My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. XI [Chanting]

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.

BOOK REVIEW: The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias: EssaysThe Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Schizophrenia is ill-understood, and that’s just by psychiatrists and psychologists, the rest of us tend to downright misunderstand the condition. Wang’s book collects thirteen essays on her experience of living with schizo-affective disorder. I found Wang’s prose to be clever and engaging, though she does get into the weeds of technicality a bit in some of the early chapters. The book is not only well-written, it’s also brutally forthright. We hear a lot of how the author uses her alma mater (Yale) as a combination of sword and shield to combat the ever-present assumption she will be a stark-raving – not to mention dangerous — lunatic.

The book begins with discussion of diagnosis, but it doesn’t begin with her being diagnosed as Schizo-affective, but rather as Bipolar [formerly know as, manic-depressive.] There’s a great deal of discussion of the inexactitude of psychiatric science, and the fact that — to be fair — it’s not like every case is presents the same. The set of symptoms seen may create the potential to classify the same individual in different ways; hence, psychiatric diagnosis is often a long and winding road.

To list the essays with descriptions wouldn’t do them justice, so, instead, I’ll present some of the highlights. There’re a couple of chapters that look at how Wang tried to cope with, or counteract, the impression of people finding out she had schizophrenia. One of these involved the aforementioned repeated references to the Ivy-league institution that ultimately kicked her out and wouldn’t let her back in once she’d been treated and stabilized. Another was attachment to the label — and the idea — of “high-functioning,” which can be a hard sell for a condition like Schizophrenia. (Though not uniquely so. I once had a conversation with friend who didn’t understand that there could be such a thing as a “mild stroke.” This person believed that if one had any stroke one would surely be unable to talk correctly or have adult cognitive functioning. Though it occurs to me that my analogy is not entirely apt because anyone with a diagnosis of Schizophrenia will at some point experience severe symptoms – e.g. hallucination, delusion, etc. – otherwise they would be unlikely to be [rightly or wrongly] so diagnosed.)

There’s a chapter that deals with the question of having children. This brings up the twin questions of whether the schizophrenic can be a good parent throughout the development of the child, as well as how likely they are to pass on the trait through genes. [Those who’ve watched “A Beautiful Mind” will remember a scene in which the bathwater is rising on the baby because Nash is having an episode.]

Wang uses a number of sensationalist cases – e.g. murders – both to counteract the notion that all Schizophrenics are dangerous by contrasting with her own [more typical] experience, but also to let the reader know such extremes do exist. It should also be pointed out that one of these cases was the murder of a Schizophrenic by a family member who was living in terror that said schizophrenic (her brother) would ultimate kill her and her daughter, given the things he said and the auditory hallucinations he was said to have had.

One of the most interesting discussions for me was Wang’s description of leaving the Scarlett Johansson film “Lucy” asking her boyfriend whether what she saw was real. Everybody has that situation of being drawn into a film in an edge-of-the-seat fashion, but is fascinating to imagine a person who can’t disentangle from that state.

Chapter ten talks about the author’s experience with Cotard’s Syndrome. Cotard’s is a condition in which the individual believes they are deceased. I’ve read of Cotard’s in popular neuroscience books, but Wang’s first-hand account provides an extra level of connection to it.

The last essay discusses Wang’s pursuit of spirituality. It should be noted that in many tribal societies, Schizophrenics have been made shamans and are seen as having special powers. Wang doesn’t talk about this in great detail though she does a little [it is the premise of the series “Undone” on Amazon Prime], but it’s interesting to consider how religion and spirituality might influence the Schizophrenic mind.

I found this book fascinating and the writing to be elegant. I would highly recommend it for anyone with interests in the mind, mental illness, or just the experiences of other people.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Meditation [also sold as Altered Traits] by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson

The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and BodyThe Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body by Daniel Goleman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

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.

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My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. X [Free Movement]

This is month ten in my year of studying altered states of consciousness, and this post will be on movement and the mind.

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

Haiku of Ecstatic Experience

time may flow
but i’m tethered to now —
one feeling

 

masterless
puppet of infinite strings,
tied to all

 

music plays
and I ebb and swell
with no mind

 

calm & storm
harmoniously layered
in one space

 

chase it, and
it’s gone forever
be, and it is

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. IX [Streaming 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?

POEM: Mind of Man

A wolf and lamb sewn end-to-end,
thrashing down a river.
Too distracted to flee or snap,
scrambling and aquiver.



But at the bend, they wash ashore,
gasping and shivering.
A tiny pause and wolf lunges,
sheep bleating, blithering.



The writhing and the scrambling,
rolls them back in water.
Bobbing, sputtering, too panicked
to flee or to slaughter.

POEM: The Last Word on ultima Thule

ultima Thule / əl-tə-mə-ˈthü-lēn. 1. a distant unknown region; 2. the extreme edge of the discovered world



“Where lies the ultima Thule?”
he inquired about the edge of discovery.



“It’s down in cave, beyond the cold,
in a pocket that’s hot and noxious.”



“I’m sure it lies in the Challenger Deep,
far down below the waves.”



“It must be out amid the void of space,
where frozen silence reigns.”



“If it lies not in the recesses of my mind,
I’m sure I’ll never see it.”

POEM: Momentarily Untethered


For a moment —
a still moment —
belief flat-lined.

I don’t mean belief in gods, myths, or monsters —
that abandoned me long ago.
[Or I abandoned it? Either way, it’s gone.]

I mean recognition that there is a world,
and that I know enough to hum along to its tune.

And as I’m listening to the shrill and steady tone in my ears —
[it really was a flat-line, like in the TV medical dramas]
the world snapped back to normality

&

I almost fell out of the bed.

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. VIII [Sleep Deprived]

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.]