Sunday, January 19, 2014

Awake while Sleeping: DMT and Paradoxical Consciousness

Scientists often come to understand how something works, indirectly, by studying how it fails. Normal, waking consciousness is perhaps the strangest known phenomenon, but I recently had an abnormal experience that sheds some light on our subjective nature. Hyperbolically speaking, I stumbled into a state of living death, which is to say that I became conscious of the unconscious inner space, while in deep sleep.

Hitchhiking on Delta Brain Waves: A Tale of Living Death

My ordeal lasted for about a week, three or four months ago, and it was preceded by omens, figuratively speaking. The omens were changes in the phosphenes in my hypnagogic state between waking and dreaming. Phosphenes are the patterns of lights you see when your eyes are closed, such as when you’re falling asleep. Usually, I’d see various flashing, interlocking shapes and so forth, but I began to notice what looked like the ends of tendrils or tentacles in the phosphenes, which led me to imagine tunnels. Eventually, I started focusing on those tentacles, mentally identifying with them, and they sort of washed over my mind’s eye and I was sucked into a mindspace filled with a different order of phosphenes. I can’t recall the exact differences, because to end the ordeal I’m about to describe I had to try to forget about all of this and relearn how to relax at night so I could get back to normal sleep. But I recall thinking that the phosphenes looked more organic and pulsating, as if I could see the base of my brain in them. More alarmingly, I could feel my heart beating much louder and slower, and it wasn’t just that I was getting nervous; instead, it was as if my consciousness were being shunted to my cardiovascular system so that while my mind was visually swimming in strange phosphenes, aurally I was awash in the sounds of blood flow. It sounded like I was underwater or in a womb. And there was an ascending high-pitched noise that must have corresponded to the change in blood pressure.

The overriding problem was that, far from falling deeper into a state of unconsciousness, my conscious self was fully awake and growing more anxious, because I felt forced to explore this new inner state. Sometimes, I’d fall out of this state and back into normal, albeit groggy conscious awareness. But I began also to go deeper into this new way of sleeping. The phosphenes became more remote and washed out, my heart beat slower and louder, and I’d reach plateaus that cycled back and forth so that it seemed as if I were consciously experiencing the shift of brave waves. There would be a realignment of the phosphenes and a change in my heart rate, and then I’d hang out on that level for some minutes, perhaps rising to the previous one or descending to the next one.

I’ve since forgotten some of the details of those early stages, but what I remember most is the final and most terrifying plateau, which I now believe was the shift to the delta brain wave. There was a mental pinching sensation, as if my conscious self were being squeezed through a narrow opening, and then it felt like I was falling slowly, back and forth like a feather, until I reached rock bottom which was a place of total darkness. My heart beat felt far away or like it had almost stopped and it was as if I were trapped in my brain’s closet, with the lights turned out and the door locked. At first I resisted this last transition, because I’m claustrophobic and I had no idea what was happening at the time. But because I wanted to sleep, I learned to let the change happen, by imagining I were indeed a feather or a rowboat that could rock from side to side until it landed safely. I resorted to mantras to distract myself. I can’t remember exactly the words I used, but I kept verbally reassuring myself that I’d be safe.

You see, in this last stage I lost the power of imagination, because the phosphenes disappeared so I had no materials to work with—although eventually I think I came to see faint traces of them in the darkness. Everything grew very dark and only the thinnest, most ghostly sliver of my conscious self was left. Over and over, I recited the mantras throughout this confinement, to comfort but also to distract me from the horror of what was happening. Sometimes, I would think I’d reached the final plateau only to find that there was a deeper, more enveloping darkness. It felt like I’d entered a coma, which was terrifying, needless to say. And I remember verifying I was still somehow awake, by telling myself to move my finger against the bed sheet, and as I moved my finger I felt the sensation even while my mind was trapped in that dark place. After a matter of minutes, I seemed to rise and fall back into my body; phosphenes rushed in and I was back on the previous mental plateau.

But I’d cycle through the levels, eventually reaching that darkest stage several times per night. It was like I was on a rollercoaster, going from one level to the next, up and down. The darkest plateau became less horrifying as I learned that I could indeed re-emerge from it. The first time I landed in the darkness each night was the longest, and each time was progressively shorter until I was there for what felt like only seconds. After the rollercoaster, I had a window of opportunity during which I could have relaxing dreams, when I regained some control over my imagination. But if I didn’t allow myself to be distracted just right by the phosphenes, what happened instead was that the mental lights became static, as if I were looking at noise on a blank movie screen. And I’d have to lie there in bed for another hour or so, with a head ache and without having had anything like a relaxing night of sleep.

I took two kinds of sleeping aids during this week-long ordeal: valerian root and Diphenhydramine Hydrochloride. They helped relax me at night, but didn’t prevent the physiological changes. I remember vividly that the DH made the pulsating phosphenes brighter and accelerated the transitions, so that it felt like I was rocketing from one to the next at breakneck speed and if I successfully resisted a transition, it was as if I’d slammed into a brick wall.  

There are two reasons I call this an ordeal. First, I didn’t sleep well, so that during the day I was far from rested. On the contrary, I suffered heart palpitations and shortness of breath, and strangely, several days into the week, if I so much as looked at a computer or TV screen that was turned on, I fell instantly into some state of sleep. Something about the artificial light just temporarily shut off my waking mind, so that I was constantly on the verge of falling asleep during the day. Second, as tired as I was, I came to dread going to sleep at night. And here I want to reiterate the strangest part of this experience: throughout that week or so I never fell into complete unconsciousness, which means I had literally about seven days of unbroken memories, including all the memories of what was happening to me at night (many of the details of which I’ve since forgotten). What I’m saying is that whereas I’d used to slip into unconsciousness after being distracted by the phosphenes or by the voices you hear while falling asleep, and then to wake hours later having forgotten exactly what I was just dreaming, so that there was a break in my stream of consciousness, now there was no such break. My conscious self, which is to say my inner voice which I identify as the subject of my experiences, was lucid the entire time it transitioned from one state of sleep or of so-called subconsciousness to the next. This was grueling, riding that mental rollercoaster that had no off-ramp.   

I went to see a sleep therapist and he said I should take the natural sleep aids and see a therapist to treat my anxiety. He also said it’s normal for the heart to beat slower during sleep, but you’re not supposed to focus on that or normally be able to perceive the difference. I switched to the sleep aid of melatonin but didn’t bother seeing another therapist, since the doctor’s insistence that anxiety was exacerbating my abnormal sleep already reassured me. Instead, I learned to regain my normal night’s sleep by ignoring the tentacle-like phosphenes. At first, I’d just rest in bed throughout the night rather than fall sleep, violently resisting the new transitions by throwing up a mental barrier. Days later, I’d formed this new habit, the melatonin reset my biological clock, as it were, and I started sleeping better. But even now I dare not think of those tentacles while trying to sleep, for fear of summoning them.

Again, at the time I had little idea of what was happening. I still don’t know what caused it, but the facts that I cycled from one plateau to the next and that they changed in duration through the night led me to associate them with the alpha, theta, and delta brain waves. I read online that this is the normal sleep cycle which leads to REM sleep and then back into the cycle. I looked up “delta wave” on Wikipedia and learned that “In Advaita Vedanta, deep dreamless sleep is considered the highest state of consciousness. If one can stay aware/conscious while in deepest dreamless sleep, s/he can reach a deep meditative state (known as jagrat sushupti). This notion of paradoxical consciousness may be linked to high cortical activity which happens during the delta-sleep.”

Also, there’s something called “yoga nidra” or yogi sleep, which is the lucid dreaming practiced by yogis who can control their states of consciousness with certain techniques. According to Wikipedia, in 1971 Swami Rama was hooked up to an EEG “while he progressively relaxed his entire physical, mental and emotional structure through the practice of yoga nidra.” In the final stage, “the swami entered the state of (usually unconscious) deep sleep, as verified by the emergence of the characteristic pattern of slow rhythm delta waves. However, he remained perfectly aware throughout the entire experimental period. He later recalled the various events which had occurred in the laboratory during the experiment, including all the questions that one of the scientists had asked him during the period of deep delta wave sleep, while his body lay snoring quietly.”

Now, I am no swami, but it seems I stumbled onto something like this ability, quite by accident. And far from a spiritual gift, it was a nightmare I’m glad I overcame.

Paradoxical Consciousness and the DMT Flash

So much for my strange tale. I assure you I’ve given an honest account of what happened to me. I know it sounds bizarre and I may well have misinterpreted the events or misremembered some of the details as I just described them. But there are facts to which I’d swear on pain of death: again, for several days in a row, three or four months ago, I never lost consciousness and instead experienced abnormal physiological changes, including the slowing of the heart rhythm and the phosphenes and the cycles and, worst of all, the inner darkness and sense of imprisonment and lockdown.

I wanted to write about this sooner, but it’s taken me this long to think of a useful interpretation of the ordeal. And then it came to me: there are intriguing similarities between the “rollercoaster,” as I experienced it, and the hallucinogenic trip on DMT, as related by the psychedelic expert Terence McKenna. I’ve never taken DMT or psilocybin mushrooms, but I’ve listened to literally dozens of McKenna lectures and group discussions on the internet, from beginning to end. 

Here are some regularities of the psychedelic experience he described numerous times. To begin, you smoke a sufficiently large dose of the drug and then you lie down and eventually close your eyes. You feel anesthesia and arousal at the same time, and all the colours in the room become much brighter and crisper than usual. You feel something mighty welling up in you, there’s a noise like cellophane being scrunched up which gets louder and louder, and there’s an increase in blood pressure so that you feel as if you’re underwater. You encounter what looks like a shifting red and orange chrysanthemum. Then there’s the feeling of passing through a membrane and you’re propelled into a place which feels for all the world like it’s somewhere underground or under a dome. You feel your heart beating and your blood pumping and you’re still perfectly lucid, but you’ve been transported to what looks like an alien playpen made of glowing crystalline structures, with strange small creatures that rush out to greet you. These are the “self-transforming machine elves” or gnomes, as McKenna famously called them, and they speak in an alien language which seems to create miraculous objects out of thin air. The vision ends after only fifteen minutes and while you start to forget the bizarre details, evidently you can carry some memories of the vision with you.

One of the most important elements of the experience, for McKenna, which he emphasized many times, is that in some ways DMT isn’t a mind-altering drug at all, because it leaves your ego, your intellect, and your personal subjectivity intact. This is why it feels like you’re being transported somewhere else. Obviously, this aspect of the DMT trip is common to lucid dreaming and to whatever version of that paradoxical consciousness I’d stumbled into. You remain consciously aware even as you’re diverted to a strange place. And in both cases you can remember what happened, although since the DMT trip is much stranger and richer, remembering it must be harder. Also, McKenna emphasizes that when you arrive at DMT hyperspace, it feels like you’re underground. Likewise, the shift to delta wave sleep, as I believe I experienced it, is associated with a distinct feeling of falling. Again, there’s a rocking back and forth and then a feeling of landing and of being trapped. There’s no wall or dome, because the phosphenes have vanished and you’re plunged into darkness, but again the impression of sinking is consistent with feeling like you’ve travelled underground.

And there’s more to the comparison: in both cases, there’s a disquieting slowness of the heart rate. The timing of the crackling of cellophane sound corresponds to that of the high-pitched noise that marks the beginning of the shunting of consciousness to whatever autonomic system I came to inhabit at night. The glowing crystalline walls of the alien playpen or circus seem like boosted phosphenes and the more organic phosphenes, which I likened to flashes of the cerebellum at the base of the brain, could be taken for a chrysanthemum: the cerebellum has a rib-like structure, the flower has many thin petals, and in both cases there’s a stem. (Incidentally, I now suspect the tentacles or the flower petals are just impressions of the veins and pupil of the eyeball, caused by reflected light on the back of the eyelid. My left eye is dominant over my right one and the tentacles seemed to appear on the left side of my inner field of view. Also, behind the phosphenes I see at night now, I can catch glimpses of a phosphene-like impression of my eye, and again it's mostly just my left eye that shows up. You can imagine how an abstract light picture of your eye could be mistaken for one of tentacles or a flower. Then again, the so-called tentacles that actually did the trick of shunting my consciousness were much more "alive" and active than what I see now at night.) Moreover, the bursting-through-the-membrane sensation sounds like the squeezing into the delta wave stage of paradoxical consciousness. Again, as I experienced, it, the squeezing is like a stripping away of most of your mental faculties so that only your ghostly remnant is left in the coma state.

Of course, the obvious differences between the experiences are the lack of alien visitors during my accidental resistance to unconsciousness and the lack of any deep meaning associated with the unusual impressions. All of that—the machine elves, the crystalline structures, the brighter and crisper colours, and so on—must be attributed to the brain’s processing of excess DMT. As I said, even the mere sleep aid I took enhanced the phosphenes. So I submit that the two experiences are structurally the same, although some of their contents differ, as accounted for by the presence or absence of the hallucinogenic drug. Perhaps the brain treats the excess DMT as a poison and so your consciousness retreats to the coma state until the effect wears off and it’s safe for you to reemerge—except that in the meantime, the DMT adds to the phosphenes and spills into the darkness, filling it with mental projections or perhaps with a feeling of cosmic unity, as in Jagrat-Sushupti, the yogi’s mystical vision of the union of subject and object. (Again, I believe I saw dim phosphenes even in the delta stage of the sleep cycle, but perhaps that only signified that I was drifting out of that stage.) Set and setting are also factors here: when you haven’t smoked DMT and are merely trying to sleep, you’re not in the mood for mystical, paradoxical consciousness.

In any case, Martin Wall powerfully interprets the machine elves and the rest as mental projections specifically in McKenna’s case. That interpretation is supported by the revelation from an early draft of Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, by Terence McKenna’s brother Dennis, the revelation being that Terence didn’t take powerful hallucinogens much after having had a bad mushroom trip in the late 1980s. Dennis makes the same point as Wall, which is that McKenna evidently didn’t get past the conscience test in his experience with the entheogen DMT. Reportedly, if you take enough of these hallucinogens, you eventually get past the weird visions and confront your ego which you then judge like God. Only if you’re ethically pure do you proceed to the mystical vision of the world’s unity. According to Wall and Dennis McKenna, Terence’s ego and intellect got in the way of his psychedelic experience. As Wall says, the machine elves kept begging Terence not to give into astonishment, but to sing along with them and Terence apparently never did so. If the machine elves were projections of his ego, this might have been a self-imposed test of his ability to relinquish his role as intellectual observer and to live in the now, as a Daoist would say.  

However that may be, what I take from this isn’t that the whole DMT flash is imaginary or that it has no spiritual significance. But I do think many ingredients of the trip are physiological and that I accidentally tapped into them, as I’ve described. Somehow, DMT adds content and meaning to something like the shunting of consciousness I experienced while asleep. I called it a living death and this isn’t entirely figurative; instead, I’m alluding to the Haitian Vodou concept of the zombie, as reported by Wade Davis. According to his controversial account, a shaman appears to resurrect a dead person and enslave him, using a concoction that includes tetrodotoxin and the hallucinogen Datura. What interests me about this is that the zombie is supposedly created by faking a person’s death with the neurotoxin, which causes paralysis and cardiac arrhythmia, among other effects which could be mistaken for signs of death, but which leaves the person’s conscious mind untouched. So there’s a connection between yogi sleep, the DMT trip, and the concept of a zombie’s undeadness.

The Strange Physicality of Consciousness

I’m left with one other nagging question, though: What could consciousness be such that it could be so manipulated, so sidetracked and diminished and confined? Rick Strassman, the psychiatrist who tested DMT on humans, conjectures in DMT: The Spirit Molecule that the brain is receiver of signals, like a television, and that consciousness changes depending on the signal. Turn the channel and you get a different signal and even a different world. Perhaps a receiver’s tuning could be compared with some of the manipulation of consciousness I experienced: what we’d have is a demodulation and a weakening or strengthening of the consciousness waves, depending on which signals the brain has evolved to prefer. A TV shuts out noise and searches for expected radio signals as you change channels. Maybe the paradoxical consciousness during the delta stage of sleep amounts to a rerouted and weakened signal, caused by the signal’s being received slightly outside of the designated slot. I don’t know enough about either TVs or brains to properly assess this comparison, although one problem with it is obvious: the mystery of the transmitter of the consciousness wave.

Putting the TV analogy aside, you do get the sense that consciousness is somehow physical when you experience such mental manipulations. The imagination may play a role, but the phosphenes are certainly physiological and the entrapping of lucid consciousness by the shunting and especially in the coma state is involuntary and thus mechanical. Somehow, it’s possible for your personal self to shift to a different part of your brain, which allows you to be more closely attuned to certain autonomic systems and to ride the theta and delta brain waves, as it were. However, all was not involuntary. As I said, the departure began with a choice to summon and to inspect the strange phosphenes, those tentacles which might well have been manifestations (petals) of the chrysanthemum perceived in the DMT flash. So if consciousness is an odd sort of physical thing that can evidently be stripped and confined, it’s also apparently in control of certain mechanisms when it’s in its waking glory.

Still, if I accidentally was left awake to explore where consciousness “goes” when the sleeper drifts into unconsciousness, I wonder why we’re not more bothered by the fact that consciousness does indeed normally come and go. Mind you, strictly speaking, consciousness doesn’t normally go anywhere when the sleeper slips into deep sleep. That’s the point of the unusualness of my experience: I felt my consciousness going into those places, but normally we don’t do so, because normally consciousness dissolves as we’re distracted by the hypnagogic interim. Normally, after that dissolution, the sleeper’s mind has been reduced to the cycling between organic phosphenes and the void traversed by delta brain waves. Then a modicum of consciousness periodically reassembles itself to play during REM sleep and the process repeats itself until the sleeper awakens and is too relaxed or groggy to be troubled by that gap in consciousness and memory. Consciousness is physical not just because it can somehow be squeezed into the normally unconscious space, as I discovered, but because it’s normally severed at night, perhaps to spare us the ordeal I suffered. I don’t understand how something physical can have the subjective aspects of consciousness, although the ghostliness of electrical brain waves helps us intuit how this could be so; remember that matter contains particles but also waves and waves can be more invisible, like consciousness.

But just as a social outsider can look at society more objectively than can someone who’s immersed in the culture, I found that the disjointed experience of being conscious in a place that’s usually out of bounds made for another level of alienation. Psychedelic drugs combine the unsettling manipulation of consciousness with all manner of distracting visions and even with a religious experience of unity or love that can counter that alienation. Likewise, at night we’re supposed to let ourselves be distracted by the flashing lights on the back of our eyelids; that way, we’ll be rewarded with restful sleep. If we tinker too much with our mind, as I did with mine that week, we may find ourselves lost and alone like children in the forbidden woods.

15 comments:

  1. So, this post is about your personal experience? I have had a few very strange experiences while sleeping. I believe it's called sleep paralysis. While in a deep sleep, I "awoke" but only in my mind. The thing I call "me" awoke, I was fully conscious, but my eyes were close and my body completely paralyzed. It was pretty terrifying, I was able to force myself awake. It was the first time I was confronted with the "me" in it's pure form, really strange.

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    1. I once had that too, I think. It was near the end of a night's sleep. You feel like you can't move but also like there's another presence in the room. This is the basis for many of the alien abduction stories.

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  2. Intriguing! Did you ever visit a neurologist, by the way? Even though you recovered, you might want to make sure there's no underlying medical issue; and I would suspect one would have been more qualified to diagnose you (though he probably would have prescribed sleep aids as well). Keep that in mind in case your "phosphene cthulu" returns. Neurological problems in the waking world are even more nightmarish. :-|

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    1. Thanks for the advice. No, I didn't see a neurologist. I wasn't terribly impressed with the sleep therapist. By the end of that week I was having panic attacks so I just wanted to hear from an expert that I wasn't going crazy, that it would be safe to take the nonprescribed sleep aids, and also some explanation of what was actually happened. The therapist attributed the physiological changes to anxiety and I'm sure he was right about that, except that the anxiety was more of an effect that led to a vicious cycle than the ultimate cause of it all. What I wanted is an explanation of how it's possible to be conscious in delta sleep or how focusing on certain phosphenes can drag your waking mind into the bowels of your unconscious, and he didn't say anything about that.

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  3. If I may ask, can you say why you felt anxious? It sounds like maybe it was fear of being trapped in your mind, but was there something else?

    I don't believe what you experienced is exactly the same, but some people have had alarming experiences arising out of awakening if they were not prepared. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kundalini_syndrome)

    Based on my own experiences and listening to friends (some of whom were on drugs and some weren't) I feel like these things are tapping into a fundamental human need to feel existential purpose and explore thoughts about the nature of True Reality.

    In every account, it seems the symbolism and experience is strongly tied to the inner nature of the person and reflects their core beliefs. From reading your writing, I am not too surprised that it consisted of tentacles dragging you to a deeper truth, only to find emptiness.

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    1. I came across this Kundalini Syndrome some months ago in an article on Salon.com, by a woman who was practicing Tantric Yoga and wound up with what I think she described as a nonstop orgasm which very much disrupted her life.

      As I see it, there are two things going on here: the physical changes and the philosophical or religious interpretations of them. I'm sure that if we tinker enough with our minds or bodies, we can rewire ourselves. Whether the changes are relevant to enlightenment or are accompanied by any supernatural energy is another matter.

      Some of the Physio-Kundalini Syndrome Index might be relevant to my strange sleep experience, but most of it isn't. I think the anxiety was caused by the change in my sleep pattern. The shifts of consciousness just happened, and that was scary in itself. Dread was added by the fact that I wasn't sleeping well and so my daytime routines were disrupted. And by the way, I now think the so-called tentacles or flower petals were just reflected light impressions of the veins and pupil of my eyeball on the back of the eyelid. (I'm going to add this point to the above article.)

      I do think there are philosophical implications of my strange sleep experience, as I say in the last section. I don't think it indicates that I'm particularly spiritual, though. If anything, this sort of change reflects extreme alienation and objectivity, or perhaps paranoia. As I say, it's a matter of consciousness retreating further and further inward so that it can slip through the cracks of the brain, as it were. It's a matter of being so paranoid about delusions, that you decline to be distracted by the phosphenes at night, so you start paying too much attention to them and suddenly your consciousness is shunted to some autonomic system and you suffer the ordeal I described, such as what felt like the coma state of delta sleep. That's how it seemed to me, anyway. I'm certainly no doctor, so my explanation could be mistaken.

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    2. From a physical perspective, yogic practices are certainly meant to re-wire you. EEG studies on Buddhist meditators in ecstatic states (called the Jhanas) show activation of the Nucleus Accumbens (the pleasure center activated by drug addiction). Concentration states also have the feature of increased hemispheric synchronization.

      EEG studies on subjects performing insight meditation show changes in activity of the Default Mode Network (are involved in self-referential activity). Psilocybin also modulates activity in this area of the brain.

      So if you can re-wire your brain with intentional meditative states, that says something about the causal relationship between consciousness and the brain, does it not?

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    3. Don't be afraid of what your mind can do!

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    4. Why should all altered states of consciousness be pleasant? Hell might as well be an altered state of consciousness. Bad trips on psychedelic substances involve such altered states and they cause some intrepid psychonauts to go mad. According to his brother, the great Terence McKenna had a bad mushroom trip which he never got over.

      My weird week of being awake in the coma state felt like being buried alive. Plus, it made me very tired during the day, because it deprived my body of rest. So while I respect the courage of those who explore altered states of consciousness, I'm not persuaded by the happy-talk which says there's nothing to fear from them. Sure, there's plenty to fear from the mind, including our archaic instincts that are leftover from our evolutionary past.

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    5. I never said that all altered states were necessarily pleasant. That's definitely not true. Though it's important to note that high-dose psychedelic trips are kind of an extreme example due to how overwhelming they are for the psyche.

      When one uses meditative techniques this is not really an issue. With meditation, you are driving the ship of your mind with intention. You get what you intend to cultivate. If one chooses to cultivate fear and paranoia it can certainly be done, but doing so would just be dumb.

      'Archaic instincts' and fear can be overcome with strong mindfulness, concentration, and equanimity. These qualities are all the intentional result of the traditional practices of Theravada Buddhism. I personally find hypnogogic states quite enjoyable and thus reject that they are inherently terrifying. It's a viscous cycle though, when fear is present in the mind the mind projects more terrifying imagery.

      Sorry for platitudes, but fear is the mind killer.

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    6. As Timothy Leary said, context (set and setting) greatly affects the psychedelic experience. In any case, when you're just trying to sleep so you can go about your daily business, you'd rather not be riding the nightly roller coaster I describe here.

      As to whether fear really is the mind killer (this is a reference to Herbert's Dune, right?), I think this is an interesting question. I've written a lot on this blog about the ennobling existential role of angst. So I'd be interested in reading your thoughts on why, from a mystical point of view, fear is bad. As you say, meditation zeroes in on your intentions, but I'm talking more about the difference between the enlightened mystic who's found peace of mind, who's detached and unworried, and the existentially authentic tragic hero that I admire on this blog. Maybe we could start a dialogue I could post in article form. If you're interested, email me a short article defending your view of fear/angst, using the Contact Form on the right side of this blog.

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  4. Thanks for relating your experience Ben, im reminded of an experience I had in my late teens with the dissociative DXM. The onset was gradual and somewhat euphoric, I was lying on my back in the dark like a log with eyes closed. There was a sense of being engulfed in a black expansive space with my body feeling enormous, this was entirely pleasant and not unlike other meditation hypogogic sensations I've normally had since a child when falling asleep. But this developed into a strange state where I felt like I was falling and cycling through perhaps around 20 distinct mind states like the roller coaster you described. I recognized each one as it came around but could not control or resist them. They ranged from peaceful and euphoric to anxious and fearful, when in the peaceful plateau I would try to reassure myself that things were fine but then the whole cycle would repeat and I would end up back at the bottom so to speak...

    Moving on to the psychedic experience and the enlightened mystic vs existentially authentic tragic hero idea, I find the psychedic experience can bring both those archetypes home in a very powerful way. If approaching from the enlightened mystic angle one is more likely to let go in the face of ego dissolution, this might lead to a visionary experience of seeming unity with the metacosmic void/awareness which is said to be the original ground of all existance/manifestation. The Tibetans call it the clear light or Dharmakaya body. From the angle of the existentially tragic hero ego dissolution can lead to a feeling of being disovled into the hum of physical processes and forces. Of losing hold of the feeling of being human and experiencing the body and universe as a vast dance of zombie like forces and mechanical life forms competing mindlessly in an endless uncaring cosmos. The Undead God. Both of these type of experiences are not uncommon on high doses of psylocybin, often an experience can blend elements of both. Best not to grow overly attached to any visonary experience or conception of what reality is all about. I haven't tried DMT or 5-Meo DMT, that kind of seems like the final frontier in terms of the psychedelic territory to be explored.





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    1. I certainly haven't tried DMT either. I've smoked cannabis several times and that's it. Yeah, "dissociation" is a good way to describe it. It was the body going through its cycles and consciousness being where it wasn't supposed to be, which raises the question of what consciousness must be, given that it's apparently (but strangely) physical. I mean, if waking consciousness can be present somewhere in the body where it's not usually found, that conscious self must be finite and physically limited so that it can literally move from here to there. What in the brain could do that? Well, it's the neural activity that moves from one part of the brain to another, as shown by brain scans.

      I agree that psychedelic states are quite important to religion and philosophy. Have you read my article, The Psychedelic Basis of Theism" (link below)? Indeed, it's surprising that analytic philosophers of mind don't focus on altered states of consciousness in their quest to understand the nature of normal consciousness, since that's common practice in cognitive science: study how something goes "wrong" to understand what's happening when it goes right. Of course, there's a stigma attached to psychedelic states of consciousness...But as I say, I got a sense that my waking, conscious self (my ego) must be capable of traveling to new inner spaces, as it were, for it to be where I found it on that roller coaster. I think this has something to do with the brain waves as well.

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2012/12/the-psychedelic-basis-of-theism.html

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    2. The mind seems to be capable of all kinds of experiences that do not nessesarily fit within a strickly reductionist explanation in my opinion. There is a lot left to learn about what consciousness is exactly and how it is produced by or interacts with the brain, im guessing our scientific understanding of mind and consciousness is still in its infancy. For myself at least, I generally favor a meditative experiential approach to an analytical philosophical one, psychedelic experiences and/or altered states of consciousness can tend towards the transpersonal which is perhaps one reason analytic philosophers might feel more comfortable not considering them. Its interesting that the Dalai Lama has been having dialogues with neuroscientists for many years now, so its not always two sort of different sides talking past each other, and while we are learning an incredible amount about cognition and the brain in the modern scientific era I still think we are lagging behind the yogic adept tradition in terms of a direct experience of mind and its subtle characteristics. Best to keep an open mind.

      If your interested there is pretty decent new documentary called Neurons to Nirvana on psychedelics as medicines, it gets into a little of the physiological effects of psylocybin on brain functioning, as well as a lot of other cool stuff with a few of the other popular psychedelics.

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    3. Whatever their motivation, I see hypocrisy in the way analytic philosophers of mind avoid the issue of psychedelics. As I say, these philosophers pride themselves on following the sciences, and although the sciences too are only just restarting research into the effects of psychedelic drugs (after studying LSD decades ago), it's standard scientific practice in biology to learn about something's normal states by taking it apart and seeing how it "malfunctions." Cognitive science has even been criticized for doing too much of this and producing an overly negative impression of human thinking, according to which we're always "irrational" and "selfish"--because that's what those sorts of studies show. Anyway, given the importance of consciousness, those philosophers should be clamoring for more research in that area. It shows they're not being particularly objective and they're subservient to political biases.

      I'll check out that documentary.

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