POEM: Tempest: or, Overstimulated

A quiet kind of lightening storm
will fire in wild moments of mass,
when thought chunks rush to the center —
the very center — of my mind.

It’s a ten ton pile up of thought
first packed, then crammed, together fiercely.

Just like the thunderless lightening,
no sound escapes that brain tempest.

POEM: The Brain’s Label-Maker

My brain has a label-maker that pumps out bifurcated tags for everything it experiences:

good… bad…

pleasurable…  painful…

in-group… out-group…

familiar…  strange…

It pastes these labels all over my world, a world once painted in feeling. But once a label is applied:

-I think I know the labeled thing.

-I can’t really see the labeled thing.

-And, I can no longer be awed by the labeled thing.

As it happens, my brain also contains an inner mischievous boy with a penchant for picking at the corners of those labels. And whenever one comes loose, he looks around the joint, and — if the coast is clear — he rips away the label and runs. Running not to escape punishment, but to find the optimal distance for that thing’s radiated splendor.

And sometimes when that boy sees another staring intently into the distance as if hoping to see magic or a fireworks display, the boy wonders why that one doesn’t watch the magic near at hand. But they can’t see it. It’s invisible to them. And instead they suffer blank hope, drowning amid a sea of bliss.

An App for That: Profound Yogic Practices You May Not See in Class

To the average person, yoga consists of a series of poses that stretch the muscles and strengthen the core.  In truth, often the most profound and life-altering experiences had by yoga practitioners involve only a seated or lying posture. If you practice yoga, you’re probably aware that postural practice, or asana, is just only one element of yoga, and perhaps you’ve experienced some of the other elements of yogic practice. However, it’s not always easy to access such training at the local studio.

 

These days there’s another way. These practices can be accessed through apps such as EKA.

 

Below are five powerful yogic practices that you might not find taught at your local yoga studio, but that you’ll find on EKA.

 

5.) Yoga Nidra: Yoga Nidra translates to “yogic sleep.” It’s a practice in which one stays in the mind-state between wakefulness and sleep, i.e. hypnagogia, for an extended period while working through a sequence of practices. Yoga nidra is extremely relaxing, but also allows one to access the subconscious in a manner similar to that of self-hypnosis. This makes the practice useful both for people who have trouble with sleep or settling into rest, but it also allows one to influence the subconscious so that one can make changes in areas where subconscious influence is strong.

 

For example, a person seeking to lose weight understands that they need to be careful about what they eat. However, the subconscious isn’t always on the same page as the conscious mind, and cravings for sugary or fatty foods may win the battle. In yoga nidra, we use sankalpa — a resolution, to help win the subconscious over. We also use practices like visualizations to gain insight into what is happening outside the bounds of conscious thought, and to exercise influence over it.

 

4.) Kaya Sthairyam: Kaya Sthairyam translates to bodily stillness, or steadiness. If you’ve done any meditation, you were probably taught to adopt a position in which you could be as still as possible throughout the practice. The reason for this is that even subtle movements can distract one, weaken one’s concentration, or have a stimulating effect. In yoga, kaya sthairyam is used to achieve a state of maximum stillness. If one wishes to increase one’s ability to concentrate for extended periods, one must build one’s capacity to remain still. That said, kaya sthairyam need not be thought of as only a prelude to meditation. The tranquility that arises from these practices make them worthwhile in their own right.

 

3.) Bija Mantra: In India, chanting is a very popular practice among yoga practitioners, and many have found great clarity in it. In one of my early classes teaching yoga to children, I found that as soon as the kids sat in a cross-legged pose many of the younger children spontaneously started softly reciting the gayatri mantra. That’s how intense was their association between sitting down cross-legged and chanting.

 

In the West, mantra chanting is less familiar. The six bija mantra, or seed mantra, are a beautiful way to introduce oneself to mantra chanting because of their simplicity. Because the bija mantra (LAM, VAM, RAM, YAM, HUM, and AUM) are all monosyllabic, easily pronounced, and are related sounds, they can be picked up quickly and easily.

 

2.) Witnessing Meditations: The yogic teaching that has had the most life-changing effect on me has been dispassionate witnessing. While it’s not a complex idea, it requires some explanation.

 

Let’s first consider what minds usually do in the face of a problem. There are two common responses that are not particularly healthy.

 

The first is to distract oneself from the problem. In some cases, this distraction can be an unhealthy activity — such as drug abuse, but it might also be something neutral like watching television. However, even if you distract yourself with a wholesome activity like volunteering at a soup kitchen, the problem is still there and it will have its say. If not directly, then indirectly through nightmares, indigestion, or a stress-induced illness.

 

The second option is obsessing. The brain tries to lessen the sting by anticipating the worst possible scenario. The trouble with this obsession is that to find our worst case scenario — we have to hang toxic labels on all possible events and invent possibilities that are so unlikely as to be nearly impossible. And having invented such dire cases, we often give them too much weight. As Mark Twain put it, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  The negativity piles up and causes stress and anxiety to balloon out of control.

 

In dispassionate witnessing, we don’t ignore or distract ourselves, but we also don’t strap on value judgements or build worst cases. We simply recognize what we are feeling, acknowledge it, but don’t feed our anxieties.

 

One of the most basic witnessing practices involves watching sensations in the body. Imagine you’re doing this practice and you feel an ache in your back. If you try to ignore the sensation, the mind may turn up the intensity to get your attention.  If you obsess, you’ll soon convince yourself that this sensation is really an ache… no, a pain… no, it’s agony… oh no, could there be a tumor growing on my spine? [That may be exaggerating a bit, but you see the point.] However, if you focus your attention on the sensation without labeling it, you’ll probably find that the sensation passes. In essence, the body says, “Hmm, the brain examined this sensation and didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about, let’s move on.”

 

1.) Pranayama: Probably the most under-rated yogic practice is pranayama, or breathing exercises. By controlling one’s breath, one can influence one’s emotional state, one’s physiological processes, and the state of agitation in one’s mind. Breath practices are the most direct means to counteracting the stress response. However, despite constantly breathing — day in and day out — most people remain unaware of the incredible power of consciously controlling the breath.

 

There are a variety of types of breath exercises. There are breaths that have a stimulating effect on the body and mind, and those that have a calming effect. Scientific evidence has accumulated that there are benefits to practicing slower and deeper breathing, and pranayama offers a systematic approach to building this capacity. No matter what kind of pranayama one is doing, there is a side benefit from holding one’s focus on one point, the breath.

 

Pranayama is a great lead-in to meditative practices. It helps achieve a state of mind which is neither drowsy nor agitated. That said, pranayama is also beneficial on its own.

 

If you’re interested in exploring any of these practices, the EKA app is a great place to start.

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Losing Control by Jules Evans

The Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic ExperienceThe Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic Experience by Jules Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a philosopher’s account of sampling from the various wells of ecstatic experience. It’s one of many works these days on what the ancient Greeks called ekstasis. There’s been major interest in investigating the topic in recent years. Historically, religion was the means by which people pursued ecstasy, but – increasingly — people who don’t care for the dogma and tribalism of religion are starting to crave its more blissful and ego-shedding aspects.

As a work of immersion journalism, the book is a mixed bag. Evans does seek some firsthand experience of most of the topics covered, but the extent of his immersion and his discussion of it varies greatly. For example, he goes into great detail in pursuing and discussing mystic Christianity, but isn’t so comprehensive in discussing neo-Tantrism (i.e. Western, or sex-centric, Tantra) and his discussion of psychedelics draws heavily upon decisions / experiences made as a teenager (which, it could be argued, is a little like commenting on the Eucharist based on that time you got drunk on Boone’s Farm and scarfed down a bag of Doritos. Though, to be fair, the author is clear and cognizant that his youthful dalliances weren’t necessarily equivalent to a conscientious pursuit of heightened consciousness, but are more a warning to heed Leary’s advice on “set and setting.”) At any rate, if you are expecting immersion journalism on the level of Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” you’ll find this book isn’t consistently on par (though it does have its moments.) That said, Evans does a fantastic job of researching the topic and presenting interesting perspectives on the subject, and he does so with humor and inquisitiveness. (I will say that in the latter chapters I sometimes found myself very intrigued by the discussion, but it would occur to me that I couldn’t see a direct link being made to the pursuit of ecstatic experience. Maybe it was just me, but if he strayed, he strayed interestingly – which is better than the alternative.)

The book consists of an introduction and ten chapters. The chapters cover such approaches to ecstasy as: religion (primarily Christianity is discussed, obviously focusing on sects and subsects that pursue [rather than shun] ecstatic experience), the arts, rock-n-roll (with an intriguing focus on its surprising resemblance to religion), psychedelic substances, meditation, neo-Tantrism, war and violence, communing with nature, and transhumanist efforts.

With the exception of Evans’ investigation into meditation, for which his experience involved Vipassana — a nominally Theravadin Buddhist system, Evans’ book focuses heavily on Western approaches. I actually enjoyed this because it seems like there is much more discussion of Eastern approaches and those rooted in them.

The book is annotated and has a section of photos in the back as well as a few other graphics where needed.

I enjoyed this book and learned lot from it. As immersion journalism it displayed a wide variance of depth and openness, but it was well-researched and the information was delivered in a light and readable manner.

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My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part XII [Narrative Transportation]

This is the belated final posted of my 2019 project on altered states of consciousness. I was traveling during the latter half of December and, hence, my tardiness.

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.

POEM: Confessions of Mindfulness Pimp

It’s disconcerting, discovering one is a pimp.

Don’t get me wrong;

-I’ve never slapped a ho’

-I’ve never even called anyone a ho’

-To the best of my recollection,

I’ve not even thought anyone a ho’

I’m empathetic to honest work reviled.

 

But I’ve known the hard-handed hustle of a product that’s felt about in much different terms than it’s talked about — felt an act of masochism but called “working late.”

-a product the customer wishes — with every fiber of his being — he didn’t need.

-a product around which distractions grow like weeds through the cracks of a post-apocalyptic sidewalk.

-a product the customer wishes he could fast-forward to the end-bliss, escaping the awkward preliminaries.

-a skill that the customer tells himself he’s good at, knowing if he had skills, monetary transactions wouldn’t be necessary.

I’ve dealt virtue like it was a vice.

“Psst, Buddy, want some clarity?

“I won’t tell a soul you’re out here looking.”

I’ve pimped mindfulness and wellness — unrepentantly.

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 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

POEM: Terra Cognita

I thought I knew the brick-and-mortar world,
the thrill of smashing things one knew were real.
But all that smashed was an electric feel
projected in a subject, fetal curled.

We loved the anthems sung and flags unfurled,
and plays of spear-tips raised and flashing steel,
and when throughout the town a bell would peal,
inviting us to dream our afterworld.

Feeling oneself at gates adorned in pearls,
as we got measured against an ideal,
and blood was drawn to test for ardent zeal.
My name in Santa’s lists of boys and girls?

There are worlds that feel more real than others,
and those I’d choose, if I had my druthers.