Showing posts with label mindfulness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mindfulness. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Thoughts on having a self - Deric's MindBlog as WebLog - January 2024

In the spirit of the original personal WebLogs of the 1990s that morphed into Blogs that enjoyed a golden era in the 2000s, I am offering readers a trial version of a putative series of posts containing selected and edited free standing clips from my personal  ‘mind journal’ - which is a subset of paragraphs taken from the larger personal journal that I have been maintaining for over 25 years.  Most of these paragraphs suggest perspectives on how our minds work, some are on random topics. I hope these perspectives might not seem too alien to readers, and possibly be found useful by a few.  Below are some mind journal paragraphs from January 2024.

The I* signifier,  (from a recent discussion) might be a good minimal token for expressing the space or process from which the present moment’s version of a self or I can appear. During moments of renewal or recharge,  when awareness first intuits this process, there can be an intense brief sense of naïveté, openness and joy - excitement at the prospect of novelty, experiencing new things. For original mind no activity is off the table.

Has my timing been right a second time?

In the early 1990s I decided that the cream had been skimmed with respect to discovering the basic molecular steps that turn photons of light into a nerve signal in our eyes. Some of the steps were revealed by experiments in my laboratory. I decided to switch my attention to studying how our minds work, not in direct laboratory experiments, but through studying, writing about, and lecturing on the work of others.

Moving from the early to mid 2020s I’m feeling a second ‘the cream has been skimmed’ sentiment with respect to the biology of mind:  There is a general understanding and acknowledgement by the scientific and educated lay community that our illusory predictive selves are generated by impersonal neuronal nerve nets. There is no 'hard problem of consciousness’ - it is an illusion like everything else in our heads - and the main function of counter theories (explanations at the level of quantum physics, etc.) is to sustain the continued academic employment of those espousing them.

I feel like my 2022 UT Forum lecture, “New Perspectives on how our Minds Work” may have been a last hurrah with respect to studying the Biology of Mind, just as the 1996 Brain and Behavioral Sciences article was a last hurrah in my vision research career.

It is feeling like it's time to let go, to move on…perhaps to art, music, AI, studying the emergence of trans-human forms…..

…if other people choose behaviors that will lead to their demise there is little one can do, even with physical restraint and medication, to compel them to choose otherwise. They are performing a version of their I or self that is self destructive, and that they are unable to escape. 

Some are able to escape to feel redemption in surrender to a higher power, being ‘saved by the Lord’ or a secular equivalent such as non-dual awareness. Both are defined by yielding ultimate agency to something other than the experienced I or self - allowing a return to feeling the sense of security and repose of the newborn infant feeling loving care. As that infant begins to develop an I or ego it loses awareness of how much of its well-being depends on powers beyond its control and generates an illusory sense of agency.  

A general rule is to see people as they are, not as you want them to be. However, if you treat people as you want or expect them to be, not as they are, sometimes they might begin to slowly conform to your expectations.  This would be the basis of the effectiveness of Gandhi’s advice to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

1/8/24 When attention is at bay, the gremlins will play, letting one’s disposition and temperament be molded more by outside input and less by internal reflection. The ending slide of several of my talks is the simple phrase “pay attention.”  The ability to do that is a good assay of biological aging and a predictor of longevity.

Attention doesn’t have to be ‘at tension.’ Priors that have pre-tensed muscles for the most probable action to be taken can sometimes be let go.

Now that I know that I can go to the engine room and reboot the Deric-OS with relative ease, there is no compelling reason to emphasize remaining there. What is needed is an appropriate balance between the brain’s attentional and default mode (mind wandering or rumination) systems,  just as with sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic nervous systems. Going to extremes interferes with remaining gently attentive to one’s states of arousal, valence, and agency (A/V/A) and in touch with value, purpose, and meaning (V/P/M).

The point of paying attention is not to be in some sort of constant blissful or calm state, but rather just to be a normal creature. This journal is a useful present centered tool that modulates appropriate function by enhancing recall of the recent past and projected future.

There wants to be a spontaneous dance between intentional and mind wandering modes in the present moment. That way, one might manage to break the pattern of having a morning high energy caffeine fueled attentional focusing, which with the fading of the chemistry turns into an overly aimless mind wandering in the afternoon. Perhaps, if both could be kept in check, one might have a more seamless moving through a day, particularly as one’s energy begins to wane towards its end.  

1/14/24 Trying to describe the 'new platform' (Deric-OS, self center of gravity, I*, where experienced self is coming from) doing frequent resets to zero in the midst of change that toggle the system to problem solving, matching input to appropriate output, like a learning newborn. Short circuiting blips of arousal or fear that are irrelevant, but still able to run from a lion attack. Going with the computer metaphor, ‘processing platform’ as a candidate for a bit of language that describes what is indescribable in words.

Mulling over how little of my self (I*, it)  experience is spent outside of my linguistic narrative self thread.
Arousal/Valence/Agency (real/real/imagined) are the deep structure of the whole show, and well being occurs to the extent that the sliders are the the direction of low/high/high.

Construing oneself as kind and caring caretaker of family and friends yields value, purpose, and meaning (V/P/M), and integrates it with the machine room viscera.. And, the kindness and positivity of the caretaker role nudges the valence part of A/V/A towards being more positive. This supports being a caring presence that observes, listens, asks questions. Wishing the best for others, while letting their experiences and issues be their own.

1/19/24 The pre-linguistic animal platform as experienced center of gravity with language bits that rise from the simmering caldron to enable connections with other humans experienced as ephemeral transient wisps or vapors, with the real biological creature being the vastly larger originating presence, the creature's experienced place of rest and residence.

A grandiose fantasy: The Imperial Poobah, secure in its belief in itself as master of the random, the surfer of uncertainty. Ready to face the  “There be dragons there” description sometimes written on unexplored areas depicted on ancient maps of the world.

1/21/24 There is so little to provide a sustaining narrative in the current social and geopolitical context that expanding awareness towards its interoceptive, prelinguistic, gestural and prosodic animal state becomes more appealing and sustaining, along with letting awareness focus on potential remedies rather than further detailed descriptions of dysfunctions. Being active in pursuing small sanities.

Mulling over the calm and equanimity offered by impersonality, being 'it', the animal, just resting, watching. Also able to be kind and caring in response to input from others, offering sympathy, empathy, and accepting that one might influence but can not  compel fixes to problems that are not one’s own.

Mulling over how I continue to spew out chunks of ideas, presenting them in the flow of the present moment, from which they then recede to become part of a largely lost and unrecognized archive, still accessible in principle by searches - but I frequently have difficulty finding them. My golden bonbons of the moment, finding their resting place among their previous instances. Think of Andrew Sullivan’s once prominent blog ‘The Daily Dish,’ mostly unknown to the present. It doesn’t matter. One still keeps banging out the material.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Titles and URLs for key MindBlog posts on selves

I pass on a chronological list of titles and URLs of MindBlog posts assembled in preparation for a video chat with a European MindBlog reader:

An "Apostle's Creed" for the humanistic scientific materialist?

Some rambling on "Selves" and “Purpose”

Self, purpose, and tribal mentality as Darwinian adaptations (or…Why why aren’t we all enlightened?)

MindBlog passes on a note: on the relief of not being yourself

Points on having a self and free will.

I am not my problem

The non-duality industry as a panacea for the anxieties of our times?

Enlightenment, Habituation, and Renewal - Or, Mindfulness as the opiate of the thinking classes?

A quick MindBlog riff on what a self is….

MindBlog paragraphs bloviating on the nature of the self ask Google Bard and Chat GPT 4 for help

A MindBlog paragraph on non-dual awareness massaged by Bard and ChatGPT-4

Constructing Self and World  

Anthropic Claude's version of my writing on the Mind - a condensation of my ideas  

A Materialist's Credo

How our genes support our illusory selves - the "Baldwin effect"




Sunday, April 23, 2023

How does a meditation app move toward becoming a corporate behemoth?

I've spoken highly of Sam Harris' "Waking Up" App, which now clocks me as having done 776 practice or theory sessions.  I would recommend his theory sessions on the fundamentals of meditation, the illusory self, and free will are the best I have come across. My use of the App has diminished as I have become habituated and mildly allergic to Harris' spoken delivery style, but the continual recruitment of new contributing gurus alleviates that problem. I could wish he would put all of his own material down in written form.   The app has been so successful that I'm not surprised to have two emails I recently received that I can't resist passing on in their entirety.  It would appear that "Waking Up" is moving for the big time, to become a complete and self sustaining corporate entity, even opening up a retail shop selling personal items. Perhaps this is permitting the intense Mr. Harris to pass on some of his chores to others, dial back his direct involvement, and take more of his deep breaths.  Here are the emails:

Over the past several months, we’ve put out two calls to our members: one for creators and another for potential show hosts. We’ve been blown away by the extraordinary amount of talent we’ve seen, and have already begun to develop various projects with our members.  

We know there are many brilliant people who use and love the app. And whatever we do out in the world, we prefer it to be with members 

So, we want to know who you are. 

Here are some roles we’re interested in, specifically:
  • Vocal producer for original series (working with our contributors to shape their content and delivery)
  • Creative marketing lead for various digital campaigns we’re planning to run 
  • Actors for potential video shorts 
  • Copy editors for transcription reviews (with a basic grasp of Buddhist and Hindu concepts and terms)
  • Corporate finance experts with CFO experience
  • Apparel executives (specifically, if you own an apparel brand or have deep experience in the industry)
But those are just for more immediate opportunities. Whether you’re a musician, actor, comedian, journalist, poet, lawyer, filmmaker, marketer, designer, author, artist, technologist, engineer, meditation teacher, scholar, or anyone else, we want to know about you. 

We have no idea what might come of this, but we’re excited to continue growing Waking Up—and, as we do, we’d like it to be with some of you. Please know that, while we won’t be able to get back to most people, we’ll read every submission. 
Feel free to send us a note at, too. We’re looking forward to learning about all the expertise, know-how, and creativity within the Waking Up community.

The Waking Up shop is now live. 

We have a very limited number of t-shirts, hoodies, pens, mugs, keychains, and other items. 

We may or may not offer more items in the future, so we encourage you to grab whichever items you like. 

Thanks for your support of Waking Up—and for being a member. 

Friday, April 14, 2023

Breath - Some basic facts and instructions

I’ve enjoyed reading through James Nestor’s book “Breath - The new science of a lost art,”  and I tried out some of the exercises he points to, such as Tummo, which increases breathing to deliver a brief shock therapy to the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems that regulate breathing, thus temporarily resetting to a more appropriate balance between the two.  He describes numerous useful breathing therapies that have been discovered, forgotten, and then rediscovered over the past 3000 years by different cultural and religious traditions, and in the past 300 years by more modern medical and scientific insights.  Nestor: “Breathing is a key input. From what I’ve learned in the past decade, that 30 pounds of air that passes through our lungs every day and that 1.7 pounds of oxygen our cells consume is as important as what we eat or how much we exercise. Breathing is a missing pillar of health.”

The epilogue to his book provides a very concise list of breathing instructions that can serve as preventative maintenance to assist in maintaining balance in the body so that milder problems don’t blossom into more serious health issues and might restore balance when it is lost.  Here is Nestor’s list, with an assist from ChatGPT 4 condensations of the book’s text that I have tweaked where appropriate.  The condensations are amazing.  They cut through the folksy personal reader-friendly stuff to give the basic facts presented.

In a nutshell, this is what we’ve learned:


A 20-day study found that chronic mouth breathing has significant negative effects on health, including increased stress hormones, risk of sinus infections, high blood pressure, and reduced heart rate variability. Participants experienced persistent nocturnal suffocation, snoring, and sleep apnea, potentially leading to hypertension, metabolic and cognitive problems. Although some measurements remained unchanged, the overall impact was negative, with participants experiencing fatigue, irritation, anxiety, and other discomforts. The human body has evolved to breathe through both the nose and mouth for a reason, and chronic mouth breathing is not a normal or healthy behavior.


Upon switching back to nasal breathing, participants experienced improved health, with normalized blood pressure, carbon dioxide levels, and heart rates. Snoring reduced dramatically and nasal infections cleared up. Nasal breathing also enhanced physical performance on a stationary bike. The positive outcomes of nasal breathing inspired further research into the effects of sleep tape on snoring and sleep apnea. The experience emphasized the importance of nasal breathing for overall well-being and debunked misconceptions about chronic allergies, congestion, and sleep issues being natural parts of life.


Carl Stough spent a half century reminding his students of how to get all the air out of our bodies so that we could take more in. He emphasized the importance of proper exhalation to improve various aspects of health and performance. By training individuals to exhale longer and more fully, he enabled emphysema patients to recover significantly, opera singers to improve their voices, asthmatics to prevent attacks, and Olympic sprinters to win gold medals. Practicing full exhalations and engaging more of the lung capacity can enhance breathing efficiency, leading to better overall performance and well-being.


Ancient skeletons and pre-Industrial Age skulls exhibit large sinus cavities, strong jaws, and straight teeth, attributed to extensive chewing. Unlike other bones, facial bones can continue to grow and remodel throughout life, allowing for improvements in breathing ability at any age. To achieve this, incorporate rougher, raw, and heartier foods into your diet, similar to what our ancestors consumed, which require more chewing effort. Practicing proper mouth posture with lips together, teeth slightly touching, and tongue on the roof of the mouth is also important.


While over breathing can be harmful, practicing controlled, heavy breathing for short, intense periods, such as in Tummo, Sudarshan Kriya, and vigorous pranayamas, can be therapeutic. These techniques intentionally stress the body to reset its normal functions and improve overall well-being. Conscious heavy breathing helps us gain control over our autonomic nervous systems and bodies, transforming us from passive passengers to active pilots of our own health.


Dr. Donald Klein's research on chemoreceptor flexibility, carbon dioxide, and anxieties inspired further investigation into the connections between the amygdalae, breathing, and anxiety. The amygdalae, which govern perceptions of fear and emotions, also control aspects of breathing, and communication between chemoreceptors and the amygdalae is crucial. People with anxiety may suffer from connection issues between these areas, causing them to unintentionally hold their breath and ultimately panic. As a result, their bodies may adapt by over breathing to maintain low carbon dioxide levels. This suggests that anxiety might not be a psychological problem, but rather a natural reaction to an emergency in the body. Further research is needed to test this theory, which could explain why slow and steady breathing therapy is effective for panic, anxiety, and other fear-based conditions.


The perfect breath, according to the author, involves inhaling for 5.5 seconds and exhaling for 5.5 seconds, resulting in 5.5 breaths per minute and a total of about 5.5 liters of air. Practicing this perfect breathing promotes peak efficiency in the body. Many devices and apps are being developed to help people breathe at this optimal rate. However, the simplest approach requires no technology or equipment and can be practiced anywhere, anytime. This technique has been used by our ancestors for thousands of years, and the author uses it as a way to return to normalcy after periods of stress or inactivity.


An appendix to Nestor's book describes several different breathing techniques (such as alternative nostril breathing) and an extended bibliography available at James Nestor's website offers video and audio tutorial for numerous breathing techniques.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Mindful attention enhances brain network control and uncouples past from the present

Zhou et al. (open source) do an interesting experiment on mindfulness and brain network control:  


Practicing mindfulness helps individuals regulate attention, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In recognizing these benefits, various schools, workplaces, and clinics are increasingly teaching mindfulness. How does mindful attention change brain function to support self-regulation? Addressing this question could inform how we teach mindfulness and whom we expect to benefit. We modeled the defining components of mindful experience using tools that probe the structure and function of the brain’s network. In a randomized controlled study of alcohol consumption, we found that a brain network’s dynamic shape predicts individuals’ future alcohol consumption and explains otherwise elusive components of mindful experience, such as being present. Our results provide new understanding of how mindful attention affects brain function.
Mindful attention is characterized by acknowledging the present experience as a transient mental event. Early stages of mindfulness practice may require greater neural effort for later efficiency. Early effort may self-regulate behavior and focalize the present, but this understanding lacks a computational explanation. Here we used network control theory as a model of how external control inputs—operationalizing effort—distribute changes in neural activity evoked during mindful attention across the white matter network. We hypothesized that individuals with greater network controllability, thereby efficiently distributing control inputs, effectively self-regulate behavior. We further hypothesized that brain regions that utilize greater control input exhibit shorter intrinsic timescales of neural activity. Shorter timescales characterize quickly discontinuing past processing to focalize the present. We tested these hypotheses in a randomized controlled study that primed participants to either mindfully respond or naturally react to alcohol cues during fMRI and administered text reminders and measurements of alcohol consumption during 4 wk postscan. We found that participants with greater network controllability moderated alcohol consumption. Mindful regulation of alcohol cues, compared to one’s own natural reactions, reduced craving, but craving did not differ from the baseline group. Mindful regulation of alcohol cues, compared to the natural reactions of the baseline group, involved more-effortful control of neural dynamics across cognitive control and attention subnetworks. This effort persisted in the natural reactions of the mindful group compared to the baseline group. More-effortful neural states had shorter timescales than less effortful states, offering an explanation for how mindful attention promotes being present.

Monday, January 02, 2023

Enlightenment, Habituation, and Renewal - Or, Mindfulness as the opiate of the thinking classes?

This New Year’s post is directed to the small number of MindBlog readers who might be sympathetic to some of my private random rants. Perhaps I should keep them to myself, but here goes…..

All enlightenment traditions - such as Abrahamic, Buddhist, Hindu, or other schools of meditative insight - have a common issue. How can the central canon or dogma of the way things are be renewed and kept fresh? The usual practice is to repeat a liturgy set down by gurus of a given tradition, but with each repetition by a particular vendor the gospel begins to loose its force. The transforming clarity of the initial enlightenment fades as the habituation and desensitization associated with all repetitive activities begins to set in. ‘Reset buttons’ that are temporarily effective can sometimes be found by turning to different vendors of the central message, who in this smartphone age can each package and deliver their respective theory or practice sessions in a sonorous and calming voices. This frequently is done in 10-30 min chunks that better accommodate our modern diminished attention spans, as well as in longer lectures from workshops or retreats. This approach can be seen in aggregator Apps such as Sam Harris’ “Waking Up,” which delivers the messages of many different teachers. (I wonder if generation Alpha,  born in this century, exists in even more transient states of tik-tok mind, twitter mind, or instagram mind that preclude even this level of engagement?)

I would guess that over the past year or two I have listened to ~150 such lectures. As I see the same basic points reframed in many different ways, I begin to think “Y’know, it seems that the fundamental axioms of enlightenment that are expressible in language are being repetitively rediscovered throughout history and repeatedly archived.  I feel like their verbal messages are as ingrained in my consciousness as the language of the mathematical and chemical structures I have known most of my life.”

My flippant ‘mindfulness as the opiate of the thinking classes’ phrase in the title of this post is meaning to point to the fact that the market for vendors of enlightenment is a distinctive one. Existential angst, or worrying about value, purpose, and meaning seem most pressing to a relatively small number of highly urbanized and literate humans. I can’t imagine that my two Abyssinian cats, who I sometimes takes to be my best role models, spend a significant fraction of their time worrying about the meeting of it all, or pondering the subtleties of epistemology and ontology. 

So….what beyond words? A space or perspective that doesn’t contain them can only be pointed at by using them in the dualistic context of a sender and receiver. I can, for example, try to use words to give a crude voice to the mute homeostatic generative visceral organic axes of valence and arousal that underlie and generate everything that I am and experience right now: “Dude, get a grip, I (the visceral one) am the one who is actually running this show, deciding where it goes and whether it works or shuts down, the sooner the “I” you imagine yourself to be realizes this and lets go, the sooner some kind of sane space is attained. All of the surface behaviors acted out for others to see - the family man, the professor, the pianist - are shadow play shimmering on the surface of this basic organic substrate, like water insects skittering around on the surface of a pond. What is writing these words is just another one of the contents of consciousness flitting past. Just turn yourself around to look quickly for the writer…what do you see? What do you see as you imagine being first born into this world? The brief glimpses of expanded naive awareness sometimes elicited by questions such as these have the potential of permitting a scrubbing, refreshing, or renewal of consciousness in a way that permits more choice in selecting which prior individual selves and self habits rise to compose current self conscious life. 

Different iterations of these sentiments, different vendings of the sort mentioned in the first paragraph above, can be found in two previous MindBlog posts. One from Nov. 25:  

Perhaps an increasing number of people who engage techniques for facilitating non-dual awareness find themselves seeing and experiencing the "I" or self that feels threatened by our anxious times from a more useful perspective - an inclusive expanded awareness that includes the reporting "I" or self as just one of its many contents that include passing thoughts, perceptions, actions, and feelings.  A calm can be found in this expanded awareness that permits a  dis-association of the experienced breathing visceral center of gravity of our animal body from the emotional and linguistic veneer of politics and conflict. This does not remove the necessity of facing various societal dysfunctions, but offers the prospect of doing so without debilitating the organic physiological core from which everything we experience rises.  

And the other from Oct. 26, passing on a masterful exposition from James Low that I can not improve on.

If you want stability, if you want real peace, you already have that in the nature of awareness. But if you look to manifestation, to patterning of yourself, to thinking you could establish a stable personalty, to live a life in which you were happy all the time, or in which you were your own person, that way madness lies. To find our original face, to find the ground of our primordial being, we need to release our fixation on the dialogic movement of subject and object, and allow ourselves to be the space within which the movement of experience is occurring. Awareness means being aware that we are present without being something as such. This is a great mystery. When we look at phenomena the world, things exist as something. A car is not a cow, an apple is not an orange, compare and contrast, category allocation. That’s how our cognition, our conceptual elaboration functions to give a seemingly enduring structure to identifications. But awareness can’t be caught. It’s not a thing. You can’t pin a tail on the donkey, there is no donkey there. The mind is not an object for itself, it is self luminous awareness, but you can’t catch it. You can never know your mind but you can be your mind. We are awareness and that’s a very important distinction.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

A lucid exposition on non-dual awareness by James Low

The ‘Waking Up’ app by Sam Harris has posted a series of lectures by James Low that “makes the esoteric teachings of Dzogchen—a non-dual contemplative tradition from Tibet—profoundly accessible.”   I want to pass on to MindBlog readers the following paragraph made up of small clips of text  I have taken from his lecture #4 “The Field of Experience.” Low’s website points to his lectures, writing, and videos of his lectures.
If you want stability, if you want real peace, you already have that in the nature of awareness. But if you look to manifestation, to patterning of yourself, to thinking you could establish a stable personalty, to live a life in which you were happy all the time, or in which you were your own person, that way madness lies. To find our original face, to find the ground of our primordial being, we need to release our fixation on the dialogic movement of subject and object, and allow ourselves to be the space within which the movement of experience is occurring. Awareness means being aware that we are present without being something as such. This is a great mystery. When we look at phenomena the world, things exist as something. A car is not a cow, an apple is not an orange, compare and contrast, category allocation. That’s how our cognition, our conceptual elaboration functions to give a seemingly enduring structure to identifications. But awareness can’t be caught. It’s not a thing. You can’t pin a tail on the donkey, there is no donkey there. The mind is not an object for itself, it is self luminous awareness, but you can’t catch it. You can never know your mind but you can be your mind. We are awareness and that’s a very important distinction.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Non-duality as a platform for experiencing daily life.

I pass on abstracted edited clip from a recent podcast conversation between Sam Harris and M.I.T philosopher Kierna Setiya on “Philosophy and the Good Life” which has a succinct definition of what Harris takes non-duality or ‘having no self’ to mean, and how experiencing this can lead to a surprising kind of equanimity and even eudemonia, as well as solving a very wide class of psychological problems. I suggest that MindBlog readers who enjoy this subject matter also have a look back at my March 22 post, titled "Points on having a self and free will."
There can be confusion over what is meant by no-self in various meditative traditions. It’s not the claim that people are illusions, or that you can’t say anything about the psychological or biological continuity of a person. It’s not mysterious that we wake up today as ourselves and not someone else. These are not the puzzles being addressed.
The core insight, the illusion that is cut through, conceptually and experientially, is our apparent normal default condition of feeling like there is a subject in the center of experience. Most people don’t merely feel identical to experience, they feel like they are having an experience, they feel like they are appropriating their experience from some point - very likely in their heads - the witness, the thinker of thoughts, the willer of will, the guy in the boat who has free will, who can decide what to think and do next. That’s the default state for almost everybody, and commonplace as it is, it is a peculiar point of view. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly biological sense. It’s not the same thing as feeling identical to our bodies, because we usually don’t feel identical to our bodies, we feel like we are subjects who have bodies, there is a kind of Cartesian dualism that is intuitive. People are ‘common sense dualists.’ As a matter of experience there is this feeling that “I am a subject behind my face.” “I” have a body, am a subject who is thinking, internal to the body, has a body. It is the final representation of the subject that is the illusion.
To put this in neurological terms, let’s just say for the sake of argument at all of this is just neurophysiological events in the brain delivering these representations. It is plausible that any one of these processes can be interrupted, so that you can cease to faithfully or coherently represent a world. You can suddenly go blind, may not be able to name living things but still be able to name tools, suddenly not be able to perceive motion or location, those things can break apart. All kinds of things can be disrupted for the worse certainly. But what these contemplative traditions have recognized is that certain things can be disrupted or brought to a halt for the better. The thing that can interrupt the usual cascade of mediocrity and suffering psychologically speaking is this representation of self as subject in the middle of experience.
You can cease to construct a subject that is internal to the body. What remains in that case is a sense that mind is much vaster than it was a moment ago, because it is no longer confined to the sense that there is this central thinker of thoughts. There is a recognition that thoughts arise all by themselves, just as sounds do, no one is authoring your thoughts - you certainly aren’t. The sense that you are is what it feels like to be identified with this next spontaneously arising thought.
So, you loose sense that you are on the edge of your life, looking over your own shoulder, appropriating experience and what you can feel very vividly here is a real unity. emptyness, non-duality of subjects and objects, such that there is really just experience. This is not a new way of thinking about yourself in the world, this is a ceasing to identify with thought. This is making no metaphysical claims about how this relates to matter or the universe.
As as matter of experience you can feel identical to experience itself. You are not standing on the river bank watching things go by, you are the river, and that solves a very wide class of problems, psychologically speaking, with respect to suffering. And, it does land one in a surprising kind of equanimity and even eudemonia (well being) that may seem counter intuitive in the midst of the cacophony of daily life. But again, it’s not about the negation of personhood, it is just a recognition that as a matter of experience there is just experience, and the feeling that there is an experiencer is yet more experience, so that if you just drop back… there is just everything in its own place.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Graphic depictions of an integrative model of mind

To hopefully enhance the chance that you will pay attention to the creative and seminal thinking in the open source Laukkonen and Slagter review article whose abstract I passed on in my July 21 post,  I now pass on their striking concluding statement and then  two graphics whose legends summarize the main ideas presented. I think this work offers a plausible and appealing integration of neuroscience and meditative traditions.  

We have taken on the daunting task of providing a theory for understanding the effects of meditation within the predictive processing framework. Contemplative science is a young field and predictive processing is a new theory, although both have roots going much farther back. All theories are subject to change, but perhaps particularly so for such new domains of enquiry. Nevertheless, we think the conditions are suitable for a more overarching theory that may also thwart further siloing and fragmentation of scientific research, as has been commonplace among the mind-sciences. A strength of our framework is its simplicity: Being in the here and now reduces predictive processing. And yet, this basic idea can explain how each meditation technique uniquely deconstructs the minds tendency to project the past onto the present, how certain insights may arise, the nature of hierarchical self-processing, and the plasticity of the human mind. There is scope here, we think, to eventually reveal what makes a meditator an expert, why meditation has such broad clinical effects, and how we might begin mitigating some of the negative consequences of meditation. Last but not least, our framework seems to bring ancient Eastern and modern scientific ideas closer together, showing how the notion of conditioned experience in Buddhism aligns with the notion of the experience-dependent predictive brain.

Fig. 1. Here we use the Pythagoras Tree to provide an intuitive illustration of how organisms represent the world with increasing counterfactual depth or abstraction. The tree is constructed using squares that are scaled down by the square root of 2 divided by 2 and placed such that the corners of the squares meet and form a triangle between them, recursively. Analogously, the brain constructs experience from temporally precise and unimodal models of present-moment sensory representations and input (e.g., pixels on a screen), into ever more abstract, transmodal, and temporally deep models (e.g., a theory paper). Meditation brings one increasingly into the present moment, thus reducing the tendency to conceptualize away from the here and now, akin to observing the pixels rather than the words. This reduction of conceptualization ought to also have profound effects on the sense of self, which also relies on abstract model building, and ultimately is said to reveal an underlying seemingly “unconditioned” state of consciousness as such (like the white background underlying the pixels).

Fig. 2. In this schematic we illustrate two aspects of the many-to-(n)one model. The first and most foundational proposal is that meditation gradually flattens the predictive hierarchy or ‘prunes the counterfactual tree’, by bringing the meditator into the here and now, illustrated in the left figure. Thus, meditative depth is defined by the extent that the organism is not constructing temporally thick predictions. In the right figure, we dissect the predictive hierarchy into three broad levels. We propose that thinking (and therefore the narrative self [NS]) sits at the top of the predictive hierarchy (Carhart-Harris and Friston, 2010, 2019). Sensing and perceiving and therefore the embodied experiencing self [ES] sits below it (Gallagher, 2000; Seth, 2013). Finally, a basal form of self-hood characterized by the subject-object [S/O] duality sits at the earliest level. FA brings the practitioner out of the narrative self and into a more experiencing and embodied mode of being. Then, through dereification from present moment experience (including bodily sensations) OM brings the practitioner more into a state where contents of experience are treated equally, and one is able to experience non-judgmentally (sensing without appraisal), but even in very advanced states, a subject-object duality remains. During OM, certain epistemic discoveries or insights about the nature and behavior of generative models may occur. Finally, through ND practices the subject-object distinction may fall away and the background or “groundless ground” of all experience—awareness itself—can be uncovered. Another way to characterize this process is as follows: FA employs regular (conditional) attention to an object of sensing, OM employs bare (unconditional) attention, and ND practice employs reflexive awareness that permits the non-dual witnessing of the subject-object dichotomy and finally pure or non-dual awareness by releasing attention altogether.



Wednesday, July 21, 2021

From many to (n)one: Meditation and the plasticity of the predictive mind

I had a chat with my former University of Wisconsin colleague Richard Davidson during my visit to Madison, WI last week, and he pointed me to an excellent open source review article by Laukkonen and Slagter, From many to (n)one: Meditation and the plasticity of the predictive mind. They offer an integrated predictive processing account of three main styles of meditation. I just finished reading through their lucid account and plan to carefully re-read it several times. I pass on the summary points and abstract: 


• Predictive processing provides a novel theoretical window on meditation. 
• Deconstructive meditations progressively reduce temporally deep processing. 
• Insight experiences arise during meditation due to Bayesian model reduction 
• Meditation deconstructs self models by reducing abstract processing. 
• Non-dual awareness or pure consciousness is the ‘here and now’.
How profoundly can humans change their own minds? In this paper we offer a unifying account of deconstructive meditation under the predictive processing view. We start from simple axioms. First, the brain makes predictions based on past experience, both phylogenetic and ontogenetic. Second, deconstructive meditation brings one closer to the here and now by disengaging anticipatory processes. We propose that practicing meditation therefore gradually reduces counterfactual temporally deep cognition, until all conceptual processing falls away, unveiling a state of pure awareness. Our account also places three main styles of meditation (focused attention, open monitoring, and non-dual) on a single continuum, where each technique relinquishes increasingly engrained habits of prediction, including the predicted self. This deconstruction can also permit certain insights by making the above processes available to introspection. Our framework is consistent with the state of empirical and (neuro)phenomenological evidence and illuminates the top-down plasticity of the predictive mind. Experimental rigor, neurophenomenology, and no-report paradigms are needed to further understanding of how meditation affects predictive processing and the self.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Points on having a self and free will.

 A recent podcast by Sam Harris summarizing his ideas on the question of whether we have free will motivates me to do a further summary here…

There is a broad consensus among many disciplines that our experience of having a self or “I” is an illusion (see for example my lecture “The I-Illusion” and subsequent web lectures).  This self illusion is what has the experience of ‘free will,’ of being free to make choices. Having a self is other side of the coin of having free will.

Here is my one paragraph paraphrase of points that Sam Harris’ makes in his ‘Waking Up’ App, and book of that title, as well as his recent podcast:

We all are concatenations of previous causes with the most recent proximal cause rising from this subconscious mist.  What we take to be our 'self' or 'I' is actually the archive of our past actions and experiences, stored in long term declarative and procedural memory systems from which thoughts and actions of the present instant  seem to rise from nowhere - 'we' don't 'choose' them, they just seem to appear.  Having morality doesn't require free will, it is accomplished by having a historical coltlective record of what actions do or don't work out well, with respect to holding society together and passing on our genes. Thinking that 2 + 2 = 5 or killing other humans have bad consequences.  It is from this history of actions and expectations in our brain that the moral choices of the moment arise, again as if from nowhere.

Still, most of us, even if granting the above, can’t imagine losing our feeling of having a self, it seems too useful, we couldn’t get along without it.  This problem is addressed at the end of my “I-Illusion” talk with text based on points Wegner makes at the end of his classic 2002 book “The Illusion of Conscious Will” : 

…..the important point is that we have the experience of having free will, and it must be there for something, even if it is not an adequate theory of behavior causation....perhaps we have conscious will because it helps us to appreciate and remember what we are doing, the experience of will marks our actions for us, its embodied quality our actions from those of other agents in our environment.

We have evolved emotions of anger, sadness, fear, happiness related to survival. We can think of the emotion of agency, or conscious will, as the same sort of evolved emotion, obviously a useful capability in sorting out our physical and social world. 

The authorship emotion, an emotion that authenticates the action's owner as the self, is something we would miss if it were gone... it would not be very satisfying to go through life causing things, making discoveries, helping people, whatever.. if we had no personal recognition of those achievements.

And, this view doesn't really need to conflict with notions of responsibility and morality, because what people intend and consciously will is a basis for how the moral rightness or wrongness of an act judged. This is why mental competence is an issue in criminal trials.

So, just as in theater, art, used car sales ...and in the scientific analysis of conscious things seem is more important than what they are. It seems to us that we have selves, have conscious will, have minds, are agents. While it is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion, it is incorrect to call the illusion a trivial one, its invention has an obvious evolutionary rationale (along with long list of cognitive biases we seem to be hardwired with). Illusions piled on top of apparent mental causation are the building blocks of human psychology, social life, and our dominance as a species on this planet.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Evidence for an influence of meditation on immune-related pathways?

I pass on the abstract, below, and also the entire text of a study by Chaix et al.:


• We explored the methylome of trained meditators vs untrained controls in PBMCs. 
• No significant basal difference in methylation profiles was observed between groups. 
• Meditators showed 61 Differentially Methylated Sites after a meditation practice day. 
• These DMS were enriched in genes associated with immune cell processes and ageing. 
• Controls showed no significant DMS after a leisure-based control intervention. 
The human methylome is dynamically influenced by psychological stress. However, its responsiveness to stress management remains underexplored. Meditation practice has been shown to significantly reduce stress level, among other beneficial neurophysiological outcomes. Here, we evaluated the impact of a day of intensive meditation practice (t2−t1 = 8 h) on the methylome of peripheral blood mononuclear cells in experienced meditators (n = 17). In parallel, we assessed the influence of a day of leisure activities in the same environment on the methylome of matched control subjects with no meditation experience (n = 17). DNA methylation profiles were analyzed using the Illumina 450 K beadchip array. We fitted for each methylation site a linear model for multi-level experiments which adjusts the variation between t1 and t2 for baseline differences. No significant baseline differences in methylation profiles was detected between groups. In the meditation group, we identified 61 differentially methylated sites (DMS) after the intervention. These DMS were enriched in genes mostly associated with immune cell metabolism and ageing and in binding sites for several transcription factors involved in immune response and inflammation, among other functions. In the control group, no significant change in methylation level was observed after the day of leisure activities. These results suggest that a short meditation intervention in trained subjects may rapidly influence the epigenome at sites of potential relevance for immune function and provide a better understanding of the dynamics of the human methylome over short time windows.
These are clearly very initial findings that need followup to determine the relationship between the fast epigenetic changes caused by the daylong meditative and previously reported long lasting effects of the practice. There need to be randomized controlled studies with larger sample sizes, active control groups, long-term follow-ups, etc.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Wellness apps can't cure our digital dehumanization

Wortham describes the surge in the use of wellness Apps as we have shifted our entire lives indoors this past year and notes that they can't address the real problem of the alienation of 21st-century work as email, social media, and zoom are making us increasingly miserable. (see, for example, Newport's description of how in an attempt to work more effectively, we've accidentally deployed an inhumane way to collaborate (email) that causes verbal overload, and Bailenson's arguement that nonverbal overload is one of the root causes of the Zoom fatigue that is experienced by many of us.)

Wortham notes that the pandemic fatigue resulting from shifting our lives indoors and online, blurring even further the distinction between work and everything else, has resulted in a huge increase in the use of apps to help in coping with increased stresses:

Mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace, Fabulous, Rootd and Liberate all surged over the past year, downloaded by people in search of reprieve from the crushing anxiety of the virus. Even the mere act of tapping Calm open has a narcotic effect: You can hear a thick, sonorous hum of crickets and see a picture of a serene mountain range and peaceful lake. Last April, as the world moved into a global lockdown, more than two million people paid $69.99 for an annual subscription to the app, which includes a selection of “daily calms,” or short talks on things like the beauty of mandalas and de-escalating conflict, breathing exercises and soundscapes with titles like “White Noise Ocean Surf” and “Wind in Pines.”
Wellness, the way our culture chooses to define it, has become synonymous with productivity and self-optimization. But wellness isn’t something that can be downloaded and consumed, even if the constellations of sun-drenched photos on your Instagram feed indicate otherwise.
Our attachment to our devices and what we see on them is often the cause of our angst...research suggests that our fixation on our smartphones contributes to headaches, bad posture, fatigue, depression and anxiety... Endlessly scrolling through Netflix and checking social media notifications is not just a byproduct of boredom; it’s a function of design intended to be so persuasive that it feels urgent and impossible to stop. Technology is doing more than capturing our attention — it’s extracting whatever data it can get from us and monetizing it. Shoshana Zuboff, a social psychologist and professor emerita at Harvard, describes this as “surveillance capitalism,” the mining of private human experiences for raw behavioral data that can be sold to advertisers eager to anticipate trends in the marketplace.
Social media monetizes the urgency of wanting, and there are economic incentives for keeping us engaged, unhappy, seeking, convinced there’s something more to consume, something better to do, learn or buy. Buddhism teaches that there are no quick fixes, and apps like Calm are better at advertising relaxing services — and profiting from them — than they are at actually providing them in a meaningful way. Mindfulness is less about reducing stress and more about reducing dissatisfaction through direct investigation of our experience. But marketing stress reduction is more successful, and definitely more likely to win a download or corporate account.
We’re already isolated from our communities, and pandemic fatigue is pushing us even farther away from one another. Corporate wellness strategies mimic the most problematic parts of wellness culture, equating care with a Wi-Fi-connected bike rather than finding ways to work together and form new models of health and care-taking that don’t automatically ascribe our value to how much we can do. For many of us, work is not responsible for our freedom or even satisfaction: It shouldn’t dictate our well-being, either.




Monday, March 01, 2021

Humans are animals - get over it. Let go of 'the purpose and meaning of it all'

Philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell does a piece discussing how relentlessly Western philosophy has strained to prove we are not squirrels:
...It’s almost as though the existence of animals, and their various similarities to humans, constituted insults. Like a squirrel, I have eyes and ears, scurry about on the ground and occasionally climb a tree...Our shared qualities — the fact that we are both hairy or that we have eyes or we poop, for example — are disconcerting if I am an immortal being created in the image of God and the squirrel just a physical organism, a bundle of instincts.
“The moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality,” writes Immanuel Kant in “Critique of Practical Reason.” In this assertion, at least, the Western intellectual tradition has been remarkably consistent...The connection of such ideas to the way we treat animals — for example, in our food chain — is too obvious to need repeating...Further trouble is caused when the distinctions between humans and animals are then used to draw distinctions among human beings...Some of us, in short, are animals — and some of us are better than that. This, it turns out, is a useful justification for colonialism, slavery and racism.
When we restrain or control ourselves, Plato argues, a rational being restrains an animal...In this view, each of us is both a beast and a person — and the point of human life is to constrain our desires with rationality and purify ourselves of animality. These sorts of systematic self-divisions come to be refigured in Cartesian dualism, which separates the mind from the body, or in Sigmund Freud’s distinction between id and ego, or in the neurological contrast between the functions of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
This dualistic view is a disaster, as was noted in my series of posts on Barrett's book on emotions. I like very much the views of Sam Harris' on the great questions of religion and philosophy (which animals can't ask) that seek to establish the purpose and meanign of our lives. Here are some fragments and edits from the "Mindfulness and meaning" lecture in his "Waking Up" app, in which he argues for abandoning the philosopher's search:
What does it all mean, what is the meaning of life? What is our purpose here? These are the great pseudo questions of religion and philosophy. We need not ask them. There is assumption of a massive void in our lives that must be filled by something if we do no have answers to these questions, as from myths, superstition, religion. This is an illusion, an imaginary problem, a pure confection of thought...image the cosmos, evolution of life, DNA, consciousness as it exists in wolves and eagles, but no humans. What you don’t have are all the existential doubts to wonder what does it all mean? No temptation towards teleological thinking, purpose driven thinking. You wouldn’t say a wolf is so important that the universe must have had a higher purpose in producing it. Nor would its beauty be diminished once you acknowledged there is no higher purpose that brought it into the world. The same is true in a world filled with anatomically modern human beings, 10,000 years ago before the advent of language or complex material culture, and conversations like we now have, before anyone could articulate a concern about what does it all mean. Imagine a world with those people. Where would the temptation to wonder about the purpose of it all come from? You, standing outside, wouldn't say 'there must be a higher purpose here'... the world is what it is. Everything is simply appearing on the basis of prior causes.
The meaning of life comes from finding good enough reasons to be deeply immersed in the present moment and people around you, not brooding over past and future. What there is to notice is the intrinsic freedom and openness of consciousness in each moment. Everything is simply appearing and you are the condition in which these things appear...The question of how to live a meaningful life is fairly simple to each moment we have an opportunity to connect with the contents of consciousness, with the sights, sounds, sensations, and ideas that constitute the actual character of our lives, or we can be lost in thought, that is, thinking without knowing that we are thinking, then we are fully at the mercy of whatever thoughts arise, and as you know, the character of so much of our thinking is unhappy, the mind becomes a sort of theater of doubts and anxiety and regret, and it only in this theater that one can get concerned about what it all means, and to get lost in the false questions of philosophy or religion. This moment does not, can not, and need not mean anything or have any purpose, one can only "think" otherwise. And, thinking seems to introduce a crisis of meaning. Mindfulness is the capacity to break this spell and actually connect with experience in the present moment. But it doesn't come naturally, as you may have noticed. So.... that's why we practice it

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The plasticity of well-being and the cultivation of human flourishing

I pass on the abstract of an open source article in PNAS contributed by my former colleague Richard Davidson and his colleages at the University of Wisconsin Center for Healthy Minds. I recomment that you read the whole article.
Research indicates that core dimensions of psychological well-being can be cultivated through intentional mental training. Despite growing research in this area and an increasing number of interventions designed to improve psychological well-being, the field lacks a unifying framework that clarifies the dimensions of human flourishing that can be cultivated. Here, we integrate evidence from well-being research, cognitive and affective neuroscience, and clinical psychology to highlight four core dimensions of well-being—awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. We discuss the importance of each dimension for psychological well-being, identify mechanisms that underlie their cultivation, and present evidence of their neural and psychological plasticity. This synthesis highlights key insights, as well as important gaps, in the scientific understanding of well-being and how it may be cultivated, thus highlighting future research directions.

Friday, October 30, 2020

MindBlog's 5,000th post - The milliseconds of a choice - Watching your mind when it matters.

This was going to be a post on oxytocin research...but I looked at the Blogger counter to see that it will be the 5,000th post done since the start of MindBlog in 2006.  Wow, that's a lot of words.  I've decided to note the occasion by repeating for the second time a post on material I find very fascinating. Here is the 2017 repeat of a 2014 post:

I'm finding, with increasing frequency, that an article about health or psychology in the New York Times that I find interesting has an attached note that it was first published several years earlier. While working on yesterday's MindBlog post I came across a 2014 post I wrote that I think makes some important points about our self-regulation that are worth repeating. So, I'm going to copy what the Times is doing and repeat it today. I'm tempted to edit it, but won't, beyond mentioning that I would considerably tone down my positive reference to brain training games (that I no longer indulge in). Here is the 2014 post:

This is actually a post about mindfulness, in reaction to Dan Hurley's article describing how contemporary applications of the ancient tradition of mindfulness meditation are being engaged in many more contexts than the initial emphasis on chilling out in the 1970s, and being employed for very practical purses such as mental resilience in a war zone. It seems like to me that we are approaching a well defined technology of brain control whose brain basis is understood in some detail. I've done numerous posts on behavioral and brain correlates of mindfulness meditation (enter 'meditation' or 'mindfulness' in MindBlog's search box in the left column). For example, only four weeks of a mindfulness meditation regime emphasizing relaxation of different body parts correlates with increases in white matter (nerve tract) efficiency. Improvements in cognitive performance, working memory, etc. have been claimed. A special issue of The journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience discusses issues in the research.

Full time mindfulness might be a bad idea, suppressing the mind wandering that facilitates bursts of creative insight. (During my vision research career, my most original ideas popped up when I was spacing out, once when I was riding a bike along a lakeshore path.) Many physicists and writers reports their best ideas happen when they are disengaged. It also appears that mindfulness may inhibit implicit learning in which habits and skill are acquired without conscious awareness.

Obviously knowing whether we are in an attentional or mind wandering (default, narrative) modes is useful (see here, and here), and this is where the title of this posts comes in. To note and distinguish our mind state is most effectively accomplished with a particular style of alertness or awareness that is functioning very soon (less than 200 milliseconds) after a new thought or sensory perception appears to us. This is a moment of fragility that offers a narrow time window of choice over whether our new brain activity will be either enhanced or diminished in favor of a more desired activity. This is precisely what is happening in mindfulness meditation that instructs a central focus of some sort (breathing, body relaxation, or whatever) to which one returns as soon as one notes that any other thoughts or distractions have popped into awareness. The ability to rapidly notice and attend to thoughts and emotions of these short time scales is enhanced by brain training regimes of the sort offered by BrainHq of and others. I have found the exercises on this site, originated by Michael Merznich, to be the most useful.  It offers summaries of changes in brain speed, attention, memory, intelligence, navigation, etc. that result from performing the exercises - changes that can persist for years.

A book title that has been popping into my head for at least the last 15 years is "The 200 Millisecond Manager." (a riff on the title the popular book of the early 1980's by Blanchard and Johnson, "The One Minute Manager.") The gist of the argument would be that given in the "Guide" section of some 2005 writing, and actually in Chapter 12 of my book, Figure 12-7.

It might make the strident assertion that the most important thing that matters in regulating our thoughts, feelings, and actions is their first 100-200 msec in the brain, which is when the levers and pulleys are actually doing their thing. It would be a nuts and bolts approach to altering - or at least inhibiting - self limiting behaviors. It would suggest that a central trick is to avoid taking on on the ‘enormity of it all,’ and instead use a variety of techniques to get our awareness down to the normally invisible 100-200 msec time interval in which our actions are being programmed. Here we are talking mechanics during the time period is when all the limbic and other routines that result from life script, self image, temperament, etc., actually can start-up. The suggestion is that you can short circuit some of this process if you bring awareness to the level of observing the moments during which a reaction or behavior is becoming resident, and can sometimes say “I don’t think so, I think I'll do something else instead.”

"The 200 msec Manager" has gone through the ‘this could be a book’ cycle several times, the actual execution  bogging down as I actually got into description of the underlying science and techniques for expanding awareness. Also, I note the enormous number of books out there on meditation, relaxation, etc. that are all really addressing the same core processes in different ways.

Friday, March 13, 2020

MindBlog passes on a note: on the relief of not being yourself.

I am going to start occasionally doing MindBlog posts on ideas that I think might have the potential of developing into longer pieces of work, but that usually remain as notes in my personal journal. This first one follows in the thread of Monday’s post on the work of Sam Harris. It came together when I woke during the middle of the night to find my mind clogged with a traffic jam of discursive thought. Then what appeared in my mind, in what felt like a mini-epiphany, was the words that I pass on below. They may make little sense to many readers, but please be assured that I have not gone wacko or nutter....
What a relief to know that this is not me, it is just the contents of my consciousness, which shift around all the time and are never the same twice. What has changed, after 45 years of doing an introspective personal journal, is that this sentence has become clear and true for me. It is a prying loose from the illusion of the sensing and executive “I”, self, the homunculus inside.
There is a particular feeling of renewal, starting over, in the first moments of the transition to seeing - rather than immersed in being - one of the contents of consciousness. Meditation practice can be seen as training the ability to inhabit this state for longer periods of time, to experience the self or I as co-equal with other contents of consciousness like seeing, hearing, feeling. It is having thoughts without a thinker, having a self without a self.
What is inside is the animal mirror of expanded consciousness, no longer locked into one or another of its contractions. This feels to me like a potentially irreversible quantum bump, a phase or state change in my ongoing awareness (perhaps a long term increase in my brain’s attentional mode activity alongside a decrease its default mode’s mind wandering?...also frontal suppression of amygdalar reactivity?)
(I would add the note, as I did to Monday's post, that experiences of the sort I describe here can be very disorienting to some people, and should be approached with caution. A google search for the names Willoughby Britton and Jarred Lindahl will take you to their papers on this issue.)

Monday, March 09, 2020

Sam Harris' "Waking Up" wakes up Deric's MindBlog

Over the past few months I have gone back to school by doing the entire sequence of lectures and exercises presented by two mindfulness meditation apps. The first of these these, the HealthyMinds App, I have mentioned in a previous post. It derives from a collaborative effort at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, headed by my former colleague Richard Davidson. It is a friendly, approachable, lite version of material covered with greater intellectual depth by the second App, Waking Up, which is done by author Sam Harris and based on his book titled "Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion." I became much more immersed in Harris' program, finishing all of the mini-lectures or 'lessons' and the 50 guided 10 minute exercises. Harris' presentation was a catalyst for me, allowing the material I have been writing about since my 2002 I-Illusion web/lecture to actually gel into place as lived daily experience.

Below I pass on an idiosyncratic sampling of clips or paraphrases of material from Harris' exercises, lectures, and book. For some readers there might be a flash of recognition, for others the following might make no sense at all.
The pronoun I is the name that most of us put to the sense that we are the thinkers of our thoughts and the experiencers of our experience. It is the sense that we have of possessing (rather than of merely being) a continuum of experience...this feeling is not a necessary property of the mind...the experience of being a self can be selectively interfered with...people can report losing their sense of self to one or another degree
...the present centered expanded awareness that is seeing or feeling fear, anger suffering or pain  is not fear, anger suffering or pain. The same is true for happiness, joy, contentment. It is not these things but the calm presence that surrounds them. 
What do you take yourself to be in this moment? Is it the sensation of your face? Or your head?  Resolve that these too are appearances in consciousness, consciousness is prior to them, a mere witness of them.  Fall back into that position, being the screen on which the movie of your life is being played...This introduces a new capacity to respond differently to experiences. To notice first what it is you are experiencing, and then to introduce an option beyond merely reacting, being captured by the next thought that rises in consciousness. as that condition in which everything is just appearing...Feel the energy of your body, notice how sounds appear and disappear.  And let your mind be like a mirror. It doesn’t move to reflect what is in it. Everything simply appears on its surface... Now, periodically, gently, don’t make a struggle, look for the one who is noticing. And in that first moment of turning, see if you can observe what noticing is like. What is hearing like in the first instance of looking for the one who is hearing? What is sensing of breath like if you look for the seat of attention?
..There is no state that you are producing that by definition excludes any other experience. A goal is to make features of consciousness obvious, so that they can be obvious in other moments of your life.Your mind is always with you, practice develops a range of insights into what it’s like before it becomes cluttered by concepts, and judgements, and reactions, and other contractions in consciousness.
Kindle a negative feeling, bore into it with your attention, feel it as closely as possible, its energy. This kind of attention robs it of meaning.  It is simply an appearance in consciousness at this moment. How could this arising in feeling be what you are? You are simply noticing it. And it passes away on its own...the half life of any negative mental space is remarkably short.  And just noticing that, apart from any insight you might have into the nature of consciousness, can be freeing.  
It’s almost like you’re watching a film, and consciousness is both the screen and the light projected, the entire substance of experience. The sense that there is a self, a seat of attention, a subject in the middle of experience, that is yet another appearance on the screen, that’s part of the movie. That is part of what is being experienced and what may yet be witnessed from the point of view of open awareness. 
...consciousness is different. It appears to have no form at all, because anything that would give it form must arise within the field of consciousness. Consciousness is simply the light by which the contours of mind and body are known. It is that which is aware of feelings such as joy, regret, amusement, and despair. It can seem to take their shape for a time, but it is possible to recognize that it never quite does. Once one recognizes the selflessness of consciousness, the practice of meditation becomes just a means of getting more familiar with it. The goal, thereafter, is to cease to overlook what is already the case.…we can directly experience that consciousness is never improved or harmed by what it knows. Making this discovery, again and again, is the basis of spiritual life.
Everything we take ourselves to be at the level of our subjectivity—our memories and emotions, our capacity for language, the very thoughts and impulses that give rise to our behavior—depends upon distinct processes that are spread out over the whole of the brain. Many of these can be independently interrupted or extinguished. The sense, therefore, that we are unified subjects—the unchanging thinkers of thoughts and experiencers of experience—is an illusion. The conventional self is a transitory appearance among transitory appearances, and it vanishes when looked for. We need not await any data from the lab to say that self-transcendence is possible. And we need not become masters of meditation to realize its benefits. It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others.
Harris notes a motivation for his writing on spirituality and self transcendence:
Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. People on both sides of this divide imagine that visionary experience has no place within the context of science—apart from the corridors of a mental hospital. Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms—acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence—our world will remain shattered by dogmatism. This book has been my attempt to begin such a conversation.
  (I should mention that a few users of the Waking Up App have found the exercises to be disorienting and stressful, and the App contains a fascinating two hour discussion between Harris and Willoughby Britton and Jarred Lindahl, who have done research on 'The Dark Side of Meditation.' A google search on their names will take you to their publications on this issue.)

Friday, February 14, 2020

Mindfulness as an antidote to the intrusions of artificial intelligence?

I want to point to a very interesting New Yorker Magazine article by Ian Parker describing the life and ideas of Yuval Harari, whose work has been the subject of numerous MindBlog posts. A series of five sequential MindBlog posts, starting on 12/31/18, presented an abstracted version of his book "21 Lessons for the 21st Century". Here are some clips from the article that especially caught my attention:
His proposition, often repeated, is that humanity faces three primary threats: nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption. Other issues that politicians commonly talk about—terrorism, migration, inequality, poverty—are lesser worries, if not distractions... Harari highlights the technological one...“Think about a situation where somebody in Beijing or San Francisco knows what every citizen in Israel is doing at every moment—all the most intimate details about every mayor, member of the Knesset, and officer in the Army, from the age of zero.” He added, “Those who will control the world in the twenty-first century are those who will control data.”
The aspect of a technological dystopia that most preoccupies him—losing mental autonomy to A.I.—can be at least partly countered, in his view, by citizens cultivating greater mindfulness. He collects examples of A.I. threats. He refers, for instance, to recent research suggesting that it’s possible to measure people’s blood pressure by processing video of their faces.
...his writing underscores the importance of equanimity. In a section of “Sapiens” titled “Know Thyself,” Harari describes how the serenity achieved through meditation can be “so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it.” “21 Lessons” includes extended commentary on the life of the Buddha, who “taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying.” Harari continues, “You can explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, of your body, or of your mind, but you will never encounter something that does not change, that has an eternal essence, and that completely satisfies you... ‘What should I do?’ ask people, and the Buddha advises, ‘Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.’ ”
According to Harari's book “Sapiens,” progress is basically an illusion; the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud,” and liberal humanism is a religion no more founded on reality than any other...In the schema of “Sapiens,” money is a “fiction,” as are corporations and nations. Harari uses “fiction” where another might say “social construct.” (He explained to me, “I would almost always go for the day-to-day word, even if the nuance of the professional word is a bit more accurate.”) Harari further proposes that fictions require believers, and exert power only as long as a “communal belief” in them persists. Every social construct, then, is a kind of religion: a declaration of universal human rights is not a manifesto, or a program, but the expression of a benign delusion; an activity like using money, or obeying a stoplight, is a collective fantasy, not a ritual.