Out of Your Mind (Audible Audio Edition)

“In order to come to your senses, Alan Watts often said, you sometimes need to go out of your mind. Perhaps more than any other teacher in the West, this celebrated author, former Anglican priest, and self-described spiritual entertainer was responsible for igniting the passion of countless wisdom seekers to the spiritual and philosophical delights of Asia and India.

Now, with Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives, you are invited to immerse yourself in 12 of this legendary thinker’s pinnacle teaching sessions about how to break through the limits of the rational mind and begin expanding your awareness and appreciation for the Great Game unfolding all around us.”

Brain in a Vat

“In a challenge to the idea that brain death is final, researchers have revived the disembodied brains of pigs four hours after the animals were slaughtered. Although the experiments stopped short of restoring consciousness, they raise questions about the ethics of the approach — and, more fundamentally, about the nature of death itself. ”

—Sara Reardon, “Pig brains kept alive outside body for hours after death.” Nature. April 17, 2019.

Reminds me of a question I heard about whether anyone is still conscious during organ harvesting. The idea of being vivisected while conscious is serious nightmare fuel.

Brain in a vat has the potential to be worse because it could go on indefinitely, see Iain M. Banks Surface Detail as one possibility.

The Power and Pitfalls of Adderall: Daring to Be Disinteresting

“Evolution is a nice, big idea. It connotes the glacial pace of an unmeditated act unfolding upon species, concepts, and ecosystems. It certainly doesn’t usually get branded as a feeling. But a couple months ago I felt this thing. Maybe a little like what a mommy feels when her fetus kicks the wall crossed with how the baby feels when it gets its pre-K diploma, and the best word I can come up with for it is evolution. Not the glacial kind, but the real-time, Matrix-flavored kind. I was too busy barreling through the wicked pipe of a 30-milligram Adderall to think about it much when it happened, though. Half an hour into my sunrise dose, I logged into, the extraordinarily put-together training site used by corporate operations to keep their employees up on hot software trends. As an avid Monday Night Football chyron fan, I had promised myself for years that I would learn After Effects as soon as I had the free time; the chemical wave pushed me through an especially potent laziness that has always kept me from becoming the motion graphics expert I knew I wanted to be.

There I sat, glued to my chair, watching the instructional videos on my laptop, guzzling Coke Zero, and practicing in the software on my external monitor. I optimized my posture over the course of the first few hours, ironing out repetitive stress pain as it came along, taking smoke breaks between every chapter: ‘Getting Started With After Effects,’ ‘Learning to Animate,’ ‘Precomposing and Nesting Compositions.’ As the sun dipped below the horizon, I found myself at chapter 19: ‘Rendering and Compression,’ and finally, at dusk, Chapter 21: ‘Conclusion.’ …I internalized After Effects. As the credits rolled, Neo flashed into my head. ‘I know After Effects,’ he said, opening his eyes and staring up at Morpheus through my corneas.”

Trent Wolbe, “How I hacked my brain with Adderall: a cautionary tale.” The Verge. July 26, 2012

The Dream Within The Dream

“This is the idea that we are slaves to Empire, and the world is a prison from which we need to free ourselves, what the gnostics called ‘the puny cell of the creator God.’ It is what Dick calls the BIP, the Black Iron Prison, which is opposed to the spiritual redemption of the PTG, the Palm Tree Garden.

Note the emphasis on secrecy. The first secret is that the world is governed by malevolent imperial or governmental elites that form together a kind of a covert coven. The world itself is a college of corporations linked together by money and serving only the interests of their business leaders and shareholders. The second secret — ‘a secret within a secret’ — belongs to those few who have swallowed the red pill, torn through the veil of Maya.”

Simon Critchley, “Philip K. Dick, Sci-Fi Philosopher, Part 2.” The New York Times, May 21, 2012.

I’ve been re-reading Chagdud Tulku’s book, Gates of Buddhist Practice after watching the A Deeper Dive interviews with Bill and Susan Morgan. There are interesting connections between the two.

Bill and Susan talk about how modern life creates a tension, a bombardment of sensory stimulus that can take a long time for us to get free of its influence. Our environment encourages us to cultivate an analytical understanding of our world, to optimize our behaviors to “get things done”. Even when we are engaged in an activity like meditation, it is difficult to focus our attention and our being because our standard is one of doing and thinking.

This ties into another idea I’ve been seeing recently, of the dichotomy between like-minded and like-hearted. The Morgans talk about the importance of integrating body, heart and mind in their practice, and it reminded me of an article that talked about how the Dalai Lama chooses his physician. The first criteria, above medical knowledge and capability, is whether the doctor had a good heart.

This matches with recent research describing the two criteria that people look for when judging others: warmth (heart) and competence (mind). When we focus on the heart, our attention is directed inward, where the world is the stage in which our Being expresses itself.

One metaphor Chugdud uses is windows and mirrors. A worldly person’s experience of the world is like looking through a window. They have sense experience and they judge it in accordance to whether they like it or not. A spiritual person, on the other hand, uses sense experience as a mirror. The world is a reflection of our own minds, and if we look closely, we will discover that there is nothing there that we have not created. Human beings are story tellers, and the stories we tell create both the world and the person experiencing the world.

Chugdud writes:

“In actuality, all experience-whether the suffering of samsara or the bliss of nirvana-is as insubstantial as our dreams. All of it is unreal, untrue. It is an unceasing, luminous, magnificent, and illusionary display.

Our life from birth to death resembles one long dream, and each dream we have at night is the dream within a dream.”

Chagdud Tulku, Gates of Buddhist Practice. Junction City, Calif.: Padma Publishing, 2001.

The dream within a dream comment reminded me of Phillip K. Dick’s (PKD) ideas around The Black Iron Prison, The Palm Tree Garden, ‘a secret within a secret’, and so forth. Consider this talk, Radio Free Valis: Tuning In To the Involution with Philip K. Dick:

“So, in a way what Dick does with his books, from my point of view anyway, is [he] turns the telescope around, out from looking out at external reality and the astronomical magnitudes without, which are no doubt beautiful and amazing, and to be explored, but turns it around, so that we can, along with him, explore the astronomical and galactic magnitudes of our within.”

Instead of a mirror, he is using the metaphor of a telescope. A telescope rather than a microscope because it emphasizes the fact that if we leave behind the constraints of sense experience and open ourselves up to the landscape of imagination that our consciousness can transcend even the limits of our universe, as ideas such as the multiverse and infinite worlds illustrate.

If we spend some time imagining our infinite selves across infinite universes, what then are we to make of our consciousness in this universe? With such an encompassing view, does this me matter beyond the fact of existing and trying to grasp the enormity of all that there is and to be grateful for the opportunity to experience it?

Am not I, too, a fiction, a sliver of a sliver, that has no more relationship to the Truth than fairy tales or Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Unmoored in this fashion, what then are we to do with our lives?

Buddhism suggests that the only worthy use of our lives is using this moment to transcend ourselves, our illusions, and our stories. They are the Black Iron Prison that keep us chained to lesser versions of ourselves.

Book Review: Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson

tl;dr: The eight-circuit model of consciousness: survival, emotions, reason, society/reproduction, body connection, imprint selection, connecting to life, and connecting to everything. If this all sounds like some New Age bullshit to you, then you might want to try some of the exercizes at the back of each chapter, e.g., “Try living a whole week with the program: ‘Everybody likes me and tries to help me achieve all my goals.'” Watch how your expectation shapes reality.

The framework of Prometheus Rising is Timothy Leary’s eight-circuit model of consciousness. In Robert Anton Wilson’s (RAW) telling, most people are robots that are dominated by one of the first four circuits of consciousness. They are ruled either by survival and comfort, their emotions, reason or the drive to reproduce and shape society.

Within circuits of consciousness, there are largely random imprints that shape their expression. For example, people that were enculturated as children and now belong to one of the top four religions – whether Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist – are often going to have a default emotional and rational style shaped by their religion. Or, people that grow up in circumstances of poverty or during a time like the Great Depression are going to have a greater focus on survival than people that didn’t. Other examples could include how our first sexual experience or relationship tends to define what turns us on or mate selection later in life. Similarly, our home life as a child tends to shape whether we want to recreate it or its opposite as adults.

He suggests that humanity is on the cusp of breaking free of the constraints of the space-time continuum. Scientific breakthroughs making immortality possible and enable the exploration and colonizing of interstellar space are going to radically change our mental models. And, this change in constraints is going to require reprogramming our minds to higher levels of consciousness, beyond the first four.

The fifth level of consciousness is a freedom from the compulsions of the first four circuits, where they are recognized as largely random imprints. In this state, we reconnect with our bodies. Freed from the demands of our imprints, we generally experience a sense of well-being.

The six level of consciousness, according to RAW, enables us to reprogram our random imprints. We are free to recognize the influence of our early poverty and decide that wealth and power, which both aid survival, isn’t as important to us. Or, we can decide to break with the model of relationships we have seen throughout our lives, and we can choose new imprints, e.g., to be polyamorous or bisexual. For rationalists, there is the opportunity to come to terms with how limited the tool of rationality is and how frequently it is used in the service of our drives for survival, for our emotions and for our social needs.

The seventh level of consciousness is to tap into our being at the DNA-level, where we come to terms with how we as individuals fit into the grand sweep of human history and how we fit into larger schemes of life on this planet and in the universe. Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Over-Soul, the Hindu atman, the Rastafarian I-and-I, the Baul Moner Manush (the person of the heart), the Quaker Light Within, and so forth seem like shades of this idea of how we connect with other humans, other sentient beings and the divine spirit of Life to transcend ourselves.

The eighth level of consciousness is to tap into the quantum entanglement of everything with everything else. It transcends the limitations of mere life and connects all to all.

Throughout the book, RAW’s primary project is not to lay out this framework clearly as I have done here, much of which is filtered through my own mind and not using examples from his book. His project seems to be primarily opening people up to the possibility of taking these ideas seriously. At the end of each chapter, he has a series of “exercizes”, which seem to be chosen primarily to give people practice in seeing the limitations in their worldview and in changing it.

This points to a key insight. It is impossible to tell people anything. You can talk about reality-tunnels and discuss theoretical frameworks like the eight-circuit model of consciousness, but it is difficult to make these ideas real. Ultimately, people have trouble accepting different worldviews than their own or that their outlook on life might be largely random and/or limited.

Most of us are getting on with the business of survival. We are subject to the vagaries of our emotions. We pretend that our rationality isn’t largely just rationalizations. And, we are subject to the demands of instinct, such as when biological clocks drive us to reproduce. Acknowledging these facts is difficult for most of us.

But, this fact is precisely why a book like Prometheus Rising can be so useful. There are other worlds, other ways of being. But, if we are only interested in the world we are in and the way we are, we are unable to see them. The expectations of the world shape us, and we, in turn, shape the world with our expectations. The central idea of this book is: Isn’t it worth the effort to change our expectations and get into a mental space where we are in control and can transcend our circumstances and our personal history?

Life Doesn’t Evolve in a Tomb

Yesterday’s clarity is today’s stupidity.

-Ikkyu Sojun

Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development provides a useful framework for thinking about individual evolution and the common pattern most human beings follow. It shows that as life progresses, we are dealing with the essential and different questions at different stages of life: What kind of world is it? Do I have agency? What should I do? Can I do it well? What role can I play in larger society? Can I love someone, and will they love me? Can I love many people and help them to develop their capabilities? Can I pass on the unique knowledge I have acquired from my life experience?

This model shows that we are always evolving and developing. We never reach a point where we have nothing left to learn or do.

But, there are other models. For example, half of Timothy Leary’s eight-circuit model of consciousness is focused on potentials. The first four levels deal with the business of life, as Erikson’s does: feeding and sustaining ourselves, interacting with our environment, codifying knowledge and reproducing. The second four levels attempt to change or transcend our individual experience.

One reframes our perspective from a focus on utility and survival to another value, such as beauty, efficiency or novelty. Another seeks to reprogram our worldview, since many of the answers to the questions of life can and should be revisited, particularly since our answers are formed in the context of a moment and contexts change.

There is also trying to see ourselves in the larger span of time. Where does human life and our lives figure in scales of millennia, eras or eons, and how does the human species fit into the tapestry of life? Finally, how do we connect with everything in the universe, frozen rocks to burning suns? Are we all made of stars?

Leary’s eight models of consciousness adds something to Erikson, making it clear that there are no permanent answer to the questions of life. The questions of life need to be answered on an ongoing basis, year to year and moment to moment. And, it invites us to an ongoing project of trying to expand our vision and awareness. The world looks different to a baby staring out from a crib than it does to the professional athlete, CEO or from the hospital bed. We contain multitudes, and clinging to a single identity is like picking a tomb to live in. Safe and dead.

Rearranging Our Minds

Open Question: Should we make an effort to change our minds in some fundamental way? And if so, how?

There are a number of stories of people suffering a traumatic brain injury that results in the brain being rearranged in a way that gives them a new ability. Generally, this involves some skill with art, understanding music, improved memory or doing calculations in math. Although, a few also involve different kinds of experience, such as synesthesia.

It’s not limited to injuries. There is also the question of psychedelics. Scott Alexander makes this point in an article in his blog Slate Star Codex:

“The third possibility is the one that really intrigues me. A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying.”

Scott Alexander, “Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird?” Slate Star Codex. April 28, 2016.

Anyone that has been around people that have taken a lot of LSD know that they are different. Often, they are different in ways that make it more difficult to function in society, not easier. But, the opposite can also be true.

There was also a lot of discussion a few years ago about how people in Silicon Valley were microdosing LSD in an effort to boost their creativity. Clearly, in this case, psychedelics were being used to improve performance in a particular context and probably without full consideration of the effects beyond creativity.

There has also been research done in using electrical impulses to change mental states in people. The U.S. military, for example, is using electrical brain stimulation to enhance skills. Of course, there has been a dark side to this as well, as any discussion of Electroconvulsive Therapy will invariably bring up.

Meditation is also said to have effects on our mental states. A meta-analysis into meditation research by the medical community described it as follows:

“Results indicate that meditation leads to activation in brain areas involved in processing self-relevant information, self-regulation, focused problem-solving, adaptive behavior, and interoception. Results also show that meditation practice induces functional and structural brain modifications in expert meditators, especially in areas involved in self-referential processes such as self-awareness and self-regulation. These results demonstrate that a biological substrate underlies the positive pervasive effect of meditation practice and suggest that meditation techniques could be adopted in clinical populations and to prevent disease.”

M. Boccia, L. Piccardi, P. Guariglia. “The meditative mind: a comprehensive meta-analysis of MRI studies.” Biomed. Res. Int. 2015:419808. 10.1155/2015/419808

It seems like meditation is a good idea and has many positive aspects, but it also fundamentally changes the biology and the functioning of our brains. Should we be doing it?

You could probably make arguments that music, creating art, exercise and many other activities have dramatic and important effects on the mind and likely change it on a biological level. But, should we be striving to reorganize our minds to achieve some goal or mental state? And what techniques should we be using and why? This strikes me as a fundamental unanswered question about human life that warrants investigation.

Reference: Might be useful to consult Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” to get a sense of how psychedelics are currently being used.