His eyes take in the dancing flame until his mind is flame. He anticipates its flutter, its flareups, just the same. There's nothing in his mind or eye that is not set ablaze. He knows not whether it's been like this for hours, weeks, or days. Others think it will devour him, leaving a pile of ash, taking him from this world at once, in one big, blinding flash.
For the past five years, since I moved to India, I’ve been studying what my mind is and what it’s capable of. I’ve used tried and true methods, including: yogic dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) techniques, Vipassana meditation, dream yoga/ lucid dreaming [albeit, with limited success,] and the practice of self-hypnosis.
In 2019, while continuing the trend, I’m going to get into the weeds and see how strange the mind gets. I was originally going to entitle this “My Year of Exploring Varieties of Conscious Experience,” but that sounded punishingly boring. The current title may come off as frivolous, but I hope is more intriguing as well.
The year has begun, and so has my year of exploration. January was the month in which I first experienced psilocybe cubensis — what the kids call “magic mushroom” or “shrooms.” I should point out that — besides alcohol and caffeine — this was my first experience with any mind or mood altering substance. [With the exception of one afternoon thirty years ago when I was prescribed Tylenol with Codeine after having all four wisdom teeth pulled — an event that probably remains the most bizarre mental experience of my life.]
I’d like to be able to say that I’m the type who boldly tries out new things with derring-do, but those who know me know I’m the kind who reads hundreds of pages of research and commentary and then cautiously dips a toe into the waters. Among the extensive pre-experience reading I did was Michael Pollan’s excellent book, How to Change Your Mind and a study finding psilocybin mushrooms to be the safest of the mind and mood altering substances. (Yes, that includes being much safer than alcohol — a finding, the veracity of which, I have not a doubt. Those curious about this topic are encouraged to see Drugs without the Hot Air by David Nutt, which delves into how society’s approach to such substances can be absurd and without merit in logic. Nutt was famously fired from a government position in Britain for openly stating that alcohol and nicotine are both considerably more dangerous /damaging than a number of prohibited substances)
What was my experience like? Strange and fascinating. However, even at the time, I found myself wondering whether I was cursed with knowledge. How much did all that reading and research influence my experience for the good, the bad, or the indifferent? I don’t know, perhaps a lot, but maybe not at all. I’ll give some examples. One of the early and persistent effects was seeing the world overwritten in prismatic geometric forms. The closest I could describe this is to imagine the shapes seen in jaali — the latticed windows seen in Indo-Islamic architecture — but with a repeating “echo” of lines and a kind of rainbow prismatic effect.
I suspect this is a neuro-chemical effect of the substance on one’s brain, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether my experience was trained by having read Aldous Huxley’s descriptions of “sacred geometries” during his own experience. (Of course, it also makes me wonder what Indo-Islamic craftsmen and architects might have been taking.)
As I mentioned, I could see where prior knowledge could have both positive and negative influences on the experience. I’ll start with an example of a possible positive effect of prior knowledge. One thing the reader needs to understand is that the physicist’s conception that things at rest will stay at rest and things in motion will stay in motion doesn’t hold in the mental world of psilocybin — everything goes into motion. It could be the breathing letters of a word on the page or the gentle writhing of a house plant, but not much just sits there. As I stared up at the ceiling, the staples that held the cable to the ceiling fan in place became blocky ants on the march, and soon any dot anywhere became an ant on the move. Now, I can imagine how this might stir in some people a “bad trip,” freaking out about the infestation. However, my mind always somehow recognized that the animation of those still objects was in my brain and not in the room. I was trained to think of these experiences as the effect of a serotonin mimic going hog-wild inside my brain, and I never thought that maybe I’d kicked open Huxley’s famed “Doors of Perception” and something real was now on display to me that I couldn’t ordinarily see. [Though I can’t eliminate that possibility.]
However, I also must wonder whether I might have had a grand breakthrough or experience of enlightenment (probably little-e) — as many claim to have had — if my experience wasn’t so grounded. I scribbled about seven and a half pages while I was “tripping,” and I was very curious about whether it would be gibberish or pure illumination. It was neither. About half my sentences broke off about 2/3rds of the way through, but those that I could make out were not wide the mark of my day-to-day philosophy. It reflected the diminished self and euphoria of the experience (which I’ve also experienced in meditation), but wasn’t otherworldly. I will say, my psilocybin self was a wee bit bolder, realizing that — like a dog chasing its tail — if I ever captured the understanding I seek, the fun would be blanched from life. The closest thing to a revelation was that I needed to embrace my ignorance — a conclusion my sober self had already come to acceptance of in its bolder moments.
What are my recommendations if you plan to partake of a cup of mushroom tea? Make sure your environment is not overstimulating. Make sure there is nothing fear or anxiety inducing in the area (perhaps including knowing the legal status where you are.) Have a calm state of mind. Realize that for about 30 for 45 minutes you will think the tea had no effect upon you and the strangeness will come on gradually. Some people say you should have someone around. I don’t know that I’d say it’s necessary, (unless you have anxiety issues and then you might not want to partake without seeking medical advice) but if you do make sure it’s not someone who gets on your nerves.
So what is next? February will be the month in which I try out a sensory deprivation float tank. In yoga, one of the legs of practice is pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses.) I’m fascinated to see what effect the body temperature Epsom salt water has — if any — over and above closed-eye meditation in a dim room.
My tentative schedule is:
January — Mushroom — check
February — Sensory Deprivation Float Tank
March — 30 days of hour-long meditations
April — Hypnosis (attending an intensive workshop)
May — EEG feedback meditation
June — Tummo / Wim Hof Method / Holotropic Breathwork
July — extensive Yogic dharana and dhyana practice
August — resumption of dream yoga / lucid dreaming practices
September — periodic fasting (and, maybe, controlled sleep deprivation)
October — Biofeedback pranayama (breathing exercises)
November — Poetry of the Subconscious Mind
December — mixed practices, putting it all together
I plan to keep up documentation of my practice, and hope you’ll follow along when I post something. I’m also interested to hear about the experiences of others regarding these and other consciousness related practices. I don’t know how strange it’ll get, but things might get pretty weird.
5.) Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi: This book, which is presented in Q&A format, explores Sri Ramana’s approach to Jñāna yoga, and explains atma-vichara, the exercise of self-enquiry that Ramana proposed was the key to self-realization.
4.) Supernormal by Dean Radin: Okay, this is an unconventional choice for the list but bear with me. (I mostly included it because I like to have an under-the-radar entry in these lists, and this seems like one that could have been missed readers of works on yoga.) Radin is a paranormal researcher who, in this case, has investigated the topic of siddhi, which are the controversial powers that Patanjali discusses in the third section of The Yoga Sutras, but which many deny are real.
3.) Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Satyananda Saraswati: This is the Bihar School of Yoga guide to meditation, and it covers both yogic meditation methods and those from other disciplines (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Western / scientific [e.g. biofeedback], etc.) By “meditation,” here I mean more than dhyana. This book uses the word in a broader and more colloquial sense that includes some practices that are normally considered pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) or dharana (concentration.)
2.) Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati: Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) is a sustained hypnogogic state — i.e. the state of mind on the edge between wakefulness and falling into sleep. It is used both as an intense relaxation exercise as well as to access the subconscious to plant seeds therein.
1.) Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: (Sutras by Patanjali with commentary by B.K.S. Iyengar): This isn’t — strictly speaking — only about the mental side of yoga, but, in the Sutras, Patanjali makes clear that yoga is a tool to advance mental calm and clarity. There are many translations and commentaries available. Commentaries are useful because the 196 sutras are extremely sparse. Iyengar’s book is probably one of the most approachable translation / commentaries for a modern reader.
This book is one-stop shopping for the yogic meditator. The first half of the book explores many of the most common yogic practices of dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) in step-by-step detail. The second half of the book situates yogic meditation in a global context of meditation by introducing various techniques of meditation and mind science seen around the world. This allows the reader to compare and contrast the yogic approach to that of other systems — be they closely related systems such as Buddhism or Jainism or more remote ones such as hypnosis or moving meditations like dance or the martial arts.
I found this book to be incredibly useful. While there are mountains of books on yoga, there are relatively few that shine a light on the practices of the mind, and among those that do only very few are nonsectarian. Many books look at meditation solely as a spiritual practice and a few others present it exclusively as a secular scientifically grounded practice. This book skillfully bridges between, and does its level best to get the accounts of different systems right. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few oversimplifications or minor misunderstandings here and there, but the good overshadows them by far. It should be noted that even within the domain of yoga, many authors warp concepts such as jnana yoga and tantric yoga to fit their worldview or sect instead of reporting on how practitioners of those systems would see them. This book seemed to me to be much fairer than many in this regard.
The book consists of an Introduction and seven chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss tools and aids used in meditation. The primary difference between the two chapters is that the first looks at traditional aids such as mantra, mandalas, and symbology, and the second discusses more modern scientific aids such as biofeedback, drugs, and sensory deprivation tanks.
Chapter 3 is one of the largest (more than a quarter of the book) and it explores the many yogic meditation techniques, including: antar mouna, japa, ajapa japa, chidakasha dharana, yoga nidra, prana vidya, trataka, nada meditation, jnana yogi meditations, kriya yoga techniques, and tantric techniques. While the later discussion of non-yogic approaches generally includes instructions for basic exercises, the descriptions in this section are much more detailed, and some include variations on the primary practice.
Chapter 4 is about the same length as chapter 3, and it investigates many of the other systems of meditation from around the world. These include religious systems such as those in: Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, various sects of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, the mystical branches of Christianity and Islam (Sufi,) and Native American animist traditions. It also includes secular systems such as hypnosis and autogenic therapy.
Chapter 5 delves into how movement of the body is used as an anchor point in meditation in yoga, on pilgrimage, in Tibetan Buddhism, in Zen Buddhism, in the martial arts, in dance, and in sports. This is where I saw those few of the aforementioned minor oversimplifications and misunderstandings (e.g. referring to all martial arts under the rubric “karate.”) However, I greatly appreciated that the authors included discussion of this important topic, and so I can’t say that there was anything that detracted from my enjoyment of coverage of the topic.
The penultimate chapter is a catch-all for miscellany not covered earlier in the book. It includes meditations for kids (who require a very special approach, I can attest.) It also has a section on meditation on death, which I believe to be an immensely important topic for helping people shed their fear so they can get the most out of their lives. The other two sections are on nature and sensory meditations, respectively. The last chapter is short and discusses samadhi as the goal of meditative practice.
There are only a few graphics in the book, mostly symbology, but there is a glossary and a bibliography.
I would highly recommend this book for yoga practitioners and those who have a broad interest in meditative and mind science practices.
No matter what style of meditation you practice, you’ve probably heard the following refrain: “And if you find your mind wandering, non-judgmentally make a note of where your mind went, and let that thought drift away as you return your awareness to __________.”
I’ve certainly heard many takes on that teaching, and had plenty of opportunity to implement that advice. In the process, I’ve noted that the places my mind wanders can be classified into several categories.
5.) The Planner: Our conscious mind is first and foremost about answering the question, “What’s the worst that can happen, and how can I make that worst case less bad?” The mind wants to anticipate undesirable events and either make an end run around them or figure out a way to make them less troubling. The Planner wants to rehearse everything from making dinner to being interviewed for a job to having a dreaded conversation.
4.) The Entertainer: This is the mind that sticks songs in your head and replays clips of movies.
3.) The Walter Mitty / The Bolsterer: This is the daydream mind which cooks up scenarios in which you are the hero.
2.) The Subconscious Image Generator: In a relaxed state in which the conscious mind is quieted, one may find oneself seeing images that probably don’t make a lick of sense. The pictures may come and go in a way that make them hard to maintain even a glimpse of. This is the same kind of imagery that one experiences in the hypnagogic state–as one is drifting towards sleep.
1.) The Critic: Saving the most despicable for last; this is your inner critic. The one who thinks that you won’t succeed at any given task.