Education

Excerpts from: "Conversations on Consciousness"

A few highlights from a recent highly-recommended read, Conversations on Consciousness:

 

Richard Gregory, British psychologist and Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol.

And do you ponder about other big questions like the meaning of life or what happens when you die?

Oh I think one just snuffs out. And I don’t think life has a meaning beyond what we put into it. It’s like vision. I mean one not only projects colors onto objects – they’re not, of course, themselves colored – one also projects meaning onto things. If you look at a painting, the viewer is projecting his own meaning into the paint, whatever the artist wants.

The other big question is what consciousness does. I don’t think it’s uniquely human.

… it’s very much associated with the present moment.

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When you’re perceiving things, the brain has a vast amount of processing going on from the past.

… I see that {item} as a real object, not just because I’ve got a retinal image and a bunch of signals going into the cortex, but because it’s evoking all this from the past. Now it seems to me that you’ve got to live in the present moment; you’ve got to survive crossing the road. So it really matters that the traffic light is red or green now, at this moment in time.

Qualia

So are you saying then that the function of consciousness is to discriminate the past and the future from what’s now, and requires action?

Yes, absolutely.

Stuart Hameroff, anesthesiologist and professor at the University of Arizona known for his studies of consciousness.

You want to know what my answer to the hard problem is?

Yes.

… I think there are basically two types of explanations for qualia, for conscious experience.

  1. ... emergence; that is, (paraphrased) out of complex information processing a new property emerges at some higher level. (“properties that emerge from a higher order”). I question emergence. I think we need something else.
  2. The other way of looking at it is that consciousness, or perhaps something proto-conscious, is fundamental to the universe; it’s part of our reality, much like spin, or mass, or charge. There are certain irreducible things in physics that you just have to say ‘they’re there’ and consciousness is like that. (Chalmers) said that consciousness must involve something fundamental something that’s intrinsic to the universe, and I agree with that.

I think that qualia, if they are fundamental, must exist at the fundamental level of the universe, the lowest level of reality that exists. In modern physics that’s best described at the Planck scale, the level at which space-time geometry is no longer smooth but quantized. When you go down in scale, you get to this level of space-time where there is a granularity, and that’s the fundamental level. It is at that level where we think qualia are embedded as patterns in this fundamental granularity of space-time geometry that makes up the universe.

Do You Remember Your New Year's Resolution?

I am not sentimental. But, I do love a good New Year's resolution.

Not because of the coincidence with culture's doing the same, but simply because I value highly self-reflection and continual reconsideration of identity and motivations - lifestyle, habits, priorities - who we are, what we do, and above all, why.

Those traits can, do, and should - as far as I've learned - always change. Therefore yes, at some point they may also cease to change, though if all or all at once, you've either won, or died.

Personal resolutions precipitate exploration which inevitably results in learning and so growth and a deeper understanding of: at least something.

This year, in considering a New Year's resolution, I wrote through my reflections on the year. Writing is how I think best, and I've found that working through thoughts that way is conducive to both mapping a present landscape in order to recalibrate - face north - and for documenting the process of resolving whatever it is we then do. (It also makes for great later reading when we revisit those continually evolving qualities that compose our selves.)

While reflecting, I recalled the year. A job change, a relationship, growth for RX, travel, health and generally rewarding expansions in each of the areas of life we've been taught to consider important. It had also been a challenging year. I'd faced a solid set of fears in the hands of a shaman in Peru, shed a few more in the company of a forceful (read: loving) new best friend, and been called to reconsider my career ambitions, which hadn't changed since I'd first set my sights on them, as a kid.

On the other side of those things, and the year, I concluded that I wasn't sentimental (go figure) nor relieved. I wasn't eager for it to be over nor to continue as-was. I didn't feel resolved though much had been resolved. That is how I felt, which is not always an accurate expression of how we are.

What we are resolved of though, can determine how we act or react, which then does create how we are.

I concluded that I knew more. I knew myself better. I knew that I want to know more. Know what though, I didn't know.

Previously, my New Year's resolutions have gone something like "get younger," "be the healthiest you've ever been," "let nothing change" (that didn't work) and "do less, better". This year, I resolved to create space.

The intention reminded me of the year I moved in to my apartment in Bedstuy before it was cool to live there and so no one did and which meant that every morning I woke up to the sound of birds and rustling trees (grinning).

The apartment felt far too big for me. Even the owners asked what I would do with all of the space. After pacing through it with a candle in-hand many a night because I didn't yet know my way around by feel or memory, I came to know what I'd felt slowly but surely from the moment I'd walked in: that the extra room would become RX - that yet undeveloped territory of myself. (Not that I know yet or exactly what that is, but that's okay because we're learning.)

To create space, I decided on a flight to Costa Rica where we would close the year at a simple retreat - surfing and practicing yoga. There, in a final savasana, I realized that one of the central teachings of yoga asana practice is to create space. That is, to create physical space in the poses - between the limbs or inside the body - in order to go deeper. By creating space, you are then able to move into it.

I realized it was the metaphor for my resolution.

And so I left it at that. Typically, I then set specific goals for my resolution - milestones to meet on the road to the destination, which we all know tends to be a best practice for achieving, period. With this resolution though, I was requiring myself to do the opposite (another thing I like to make myself do - break habits, retrain a neural pathway, shake it up, down or out): erase tasks from my to-do list rather than add them, find time rather than filling it, and generally free myself from the one thing we are truly beholden to, which is ourselves.

The other appreciable element of this resolution is that it feeds my love of learning by experience. With a child's mind, guided by impulse or intuition, to chase curiosity to Wonderland and just generally discover what's down there.

One month later, after more than a few bouts of restlessness (I am really not good at just relaxing, especially when paired with sobriety - being snowed-in for a weekend almost killed me), I find myself in a state I can't recall ever maintaining when not on a retreat or a beach: relaxed. Occasionally apathetic, frankly. Though happy.

Moving more slowly is odd, I'll say. It's a stark contrast to my typical pace, which I don't promise not to return to, but my adrenals at least appreciate the recovery. And most importantly, it's exploration.

My to-do list, which is titled "The Endless" and which I've maintained for years as a GoogleDoc in order to update it any time from anywhere, and which typically ran around eight pages long, is now only one, and contains actually doable, immediately important tasks. The rest of it I took one last look at, line by line, and then simply deleted. Ah, white space.

Next, I took to my closet. And my Dropbox folders. My jewelry box: who needs it? Drawers and my morning routine: goodbye eyeliner and while we're at it, adios manicures. Then, I actually picked up the book I nearly finished writing ... a year ago.

One month in, this is what I've found to be true. Knowing that next month, it may all have changed:

Creating space allows us to move into it, or to not move into it. It allows us to learn our edges. Space allows room for breath - for anything we're engaged with to fully develop, for new ideas to form and old ones to resolve. It allows us to be.
The most challenging thing about creating space is not filling it.
To relax is to cut tension. To cut tension is to cut the threads that bind us to identities, our afflictions link us to past and future. Nothing at all in our lives links us to the present except the state of being. Acting takes place over time; it has duration. Being transcends time. A state of being can be achieved only by cutting all threads that bind us to past or future.
Savasana is being without was, being without will be. It is being without anyone who is. - BKS Iyengar, Light on Life

Losing Thy Mind by Choice, Part II: Peruvian Shaman, Plant Medicines & Breaking Myself

This year, as part of my now-annual tradition of spending my birthday in a remote jungle, disconnected from as much normalcy as possible, challenging myself in bizarre and fascinating ways, I took myself to the Peruvian Andes to spend two weeks with shaman, ingesting psychedelic plants, and greeting the possibility that I might come back so changed that continuing to live the life I was vacationing from, might be impossible.

I was afraid, I was ready, and I was prepared to lose my mind.

I spent nights in ceremony with a direct-lineage medicine man, alternately grinning and grateful for the opportunity to experience something so untainted by tourism, and dry-heaving into an abyss of nothingness sure that I had broken my brain.

I was, for more than one full (12-hour) day, flat on my back in the grass too far gone to eat, drink or move farther than a couple of feet – from the sun to the shade, on my hands and knees – once. I was conscious the entire time. I had my notebook strapped to my hand. I wrote things like this:

The stories take days to tell. And some of them I’m still amid. But for now and at least, this is some of what I learned:

Plant medicines are a tool, not a toy.

The shaman, and regular imbibers, refer to these plants as medicine, and they treat them as such. It’s a respected, ceremonial and occasional experience had selectively and pointedly. It’s not a party favor or casual fling. Great care is taken in the preparation and presentation of the plants, and of the persons attending. From diet to time and place to process of processing what the hell just happened.

The Ayahuasquero (the shaman who works with Ayahuasca, as opposed to the Huachumero for example, who works with San Pedro – and even more accurately, our Ayahuasquero was actually a Curandro (healer)) had a favorite phrase, which he would whisper, sing and call out repeatedly during ceremonies: “limpia limpia limpia” (followed by the shaking of a dry-leaf rattle and a whistled breath). Translated: “clean, clean, clean”.

 

Plant medicines can be a shortcut.

But to what and where, is both yet to be known and/or is entirely individual and subjective.

I thought it was very possible that I would see space, meet god or learn truth. Some people believe that they have.

Regardless, a single session can be as effective as decades of psychotherapy.

One of my friends – a Jungian-therapy’d father and decade-long Ayahuasca drinker – likens the experience to bottom-up therapy, or learning by experiencing and feeling, rather than logically processing. Our language and understanding then catching up to what the body has learned.

Because of the physiological effects of the drug, our brain hemispheres communicate with each other in a way that they otherwise never do. You’re able to re-experience things that cognitive biases have been blocking – for better or worse.

The effectiveness of psychedelics' potential to improve lives isn’t speculative.

It’s well proven and on the way to being more so and more publicly so that plant medicines – psychedelics – are extremely more effective in treating (curing) anxiety, depression and addiction (for starters) than our “best” pharmaceuticals today. A single session can wipe a person clean.

It’s hard. And it hurts.

My first trip (figurative), which was with San Pedro, not Ayahuasca, was hellish. And no shorter than 12-15 hours long. I felt like I was attempting to uproot the tree of life, and that I was both the tree, and man. That night I read more about San Pedro, which I hadn’t researched nearly at all, prior-to. (It's, mescaline.) I swore I would never, ever, under any circumstances even think about looking at “that f***ing cactus” (I’m so sorry, San Pedro) again. However, five days later, I drank another 10 ounces of it. And I would do so again today if I could.

You will see some ... things.

We have a broad misunderstanding of ayahuasca as a visual trip. While it can be, it may not be at all. Certain plants (the tea is actually a mix of at least two plants – one of which is ayahuasca) can cause stronger visions. Unfortunately, some shaman now adjust their traditional brews to meet tourists’ expectations of visions, whereas that is not the plant’s primary purpose.

However, you may have the capacity to see more than you ever have before. I saw thousands of lines in my palm (and traced them with my pen to prove that they existed, to my later-sober self) and new colors. “Dimensions” if you can call it that. Facets in the physical world that I’d never noticed but felt were probably always there, and dream-like visions of things that I’m still attempting to understand. Things unlike anything natural, man-made, imagined or otherwise. Just … different. At some points, I was also as good as blind.

Time is … completely irrelevant.

It just is.

If you’ve had a bad trip, you know what one minute on repeat feels like.

And/or, thoughts like this occur, and given that thoughts are things, things like this happen (also, I was sober for this one):

I feel like I'm here now because I went back from here to tell my childhood self that I would make it.

That experience with time also completely re-calibrates endurance. Now, hunger, discomfort, stress or anxiety is relatively nothing.

We can be reprogrammed.

Our group was 12 people ranging in ages from 25 to 60+ and who were married, single, siblings, parents, happy, un-, lost, afraid and otherwise.

Over the course of the trip, everyone was shaken to their core at least once and most many times. Degrees of bravery before each ceremony varied from night to night, and the range of experiences and epiphanies confessed as we processed throughout the days included traumas, reestablished priorities, resolutions, releases, love, pain, gratitude.

Mine is personal and still unfolding but I will say this much: One morning, I woke up crying. At first, I believed it to be gratitude – for being alive and at least mostly sane, and healthy and there, in Peru, doing what I was doing, of my own accord, surviving, happy … But, I kept crying – through the morning and into the afternoon still. At some point, with the assistance of a woman I now consider a mother and who’s reciprocally adopted me as her daughter, I realized that I was grieving. Not only feeling for a certain past, but feeling it, exactly. Things I didn’t know and would never imagine still resided in my body.

It was exhausting. And immensely cathartic. And, it may take a long time yet to resolve.

Of the group, since the retreat, several have been laid off from their jobs. One is pursuing a new career path. One is beginning a relationship and one is saving a marriage. One stayed behind in Peru and one is moving to Thailand (to work with another of the group). All are now family.

There is so much more.

To this, to learn, to life, than we can ever learn or live.

Returning is bittersweet.

Leaving the jungle, one is raw. Stripped, cleaned and at least partially cured. Broken and bandaged and blessed. Eyes bright and every sense clarified.

It is sad to know - and there's no question about it, it will happen – that we will be desensitized again.

My neighborhood felt foreign - like I'd been gone a long time and it had changed. I had to keep my eyes down often as there was more than I could absorb. I had the sensation that someone had come back with me, inside of me, and that it didn’t recognize the surroundings. It also recoiled from unnatural scenes – it was shy of the subway and confused by unkindness; though swelled near beauty (and it seemed, particularly enjoyed the ballet).

I also realized how absolutely still my mind was. Which I also knew wouldn't last.

I made it a couple of weeks in that state. I put off putting together my to-do lists. I was gentle with myself, and it was sad. (E.g. "My chest aches.")

Everything was more poignant. More details were beautiful and I was easy to tears. My dreams were vivid and often included the ceremonies.

A month and a half later, I feel a deep miss for the experience. It felt like a beginning, because it was. It was also a culmination and a coming-to. It was a chapter in the book of self of which I, and we each, author in every exchange, with ourselves, each other, and every thing around us and within us every day until, The End.

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(For the fun stuff - like Incan ruins, weird fruit, plant-baths and Machu Picchu, check out the photos on FB. X!)