Saturday, July 25, 2015

Is Psilocybin The Next Cannabis?

Is Psilocybin The Next Cannabis? covers the benefits of psilocybin and discusses the difficulties of getting it legalized in comparison to cannabis.

Personal comment:  Psilocybin is following a legalization track based on relieving existential anxiety in terminal cancer patients.  I would be interested to see how psilocybin would perform if substituted for MDMA in the studies on PTSD.  I suspect it would do pretty well.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Psychedelics In Buddhism

The Long Strange Trip (Tricycle) reports on the publishing of the 2nd edition of the book Zig Zag Zen, which consists of essays covering the intersection of Buddhism and psychedelics.

It was something I noticed back in the early 1980s, when I was working as a newspaper reporter and interviewing longtime members of San Francisco Zen Center.  I’d ask them how they got interested in Buddhism, and I’d keep hearing about “the long, strange trip.”

“Well,” the answer would go, “I guess you could say it started with that first acid trip back in 1965.”
Among other things, the article refers to the rapidly changing legal landscape, mentioning that "as early as 2020, researchers now predict, MDMA and psilocybin could be reclassified by the US Food and Drug Administration and routinely used under the watchful eye of trained therapists."

Top 21 Benefits of Meditation

From an anti-aging site, the top 21 benefits of meditation.  The article goes into some detail on each of these.

  1. Meditation reduces stress, ruminative thoughts, appraisals of threat, increases compassion, and may slow the rate of cellular aging
  2. Meditation reduces heart rate, ambulatory blood pressure and stress-induced hypertension
  3. Meditation reduces carotid artery intimal thickness (CIMT)
  4. Meditation lowers lipid peroxide levels in the blood
  5. Meditation improves Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
  6. Meditation increases melatonin levels, which helps you sleep. Melatonin also prevents cellular senescence and activates SIRT1 gene expression
  7. Meditation increases telomerase activity by 43%
  8. Meditation effectively treats Depression with the same “effect size” as medication
  9. Meditation reduces mortality 
  10. Meditation down-regulates pro-inflammatory genes – COX2 and RIPK2
  11. Meditation increases DHEA levels and reverses its age-related decline by 5-10 years 
  12. Meditation increases the size of the brain
  13. Meditation increases Activity in the Brain’s “Attention Center”
  14. Meditation Deactivates (decreases activity) in the Brain’s “Daydreaming Center”, also known as the “Default Mode Network”
  15. Breathing Rate with Meditation Determines the size change of a very specific area under the occipitotemporal lobe.  Breathing rate decreases with increasing experience of the meditator
  16. Meditation can reduce Chronic Pain
  17. Meditation can reduce anxiety
  18. Meditation is an “Epigenetic Drug, changing gene expression
  19. Meditation can reduce stress in caregivers of those taking care of dementia patients and handicapped patents or children
  20. Meditation changes gene expression in peripheral blood lymphocytes
  21. Meditation reduces Loneliness in elderly adults

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Skeptic Meditates on Meditation

Meta-Meditation: A Skeptic Meditates on Meditation strikes me as a partly useful wake up call to meditation sycophants and quite a bit of a very biased sour grapes rant.

It's extremely common to hear a story that goes something like this: "one time I tried to meditate but I just couldn't do it."  Yep.  But it's like someone saying they picked up a musical instrument and because they weren't an instant virtuoso they gave up.  I mean, that would be silly, right?  The author sounds a bit more experienced, but I think something along those lines is taking place.

In terms of benefits, I think most people who meditate would be hard pressed to describe more than the very mildest benefits, namely that they are a little bit more aware and a little bit more relaxed, and that's about it.  To get more benefits means you would really need to get the thing done, get the mind trained.  You have to really learn to play that instrument, and I'm not sure a whole lot of people really master any instrument, much less one that they have unconsciously trained in another direction for say, 16 hours a day for their entire life.

Sure, there's hype and bad gurus, and like any somewhat speculative area, there is some weak research.  But knocking Matthieu Ricard with a cherry picked example?  Seriously?  That's delusional.  That's bad form.

Or this:
Meditation is the equivalent of telling yourself, over and over, “Be happy,” or, “Chill.” In other words, meditation, like psychotherapy, harnesses the placebo effect. In fact, you meditators out there can have this mantra, free of charge: “Chill.”
Certain meditations, maybe.  Actually, I think this is not such a bad idea.  I recommend, from time to time, using a custom mantra that you invent on the spot.  Need love?  Then that's your mantra, "Love."  Need awareness, peace, bliss, whatever, there you go.  That kind of thing can be useful if it gets you to stop grasping at other stuff.  But ultimately it's not about chasing some kind of perfect state, it's about being okay with what is.

I would agree that the having no goal problem is a problem.  I think a lot of teachers teach from the end stage, where we might say that there is nothing to do.  But realistically most people are going to require a lot of training to get the mind aware and present before they can really engage with that type of direction.

Arguing against the "niceness" of meditators again seems like cherry picking.  Overall, you get people more aware and relaxed, I'm pretty sure things will probably be a little bit better.  It's not going to be worse.  And if people take it far enough, they naturally become more compassionate simply because they're not quite as identified with the individual self.

I think part of the reason for this person's rant is that the consensus meditation community is not so great at teaching people how to really get it done.  Regardless of the style, people are generally left to their own devices and in many ways are encouraged to contemplate on the cushion, to relax and think.  Which if you're actually able to be detached from those thoughts while you're thinking them would be fine.  But I wouldn't bet on many people actually getting it done that way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Podcast with Brad Burge of MAPS

The Tink Tink Club's interview with Brad Burge of MAPS.  Lots of interesting talk, mainly about MDMA research.  Apparently we are on track to have legal MDMA for psychotherapeutic use for PTSD by 2021.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Dharma Talk 017 - Awareness and Relaxation

I was recently watching the "Brain Games" television show on the National Geographic channel, I believe it was the one about Scams, and at the end of it Jason Silva said:

But remember being gullible isn't all bad.  If your brain wasn't capable of suspending disbelief you'd never lose yourself in a good book or get sucked into a movie.

I wanted to comment that for me, this "awareness" thing deriving from meditation took off and at a certain point we could say that it more or less took over my life.  One of the first times I noticed this was when I went to a movie and I didn't get sucked in.  Not for a second.  I was aware and present the whole time.  And I recognized that this was unusual, like, hmm, "this is new".

At the time I was participating in some regular video chats with several more advanced yogis.  I mentioned this phenomenon to them and at that moment, the screen of maybe 3 or 4 yogis suddenly lit up with everyone gesturing "thumbs up" into their webcams.  The place lit up with thumbs.  At that point I realized I was on the right track.

I don't want to be too obtuse about this - to some degree I can get a little bit absorbed or lost in something, but for the most part nowadays, I am typically aware.  I would be happy to bet money on whether or not I am present, because I know that is a bet I would win on average.  A friend of mine at the time, one of the senior yogis, remarked that he felt as if he was "stuck in the present".  Yes.

The key, though, is that even if I get a little bit absorbed into something, I am relatively unattached to whatever that is, and there is a flexibility with that, and there is even then at least a little bit of a foothold into the present.  There's a friend of mine that likes to sleep with a foot out from underneath the covers.  However covered up she may be, there's still that one little piece that is exposed to the ambient temperature.  So it's a little like that, a little bit of awareness that is always grounded in the here and now.

I'm reminded a bit of Les Fehmi's training that he refers to as Open Focus.  Same kind of thing.  A vipassana type awareness of space and volume is used to train awareness and to have an attentional flexibility between a narrow and wide or open focus, and to always have a little bit of that broader open awareness of the here and now.

The key that I referred to is this relative lack of attachment, and there is a certain kind of relaxation or tranquility that comes with that.  We can try to relax, but it appears that for the most part we must be aware in order to relax.  So awareness comes first.  If we are aware, we can be truly relaxed.  If you are lost in some kind of daydream, you might come out of it and notice that some part of your body was tensed up in response to your thoughts.  Once you come out of the fantasy, you see that your body is tensed up and it is often very easy and obvious to relax that tension.

When I watch movies, I sense when there are scenes that are interpreted as tense, and I kind of feel a little bit of that, but I don't really get sucked in.  I am aware, though, that people around me are in fact tensing up, and after a scene like that you will often hear a lot of deep sighs.  As people come out of that tense scene and gain some degree of awareness of the tension that they were holding, they naturally let go of that tension in the diaphragm, and relax.

There is this obvious level of physical tension that can be let go of, and maybe even more importantly I would say that there are levels where we could say that emotional tension can be let go of, and mental tension as well.  But it requires that we be aware, that we be aware very continuously, and that within that we feel all those little sensations and feelings and thoughts, and our resistance or craving of those feelings and sensations and thoughts, and that we see all this and allow the body to really see this and to maybe relax a bit.  And you just practice that kind of awareness and feeling and releasing for a couple of thousand hours, and there you go :)