Then I’m ejected at the river bend.
Is this death, or stillness, I cannot tell?
It’s a timeless place of infinite space,
Until, ‘long comes the lap of a swell,
and the world moves once more.
Then I’m ejected at the river bend.
Is this death, or stillness, I cannot tell?
It’s a timeless place of infinite space,
Until, ‘long comes the lap of a swell,
and the world moves once more.
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.
They say a Vampire can’t enter your house unless you invite them inside.
I don’t know whether it’s true, on account of I don’t know if Vampires are a thing.
But I recognize a rule that is good and true when I hear one.
I always hear this or that person complaining about how such-and-such is,
“…living in my head, rent free.”
Well, who invited them?
Note: This post is not advocating a new distraction yoga mashup of the type that I’ve been known to rant about, but is merely a discussion of the synergy to be found in practicing both yoga and poetry.
In Patanjali’s conception, the problem for which yoga presents a solution is the mind’s tendency to run amok. One would like to be able to hold the awareness on a given object, effortlessly and for extended periods of time, but the mind is insistent in its desire to roam. This roaming can be to many different ends, but often it’s ultimately about eliminating uncertainty. The mind wants a plan against the unexpected. It seeks solutions to problems — existing, anticipated, or imagined. It wants to replay entertaining stories, which is really a way to learn and store general solutions for later surprise problems that might otherwise catch one off-guard. The more anxious or emotionally charged the mind, the more turbulent it will be.
Poetry is the use of metaphor, imagery, and sound to strike an emotional chord. I don’t mean “emotional” exclusively in the sense of displaying strong, behavior-driving emotions. I mean all sorts of internal, subjective feelings, including nostalgia and the residue of memories and dreams.
Sometimes, the feelings a poem seeks to generate are primal emotions. For example, consider Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”  (about a snake, if you didn’t make that connection) that concludes:
But never met this FellowAttended or aloneWithout a tighter BreathingAnd Zero at the Bone.
Or, from Poe’s “The Raven:”
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
O to go back to the place where I was born!To hear the birds sing once more!To ramble about the house and barn, and over the
fields, once more,And through the orchard and along the old lanes
So, emotion is the connection. Poetry helps one form, shape, and refine emotional content, and yoga helps one to experience that emotion without applying value judgments or allowing the motive force of emotion to drive one into endless cycles of destructive feedback. That is, one feels the need to think about an emotionally charged situation, and the more one thinks about it, the more intense the emotion becomes, and the more intense the emotion, the more one thinks about it. I’ll just call this process “wallowing” — wallowing in emotion.
The word “emotion” carries with it a lot of baggage. Emotion is often juxtaposed with rationality / reason, which isn’t accurate. (Reason works great for making decisions when there is adequate information, emotion forces one to move one’s ass when there isn’t sufficient information. So they are not so much opposites as complimentary systems supporting decision and behavior.)
In the common conception, emotion also tends to be more linked to the expression of emotion rather than the experience of emotion — which are necessarily related. (Some people very readily express intense emotion despite an easy life and others are non-expressive despite constant uncertainty or even challenges to survival.) When one imagines someone unburdened of emotion — e.g. fearless — one might picture a hero — bold and courageous — but what one sees among people who suffer afflictions (e.g. brain damage) that prevents them from feeling emotion is often paralysis by analysis. Without emotion to make decisions under uncertainty, such individuals simply get bogged down. Individuals who don’t feel fear, in particular, are also prone to carelessness.
The key to making one’s yoga and poetry practices simpatico is avoiding that very popular form of poetry — the wallowing poem. If one’s poems constantly spiral into ever greater depths of angst (as many a famous — and, sadly, suicidal — poet’s work has been known to) you might want reevaluate. And, perhaps, start with haiku and that forms Zen distaste for hyperbole or analysis.
Welcome to the fourth post on my experiences with altered states of consciousness. This past weekend, I completed the contact hours for the Level I course in Cognitive Hypnotic Coaching and Psychotherapy (CHCP) conducted by the Institute of Clinical Hypnosis & Related Sciences (ICHARS.) Over the course of three days, I had several opportunities to be hypnotized as well as to hypnotize classmates, and while it was sometimes a fumbling learning experience for me, I did gain some insight into trance states. The course focused on teaching a few methods of hypnotic induction, how to deepen a trance state, as well as the basics of how to use hypnosis for coaching or therapy. Last year, I took a quick class on self-hypnosis, but this was my first experience with hetero-hypnosis (trance induced by a hypnotist), and – unlike last month’s topic of meditation, for which I had a substantial background – this was a subject for which I was a babe in the woods.
Hypnosis is probably the most misunderstood territory I’ll travel over the course of this project (psilocybin is the only other that comes close.) Because the realm of consciousness involves subjective experiences, there’s always room for misunderstanding. Plenty of people leave their first experience with meditation thinking, “That isn’t at all what I expected it to be.” However, hypnosis presents added layers of confusion.
First, if a person has ever witnessed hypnosis, more often than not, they’ve done so via stage hypnosis. Stage hypnosis conjures images of cape-wearing Mesmerists forcing subjects to cluck like a chicken, but this isn’t at all a typical experience of hypnosis. [Achieving a deep trance usually takes much longer, people will only do what they are willing to, and the ease of trance and what kinds of suggestions will be honored varies radically from person to person.] In stage shows, subjects go through a twin-pronged selection process. The first part of the selection is via “convincers” (e.g. rubber band fingers, raising arm, stuck eyelids, etc.) which themselves serve a dual purpose: for one, they allow for audience participation and reduce the crowd’s overall level of skepticism, and, also, they allow the hypnotist or his crew to see which audience members are most susceptible to hypnotically-induced trance. The second part selects for gregariousness, and often this can be done by merely asking for volunteers. People who are more comfortable getting up on stage will be less resistant to acting the clown for the audience’s amusement. The rule of thumb is that a hypnotist can probably get a subject to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do through suggestion, but he or she won’t be able to make a person do anything they don’t want to do. Therefore, the stage hypnotist wants outgoing people on stage rather than shy participants because people who like to clown around are more willing to do a wide range of activities in front of complete strangers.
Second, even the experts don’t agree on what hypnosis is (or even if it is – meaning some experts on the mind don’t believe a trance state is a unique state of consciousness and some even believe that suggestibility is more or less “playing along” or faking. However, it’s been well-documented that many surgeries – including limb amputations – have been conducted with only hypnosis as an analgesic, so if you believe a soldier in the Civil War (or a patient of Dr. Esdaile in India) could “play along,” faking a calm detachment, as a bone-saw ripped through his femur, I’ve got some lovely beachfront property to sell you.)
At any rate, there is wide disparity in beliefs about hypnosis, even among psychologists. For example, many clinicians, particularly followers of Milton Erickson, believe that all willing subjects can be hypnotized. (They base this belief on the fact that everyone seems to move in and out of trance states, unprompted, in daily life.) However, scientific researchers in the field find that about 10 to 15% of subjects cannot be hypnotically induced into a trance. [Note: Erickson was a controversial figure, but I can’t say whether that’s because he one-upped his professional colleagues or because he engaged in dubious practices both with respect to patient ethics and reporting of results.] I also don’t have much of a dog in the fight about whether all willing people can be induced into a trance through hypnosis. However, – in general — I favor peer-reviewed research over logical statements that seem sound, but which may not reflect the whole picture. (I’m once bitten twice shy from statements like, “You should eat what cavemen ate because that’s the diet your body is evolutionarily optimized toward.” [Sounds reasonable, but scientific studies show it to be wrong on several fronts.]) And all this controversy is without even getting into the claims of the hypnotic imperialist lunatic fringe, meaning this is more-or-less the mainstream disagreeing.
So what was my experience? I found it very relaxing, and, yes, when given suggestions that I wouldn’t be able to open my eyes or that my arm would raise, my eyes wouldn’t open and my arm would raise, respectively. And, no, I wasn’t playing along, at least if playing along means my conscious mind was voluntarily directing the lack of movement or movement, as the case may be. Does that mean the hypnotist had complete control of my mind? No. I feel pretty confident that I could have snapped my mind out of the state, if I had any compelling reason to do so. And, no, I wouldn’t have clucked like a chicken, though the suggestion might have resulted in uncontrolled giggling as (like one sometimes experiences in meditation) there can be feelings of euphoria in these highly relaxed states that are almost akin to intoxication. As I believed I mentioned in the post about my psilocybin mushroom experience, there’s a very subtle state-switching process that goes on all the time without one’s conscious awareness. If the researchers’ bell curve is correct (i.e. 10-15% can’t be hypnotized, 10-15% are super susceptible to trance and suggestions, and the rest are at various points on the middle ground,) I’m somewhere in that meaty middle. I haven’t experienced trance amnesia, and remain aware of what happens throughout the process, even if I go pretty deep, but physical suggestions take eventually.
This is a skill I’d like to continue to develop. During the workshop, it was hard to observe the signs of depth of trance because – having not yet memorized the scripts – I had to frequently refer to the script. Mind and eyes can’t be two places at once, at least not productively so. I also have a lot to learn about voice modulation, which seems to be an art unto itself, but which is also difficult to master while one is working on just getting sequences down and trying to avoid pitfalls that may snap the subject out of trance prematurely.
All in all, I feel I developed a better understanding of the mind during this course, and believe I’d like to continue to build the skill as there is much more to learn that can only be learned through practice.
Next month I’ll be returning to meditation as my altered state, but with a technological twist. I’ll be using an EEG headset to see whether the ability to visualize brain wave states can help me to better control my mind.
This is the third installment in a series of posts on my study of altered states of consciousness. The January and February posts described my experiences with psilocybin mushroom tea and a sensory deprivation float tank, respectively.
This month (March) I’ve stepped up my meditation practice to at least an hour per day, every day of the week. (As opposed to a couple of one hour sessions as well as a couple of shorter sessions per week.) Meditation might seem tame in comparison to the previous practices (and some to come.) However, if one can quiet the mind, one experiences some of the same phenomena as are had during more dramatic practices, as well as other events that are too subtle to notice in other states. It’s easy to get more excited about practices that dial an experience up to eleven than ones that require one to listen carefully and patiently, but that’s a mistake.
Immediately after I completed the Vipassana ten-day course, I maintained a practice of this intensity for a brief period of time (as is the recommendation) before it became a bit cumbersome. (My discussion of the Vipassana course can be found here.) For readers unfamiliar with the practice, Vipassana practice uses bodily sensations as an anchor for the mind. One repeatedly scans the body, observing any sensations that one feels along the way without judgement. It’s technically a Theravadan Buddhist practice, but is taught in a secular way. By “anchor” I mean some “object” that the awareness can be directed toward so as to make it more readily apparent when one’s mind wanders and easier to bring it back because there is something to direct the attention. Besides bodily sensation, some of the common anchors include: breath, mantra, visualizations, or external objects.
This doesn’t mean that every meditative practice requires an anchor, and the practice I’ve been using this month (by-and-large) did not. I use an anchor (most often breath awareness) to achieve stillness of mind, but then switch to observation of what thoughts or imagery pop to mind. One might call this an anchorless meta-cognitive meditation. One just watches the mind, becoming witness to whatever arises, noting it, letting it move on, and resuming the watch. For yoga practitioners, this equates to the early stages of antar mouna, through and including chidakasha (watching subconscious imagery pop up.)
One notices many things about how the mind operates during meditation. The coarsest way of differentiating what I find arises in meditation is the distinction between conscious thoughts versus the subconscious imagery. Typically, I don’t observe the latter until the former have subsided. Conscious thoughts are often verbal as well as visual, but the subconscious matter is virtually all imagery.
One also realizes the crucial role played by memory. Often what I see is a memory residue of an image that arose. I’ve become very aware of essential memory is in our human style of consciousness. While in meditation one wants to reduce or eliminate the mental activities that come in tow with memory (i.e. analysis, making connections, elaboration, etc.,) one can’t help but notice how central such activities are to language and other learning that make us uniquely human. Then there is recognition of the limits of memory. Just as one sometimes has an inkling of the substance of a dream, but can’t pull front and center in one’s mind, there is often the inkling of an image — gone before it registers.
If one is wondering why pick a one hour practice, it’s in part about the maximum my body is capable without needing a break to move lymph about and restore blood circulation to normal. During the Vipassana course, one has about ten hours a day of scheduled meditation, but I still needed a walk at least every hour or so. As for why not do smaller time chunks, I’ve found that I experience some phenomena past a half hour that I don’t recall experiencing in shorter practices. It takes some time to relax to a point at which one’s conscious mind stops trying to make plans or otherwise go off on tangents. Feelings of euphoria, oneness, and ease of mental quietness tend to come beyond a half of an hour for me — when they come.
I was disabused of any notions that a daily meditative practice over such a short period would lead to heightened mental clarity and emotional control. I’ve done 26 days out of 31 as of this writing, and have been as wild-minded as ever, and certainly more than the preceding months. I can’t say that this has anything to do with meditation one way or another. Perhaps, I’d have been even worse, given the nature of life’s ups and downs, if I hadn’t been practicing as such — but, of course, I can’t make such a claim — not meaningfully.
That said, I think I’ve made some interesting observations about how my mind works and what its limits are. I can’t say I experienced any wild mental phenomena, not of the nature I experienced during the long meditative days of the Vipassana course. However, I have been able to observe some fine detail about the sensation of shifting into a hypnogogic state, and other curious experiences that interest me. Subtle shifts of mind states have been a major point of curiosity for me.
Next month, I’ll be attending a workshop on hypnosis, and the next post will be on hypnotic trance states.
my mind jumps about
like a foraging rodent,
one at risk of starving
because it keeps dropping its acorn
at the sight of one that seems
Buddhists talk of hungry ghosts,
creatures with insatiable appetites
but mouths no good for eating
i crave knowledge and understanding,
but have a mind undisciplined
for chewing and digesting
that hardy substance