Psychedelics + Meditation

There is a lot of exciting research into psychedelics happening right now. Depression, end of life care, PTSD are just a few areas where psychedelics may have a big positive impact.

Podcast link – Dan Harris with Michael Pollan: Psychedelics + Meditation

YouTube link – Roshi Joan Halifax, Michael Pollan, Dacher Keltner: The Power of Awe

Both the podcast and the video are excellent. Check them out.

In the summer of 1978 I lived near the beach on Phuket in Thailand. In those days the island had not been developed yet and there was only one hotel. I never looked at the hotel because I found something I liked better. For $1.50/night I stayed in a hut by the beach for several weeks. Several people I met told me to order a mushroom omelet at the little cafe on the beach. They smiled when they suggested this. One morning I decided to order this mystery omelet. The rest of that day I spent on a rock in the surf and in my hut, meditating. It didn’t occur to me that I had taken a drug because to me, after three years of daily meditation, it didn’t feel different.

Recently, neuroscience has confirmed a connection between meditation and psychedelics in that MRI brain scans taken of people meditating and of people taking psychedelics look very, very similar.

In fact I felt that the trip was simply an extension of my meditation practice. What I mean by that is that the experience was somewhat like riding an e-bike. I am still riding the bike and I am still pedaling, but the e-motor helps me get up to speed quicker and makes the climb a little easier. And it is true that many, many people turned to meditation after such a psychedelic experience. In fact, American Buddhism might not have happened without people who, after psychedelic experiences in the 60s and 70s, traveled to Asia to learn meditation and brought back what became Western Buddhism. Or take Dr. Alpert as an example, who became Baba Ram Dass. In any case, that day I laughed so much that my whole mouth was tired the next morning. Smiling so much can wear you out… :-)

Here is a selfie I took in my little hut on Phuket.

Here is a quote by Michael Pollan – from the above-linked video.

I mean the two biggest problems we face as a civilization I would say are the environmental crisis and tribalism. Both come from the objectifying of the other and therefore the willingness to exploit the other whether the other is people of a different faith, people of a different race, or nature, and so a solvent for this kind of thinking is exactly what the culture needs right now.

Three Steps Forward

My grandfather also called it the crab-walk: three steps forward, two steps back.

In Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha the ferryman says the river has taught him everything he knows. This is true for many things we study intensely and I could say the same about the guitar – it taught me everything. When I began to meditate, it didn’t feel very different from playing guitar. When I went on my first Sesshin I was asked how I was holding up to the many hours of meditation. My answer was, I am a musician and I am used to this.

It’s not a straight line up the mountain. As anyone knows who has driven in the mountains, whether in Austria or France or Colorado, the road rises and and then plateaus. It may even go down for a while before it rises again.

I think the mountain road mirrors how the aquisition and development of a skill works excatly.

If you watch Jon closely you will notice that the fingers on his right hand do much more than strike the string to produce a sound. Playing the correct note at the right time is important but it is only one step in becoming a truly great bass player. The great bass player will use a finger to produce the correct note, then this finger, or another one, gets ready to strike the next note. But if that next note is part of a different key the excellent bassist will use a finger to dampen the previous note so that it doesn’t deter from the new key.

I think this is a great example of how an ability plateaus. At first we are happy to simply play the right note at the right time. Eventually we realize that we can improve and that a note needs to not only be played in time but also should be stopped in time.

Learning

Sometime in 1989 the Native American artist Frank Howell, who commissioned the album that later became Nouveau Flamenco, said this to me:

When you stop to learn you begin to die.

It was very good advice and I thought about it quite often in the past thirty years. I would add that to learn could be replaced with to change or to adapt and the value of the advice would be undiminished.

Last year I joined Coursera, which is an online education platform featuring courses from many great universities, and other institutions, worldwide. The first course I took was about Modern Art, a course created by MoMA. It was enjoyable and I learned a lot. This year I took another course, presented by Princeton University, called Buddhism and Modern Psychology. The instructor was Robert Wright, somebody I was not familiar with. The course description does not do the content justice. I am interested in neuroscience, because I find it interesting how the view of the meditator, which is the view from the inside, is analyzed by the scientist, which is the view from the outside. The course covers more than the basic science that involves brain scans, it introduced me to Evolutionary Psychology (link to Wikipedia… not sure how useful that is), which turned out to be quite the exciting rabbit hole to dive into. I learned that Robert Wright wrote a book entitled The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Every Day Life, published in 1994, which was one of three books the Wachowski siblings gave Keanu Reeves to read to prepare for his role as Neo in the movie The Matrix. By now I am thoroughly fascinated. How did an author of a book on Evolutionary Psychology (Science, view from the outside) come to lecture about meditation and Buddhism (Meditation, view from the inside)?

I bought Robert Wright’s newest book, Why Buddhism is True – The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment and read it slowly over the last two months, savoring some of the pages and letting passages rest in my mind, like dough that needs to rest before baking… For me this book ranks up there with Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything, which I read in the Nineties and which connected a lot of dots for me.

Meditation is a revolutionary act, indeed the most revolutionary act we are capable of, because it is, perhaps, the only method we have to reject our programming. When the house is on fire (Climate Change) you don’t argue whether the house was created by a God or by evolution, you try to extinguish the fire. Similarly I would argue that it doesn’t matter whether our DNA was created by a God or by Natural Selection, the fact is that this programming is killing us as a species. Like Neo in the Matrix we are captives who do what our programming tells us to do and our programming does not want us to be happy and peaceful…

Buy the book… I have seen the paperback for as little as six dollars and change, and I myself have (so far) bought six copies that I have given to friends. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

The Cat

The cat stretches itself into a long line, then sits up. It appears to look into space, relaxed and unconcerned. Does it see ghosts? Does it dream with open eyes? I think it is practicing the Hunter Meditation.

I believe that a long time ago, perhaps tens of thousands of years ago, hunters discovered this form of mediation, different from what we today know as Yoga or Zen or Vipassana meditation, but perhaps different only in its goal. While most meditation practiced today aims to calm the person, to quiet or focus the mind, the Hunter Meditation had the simple goal of putting food on the table… and probably had interesting side effects other people eventually observed.

When tracking trophy a hunter might scan the horizon with his eyes, looking for the animal they want to kill. When looking for food a hunter, human or beast, doesn’t want to miss the nearby rabbit just because they are busy scanning the horizon. So, I imagine, the hunter sat quietly and opened their eyes to everything in their view, from one corner of the eye to the other. Most animals don’t see that which doesn’t move, and so the hunter’s stillness is better than the movement of searching. Keeping the head still and the eyes open, but not staring, not scanning, the hunter waits for any prey’s movement. The hunter’s breathing slows naturally, their eyes are soft but alert, and they become one with their surroundings.

Programmed to be interrupted.

The Long Now Blog » We are programmed to be interrupted.
Wired has a great interview with an author named Maggie Jackson who has written a book about the neurobiological basis of attention and how it is affected by all the “lovely distractions” modern society provides. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age describes three types of attention – orientation, a general sense of awareness, and executive. Her concern is that our modern technological culture is constantly distracting us – and that we like it. Scientific American just ran an article about a study with similar findings:

Results suggested that thinking fast made participants feel more elated, creative and, to a lesser degree, energetic and powerful.

That would seem another good reason for a person to meditate as a way to balance this distraction.

Air Ride

ZenAir Zafu (Meditation Cushion)

An extraordinarily comfortable meditation cushion. The secret is a durable latex insert designed and made especially for ZenWorks.

* The insert is placed in our handmade zafu cover, made from a cotton or cotton-poly broadcloth.
* The ZenAir cushion is light, very quiet, easy to inflate and deflate – perfect for home or travel.
* Originally designed for those who experience hip, back or leg pain while meditating. The air ball distributes the body’s weight evenly to minimize pressure on sensitive points.

I have been sitting on one of those zafus for several years and have given them as gifts. If you don’t sit full-lotus, these air cushions really help with your weight distribution. And they are easy to travel with.