deep in the cave,
there’s a hole that knows no light;
and nothing can reside
within that black hole
During 2019, each month I gave special attention to studying some state of consciousness that exists outside of the normal waking state. (Of course, the folly of believing that there is one “normal waking state of consciousness” is one of the major lessons learned from this exercise.) My investigations included: meditation, hypnosis, lucid dreaming, sensory deprivation, psilocybin consumption, and various others — a number of which were variations on inducing a Flow state.
In December, because I was traveling so much I was reading even more than usual, and it occurred to me that there is a kind of reading in which the mind behaves differently from the norm. I’m not talking about all reading, but — specifically — when one gets lost in story. There’s run-of-the-mill reading, and then there’s the reading in which a hundred pages seem to fly by in minutes, but you realize you’ve lost a lot more time than that. This topic might seem like a dull ending to this project. Being absorbed in story might not appear as enthralling or “sexy” as mushroom tripping or floating in sensory deprivation tank, but the experience can be just as profound.
As I was looking into this, I discovered that there is a term that addresses what I’m talking about, “narrative transportation.” Narrative transportation relates to absorption, which I learned is a factor in hypnosis. That is, how easily does one become completely mentally occupied with an object of contemplation such that one loses awareness of the passage of time and external stimuli. In this type of reading, one is mentally reconstructing the world and events of a story, and that process is demanding of one’s attention. Furthermore, there is an intense emotional experience that one is feeling simultaneous to this mental construction. This doesn’t leave much room for the mind to wander — if the story is intriguing enough to hold one’s attention.
As a reader, one facilitates narrative transportation largely by picking stories that are appealing to one, and by finding extended time periods to read without distraction. However, what’s really interesting is how a writer can facilitate this state through his or her style and method. The most commonly discussed aspects of this facilitation are: the story arc (i.e. arranging events to create and maintain excitement) and building lovable or loathsome characters (either way, just as long as they aren’t tedious or boring.)
But there is another aspect that I think of as readability. How easy does the storyteller make it for the reader to create their own mental story-world? In large part, this has to do with the art of finding the Goldilocks Zone of description. If one describes too little one creates “floating head syndrome” in which the reader (if they continue reading at all) may imagine floating heads conversing in a blank white room. On the other hand, if one spends twelve pages describing the drapes or the weather, one is unlikely to keep readers engaged. Coincidentally, one of the books that I read in December that was educational (though not transportational) was Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel.” In it, Kundera bemoans the tendency to over-describe characters such that one interferes in the reader’s imaginings. He points out that readers learn almost nothing about the physical description and background of some of the most important characters in literature.
And so concludes my year of altered states as I look forward to new adventures in 2020.
Some people swear by the mind-altering properties [and other benefits] of chanting mantras. I’ve been reading a review copy of Kulreet Chaudhary’s “Sound Medicine,” a book whose play-on-words title says it all. It’s about the way sound is either shown or speculated to have health effects. (Full-disclosure: Some of the speculation gets a bit out there.) Chaudhary is both a medical doctor and an Ayurvedic practitioner, and has an outlook akin to that of Deepak Chopra.
Chanting has never been my thing. I’ve learned about it and done some in yoga training, but I can’t say it ever resonated [no pun intended] with me. However, in the spirit of investigation, this month I did a few one hour and half-hour sessions of chanting. I kept it very basic, chanting AUM as I was taught with equal parts of A – U – and – M.
While I can’t say that I’m sold that chanting is the ultimate practice that achieves outcomes unachievable through other means, I will say that after these sessions I do feel a sense of calm and clarity. I can certainly see why mantra chanting has appeal for so many people, even though I also believe that, sadly, it’s sometimes oversold as something supernatural and the discussions about it are needlessly complicated.
This book has been sold under the title listed above as well as the less prosaic title, “Altered Traits.” The switch may represent a lack of confidence that the coined term “altered traits” would catch on, and / or a desire to market the book as broadly as possible.
“Altered Traits” is a play on the more well-known term “altered states [of consciousness.]” The idea being that meditation (as well as many other activities from consuming psychoactive drugs to having a shamanistic drum rave) create a change from the ordinary waking state of consciousness, but what the authors wanted to focus more upon is the long-term and sustained changes that result from extended meditation practice. (Hence, coining the term “altered traits.”) These sustained changes are a prevalent theme through out the book. This makes sense as one of the co-authors, Richard Davidson, is well-known for investigating the brains and brain activity of monks and yogis with extremely advanced practices (tens of thousands of hours in meditation.) Still, the prosaic title, “The Science of Meditation,” may make more than marketing sense because the book does discuss the scientific research on meditation pretty broadly.
Both Goleman and Davidson are long time meditators as well as being subject matter experts in psychology and brain science. This is a major strength of the book. Some scientists are dismissive of practices that have origins in spiritual practices and have blindsides or are prone to oversimplifications because of that bias. On the other hand, that bias isn’t helped by the fact that meditation experts often oversell meditation as a practice that will do everything from spontaneously cure your cancer to allow you to levitate six feet in the air. The authors of this book aren’t afraid to call out such spurious claims, but aren’t dismissive of practices of religious or spiritual origin. The authors also spend a fair amount of time criticizing past scientific investigations of meditation (including their own) on the basis of naivete about the nature of the practices. A major problem has always been an “apples and oranges” grouping together of practices that are different in potentially important ways. There have also been all the problems that plague other disciplines as well (small sample size, poor methodology, etc.) These discussions won’t mean much to most readers, but are helpful to those who want a better idea which studies are gold standard and which are weak. That said, the book doesn’t get bogged down in technical issues.
The book opens by laying out some of the important differences between various meditation practices and trying to educate readers who may either not know much about meditation or may know it only from the perspective of a single discipline. Goleman and Davidson suggest one way of thinking about different kinds of meditation is in terms of “the deep and the wide.” The former being sectarian practitioners who practice specific ritualized practices in an intense way. The latter being more secular practitioners whose practices may borrow from different domains. They present a more extensive classification scheme than this simple bifurcation, making it more of a continuum. Later in the book, they consider ways in which practices might be categorized (e.g. Attentional, Constructive, and Deconstructive) but it’s emphasized that there isn’t currently an agreed upon schema.
Throughout the book, one gets stories of the authors experience in investigating this subject. This included trying to get monks to allow themselves to be studied, even with a letter from the Dalai Lama. It also covers the challenge of trying to build interest in the subject in an academic setting that once thought of meditation as little more than voodoo.
The middle portion of the book has a number of chapters that address particular types of practices and the specific effects they have (and haven’t) been found to have. These include developing a more compassionate outlook and behavior (ch. 6), improved attention (ch. 7), negation of pain and physical ailments (ch. 8 & 9), and meditation / mindfulness as part of a psychotherapeutic approach. The authors repeatedly point out that these practices were never intended for the purpose of treating ailments (mental or physical,) though they do seem to show benefits in a number of domains outside of what the spiritual seekers who brought them to prominence intended of them.
The chapters toward the book’s end focus heavily on investigations into advanced meditators, and the altered traits and brain changes seen in them.
There are few graphics in the book, but it’s annotated and has an “additional resources” section in the back.
I’d highly recommend this book. The authors’ mixed background gives them a good vantage point to provide an overview of the subject, and also allows them to tap into stories of their experiences which make the book more interesting than it otherwise would be.
There are many downsides to being introverted, but one upside (at least in being a kinesthetic-oriented introvert) is that I can get out of my head and in touch with my body quickly and efficiently when I’m in motion. It can be a blissful state when the inner yakking pipes down and my awareness becomes attuned to sensation.
I would differentiate three types of movement that have very different effects on my state of consciousness. First, there are highly repetitive acts of movement such as running. Now, I do run because it’s great exercise, but it doesn’t tend to put me in the state of mind I’m talking about. Your results may vary. I know many people find “runner’s highs” or achieve a quieting of the mind when running. For me, running tends to produce a daydream-centric state of mind. I sometimes counter this by focusing my awareness on my breath, stride, or sensations, but — left to its own inertia — my mind goes into daydream mode.
Second, there are fixed sequence series of movements — preferably with a flow. The best example that I can think of — and which I currently practice — is taiji. I’ve been practicing Yang Style Taiji for a few years now, and find it’s conducive to this state of mind. However, the point that differentiates this type of movement from the next is that it takes some time to get to that point. One has to ingrain the sequence of movements into one’s body, then coordinate the breath, and then correct minute mistakes in the movement. It’s worth it, but it’s not an instant ride to altered consciousness. While you’re getting the fundamental movements down, the conscious mind is necessarily quite active and it’s hard to tune into the movement and the sensations.
Third, this is what I would call free movement. Some people think of it as a kind of dance, but not one with a fixed choreography, which would fit more in the second category. Free movement is just letting your body move (usually to music) with awareness to the body, but without conscious direction. While the feel created is much like that of the second type of movement, mentally it bears more resemblance to free writing, which I discussed last month. That is, one is trying not to direct the body consciously, but rather let the movement come about (perhaps mediated by the music.) Rather than trying to consciously direct the movement, the conscious mind is used to direct and maintain awareness of sensations. Sometimes, I keep my awareness on the soles of my feet, feeling how various movements — subtly or unsubtly — change the distribution of weight on the feet.
In doing this, I find that sensitivity to sensations — external and internal — dials up. While I’m focusing on internal sensation. I often notice tactile sensations that would usually not register. There’s also a more visceral experience of the effect of music, which is another subject in its own right. The blissful effect of music seems to be amplified by the body in motion.
In thinking about the difference between the second and third types of movement experience, I was reminded of the argument that a ritual is an essential element of plumbing the depths of the mind. As the argument goes, there’s something about inggraining a sequence of actions into one’s muscle memory and continually performing them that tunes one into something vaster than the self.
I’m still planning to do two more posts in this series, although I’m bouncing around alternative subjects for November and December, those joining this experience in progress and curious about previous posts can find them:
January – Psilocybin Mushroom
February – Sensory Deprivation / Float Tank
March – 30 Days of Meditation
April – Hypnosis
May – EGG Feedback
June – Breathwork
July – Lucid Dreaming
August – Sleep Deprivation
September – Free-writing / Poetry
As I continue to look at variations in consciousness, it occurred to me that poetry writing (or at least pre-writing) often involves an altered state of consciousness. Often, I do an exercise akin to freewriting. Freewriting is an exercise that has been popular for a long time for beating writer’s block. You just write: fast, without judgement, and without concern that you’re taking a reader to any particular place. (It’s somewhat like “brainstorming” in process, but usually solitary and producing sentences or phrases and not bullet-point lists.) The point is to break the grip of self-consciousness and lay waste to the idea that every word has to be pure brilliance to be worthy of your time.
My process begins by quieting my conscious mind, typically with long exhalation breathwork (pranayama.) For those unfamiliar with yogic pranayama or other forms of breathwork, drawing out one’s exhalations (in conjunction with relaxing the body) slows the heart rate and otherwise activates the rest and digest functions of the body. (The curious or dubious can look up “cardiac sinus arrhythmia” or “respiratory sinus arrhythmia,” which is the same thing alternatively labeled by the cause [respiration adjusted] or the effect [heartbeat changes])
After my conscious mind is tranquil, I set pencil to paper and just start writing quickly — without looking back or forward, but just trying to be present with whatever my mind vomits forth. Usually, there is an understandable grammar, but no understandable meaning (at least not beyond the granularity of a phrase.) But building meaning isn’t the point, and I don’t care. Sometimes, I fall into a rhythmic sound quality, but other times I don’t. To give an idea of what the raw feed of this looks like, here’s an example from this morning:
Turn ten, run the nines. I found a fever down the line and could not bend the wall to weep, but heard the conveyor line… beep – beep – beep. Oh, so some fucking wisdom says let live the demons that I dread, but there’s a cold magnolia leaf on the ground and I can hear it skid at the break of dawn, but what sign is that to feel it out. I killed a monk and stole his doubt, but you’ll never blame away the triple frame…
So, it’s a collection of words and phrases that has no discernible meaning collectively. Once and a while, I go through some of these flows of verbiage and underline words, phrases, or ideas that have some spark or merit, and then — if I can — unshuffle and word-cobble until I have a poem.
However, my point in this post isn’t to describe how a poem gets its wings. Instead, it’s to discuss the process by which the consciousness “presents” us with something from out of nowhere. (The conscious mind would claim it “created” it, but I have my doubts. I’ve learned the conscious mind routinely takes credit for many things that are not its doing.)
It’s not like I have an idea (stolen or otherwise) and then I think it through, and then I order those thoughts into an outline. (The usual writing process.) On the contrary, I go to great lengths to make my conscious as quiet as possible as a precursor. I think about the term William James coined, “stream of consciousness” which became a prominent literary device. Is it streaming into consciousness, from consciousness, or through consciousness? Where does it come from?
You might say, “Why worry about where it comes from because it’s a garbage heap?”
But once in a while there are epiphanies and flashes of insight amidst the rubble and dung. Sure, maybe I grant detritus post-hoc gold status, but there’s something there I feel I have yet to understand.
In consciousness, we seem to have awareness of [something] and meta-awareness (i.e. we are aware of what we are aware of [something.]) Sometimes that meta-awareness is a grand and beneficial tool, but sometimes it’s just another word for self-consciousness. Sometimes having a one-track mind is a beautiful thing.
I said that my practice was “akin to freewriting,” and it might seem exactly freewriting, but the main difference is that it’s purposeless. Sure, once and a while I go back through and rag-pick, but mostly I do the practice just to revel in the experience of being completely with whatever words are streaming. The writing and being consciousness of what is surprising me on the page takes enough of my mental faculties that I have none left to be self-conscious.
Who knows where this journey will take me next month? There’s still a lot of territory left in the altered states of consciousness. Fasting, dance, shamanic drumming, tantric sex, psychonautics, etc. Who knows?
This month, I skipped two consecutive nights sleep to explore the effect of sleep deprivation on consciousness. Forty-eight hours without sleep may not sound like much. A two-day fast will make you feel hungry, but is hardly a challenge for the body of a healthy individual. Of course, most people could go a few weeks without food as long as they could reduce physical activity.
Sleep may be more closely analogized to water. It’s often said that a person can go a week without water, but some people have succumbed after three or four days. The world record for consecutive time without sleep is 11 days and 25 minutes, set by Randy Gardner in 1964, but most people will experience some severe challenges after a few days, and after even one day it’s not safe to do many fairly rudimentary life tasks (i.e. driving, making important life decisions, doing any work that requires concentration.) [Note: Gardener points out that it was day three when he started to feel nausea and the challenge started to feel daunting.] My choice of two days was largely influenced by the limit of how long I could go without being productive. Into the second day, maintaining the level of concentration necessary to edit or write finished product becomes almost impossible for me and it rapidly gets worse, and I certainly couldn’t safely drive my scooter.
Unfortunately, I’m no stranger to sleep deprivation, though it was mostly in my youth. That makes it sound like I was a party-animal, though I wasn’t (certainly not by the standards of true party-animals.) In truth, in the military I started out working twelve hour night shifts, and I found I could rarely sleep more than four-ish hours per day. Later (still in the military) I worked days at a base in Georgia, but I would frequently (once, sometimes twice, a week) travel from Warner Robins to Atlanta after work for martial arts classes. Often, hanging out with friends after night classes, I would return to base in the wee morning hours and — on a number of occasions — missed a night’s sleep because I didn’t have enough time to get in even a solid two hours before I had to be ready for the 6am shift change. (Note: I’m a groggy napper. While some people swear by naps, I find they tend to make me even more fuzzy-headed — especially if I’m in need of more sleep than I have time to get.) [FYI: My personal record for sleeplessness is a little longer than I did this time — 55 hours-ish. It was also when I was a young man in the military.]
Where sleep is very different (from food or water) is that until recently we didn’t have the foggiest idea why we needed it. Biologists could tell us why we need air, water, and food decades ago, but no one knew why we needed sleep — only that bad stuff happened in pretty soon when we didn’t get sleep. I was under the impression that we still didn’t know (and it’s probably true that we don’t yet have a complete picture.) However, I started reading Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and he suggests that it’s not that we don’t know why we sleep, but rather that it’s not the simple one-to-one cause-and-effect relationship that sleep researchers had hoped to discover as a Holy Grail of sleep causation. Walker says we know a great deal about why we sleep, it’s just that there are a large number of aspects of our body’s operation that hinge on sleep. In other words, it’s a complex many-to-one relationship between causes and sleep. [Another reason I kept a limit on this experience was the book’s discussion of how many adverse impacts sleep disruption can have, and — more importantly — how long-lived the effects of sleep deprivation can be.]
There were a number of ways the sleep deprivation was felt. Of course, the predominant sensation was just an incredible pressure to go to sleep, i.e. heavy eyelids, mental drift, and “head-nodding” micro-sleep. There’s a great deal of discussion about how memory degrades under sleep deprivation, because sleep / dreams seem to be heavily involved in the memory process. I didn’t notice any memory defects [any more than I might normally have.] However, I readily noticed a decline in concentration and focus. After a day without sleep, I found that my ease of proof-reading / editing was significantly reduced even when I did it during those times when I was most awake and didn’t really feel particularly sleepy. A one-hour task would take decidedly more than that, and I recognized that I shouldn’t do any finished work because even if I took twice as long I’d likely still miss mistakes. Toward the end of the second day, I had trouble even following a sitcom story on the television (thought that was at the point in circadian rhythms when I was most desirous of sleep.)
The other mental effect I noticed was a mild altered sensory perception. This was nothing like the psilocybin tea altered perception. The first thing I notice was a little bit of movement in my visual field if I zoned out while staring at at the floor (and zoning out happens much more than it ordinarily would after a good night’s sleep.) Again, this wasn’t vivid like the shrub that sinuously wound in a serpentine fashion when I tried psilocybin tea. Rather it was just a kind of tiny “stretching” of floor surface when I looked down. You’d have to pay attention for it and might rub one’s eye to try to get rid of it. The second thing I noticed was some auditory strangeness. I heard a barking dog in a passing car, and it was as if that one sound was turned up even as the car was getting further away (or perhaps like the other sounds were turned down. All I know is that the barking of the dog took a dominant position in my auditory awareness. I wasn’t anything wild, like the dog talking to me. I suspect that would take another couple days of complete sleep deprivation. And I have no particular anxiety about dogs or barking noises.)
Physically, there were a few other noteworthy effects. First, I found myself getting chilly even with no AC on and even after I turned the fan off. What’s important to note is that I tend to run hot, and in Bangalore if I feel chilly it probably means I have the flu. I’ve known for a long time that thermoregulation is disrupted during sleep. (This is why one may go to bed comfortable and wake up in a sweat puddle, or — for some, I suppose — go to bed comfortable and wake up freezing. It’s not necessarily a change in the room’s temperature, it’s that your body isn’t so much adjusting the difference between room temperature and body temperature anymore.) I found the chill interesting. The fact that I wasn’t sleeping seemed to me should have meant that reduced thermoregulation should be irrelevant. However, after the fact I learned (again in the Walker book) that body temperature changes with one’s bodily rhythms, and that is presumably what I was feeling.
Second, I noticed a very mild rumbly-tummy effect. I didn’t realize how much sleep problems can be tied into eating problems until reading about it, but I have noticed in the past that my stomach gets a sensation that is akin to being hungry if I’m on no sleep — even if I’ve not been without food (at least not more than I normally would be through the night.)
Those were the most noticeable effects. I can see why some people have had similar experiences while severely sleep deprived as during mystical experiences of other cause (e.g. hallucinations from consuming substances, severe fasting, etc.) Still, for me, the long and short of it was that sleep deprivation had (in contrast to the the other practices I’ve done in this series) a clearly negative impact on the performance of body and mind. From difficulty concentrating to a slow time when running, my body was hindered by lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation diminished my mental and physical competence with no offsetting benefit that I could determine (other than assuaging my curiosity.)
Next month’s post on experiencing altered states of consciousness will be on a mystery topic. [Which may or may not be my way of admitting I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet.]
Lucid dreaming is the act of becoming aware that one is in a dream while dreaming. It’s called “Dream Yoga” in some Eastern traditions (most notably, Tibetan [Vajrayana] Buddhism.) Many people pursue lucid dreaming because they find it just too cool to experience the world of dreams consciously, but — for those who don’t — the natural question is “why bother?” Well, it gives one an unprecedentedly vivid insight into one’s subconscious mind. [For those who are still wondering “why?” This post is probably not for you.]
Since I was young, I’ve occasionally experienced lucid dreams. But it wasn’t until recent years that I began a dream yoga practice — which I had discontinued until resuming it for this month’s study. Those unfamiliar lucid dreaming might wonder how one “practices” becoming aware that one is in a dream in the midst of dreaming. If one didn’t come to the table with a talent for lucidity in dreams, one can’t exactly do anything about it in the middle of REM sleep (rapid eye movement, when the bulk of dreaming occurs.) A dream yoga practice consists of actions one takes during the day to help facilitate becoming lucid during one’s dreams. These actions include:
- Journaling one’s dreams (i.e. writing down whatever one remembers of one’s dreams as soon as possible so that one builds the capacity to remember dreams, which can be ephemeral.)
- Doing reality checks in waking life whenever one notices anything that has an unreal quality about it. This is done in an attempt to train your brain’s BS detector — that’s obviously not how neuroscientists refer to it, but in waking consciousness we have a potent ability to notice and focus our attention on apparent incongruities. The parts of the brain that manage that responsiveness tend to be down for the count during sleep. Hence, in a dream one can walk out of one’s bedroom onto the Serengeti Plains without a second thought. So you are attempting to train your brain to become aware when the anomalous takes place. If it works right, you will begin to do the reality checks in your dreams as well. Of course, real life offers much more subtle seeming incongruities, hence the need to be on the look out for them. There are two approaches to reality check with which I’m familiar. The one I use is to count my fingers, and then flip my hand over and count them again. In a waking state, I always have five digits during counts. In dreams, my hand does some funky stuff. An alternate method is to look at a clock or watch, look away, and then look back at it. In real life, only a second or two will have passed, but in a dream the times will likely be entirely different.
- Bedtime resolutions to remember one’s dreams and to become lucid during them. For yogis and yoginis, this is like a sankalpa, a resolution that one repeats during yoga nidra (“yogic sleep,” a yogic relaxation and mind development technique that — ironically — doesn’t involve sleep but rather a prolonged hypnogogic state [between waking and sleep.]) The resolution should be a short statement without negation that is repeated exactly the same way several times.
- Meditative practices that recall dream settings. One practice that I stumbled onto is done in a meditative state. When my conscious mind quieted and I was experiencing subconscious imagery, I found that I could remember many more of the settings in which dreams take place. I have a lot of recurring settings for dreams. [Typical of dreams, these places don’t always look exactly the same, but they feel like they are meant to be the same place.]
Long story short, one is doing two basic things in the practice of dream yoga. First, you’re trying to remember your dreams better. As I suggested, you could be becoming lucid in dreams every night, but if you don’t remember them you’re not gaining any conscious insights from them. Second, you’re trying to recognize the dream state by way of the bizarre incongruities that take place in dreams.
I should point out that mine is a bare bones practice, there are other activities one can do as well. Really hardcore practitioners set alarms in an attempt to wake themselves up in the midst of a dream. This allows them to remember dreams better and to help them become aware they are in a dream when they return to the dream after going back to sleep. This isn’t so far fetched as it might sound. We tend to dream in cycles of around 90 minutes and proceed through the same sequence of mind states from waking consciousness through hypnogogic state through various stages of sleep into a hypnopompic state and the back to waking consciousness. So, there is a degree of predictability on which to base one’s alarm estimate. I’m not so keen on disrupting my sleep. [Part of the reason that I discontinued practice is that I found I really only remembered lucid dreams when my sleep was troubled. (Usually it is not so much “troubled” as I when I’m sleeping lightly because I’ve slept longer than usual — e.g. occasionally oversleeping on the weekend.) If I sleep like a baby, I typically don’t remember lucid dreams — that doesn’t mean I’m not having them, but I wouldn’t know if I did.]
Even though a dream yoga practice has often seemed to have little influence on my having [or, perhaps more accurately, remembering] lucid dreams, this month I’ve had five that I remembered — a couple of which I only remembered the in-dream reality check (counting fingers.) [A warning to would-be lucid dreamers, its possible to wake yourself up with the excitement of becoming aware that you are in a dream.] I’ve been consistently journaling and have picked up doing more reality checks. [Bangalore is a great place for this because it’s in constant flux, so I’m forever having “was that there yesterday” moments and “has that looked like that for the past five years” moments as I move about the town.]
It’s been fun coming back to this practice. I’m one of those who doesn’t really need another reason for trying to dream lucidly other than the fact that I’m so in awe of being in a dream and knowing that anything my mind can conjure might come next. Still, the lucid dreams I’ve had this month have offered some interesting features to contemplate the meaning of, including: faceless people, being on some kind of backward moving speed-walk while I tried to go investigate a scene in front of me, and something akin to being in a video game.
I’m leaning toward doing a short stint of sleep deprivation for next month, if I can find two days or so to safely give it a try (i.e. no need to drive or do anything else requiring fresh faculties.) I’ve gone about 54 hours without sleep before (not for its own sake, but because of the situation at hand,) and know it can have some interesting effects.
This month’s post will explore breath as an influence on one’s state of consciousness. My apologies for getting into the weeds at the start with a long discussion of the minutiae of this breathwork practice, but this is a topic that can create confusion for a couple different reasons.
First, there are a number of ways breath could be used to influence one’s state of consciousness, and the practices I’m talking about are of one specific type. For example, I often use a balanced pranayama practice (breathing exercises that mix calming, exciting, and balanced breaths) as a lead-in to meditative practices because it helps to put me in a state of mind that is neither groggy nor mentally agitated, allowing my mental chatter to quiet rapidly without making me drift off. However, that’s not the kind of practice I’m referring too in this post. I’m talking about breathing in a way that is excessively deep and / or fast for an extended period such that the blood becomes more alkaline (i.e. blood is slightly alkaline in homeostasis, but the pH goes up in this type of practice) as carbon dioxide is purged.
Second, there’s no terminology that’s commonly agreed upon. For one thing, the breathing that I’m discussing could be called “hyperventilative” or “over-breathing.” However, those terms are usually used to describe medical conditions that may have similar physiological effects, but aren’t controlled activities done on purpose. While there are some similarities physiologically, equating this practice with involuntarily rapid breathing caused by a physical injury, mental condition, or consumption of a toxic substance can create confusion. After all, whatever is causing involuntary hyperventilation is likely to have other effects (at a minimum, increased anxiety) over and beyond those seen in a voluntary practice. This means the list of adverse effects will also be different. I wouldn’t want a reader to look at a Wikipedia or WebMD page for “hyperventilation” and think I’m insane for undertaking the practice.
For another thing, this type of breathing is employed in a number of different systems — each of which has its own particular approach and particular context in which the breath practice occurs (and variations in terminology.) Tibetan Buddhist Tummo, the Wim Hof Method, and Holotropic Breathwork all use kinds of breathing that create a similar effects. However, it should noted that the breathwork is just a part of each of these practices that occurs within a more extensive context. In Tummo, visualization in conjunction with the breath is an essential element of the practice. The Wim Hof Method has a defined sequence including breath retention, not to mention other practices — most famously, cold exposure. Holotropic Breathwork employs an observer and encourages practitioners to make sounds and movement as they feel fit as part of the practice, basically responding freely to the impulses one feels. It should be noted that Holotropic Breathwork was developed by Stanislav Grof after psychoactive substances like LSD became illegal, and he was looking for a way to generate similar results endogenously, having seen positive therapeutic effects using LSD.
It should be noted that yoga also has breaths that create this type of effect: Kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) and Bhastrika (bellows breath.) However, these breaths are more self-regulating in that they are generally done in and out through the nose (as opposed to exhaling through mouth which allows a greater tidal turnover of breath) and because the rapid contraction of the abdomen to force the exhalation tends to be self-limiting. In other words, the capacity of one’s nervous system to keep up with breath will — for most people — give out well before one’s blood chemistry is so out of whack that it is likely to create any bizarre or potentially dangerous effects. For this reason, kapalbhati and bhastrika can be safely practiced daily in a seated position (though if one is doing unusually large sets or numbers of sets, one might be wise to lay down.) It should be noted that the basic breathwork of the Wim Hof Method involves three sets of 30 breaths (though with breath retention in between), and most people would probably be fine doing that seated as well (though it seems to done laying down most frequently,) and it can be done daily.
I focused on the breath entirely — as well as observation of the after effects upon my mind and body. The practice I did involved a full and rapid in breath through the nose and a blowing exhalation through the mouth, repeated as quickly as sustainable for as long as 30 minutes at a time. I always did this practice lying down, and I always allowed the same amount of time I did the practice before attempting to get up. (i.e. if I did the breath practice for 30 minutes, I would reset the alarm for 30 minutes after I was done and lie still, watching the sensations, at least until the alarm went off.) I only did half-hour sessions once a week, though I would sometimes engage in shorter practices or specific practices (e.g. trying out the basic Wim Hof breath exercise.) While stimulating yoga pranayama (e.g. kapalbhati) and relatively small repetitions done in a few sets (e.g. the basic Wim Hof breath practice), can be practiced daily, I wanted to give my body lots of time to restore homeostasis because of the extensive and relatively long-lasting effects of these sessions.
The experience of doing the practice was interesting. I almost always face a challenge at the very beginning of the practice. Forcing such over-breathing feels burdensome at first, and its hard to image getting through a half hour of it. However, before long I would catch a rhythm and by the end of the practice I was usually stunned at how quickly the time went. I suspect having to focus on maintaining the breath keeps one from internally referencing time, and that’s why one seems to lose track of it altogether.
I wish I had more of a culinary sense and set of terminology, because I found there was definitely a subtle flavor associated with my changed body chemistry. I could taste the experience of respiratory alkalosis, but I have no way of describing what the taste of it was like. Of course, the most dramatic sensory experience associated with the practice was tingling all over the body. It wasn’t just in the usual parts (e.g. the extremities), but I also felt it — for example — along both sides of my abdomen. While the intensity of the tingling began waning as soon as I was done, it often would more than last through my post-practice observation period.
As for the effect on my state of consciousness, in general I came out of it feeling loose and blissful. I haven’t had any trippy, psychedelic, or hallucinatory experiences, but there is definitely a sense of calm and clarity (not to mention a slightly inebriated feel.) I generally finished with a kind of rhythmic, music ready state of mind. I don’t know if that was a feature of the rhythm of the breathing or just a quirky sensory craving. It should be noted that I also had sensations that weren’t particularly pleasant (though they weren’t particularly uncomfortable either — like a faint trace of a headache.) I’d recommend being as slow and gentle as possible when coming out of such a practice.
As for recommendations, for this practice my recommendation would be the same as it was in my January post about an experience with psilocybin tea. That is, “know thyself.” In other words, I wouldn’t make a wholesale recommendation that someone try this type of practice. Certainly, people who have anxiety when everything isn’t in perfect homeostasis in the body should steer clear of it. If one doesn’t have an extensive background with breathwork and how one’s body responds to it, I’d, furthermore, recommend that one only try it under the guidance of (and in the presence of) someone who does. This practice has had a more drastic influence on mind and body than any of the other consciousness-altering practices thus far and may be the most potentially dangerous. All that said, I have found it beneficial, and believe others may too under the right circumstances.
Continuing this series, next month (July) I’m going to try to jump-start my practice of lucid-dreaming (a.k.a. dream yoga.) [It’s something I’ve never excelled at, though I do have a few lucid dreams a year.]
It’s May and this is the fifth installment tracking my investigations into the mind and altered states of consciousness. [I’ll post links to the preceding entries at the bottom.]
This month I’ve been spending time wearing an EEG [electroencephalogram] headset, and watching my brainwaves [or graphs of them, to be more precise.] In many science and / or children’s museums today, you may see a ball game that employs an EEG headset. My wife and I saw one last year at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry [one of my favorite museums.] Like most ball games, the goal is to drive the ball into the opponent’s goal, but there’s a twist. The twist is that the ball moves forward for the player whose mind is most calm, rather than the one who is “trying hardest.” This twist often makes for an amusing turn of events in which a player who is about to score gets so excited that he finds the ball being swept back toward his own goal.
Therein lies the challenge of an EEG headset — observation changes outcome. While there are many apps to choose from, two of the most common are: a.) apps that show one’s brainwave conditions in the moment; b.) apps that record one’s brainwaves over a period of time. (There are variations and combinations of the above — not to mention scaled-down games like the one mentioned in the previous paragraph. One app that I intend to try allows one to video oneself carrying out an activity (I’d like to try it with taiji or yoga practices) with measures of focus and relaxation shown on the recording. However, I’ve not yet worked with said app, and so will have to write about that experience at some later date.)
At any rate, there are trade-offs with the two approaches that I mentioned. With “a,” becoming more analytically minded changes your result. With “b,” it’s hard to make a connection between experience and brainwave state because one will be trying to do so after the fact (and the more one engages in the conscious thought needed to allow one to remember the flow of one’s experience, the less one will be in a meditative mindset.) Having mentioned this, it’s also a beauty of the practice. One has to keep from letting one’s mind respond to the lights, colors, and changing shapes, and just take in gross level feedback without being highly responsive or analytical about it.
Below is a picture from an app that shows one instant’s real-time brainwave conditions.
As one can see, the visualizer gives one both bar-graph and spider-graph representations of the relative make up of one’s brainwaves at a given instant. Neurosky divides the brainwaves into eight categories:
DELTA: less than 4Hz; dominance of this state is associated with deep, dreamless sleep
THETA: 4 – 7Hz; dominance is often associated with daydreaming and road hypnosis
LOW ALPHA: 7 – 11.5Hz; quiet thought and meditation
HIGH ALPHA: 11.5 – 15Hz; quiet thought and meditation
LOW BETA: 15 – 23.5Hz; normal waking consciousness / active mind
HIGH BETA: 23.5 – 31Hz; normal waking consciousness / active mind
GAMMA: >32Hz; cross-modal sensory processing, short-term memory matching, transcendental mental states
[Note: While the order and approximate values are agreed upon by all, one may see different numbers for cut-offs in Hertz. I chose at random from among the numbers I saw. It should further be noted that the descriptions are rough, and it’s not always known exactly what causes a particular brainwave state.]
One will also note the two dials in the lower right corner. These show one one’s state of attention / focus (left) and relaxation / meditative consciousness (right.) These two scales aren’t strict trade-offs. One can be high on both scales, simultaneously. However, if one is super-intense about focusing then the relaxation score will drop, and it won’t be easy to be attentive and extremely relaxed. I’d say going up to about 80 on both scales simultaneously isn’t unusual, but I don’t believe that I’ve had both scales maxed out [except when the headset first comes on and there’s a brief period of weirdness before it settles into normal operations.]
Here is a snapshot with a more focused state of mind.
I’ve found this practice to be beneficial. I often do my pranayama (breathing exercise) and meditative practices lately while wearing the headset. It will be interesting to see if I can get it working with moving practices. (The headset is sensitive to physical movement, and so I’m not sure how well contact will be kept during movement — even for slow practices like taiji.)
Below is a pic of me modeling the headset. (No, that’s not the facial expression with which I meditate.) I’ve been working with the Neurosky Mindwave Mobile 2. I sometimes have trouble getting it up and running, but once it’s operating, I haven’t had any problem with the unit at all. A friend has the Muse, and he also has had trouble getting his settled on his head and started; so that may be a universal difficulty. Some people complain about the Neurosky being uncomfortable, but I haven’t found it so. (Though I think they fixed some of those problems with the current model.)
Next month, I’ll be experimenting with some breathing practices (Holotropic breathing / Tibetan Tummo) that are said to lead to altered states of consciousness on occasion.