Wednesday, October 26, 2011

No Wonder They're Happy

In the article "Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness" researchers found changes in PET scans of practitioners of Yoga Nidra meditation indicating a 65% increase in endogenous dopamine.  Yoga Nidra is typically a practice of paying attention to a number of points of the body in order, which is very similar to Goenka style (body scanning) Vipassana.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Shamatha Project

The Shamatha Project was inspired by Alan Wallace, long time Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and author.  Amazingly, 2 samples of 30 participants agreed to engage in 3 months of intensive meditation practice, approximately 5 hours per day of shamatha practice, a focused concentration on the breath or anapanasati.  This type of practice differs somewhat from the moment to moment concentration of whatever is present which is called vipassana.

I was reminded of the project when listening to Secular Buddhist podcast #23 with one of the researchers.  The research is written up in Psychological Science, Intensive Meditation Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention.

The test of attention that they used reminded me of the TOVA test (Test of Variables of Attention), which if you have ever taken it, is very boring by design, but is quite good for detecting lapses in sustained attention.  A generic version is available, TOAV (Test of Attentional Vigilance).

"They carry you there where God is"

A typical statement Robert Gordon Wasson heard when asking Central American Indians about their sacred mushrooms (teonanacatl, "God's flesh").  He was the first Westerner to partake of psilocybin mushrooms in the summer of 1955, following a long fascination with mushrooms of all kinds.  This is from the article from Life magazine.  The curandera, or shaman, is listed as Eva Mendes, a pseudonym Wasson gave to protect the name of the actual woman, Maria Sabina.
The dose described for Maria was 13 pairs of fresh mushrooms, well into "heroic dose" territory, although I think there is a certain logic in going high, particularly if you are experienced.  Blasting completely past psychological issues and leaving them in the dust does make a certain amount of sense.  The Westerners were given 6 pairs of fresh shrooms, a healthy amount perhaps comparable to an eighth of dried mushrooms, around 3.5 grams.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Few Links, Richard Davidson, etc.

Psychedelic Research blog covers some Insane Brain Train - friendly ground.

On the meditation front there's a lot of debate sparked by fundamentalist Buddhists (ugh) and more modern pragmatic practitioners.  One of those debates is on whether or not you must master jhanas before beginning vipassana.  In From Vipassana Hater to Vipassana Lover, the Theravadin blog provides the interesting perspective that perhaps "dry vipassana" (without jhanas) was actually recommended by Buddha.

In my last post I linked to the study where Richard Davidson reported that long term meditators self induce high amplitude gamma and gamma synchrony.  That was a well done piece of research (from the man who has commented that "the vast majority of meditation research is schlock").  The 8 meditators in the study were from the Tibetan tradition and were practicing metta, or loving kindness meditation.  One of the meditators was Yongey Mingur Rinpoche, who is known for his book Joyful Living.  The high levels of gamma (in this study 25-42 Hz) and gamma synchrony differ from research showing mainly alpha and theta effects.  But from my perspective, I have concerns that metta may not exactly be the straightest pipe to enlightenment, and it is something that people strive to generate.  I would love to see the study replicated on Theravadans practicing straight up vipassana, or, going the route of open awareness, maybe have those same Tibetans do their Dzogchen or Mahamudra type practice.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Roland Griffiths Interview

At the end of the Psilocybin Leads to Increased Openness post, I tacked on a link to a Roland Griffiths interview at the Secular Buddhist (a number of very interesting podcasts there, by the way).  I'm really impressed with all the meditation-savvy researchers out there, and it appears Roland is yet another one, and his psilocybin research is very interesting.  I had a chance to listen to the podcast a couple of times and thought it merited some coverage.

Right up front, when discussing his background, it sounds like Griffiths refers to a vipassana "arising and passing" event (stereotypically a big experience of love, bliss and lights) that occurred at a Siddha meditation retreat of some kind.  He refers to an opening up of a sense of awe and wonder, a "deeply moving" experience that led him to read up on spirituality to understand "what the hell happened to me."

He also refers to the famous 1962 Good Friday Experiment by Walter Pahnke at Harvard (under thesis advisors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert aka Ram Dass), where a high percentage of those dosed with psilocybin had profound religious experiences.  Roland considered his 2006 study to be a replication of Pahnke's experiment, albeit with tighter controls, and as somewhat of a skeptic he was blown away by the results, with high percentages ranking the experience as one of the most important of their life.  His surprise at the results stems from his background as a researcher with 40 years of experience at interviewing subjects on various types of other psychoactive drugs, uppers and downers, etc.  Clearly psychedelics are a very special class of drug.

They used the Hood Mysticism Scale which lists the following as aspects of traditional spontaneous mystical experiences:
  • unity, interconnectedness, oneness, merging
  • deep reverence or sacredness
  • noetic, an "authority" of the experience being more real or true than everyday life
  • positive mood, heart opening, peace & tranquility
  • time and space collapse into the present moment
  • ineffable
I would concur :)

He was very excited ("kid in a candy store") by the prospects for future research, as demonstrating that the psilocybin effects seem to be nearly identical to traditional spontaneous experiences means they can use the drug to prospectively research the effects of the experience, looking at various areas of the brain, drug interactions, personality variables, genetic influences, etc.

As a result, much research is in the offing.  He plans to study the effect of psilocybin on prospective meditators. Another interesting study will be to look at long term established meditators, their experience on psilocybin, and this will be done in conjunction with Richard Davidson (for neuroimaging) who did the well known paper showing high levels of gamma and gamma synchrony in long term meditators.  There will be a study for cancer patients to see if a psilocybin experience can help those suffering from death related anxiety.  And research to gauge the effects of a psilocybin experience in conjunction with drug rehabilitation.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Nitrous Oxide, a catalyst for Oneness

I wanted to discuss some nitrous oxide experiences, my approach to it (in particular the cannabis - N2O combination), as well as some pros and cons of the drug itself.

It's been a few months since I first experienced oneness on a high dose of psilocybin mushrooms augmented by nitrous oxide.  The experience persisted to some degree for several days.  For example, I would occasionally have moments where I would see people on the street and see them as myself.  After that, it faded a bit, although I can still go "there" conceptually, as I suppose anyone can.  Over the next couple of weeks I found the experience would reoccur while using cannabis, and then that faded away as well.  Subsequent to that, I found that augmenting cannabis with nitrous oxide would get me to that state perhaps 50% or more of the time.  I suspect that my prior experience of oneness with psilocybin and N2O may have been important in terms of laying down some neural pathways to the experience.  Otherwise I feel I might have experienced this earlier in life when I first experimented with the cannabis-N2O combination.

In some way what led me to this was the fact that I had a large quantity of N2O on hand for experimentation.  When I was looking into ordering it in the first place I came across a good deal for a case of it (25 boxes of cartridges for making whipped cream), and as a result I've had a large supply on hand.  To be honest, I'm not quite sure that it was the best decision to have on hand a large quantity of such a drug, but I'm fascinated where it has led me.  My reluctance there is based both on my knowledge of the "pull" of the drug, that is, the at least mildly addictive quality of it, as well as the knowledge that it may not be quite as safe as other catalysts.

So let's break down the effects and try to look at this rationally.  Here I'm collating the basic information on nitrous oxide from Wikipedia here:
  • anxiolytic, some effects have cross tolerance with benzodiazepines
  • mild anesthetic (reversible loss of sensation)
  • dissociative anesthetic, reduces signals to the conscious mind
  • analgesic effects, again, some effects have cross tolerance with opiates, also, the noradrenergic system (fight or flight) is inhibited
  • euphoria, releases dopamine
  • depletes vitamin B12
  • should not be used by pregnant women or those trying to conceive
  • some neurotoxicity
  • addictive quality
  • impurities

The mention of neurotoxicity includes substantial ambiguity, as some of the effects also conversely include neuroprotection via inhibition of glutamate.  But it would be quite reckless to overlook the possibility.

Vitamin B12 is a neuroprotectant.  Given that, and the fact that N2O depletes it, I think any sane use of N2O would require that one supplement with a hefty dose of B12 upfront.  I use a 1mg (16,667% of RDA) lozenge dissolved under my tongue.

Other supplement type neuroprotectants include all manner of flavonoids and polyphenols which any health nut would be aware of, from berries, green tea, and chocolate, to omega-3 fatty acids.  So a very healthy diet is recommended, and as much supplementation as you can find to be reasonable.

Also note, importantly, that cannabinoids are neuroprotectants.

Part of the problem is lack of oxygen.  Always get some air with your N2O.  It occurs to me that cardio would be helpful in that regard as well.

EDIT:  I've now seen a couple of papers regarding other B vitamins in connection with N2O use, mainly folic acid, of which the best form seems to be L-Methylfolate, also vitamin B-6.  At some point supplementation gets out of hand, but there are a variety of studies showing benefits to preoperative doses of one or more of these B vitamins either immediately before surgery or over the preceding week.  EDIT:  Also have seen that methionine supplementation may be helpful as N2O inhibits methionine synthase.  I think this is B12 related, so B12 might cover it, but you only have one brain.

Also check out the nitrous oxide wiki at drugs-forum.

Addictive Quality:

At the surface level of information about N2O, there's not a tremendous amount said about the addictive quality, but clearly some people have used it compulsively, and it has been called "hippie crack."  I think more would be said about it if it were more popular.  I think the relative lack of talk about its addictiveness stems more from the fact that it is kind of an oddball high and not a particularly easy drug to deal with as you have to constantly inhale it.  Difficult to become completely addicted unless you want to walk around with a tank or something.  However, I do think it's a drug with a certain amount of binge potential to keep an eye on.  The presence of cross tolerances to benzodiazepines and opiates tells me you should have a very healthy respect for this drug, and it should be used infrequently.  I don't consider this to be a weekday drug.


Another consideration is purity of the gas itself.  Back in the day I had never considered this, but some of these cartridges apparently have purer gas than others, although these are all food grade for use in whipped cream.  There is an activated carbon filtration system available (NitroKit), it plugs in right at the gas intake of a whipped cream dispenser.  Unfortunately that is where the pressure is highest so as it turns out you still get some stuff blasting through because of the intense pressure and velocity.  I fashioned a piece of wire to fit in the dispensing end and found that wedging a small amount of cotton up against that wire was useful as an additional filter (without the wire the pressure can blow the cotton right out).  Sometimes I see some small rust colored particles (I know they use iron as part of the process of removing impurities).  In some testing they did on Erowid, a layer of 3 pieces of cotton t-shirt material seemed to do a superior job of filtering.  I strongly recommend you do some kind of filtering.

EDIT: In a later post, I talk about nitrous oxide brands.  My recommendation (at least from one non-Chinese distributor) would be Ultra-PureWhip, and not regular PureWhip.

My earliest experiences in college with N2O were basically taking it in near "obliteration" mode.  When I first tried it, we would typically have one box on hand, and several people present, and it made a certain amount of sense to take it in this way.  I mean, you have a short acting drug and a small supply, a bit of social pressure, and there you go.  Max it out.  Chug it, dude!

But what I stumbled on, with a large supply on hand, was the idea of just kind of sipping it, taking a small "toke" every breath or two along with plenty of air.  In some ways this may be analogous to the way it is used in the dentists office.  I found this leads to an exquisite and rarified "cruising altitude" where more and more things can be let go of, eventually leading to an altitude conducive to great philosophical insight, a very top down, all-encompassing perspective, even oneness, and one of the most pleasurable highs I have experienced.  As William James put it, "the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination. Truth lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding evidence. The mind sees all logical relations of being with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel. "

It does take some time with my method to get to that altitude.  I recommend starting with cannabis, using the type and amount of cannabis that you prefer to get to a solid, comfortable "base camp" altitude.  Or you could of course go the psychedelic route.  I'm just mentioning cannabis because it's very practical.  (I now consider the cannabis only method to be lacking.  I now regularly use a small non-psychedelic amount of shrooms, something like 0.75 grams, as it seems to be very important to the experience.  I consider full on psychedelic experiences a special category that requires a bit more preparation.  In contrast, you can function on cannabis, you can function on sub-gram levels of shrooms, and N2O is very short acting.)

Once base camp is established, begin sipping on the N2O.  At this slower rate of intake it takes a bit of time to get to where I'm talking about, depending what altitude we're talking about, perhaps an hour, maybe one box of 24 N2O cartridges.  Each cartridge seems to be good for somewhere between 2-3 minutes the way I use it.  I'm a little concerned about the length of exposure, but then again I think I'm fairly aware of the risks and rewards.  Using this quantity of N2O, the aftereffects do seem to last for a while after.  With one cartridge, you will be back to normal in minutes, but this quantity does seem to leave somewhat more hangover for the following hours.

Recommended reading: Erowid Nitrous Oxide vault 

Also, a cautionary tale from a fellow traveler with extensive N2O experience, both on LSD (a combination he calls Gascid) and with cannabis.

Added my extended personal recommendations and practical considerations:
  • Start early.  Because of sleep problems, I like to have plenty of time to detox afterwards for a couple of hours, and if adding even a small amount of psilocybin I like to begin 6-8 hours ahead of a reasonable sleep time.
  • Dose any psilocybin first, it has the longest onset and longest effects of the substances at hand.  My recommendation is currently 0.75 grams shrooms per 80 kg, approximately 1/10 of a strong psychedelic dose.  This is probably very individualized, but in my experience this is a low enough dose to sidestep getting into shadow psychological territory, but enough to help pry open the door to mystical experience slightly.  All we need is to get a foot in the door.
  • If possible go the edible route for cannabis, so the timeline is generally to eat a hash brownie first, then eat the shrooms after one hour, then begin nitrous about when everything starts kicking in, perhaps 30-45 minutes.
  • Remember to take your sublingual B12 and any other neuroprotectants prior to N2O use.  Because I'm a bit OCD about supplements, I happen to already have on hand curcumin and carnosine, for example.

  • Warm up your vaporizer (you do use a vaporizer, right?) and mix yourself a drink if you like.  I like to have one alcoholic drink while I vaporize a moderate amount of pure indica cannabis.  I suggest a moderate amount, but in some ways the point with this approach is to maximize reward to risk of all substances involved, i.e. whatever you can tolerate without negative effects.  For me the alcohol is not so much necessary as it is a personal habit when vaporizing, but I find it useful to take the edge off slightly and forestall any anxiety or paranoia from the cannabis or shrooms.  Although it should be said the N2O will generally take that edge off as well.

  • Put on some music (you do have a computer hooked up to play mellow trippy music with G-Force visualizations through your big flat screen TV, right?), get comfortable and begin sipping nitrous.  The N2O should be considered somewhat precious (roughly one box of 24 cartridges per hour, usually 45-75 minutes per box), so I recommend cultivating a practice of exhaling slowly if you have N2O in your lungs.  I also recommend, perhaps even more importantly, that you adopt a practice where regular air is always the majority of your breath.  If you want to go to pluto once or twice to just do it, or overcome a temporary psychological obstacle, you can violate this rule for a breath or two, but I almost never do this, it's kind of like, why bother.  Understand that the experience I'm describing isn't about obliteration, it's about generating a genuine, sustained mystical experience with very safe and easy to manage levels of an ensemble of drugs.  No one drug is used at excessive levels.  The most dangerous thing we're playing with here is the nitrous oxide.
  • Additional considerations for the preservation of N2O:  Make nitrous the first thing to hit the lungs, get it deep, and chase it with plenty of air.  You can exaggerate this concept by first exhaling more fully before sipping, and then after chasing it with plenty of air, inhale even more fully than normal, then as always, exhale slowly afterwards.  I find that with these techniques and the synergy with the cannabis and psilocybin, the N2O lasts much longer.
  • In my experience you'll need to redose the cannabis (and have a drink if you want) about every 1.5-2.0 hours, but that probably depends a lot on you and the type of cannabis.  Particularly because of the N2O, at the redose point you may not feel like you need anything else, but trust me, I recommend you redose and check it out.  It really helps to potentiate things.  Nitrous by itself is fairly profound, yes, but we're looking for more here.  There is something extra and a bit magical that happens when adding cannabis and maybe a bit of psilocybin.  Don't waste it, use the synergy.  Particularly if you're already into a mystical experience, adding a very reasonable redose is surprisingly nice.
  • It does seem to take a while to reach the altitude I'm talking about.  There is apparently a buildup of some kind while doing nitrous for extended periods, perhaps receptors are slowly getting overwhelmed or something, and in my experience if I'm going to hit that realm "beyond the other shore" it does take maybe 1.5 hours to get there.  I personally think it then makes sense to soak in the experience for one or two more cannabis cycles, so we're talking about a total experience of 3-5 hours or thereabouts (up to 4-5 boxes of N2O).  The nitrous may call you to continue at that point (more-ing), but I highly recommend you shut it down, chill for a couple of hours, get a good nights sleep, and go back to your life in good shape.  Live to trip another day.  If you keep going, I think you will regret it either physically or psychologically.  You may also reach the point (even within the time frame described) where the nitrous starts to become somewhat repellent, kind of sickly sweet tasting.  That's a good point to stop, so stop.  You'll thank me later.  Besides, your psilocybin has probably run its course.
  • And to reiterate, I consider this combination to be fairly safe.  The nitrous is kind of the odd man out among the other drugs, but by taking B12 and possibly other supplements, taking plenty of air (and you don't have to hit the N2O with every breath, right?), limiting the experience to 2-3 cannabis cycles and not doing it every day, I think the reward to risk for this ensemble is quite good.  In fact, considering the consistency with which I have been generating genuine mystical experiences for myself, the kind that are mildly rare even for experienced psychonauts, and which even then can be fraught with great psychological difficulty, I mean, this is pretty amazing.  Very reasonable doses of cannabis, shrooms, perhaps alcohol, and N2O.