Friday, March 28, 2014

Relative Safety of Psychedelics

LSD and other psychedelics not linked with mental health problems, analysis suggests

"The use of LSD, magic mushrooms, or peyote does not increase a person’s risk of developing mental health problems, according to an analysis of information from more than 130,000 randomly chosen people, including 22,000 people who had used psychedelics at least once. The researchers found no link between the use of psychedelic drugs and a range of mental health problems. Instead they found some significant associations between the use of psychedelic drugs and fewer mental health problems."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dharma Talk 006: Getting Stream Entry
In the relatively reasonable Burmese sense, stream entry, aka 1st path, the 1st stage of enlightenment, is marked by a cessation.  In a cessation everything, every sense door, blinks out for a moment.  It's not particularly remarkable, in fact in many ways it is more of a non-event.  For most people, if they even notice it, they might say to themselves, "what was that?" - that little blip.

No big deal.  But it is a game changer for meditative progress, so let's make it a big deal for a moment.  Experiences vary, but for me shortly after stream entry I became mildly aware of the first 4 jhanas, and within a few more months I had all 8 jhanas.  That's kind of a big deal.  Without stream entry, that progress typically takes a tremendous amount of dedicated practice, hours a day, often for years.  And with jhana practice comes great tranquility, and with stream entry the potential for great insight begins in earnest.  Something has been let go of or seen through at a fundamental level.

A good vipassana technique such as the Mahasi style will get you in the ballpark of stream entry.  There is some groundwork to be done, but if you've been practicing daily for a year or more, you're probably already in the ballpark (technically, the stage known as equanimity in the progress of insight as described by Mahasi or Ingram).

Once you are up against the wall of stream entry, you just need a moment of grace to fall into a cessation. How do we stack the odds?  With good meditative practice.  Some fine points:

A-R-O: The Arrow, a checklist:

A is for Aware:  We want to be aware and present, rather than embedded or lost in thought.  Here and now, just this right here, not off over there in thought.  We want this awareness to be happening a very high percentage of the time in meditation, or even off the cushion as well.  Thought is not necessarily an enemy, so we don't need to resist it or push it away, but at the same time we don't want to feed and nurture the wandering, spacing out mind, we are trying to stand somewhat apart from that, to let that be.

R is for Relaxed:  We want to be relaxed, tranquil, we want to be let go.  So when you return to awareness after some wandering, the next thing to do is maybe a quick scan of your body to check and see if there are any little tensions you are holding that you can immediately relax.  This also points again to a non-grasping, non-resisting frame of mind.  We want to simply be.

O is for Open:  We want to be open, an open awareness as opposed to a narrow, closed off focus or one-pointedness.  We're talking about something other than a pure concentration style, there needs to be a kind of flexibility, a receptivity to anything that comes up on any sense door.  This can also point to a kind of space-like three dimensional aspect of openness.  Check to see that your awareness is open in this way.

When we're practicing this aware relaxed openness, we're practicing something along the lines of our true nature.  Not grasping, not resisting.  Surrendered, gone, but aware.

In the Mahasi style of noting, each note is just a light pointer to what one is aware of, and we lightly flow from one thing in awareness to another, stepping gently and deftly from one awareness lilypad to another, so that we stay continuously aware and we don't sink into the water of embedded thought.

I'll repeat a phrase from one of my old guitar teachers: "practice makes permanent".  If your meditation practice consists of 50% spacing out and mind-wandering, to my way of thinking you are creating a mind that will be spacing out and wandering 50% of the time.  The mind will adapt to the specific demands that you place on it.

A style such as Mahasi, practiced earnestly, can help us maintain a very high percentage of awareness, and I believe this is a major key to success.  But just get that percentage (we can also think of this as continuity or persistence of awareness) as high as you can by any style and any means necessary.  While I was getting it done, I used some ancient beeper technology, a device that I could set to vibrate once per minute, that I would hold loosely in my fingers (for maximum effect).  So I was meditating in the Mahasi style, noting once per second, and with the beeper device (the motivaider) the longest I could space out would be something less than a minute.

You will space out and wander, that's going to happen.  But don't beat yourself up about it.  As soon as you are aware, you are aware, you are already back to doing what you are intending to do.  In such cases you have unconsciously come back to awareness from wandering.  Well done.  If anything, simply renew your earnestness and adjust your effort if need be.  Balance effort and relaxation.

We practice this so that we can make this our new default.  The default mode in a normal modern human is the wandering mind, we need to change this to a relatively persistent aware relaxed openness.  We need to train enough to get this state to persist a bit, we need to be able to know that if we take our hands off the steering wheel the car is going to keep going in the same direction, that we're not going to suddenly veer off into thought/attachment.  Thought is often graspy - we can't be grasping.  You go through the gateless gate with the hands off the steering wheel.

Once the mind is relatively trained to this, the game becomes one of simply stacking the deck with lots of these aware relaxed open moments.  For many, retreats are ideal for this, but also some practitioners with a consistent daily practice of around an hour a day have been successful.  Daily practice is very important, as it is with any learned skill.  Create an intention to get it done, to work on these elements until they become second nature.  Back to it, again and again.  Keep coming up to the plate and taking swings at the ball.  Keep letting go into these moments.

So we have all these little areas in our meditation where we do become aware, relaxed, and open, where we become okay with everything, with every sense door.  We lose our self-consciousness, we become pure, natural, and sometimes, maybe even a little bit forgotten.  Hands off the steering wheel.  And in moments like this, it is possible for something deep down to let go, if only for a moment.  Give your unconscious mind permission to let go.

With any luck - blip.  You're on the ride, you're riding the ox (wait, which way are we going?).  Now you're really screwed :)


For a longer, more traditional, fundamentalist, repetitive, and mostly morality based instruction (yet then again quite possibly useful if you have the time and inclination to geek out on the old texts), check out "Into the Stream - A Study Guide on the First Stage of Awakening" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.  EDIT:  Into the Stream also available in a slightly prettier pdf form.

Meditation Shifts Brain Asymmetry

"Shifting brain asymmetry: the link between meditation and structural lateralization" describes a number of changes found in advanced meditators vs. controls.  Similar to other research, this points to changes in the default mode (wandering mind) network and attentional processing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Dharma Talk 005: Practicing Original Mind

When I come across people talking intimately about their meditation practice, there are two things that often stick out to me.

One, they are overly focused on the breath.  The breath is a fine tool for concentration practice, and can be a good fallback if nothing else seems to be going on, but I think it's overdone.  The breath can be a vipassana object, like anything else, but I'm not sure that most people are really experiencing it in that way.  I think most people end up getting a bit focused in, and are simultaneously not paying attention to their full experience.

I tend to model meditation, first and foremost, as practicing our original nature.  Imagine the mind of an infant, perhaps a very peaceful infant, between changes and feedings.  Is a blissed out little baby focused on its breath?  I doubt it.

More likely, the baby is focused on whatever is predominate in it's consciousness at that moment.  (Nonverbally:) ... there are some little sparkly things there ... there are some sounds over that way ... there's a weird sensation.  Just whatever is happening at that moment, whatever is predominate.

To the baby, everything is just happening, just this.  A literally unknown field of awareness in which experiences are arising and passing.  Grok that.

The second thing I notice is that some people seem to be doing quite a bit of intellectualizing, philosophizing, psychologizing - analyzing their thoughts while they are meditating.  They want to "get to the bottom" of things, they want to understand their patterns, they want to learn, they want psychological insight.

In meditation, notice the thoughts, sure.  If you're doing noting, you can note that as thinking or planning or whatever.  My recommendation is that be the end of it.  If you go further, into analysis, that's kind of graspy, right?  Let go of that, just be.  You noticed the thought, move on to whatever is current as opposed to feeding the machinery of thought.

Notice the baby has no analytical thought.  They have no language, no symbolic communication, no real basis for conceptual thought.  Just this.

Pre-verbal, non-conceptual, unprejudiced, bare awareness.

So if you want to do some concentration practice as a separate thing, that's fine, practice on the breath or a kasina object or whatever.  If you want to analyze your thoughts, you can set aside some time for that or work with a therapist or whatever.  But if you want to wake up, my recommendation would be to keep your vipassana sessions pure - practice original mind.  Keep letting go into that original mind.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dharma Talk 004: Effortlessness

There are some thorny issues in the enlightenment game surrounding what we might call "the absolute".  In the end game, or really any time, everything is seen as just happening.  No agency or doer-ship, so there's nothing to be done.  And you therefore get these admonishments, biblical even, to "cease striving".  Nothing to do.

In Buddhism, because of religious dogma (monks are not allowed to talk about meditative attainments, for example) and the resulting culture, no one really talks about getting anywhere or making progress.  Again, nothing to do.  And at a certain point on the path, I think this makes a lot of sense.

But I think there is a certain danger here, of teaching only the end game.

I've played guitar long enough to be able to effortlessly improvise a decent blues solo.  The flow and spontaneity, the effortlessness of the act is important, yes.  But if I were to preach effortlessness as the most important thing to a beginning guitarist, well, we might not end up getting too many soloists.  We might not get many people who can actually play the guitar like that.

I think effortlessness for a beginner is manifesting as the beginner's desire to work and accomplish.  That is their nature at that point.  They want to accomplish, so they strive, that is actually their path of least resistance.  In the end, once they have their chops, they can learn a different kind of effortlessness.

Enlightenment is something that can be "done".  If the monks can't say it, I will.  It seems to require training, even if you want to think of it as un-training.  I've never known a single person who has "gotten it done" without daily practice.  The last words of Buddha were supposedly "strive diligently".  Although admittedly, as one wise person said to me recently, Buddha said a lot of things.

Addendum: after stumbling upon it later, here's a hardcore version of this from Daniel Ingram, titled "Why The Notion That You Cannot Become What You Already Are is Such Bullshit"

LSD treatment for anxiety of life-threatening disease

The article "First LSD Study in 40 Years Finds Therapeutic Potential" relates the finding that people faced with life-threatening disease (typically cancer) seemed to have slightly reduced anxiety after 2 decent sized doses of LSD (200 mcg) in combination with psychotherapy.  This replicates research from the 1960's and is basically identical in focus to the current psilocybin cancer project at Johns Hopkins.

Having personally received the psychological benefits of psychedelics drugs, I can see (sample of one) that this could be a very fruitful area of research, but I am always a bit surprised when they get significant benefits with just one or two exposures to the drug.  I guess I was a little bit slow on the uptake.  Once the "right" layers started to peel away, I'd say it took about 10 sessions to completely work thru everything.