster salary?
Bobby: No, no, no, no, no, no.
Interviewer: Why do you hate Chess? Being the be… probably, possibly, the best Chess player ever?
Bobby: Because I know what Chess is all about! It’s all about memorization. It’s all about pre-arrangement…
Interviewer: But creativity?
Bobby: Creativity is lower down on the list. The old Chess is… you are banging your head against the wall with this theory… where you are, you know, trying to find some little improvement on move 18 or 20… it’s ridiculous! It gets harder and harder and harder, and you need more and more computers, and more and more people working for you… and less and less creativity. It’s ridiculous! Why? Why?
Interviewer: But you did, I mean, you became a World Champion [based on your] creativity, no?
Bobby: First of all, it’s a long time ago since I played the first match with Spassky… and even the second match was 13 years ago… and Chess in just the last few years has changed dramatically with all of this computer stuff. But really, if you analyze Chess objectively… very, very objectively, it’s been a lousy game going back even to the time of Morphy. There was a lot of book!
Interviewer: But there is still a place for talent and creativity. It isn’t all pre-arrangement, all theory, all…
Bobby: No, not all, not all, I agree. But why do you want to get involved with something that is mainly rote learning and pre-arrangements? Obviously it’s not all… you know, that. But creativity is like maybe number 3 on the list. The first is pre-arrangement, and then memorization, and then comes creativity.
Interviewer: As opposed to… Fischer Random [Chess960]? Then you sort of put creativity first?
Bobby: Right… right. Let me explain something about Fischer Random. I’ve never made any claims that this is the best thing since puffed wheat, or whatever.
Bobby (cont.): I never made any claims saying this is perfect. What I say is: it’s much better than the old Chess. Now, for example, let’s say you could have a million Chess-like games, right? Maybe a million, ten million of them would be better than Fischer Random. But the point about Fischer Random is that it’s basically the same as the old Chess, except that you get rid of the theory, and it’s very easy to remember the rules. That’s my point, you see? I was just looking at a book Sam just gave me. This book about Capablanca. Capablanca had a very interesting game that he proposed. It was 10X10 or something [sic; an earlier version was 10X10 but then it became 8X10]… and it had two Kings [sic] and extra pieces… and you can win the game by mating either of your opponent’s Kings… and it looked like a very creative game, and maybe much better than Fischer Random, but it looks very intimidating. Even for me, right? Top Chess player. Very intimidating. All these extra pieces, huge board, two Kings… and if it intimidates me, it will intimidate the average person much more.
Bobby (cont.): So there are a lot of games that you can come up with that have practical defects. Not creative defects. But just defects in terms of discouraging people to learn them. You see? That’s my point about Fischer Random. You can learn Fischer Random in 10 seconds, practically. So there is no impediment: you have the same pieces, the same board, all you have to do is get a little electronic shuffler, and in one second you have a position. But of course you could create more creative games than Fischer Random. Maybe, you know, an extra piece, a bigger board, and all kind of things. But my idea… people think I’m abandoning Chess. I’m not! I’m trying to keep it alive. It’s just the reverse! I’m not coming up with anything radical at all.
Interviewer: I asked two Icelandic Grandmasters the other day: “who is the best Chess player ever, in the history of Chess?” And they both contemplated and I asked them, objectively speaking, and they both said “Bobby Fischer is the best Chess player ever”. Do you agree with that assessment?
Bobby: I want to get back to Fischer Random.
Interviewer: Don’t want to answer this one? Are you the best player ever?
Bobby: Well… obviously I think so, right?
Interviewer: Yeah, I mean you beat Larsen 6-0. Nobody has…
Bobby: First of all, you have to understand something about Chess. Of course I’m better than Morphy. Why am I better than Morphy? I don’t think I’m more talented than him. I just know much more theory, right? If he came back today, and he could not open a book, let’s say, right? He would do badly even against masters, maybe. That has nothing to do with his talent, though, right? So when you say I’m better than so-and-so that doesn’t mean anything! Because of all this theory in Chess. But if you were to say… “are you the most talented player?”, that’s something else.
Interviewer: Are you the most talented player?
Bobby: Well… again, I think so. But maybe that’s just my opinion, you know? Morphy was fantastic. Capablanca was fantastic… [end of video]
A society based on E-like consciousness would be an honest society of honest people.
Today, most of us lie and dissemble. We tell white lies and, on occasion, total whoppers. Most of us lie many times in the course of a day, whether to friends, family, colleagues or – as necessity or convenience dictates – to total strangers. Hiding one’s true thoughts and feelings as the occasion demands is second nature to outwardly civilised Darwinians. The few formal studies conducted into the prevalence of lying in everyday life suggest we tend to underestimate just how often (almost) all of us are guilty of outright fabrications, not to mention innumerable half-truths and evasions.
On a wider scale, deceit is institutionalized in political life. The record of human history to date supports the powerful intuition that deception will persist indefinitely in public and private life alike. For the evolved capacity to lie and deceive in ever more sophisticated ways has been genetically adaptive. Indeed, if the controversial Machiavellian ape hypothesis is correct, then a progressively refined capacity to lie and deceive – and conversely, a fine-tuned capacity to spot lies and deceit in others – may have driven the evolution of human intelligence.
It is sometimes said that life would be better if only we were honest with each other. More often, this value judgement is simply assumed. Life might be better, too, if we were more honest with ourselves. But given today’s corrupt genome, all such scenarios are impossibly unrealistic. Moreover, the effects of public openness about private feelings would frequently be catastrophic. This is because Darwinian humans entertain so many negative thoughts about each other that complete candour would wreck most contemporary human relationships. In a grim Darwinian world, one [E-less] person may, for instance, find another person boring and ugly. Yet there is commonly no advantage to either party in saying so. So the civilities are (sometimes) preserved.
Not all lying is self-serving. Very often, we lie to spare the feelings of others, as well as our own.
On MDMA/Ecstasy, however, subjects tend to become extraordinarily honest. People trust each other: MDMA indirectly triggers the release of oxytocin. Critically, MDMA-induced emotional honesty is matched by a subtle yet profound shift in perception: when “loved up” on MDMA, we all tend to seem fascinating and beautiful, both to each other and to ourselves. On MDMA, it seems natural to express these feelings spontaneously and demonstratively too.
Alas this marvellous state of being doesn’t last for more than a few hours. Potentially, the benefits of MDMA (and MDA)-assisted therapy can be much longer-lasting. But the peak experience of soul-baring empathetic bliss soon fades. Looking to the future, however, enhancements of E-like consciousness can in principle be indefinitely prolonged. By opting via gene-therapy to hardwire a neurobiology of E-like consciousness into our offspring, we could even lock in this perceptual and behavioural shift for good. If implemented species-wide, an enhanced E-like set of perceptual filters would make heavenly love for each other as natural as breathing.
This post-millennial vision is implausible. Right now, the notion of global E-like consciousness seems fantastical, especially if one isn’t loved up on MDMA. Yet the capacity to love everybody, and in extreme forms, to be in love with everybody, will be a technical if not sociological possibility in the age of mature biotechnology. In future, if we ever opt – pharmacologically or genetically – to implement E-like consciousness as one facet of world-wide mental health, then it may be psychologically safe to be totally honest. In the meantime, barring such enrichment of our troubled minds, it’s sometimes safer to lie through one’s teeth. Thus today the MDMA user is probably well advised to take a conscious decision, prior to dropping an E, not to disclose anything s/he would not wish to be known in the E-less state. Reticence on E can be maintained; but one can be reliably tight-lipped on E only with a fair degree of forethought.
Yet discretion is prudent not because an E-catalysed outpouring of the heart and soul is itself pathological. Selective reticence about (some of) one’s innermost feelings is wise simply because the repercussions of honesty back in the E-less world to which the user must return can be cruel; and because the elevated sentiments felt while on E often cannot be sustained in the cold light of day.
Of course, the prospect of worldwide E-like candour strikes the harsh Darwinian eye as grotesque – no less than the prospect of us all loving each other. More specifically, the option of becoming permanently loved-up invites the charge that E-like perception is systematically distorted. A notional society of loved-up E-heads, it may be alleged, would be in the grip of a collective psychosis. Sure, runs the cynic’s critique, loved-up Ecstatics intoxicated on MDMA may find everyone beautiful and fascinating. But so what? Even though MDMA is not a classic “hallucinogen” or psychedelic, the drug-induced perception of loveliness that MDMA creates is (often) false. For lots of people are really boring and ugly. A perpetually E-enchanted world would be a fool’s paradise populated by intellectually and aesthetically undiscerning simpletons. In an E-like world, we might indeed be open and honest; but we’d have nothing worth hiding.
This dismissive judgement doesn’t follow. If being boring or ugly were intrinsic properties of (some of) our fellow humans, rather than our emotional responses to the vicious (mis-)representations of Darwinian minds, then the charge of false consciousness, as it were, might be easier to sustain. But there’s no evidence that this is so. Our perceptual experiences have been shaped by natural selection, not to be veridical, but to help our genes leave more copies of themselves. Sometimes this (lack of) veridicality is fitness-enhancing; and sometimes it isn’t; and sometimes – as is arguably the case in the realm of attitudes expressing pure value judgements – there’s no fact of the matter either way. In any event, under the primordial Darwinian regime of natural selection, there has been great advantage in seeing genetic rivals, and indeed seeing anyone with whom one is not genetically identical, in a (sometimes) cruelly negative light. On the other hand, if it had helped our genes leave more copies of themselves, then men would typically represent women of, say, 80 years old as more sexy and fascinating than women aged 21; and this perception would be neither more nor less “correct” than the aesthetic consensus-reality of today.
Analogously, the enraptured mystic who can “see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower” is not deluded; such perceptions are uncommon at present merely because it has been genetically maladaptive to occupy states of sustained mystical bliss. For in the ancestral environment of adaptation, it was typically more adaptive to see grains of sand as boring and neglect them. But today’s parochial (virtual) worlds are only one small set of mind-dependent creations in a vaster state-space of possibilities, not a timeless feature of the human predicament. Tantalisingly, thanks to biotechnology a wide range of life-enriching options will soon be on offer instead.
A tough-minded sceptic may respond: yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but not all social perception is relative. Some people really are nasty and ill-natured by (almost) any criterion at all. And seeing them as anything else would be delusive. Granted, viewing each other in an often jaundiced light may be a product of our nasty little Darwinian minds, but surely that’s the point: commonly we just aren’t very lovable. If we are to be honest, then we should admit this – not gush effusively at each other like drugged-up hippies.
Herein lies the beauty of MDMA – and perhaps safer, sexier lovedrugs and more distant gene-therapies in the pipeline. MDMA doesn’t just make us honest. E-like consciousness makes us sweeter-natured. Even better, the idealised self activated by MDMA does not take the form of alien impostor, so to speak, but feels utterly authentic, constructed from elements of an idealised persona that we can’t live up to in drug-naïve life. If, in a hypothetical E-based society, everyone were constitutionally sweet-natured, then enriching our cognitive architecture would entail capturing this sweet-naturedness in our interpersonal perceptions. With E-like consciousness, emotional honesty and intellectual integrity can, in principle, go hand in hand. It is possible, but unproven, that ugly representations of ourselves and each other belong to a dark Darwinian world that we will shortly leave behind.
This prospect again invites scepticism. It can be argued that genetically engineering an entire population primed for indiscriminate honesty is not an evolutionarily stable outcome. An unfailingly honest population might seem prone to genetic invasion by mutant, quasi-sociopathic “defectors”. This game-theoretic argument may continue to hold in the future, as it has done in the past. Even with advanced biotechnology, runs this line of argument, perhaps only substantially egoistic well-being is feasible in any biologically realistic model of a globally superhappy society.
But once again, this overly quick reply neglects how ostensibly altruistic thoughts and behaviour evolved in the first instance i.e. for (genetically) selfish reasons; and how they are likely to proliferate explosively in the new reproductive era of designer babies. The proliferation of such admirable traits will accelerate not because our genes stop being any less selfish in the technical sense. For unselfish genes are impossible. Instead, an (E-like?) nobility of character may flourish in the impending era of so-called unnatural selection because when selection is no longer “blind” or [effectively] random, the [selfish] genetic payoff of promoting such “altruistic” traits can be higher. In the new reproductive era ahead, when genes/allelic combinations are chosen by (partially) rational agents in anticipation of their likely behavioural consequences, parents will plausibly exhibit a strong preference for offspring with genotypes that promote such (partially) heritable traits as honesty and “lovability”. These nicer traits may then flourish at the expense of alleles that predispose to a nastier disposition. After all, who wants to devote their life to raising nasty kids?
Needless to say, we don’t know whether our genetically enhanced descendants will ever have E-like perceptual filters to their consciousness. We don’t know if posterity will lie and cheat as much as we do. We don’t even know whether they will be fundamentally happy, or assuming they are indeed innately so blessed, whether their well-being will take an egocentric or empathetic guise, or express modes of flourishing unimaginably different from anything accessible to conscious mind today. So perhaps the enticing scenarios for our transhuman descendants touted here are all just wishful thinking masquerading as futurology. But whatever the future holds, by taking MDMA we can already, fleetingly, access states of consciousness richer than our brutish Darwinian mindset normally permits. A fundamentally honest society, prefigured (perhaps) in a communal MDMA love-in, is not self-evidently ethically inferior to a society founded on never-ending lies and deceit – or a society driven by competitive displays of consumer consumption. So at least as an intellectual exercise, it’s worth investigating the policy-option of locking in the biochemical substrates of E-like honesty for good.
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.”
Some of you might remember me. I was one of the moderators here for half a decade or so until my life got busy enough that it became difficult to keep up.
I have a small fragrance line myself and I occasionally make fragrances for other brands. Occasionally websites like Fragrantica and Now Smell This will write articles about my fragrances. I’m by no means a famous perfumer, but… I’ve worked enough as a perfumer to have insight into how fragrances are made.
The average person doesn’t really think about what’s actually in their fragrances any more than the average person really considers what flavors blend together to make up the taste of cola. (As a side note, you can make a passable cola flavor out of orange, lime, cinnamon, lemon, nutmeg, and coriander). When people do start thinking about it, they inevitably come across fragrance notes.
Fragrance notes are both incredibly useful and completely misleading because notes are not ingredients! Notes are the impressions that the fragrance creator thinks a lay person might get from smelling the fragrance. They aren’t necessarily the ingredients used in the fragrance, and also, (this is another important bit), they’re not necessarily even what the perfumer was attempting to make the fragrance smell like.
There’s a fundamental misconception on the part of most consumers. Most consumers think that fragrances are made largely from familiar materials. Orange, lemon, jasmine, rose, birch leaves, lily of the valley, etc. Ok, maybe most people realize that most fragrances contain synthetic materials, but there’s quite often an implicit assumption that the synthetics are a synthetic version of a natural material. In other words, that the synthetic is an attempt to recreate a smell that is found in nature and that all (or at least most) of the smells in a modern fragrance can be reproduced with naturals. I suppose that if you asked someone “do you think that all synthetics are an attempt to recreate a natural smell?” they would think about it and quickly come to the conclusion that this doesn’t really make sense, but most people haven’t actually stopped and thought about it. I see evidence of this assumption all over the place online:
“I’m looking for all natural version of [fragrance X].”
“I’m looking for a less synthetic version of Sauvage.”
“Can someone tell me which essential oils I can mix together to make an aquatic smell like Cool Water?”
It’s really only pretty recently that there has been any real visibility (to the general public) into what materials go into a commercial fragrance, so this is an understandable point of view.
It’s very, very wrong, though.
We need to take a giant step back and clarify some things.
Natural oils (essential oils/absolute oils/SCO2 extracts/etc.) are typically made up of dozens to hundreds of different materials [typically distributed in a long-tail]. They’re like miniature perfumes in and of themselves with top notes, heart notes, and base notes. They’re complex and beautiful, but they can only be manipulated in a limited way. They’re like photographs.
Specialty bases are typically made up of dozens of individual ingredients, some natural, some man-made, some that exist in nature, some that didn’t exist until they were created in a lab in the 60s. Basically, the sky is the limit. You generally don’t know exactly what’s in them, but they’re produced by suppliers that you can be pretty sure will still be making them in 20 years. Sometimes, they’re direct attempts to reproduce (or improve upon) a natural smell, for reasons of cost, safety, or performance. Sometimes, they’re just a novel smell, like Givaudan‘s aquatic smelling Ultrazur base. These are like computer generated images [or Photoshop filters].
Isolates are ingredients made of a single molecule. They can be naturally derived or lab-made. They can exist in nature or not. They have names like linalool, coumarin, limonene, ambroxide [better known as ambroxan – the qualia of the day in this video and one of my favorite aromachemicals], methyl dihydrojasmonate and you can describe and find the chemical formula for them. A lot of them have trade names that are shorter and refer to one company’s version. E.g. Hedione is a trade name for methyl dihydrojasmonate. Quite often, isolates can also be found in natural oils. Natural lavender oil is typically ~42% linalyl actate and ~40% linalool [note: lavender oil with more linalyl acetate relative to linalool tends to smell “dryer” and “dustier”]. When composing fragrances, I’ll use linalool and linalyl acetate as isolates as well. Sometimes I’ll use them to “tune” other ingredients that already contain them, but not in the quantities I want (like lavender [e.g. “LAVENDER OIL 40/42 has fresh, herbal, clean, aromatic nuances. The numbers in Lavender 40/42 indicate the linalyl acetate content; in this case, they indicate the product contains 40%-42% of linalyl acetate. Lavender 40/42 is generally a blend of various lavenders in order to get a consistent scent from batch to batch, with processors adding linalyl acetate to cover the smell of camphor or borneol components of a given lavender.“]). Sometimes I’ll use them to add a sweet, floral character to completely unrelated materials. If natural oils are like photographs and bases are like CGI, isolates are like paints. You have the most control, but it takes the most skill to turn them into something beautiful and complex.
This is an example formula for a “cologne” accord that was composed by Givaudan. It’s by no means a finished fragrance, but most everyone would recognize the smell. It’s a fresh, slightly sweet, slightly bitter, slightly green smell that often finds its way into men’s fresh fragrances in one way or another (though that’s not to say that this exact formula does).
Florhydral – 10
Exaltolide Total – 10
Ultrazur – 15
Peonile – 60
Petitgrain oil -70
Ethylene Brassylate – 90
Aurantiol Pure – 100
Geranyl Acetate – 120
Linalyl Acetate – 220
Dihydro Myrcenol – 305
Lets take a look at these ingredients one by one:
Florhydral is the trade name for an isolate. It is a floralizer that can add a sort of fresh, green, floral note to fragrances. It is not found in nature.
Exaltolide is another single molecule, a white musk. It’s very delicately animalic, with the characteristic smell of a white musk. It’s been used as a reference white musk because it’s so typical of the “white musk” family.
Ultrazur is a specialty base from Givaudan. It’s marine smelling, more oceanic than the Calone 1951 found in Cool Water. By itself, in concentration, it reminds me very much of fabric softener.
Peonile is another “not found in nature” molecule. It has a sort of rosy, sort of geranium-like, sort of peony-like, sort of grapefruit-like odor and acts as a volumizer and fixative. Odor descriptions that call to mind an assortment of known materials are fairly common, but it’s important to note that they don’t mean that it smells like x+y+z. It just means that they have facets that are reminiscent of these materials in some way.
Petitgrain oil is a natural oil made from the greenery of a citrus tree. Usually from orange trees, but varieties from mandarin, lemon, and all sorts of other citrus are also available.
Ethylene brassylate is a sweet, floral, white musk that can smell a touch old fashioned to some people by itself, or in really high concentrations. It’s still a fairly clean musk, however. Yet another single molecule.
Aurantiol is a very, very commonly used material in fragrances, particularly men’s fragrances. It’s a single molecule (more or less). Aurantiol is a Schiff Base, which is a class of materials that you get when you combine an aldehyde and an amine and they react with each other. Most amines don’t smell very good, but one of them, something called methyl anthranilate, does. It’s found in white florals, particularly neroli [see: The Neroli Neighborhood for a deep dive into the neroli vibe], as well as grapes. Artificial grape flavor is basically methyl anthranilate. Hydroxycitronellal is an aldehyde that is often said to smell as close as any single material does to Lily of the Valley. When they’re mixed together and heated, you get water and a very thick, highlighter yellow colored schiff base that smells like a more mild version of methyl anthranilate. It’s sweet, long-lasting, and reminiscent of orange blossom/neroli and grape.
Geranyl acetate is the acetate version of geraniol. It’s a single molecule that is literally found in hundreds of natural oils. Everything from oregano and thyme to ylang ylang, rose, geranium and neroli, to fir needle and frankincense. It’s everywhere (much like linalool and linalyl actetate [note: in addition to lavender, also petitgrain, neroli, and bergamot all have very high concentrations of both linalool and linalyl acetate at the same time]). It’s sweet, fruity-floral, and vaguely green smelling. It also has a smell that I think of as the “acetate smell,” which can make it smell “chemically” to some people in isolation, even though it’s found everywhere in nature.
Linalyl acetate is another material like geranyl acetate that’s found all over the place in nature. Natural lavender oil is ~42% linalyl acetate. It’s also found in most of the natural oils I mentioned for geranyl actetate. The description for it is also very similar to geranyl acetate, but it’s more lavendery and less rosy. I really like this material and use it when I want to add an ethereal fruity/floral sweetness to a composition.
Dihydromyrcenol is aggressively fresh, cold, and almost harsh. It’s somewhat reminiscent of citrus and lavender. Mostly, though, it smells like laundry detergent. It was used to scent laundry detergent for years before it made it into fine fragrance. At first it was used in tiny doses, but by the 1980s it was being used much more prominently. Something like 10% of the formula of Drakkar Noir was dihydromyrcenol [and apparently also the fragrance super-star of the 90s Calvin Klein One]. It’s found in trace amounts in nature, but nothing natural really smells prominently of it.
So now that I’ve explained all the materials, let’s take a look at the formula. Here are some observations:
Natural oils from recognizable sources only make up 7% of the accord. There are other materials that are found in nature, but they’re all isolates, one alien smelling-molecule refined from a more familiar-smelling material. More than half of the formula is made from 2 molecules [once again, long-tails]. More than 90% is made from 8. The amounts of materials used can vary wildly. Material strength is in no way consistent.
The perfumer who composed this formula painted the majority of the formula in broad strokes from single molecule aromachemicals and then filled in depth and details with natural petitgrain oil, and tiny amounts of a specialty base (ultrazur) and a powerful aldehyde (florhydral).
I didn’t compose this, and I can’t speak for the perfumer who did, but I can imagine how it might have been composed. I’ll walk you through how I’m imagining the perfumer’s process:
I imagine the accord was inspired by petitgrain, but the perfumer wanted something fresher and more stylized and abstract, in the same way a graphic designer might prefer a stylized logo to a photo. Dihydromyrcenol is fresh and powerful, but also cold and harsh and almost bitter. It’s a good compliment to petitgrain, but right off the bat, I know it’s not going to be suitable by itself unless I’m trying to just modify the smell of petitgrain a little bit by adding a teeny tiny bit dihydromyrcenol. It needs some cushion, something to cut the harshness. Geranyl acetate and linalyl acetate add a niche cushioning effect, can be used liberally, and are both found in petitgrain, so they’ll go well with it. By itself, that composition is still cold and bitter. It needs a bit more warmth, but not a candy-like warmth. Something keeping in line with the petitgrain. Aurantiol is the obvious choice. The scent of orange tree leaves goes well with the scent of the orange blossoms that nestle amongst them. In keeping with the “more abstract” theme though, we don’t want to just dump neroli or orange blossom absolute into this. Too much complexity can leave a composition smelling muddled [see quote below for more on this], and we want the bitter, fresh, green petitgrain to be the star of the show here, not the neroli. Plus, neroli is quite expensive and not as long-lasting as aurantiol. We add the aurantiol for warmth. The peonile for volume and some white musks for depth. It’s pretty common to use multiple musks in a fragrance because many people are anosmic to some musks, so you want to make sure they’re able to smell at least one of them.
Then as finishing touches, we add a hint of Ultrazur, which adds a bit of modern sophistication and florhydral, which in tiny amounts adds a bit of a dewy, natural, green smell to the composition.
This composition isn’t about taking familiar smells and mixing them together like some sort of fruit salad with hunks of this and hunks of that. It’s about taking an idea and enhancing aspects of it, rebalancing it until it fits the vision. It’s more like painting than making a collage. It’s not necessarily as detailed or accurate, but it’s not supposed to be. Degas wasn’t trying to create photorealistic ballerinas. Van Gogh wasn’t trying to accurately render the night sky. They were trying to evoke an impression. Perfumers are the same way.
If that fragrance doesn’t smell like realistic rose/jasmine/cedar/etc., chances are, it wasn’t intended to. The perfumer wasn’t trying to make a realistic jasmine and failing, the perfumer was trying to make an entirely new smell that just has aspects that are jasmine-like.
Breaking it apart into notes is actually counterproductive in a lot of ways.
…but that’s a subject for another post.
In response to the Reddit r/DIYfragrance question: “Lavender + Lemon + Rose accord – How would you use a lavender + lemon + rose accord? I like that combo a lot – a narcotic acidic mix with powerful mood-lifting properties. But as soon as I use patchouli, ginger, or even chamomile as the base notes for the composition, the magic of the accord gets drowned out by the base. I’m curious how more experienced DIY fragrance makers would go about harnessing the magic of that accord by blending it with things that enhance rather than detract from it. Thank you in advance 🙂“
I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and say that it sounds like you’re using essential oils rather than individual aromachemicals for your accords.
If that does happen to be the case, that’s your issue. It’s not that there’s anything specific about Rose/Lemon/Lavender that doesn’t play nice with other scents. It’s that essential oils inherently get “muddy” when you start to mix more than a few together.
Essential oils are a complex combination of hundreds of individual aromachemicals. They’re almost like finished fragrances unto themselves. I look at them like jellybeans. One jellybean tastes like whatever flavor it’s supposed to taste like. Two or three jellybeans can taste like a fun combination of flavors.
But have you ever tried popping a handful of jellybeans? The flavors all muddle together and create this generic sort of fruity sweetness that doesn’t really taste like anything in specific. It’s the flavor equivalent of swirling together a bunch of colors until you get brown.
Same with essential oils. For example, lemon and lime essential oil share a ton of common ingredients, mostly terpenes like limonene, pinene, terpinene, Myrcene, etc. But anyone who has smelled lemon and lime knows that they smell very distinct. This is because they have slightly different proportions of these ingredients. Lemon might have 70% limonene, 10% pinene, and 15% terpinene whereas lime has 50% limonene, 5% pinene and 10% terpinene. When you blend them together, these distinct proportions are lost, and with them, their characteristic smells.
Same goes for mixing other different oils: ginger for example also contains a lot of the same terpenes that lemon contains. But it also has a big dose of camphene and zingiberene which give it the characteristic sharp ginger bite. But when you mix ginger with lemon, it throws off the delicate balance of terpenes in the lemon and thus muddies the character. Same with patchouli: lots of patchoulol and guaiene, but also lots of terpenes found in lemon. Same with chamomile: lots of ethereal esters but also lots of terpenes.
In fact, it’s hard to find essential oils that don’t muddy the balance of lemon. Lavender happens to have a fairly close balance of terpenes (in addition to the characteristic lavender combination of Linalool and Linalyl Acetate). And rose is almost all alcohols.
Basically, with each essential oil you add, you also add a large list of other oils you can’t add without muddying your scent. And with lavender/lemon/rose, there’s really not much room to explore if you’re using essential oils only.
And there’s the rub: if you really want to explore enhancing your scent, you need to get more granular and start using individual aromachemicals rather than entire essential oils into themselves.
If you’re dead set on using essential oils only, check out www.2pih.com/ingredients.php: I put together a resource with about 200 different essential oils and their constituent ingredients. You want to find ones that use either entirely different ingredient sets than what are found in your main accord (which will be difficult because you’ve really covered a broad swath of ingredients with your combination), or find ones whose common ingredients are in similar proportion (which will also be difficult).
On the other hand, if you’re already using individual aromachemicals and your description of the accord is more abstract than literal, then you probably know all of this, so my apologies for the presumption, and I hope this comment is helpful for anyone else reading this.
Working with Feelings of Pleasure and with the Subtle Body
Encouraging feelings of well-being
The method just described, of focusing primarily on the sense of the whole body, involves the development of a sensitivity to what could be termed ‘the subtle body’ or the ‘energy body’.
Almost from the start in this approach we deliberately but gently work at nurturing a sense of comfort, pleasure, or well-being in the body.
This can be done through the way we pay attention to the subtle body, as described above – opening out the awareness to encompass there the whole body space, and tuning into the more pleasant frequencies of feeling that are perceivable.
It is also possible to use the breath or the mettā to help elicit and support the pervasion of this sense of well-being. Simply sensitizing to, and enjoying, the way we feel the energetic resonances of the mettā or the breath throughout the whole space of the body – opening to and finding delight in their reverberations there – can gently move the experience in the direction of a more expansive well-being.
And when there is a state of agitation or anxiety, we can play with ways of breathing or practicing the mettā, and also ways of sensing the breath or mettā, that feel as if they soothe the subtle body and smooth out its energies. Delicately tuning into the felt experience of these qualities of soothing or smoothing-out will help them to gradually gain strength, and help the agitated energies to slowly subside.
The imagination, too, can be skillfully employed in order to gently encourage this sense of pleasure or well-being in the subtle body. While simultaneously pervading the whole body space with an awareness sensitive to the texture and tone of the energy of that whole field, it is possible, for example, to imagine the subtle body as a body of radiant light; then to open to and explore what that feels like. Any image formed in this way does not necessarily need to appear in precise detail, or even completely distinctly. It is, rather, the energetic sense of pleasure or well-being which it supports that is primary, since this is what primarily supports the samādhi.
Likewise, one may experiment with imagining various luminous lines of energy in the body – for example, between the perineum and the crown of the head, or from the lower belly out through the legs – and sense how any such lines of energy supports the whole body to feel upright, open, and energized. The imagination here may be visual or kinesthetic, or a combination of the two. And it need not always follow exactly the anatomical contours of the physical body or its posture. For instance, if sitting or kneeling with the legs crossed or bent, the luminous lines of energy imagined radiating from the lower belly or base of the spine need not bend with the legs, but may instead continue and extend straight out at the knees, if at that time that feels more supportive of openness, energization, and well-being.
If there is tension, or even pain, in one area of the body, rather than always conceiving of it in anatomical or physiological terms, it can sometimes be more helpful to conceive of and perceive that area in energetic terms, and to play with the perception of lines of energy in order to support a degree of comfort and ease.
There are many ways we may discover to bring about some sense of energetic openness and well-being in the subtle body. And as it is accessed more and more, this altered body feeling is one that eventually we can ‘remember’ and learn to deliberately recall – to summon by gentle intention. We can then move, usually gradually, into the focused steadiness of samādhi from that basis, by incorporating this perception of pleasure or well-being more centrally into the meditation.
Whether it has arisen through being deliberately recalled, or through focusing on the breath or mettā, there are again a number of possible ways of using the sense of pleasure or comfort to help guide the citta into the unification of samādhi.
Once it is easy sustaining for some minutes, we can gently begin to take that bodily feeling of well-being as the primary object of our focus. It is important not to ‘snatch at it’, but rather to ease the attention toward it gracefully, and gradually let it take up the full focus of attention. Then the attention and the citta can be encouraged to enjoy it as fully as possible.
The attention can at times probe it, burrowing into one area of the pleasure, perhaps where it feels strongest.
Or, at other times, a mode of ‘receiving’ it, really trying to open up to it, can be employed.
Either way, one attempts all the while to remain intimate with its texture, and actually to relish the pleasure as much as possible. In these ways (and in others that can be discovered) we can delicately work to gently sustain the bodily feeling of well-being, and to absorb the attention more fully into it.
Alternatively, it is possible to mix the sense of pleasure with the perception of the breath or the mettā, in order to support and deepen the quality of the samādhi.
Then it may seem, for example, as if one is breathing the pleasurable energy; or it may seem as if one is breathing into and out of that area of well-being.
In mettā practice, it may seem as if the mettā and the pleasurable energy have become fused, so that the feeling of the mettā at that time is the feeling of the well-being. And this can become the ‘flavour’ of the energy of mettā that is radiated outwards towards beings, or that wraps around and permeates one’s own body and being.
The area of pleasurable energy may also be perceived as the source of the mettā.
Steadiness of feeling is more important than strength
We should point out once more that sometimes the sense of well-being is really quite subtle. Although the feelings of pleasure might also be very strong at times, this is actually not necessary in order to use them in a helpful way. Over time, their strength will in fact vary naturally (and anyway, as the practice matures, at a certain stage they begin to mellow). What is more necessary is that they sustain relatively steadily for more than a few minutes. Then we can learn to sustain them for longer.
Within this larger steadiness, any perceived waves or movements of the energy are not at all problematic. We can try to open the space of the body to these inner currents as much as possible, allowing and fully enjoying them (and if they feel very intense, even playing with surrendering and abandoning our whole body and being to them). Doing so, their intensity will in time calm down.
Suffusing and saturating the whole body
Along with the steadiness of the feelings of well-being, and of the attention on those feelings, we are also gently aiming at eventually having the whole space of the body suffused by and saturated with the feeling of well-being or pleasure. Sometimes this happens by itself. But sometimes the sense of pleasure, when it arises or when it is recalled, only pervades one area of the body. There are a number of viable responses then.
One is to simply enjoy it in the area where it is located, in the ways that we have described, without pressuring the feeling to spread. It may then expand naturally at some point to pervade the whole body.
But even if it does not spread then, that need not be regarded as a problem. A vital aspect of the whole relationship with samādhi practice is to enjoy what well-being is there at any time, not to measure it and view it through a lens that somehow demands, even subtly, that it be ‘better’, bigger, stronger.
Having said that, it is in fact also possible at times to gently encourage the feeling of pleasure or well-being to spread – for instance by simply opening up the space of the awareness to embrace a larger area of the body. Sometimes then the pleasant feeling will automatically start to expand to fill that space.
Alternatively, the breath may be used to gently ‘massage’ the sense of well-being into other areas of the body. Although there is not space to enter into a full description of possibilities here, with practice the breath energy may be felt and perceived throughout the body, entering and flowing in all kinds of ways beyond the strictly anatomical movement of air into the wind-pipe and lungs. We can learn to sense the breath energy in and through the whole body. And as alluded to earlier, the breath energy can be mixed with the pleasure, so that the perceived movements of breath in the whole body space move and spread the perception of the pleasure.
There is also, again, no reason why one cannot just imagine the feeling of well-being permeating the body space more fully. The perception then often begins to follow the image.
These are some of the possibilities, but with repeated practice over time it will anyway become normal for the pleasurable feeling to effortlessly pervade the whole body whenever it arises.
Unblocking and smoothing out the subtle body energies
The harmonization and unification in well-being that is characteristic of samādhi can also be regarded as a harmonization, alignment, smoothing out, and opening of the flows of energies in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. All day and all night long our energy body is moving in and out of states of alignment and openness, constriction and blockage, in response to a whole range of conditions, physical, mental, and emotional. This is completely normal, and with attention and sensitivity to the experience of the body we notice these fluctuations more and more. Although they may be felt in any region, perhaps most commonly a block in energy will be felt as a constriction somewhere along the central axis of the body, anywhere from the perineum to the top of the head. As we move into a state of more samādhi there is an unblocking, untying, aligning, and harmonizing of the subtle body energies to some degree.
When the subtle energies are blocked and agitated, samādhi is to some extent blocked. And when the subtle energy is unblocked and unagitated, samādhi is not so far away. (Perhaps all that is needed then is a steadying of the attention on enjoying the pleasant feelings of the ‘unblocked’ subtle body, as described). In addition, therefore, to the ways of working to smooth out and soothe the energy body suggested earlier, it can be useful to learn means for gently unblocking the energies when there is any sense of energetic constriction, in order to open up again the potential of a degree of samādhi at that time. Again, with a light and playful attitude of experimentation, a variety of ways of working in meditation can be discovered.
For example, sensitive to the whole subtle body sense, the breath energy or mettā may be perceived and conceived in any way that feels helpful, as alluded above:
We may breath into and out of an area of blockage.
Or we may, perhaps gently, breathe the breath energy through that area.
In mettā practice, we may experiment with situating the centre or source of the energy of mettā right at that point of constriction, and explore what effects that has.
If these strategies prove difficult, it is again quite feasible to imagine the breath, the body energies, or the mettā flowing more freely through the area of blockage, or even flowing out of the body, and opening and unblocking in that way.
The Relation Between Samādhi and Insight
Insight brings samādhi
As well as those described above, there are many other practicable means to unblock the subtle body energies. In particular, most of the insight ways of looking that we shall introduce in the course of this book may also be used in the service of opening and deepening samādhi. Mindful observation will reveal that any craving or clinging is always accompanied by, and reflected in, blocks and knots in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. Now, insight, we have said, cuts that on which dukkha depends. And dukkha depends on craving. Thus, according our definition, insight is any way of looking that releases craving. As the insight and emptiness practices are developed, therefore, they can also be used at times to deliberately undo the craving that is mirrored in the knots in the energy body. This might involve using the insight practices ‘on’ the experienced subtle energy blocks themselves, as ways of looking at those perceptions and feelings. Or it might involve engaging these insight ways of looking just more generally in regard to any experience in the moment. Either way, the dissolving of craving to whatever extent will, at the same time and to a similar extent, untie the knots in the subtle body to unblock those energies and so deliver the possibility of some samādhi. Ha!
With more practice our skill grows and we find that it is in fact possible quite often to use the ‘letting go’ that insight brings to deliberately unblock the energies and the felt sense of the sublet body in this way. The pleasantness, openness, well-being, delightful and alive stillness, or joy that comes with this unblocking can be felt in the space and texture of the body sense. We can then tune into that. It is this tuning in to the frequency of the pleasant, and delicately attending to it, that ‘filters it out’ of the field of awareness, so that it begins to become more palpable and more prominent.
Then we can rest in it, allowing it to spread throughout the body space. And if, as before, we continue to tune in to and focus on the felt sense of the energy of this well-being, gently intent on allowing and opening to an enjoyment of it, and encouraging the attention to become absorbed in it, to fill up with it, this can carry us to the threshold of some samādhi.
Such a skill is useful for even the most experienced meditators. There are times in meditation when we may be trying to bring the mind to some unification, working with the intention for samādhi, and despite all our patience and adeptness in attempting different things samādhi does not come. We may need some insight to help us let go of some craving or clinging, perhaps even a craving we were unaware of, and then some samādhi becomes possible.
In addition to the opening and transformation of the energies of the subtle body just described, there is another, related aspect to what is occurring that can be pointed out. To a degree proportional to its strength, the push and pull of craving pushes and pulls the attention. It thus agitates the mind and makes it restless; or saps its energy and makes it dull [emphasis mine]. Relaxing craving through insight will therefore allow the mind to settle more naturally and easefully into stillness and a steadiness of attention. We can see then that the quality of steadiness of attention does not only come through holding the mind to one object.
Aside from being a skillful ‘trick’, however, all this suggests a number of things. One is that although usually we might conceive that ‘samādhi leads to insight’, (and clearly a certain amount of steadiness is generally needed before any insight can arise), as we explore we discover more and more that they can lead to each other.
 We can freely use a term like ‘subtle body’ or ‘energy body’, without needing either to assert or to deny the ‘reality’ of such a concept. It is enough for us that it is a perception, a way the body can be perceived which can be helpful. In fact, a little reflection reveals that the same could be said of concepts like ‘attention’. Is there really some ‘thing’ called ‘attention’ that can ‘go towards’ some other thing (or mental representation of an object) or ‘receive’ that thing? These are all ways of conceiving and perceiving useful on the path to freedom. Perceivable, useful, and, as we will come to see, thoroughly empty.
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?
In answer to the Quora question “What does David Pearce think of Longtermism in the Effective Altruist movement?”
“Future generations matter, but they can’t vote, they can’t buy things, they can’t stand up for their interests.” (80,000 Hours)
In its short history, the Effective Altruist (EA) movement has passed from focus on maximally effective ways to tackle (1) existing sources of human and nonhuman animal suffering (“Giving What We Can”, etc) to (2) AI safety (the spectre of an imminent machine “Intelligence Explosion” that might turn us into the equivalent of paperclips) to (3) Longtermism: the key measure of the (dis)value of our actions today isn’t their effect on existing sentient beings, but rather how our actions affect the very long-run future. According to Longtermism, first-wave EA was myopic. Intelligent moral agents shouldn’t be unduly influenced by emotional salience either in space or in time. On various plausible assumptions, there will be vastly more sentient beings in the far future. Granted mastery of the pleasure-pain axis, their lives – or at least their potential lives – will be overwhelmingly if not exclusively positive. Failure to create such astronomical amounts of positive value would be an ethical catastrophe. So defeating existential risk trumps all else. Contemporary humanity is living at the “hinge of history”; human extinction or civilisational collapse would be the ultimate evil. Therefore, today’s effective altruists should aspire to act impartially to safeguard the potential interests of far future generations, even at the expense of our own.
My view? Longtermist – in a sense. Just as science aspires to the view from nowhere, “the point of view of the universe”, aspiring effective altruists should in theory aim to do likewise. An absence of arbitrary spatio-temporal bias is built into a systematising utilitarian ethic – conceived as a theory of (dis)value. For sure, speculating about life even in the Year 3000 feels faintly absurd, let alone the far future. Yet I believe we can map out an ethical blueprint to safeguard the long-term future of sentience. Whether one is a secular Buddhist or a classical utilitarian, germline engineering can make life in our entire forward light-cone inherently blissful. Crudely, genes, not organisms, have evolutionary longevity, i.e. replicators rather than their vehicles. Genome-editing promises a biohappiness revolution, a momentous discontinuity in the evolution of life. The biosphere can be reprogrammed: future life can be animated entirely by information-sensitive gradients of well-being. Therefore both pain-eradication and hedonic recalibration via germline engineering are longtermist – indeed ultra-longtermist – policy options: proponents and bioconservative critics agree on the fateful nature of our choices. If editing our genetic source code is done wisely, then a transhumanist civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness can underpin the well-being of all sentience indefinitely. So let’s get it right.
However, some aspects of EA Longtermism in its current guise do concern me. (1) Science does not understand reality. From cosmology to the foundations of quantum mechanics to digital (in)sentience to the Hard Problem of consciousness to the binding problem to normative ethics and meta-ethics, the smartest minds of our civilisation disagree. The conceptual framework of transhumans and posthumans may be unimaginably alien to archaic humans – although in the absence of (at least one end of) a pleasure-pain axis, posthuman life could scarcely matter. Either way, it would be a terrible irony if Longtermists were to influence humanity to make big sacrifices, or just neglect contemporary evils, for a pipedream. After all, Longtermism has unhappy historical precedents. Consider, say, fifteenth-century Spain and the Holy Inquisition. If Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada’s moral and metaphysical framework were correct, then neglecting worldly ills in favour of saving souls from an eternity of torment in Hell – and from missing out on eternal bliss in Heaven – by inflicting intense short-term suffering would be defensible, maybe even ethically mandatory. Planning for all eternity is as longtermist as it gets. Yet such anguish was all for nothing: scientific rationalists recognise that religious belief in Heaven and Hell rests on spurious metaphysics. Analogously, influential AI researchers, transhumanists and effective altruists today assume that digital computers will somehow “wake up” and support unified subjects of experience, digital “mind uploads” and eventually quintillions of blissful digital supercivilisations. However, IMO the metaphysics of digital sentience is no better supported than an ontology of immortal souls. Conscious Turing machines are a fantasy. If physicalism is true, i.e. no spooky “strong” emergence, then the number of digital supercivilisations with blissful sentient beings will be zero.
Disbelief in the digital sentience assumed by a lot of Longtermist literature doesn’t reflect an arbitrary substrate-chauvinism. If physicalism is true, then a classical Turing machine that’s physically constituted from carbon rather than silicon couldn’t support unified subjects of experience either, regardless of its speed of execution or the complexity of its code. Programmable classical computers and classically parallel connectionist systems promise “narrow” superintelligence, but they can’t solve the phenomenal binding problem. Phenomenal binding is non-classical and non-algorithmic. Even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, as constitutive panpsychists propose, digital computers are zombies – technically, microexperiential zombies – that are no more sentient than a toaster. So it would be tragic if contemporary humans made sacrifices for a future digital paradise that never comes to pass. By the same token, it would be tragic if Longtermist EAs neglected existing evils in the notional interests of a transgalactic civilisation that never materializes because other solar systems are too distant for sentient biological interstellar travel.
Of course, any extended parallel between religious ideologues and ill-judged Longtermism would be unfair. Longtermist EAs have no intention of tormenting anyone to create a digital paradise or colonize the Virgo Supercluster any more than to save their souls. Rather, I think the risk of some versions of Longtermism is distraction: neglect of the interests of real suffering beings and their offspring on Earth today. From ending the horrors of factory farming and wild-animal suffering to genetically phasing out the biology of pain and depression, there are urgent evils that EAs need to tackle now. With effort, imagination and resources, the biology of mental and physical pain can be banished not just in the long-term, but for ever. Compare getting rid of smallpox. For sure, vegan lobbying to end the obscene cruelties of animal agriculture might not sound Longtermist. But humanity isn’t going to reprogram genomes and engineer compassionate ecosystems while we are still systematically harming sentient beings in factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Veganizing the biosphere and a relatively near-term focus on creating a civilisation with a genetically-encoded hedonic range of, say, +10 to +20 doesn’t neglect the interests of a vaster far-future civilisation with a hedonic range of, say, +90 to +100. Rather, engineering the hedonic foothills of post-Darwinian life is a precondition for future glories. Moreover, talk of far-future “generations” may mislead. This millennium, our Darwinian biology of aging is likely to vanish into evolutionary history – and with it, the nature of procreative freedom, sexual reproduction and generational turnover as we understand these concepts today. Indeed, transhumanist focus on defeating the biology of aging – with stopgap cryonics and cryothanasia as a fallback option – will promote long-term thinking if not Longtermism; contemporary humans will care much more about safeguarding the far future if they think they might be around to enjoy it.
(2)“Longtermism” means something different within the conceptual scheme of classical and negative utilitarianism. The policy prescriptions of pleasure-maximisers and pain-minimisers may vary accordingly. Likewise with long-term planning in general: background assumptions differ. Irrespective of timescales, if you believe that our overriding moral obligation is to mitigate, minimise and prevent suffering – crudely, LT(NU) – then you will have a different metric of (dis)value than if you give equal moral weight to maximising pleasure – crudely, LT(CU). Effective altruist discussion of Longtermism needs to spell out these differing ethical frameworks – regardless how self-evident such core assumptions may seem to their respective protagonists. For instance, within some neo-Buddhist LT(NU) ethical frameworks, engineering a vacuum phase transition painlessly to end suffering with a “nirvana shockwave” can be conceived as Longtermist (“I teach one thing and one thing only…suffering and the end of suffering” – Gautama Buddha, attrib.) no less than LT(CU) planning for zillions of Omelas. Alternatively, some NUs can (and do!) favour engineering a world of superhuman bliss, just as other things being equal, CUs can (and do) favour the abolition of suffering. But NUs will always “walk away from Omelas”, i.e. avoid pleasure obtained at anyone else’s expense, whereas CUs will permit or inflict suffering – even astronomical amounts of suffering – if the payoff is sufficiently huge. Also, the CU-versus-NU dichotomy I’ve drawn here is an oversimplification. Many passionate life-affirmers are not classical utilitarians. Many suffering-focused ethicists are not negative utilitarians. However, I am a negative utilitarian – a negative utilitarian who favours practical policy prescriptions promoting a world based entirely on gradients of superhuman bliss. So my conception of Longtermism and long-term planning varies accordingly.
Why NU? Doesn’t a NU ethic have disturbingly counterintuitive implications? Forgive me for here just hotlinking why I am a negative utilitarian. I want to add that if you even glimpsed how atrocious suffering can be, then you too would destroy yourself and the world to end it – permanently. And in so doing, you wouldn’t be guilty of somehow overestimating the ghastliness of intense suffering; I’m not going to link specific examples, though perhaps I should do so if anyone here disagrees. Modern physics tells us that reality is a seamless whole: in my view, the universal wavefunction is inconceivably evil. Hundreds of thousands of people do take the path of self-deliverance each year. Millions more try and fail. If humanity opts to conserve the biology of suffering, then with advanced technology maybe some of their pain-ridden twenty-second century counterparts will take the rest of their world down too. And it’s not just suicidal depressives who want to end their nightmarish existence. Insofar as twentieth-first century humanity really stands on the edge of a Precipice, I know morally serious agents willing to administer a vigorous shove.
Most classical utilitarians are unmoved by such pleas to prioritise ending suffering. Life is a marvellous gift to be perpetuated at any price. CUs respond that if you understood how inexpressibly wonderful pleasure could be, then you’d endure – and inflict – fiendish torments to access the sublime (“I would give my whole life for this one instant“, said Prince Myshkin, protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel “The Idiot”; Dostoevsky had ecstatic seizures.) A similar effect can be induced by speedballing or mainlining heroin (“it’s like kissing God” – Lenny Bruce). Therefore, CUs and NUs have different conceptions of information hazards – and their suppression. EA funders have different conceptions of info-hazards too, although CU backers are immensely wealthier. Sadly, Phil Torres is correct to speak of EAs who have been ”intimidated, silenced, or ‘canceled.‘” But rather than reflecting the moral turpitude of the cancellers or their sponsors, or even the corrupting influence of power and money, such cancellation is reflective of their differing ethical frameworks. That said, publicity and suppression alike can be morally hazardous.
So what is the best way forward for the effective altruist movement? I’m not sure. Just as the transhumanist movement has mutated over the past quarter-century, likewise the overlapping effective altruist movement is rapidly changing with the ascendancy of LT(CU). Funding and social-primate power-dynamics play a big role too. But traditional fault-lines aren’t going away. Can the gulf between suffering-focused ethicists and classical utilitarians be bridged in the realm of concrete policy?
Well, on an (very) optimistic note, I wonder if both longtermist and near-termist effective altruists who are NUs and CUs could unite on a “traditional” EA agenda of effectively tackling existing sources of suffering. My reasoning is as follows. Combining socio-economic reform, poverty-reduction, effective giving and so forth with a biological-genetic strategy of germline engineering melds short-, medium- and long-term EA. This concordance is highly suspect – I don’t trust my judgement or motivations here. Yet if, counterfactually, my primary concern were existential risk (“x-risk”) rather [something worse] and suffering-reduction, then reducing existing sources of suffering would still loom large, if not foremost. For one of the most effective ways to reduce x-risk will be to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering and turn everybody into fanatical life-lovers. In a world based entirely on gradients of intelligent well-being, NU and its offshoots could be turned into an affective psychosis of a bygone era – unthinkable pathologies. What’s more, archaic humans who might potentially destroy the world aren’t just depressive NUs, “strong” antinatalists, efilists and Benatarians (etc) – most of whom are marginal figures far removed from the levers of power. From Cold War warriors (cf. “Better Dead Than Red!”) to defeated despots (cf. Hitler’s March 1945 “Nero Decree” which called for the systematic destruction of Germany) many powerful and competitive non-depressive people have a conditionally-activated predisposition to want to bring the world down with them if they fail. Such historical examples could be multiplied; humans now have weapons of mass-destruction to express their apocalyptic impulses. Crudely, uncontrollable suffering is bound up with nihilism, just as happiness is bound up with life-affirmation. X-risk worriers and CU Longtermists should take the biology of suffering very seriously.
What’s more, the organisational vehicle to deliver a stunningly life-affirming vision of global happiness already exists. In its founding constitution, the World Health Organization defines health as complete well-being (“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”). The ambition of such a commitment is jaw-dropping. Can the WHO be effectively lobbied by EAs to live up its obligations? I don’t think transhumanists and EAs should be quite so ambitious as the WHO in our conception of health: conserving information-sensitivity is vital. We should aim merely for an architecture of mind based entirely on gradients of well-being.Complete well-being can wait. But if humanity embraces genome reform, then we can come arbitrarily close to the WHO vision of universal well-being via germline editing under a banner of good health for all. Indeed, universal health as defined by the WHO is possible only via genetic engineering. Genome reform is the only longterm(ist) solution to the problem of suffering – short of retiring biological life altogether. Further, the elegance of genetically recalibrating the hedonic treadmill is that hedonic recalibration can potentially be value- and preference-conserving – a critical consideration in winning popular consent. A global health strategy of raising pain-thresholds, hedonic range and hedonic set-points world-wide doesn’t involve adjudicating between logically irreconcilable values and preferences. Recalibration of the hedonic treadmill – as distinct from uniform happiness-maximization or ending suffering via world-annihilation – reflects epistemic humility. Hedonic recalibration can minimise suffering and enhance flourishing while simultaneously keeping all our options open for the future – maybe for a period of long reflection, maybe for an odyssey of psychedelic exploration, who knows? If humanity embraces the abolitionist project – presumably under the auspices of the WHO – then a world without experience below hedonic zero will be safer by the lights of NUs and CUs alike.
Superhuman bliss will be the icing on the cake. Future life may be beautiful, even sublime. But in my view, our greatest obligation to future generations is to ensure they aren’t genetically predestined to suffer like us.
Comment: Here is a serious (and long?) reflection on longtermism by David Pearce of HI fame. My view? I am neither a classical utilitarian (CU) nor a negative utilitarian (NU). Instead, I am waiting for a full mathematically formalized theory of valence (the pleasure-pain axis) before I make up my mind. Indeed, I’m hoping (and to some extent expecting!) that the answer will simply “pop out of the math” (as Michael Johnson likes to say). Then we will probably know. Who knows, perhaps the largest hedonic catastrophes and hedonic glories in the universe might have nothing to do with life.
But, I do also think that the current discourse on longtermism is *overwhelmingly* dominated by CU-style thinking. So this piece is a very important “balancing act”.
I recently had a chance to talk with Scott Alexander of SSC and ACX fame at a Berkeley meetup this past summer. He’d been watching my videos and had some questions for me. In particular, he had questions about how literally we took the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV), and whether the counter-examples he had in mind really went against the theory, or were perhaps also explained by it in non-obvious ways. Afterwards, he sent me a draft of his Jhanas and the Dark Room Problem post for me to preview before he published it. I had a look and offered some clarifications in case he wanted to discuss these ideas more deeply. Just a couple days ago he published it. Seeing that the topic could be explored much more deeply, I then asked him if he was ok with me posting (a lightly edited version of) the email I sent him. He said, “of course”. Thus, you can find it below, which I recommend reading after you read his post in ACX.
Thank you for reaching out! And thank you for the conversation on Saturday. […] Please feel free to post your excerpt, but also I am sharing below information that you can use to edit it so that it is a more accurate portrayal of what we are up to (feel free to quote me below or quote any article or video we have online).
I’ll structure this email in the following way: (1) general clarifications about STV, (2) addressing your excerpt specifically, and (3) some of the meeting notes from our conversation in case you find it valuable to remember what we discussed (or what I can remember of it anyhow).
(1) General Clarifications
The first thing to mention is that the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) is really easy to strawman. It really is the case that there are many near enemies of STV that sound exactly like what a naïve researcher who is missing developmental stages (e.g. is a naïve realist about perception) would say. That we like pretty symmetrical shapes of course does not mean that symmetry is at the root of valence; that we enjoy symphonic music does not mean harmony is “inherently pleasant”; that we enjoy nice repeating patterns of tactile stimulation does not mean, well, you get the idea…
The truth of course is that at QRI we really are meta-contrarian intellectual hipsters (you know this link of course). So the weird and often dumb-sounding things we say are already taking into account the criticisms people in our people-cluster would make and are taking the conversation one step further. For instance, we think digital computers cannot be conscious, but this belief comes from entirely different arguments than those that justify such beliefs out there. We think that the “energy body” is real and important, except that we interpret it within a physicalist paradigm of dynamic systems. We take seriously the possible positive-sum game-theoretical implications of MDMA, but not out of a naïve “why can’t we all love each other?” impression, but rather, based on deep evolutionary arguments. And we take seriously non-standard views of identity, not because “we are all Krishna”, but because the common-sense view of identity turns out to, in retrospect, be based on illusion (cf. Parfit, Kolak, “The Future of Personal Identity“) and a true physicalist theory of consciousness (e.g. Pearce’s theory) has no room for enduring metaphysical egos. This is all to say that strawmanning the paradigms explored at QRI is easy; steelmanning them is what’s hard. I trust you can make a Titanium Man out of them! 🙂
Now, I am indeed happy to address any mischaracterization of STV. Sadly, to my knowledge very few people outside of QRI really “get it”, so I don’t think there is anyone other than us (and possibly you!) who can make a steelman of STV. My promise is that “there is something here” and that to “get it” is not merely to buy into the theory blindly, but rather, it is what happens when you give it enough benefit of the doubt, share a sufficient number of background assumptions, and have a wide enough experience base that it actually becomes a rather obvious “good fit” for all of the data available.
For a bit of history (and properly giving due credit), I should clarify that Michael Johnson is the one who came up with the hypothesis in Principia Qualia (for a brief history see: STV Primer). I started out very skeptical of STV myself, and in fact it took about three years of thinking it through in light of many meditation and high-energy/high-valence experiences to be viscerally convinced that it’s pointing in the right direction. I’m talking about a process of elimination where, for instance, I checked if what feels good is at the computational level of abstraction (such as prediction error minimization) or if it’s at the implementation level (i.e. dissonance). I then developed a number of technical paradigms for how to translate STV into something we could actually study in neuroscience and ultimately try out empirically with non-invasive neurotech (in our case, light-sound-vibration systems that produce multi-modally coherent high-valence states of consciousness). […]
For clarification, I should point out that what is brilliant (IMO) about Mike’s Principia Qualia is that he breaks down the problem of consciousness in such a way that it allows us to divide and conquer the hard problem of consciousness. Indeed, once broken down into his 8 subproblems, calling it the “hard problem of consciousness” sounds as bizarre as it would sound to us to hear about “the hard problem of matter”. We do claim that if we are able to solve each of these subproblems, that indeed the hard problem will dissolve. Not the way illusionists would have it (where the very concept of consciousness is problematic), but rather, in the way that electricity and lightning and magnets all turned out to be explained by just 4 simple equations of electromagnetism. Of course the further question of why do those equations exist and why consciousness follows such laws remains, but even that could IMO be fully explained with the appropriate paradigm (cf. Zero Ontology).
The main point to consider here w.r.t. STV is that symmetry is posited to be connected with valence at the implementation level of analysis. This squarely and clearly distinguishes STV from behaviorist accounts of valence (e.g. “behavioral reinforcement”) and also from algorithmic accounts (e.g. compression drive or prediction error minimization). Indeed, with STV you can have a brain (perhaps a damaged brain, or one in an exotic state of consciousness) where prediction errors are not in fact connected to valence. Rather, the brain evolved to recruit valence gradients in order to make better predictions. Similarly, STV predicts that what makes activation of the pleasure centers feel good is precisely that doing so gives rise to large-scale harmony in brain activity. This is exciting because it means the theory predicts we can actually observe a double dissociation: if we inhibit the pleasure centers while exogenously stimulating large-scale harmonic patterns we expect that to feel good, and we likewise expect that even if you activate the pleasure centers you will not feel good if something inhibits the large-scale harmony that would typically result. Same with prediction errors, behavior, etc.: we predict we can doubly-dissociate valence from those features if we conduct the right experiment. But we won’t be able to dissociate valence from symmetry in the formalism of consciousness.
Now, of course we currently can’t see consciousness directly, but we can infer a lot of invariants about it with different “projections”, and so far all are consistent with STV:
Of special note, I’d point you to one of the studies discussed in the 2020 STV talk: The Human Default Consciousness and Its Disruption: Insights From an EEG Study of Buddhist Jhāna Meditation. It shows a very tight correspondence between jhanas and various smoothly-repeating EEG patterns (including a seizure-like activity that unlike normal seizures (of typically bad valence) shows up as having a harmonic structure, but does not seem to have a direct conscious correlate – still worth mentioning in this context). Here we find a beautiful correspondence between (a) sense of peace/jhanic bliss, (b) phenomenological descriptions of simplicity and smoothness, (c) valence, and (d) actual neurophysiological data mirroring these phenomenological accounts. At QRI we have observed something quite similar studying the EEG patterns of other ultra-high-valence meditation states […]. I expect this pattern to hold for other exotic high-valence states in one way or another, ranging from quality of orgasm to exogenous opioids.
Phenomenologically speaking, STV is not only capable of describing and explaining why certain meditation or psychedelic states of consciousness feel good or bad, but in fact it can be used as a navigation aid! You can introspect on the ways energy does not flow smoothly, or how the presence of blockages and pinch points make it reflect in discordant ways, or zone in on areas of the “energy body” that are out of sync with one another and then specifically use attention in order to “comb the field of experience”. This approach – the purely secular climbing of the harmony gradient – leads all on its own to amazing high-valence states of consciousness (cf. Buddhist Annealing). I’ll probably make a video series with meditation instructions for people to actually experience this by themselves first hand. It doesn’t take very long, actually. Also, apparently STV as a paradigm can be used in order to experience more pleasant trajectories along the “Energy X Complexity landscape” of a DMT trip (something I even talked about at the SSC meetup online!). In a simple quip, I’d say “there are good and bad ways of vibing on DMT, and STV gives you the key to the realms of the good vibes” 🙂
Another angle: we can find subtle ways of dissociating valence from e.g. chemicals: if you take stimulants but don’t feel the nice buzz that provides a “working frame” for your mental activity, they will not feel good. At the same time, without stimulants you can get that pleasant productivity-enhancing buzz with the right tactile patterns of stimulation. Indeed this “buzz” that characterizes the effects of many euphoric drugs (and the quality of e.g. metta meditation) is precisely a valence effect, one that provides a metronome to self-organize around and which can feel bad when you don’t follow where it takes you. Literally, one of the core reasons why MDMA feels better than LSD, which feels better than DOB, is precisely because the “quality of the buzz” of each of these highs is different. MDMA’s buzz is beautiful and harmonious; DOB’s buzz is harsh and dissonant. More so, such a buzz can work as task-specific dissonance guide-rails, if you will. Meaning that when you do buzz-congruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner harmony, whereas when you do buzz-incongruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner turmoil. Hence what kind of buzz one experiences is deeply consequential! All of this falls rather nicely within STV – IMO other theories need to keep adding epicycles to keep up.
Hopefully this all worked as useful clarifications. Now let me address your excerpt more specifically:
(2) The Excerpt
The Dark Room Problem in neuroscience goes something like this: suppose the brain is minimizing prediction error, or free energy, or whatever. You can minimize lots of things by sitting quietly in a dark room. Everything will be very, very predictable. So how come people do other things?
The usual workaround is inbuilt biological drives, considered as “set points”. You “predict” that you will be well-fed, so getting hungry registers as prediction error and brings you out of your dark room to eat. Et cetera.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson recently shared a perspective I hadn’t considered before, which is: actually, sitting quietly in a dark room is really great.
Indeed usually the Dark Room causes massive prediction errors (since our model of the world is one where being in a Dark Room is truly not expected!). But these prediction errors feel bad because of the dissonance they induce in our experience (which you can get rid of with drugs or meditation!). If you make the Dark Room an “expected” thing, then eventually it will start feeling great. In fact, something like this happens when you meditate a lot in a dark room and settle in. Alternatively, taking 5-MeO-DMT for the first 10 times can be very disconcerting, as it takes you to “the ultimate void of reality”. It’s surprising and dissonant to “find out” that the void is the ultimate truth (I’m not saying that’s true, just that it feels that way in that state!). But once you’ve done it enough times that you know what to expect, you can in fact receive with two open arms the void of ultimate reality. You learn to expect it and not code it as a prediction error, and then you can deeply, deeply “align” to it, which results in unfathomably positive valence that discharges tons of stored internal stress, the very source of low-level dissonance before the trip (again, STV here fits the data rather nicely).
The Buddha discussed states of extreme bliss attainable through meditation:
> Secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion (Samyutta Nikaya)
I had always figured that “sensual pleasures” here meant things like sex. But I think maybe he just means stimuli, full stop. The meditator cuts themselves from all sensory stimuli, eg by meditating really hard on a single object like the breath and ignoring everything else, and as a result gets “rapture and happiness born of seclusion”.
The serious meditators I know say this is real, meaningful, and you can experience it after a few months of careful practice. You become really good at concentrating on one stimulus and ignoring all other stimuli, and eventually your brain kind of gets “in tune” with that stimulus and it’s really blissful. They say this seems to have something to do with the regularity or predictability of the stimulus; if you’re concentrating really hard on something, regularity/predictability/symmetry is just viscerally very good, better than anything you’ve felt before.
Something like regularity/predictability/symmetry is really good. So why doesn’t a metronome make you bliss out? Andrés says it’s because you can’t concentrate on it hard enough. It’s not engaging enough to occupy your whole brain / entire sensorium /whatever.
Exactly, this is true. The one twist I’ll add is that the regularity that matters is not, as I explained above, the regularity of the stimuli, but rather, the regularity of the inner state. In fact, I currently think that we can get a glimpse of the true shape of our consciousness precisely by studying how different meditation objects work better or worse for the purpose of meditative absorption! Indeed, more symmetrical objects are easier meditation objects (cf. QRI can steelman “sacred geometry”ꙮ). Likewise, the hallucinations one gets near or close to states of high-absorption are also reflections of our inner shape! (cf. Fire Kasina qualia).
Symphonies are beautiful, and we intuitively feel like it’s because they have some kind of deep regularity or complicated pattern. But they’re less regular/predictable/symmetrical than a metronome. Andrés thinks this is because they hit a sweet spot: regular/symmetrical/predictable enough to be beautiful, but complex/unpredictable enough to draw and hold our attention. Compare to eg games, which are most fun when they’re hard enough to be challenging but easy enough to be winnable.
Indeed! We need unpredictability in order to disable the boredom mechanism, which prevents us from fully absorbing into patterns (or rather, prevents our experience from shaping itself in a way that perfectly predicts the stimuli – in a way when you reach absorption with a stimuli, you are in fact becoming its “complement” – a shape that can predict it perfectly). An important twist is that prediction errors give rise to energy spikes, and high-energy states of consciousness can give rise to pleasant resonance (think about the bodily euphoria that comes from eating spicy enough hot peppers). Plus, cooling down from high-energy states can lead to euphoric neural annealing (as explained here). In all cases, however, the thing that is the most closely related to valence is the regularity/smoothness of the internal (instantaneous) state, even though there might be other complex dynamics guiding the state from one configuration to another.
But this sweet spot is the fault of your own inattentiveness. If you could really concentrate on the metronome, it would be even more blissful than the symphony. Emilsson says he’s achieved these levels of concentration and can confirm. I talked to another meditator who agrees metronomes can be pretty blissful with the right amount of (superhuman) focus, although – as per the Buddha quote above – total silence is best of all.
Agreed! An interesting note is that the first time this happened to me, it was not in meditation, but during a sleep paralysis! See: Dream Music where I discuss how a simple tone can sound amazing if you are in the right reverb-filled state of mind. See also: people with anhedonia often report feeling “back to normal” in dreams, and IMO that’s precisely because the neuroacoustic profile of dreams can be very reverb-filled and thus have significant valence effects (see below).
I find this to be an elegant explanation of what the heck is going on with jhanas, more convincing than my previous theory. It’s also a strong contender as a theory of beauty – a little different in emphasis from Schmidhuber’s theory, but eventually arriving at the same place: beauty is that which is compressible but has not already been compressed.
A brief comment here: your “going loopy” theory foreshadows our tracer tool and psychedelic cryptography, where psychedelics seem to activate a “delay overlay” of recent experiences on top of the current one. DMT gives rise to ~30hz loops, LSD to around ~18hz loops, and 2C-B closer to ~10hz loops. We hypothesize that there are a discrete number of serotonin-mediated metronomes that precisely modulate the degree to which experience is fed back to itself with a specific delay. Antidepressants may flatten affect by disrupting these loops, and thus eliminating sources of symmetry for the inner state. People describe the sense of “missing an echo”; quite literally having a more “flat” experience as a result!
Enhanced neuroacoustics (as with psychedelics) generally increase the range of valence because more loopy experiences are more intense and also more capable of pure dissonance or pure consonance. Dissociatives (nmda antagonism more generally) seem to instead do a low-frequency looping (around 8hz) together with a generalized reverb effect. Much as in music, adding reverb to almost literally anything makes it sound less harsh (like the baby crying vs. baby crying + reverb sounds I referenced in the presentation). And also much as in music, *compounding* delay and reverb effects gives rise to synergistic outcomes, often with crazy standing wave attractors (e.g. exactly what you see on LSD + nitrous or LSD + ketamine).
Importantly, STV is *not* a theory that lives at the computational or algorithmic level of analysis, which is unlike Schmidhuber’s theory. If I recall correctly, Schmidhuber’s theory doesn’t even care about phenomenal valence or consciousness. And it has no mechanism of binding or any sense of how the “reward” is implemented or who or what receives such reward. Its flavor is functionalist and concludes that beauty is to be found in the act of compression. But STV instead says that compression is merely correlated with valence: our brains are set up in such a way that making excellent compressions reduces dissonance! This is because there is (a) an inherent dissonance cost to complexity, and (b) there is a dissonance cost to prediction errors. But again, take the right drug, and all of a sudden you can experience high-valence while making tons of prediction errors or having models that are much more complex than the sensory data would suggest is necessary.
In particular, what makes good compressions feel good beyond reducing prediction errors is that they select for internal states that have simple sets of symmetries as the best generators which anticipate the stimuli. This is highly related to the concept of Harmonic Entropy (i.e. the entropy of the inner state, not of the stimuli). And here is where we find a stark and amazing difference between STV and compression drive: we in fact expect there to be a sort of “minimal construction” path where you get specific “complexity scores” for phenomenal objects based on the number of operations of the sort the brain can do that are needed to construct such phenomenal objects. The brain needs to explicitly render phenomenal objects, rather than merely encode them. So there is a harmonic entropy associated with each experience, which more-or-less correlates with Kolmogorov complexity but is different in that it uses resonance as the building block rather than arbitrary operations. We also predict that the valence associated with specific patterns of stimulation will be best correlated with a sort of “perceptual harmonic entropy” than with complexity in general: how well you can compress an input depends on what building blocks you have to reconstruct it. In the case of the brain, the building blocks seem to be patterns of resonance. So even if something is “highly compressible” but cannot be compressed with resonance (e.g. the prime numbers), you will not experience it as beautiful or “easy on the eye”.
Importantly, free energy minimization is a computational level analysis and we would say at QRI that it therefore is mistaken on “where to look”. Consequence: compressing information feels good *because* it often (but not always) reduces dissonance. But if your brain is set up in the wrong way, minimizing dissonance may not lead to good compressions, or doing good compressions may not in fact feel good. But reducing dissonance will always feel better, and having high-energy high-harmony patterns internally will always feel good. What this does at the algorithmic and computational level is tricky, but it generally implies that we can see “artifacts” of our resonance-based compression system all over the place when in exotic states of consciousness, which is what we observe (and at the end of the day this may explain why psychedelic fractals and Indra’s Net type experiences are so hedonically loaded! See: psychedelics and the free energy principle).
To sum it up: STV claims that what matters is the regularity of the conscious experience and not of the stimuli – the stimuli is only in a certain sense a “projection” of the inner state, but it can deviate from it in many ways. Prediction errors feel bad because our brain is set up in such a way that they cause dissonance. And compressions only feel good to the extent that they avoid prediction errors *and* minimize the internal dissonance cost of the internal representations used for prediction. In other words, STV explains the other theories, but not the other way around.
(3) Meeting notes, in case you find them useful…
You asked if I knew whether taking a lot of 5-MeO-DMT is compatible with sanity for most people: the answer is probably not. That said, we do know of some notable exceptions of very smart and sane individuals who have experimented heavily with the drug with no obvious cost to their sanity (e.g. see conversation with Ingram, Yang, McMullen, and Taft which touches upon the effects of daily use of 5-MeO-DMT).
I brought up anti-tolerance drugs, of which black seed oil is promising (but a low-tier player). Most promising of all are ibogaine and proglumide. Opioids + anti-tolerance drugs are IMO the most promising long-term therapy for severe chronic pain.
Information is in the coupling between harmonics; de-couple them and you can experience the “zero state” while still being awake.
Meaning of the QRI logo (i.e. having a clear view of the entire state-space of consciousness; bridging quality/color and quantity/lines as a symbol for qualia formalism).
You asked “can you tell me what are brainwaves in simple terms a child could understand?” (I answered with “they are the signature of resonance in the holistic field behavior of experience” and immediately realized I had miserably failed to “explain in simple terms”).
“Would listening to a pure tone be blissful?” Yes, you can absorb yourself into it. Second half of an orchestral song repeated could be better if it allows you to go deeper into absorption. Touched upon: Boredom mechanism. Harmonic entropy. Controlling for energy.
3D harmonics, STV presentation, symmetry of the mathematical object is what truly matters.
Ok, that was rather long; I hope that you found it useful and clarifying! Please feel free to ask any questions and I promise I won’t send you another equally long email 🙂 Again, feel free to write about any and all of this.
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]