The Yogic View of Consciousness 27: The Inner Realms

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YVC 27 cover-2Do our modern ideas of the inner realms enlighten us? We find out here and discuss some of the modern views of “hallucinatory” experiences.

Contents for The Yogic View of Consciousness:

Intro Ch 1 Ch 2 Ch 3 Ch 4 Ch 5 Ch 6 Ch7 Ch 8
Ch 9 Ch 10 Ch 11 Ch 12 Ch 13 Ch 14 Ch 15 Ch 16 Ch 17
Ch 18 Ch 19 Ch 20 Ch 21 Ch 22 Ch 23 Ch 24 Ch 25 Ch 26
Ch 27 Ch 28 Ch 29 Ch 30 Ch 31 Ch 32 Ch 33


 

Intro
Chapter 26 provided a feeble glimpse into the inner worlds. It is a feeble glimpse because nothing in our physical experience can capture the fullness and essence of the inner experiences. It is all very hard to pin down, not least because the experience is one of incessant movement. That’s where we ended the last chapter, with the Movement. What Hindus call the gunas. Before going deeper into the Movement, in this chapter, I wish to digress and discuss our modern understanding of inner experiences. The goal is to compare the modern and yogic interpretations.

We’ve outlined the yogic view: the visions of the inner realms are a more subtle form of the same gunas that make up our physical experience. Swami Krishnananda gave us a rule of thumb to understand all this: “If it’s external, it’s not eternal”. Inner experiences, in spite of the name, are a form of paranga cetana, outwardly directed consciousness. Like normal perception, inner perceptions are characterized by the observer/observed dichotomy. What yoga brings to the table is samadhi—knowing by being—which is a state devoid of the observer/observed dichotomy. The discussion in this chapter is meant to highlight the general attitude of yoga towards altered states of consciousness, which is that, ultimately, they too are forms of vikshepa, distraction.

Hallucinations
The modern West’s awareness of the inner realms has slowly grown along with the rise of modern science and the two have grown in an intertwined fashion. In the West today, experiences of the inner realms are generally called “hallucinations”. “Hallucination” means ‘the perception of something not presented to the senses”. This is in contrast to the idea of an “illusion”: a misinterpretation of something the senses perceive. By these definitions, mistaking a rope for a snake in a darkened room is an illusion. Hallucinations are perceptions of things that are not there by the sense’s account.

Various groups of professionals are interested in hallucinations. Brain scientists are interested in what hallucinations tell us about how the brain works. Neurologists and psychiatrists deal with brain illnesses that result in hallucinations. Some people intentionally induce hallucinations, usually with mind-altering drugs, and wish to understand what these experiences mean from a first-person perspective. Some physicists and mathematicians have recognized mathematical patterns in descriptions of hallucinations. Dr. Abrahams, who we discussed last time, is fairly unique for cutting across the hard-science/first-person divide.

Below I will summarize and provide a general overview of each approach. The bulk of the discussion will focus on the mathematical understanding of hallucinations. First because it gives substance to Taimni’s assertion (discussed in Chapter 8) that the inner worlds are also subject to description by the relative language of mathematics. Second, because this viewpoint is, in many respects, the clearest.

First-person Experiencers
This is a complicated topic. People have been describing their first-person experiences since Neanderthals started painting on cave walls. To keep some focus, I need to massively constrict my comments to people that have studied their own drug-induced hallucinations. This kind of thing is also old and venerable, so I want to zoom in on relatively modern descriptions that started in the early 20th century.

Prior to LSD, there was mescaline. Below I mention Heinrich Klüver, who, in the 1920s, studied people’s descriptions of the effects of peyote, which has mescaline as its active ingredient. After Albert Hofmann first described LSD in 1943, people writing about their drug experiences massively increased. Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Allan Watts Joyous Cosmology are but the tip of the iceberg of this kind of writing.

In general, people have found life-changing meaning in their first person experiences. One example I know well is Allan Watts. If you look at his pre-psychedelic writings, they emphasized a kind of quasi-nihilistic, dryly-intellectual understanding of Zen. After Watts experimented with psychedelics, his ideas became colorful, loose, and free-flowing. He became all Hindu and fractal and cosmic joker in his outlook and teachings. He is reasonably representative of how psychedelics affected the intelligentsia class.

I found a more recent example on the internet. This is Alex Grey. He is the well-respected painter of psychedelic and spiritual art. Here he talks about his first DMT experience. This is 7 min 41 seconds for the time conscious amongst you.

Figure 1 shows his painting the “Net of Being”. I point out how Grey’s vision resembles what we spoke of earlier in the book about the structure of inner space having the form of minds within minds networked in a vast pattern that massively transcends our physical perceptions of the universe. Grey’s art brings this vision to life in a beautiful manner and even gives us a glimpse of the Hindu insight that there are many universal Logi.

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Figure 1: Alex Grey’s Net of Being as an example of a first-person experience of inner visions.

Something to point out in the video that we come back to in the next chapter. The description of Grey’s Net of Being experience begins at 4:05 in the video. At 5:40 he culminated this description by saying:

“A sense of continuum of being that really was very highly networked…a mesh of being. And a kind of identity with that, um, spread my consciousness and being out to a vast expanse in the, ya know, as fast as could be, you were like identified with a consciousness grid that was completely co-extensive with all space.”

I point this out now because it suggests that Mr. Grey had a momentary experience of spontaneous samadhi. For the moment, we wish to stay focused on the inner visions as a form of paranga cetana, meaning the presence of the observer/observed dichotomy.

The basic idea I am getting at is this: first-hand experience of the inner visions gives rise to forms of philosophy. In What Is Science? I commented about the “power releasing” function of philosophy:

“Philosophy is an echo of sensory experience, a reflection on experience. So, philosophy is not just sabda, but has some bit of jnana. But then, the echoes compound one upon another into a cacophony of chaos. Because of this, Western philosophy by itself does not release power, other than perhaps the titillation accompanying airy abstractions, or perhaps the occasional political revolution (that invariably never is what it was supposed to be).”

Yes, philosophical understanding has the power to transform individual’s lives and minds. I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of this, but ultimately it boils down to a form of sentimentalism, which can only go so far. Like philosophy and political revolutions, first-hand experience of the inner realms is titillating and can get people to act, but often the consequences are not what is expected or desired.

We may construct personal interpretations and develop cosmic philosophies, but in the end, they breed their counterpoints, along the lines that Hegel is famous for discussing. The psychedelic 1960s gave us the conservative Ronald Reagan-era of the 1980s. Then we come to wonder if the swinging pendulum ever stops. Hegel thought it did. But that seems like chasing after empty dreams because it’s always just more of the same: ever changing patterns.

Is there anything on which we may grab? Let’s shift gears and go to some of our scientific understanding of the inner experiences and see if they give us something on which to grab.

Brain-based Work
Here I discuss the views of the brain scientists and the physicians who deal with brain illness, which are the neurologists and psychiatrists. Their viewpoints are discussed together because they are cut from the same cloth.

The angle physicians approach hallucinations from is interesting mainly for illustrating the diversity of conditions that lead to hallucinations. Many forms of brain damage, such as stroke, head trauma, fever, brain tumors, and so on, can lead to hallucinations during the waking state. Physicians generally recognize a spectrum between “normal” hallucinations at one end (e.g. dreams during sleep) and pathological ones at the other end. Dreaming has long been considered a “normal” form of hallucination that historically has provided an anchor against which to compare pathologically-induced hallucinations.

The earliest observations of diseases that cause hallucinations by neurologists date to the mid to late 1800s. It was recognized that lesions in certain brain areas predisposed one to hallucinate. By the mid-20th century, brain scientists discovered structures in the brain whose electrical conduction correlated with sleep. REM and nonREM were discovered in the late 1950s by researchers at the University of Chicago. Today we have a rich and detailed understanding of the differences in electrical and neurochemical patterns between the waking, REM and nonREM brain.

Wilder Penfield, who I have written about, showed that electrically stimulating certain brain regions can lead to complex, dream-like hallucinations superimposed over a person’s waking perceptions. As with all things in science, Penfield’s work was not out of the blue, but has roots in the work of John Hughlings-Jackson, who, in the late 1800s, observed that certain forms of epilepsy predisposed people to hallucinate.

How are these observations used to explain hallucinations? In this framework it comes down to brain anatomy and function (physiology). We know brain anatomy better than we know brain physiology. Brain anatomy is like an extraordinarily complex circuit diagram. What we know of brain function is grounded in classical chemistry and physics, allowing us to understand the electrochemical properties of brain tissue. We come to the punch line below that understanding of brain function is still very primitive.

In the neurosciences and medicine today, explanations of hallucinations generally take the form of “sub-circuit X is activated/inhibited (in a normal state like dreaming), or messed up (if pathological), by factors A, B, C, leading to altered sub-circuit X, thereby generating hallucinations”.

This way of thinking says a whole lot and, at the same time, says nothing. It is the kind of thinking that gave rise to surgical procedures like frontal lobotomies.

In another post I discussed the idea that a theory should be much less complex than the phenomenon it describes. When the theory is just as complex as the phenomenon it purports to explain, then it is merely a restatement, or description, and is not an explanation at all.

However, since physicians and brain scientists are not trained in math and physics, they are generally happy with these verbal descriptions and feel self-satisfied that they have explained something. In fact, they are in just as much a dreamy hallucinatory state as the patients they seek to describe.

So, we must turn elsewhere for something that actually resembles an explanation of hallucinations.

Math and Physics-based Explanations of Hallucinations
We already listened to Ralph Abraham explain how computer graphics of modern math (such as fractals and wave equations) have helped advance the study of hallucinations by allowing everyone to literally see how the solutions to the math equations LOOK LIKE hallucinations. Computer graphics, coupled with a few general principles, has allow the development of mathematical theories of hallucinations. A notable example is the work of Dr. Jack Cowan at the University of Chicago who has been working on this since the 1970s.

Unlike Dr. Abraham, Dr. Cowan does not study his own first-person experiences of altered states of consciousness. Instead, Cowan’s mathematical models of hallucinations combine knowledge of how waves propagate in excitable media with understanding of how our brain works. You can watch a video of Dr. Cowan here (beware, the audio is not great quality). His video is highly technical but the foundational ideas he employs are straight-forward.

An excitable medium is something that propagates waves in a self-sustaining fashion, but that also has some mechanism to limit the spread of the waves. A forest fire is a readily-understood example. It is self-sustaining because whatever is burning at the moment sets adjacent stuff on fire too. However, once an area burns completely, the fire can obviously no longer burn there, so it is self-limiting. An example of an excitable media occurs in a chemical reaction called the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction.

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Figure 2: BZ reaction showing nonlinear waves in an excitable media. The pattern kind of resembles a freeze frame from a psychedelic hallucination.

It turns out that all kinds of interesting waves can move through excitable media, as Figure 2 illustrates. They are a more complicated kind of waves and not the simple waves we discussed in the chapter on quantum mechanics. For example, the superposition principle does not apply to waves in excitable media. We don’t fully understand these waves like we do the simple waves used in quantum mechanics and Fourier transforms. I don’t want to get into details here. The buzzword is “nonlinear” for those who want to look into it further.

My point is that excitable media and (nonlinear) wave propagation provide the general principles that are at the base of Dr. Cowan’s work.

Now, Dr. Cowan’s work was not out of the blue, but built on Heinrich Klüver’s work from the 1920s. Klüver described “form constants”, which, to quote Wikipedia are “one of several geometric patterns which are recurringly observed during hallucinations and altered states of consciousness”.

Maps
Dr. Cowan’s work can be understood pretty easily. He hypothesized that hallucinations are generated by (nonlinear) waves moving through the excitable medium of the brain tissue.

There is one “trick” that sits at the heart of his work, and it is the idea of a mapping. The general idea of a mapping is very easy to understand: we convert A into B following some procedure or pattern. This is how math works in general. We map something, say x, into something else, say y, by using a formula, say y = x + 1. Then the mapping is:

x = 0,1,2,3… maps to y = 1,2,3,4…

Very easy in this case. Dr. Cowan used more complicated formulas. Even if one does not know the math, the meaning of the mapping is still easy to understand. Figure 3 shows the mapping Dr. Cowan used, and comes from a screen capture of a talk given by Dr. Bard Ermentrout, who was a student of Dr. Cowan’s (and is a well-respected researcher in this area).

Ermentrout redo-1

Figure 3: Mapping from a circle to a plane. This is Cowan’s “trick” to model and explain at least some classes of visual hallucinations.

It looks intimidating if you don’t know math, but the concept is easy to understand. What it says is that you take a flat image and map it to a circular image. Figure 4 illustrates this:

 

phosphene-excitation2

Figure 4: Examples of the “retino-cortical” mapping showing how patterns on a plane map to patterns with circular symmetry.

The two panels on the left are the “flat” image on the plane. You can use the mathematical equations from Ermentrout’s slide to map the planar image to the two circular images on the right.   A series of horizontal lines (panel 1) maps to a star burst pattern (panel 3), and rows of while spots (panel 2) maps to the spiraling blobs (panel 4).

Here are examples of mathematically generated “hallucinations”, taken from Dr. Ermentrout’s web page:

Ermentrout-1A

Figure 5. The caption to this image, from Ermentrout’s web site is: “The pictures shown here represent spontaneous activity in a model of visual cortex due to the actions of hallucinogenic drugs. Each figure is formed by solving equations for the two-dimensional cortical sheet and then projecting them to the retinal (eye) coordinates so that their visual representation can be shown.”

 

It is a laudable result. Figure 6 shows two images that capture salient features of real hallucinations, and they have a symmetry similar to (but obviously not identical to) the first panel of Ermentrout’s results in Figure 5.

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Figure 6: Images depicting more realistic hallucinations. Left, a fractal looks like an LSD-hallucinations. Right, Buddhist mandala derived from perceptions in an altered state of consciousness.

Part of the reason Dr. Ermentrout’s image isn’t of the same detail as Soler’s fractal on the left or the Buddhist mandala on the right is because it is computationally very expensive to run Cowan’s theory on the computer. On the other hand, generating fractals is relatively easier for the computer.

The relative complexity of the simulation versus the other two images illustrates what Dr. Abraham said in the video from the previous chapter: “the information we’re getting on our trips is way beyond computers”. Hence his conclusion that computer imagery can only be considered as “poetic metaphors” of the inner experiences.

The Biological Interpretation of Cowan’s Theory
The idea of mapping from a plane to a circle is the essence of Cowan’s theory of visual hallucinations. The main idea he is trying to capture is the following.

Our eyeballs contain the retina. The retina, where the image you are seeing is focused, is a circular sheet of cells. All the time, the images on the eye are projected as a circular image on this sheet of cells. However, the brain tissue to which the image is transmitted (called “visual cerebral cortex”, or “area 17”, or “primary visual cortex”) is planar in its shape, like a piece of paper. The main idea is that our brain constantly runs this mapping from a circle on the eye to a plane in the visual cortex. Cowan’s theory is that the brain (between the eye and the visual cortex) is always running this circle==>plane mapping, just like his equations do.

That is to say, somehow, when we see anything, behind the scenes and outside of our conscious awareness (remember Chapter 20?), the brain automatically runs the mapping of converting an image from a circular map to a planar map. The brain is automatically running this mapping in a way akin to a computer program that is always running in the background. So, Cowan’s theory is actually a theory of how vision works. Not in its entirety, but is at least an obvious piece of what is going on.

How does this explain hallucinations? Well, it implies that, if for any reason, the brain itself starts acting funny and starts conducting electricity independently of the eye—whether because of disease, drugs, chanting, or whatever—then the brain will automatically run this plane-to-circle mapping and that is what we see as a “hallucination”.

The visual cortex is used to getting a circular image and converting it to a planar image. However, if the cortex itself starts generating the image internally, it still runs this program, only backwards, and converts its planar internal electrical flow pattern to a circular pattern, which we then see and experience as the hallucination.

Important caveat: This model (or theory) is not meant to explain all visual hallucinations, of course, but only a subclass of them. It can’t explain the more-or-less realistic visual scenes perceived in dreams, for example. But it does a decent job of explaining some features of hallucinations perceived under the influence of drugs or other causes.

I don’t want to go any deeper into this because it gets more and more technical, and the ratio of understanding to effort decreases greatly.

To Summarize
Let’s summarize the ground we’ve covered so far. We discussed three of the prominent modern views of “hallucinations”, where “hallucination” is the modern word for “inner experience”.

First-person experiences can have profound, life-changing effects on those who have them. In the vast majority of cases, the experiences are caused by ingesting psychedelic drugs. The strength of this approach is that one gets their ass kicked, so to speak, by the experience, and comes away a changed person. One weakness of this approach is that the insights garnered are meaningless for people who have not had such experiences.

Brain scientists and physicians do a lot of hand waving with their verbal descriptions that also border on being philosophical. As philosophies, they have much less life-transforming potential than those generated by the first-person experiencers. The medical way of thinking provides a framework for physicians who have to deal with sick people,but it has led to such wonderful activities as frontal lobotomies and the spread of anti-depressant medication as if it was candy.

Math and physics provide a window on the inner experiences that reinforces what Taimni said about how the inner realms are subject to description by mathematics as much as is the external world of our waking, physical perceptions. Here we get closer to something that resembles real scientific explanation. Cowan’s work sees the brain tissue as an example of an excitable medium, which puts it on par with many other natural systems that share this property. Then, the general properties of excitable media are used to deduce the specifics of how the brain expresses those properties. In the effort, we get a theory that can calculate at least some features of inner experiences.

Ok, having gone through the exercise of expressing these various viewpoints, let’s offer some critique and then bring it back around to yoga.

Critique of the Modern Views
There are a couple points to make here: (1) lacunae in, and (2) the paranga cetana nature of all three of the modern views described above.

The three views listed above are example of Feyerabend’s lacunae, by which I mean “holes” in one’s thinking.  Above, I linked to a video of Dr. Cowan. On the same web page, there is a Review by someone named Parsifal. This review makes my point, so I will quote from it (with some minor grammar editing):

“Despite Jack Cowan’s presentation of a mathematical model for what is observed visually during hallucinatory episodes of LSD ingestion, a question that persist is…the presented model of Jack Cowan did not say who is the really observer of the hallucination as occurring in visual field. The way I saw it, Observer is assumed to be all the time outside of events and simply watching what the activities are…is the observer the whole mathematically tuned mapping, self-organizing crystalline planar waves diffusion and the whole lot of processes and events or Observer is a focusing separate field of registering effects but able to interact with the phenomena so presented?”

I bolded the key point. Cowan’s theory says nothing about the observer, or about consciousness per se. We still have an observer/observed dualism. Which is to say, when we experience the inner realms, whether by drugs, disease, or yoga methods, it is still paranga cetana. The perceptions are of something outside the observer. Consciousness is, in this sense, outwardly directed.

There is a second issue in all of the modern views: the qualia problem. Just how do electrical flows (or whatever the mechanism) get perceived as patterns of color, forms, and movement? Where does perception come from in the first place?

One can suggest I am changing the topic, or deflecting the issue by raising this question, but it remains. Until we understand how perception arises, characterizing the form of what is perceived simply skirts the issue of how perception occurs. This means our understanding is incomplete. That is why the issue is important. Until the qualia problem is resolved, all explanations of the forms appearing in consciousness have the quality of being “only skin deep”.

To wrap this up, I return to a quote by van der Leeuw that captures the essence of what I am trying to say here:

“For a while it may satisfy evolving man to know that the splendors of a sunset are but the breaking of light-rays in a moist atmosphere; he will come to realize that he may have explained the method, but has not touched the mystery at all.”

Even though he is discussing the physics of a sunset, the same logic applies to modern approaches to “hallucinations” which are the perceptions of the inner realms. We may, with more or less gusto, explain the method, but we have not touched the mystery at all.

Compared to the Yogic View of Consciousness
Yoga requires chitta vritti nirodhah. The silencing of the waves of the mind. The above discussion does highlight that ancient yoga hit the mark by referring to the mind’s activity as “vritti”, waves. That’s nice. But the main point is silencing the waves, not getting caught in deeper and more subtle forms of the mind’s waves.

The conclusion is that our digression on some of the modern approaches to the inner realms, in the end, reinforces what yoga has taught for millennia. It is vikshepa, distraction. The modern views ultimately, may entertain us with their intellectual sophistication (or lack thereof) but they give no final answers. Only more mysteries. And the promise that maybe one day, the mysteries will be solved.

We’ve seen this game before. Over and over and over. Gunas, moving, ever-transforming. It’s just more of the Movement.   In Chapter 28, we begin to turn towards samadhi to see why it’s the best thing on the block.

11 thoughts on “The Yogic View of Consciousness 27: The Inner Realms

  1. kashyap vasavada

    Hi Don,
    Interesting article.I am looking forward to your complete book. But in the meantime let me raise a question. I have not been able to find an answer. In my online (sometime in person) debates with atheist scientists it comes up. How do you convince them that there is an extra-sensory world out there (also in us!) and one (or perhaps the only) way to approach it is through Yogic Samadhi. The immediate rebuttal from the other side is that this is just like hallucinations brought by psychedelic drugs and basically you are fooling yourself. It does not prove that there are extra sensory things. I try to argue that you can verify that many of these Yogis did not take any drugs. But the argument remains unresolved. Results of empirical science can be demonstrated to anyone who does not have any scientific training at all. But the results of Yogic practice have to be strictly personal and come after intense training only. So you cannot convince any one who has not gone through the practice. What is your answer?

    • Hi Kashyap, great to hear from you! Thank you the kind comment. Thanks especially for the series of easy questions! 🙂

      The concise answer I can give is that it is a non-issue. As I said above, we don’t even know what regular perception is, let alone so called “extra” sensory perception. I don’t say this willy nilly either. I don’t have the citations at hand, but can dig them up if you request it. I have read discussion by both Erwin Schrödinger and Hermann Weyl that show how the physics of light is radically disjoint with our first-person experience of seeing.

      That is to say, there is no clear or direct mapping between light as a physical phenomena and the experience we call “vision”. In other words, we cannot reconstruct visual experience from physics.

      Now, one might argue that we can program a computer to do ray tracing, and then see that it looks exactly like what we see. But this is all smoke and mirrors. It doesn’t at all explain how we see. It merely reproduces our visual experience in a different medium. It is no different than seeing the reflection of the sky on a pond. So, it comes back to what I said: we cannot use physics to reconstruct visual experience.

      I mentioned the issue above, it is called the “qualia problem”. How do the qualities of conscious perception arise? Not only is there no answer at present, there is not even an inkling of how to approach the problem. In fact, some philosophers have argued that the very nature of the problem prevents it from being solved in any customary scientific manner we have yet discovered.

      Qualia is not just vision, but the whole repertoire of elements of consciousness including thought and emotions. There is a formal similarity between the following questions:

      1. How does the color blue relate to the physics of light?
      2. How do you quantify feeling happy?
      3. How do you take something that is by its very nature a quality and assign a quantitative value to it? How do you construct a set of symbols to describe a quality?

      It is an extremely perplexing problem. It is if there are two completely distinct worlds. The one that physics has identified of patterns of change amongst “things” that we can capture with mathematical symbols (mass, energy, etc). Then there is the world of our minds, and all the qualities therein.

      Leibniz solved it by simply saying there are these two worlds and they correspond perfectly, but they are completely distinct to the point that they do not even interact. This was his proposition of a “divine harmony”. The only reason the idea was never accepted is because everyone has thought they could solve the problem. But here we are 350 years later and no one has yet solved the problem. Makes me wonder if Leibniz was not right to go this route.

      I quoted Weyl way back in Chapter 7 of Yogic View of Consciousness, and even he could do no better than recognize these two worlds of consciousness. The “me” as a real human in the world, and the “me” who is awareness that can capture things symbolically. He tangents on stating Leibniz position without actually doing so.

      Now, that said, we can discuss the idea of regular vs extra sensory perception in yogic terms, independent of our Western ignorance. The answer to the question is what I have discussed in the yogic view of consciousness. There is no external world per se. What we think of as “objective reality” exists in a point that yogis identify as the bindu or center of consciousness. EVERYTHING we are aware of enters consciousness through this point or bindu. The perception that the world is external to us is false. The external world is not outside of us, but is at the center of our consciousness. What we take to be the external world is but a projection, akin to a virtual image in a mirror. The world is no more external to us than the image in the mirror is real.

      Obviously, there is a perfectly good explanation of a mirror reflection. There is a real phenomena, the bouncing of light rays, that underlies the illusion of the mirror reflection. Similarly, there is a real objective phenomena that underlies our perception of the external world. Trying to explain this has been one of the key themes of yogic view of consciousness. The external world is, in some sense, a diffraction of consciousness at the bindu that projects and generates these qualities that we cannot symbolize but can only directly experience.

      That means that the limits physics has identified have only a relative validity. Things like the speed of light, increasing entropy, etc, apply only to a subset of qualia. We don’t yet know the full extent of the qualia behavior. But clearly, things like ESP (I hate that word, but use it out of convenience) occur, but they are sporadic and we have not yet been able to systematize them to the same degree we can with other qualia, such as things we perceive as physical movement and other topics of physics. (side note: the use of statistics in parapsychology is the WRONG way to go to approach this, but that’s another topic).

      Another issue you raise is that of verification. Consider this. It seems like Newton’s physics is, in some sense, self-evident. But what if, at the dawn of physics, someone had formulated Einstein’s model instead. It would still explain everything exactly the same, calculate all the same results, but the interpretation of time and space is radically different.

      What I am saying is that verification is not at all so obvious as people assume. It is obvious to us because we have been culturally conditioned to accept all the things we take to be “obvious”.

      In other words, had all of society been conditioned from birth to accept the ideas and evidence of yoga, we would find IT to be obvious and we would be skeptical of something like science, that presents a complete disjointedness between what we perceive and how we describe it.

      All of the above is meant to explain why these are non-issues. The main point is that we have been raised to see the world a certain way. If you make up some idea (ESP) that does not fit into the way we have been raised to see the world, then certainly it will seem absurd and incomprehensible.

      However, when you step back and look at the way we see the world, you see there are many things we take for granted. There are many holes in our understanding that we simply fill in and assume they are not holes. This is an important value of learning yoga and Hindu philosophy: it provides a different mind set we can step into and compare against the standard Western view of the world. We could use any world view to gain the contrast. I just find Hinduism to be in a “greater than or equal to” relationship to Western views and so is very effective for contrasting a wide variety of positions.

      So, sorry I can’t offer up a simpler answer. I mean, the simplest answer to people that take the attitude you described is: “go learn yoga, then come back and talk to me”.

      This is why I sometimes use the word “barbaric”. Any barbarian can throw a rock and see it traces a parabola. It takes some intellect and sophistication to do (let alone invent!) yoga.

      Ok, will close here. Haha, the reply is almost a mini-blog post in itself!

      Take care, Kashyap!

      Best wishes,

      Don

  2. Don,

    I don’t know whether you ever read by Don Luis post.

    http://broadspeculations.com/2011/11/12/don-luis/

    Let me provide an extended quote from it:

    For the sake of argument, let’s agree to the reductionist arguments. Let’s agree there is a physical or neurological part to the visions. We can even say that is all there is. Can’t the same be said of normal cognition, normal vision, and normal perception? For that matter, what is normal? Hidden inside this reductionist approach is a gigantic but unstated assumption that any experience or cognition associated with supposed abnormal brain function is not valid but experience or cognition associated with supposed normal brain function is valid. The experience is dismissed because it associated with physiology or neurology regarded to be not normal.

    The problem with this should be obvious particularly to a reductionist. If experience and cognition can be solely explained by physiology and neurology as a reductionist believes, then normal and paranormal experiences are actually on the same footing as to validity.

    The fact is that everything we perceive really is phantasma. The red of the rose is not real. It is a particular wavelength of light. The sound of the distant thunder is not real. It is an acoustic wave moving through the air. Solid objects don’t really exist. We might kick a large rock and we might hurt our foot but physics says the rock is mostly empty space and the pain in our foot is the product of a nerve impulse. Our experiences are all in the past, delayed by a neurological time-lag and assembled into a coherent whole bearing perhaps no resemblance to what is actually “out there” in the world. The pattern forming process in the brain/mind mimics the pattern forming forces of nature. We are completely cut off from real cognition. We are trapped in our sensory equipment and the cognitive apparatus of our brain. We make sense of the world only because we are a part of it and constructed as it is constructed. We are from the same pattern forming processes that built the world. Small wonder that mathematics seems to work so well to describe scientifically the world since the mathematical knowledge springs from the same source as the world.

    • Hi James

      Thank you for contributing to the discussion. That is very kind of you to take the time to do so. Thank you for sharing the article. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED to anyone out there reading this.

      The only part I take issue with is his last paragraph. The real/not real distinction is tricky. I don’t think he used to best words to explain himself. Red does exist as a vritti in consciousness. It is a qualia we directly experience. He doesn’t seem to know much about science? Red is not a wavelength of light. Some wavelengths of light appear red to us, but not all red are those wavelengths. There are ways to mix waves of light to make red where none of the component waves are themselves red. This is what I was referring to in my reply to Kashyap when I cited Erwin Schrödinger and Hermann Wyle.

      Back to the real/not real issue. There are passing appearances, what he calls “phantasma”, perhaps. As such, they are real. But they are transient. Which brings time into the picture. Time is the real mystery. Yoga claims to master this mystery, which will factor into my next post on samadhi.

      In Hinduism, as you probably know, “real” is associated with “eternal” which they call “Brahman”. The passing appearances are maya. It all have very Kantian overtones. Even the end paragraph you quoted is very Kantian in flavor.

      Again, James, thank you for your comment.

      Best wishes,

      Don

  3. Another brief note.

    I meant to ask this on your previous post but do you have any thoughts on what soma might have been? Do you believe it actually was a plant? I have heard various theories – Amanita muscaria, psilocybin mushrooms, and ephedra – but none them quite seem to correct to me. Was it perhaps just cannabis brewed into a tea?

    Regarding effects of different hallucinogens. Much is determined by set and setting as Timothy Leary showed in his research. Set is what the person brings to the experience. Setting is the environment. Administration in a antiseptic hospital and in a religious setting would create different experiences. Dose has a big impact too.

    Aside from that there is a unique character to each one of them.

    LSD except at high doses will seldom produce true hallucinations. Typically you get bizarre distortions in sizes and shapes with intensification of color.

    Peyote/mescaline for me at least is somewhat like LSD but often has an auditory hallucinatory component. I remember a restless night in a van with the impression that people were talking outside it all night

    Ayahausca/DMT – here are real hallucinations. Entire scenes appear to your vision that have nothing to do with your environment and the scenes are there whether your eyes are open or shut. See my Don Luis post.

    Salvia divinorium – Much like LSD with cartoon-like distortions. Can also cause tactile hallucinations like the experience of being absorbed into your chair. I once felt I had merged into a giant machine grinding its way through time and everything is telling me: ” Oh, this is the way it is, It has always been like this. You are just now realizing it?”

    5-MeO-DMT – Haven’t tried this but from the book Tryptamine Palace it sounds like instant enlightenment. Wikipedia says it often lacks visual effects but Tryptamine Palace describes its effect as like an enveloping white light.

    Those who have not had experiences like this often focus on the pyrotechnics of the visual effects but the profound part is the emotional depth of the experiences.

    • Hi James

      Again, thank you for the very interesting comments/observations. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I have no idea what soma was. I have read about the controversies and all the things you mentioned are plausible. If it really was a herb/drug, I think it would be something more psychedelic than ephedra or marijuana.

      Yes, set and setting are important. Timothy Leary can be attributed with a lot of important early observations on the LSD experience. He tends to get less credit than he deserves because of his later history.

      My experiences with LSD and mescaline always involved true hallucinations, especially upon closing my eyes. Yes, distortions are there too. I tend to have a “layered” experience where I can “zoom” or focus on perhaps 4-6 different layers and go back and forth between them.

      I tried salvia once, a very concentrated extract, and it scared the shit out of me. I don’t like the window it provides. It’s not really a window. It’s more like a rocket ship blasting you off. It made me extremely uncomfortable. But it too had true hallucinations, extremely vivid. Part of why I disliked it so much is I had extreme distortions of my sense of touch. I literally felt like silly putty being folded back on myself. It was very, very disconcerting to me. I respect saliva, but will not do it again because I fear it more than I respect it. My assessment was that it literally blasts open your crown chakra and extremely forcibly expels you from your body and into some random mindscape on the inner planes.

      To sum up, I have found the various drugs to be relatively stereotyped. And I say this fully recognizing the unique aspect of any individual session. But nonetheless, I can compare it to my trance or lucid dream experiences (of which I have had many dozens) and they exhibit a much greater diversity than the drug experiences. I very much see the psychedelic drugs as mere “training wheels” that can open the door to the inner realms. But to master them, one must learn a much more refined approach, which is why I now advocate and practice yoga. I don’t like to do the drugs anymore. Part of it is perhaps the fact I am aging and my body can’t take it like when I was younger. But I like to think I am maturing too and therefore wish to have a deeper mastery of altered states.

      Again, James, thank you for the very stimulating and interesting conversation.

      Best,

      Don

      • kashyap vasavada

        Hi Don:
        I will also support your statement about not taking psychedelic drugs even for the purpose of enlightenment or some exhotic mental experiences. Of course if someone wants to take drugs, it is none of my business to advice him/her. Personally I never even smoked cigarettes. In any case Yama and Niyama of Patanjali most likely suggests to keep your Ahar (food you eat ) pure. That implies staying away from all addictions. I am not sure if any of the ancient sages took herbal drugs or not. But the good modern Yogis I have heard of and have respect for, certainly did not take. To be frank, I do not think Timothy Leary led an exemplary life and I would not want my children, grand children or even friends to follow his life style!!

      • Hi Kashyap
        Thank you for adding those important comments. First, about Timothy Leary. I am well-aware of his “exploits”. What I was referring to was his life as a professor of psychology at Harvard, before he became a drug guru. He published some good work in that very early phase of his career when he was still a “straight-edge”. It is a whole other issue as to why he went off the deep-end, and perhaps a conversation for another time.

        Thank you as well for pointing out about yama and niyama. Yes, you are completely correct that taking drugs goes against the prescriptions of yama and niyama, which all revolve around living a pure and simple life-style, that minimize tamas and rajas and maximizes sattva. Of course that precludes all addictions, which are states of imbalance, leading towards either too much tamas (lethargy) or too much rajas (over-excitment).

        Patanjali spells out the place of drugs in the overall yogic picture nicely in aphorism 4.1, that I discussed in Chapter 25. I think it is important to discuss the drug experiences openly and intelligently in the context of aphorism 4.1 because of the prevalence of their use in the West and because many Western intellectuals have glorified drug use. Timothy Leary was a crude proponent, but more respected intellectuals like Aldous Huxley also wrote about psychedelic drugs in a light that was not informed by Hindu or yogic thinking.

        My overall attitude is, as I stated in my articles, that the drugs indeed open windows to the inner realms. But the status of the experiences is comparable to a child learning to ride a bicycle using training wheels. This is the most positive spin on drug use. The implication of course being that the drugs are a mere phase towards a better lifestyle, just as one eventually learns to ride a bike without the training wheels. Of course, drugs can also lead to abuse, and this is not something I advocate at all.

        On a certain level it comes to this. The West has become so brazenly secular and dissociated from the spiritual aspects of our existence, that the drug experiences are, relatively speaking, a potential positive by opening the minds of people who have been raised in the secular mind-set of the West in America and Europe. On the other hand, if you are raised a Hindu, and have grown up in a culture where the spiritual is accepted and taught in a constructive manner, then drugs are, again relatively speaking, not only bad, but irrelevant. There is simply no need for them. I think this relativity of perspective is important to recognize. That way we aren’t tempted to judge people with a “one size fits all” opinion. Thus I am not judgmental about people who do these things, having gone through a phase of experimenting with them myself, and coming to see the truth first hand of the “training wheels” viewpoint, and also why I think its important to contrast with the teachings of yoga, where there is a perfectly logical and rational explanation why the drugs are not needed at all and are in fact bad, in that they are just another form of vikshepa/distraction.

        It is not my intent here to rail against drug use per se, and that is why I have not dealt at length on the issue. So I am glad you raise the point. The big picture I am trying to address far surpasses in scope the issue of drugs. My intent is the rail against all views of the world that are exclusively grounded in paranaga cetana, or outwardly directed consciousness. Ultimately, that is where so many problems lay. If people can learn yoga and learn how to perform pratyak cetana, and ultimately, the various forms of samadhi, I suggest this will restore balance to so many aspects of our present human society that is in a state of imbalance presently. Like for example, useless arguments that divide science from religion from philosophy. In my opinion, the Western cultures that breed these divisive points of view provide fertile ground for so many obviously malignant social behaviors, including doing drugs.

        As always, Kashyap, thank you for sharing your wisdom and spreading your light. It is so wonderful of you to come here and share your thoughts!

        My best wishes,

        Don

  4. kashyap vasavada

    Hi Don:
    Through a nice coincidence, there was a meeting yesterday with a vedantic scholar. I raised this point about hallucinations by psychedelic drugs and experiences by yogic samadhi.He agrees that drugs are mentioned clearly by Patanjali. One point he brought up was that even if the experiences are similar, those through drugs may last only a short time. They would be gone as soon as the effect of drug wears out. Experiences through samadhi would have an ever lasting effect. Also drugs may be addictive and sometimes have dangerous side effects. People have been known to jump out of windows or cause accidents under the influence of drugs.
    I also know two medical scientists who are interested in such things. Their view is that just as drugs have effect on parts of brain, thought processes also may produce chemical type effects.
    Anyway, personally I never needed drugs to get high!! Tea and coffee are good enough for me!! So I would not recommend such drugs to anyone! But I am extremely interested in such issues as extra sensory perceptions, even though we do not even understand connection of consciousness with sensory perceptions!
    Best wishes
    kashyap

    • Hi Kashyap

      Thank you for sharing that information! I appreciate it very much. I completely agree with your scholar friend’s assessment and with your additional comments.

      One technical issue to point out. All known psychedelic drugs, including LSD, mescaline, DMT, and others of this class of compound have no known threshold for physical addition. In fact, they exert the opposite effect known as “tolerance”. Tolerance is the following effect. If on day 1, someone ingests say 50 micrograms of LSD and has an experience of intensity X, on day 2, if they ingest again 50 micrograms, they will have experience of 0.33-0.5X. If on day 3 they again ingest 50 micrograms, they will have experience of 0X, which is to say, the drug will exert no effect.

      This is a well-known phenomenon in cell physiology and is caused by the removal of the drug receptors from the cell membrane by endocytosis. In the above 3-day scenario, it would take on order of 1 week for the cells to repopulate the receptors into the neuron membranes so that (sticking to our example), 50 micrograms of drug would again cause effect X, after 1 week of absence from ingesting the drug.

      Further the effect crosses over amongst the psychedelic drugs (called “cross tolerance”). For example, if, in the above 3-day scenario, on day 4, the user ingested say an amount of mescaline that normally would generate effect X, it too would exert zero effect. This clearly indicates that the same molecular biology underlies the action of this class of substances.

      Tolerance therefore has the interesting effect that one cannot become physically addicted to such substances. The very nature of the cell response to these chemicals prevents it.

      Now, of course, this does not prevent psychological addition to the psychedelic chemicals. However, even this is extremely rare because the effects tend to be so extreme that most users do not enjoy repeating such extreme psychological experiences frequently. Therefore, unlike non-psychedelic drugs of abuse, there is almost zero rate of addition to psychedelic drugs.

      The molecular biologist in me is compelled to point out this biology. None of which is provided by way of an excuse to do these drugs. I made my point about social relativity above.

      But in the end, we are both in full agreement that the correct way to learn of the inner realms is by practicing the proper yogic methods that have been refined by centuries of practice and development in India and other Asian countries. I am in full agreement with you on this, which I consider the main point.

      In fact, these past couple chapters will likely give offense to advocates of psychedelic drug use. That is their problem, not mine. It is my intention not to glorify these drugs, but to put their effects into a proper context. Western science and philosophy are incapable of providing such a context. Yoga is one of the only traditions that provides a broad enough scope and deep enough understanding to show where these drug experiences fit in. This is why Patanjali is able to add them into the Yoga Sutras, as your scholar-friend notes. It is this greater context I have tried to convey in the past couple posts and will continue to convey in future writings.

      Again, Kashyap, thank you for eliciting this discussion here. I think it provides an important commentary to the main text and I am grateful you have raised these issues.

      My best wishes and much respect,

      Don

      • Thanks Don for correcting some of the previous statements about addiction.

        You are completely right that nobody takes psychedelics more than a few times for thrills or frivolous reasons. The experience can often be devastatingly frightening and humbling.

        Of course, the use of psychedelics in a shamanic or initiatory context is widespread around the world. It has also been formalized in religions – peyote and the Native American Church, ayahuasca and Santo Daime and Uniao de Vegetal. My question about soma related also to a question of whether it may have played a role in the Indian world-view that gave rise to yoga. I guess you have probably read Mircea Eliade work on Yoga where he suggests it to be a refined form of shamanism with its supernatural powers arising directly from the shamanic experience. I am not necessarily saying I agree 100% with this view.

        For my part, I find that chanting, meditation, sensory deprivation, controlled breathing, light and sound machines, and the use of psychedelics to all be technologies of one sort or another. They can be employed mindfully or mindlessly. They work well for some people sometimes and not for others. There is no reason they cannot be complementary.

        So let me pose a question to you and Kashyap.

        If a new technology was developed that could provide instant enlightenment (let’s say for the sake of argument it is not some sort of false enlightenment), would you use it?

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