Friday, January 23, 2015

Thinking is Good, Thinking is Bad


Is thinking really aversive? A commentary on Wilson et al.'s “Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind”

Some skeptical pushback against the pro-mindfulness worldview.  I think they make some excellent points, but in my own sample of one research I'd have to say that staying present and detached from thought tends to have the edge.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Psychedelic Tourism

I suppose this already exists in the form of ayahuasca ceremonies, the psychedelic truffles in Amsterdam or the mushrooms on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.  But here is an interesting idea about so-called seasteading, Someone Should Build a Psychedelic Resort/Lab Seastead, by Ben Goertzel.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

tDCS "Massively Hyped"

A review of the current literature finds little evidence of effect.  It is possible that tweaking of various parameters may help down the line, but

"The danger is that people have been promised better memories, better reading, better maths, increased intelligence… you name it. The effects are small, short lasting, and no substantial claims have been replicated across laboratories. This paper is hopefully the beginning of a counterweight to all the bullshit."

Monday, January 19, 2015

Jeffrey Martin - Locations of Enlightenment

Part of Jeffrey Martin's research on persistent non-symbolic experience (enlightenment) was finding that individuals tended to land in one of several locations.  All of these reflect some degree of loss of a narrative, discursive, language-based sense of self and might, um, speculatively be thought of as analogous to Buddhist paths.  I nabbed these from a powerpoint presentation on the site.

Location 1
- Expansion of sense of self, connection to divine
- Much less affected by ‘self’ thoughts
- Distance from but still have positive and negative emotions
- Deep peace but can be suppressed by triggered conditioning
- Effects from perceptual triggers fall off quickly
- Deep peace and beingness feels more real than anything previous
- Trust in ‘how things are’
- Personal history less relevant, memories less

Location 2
- ‘Self’ thoughts continue to fade
- Peace increasingly harder to suppress/conditioning fades
- Shift towards increasingly positive emotions, until only very positive emotions remain
- Intermediate levels of perceptual triggers increasingly fade
- More likely to feel that there is a correct decision or path to take when presented with choices
- Higher well-being than location one

Location 3
- Only single positive emotion remains
- Feels like a combination of universal compassion, love, joy, …
- Higher well-being than location 2

Location 4
- No sense of agency
- No emotions
- No ‘self’ thoughts
- Perceptual triggers at their bare minimum
- No sense of divine or universal consciousness
- life was simply unfolding and they were watching the process happen
- Memory deficits/scheduled appointments, etc.
- Highest well-being reported


Friday, January 16, 2015

Psilocybin Research

An overview of psilocybin research from Reality Sandwich.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dharma Talk 015 - Ajahn Chah

I really enjoyed substantial parts of this talk by Ajahn Chah titled Unshakeable Peace.

I first heard of Ajahn Chah by way of Jack Kornfield.  My sense was that Kornfield studied with Mahasi and got stream entry, and then went on to study with Ajahn Chah.  If that is even correct, that was about the limit of my knowledge about Ajahn Chah.  I knew he was a Thai Forest monk, a lineage often thought of as more traditional or fundamental, and that aspect turned me off a bit.

Coming up through the Mahasi style and the Pragmatic Dharma movement, I came to see certain aspects of traditional Buddhism as being somewhat dogmatic and less than skillful at times.  This talk by Chah was given in the presence of a visiting scholar monk, and I relatively swooned at Chah's admonishment to "observe the workings of the mind, but don't lug the Dhamma books in there with you."

I was extremely surprised to read this talk and find that Chah's words were often mirroring many of my own more radical insights and non-traditional takes on things.  Not everything, I can still find some dogma to pick at, but yeah, very nice.

For example many teachers seem to take words that are associated with insight practice such as investigation and contemplation, and they use a modern intellectual definition for those words, basically encouraging their students to think and analyze, as if they were going to cognize their way into enlightenment.  To me passages like the following point to seeing things very directly, just as they are.  "Simply know what you are experiencing."
"Utilize the power of this peaceful mind to investigate what you experience. At times it's what you see; at times what you hear, smell, taste, feel with your body, or think and feel in your heart. Whatever sensory experience presents itself - like it or not - take that up for contemplation. Simply know what you are experiencing. Don't project meaning or interpretations onto those objects of sense awareness."
Chah is of the non-striving camp, something I both agree and disagree with.  I think ultimately one comes to more of an effortless practice, but effort is particularly required at first, because there is a massive amount of conditioning that must be overcome.  If we strap a brick under your left shoe and make you walk everywhere with that for a year, you will become conditioned to walk with that brick.  If we remove that brick, it's not like it's suddenly going to be effortless to walk - you are going to be way off balance because of your prior conditioning.  It will take some effort to relearn how to walk even though the brick has been removed.  Eventually, though, your walking will become more and more effortless.

Chah describes certain types of striving as unskillful, someone setting goals in practice and then beating themselves up for not attaining them.  I would agree about the beating oneself up part.  But to my way of thinking Chah somewhat contradicts himself, imploring his students "try to steadily and persistently train the mind."

My take would be that if one can't get it done with little or no technique, i.e. just sitting or doing MBSR with sheer intent, then a technique such as noting practice that essentially forces one to demonstrate that one is aware every moment might be useful, and tiny, achievable goals along the way seem to be very helpful for learning.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Enlightenment - Jeffrey Martin - Finders Course

Jeffrey Martin is a researcher on enlightenment, which he terms persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE).  I've previously linked to his dissertation, which basically says that enlightenment is not particularly linked to psychological development.

I recently came across a more recent paper that focuses on the changes occurring as a result of PNSE.  A continuum of experience was discovered with clusters of change around sense of self, cognition, emotion, memory, and perception.  I thought this was an interesting paper and identified with many of the changes reported.  I think it's a good attempt to describe some things that have been historically difficult to describe.

Martin categorizes the continuum of changes as Locations 1, 2, 3 and 4, which reminded me in some ways of the 4 Buddhist paths.

A program called the Finders Course came out of this research and is an attempt to move people in the direction of persistent non-symbolic experience.  The exact components of the course are being left mysterious, but are clearly meditation based.

Out of the research, about 6 meditative techniques seemed to rise to the top, which again, are not revealed.  The idea seems to be to sample all of these techniques and find what works best, and it is implied that practicing an hour a day for a week is enough time to see whether or not a given technique is suitable.

Speculating on these techniques we might include things like single-pointed concentration, mantra, noting, self-inquiry/koan, body-scanning, open awareness, and metta.  These would be the likely suspects.

The first 6 weeks are described as being "designed to get you into a psychological sweet spot so that you don’t dark knight in the second half of the course," which implies that concentration practices are being used in this part of the course.  I believe I saw some reference to the course being 15 weeks in length, but I can't find it right now.

I do like the idea that this is a systematic attempt to figure out how to get people enlightened.  I will say that there is a slightly weird vibe to the whole thing, a bit of a secretive nature about what's going on, a substantial fee, and I suppose there is a pretty big expectation for the course, all potential yellow flags.  But I guess I do like the overall direction of the project.