Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Oliver Sacks - Psychonaut

I recently came across this three year old New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks describing his rather extensive experimentation with recreational chemicals.  His roster includes LSD, cannabis, morning glory seeds, artane (belladonna), amphetamines, morphine, as well as the experience of full on DT hallucinations from chloral hydrate withdrawal.

One reason I thought to post this, besides the obvious, is that his practice of dealing with difficult hallucinations was:
"to write, to describe the hallucination in clear, almost clinical detail, and, in so doing, become an observer, even an explorer, not a helpless victim, of the craziness inside me. I am never without pen and notebook, and now I wrote for dear life, as wave after wave of hallucination rolled over me.

Description, writing, had always been my best way of dealing with complex or frightening situations—though it had never been tested in so terrifying a situation. But it worked; by describing in my lab notebook what was going on, I managed to maintain a semblance of control, though the hallucinations continued, mutating all the while."
This practice reminded me of noting practice, of mindfulness or vipassana, and it struck me that some very visual-verbal people might plausibly get a lot out of a written noting practice.  It also reminded me of Adyashanti's practice of written self-inquiry.

Psychedelic Therapy Re-Emerging

"One small randomized controlled trial indicates that LSD-assisted psychotherapy might help reduce anxiety from terminal illness. Another small study, in which the active molecule in "magic mushrooms" was used as part of therapy for alcohol addiction, shows a significant reduction in the number of days alcohol was used as well as in the amount. A small US study of the drug MDMA shows a reduction in PTSD symptoms in people with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD."

Skepticism Warranted in Meditation/Psychedelic Experiences

We already know that the brain under the influence of psychedelics has a tendency towards an overactive imagination.  I'm not sure that is a specific clinical finding, but I've heard researchers comment in that direction.

From the abstract "Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation," participants were more likely to present false memories and had "reduced reality-monitoring accuracy after completing the mindfulness induction. These results demonstrate a potential unintended consequence of mindfulness meditation in which memories become less reliable."

Another study found that participants given LSD were more suggestible, and that this was tied to the traits of absorption or immersion, as well as conscientiousness.

Neuroscience of the Self

“self-processing in the brain is not instantiated in a particular region or network, but rather extends to a broad range of fluctuating neural processes that do not appear to be self specific”

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dharma Talk 018 - Awareness Of Awareness

We could describe enlightenment as maybe having something to do with the degree to which one has trained the mind metaphorically back to the original mind, towards what we might refer to as non-conceptual awareness.  The natural, relatively unconditioned pre-verbal state. Just the meat, the flesh, prior to conditioning.  Pure, fresh, bare awareness, without much attachment to what is appearing.  Everything is happening without grasping or resisting.

My tendency is to lean hard on awareness as the key.  Training the mind so that awareness is happening a high percentage of time, and for long continuous stretches.  In order to get that happening, I recommend structured approaches to meditation that incorporate some kind of constant interaction or feedback, as well as placing a priority on the sensate experiences of seeing, hearing and feeling.  Things like (Mahasi) noting practice or breath counting are structured approaches.  Less structured styles such as generic mindfulness or MBSR can work, but in my experience the average person spaces out too much if they don't have some method to keep them on point.  Good practice makes good practice permanent.  Practicing spacing out a fair amount of the time tends to teach the mind to space out a fair amount of the time.

It's not simply awareness that we are after, but more specifically awareness of awareness.  It's that extra layer of awareness, that recursive awareness where one knows what one is aware of, that seems to make the difference.  This monitoring or observing mind has a kind of freedom within that extra distance or space, in contrast to a mind that is deeply embedded in and attached to thought.

What we're ultimately after, and implicitly describing, is the relaxation, the lack of attachment, the letting go that can take place within that kind of awareness.  Letting go of grasping and resisting, letting things simply be as they are, without fighting or arguing with reality.  But first and foremost you have to be able to see and feel those things, and for that you need that awareness of awareness.

"This is the way it is. You detach. You let go. Whenever there is any feeling of clinging, we detach from it, because we know that that very feeling is just as it is. It didn't come along especially to annoy us. We might think that it did, but in truth it just is that way. If we start to think and consider it further, that, too [thinking and considering], is just as it is. If we let go, then form is merely form, sound is merely sound, odour is merely odour, taste is merely taste, touch is merely touch and the heart is merely the heart."

"Let things be just as they are! Let form be just form, let sound be just sound, let thought be just thought."

-Ajahn Chah