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[Status: sort of poorly organized and poorly line-edited and ranty and TMI, but some good stuff in here]
A long-time reader and guest blogger here reports:
“Jeffery Martin, the Persistent Non Symbolic Experience guy, has put together a 15 week online course that summarises his 8 years of research into enlightened people, and claims to have developed methods to reach the state faster. In the first round 4/6 participants reached the state, with 2 others following shortly. Now it’s scaled up to 70 people.
Also, he believes he has methods to avoid the Dark Night.“
So I had forgotten about this guy; I haven’t touched on him in a few years. I’m really impressed by his persistence, ability to scale his research program, and his handling of an initially small and biased sample size. I skimmed an executive summary and the accompanying paper (not peer-reviewed, I presume. I only gave it a quick look for some numbers):
I really, really enjoyed the summary. It’s worth a skim, very thorough.
The experience I had while reading it was being pretty creeped out. A lot of the interviewees seem be very rigid and dogmatic, likely coming out of traditional religious systems. I’m reminded of my theme of “fetishization of weird experiences,” and coveting those experiences and and intensifying them. Granted, a lot of these people probably stumbled on these experiences accidentally.
So, I have no reason to doubt the results, the clustering and the continuum, and, for sure, what’s being reported by the interviewees is a lot of the classical enlightenment stuff, the real deal.
(I take their self-reports with a grain of salt, considering them colored by dogma, rigidity, expectations, etc. But, based on a variety of factors, I have no reason to disbelieve some of the basic contours of their experience.)
On the one hand, interviewees describe a profoundly positive experience (understatement of the millenia) that they wouldn’t want to give up.
From the outside, this reads to me like a lot of different pieces of the brain are no longer injecting/binding information into the phenomenal field. Yeah, the brain is not *doing* certain things anymore (specifically the consciousness piece, leaving the precursors aside for the moment).
Eventually we may find that the clusters of experience reported by Martin’s research correspond to relatively discrete brain systems quieting down and “shutting off,” one by one.
So, on the one hand, this increases my belief in one sort of quasi-epiphenomenalism. I mean, I already knew that the brain can pretty much do everything on autopilot that we can do consciously and deliberately. And the interviewees here have pretty normal objective behavior but radically altered phenomenology.
But, on the other hand, I have strong prior that consciousness is *not* epiphenomenal. I of course don’t mean I think there’s a metaphysical soul making decisions. And of course I know that the “sense of volition” is a self-tag that the brain can switch on and off. And of course I know that the “sense of self,” the “sense of being a self,” is a neural subroutine, a neural abstraction. What I *do* mean is that a fully functioning global workspace (i.e. consciousness) confers certain properties to a brain/mind that one without a fully functioning global workspace won’t have:
SPECIFICALLY, SELF-REFERENCE AND DELIBERATE RECURSIVE SELF-MODIFICATION.
Now, I could be wrong about all this. I’m holding it very loosely. But, somewhere in the Buddhist texts it’s described that Nirvana (or whatever) is when self is extinguished and what follows is like death or something. I only have a faint gist in my head, here. But the interesting part is that an enlightened beings behavior is described as, I think, residual. Like, they’re off the wheel, no new karma (technical term) is being generated, they’re just winding down.
I am arguing that maybe these people are on a zombie continuum. Not p-zombies, but more like dog zombies, or just dogs, animals. That sounds insanely harsh and pejorative, but I just mean they’re running on a *certain kind* of non-reflexive autopilot. A complex, human-level autopilot, to be sure–loving, responsive, learning, growing–but potentially lacking certain human qualities that I personally deeply value. As described, at the far end of the continuum, possibly very small sample size, these people seemed to have no planning skills and barely any short-term memory. Um, no thanks.
I am totally open to some of these people convincingly arguing to me that I’m an offensive moron and I’m totally misinterpreting their experience and I don’t know what it’s like, and so forth.
From a distance, I don’t get this zombie impression at all from say Daniel Ingram or Kenneth Folk. I get it a little bit from Shinzen Young. Interestingly, Dan Ingram didn’t access the non-emotion axis of development until after he claimed full classical enlightenment. (It does seem like their are multiple classical axes that correlate but can separate: no-self, non-dual, no-emotion, etc.) In fact, he firmly denied that no-emotion was a thing in his book. And, when he was first exposed to some no-emotion people, they creeped him out.
So, Ingram did eventually deliberately acquire some aspects of what the no-emotion people were claiming. (I’m already maybe contradicting my impaired self-mod hypothesis. I still somehow stand by it for now.) And, later at least, some of these no-emotion people renounced at least some of their claims, which is another complicated issue.
My point here is that these elements can be incorporated by degree and piecemeal: you can have more or less of X, and, you don’t have to take the entire package, you can take bits and pieces.
In other words, while a lot of this stuff can be correlated, it’s the myth and dogma that’s creating experiential attractors, where people try to get all of X in a very extreme way because they think that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. (Yes, there does seem to be a semi-natural developmental arc, but one thing at a time.)
One of my values on this blog is people being the artists and architects of their own experience and agency, subject to the constraints imposed by reality. You can experiment, incorporate certain things in a nuanced, symphonic way. You can dial things up and down.
There absolutely is a danger of “going too far,” messing up, falling into something you don’t want. But, I think the brain can be pretty forgiving, especially for acute, punctate stuff. You can willfully incline towards or away from certain experiences, and, all things being equal, your brain will intelligently try to accommodate you at a subconscious level, and it will affect the likelihood of it happening. (Ingram agrees with this.)
I say forgiving because, the summary notes that life experiences can temporarily kick people out of these states, and even more interestingly, a category of interviewees firmly rejected these states.
That’s what happened to me. First, I know that people can have an experience that superficially seems to fit a description of X. And they firmly believe that they experienced X even when it wasn’t even close. Further, there is a big difference between a taste of an experience and stable access to an experience. I am claiming that I did experience X, the real X for a few different X’s, and I am not claiming stable access, I’m just claiming a taste.
As I described in this post,
I’ve experienced flavors of no-self and profound internal quieting / veil lifting. I haven’t experienced the no-emotion thing.
Anyway, especially for the no-self, it was AWFUL. So creepy. “I” figured it would fade. “I,” what was left of me, intended for it to fade, and it did after about 20 minutes. You can get used to anything, but I shudder to think of it taking, say, 24 hours to fade or whatever.
Now, quite recently, within the past couple months I have been getting tastes of nondual experience, pervasive well-being, etc. It seems relatively safe, so far, no impact on preferences, values, and motivation, but it doesn’t seem like very practical state to operate in. Maybe I need to tease further apart all the different threads that are going on to see what I want to keep, and what’s usable in the thick of life, and what’s in accordance with my values and so forth.
I will put in a plug for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT (pronounced as one word) has a wonderful model that they call, generically, “psychological flexibility,” and it emphasizes flexibly transitioning in and *out* of various meditation-inspired modes of being, based on the needs of the moment. This blog and my own practice have really been influenced by ACT.
Furthermore, ACT emphasizes focusing more on values and less on internal state. If you want the world, your life, your family, whatever to be a certain way, then make it happen, “act” (get it?), *regardless* of internal state, *in spite* of internal state. Like, do you want to be “happy,” “not sad,” or do you want to enact certain values and let your internal state be a by-product of that expression. Smart philosophy, very inspiring, excellent balance and counterpoint and integration and correction to at least one misinterpretation or failure mode of meditative practice.
I am big on cultivating a healthy relationship with all states and experience as they arise, whatever they are, and carrying on regardless, in accordance with my values (which include self-comfort and self-care).
If someone is extremely depressed, in seemingly hopeless life situation (never true, just as an example, if you’re a “white male with hair”; varying levels of true for other demographics), or in terrible chronic pain, and for whatever reason they won’t or can’t kill themselves, should they “really go for it,” damn the risks, and kind of try to nuke themselves this way? Maybe? Maybe they can find a happy, nuanced medium? I may regret writing this paragraph in the future.
Buddhism, at the core, is about “happiness not dependent on conditions.” Now, that’s ambiguous and possibly they didn’t even know what they meant: pick your one of like fifty definitions of happiness. Maybe they meant like five of them. So probably pop contemporary interpretation of that ideal has been totally warped and messed up.
I’ve been meditating for a decade, and my happiness is TOTALLY dependent on conditions. Again, pick your definition and maybe I’m just a shitty meditator. I’ll try to unpack what I mean.
If I lose my cognitive freedom, or it I think certain goals might get closed off forever, or if I narrowly miss certain opportunities, I can become a nonfunctional, scary asshole to everyone around me, including loved ones. Total chance I’ll eventually push everyone around me away and end up a bitter, cranky old person. Depending on what’s happening in my life, I can experience mild, unalarming (to me) suicidal ideation a couple times a day.
But, as I’ve mentioned before, there is an intelligent, active process within me at all times buoying me up and supporting me in hundreds of little ways, from all directions. People around me love me and trust me (and I them) and they rarely seem to walk on eggshells around me or “manage” me. (I do not want to be an abusive, manipulative asshole who has to be “managed.” Ew, how lonely.)
I have an excitement and lust for life and I’m hungry and fascinated and never bored even when I’m bored and people wonder how I can be so generally functional even when I report a splitting headache, or a pain of 12 on a scale of one to ten, or feeling deathly ill. [This paragraph was sort of boring and cringy to re-read, but it’s true.]
And maybe this is all unreliable self-report.
And everyone around me is going to age, sicken, and die, and I could get a stroke tomorrow or develop cancer in a decade (regardless of my careful, evidence-based diet and exercise).
And all my plans could fall apart. Or all my plans could be based on false beliefs. (Or all my plans might be obviated by better stuff coming along.)
A few weeks ago, nothing was working, and I was experiencing excruciating emotional pain, hopelessness, loneliness, night after night, like really, really, really intense. And, at the same time, it didn’t cut to the bone, I surrendered to it, was gently amused by it, soldiered on, day after day.
I knew that focusing illusion was making things seem bad right now and that things could turn around in an instant for a gazillion different reasons.
And I just surrendered to the fact that most of my being predicted DOOM, like that’s what a part of me really, truly, believed. *I* really truly believed it. And, paradoxically, that was just fine, I globally took that into account, totally paradoxically surrendered to it and accounted for it. It was fine.
Right now, things seem to be on track, I’m joyful, excited, hungry, and it’s wonderful but also very contextual and silly. At some point I’m going to redact and upload my personal wiki. I’m accounting for hundreds of external and internal variables as I move forward, in a flexible framework that accounts for work-in-progress constraints and the changing territory beneath me as the world continues to evolve even as I plan and act.
Anyway, I meant for these final few sections to be hasty, scattered, somewhat alarming; I don’t know if I succeeded. There is so much paradox and contradiction and complexity and contextuality going on, here. Unreliable self-reports and self-fooling and compartmentalized thinking.
But, at the same time, I don’t think I’m doing justice to the comprehensibility and stability and coherence of my thinking and feeling.
Scott Alexander on Slate Star Codex mentions this common “rationalist” failure mode where you have this “perfect beautiful plan” but you just can’t make yourself do it.
“If only I could act.”
Yeah, nope. That experience is not in my universe.
My thinking and scheming and planning follows the actual contours and textures of my life. Not clunky, dead, “logical,” “reasonable,” “should.” My plans are on fire. I am taken into account in my plans, my plans are the actual felt experience of my life, reflected back at me, a resonator artifact. My plans and actions account for future selves, the rhythms of my desire across time, my uncertainty about the territory, goal ambiguity, everything I know about everything.
(By the way, no, I’m not hypomanic or manic. 🙂 )
My systems are not tidy at all, but they’re flexible and comprehensible and contained and easy to navigate update and easy to update, because I experimented until I figured out how to do that.
And meditation was one tool in my toolbox that helped me get this way.
Above: I don’t think I’m doing justice to the comprehensibility and stability and coherence of my thinking and feeling.
I should figure out if I can convincingly argue that, to give people stronger motivation for trying this stuff out. I’ll need to address epistemic viciousness and secret identities. I’m not claiming I’m like running a shadow government or something. More like holy shit movie love, movie intimacy, movie sex, movie meaning, movie goals, movie future, movie fun, as well as quiet simplicity, as you personally envision or experience it. And the potential for movie drama and real-life consequences, so fair warning. And full-disclosure, at this very moment I’m like doing the equivalent of living in my parents’ basement, so there’s that. But I think it’s hilarious, and all the holy shit stuff is like literally going on, too. So there’s that. 🙂 And a lot of simultaneous negative stuff. (This is actually not exhausting; rhythms of striving and also low-key and calm.)
Oh yeah, as objective counterpoint to basement equivalents, I earned a STEM PhD from an ivy league and have pulled in six figures as a software developer. (For reference, I’m turning 34 in a few days, by the way.) I would brag about relationship and sex stuff, but I have not asked permission to do so. (These are for whatever they’re worth, to get more of a sense of me, born on third base, huge confounders, and all of that.)
I’m working on figuring out how to share more actionable claims in a concise, accessible way, so people can decide for themselves, take what they want, and discard the rest.