Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Your Brain on Psilocybin

Your Brain on Psilocybin, a nice little article by researcher Robin Carhart-Harris.
Evidence from this study, and also preliminary data from an ongoing brain imaging study with LSD, appears to support the principle that the psychedelic state rests on disorganized activity in the ego system permitting disinhibited activity in the emotion system. And such an effect may explain why psychedelics have been considered useful facilitators of certain forms of psychotherapy.
 Drops the ego, enhances access to emotional material.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Flow Machine: Hacking the Human Brain for Healing and Wellbeing

Flow Machine: Hacking the Human Brain for Healing and Wellbeing, an article from the aptly named Deconstructing Yourself blog.  It discusses Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state, addiction, and training the brain among other things.

Jud Brewer's fMRI research at Yale found the PCC to be a major area of interest in terms of mindfulness and no-self.  At UMASS he is apparently experimenting to see if EEG biofeedback could do something similar to the PCC biofeedback he did with fMRI.  EEG biofeedback would be far more accessible.

As Brewer recalls, “Some of our novice subjects were able to make their PCCs look like those of advanced meditators after only nine minutes of real-time neurofeedback. They would get out of the scanner and ask how soon they could come back and do it again. I wish I had that ten years ago when I was striving my butt off trying to learn to meditate.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dharma Talk 014: Meditation Pointers: Stay! and Keep Away

There is a similarity between mindfulness and concentration practice, more or less the two main types of meditation. Both of them involve a kind of detachment from many phenomenon, but of particular interest in this context is detachment from the wandering mind. This is what Brewer (2011) saw in his research on advanced meditators. The wandering mind network in these individuals was severely "crippled" in comparison with normal individuals. Normal people have made this wandering mind network their default, but this is something that can be changed with training, with meditation.

Concentration Meditation

In concentration practice we focus in a single pointed way on a very specific object, often the breath, perhaps at the nostrils, or on a visual object (I often use a ball), or even on an auditory object like the sound of a babbling brook or an air conditioner. Not much to it, really. The attention is brought to the object, and sustained. Wandering is always brought back to the object. Aim your attention at the object, drop everything else, and keep "rubbing" your attention on the object. Repeat. So in this case, our attention "stays" on the object, and our attention is kept "away" from the wandering mind. It's not a bad idea to do a few minutes of concentration to start out your meditation session before you go on to a mindfulness practice. As with all this stuff, you kind of have to make it important, there needs to be a certain earnestness, you have to really try.

In some of the original research on EEG biofeedback, Barry Sterman taught cats to listen to a tone and press a lever when the tone ended. The cats ended up exhibiting a calm, alert "stalking" behavior, with an EEG frequency of 12-15 Hz, a bit faster than alpha waves. This reminds me of concentration practice, attentive, not dull, engaged, relaxed, ready, aware, focused.

Mindfulness of Seeing - Hearing - Feeling

In mindfulness we focus on whatever happens to be predominate, whatever is changing, whatever is new, whatever is now. Mindfulness is like the ongoing headline news of the mind, we are not dwelling on old stories and we don't do in-depth reporting or interviews, we just focus on what is present right now. We might be focusing on the feeling of tension in the forehead, then hearing some distant traffic, then seeing the back of our eyelids. Feeling an itch or tingling, the feeling of the touching of the seat cushion, then hearing the wind in the trees, then seeing an electrical outlet on the wall. In these examples, the emphasis is on seeing, hearing, and feeling, all of which are "away" from the wandering mind.

We could also notice thought itself, noticing things like planning, remembering, imagining, etc. But this can be very difficult and I tend to think of this as a somewhat more advanced practice, but then again more power to you if you can do it like this. But again, I'm saying this may be difficult and one may easily wind up lost in thought, because, well, that first step into thought, it's a real doozy! So I'm advocating an exercise that is focused solely on the seeing, hearing and feeling doors. Of course we could also have tasting and smelling, but these tend to come up a bit less in meditation and I'm trying to keep it simple. And a triad is nice.

So as a mindfulness practice, one could just "stay" within the sense doors of seeing, hearing, and feeling. Can you "stay" for a while just within these three senses? It's kind of like staying just with the body, just the primary senses. So we're learning to prejudice our attention towards the body, and sight and sound.  This is the remedy to our long standing, deeply ingrained prejudice towards thought.

So in a way, we're dropping our attention to thought - we're playing a game of keep away with thought, with the wandering mind. Thought is not a total enemy, and we can't exactly push it away, but we can play this game of keep away.

Keep "tossing" your attention back and forth among seeing, hearing, and feeling. Get used to the idea of "staying" here, moving your attention among only these places, hanging out here, seeing what's going on here. Learn to look first in these places for the "next thing", and as usual, allow all those little feelings and sensations to arise, notice them and surrender to all those little tensions and resistances. This place is akin to the original mind, the natural mind, the experiential, unprocessed, unconditioned, pre-verbal, non-conceptual mind. It can be very comfortable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Magic Mushrooms & Addiction

From UltraCulture, in a study at Johns Hopkins, two moderate-to-high doses of psilocybin were used in conjunction with behavioral therapy to help long time tobacco smokers kick the habit.  Results were very good and are reminiscent of the decades old research on the use of LSD with alcoholics (for instance Bill W, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

4 Ways Meditation Can Positively Change Your Brain

4 Ways Meditation Can Positively Change Your Brain, a quickie summary with big pictures covering possible benefits including longevity, self-regulation, slowing of Alzheimer's, etc.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dharma Talk 013: Waking Up

This is an essay that came out of the Atlanta Soto Zen center, circa 1993, author unknown.

Waking Up

You won't experience God, or Truth, sitting in a church on Sunday listening to a man talk about a book written hundreds of years ago, my friend.  Go spend a few days by yourself in nature, or look into the vast, silent eyes of a child, or sit still a very long time and look deeply into the eyes of your lover or a very dear friend.

True spiritual practice is not something we do once a week on Sunday or only once a day by sitting in silent meditation or prayer.  It is a deep commitment to keep our "consciousness" alive, to stay Awake, to the never ending, ever changing, present moment.

Just because our eyes are open does not mean we are Awake.  Anyone who really starts to observe this deeply conditioned mind we have, notices how often we are like "sleepwalkers" dreaming our lives away, lost in thought.

There is nothing wrong with thought, but if you are always thinking, you are not aware.  As I write these words, it is difficult to stay aware, or awake, to the present moment as I am concentrating, or limiting my awareness.  But as I slow down and take notice of the feel of the pen in my hand, the posture of my body and any tension it holds, the sounds of birds outside my tent (arkk-arkk), a plane (burrrr), and feel the exhilaration and inhalation of my breathing, I expand my awareness or wake up to the present.

To read or write an article, to build a house or work a computer one needs to think, but the overwhelming majority of thoughts spinning through the mind have nothing to do with Reality - this NOW moment.

From the moment of awakening in the morning until sleep at night, the mind is constantly churning out memories, plans, opinions, judgments and fantasies, and our attention to "what-is-actually-happening-this-moment" is slim at best.

There is no need to believe this!  Belief has nothing to do with being Awake.  Pay attention to your own life and ask yourself these questions.

How often have you been driving down the freeway and realize you've been daydreaming, asleep to Reality the past few miles?

Are you truly conscious when you eat food, tasting each bite, or are you also reading something or lost in worries or plans?

Right now, are you aware of your body posture and any tension it is holding, sounds in the background, your exhalations?

The simple fact is we are rarely awake to the present moment.

NOW is the only time there is, my friend.  The future is never here and the past, whether one minute ago or one thousand years, is just a memory trace residing in our brain cells and body tissues.

When we deeply explore the question of "Who am I?", all we come up with are memories of experiences we've had in the past.  As the teacher Krishnamurti was fond of saying, "If you get a good grip on yourself, you are holding on to nothing but a memory."  And these memories are always occurring in the present moment!  It is not that there is a "self" that has memories but that our "self" is memory.

We can say the set of thoughts we call ego is built upon time, in a way is time.  All our problems are in time.  All guilt or regret is a state of mind lost in the "past" and worry and anxiety is being lost in the "future".  This present moment, however, is timeless and whole, and contains absolute peace.

Slow down, my friend.  Let go and rest in the silent, peaceful, heart-space of this moment.  After centering ourselves, the question remains of how to keep our consciousness alive, or stay awake to the wonder of the present.

Truly experiencing our breathing will help.  Not trying to control, but just feeling our inhalations and exhalations.  Breath always occurs in the present and can be used as a wake-up tool throughout the day whenever the mind wanders.

A Big step would be to cut out the noise we surround ourselves with, such as the radio and television.  We need to confront boredom, our fears, and loneliness, sooner or later.

Maintaining a spirit of silence is important too.  We cannot notice the subtle layers of thought if we are constantly chattering.  Also, notice how often we talk about people not present with us, or plans for the future, or memories of the past.

A daily silent spiritual practice will help tremendously.  Perhaps Hatha Yoga, or Tai Chi, or Aikido for those who are body oriented, or a sitting practice such as Vipassana (insight) meditation.

In Vipassana, one sits still and gives "bare attention" to whatever is arising, externally and internally, without judging it, following after it, or avoiding it.  One simply witnesses it and then lets it go.  One begins to notice how awareness clings to thought and brings the mind over and over again to "what-is-actually-going-on-in-this-moment".

A practice like Vipassana is difficult at first, and for a beginner, just sitting still for twenty minutes is an accomplishment!  Also, many people have much repressed material to work through, and perhaps, would gain more insight through a cathartic meditation or combining meditation with therapy.  Growth takes place on many different levels and insight into our conditioning may occur through a variety of experiences.

There is no stopping point in this life, my friend.  To be aware of every thought, feeling, and contraction throughout this deeply conditioned mind-body is true meditation and a never ending process.  A sense of humor is essential!  To giggle instead of becoming frustrated when realizing one has been asleep, lost on a "thought-train" of memory or fantasy is important.  At that moment you awaken!

Growth also occurs as we slow down and simplify our lives. As we simplify what we talk about, what we "feed" our consciousness, and what we do, we learn to let go and surrender to the healing peace of the present moment.

To be truly alive as a human being we need not only to do, but to BE.  To be in touch with our mind-body and the incredible suffering of the world around us, and also to be aware of the beauty, awe, and wonder of the ever changing eternal NOW.  Look!  Listen!  Stay Awake!

First scientist in 40+ years testing LSD on humans

"When people take psychedelics recreationally, in a social context," he says, "they might get preoccupied by the perceptual changes and the novelty, and they'll laugh their way through with a certain amount of confusion and anxiety. But in an experimental context, particularly in the therapeutic context, people lie on a couch with their eyes closed and have a very introspective experience. It's richer; psychologically, it's more interesting. 
Presumably he is doing fMRI scans similar to what he did with psilocybin.