Thursday, May 30, 2013

Compassion can be trained

The practice of metta, or loving-kindness meditation, seems to work.  Subjects received training in metta, repeating phrases such as "May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease."  Those trained subsequently tested higher on scores of altruism.

Meditation - Effortless Awareness

Some good meditation pointers from Judson Brewer's lab in the abstract "Effortless awareness: using real-time neurofeedback to probe correlates of posterior cingulate cortex activity in meditators’ self-report."

Pointers to meditation (posterior cingulate cortex deactivation):

undistracted awareness:
  • concentration
  • observing sensory experience
effortless doing:
  • observing sensory experience
  • not efforting
  • contentment
Pointers away from meditation (posterior cingulate cortex activation):

distracted awareness:
  • distraction
  • interpreting
  • controlling
  • efforting
  • discontentment

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Meditation - Maps of Developmental Progress

Various events and shifts occur during long periods of contemplative practice.  Many attempts have been made to make sense of this, to map this progress in a meaningful way.  A good overview of these maps can be found in Daniel Ingram's book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, or MCTB.  Towards the end there is a section called "Models of the Stages of Enlightenment," which contains around 30 of these maps, some more technical and precise, others being more loosely defined beliefs or prejudices about enlightenment.  Perhaps the most useful map here is Daniel's Revised Four Path Model, based on the 4th Path model of the Theravada Buddhists:

  • 1st Path, complete one cycle of the Progress of Insight
  • 2nd Path, complete another cycle of the Progress of Insight
  • 3rd Path, "perceiving the emptiness, selflessness, impermanence, luminosity etc. of sensations in daily life"
  • 4th Path, "untangled the knot of perception, dissolved the sense of the center point actually being the center point, no longer fundamentally make a separate Self out of the patterns of sensations as they used to, even though those same patterns of sensations continue."

The first 2 paths are fairly straightforward, based on completing 2 Progress of Insight cycles.  Completing a cycle is marked by the "experience" of cessations or fruitions.  The Progress of Insight cycle was recognized by the time of the Vishuddhimagga, a 5th century meditation manual, and was slightly updated by Mahasi Sayadaw in the 20th century.  The cycle is described in the MCTB and in Mahasi's works.  If you really want to geek out about it, Daniel has an interesting detailed view of the cycle with jhanas, nanas, and sub-nanas in a kind of spreadsheet form.  Keeping a daily meditation diary can be a big help in determining where you are in the cycle, but eventually the cycle becomes less important.

Kenneth Folk has proposed a 9 stage model that is very similar to Daniel's Revised Four Path Model, but adds a stage at the beginning, basically acknowledging the importance of the Arising and Passing, a point on the Progress of Insight cycle that occurs early in 1st path which can be a very big experience.  Psychedelic drugs sometimes take one into this territory.  Kenneth's model is then virtually identical to Daniel's for the 4 path stages, and then adds a number of stages to flesh out the territory after 4th path.  A good personal description of Kenneth Folk's model can be found at QuietMind Meditation Co.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Meditation - Mahasi vs. Goenka

Vipassana (insight) is the meditative practice that led Buddha to enlightenment.  My take is that the basics were more or less retained over the years, but Buddhism became perhaps overly focused on jhanas and samatha (concentration) practice over the centuries.  In the time frame of 1850-1950 around Thailand and Burma, there was a lot of change and renovation in Buddhism and vipassana.  That period of experimentation settled out into perhaps two main camps of vipassana, Mahasi (mental noting of the sense doors) and Goenka (slow scanning of the body).

Goenka has spread a fairly secular form of vipassana worldwide.  With a veritable factory mindset, they provide a cheap and intense meditation retreat if you are willing to put up with their extensive level of control.  I recently came across a description of a first timer at a Goenka retreat, "The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation."

I was struck by the insanity of traveling to India for a retreat that could be had almost identically anywhere in the world, and as always, by the pain experienced.  Sitting on the floor is a remnant of a society that didn't have chairs.  We have chairs today.  If you're complaining about knee or back pain at a retreat nowadays, I have some sympathy, but mainly concern for your dogmatic views about sitting.  We need to get beyond the idea that there is something magic about sitting on the floor.

A comparison of Mahasi and Goenka:

Goenka Pros:  Slow body scanning is nonverbal and continuous, I like both of those characteristics.  I have a sense that for many verbal westerners, this may be a good entry into the meditative world and combined with the intense retreat setting may be one of the biggest generators of a big initial "awakening", the experience referred to as the Arising and Passing.  If you get one of those big experiences, you are more likely to keep going.

If you are hardcore enough, and advance from the 10 day retreat to the 20 day retreat to the 30 day retreat, apparently Goenka practice becomes a total body awareness - open awareness thing.

Goenka Cons:  The scanning is dogmatic movement, head to toe and back, so at least as initially defined it doesn't allow for jumping to areas that might need immediate attention.  (Although I believe the instructions eventually allow the attention to go to anywhere it is needed.)  The focus is only on the body, while there is tremendous insight value to be had from attending to emotions, mind states and thoughts.

Mahasi Pros:  Noting covers all possible experience and allows one to focus on what is predominate in consciousness at every moment.  Noting interrupts thought and begins to break up one's experience into the original building blocks.  Noting directly points out what Buddhists refer to as Dependent Origination, an important insight.

Mahasi Cons:  Mental noting is verbal, which may not be ideal, although it is kind of like taking the typical mind's strength and using it against itself.  On the other hand, simple noting doesn't seem to be quite analytical enough to disturb the "original mind".  Noting requires a bit of vocabulary and has a longer learning curve.  Beginners typically don't like it, preferring something like following the breath or a mantra.

It should be said that even many of the teachers who do not favor a hard core, once per second noting style like Mahasi, tend to acknowledge its relatively high rate of success at getting students to stream entry, 1st path.  Indeed, some have referred to the Mahasi Center in Burma as a stream entry factory.  I've never heard that said of IMS or Goenka, or anything, frankly.  I do hear about people having a big initial experience on a Goenka retreat, but I don't hear much about further progress.  This could be due to ignorance, one reason I recently posted a few things about stream entry.

Anything that one does to stay aware and present and relaxed is likely to help, and clearly people awaken with different methods.  My bias is to Mahasi, what can I say, it worked for me.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Meditation - Getting Out of Your Own Way

Yale researcher Judson Brewer on How to Get Out of Your Own Way (and the Brain Science Behind It).  The reminder is to let go of those waves of thought arising and stay relaxed with the body (and mind).

I was reminded of the title of Alan Watts autobiography, In My Own Way, which most people would think of as an egoistic statement in the same vein as Frank Sinatra's song "My Way".  But Watts is referring to the same thing as Brewer, that with our wandering minds (our Default Mode Network), we end up getting in our own way.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Optimal Dosing for Psilocybin II

Part of the Johns Hopkins research on psilocybin included observations of different dosage schemes that I related in Optimal Dosing for Psilocybin, and what I pulled out of that research was that the best recommendation seemed to be to start with a low dose (~1-2 grams of mushrooms) and gradually work up.

I recently noticed that another article from around that time, "Johns Hopkins study finds Psilocybin dosage 'sweet spot' for positive and lasting effects" teased out an interesting point,

At the highest dose (30 mg/70 kg, p.o. - meaning "per oral" or by mouth), 78 percent of the volunteers were reporting one of the top five most spiritually significant happenings of their lives but those suffering anxiety, stress and fear episodes increased by six times, so that around a third of those participating in the study showed signs of psychological struggle.

By contrast, only one of the volunteers receiving the second highest dose (20mg/70 kg, p.o.) reported having negative issues, and all benefited from positive experiences, although with less intensity than at the highest dose.

So if you were looking for some kind of one shot deal, and you were really okay with yourself and open to the experience, the kind of person that could pass all the screening for the study, then 20mg of psilocybin might very well be a good dose to try.  20mg of psilocybin would be roughly 4.5 grams of magic mushrooms, based on the numbers from the Magic Mushroom Dosage Calculator at the Shroomery, which would be a pretty steep dose, around a highest category "Level 5" trip.  Trip levels are described as:

  • Level 1 - This level produces a mild "stoning" effect, with some visual enhancement (i.e. brighter colours, etcetera). Some short term memory anomalies. Left/right brain communication changes causing music to sound "wider".

  • Level 2 - Bright colors, and visuals (i.e. things start to move and breathe), some 2 dimensional patterns become apparent upon shutting eyes. Confused or reminiscent thoughts. Change of short term memory leads to continual distractive thought patterns. Vast increase in creativity becomes apparent as the natural brain filter is bypassed.

  • Level 3 - Very obvious visuals, everything looking curved and/or warped patterns and kaleidoscopes seen on walls, faces etc. Some mild hallucinations such as rivers flowing in wood grained or "mother of pearl" surfaces. Closed eye hallucinations become 3 dimensional. There is some confusion of the senses (i.e. seeing sounds as colors, etcetera). Time distortions and "moments of eternity".

  • Level 4 - Strong hallucinations, i.e. objects morphing into other objects. Destruction or multiple splitting of the ego. (Things start talking to you, or you find that you are feeling contradictory things simultaneously). Some loss of reality. Time becomes meaningless. Out of body experiences and e.s.p. type phenomena. Blending of the senses.

  • Level 5 - Total loss of visual connection with reality. The senses cease to function in the normal way. Total loss of ego. Merging with space, other objects, or the universe. The loss of reality becomes so severe that it defies explanation. The earlier levels are relatively easy to explain in terms of measureable changes in perception and thought patterns. This level is different in that the actual universe within which things are normally perceived, ceases to exist! Satori enlightenment (and other such labels).
In Optimal Dosing for Psilocybin I estimated this 20mg to be around 3.3 grams of magic mushrooms, or about an eighth of an ounce, not sure where I got the figures, notice that above I estimate it to be around 4.5 grams.  I still think that rather than get caught up in the idea of an optimal dose, as people vary so much in metabolism and psychology, it is more reasonable to start with 1 or 2 grams and work up about a gram at a time.

I suspect that people with "rigidities" from dogmatic world views, a strong left brain perspective, or those with a history of abuse or trauma may need to work up to higher doses to finally break through to a Level 5.  I would say that I have experienced Level 5, but it took mushrooms combined with some fairly abusive use of nitrous for me to get there.  I would also say that I'm not at all sure that it is necessary to go that far, personally, I just kind of had to see what it was about, to push it to that edge.

After a lot of hardcore meditation, I find that 0.05 grams frees my mind up just beautifully, but my guess is that most people wouldn't feel much of anything at that dose.

Erica Rex writes about the Psilocybin Cancer Project

Erica Rex is one of the subjects in the Psilocybin Cancer Project at John's Hopkins and writes about her experience in the article "Hallucinogens Could Ease Existential Terror" in Scientific American (pay wall for now).

Much of the content is available in her article "Magic mushrooms and cancer: My magical mystery cure?"

Considerable preparations were made for these experiences but the overall advice for participants was summarized by one researcher as "trust, let go, be open."

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Body on Meditation (the effects of meditation)

Nifty, large graphic of meditative effects on the body from Huffington Post.

EEG of Jhanas III

"Subjective reports from the subject indicated extremely high magnitude of reward, comparing [1st jhana] (which was not recorded due to head movement) to continuous multiple orgasms."

"Case Study of Ecstatic Meditation: fMRI and EEG Evidence of Self-Stimulating a Reward System" appears to be some kind of rehashing of data from a study that actually launched this blog (EEG of Jhanas) and is based on data collected from Leigh Brasington.  In the article, the following hypotheses were substantially confirmed:

H1: Jhanas should show decreased activation compared to the rest state in the visual (BA 17–19) and auditory (BA 41-42) processing areas.  Since all jhanas share the experiential characteristic that external awareness dims, then the brain regions associated with vision and hearing should become less active.

H2: Jhanas should show decreased activation compared to the rest state in Broca’s area (BA 44,45) and in Wernicke’s area (BA 39,40).  Because internal verbalization fades in jhana, the brain regions associated with speech should become idle or less active.

H3: Jhanas should show decreased activation compared to the rest state in the orientation area (BA5).  Since the normal sense of personal boundaries is altered, the orientation area of the brain should show changes from normal rest.  Newberg and Iversen [8] showed that monks and nuns experiencing “union with God” exhibit decreased activation in this area.

H4: Jhanas should show increased activation compared to the rest state in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) (BA 32,33).  Because attention is highly focused on the object of meditation in the jhanas, we would expect high activity in the ACC, which regulates and monitors attention.

H5: Jhanas should show increased activation compared to the rest state in the dopamine reward system of the brain (NAc in the ventral striatum and medial OFC).  A broad range of external rewards stimulate this system (food, sex, beautiful music, and monetary awards), so extreme joy in jhana may be triggered by the same system  (the VTA is also part of this system, but is too small to image with standard fMRI methods,  but see [35] for successful imaging methods).

H6: Jhanas should show no increased activation compared to the rest state in the areas responsible for rhythmic movement, including motor cortex (BA4), primary somatosensory cortex (BA 1,2,3), and cerebellum.  Increased activity in these areas would support an alternative hypothesis that the reward system is being stimulated not by internal means but by subtle rhythmic movements that are known to induce ecstatic states [3].
We really need some sample size here.  The pragmatic dharma community could supply a few subjects.