Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brains, Drugs, Cults and Causation

In relation to these recent posts on consciousness, causality, and neuroscience, oneLove at the BY Forum brings up this interesting lecture from Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientists who underwent a stroke that temporarily disabled the left side of her brain. There's no new information here, but the first-person point of view is striking. One can't help but notice that the functional distinctions between left and right hemispheres, with the right hemisphere exhibiting an "inclusiveness" of experience in the present, and the left hemisphere exhibiting a linear, causal relationship to experience. 

I don't think this sort of left/right brain analysis gets us very far, however. If the implication here is that religious notions of unity and acausal synchronocity are the product of the right brain, and causal, time-based thinking is the product of the left brain, one can only say first off that one is only using the left brain to analyze this phenomena. The acausal, synchronous view would explain the same brain structures quite reasonably as a natural reflection of the body's necessary functional problem of having to act in relation to other features of the physical world (causation) and the consciousness which tries to incorporate, process, and make use of that experience. It's not surprising that if one side of that equation is disturbed, the balance of the physical, causal functions of the brain and the consciousness dimension will also be disturbed. The result is something like a drug experience, or an NDE, in which the consciousness dimension is similarly exagerated because of either the absence or the impairment of rational, causal thought processes. 

Elias had a post recently on self-enquiry which pointed out the importance for his generation of the drug experiences of the 1960's and 70's. I've never had a stroke, but I have some limited experience with hallucinogens, so I'm a little more sympathetic to this kind of evidence, which doesn't usually lead to the idea that consciousness is created by the brain, but does indicate that if the brain's chemistry is altered, it opens up a variety of experiences which raise serious questions about the nature of reality. 

In my own case, unlike almost everyone I know who's been involved in esoteric spiritual practices and philosophy of one kind or another, I never used any psychotropic drugs during either my youth or early middle age. I had hardly used any intoxicants of any kind. I'd smoked marijuana only 2-3 times as a teenager, and never took any of the usual drugs. I hardly ever drank, even within the world of Adidam's party periods. It wasn't until about three years ago, as I was nearing the age of 50, that a friend convinced me to give mushrooms, LSD, and MDMA (ecstasy) a try. To me it was an interesting experiment, in that for many of the people of the sixties generation, these drugs opened them up to all kinds of experiences and points of view they had never considered seriously before. I went through similar kinds of openings without any drug use at all, but I couldn't help wondering if I was missing something. I was also curious how drugs would affect my practice of self-enquiry, which I had been doing for a couple of years already.

The first drug I took was a moderate dose (3.5 g) of psilocybin mushrooms on an empty stomach, and my friends and I set out of a walk on forest lumber roads In Humboldt County. The drug came on within about 20 minutes, and I found myself suddenly lifted into an euphoric state of happiness and laughter. In that I was practicing self-enquiry very intentionally during this time, it was both happy and ordinary. I could notice my brain's functions being impaired, not as badly I'm sure as in Taylor's stroke, but my attitude was similar to hers: simply watching and studying what this was doing to my brain and consciousness from a curious perspective. What I noticed was that the drug's effect was basically what one could classify as "destructive". In other words, it interferred with normal brain functioning to such an extent that it prevented the brain from organizing sensory input and information processing in the normal way. There were visual distortions, cognitive distortions, motor-function distortions, and and all kinds of boundary distortions in the brain's compartmentalized cognitive structure. Attention tended to drift. And yet, as I continued to practice simple self-enquiry, which focuses on the observing consciousness rather than on the contents of consciousness, I noticed that there was no impairment at all, and no distortion either. My basic conscious ability to observe what was going on in, both in my brain and in my awareness, wasn't changed in the least. I remember at the very height of the drug experience laughing to myself that this drug didn't change me one bit, that I felt exactly the same as I felt without the drug at all. 

And yet, of course, there were certainly many significant changes in my experience of the world. And yet the self-sense that I was focusing my attention on did not change at all. Now, perhaps I did not take a large enough dose to experience "ego-death", but my sense is that no matter what kind of changes in cognition the drug produced in the brain, it wasn't going to change consciousness itself. On the other hand, as an occasion for practicing self-enquiry and spiritual contemplation, I'd have to say that it was very helpful. By the end of the experience I was certainly significantly lifted beyond identification with the body, and essentially was spending hours in samadhi, drifting in a warm river we had hiked to, and simply enjoying the basic feeling of consciousness. 

A year or so later my friends and I tried some LSD together, and this had a similar effect. It took longer to come on, and the experience had some different qualities to it, but essentially it too had a "destructive" effect on the brain. The ecstasy associated with it had more to do with the break in identification with the body that it made more possible, precisely because it was impairing the functioning of the brain on a deep level, than it did because it actually stimulated various pleasure centers in the nervous system. At a certain point I just began chanting spontaneous, meaningless sounds in ecstatic singing, and then doing a very funny, shamanic-style dance, laughing and feeling completely free and happy, aware that most of what the brain does is create a false sense of consensus reality in our minds, rather than reflect reality, and not feeling at all inclined to take such fabrications seriously. Later, I merely lay down and found myself envisioning gloriously self-luminous palaces, temples, and holy sites, made of light and consciousness.

The come-down from these experiences was less than pleasant, however, and left me feeling enervated for several days. The experiment was certainly worth the trouble, but I wasn't sure I wanted to repeat it. Months later, my friends suggested that we try "candy-licking", which meant taking either psilocybin or LSD, and after the drug peaked, taking MDMA as a come-down. I did this on two occasions using both, this time 6.5 g of psilocybin, and a larger dose of LSD. Both experiences were similarly positive and yet more powerful. With the mushrooms, I felt so deeply relaxed that I only wanted to commune directly with God for most of the experience. With the LSD, I felt an even deeper sense for the drug's "destructiveness". I felt my psyche being ripped apart, including all kinds of bizarre and even violent internal imagery. and yet by persisting in the attitude of self-enquiry, this was also blissful and even hilarious. In both cases, using the MDMA was useful in easing the come-down, and yet I was also aware that it wasn't really a very interesting drug in and of itself. In fact, I hardly felt much effect from it other than a certain relaxation, but I was so relaxed already this hardly seemed to make much difference. Others seemed to respond very differently to it.

In general, then, I'd say that the drugs were valuable. They even helped me confirm and extend the force of self-enquiry and other spiritual practices. But they were also clearly destructive, and not something to use with any kind of regularity. Impairing the functionality of the brain has some temporary value, but like anything else that's destructive, repeated use has a negative overall effect which could be more than merely temporary. Of course, socially accepted drugs like alcohol, tobacco, and caffiene also impair the brain and have some serious long-term negative effects on overall health as well. I think occasional use of all these things may be of some value. I just have reservations about anything beyond very occasional use. I have used any of these things since those four occasions, and I'm not sure I ever will. It was useful, and I think I could have benefited from it years ago, but not using these drugs was also useful for me, in that it allowed me to develop a spiritual practice without some of the distortions that such drugs might have led to. Of course, it's not as if I didn't become distorted and disturbed in other ways, such as by the influence of Adidam itself.

In the end, it becomes futile to think of our conscious spiritual growth as the effect of various causes, such as drugs, various teachings we have encountered, or the Gurus we have had. Spiritual growth is not a material matter, and it's not a purely "metaphysical" matter that is independent of the physical. It's something that occurs across all of the dimensions of experience, and so it can't be reduced to a causal series of events, such that we can say "drugs did this for me", or "Adidam did that to me". Spiritual growth occurs in synchronicity with all these events at all levels, but none of those levels causes one or the other to happen. Even within any dimension, causality is merely the result of "foreshortening" of our vision. It's not untrue to describe it as a functional reality, but it's never the real story.

Attributing spiritual growth to such things as drugs brings up the same problem that arises when we attribute our spiritual growth to some Guru, some teaching, some event in our lives, etc. When we think of spiritual growth as an effect of some cause, we are falling into an illusion. Cults could even be described as mass illusions of causality, since they derive their power from the dependency of their members on some causal source who they need to keep their spiritual life alive and thriving. The classic cult leader promotes himself as the source of spirituality in their followers, without whom they could not experience the effects of bliss and spiritual growth and happiness. And just as cults develop around such Gurus, they can also develop around hallucinogenic drugs.

When people talk about their debt to some Guru, some drug, some method or other that has helped improve their life, they are discounting the value and power of their own consciousness. They presume tht these things have somehow acted as causes that effect our consciousness, when in fact that is not what they do. Even the benefits that appear to come are not, in reality, due to some cause and effect relationship. They are due to our own consciousness knowing itself more and more directly and clearly. If that is not what is going on, the benefit is illusory. And unfortunately, a lot of people point to benefits in one or another path or method that are illusory, that do not show growth in consciousness, but only various temporary effects or delusional impairments of our cognitive faculties.  Cultism itself is nothing more than a delusional impairment of our cognitive faculties, not much different than drugs themselves. Like drugs, it can even have some value, but only if we make our own multi-dimensional consciousness the central "player" in the process, not the method or individuals we encounter in the process. And doing that means seeing ourselves in an acausal framework that is not dependent on conditions or various causes and effects. regardless of their nature.


Glenn said...

I experimented with a variety of psychedelic drugs in the 60's and early 70's and many of the experiences Taylor relates in her talk were identical in nature to my "trips".
I wouldn't go so far as to say the drugs were "destructive" to left brain activity, but they certainly caused near total disfunction, I like to think that they were temporarily disabled.

Broken Yogi said...

I didn't mean to imply that hallucinogens are physically destructive to the brain, or that they left permanent damage, only that their temporary effect was to "destroy" the normal functioning of the brain. In other words, they "worked" not so much by introducing something new to the brain, but merely by removing some of the functional apparatus that is normally there. The effect might be comparable to that of a stroke, without the physical damage.

I also don't discount the possibility, raised by McKenna and others, that some hallucinogens can actually have a positive, stimulative effect on the brain, and are even a significant part of our evolutionary development. I would say that overall the lasting effect of my brief experiment was positive, even if there were some temporary negative effects (hangover).

I'd also say that I felt the most natural atunement to the mushrooms, which would be in line with the theory that humans and psilocybin mushrooms evolved together in symbiosis, with humans spreading the spores and the mushrooms aiding human cognitive development. LSD actually felt somewhat harsh and unnatural to me, though that might be because it's hard to find the "real thing" like the old Owsley acid of the 60's. It's almost impossible to synthesize properly without laboratory-produced lysergic acid. MDMA felt the most unnatural of all to me. Interesting, but very synthetic. The "feel" of its effects were rather artificial, whereas the mushrooms felt very natural and smooth. I think this goes along with the notions that humans have been using mushrooms for many tens of thousands of years or more, and that our brains know how to handle the stuff.

Losing M. Mind said...

Really well-written article. I've wondered at the connection between things like hallucinogens and spiritual growth and ego-death. Very clearly written. Also what you said about growth of Consciousness resonated very strongly as true as well. As you said with LSD, it also seems like gurus are helpful if they are helpful in developing that deepening of one's own Consciousness. (atleast then it's not destructive to the brain) This teacher I've been corresponding with, I've felt some what of being a source, but at the same time, he's directed me back that I'm responsible for my own freedom from illusion, through Self-inquiry. And sometimes it's clear how much power we have to know ourselves. (demonstrated by your Self-inquiry during tripping when many people actually have bad trips) I have noticed that Adi da did it seems make the 'devotee' completely dependent on him, saying that practice is just the ego's "scheming" to "Take Heaven by Storm". That does seem like a confusing mess of a cult. I actually through my twenties felt like my whole reality was very trippy (schizophrenic-ish), and if I ever even was around people smoking weed it would flare up. But recently I took a hit of weed, and through Self-inquiry was fine, did not panic, and my experience was just like waht you described how the sense of the ego-observer was untouched, but the perceptual stuff got weird.

Anonymous said...

My experience with those three drugs are nearly identical to your take that mushrooms feel natural, MDMA feel awefully synthetic and LSD is rather harsh and abrasive. My body reacted very poorly to the MDMA and barely felt any of the positive effects you are meant to arrive at under its influence, I actually felt very weird and kind of sick from it. That was strange because I'm nearly certain it was pure stuff but it is known that MDMA creates different reactions for different people.

The strength of a dose of LSD is very hard to guage and I ended up taking too much and had a frightening and powerful experience. The nerves hit you from the start and then evens out, if you remain relaxed enough during the come up and have an idea about what about to happen.

Mushrooms, for me, induced a very positive and uplifting experience. I was filled with what buddhists call piti-sukha. It made me ecstatic but also very sober, I felt liberated indeed. I only had a low dose and it was plenty strong, approximately the equivelant of one dried gram of home grown goodness. It was very natural and fairly easy to manage. Music was utter bliss and each melody seem to speak to a certain part of some greater mind which I was a part of, truly a third eye-opening introduction to spiritual consciousness.

I also tried mescaline, which is extremely gentle in comparison to LSD, takes longer to come up and produces waves of potency and sobriety. When the mescaline energy flared, it felt like my limbs were on fire with pleasure and my face was numb. Music also had extraordinary depth as well a greater sense of synergy and wholeness between the musical intruments and the musical expression as it was intended. However, it was a manic, irrational euphoria, I had small moments of insanity. As I'm typing this I suddenly remember seeing all kinds vivid images from looking at the generic patterns and lines of my friend's bathroom floor. The experience wasn't as spiritually helpful and revealing as the mushrooms, so I wouldn't take it again over shrooms.

Unknown said...

I Tried Trip2night for the first time last night around 9:30 pm. I started to feel effects around 11pm, effects lasted around 5 hours or more. Some of the effects were energy, dizziness, strong buzz like effects, euphoric feelings, happy, silly, and energy to dance all night long. The product made me horny, although that usually doesn’t take much.

I bought the product from Narcomundo.com. The product came in a powder form with directions to add 1 scoop to fruit juice. I still have a lot left over for next week. For the amount I took; I think I will get around 9 servings out of one pack; although it says 20 servings on the directions.