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|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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).
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.