Episode 9: Insight

What follows here is a transcription of the above video by John Vervaeke (Sectioning added by MeaningCrisis.co)

Welcome back to Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. So last time we continued looking through the myth of Siddhartha's awakening and we talked about him leaving the palace, the having mode, his attempt to rediscover, recover the being mode, and the difficulty he faced in pursuing self-denial as passionately as he had pursued self-indulgence and why this ultimately failed because it's still working within the same operation of trying to have a self. And then we looked at Siddhartha's commitment to the middle path, an attempt to overcome that through the cultivation of mindfulness and then we began our exploration of mindfulness. We first looked at what it meant, Sati and remember it's this deep remembering, this recovering of the being mode that leads to a fundamental transformation and alleviates the existential anxiety and distress that Siddhartha was experiencing and potentially is on offer for us. And then we started to take a look at 'that'; the practice of mindfulness and his attempt to address at least an individual or personal experience of a meaning crisis. And we were doing that because we were trying to investigate more broadly the mindfulness revolution and how that is a response to the meaning crisis within the West.

We began by noting that the study of mindfulness is misleading in some ways, the scientific study, because it begins with a feature list. And as we've noted multiple times feature list leave out the idos, the structural functional organization. In order to do that, we brought out four central characteristics in the feature list: being present, not judging, insightfulness, and reduced reactivity or an increased equanimity. And then we noted that what we need to do is to make distinctions between the types of features, between those that are states that we can engage, in actions we can perform and traits we can cultivate. Once we did that, we opened up the possibility of asking causal questions. How can the practice of being present, for example, produce the trait of insightfulness? And then we also could ask constitutive questions. What's the relationship, the part-whole relationship for example, between being present and not judging?

That being said we then also noted that we have to replace the language of training with the language of explaining; they operate according to different principles and for different goals. And we began that by starting to ask "what does it mean to be present?" And then we talked about concentration. We talked about different senses of that and the kind of "soft-vigilance" that's actually conducive of insight, discussed by Ellen Langer and others. This kind of involvement that is very much about conforming to, the "inter-esse", becoming deeply interested, connected to, the structural functional organization of something. We noted that that took us into discussion of paying attention and all the while remembering this idea that we got from Siddhārtha Gautama's story about tuning – getting the right tuning – optimization, and we started to talk about attention and made the argument that attention is not very well served by the spotlight metaphor.

While that metaphor does give us the idea of attention altering salience, the metaphor misses a lot of what attention is doing. We began to investigate what's missing by making use of Christopher Mole's idea that attention is not a direct action performed by walking but it's something you do by modifying something else, by optimizing something else. That's why you could successfully pay attention by doing many disparate and different kinds of things. You can pay attention by optimizing you're seeing into looking, by optimizing your hearing into listening, by optimizing you're seeing and listening into a coordinated tracking of what somebody is saying like you're doing right now. All of those are different ways in which we're paying attention. So what we needed was an understanding of attention that could capture the way it's an optimization strategy which lines up with this tuning idea and how such optimization might be linked to a response to existential modal confusion and the alleviation of the suffering found therein.

So I want to continue that discussion about attention and start to point towards what might be going on. If you remember, Mole talks about this idea of cognitive unison: getting a bunch of processes to share a goal, to be coordinated together in some fashion. Now he leaves it abstract like that and I think we should try and investigate a little bit more further, more concretely, what that might mean and there's a lot of – attention is one of the hottest areas in cognitive science right now. There's a lot of good work done by Frank Wu, by Sebastian Watzl, Christopher Mole... Many people are talking about this and I'm not pretending to canvass all of that rich and very fertile and very – like it's very creative, it's advancing. I'm not trying to do that. I'm trying to pick up on some key themes here because what we want to understand is how can mindfulness train attention so as to cause more insight, to make one more dispositionally capable of insight. Because all – after all and we've talked about this before, we're not talking – when we talk about wisdom, we're not talking about an individual insight. We're talking about a systematic set of insights that are mutually related to a fundamental transformation of the person's, as we said last time, existential mode.

So let's talk a little bit more again about what's missing from the model of attention. So, this cognitive unison - I think we can make use of another important cognitive scientist, philosopher scientist, who did work on attention and that's Michael Polanyi and he pointed out that attention has an important structure - and we've been trying to follow the platonic idea of turning the feature list into a feature schema, picking up on structures - and the way in order to bring out what Polanyi is talking about, I'm going to run through an experiment with you. It's an experiment you can sort of follow along with me. So, let me describe it to you first. I need you to get some object, like a pencil or a pen and we will call that your your probe. Nothing untoward is meant by that that's just what it's called in psychology. It doesn't involve any aliens doing graphic things to your body or anything like that.

A Practical Psychological Experiment

So, what we're going to do is – let me describe it to you first. Okay, what I'm going to ask you to do is going to ask you to find some object that you could put it on a desk in front of you or hold in your hand and then you're going to do the following. Do not start yet because I want to describe it to you. I'm going to – I'm going to ask you to tap on the object as if you were blind and you're trying to figure out what the object is. Its shape, its structure, its weight, its density. "(tap tap tap...) Oh that's a cup, right?". That makes sense. Now, it's important while you – now you should close your eyes as you're doing this. I'm using touch because touch is slower than sight. And so you can become more aware of what's happening. Now, it's important while you do this, that you continue tapping.

So I'm going to ask you in a moment to close your eyes, start the tapping and then while you're doing it, continue the tapping as you are following my instructions. And this will –this will give you a sense of what you're doing. Okay so, what I want you to do is close your eyes. You start tapping on your object, right. Start tapping until you start to form an image of the object in your mind. Okay. So your eyes are closed, you're starting to get an image of what that object is in your mind. Okay. So right now you're aware, like you're focally aware – what you're focusing your awareness on is the object. I want you to keep tapping but I want you to shift your awareness into your probe, feel how your pencil or your pen is moving around, shifting. Okay, keep tapping and then I want you to shift your awareness into your fingers and feel how your fingers are moving around, shifting around.

Okay. Some of you may be able to pick up on the individual feelings that are occurring in your fingers. Now, go back, feel your fingers, your thumb and how they're moving. Now, feel how the probe is moving. And now, allow the tapping to reveal the object to you once again. So I've done this multiple, multiple times with people. And what's interesting is the following thing: most people find this very readily easy to do. And a couple of things, when you're initially tapping, for example, I was aware of my cup but then my awareness moves into my marker and then my awareness moves into my finger, and when my awareness is in my finger I'm not aware of the cup at all. Then I was able to reverse it. I go from being aware of my fingers to being aware of the probe to being aware of the cup. And you're saying "what's all this about? What's going on?". Well, there's an important structure. Let's take a look at it step by step.

Breaking the Experiment Down - What's Going On?

So here's the cup or whatever your object was, and I'm tapping on it with my probe. Now here's the interesting thing. It's not like I was completely unaware of my probe because if I was completely unaware of it, then I couldn't manipulate it. But I wasn't actually aware of it, I was aware through it. I was aware through my probe of the cup. So, I'm aware through this (probe) and I'm aware of this (cup). So it's like my probe is transparent to me and I'll give - let me give you an analogy right now, where this (cup) is opaque. Here's the analogy - and we talked about this before, but let's do it again, and it's like my glasses are like my framing, right. My glasses are transparent to me in the sense that I'm looking through them, beyond them, by means of them. They're transparent to me. But what I can do is I can redirect my awareness, so that I'm now looking at my glasses rather than through them. So, my glasses have now become opaque to me. So, I can do a "transparency to opacity shift". Now, what does that ability to shift indicate?

Well, this is – this is part of Polanyi's idea. Here's my probe (drawn on the board), I'm aware through my probe. He has, what I call, a subsidiary or an implicit awareness because I'm aware through it – I'm not aware of it, I'm aware through it, right, of my focal object, for example, my cup. And this I have a focal awareness or an explicit awareness. Now his point, which is really quite good right, is that attention is this kind of structuring phenomena. What it is, it's always attention as he says from-to it – that attention through subsidiary awareness into focal awareness. When I'm paying attention, I'm doing this. But here's the interesting thing, I was then able to step back and make this focal, and now it's my fingers that I am aware [of] – I'm aware through my fingers of my probe. And then I can even step back and be aware of my feelings, what some people would call sensations.

What the Spotlight Metaphor is Missing

So I can – I can keep stepping back and stepping back. So, I'm looking at the cup through my probe. Now I'm looking through my fingers at the probe, and now I'm looking through my feelings my fingers. And of course, the whole time I was actually looking at the cup I was doing all of that: I was looking through my feelings through my fingers through my probe into the cup. And you see the spotlight metaphor is missing all of that layered, recursive, dynamic structuring that's going on. And notice you can move in both directions; you can do a transparency opacity shift, in which I step back more and more into my mind, or I can go the opposite way. I can do an opacity to transparency shift. That's when you went the opposite way; that's when you go from looking at your fingers to looking through your fingers at your probe and going from looking at your probe to looking through your probe to the cup. And your attention is doing that all the time, flowing in and out: doing a transparency and opacity shifting. Now, that's very important because that's an important – what you're seeing is how many different processes are being coordinated integrated together to optimize and prioritize, to use an important term from Watzl, this particular object or this particular scene or situation.

So, that's one way in which attention is operating. Now, for reasons I'm not quite sure of, I think it has to do something with we're using a visual metaphor in the way vision is oriented in our bodies, we tend to use an in-out metaphor for this. Like that's why I'm using stepping back and looking at as opposed to, like looking through. Notice also something that's really important for where - we're going to need this when we talk about Gnosis and participatory knowing - notice when I was, if you'll allow me, when I was knowing the cup through the probe, I'm indwelling the probe. It's not like I'm/ I'm participating in how the probe is being with respect to the cup. I'm sort of indwelling it. I'm not knowing the probe, I'm knowing through the probe. I'm "inter-esse". I'm so deeply interested that I'm actually right integrated with it and threw it into the cup. The way my vision is integrated with these glass lenses so that I'm actually seeing through them and by means of them. And the point about this, and we've talked about this before of course, is this also works, not just with technology, but with psycho-technologies. We talked about this with second order thinking. You can so integrate literacy, for example, into your cognition that you don't look at literacy very much, you automatically look through it. And we'll come back to that.

The Psychology of CAT & HAT

All right, so this is... As I said this seems to be –people's talk about this metaphorically as moving in and out with their awareness. So one of the ways attentions work is it moves in and out. You can look through a lot of processing deeply out into the world or you can step back and look at a lot of processing and withdraw towards the center of your mind. There's another important axis upon which your attention is working and I can bring it out by a famous example. So you give this (writes on the board) to people and you ask them to read it and they say, what does it say? and they'll say "THE CAT". And they're like, "Oh yeah". All right. And then you point out to them that they're reading this as an H and they're reading this as an A, and these are exactly the same thing. Why are you reading one as an H and the other as an A? And so what they'll typically say to you, is "well because it fits in with this word as an H and it fits in with this word as an A."

So let's use language we've already developed. The letters are the features and the word is the "gestalt", the overall structure. Now notice here: you've got a problem. It's almost, you know, a pseudo-Zen problem. In order to read the words, I must read each individual letter, but in order to disambiguate each letter, I must have read the whole word. Therefore reading is impossible.

Now of course reading isn't impossible, which means something else has to change. What has to change is your model of attention. The search light metaphor – the spotlight metaphor – can't address that problem. Here's what your attention is actually doing. It's simultaneously going up from the features to the gestalt, the idos, the structural-functional whole... and it's going down from the gestalt, the words, to the individual letters, the features. It's simultaneously doing that. Your attention is also doing this: so not only is your attention flowing in and out, doing transparency opacity shifting, it's also flowing up and down between feature and gestalt. Your attention is doing all of that, it's doing it right now. And the spotlight metaphor doesn't capture any of that. And mindfulness has to do with making use of all of this complex, dynamical - remember what dynamical systems are - dynamical processing. These are dynamic, self organizing processes and they can be optimized. And mindfulness optimizes them in some way.

Scaling Up and Scaling Down

So, I'm going to put something up on the board. It looks like a graph but it's not a graph because it doesn't have absolute position. It's just a schema because it has relative position. So, when I move this way (draws a horizontal arrow indicating left to right) - like we we're talking about when we're talking about Polanyi's work - I'm doing transparency to opacity shifting and going this way is to do transparency to opacity and to go this way (the direct oposite) is to do opacity to transparency. It's not an ab[solute]; no position is transparent and the other is opaque. It's always the direction that matters. The more I move this way, the more I'm stepping back and looking at; the more I go this way, the more am in dwelling and looking out into the world.

Then we have this: I can be going down from the gestalt to the features (draws a vertical arrow to indicate top to bottom) using the word to decide the letters, for example, and I can be going up from the features to the gestalt. Nothing is inherently a feature, look: the letters are a feature in the word but the word is a feature in the sentence. Nothing is absolutely a feature, it's always relative. That's why I'm putting these double arrows. This isn't a Cartesian graph. Okay, this is not a Cartesian graph; this is a schema. But one thing you should know is that although I can describe, and you can understand these two axis independently, they're almost always operating in a highly dynamic integrated fashion. Very often, as I'm moving towards a gestalt – grabbing a bigger picture, I'm using that bigger pattern to look more deeply into the world. So, often I'm doing this (draws arrow from origin in a relative NE direction): I'm grabbing bigger patterns and I'm using those deeper patterns to look deeper into the world.

So when you find - this is what we do in science. For example, I find this and this and this, I get a pattern and then I find a way to integrate it together, and then I use that pattern to look more deeply in the world! This is what this is (writes F=ma on the board), right? I found a pattern and it allows me to look more deeply into the world. I'm no longer looking at these individual things – force, mass, and acceleration. I've integrated them together and that allows me to look more deeply into the world. Often when we're stepping back and looking at our minds (draws an arrow in a relative SW direction), our awareness processes within attention, we're also often breaking up gestalt into features. For example, you were breaking up your experience of your whole finger into individual sections of your finger when we were doing the experiment. You were breaking up the whole of the cup into individual moments of contact. So very often, [we have] these two to come together. Let's call this "scaling up" (NE direction arrow) of attention, and "scaling down" (SW direction arrow) of attention. So first of all, let's map these on to mindfulness practices, to make clear why we're doing this.

Scaling Up & Down with Mindfulness

So I teach my students Vipassana, [a] very traditional form of meditation. Notice what the word meditation means, it actually means moving towards the center. So we know it's going to have this aspect to it. So what do you do? Well typically you train people by telling them to pay attention to their breath. So first of all, what they're doing is paying attention not to the world, they're stepping back but they're not really paying attention to the breath! What you tell them is the following... (Again, language of explaining not the language of training; look at it much more fine grain.) You tell them to pay attention to the feelings and sensations that are being generated in their abdomen as they breathe. So as they inhale, they're feeling sensations in their abdomen and as they exhale.... And what they're doing is trying to do what I did with my finger. They're trying to maintain and renew their interest, constantly make it salient to themselves. Now notice what's happening. Normally, our embodied sensations – I'm not happy with that word for sort of philosophically important reasons but I don't have time to go into it right now - normally we don't pay attention so much to our sensations, we pay attention through our sensations to the world. So normally I'm not paying attention to my feelings, I'm paying attention through my feelings to the cup.

Meditation & Contemplation

With meditation, I'm stepping back and not looking through my sensations, I'm stepping back and looking at them. That's like: "I don't look through the way my mind is framing things... I'm looking 'at' the framing". I also do something else. I don't just look at it as one blob. I do something like observational analysis. I break the gestalt up into separate experiences. I'm doing this (indicates down-scaling arrow from the origin). I'm stepping back and looking at, and I'm breaking the gestalt of my experience up into its features, its atomic features, if you'll allow me a metaphor that you shouldn't push too far. That's what you do in meditation. And we'll talk about why would you do this? Why would that matter? And importantly our question is why would that help cause insight? So that's meditation ("SW"). That's for Vipassana for example. I also teach my students a contemplative practice ("NE"). So the word "meditation" means to move towards the center. And that fits perfectly with Vipassana and this kind of thing.

"Contemplation": Now it bespeaks how overly simplified the West is in trying to understand this in that these terms are now treated as synonyms – contemplative practices, meditative practices. It's all the same thing. Aren't these just synonyms? They're not synonyms. And paying attention to their etymology will quickly reveal this. First of all the Latin etymology, this look what's in the center of this (contemplation) is Temple. It comes from a temple which actually comes from the Latin word for a part of the sky that you look up to to see the signs from the gods; to contemplate is to look up towards the divine. This also goes well, its convergent with – 'contemplatio' the Latin term was a translation of this Greek word 'theoria'. And theoria also originally doesn't mean generating a theory – a theory is a species of theoria because what I do with theoria is I try to see more deeply into reality. Do you see? Meditation is moving this way and contemplation is moving that way.

Meditation emphasizes scaling down; contemplation emphasizes scaling up. And I was taught both. In fact, I was taught three things in an integrated fashion: I was taught Vipassana, a scaling down strategy; I was taught Metta, a scaling up strategy and your scaling up with your sense of identity by the way, we'll talk/ will come back to that later; and then I was taught Tai Chi Chuan because Tai Chi Chuan is about moving right in and out. In and out, flowing between these inner and outer movements in a dynamic and optimizing fashion. Why teach me all these things together? Because it's actually a system of these psycho-technologies that will optimize your cognition for insight.

Back to the 9-Dot Problem

Okay, so do you remember we did the 9 dot problem, right? We talked about that. Remember the fact that you can misframe things. So let's do the 9 dot problem again. Join all 9 dots with four straight lines and people find it difficult. Why? Remember we talked about this, they automatically - listen to the words! - remember, they automatically and unconsciously project a square there. And then they automatically take this to be a connect the dot problems and so no non-dot terms are possible and therefore they can't get the solution. The solution is here's four straight lines – one, two ,three, four. The reason why people find that so difficult is "I have to break the square and I have to not treat it as a typical connect the dot problem". "I have to not treat it categorically", to use language you've heard already, because you don't do non dot terms, remember this. Now notice there's two moments to having an insight. I have to break up an inappropriate frame. What do I have to do? I have to break up the gestalt. And I also have to de-automatize my cognition. I have to make it not operate unconsciously and automatically.

Well, how do I do that? I take stuff that's normally happening unconsciously and I have to bring it back into consciousness. Yes? Does that makes sense? How do I do that? I do that by doing a transparency opacity shift. Normally, I'm automatically sensing through my probe. But I can shift my awareness and become aware of my probe. I can bring things back into awareness. So you de-automatize cognition by doing a transparency to opacity shift. So I break up the inappropriate frame (points to solved 9-dot on the board). And I de-automatize my cognition by scaling down. Now interestingly enough there is lots of work by Knoblich and other people showing that you can improve people's ability to solve insight problems if you get them to do what's called chunk decomposition and constraint relaxation. Chunk decomposition is just breaking up the gestalt. That's what chunk decomposition means. Constraint relaxation is basically de-automatizing your cognition, de-automatizing your cognition. Scaling down helps you to break up the chunks, break up the gestalt and helps you to de-automatize your cognition. But is that enough for insight? It's not enough!

Limitations of Breaking Frame

Yes I have to break up the inappropriate frame but I have to make an alternative and better frame. I have to – watch – I have to widen, widen my field of awareness. I have to take stuff that was in the background and change its relevance. I have to look more deeply for deeper broader patterns that I have not considered before. What do I have to do? In order to make a new frame, I have to scale up. And we also have lots of independent evidence, having nothing to do with mindfulness meditation, that one of the ways you can improve people's ability to be insightful is that they get training – have training or practice or are naturally disposed to being able to scale up. If people can complete patterns in a kind of leaping that ***[[[CC Banner and Baker]]]*** talked about, right, and other people. We can scale up in that way if we – if we can take pictures that are out of focus and refocus them mentally so we can suddenly see what the picture is. Again and again and again when people can scale up better, they're better at solving insight problems. So both make you better. But there's a problem because both also make you worse.

Because if I – if I just scale up if I just maximize, like tightening a string, then of course I immediately project the square and then I'm locked. What, well, shouldn't I just scale down? Just meditate always – if I just keep breaking up gestalt, I'll never make the solution. I'll choke myself. That's what happens when people are choking. You get a way... Like, if you're sparring with somebody, a way to get them off is to compliment them. "That was a really good, like right hook you just threw!" Because then the person will start stepping back and looking at it and they'll get all screwed up. Because they'll break up the ability to generate the gestalt. So notice what I'm saying, stick with me because this is really sort of tricky. This (scaling down) can improve your chances for insight by breaking up a bad frame (9-dot). But it can also mess up your problem solving by causing you to choke. This (scaling up) can improve your ability for insight by causing you to make a better frame, but this can also cause you to leap into an inappropriate frame and be locked in fixation (9 dot).

So what should you do? You don't want the strings too tight; you don't want the strings too loose. And you don't want IT just half way. Well what you want to do is you want to train people in both of these skills and then train them to flow between them. It's called "oponent processing". So they're pulling and pushing on each other and so they're forced to coordinate and constantly get the right degree of attentional engagement that is most dynamically fitted to the world. That's why the people who trained me trained me in all these things. That's why you shouldn't equate mindfulness just with meditation. It's not. So if you pay attention, for example, to the eight fold path you'll have people being trained in meditative practices, contemplative practices, practices in which you flow between the opposites until you learn like a martial art to get an apt and constantly adjusted fittedness, attentional fitness to the world.

Associated Mystical Experiences

Now this leads very naturally into talking about mystical experiences and the kinds of mystical experiences that people can have within their mindfulness practices. But before I do that let's gather. Notice what we've said here. We have an understanding of mindfulness. What's mindfulness doing? Mindfulness is basically teaching us how to appropriate and train a flexibility of attentional scaling so that we can intervene effectively in how we are framing our problems and increase the chances of insight when insight is needed. Notice that this didn't really – what? – How is being present making you more insightful?

The Pure Consciousness Event

But I've given you a way of understanding being present that works. When I'm scaling down, I'm actually making my mind less representational, less inferential. I'm doing all of this work to become aware of and gain some mastery over my processes of problem framing and thereby training skills that will make me more insightful. What happens if you were just to scale down and practice scaling down and scaling down and scaling down and scaling down? Well you can actually get to one kind of important mystical experience. Forman calls this – and it's well attested – calls this the pure consciousness event the PCE – the pure consciousness event. It's a kind of mystical experience you can have after extensive mindfulness practice. I've experienced this. Let's do it.

So right now I'm looking at the world, and the thing you're doing when you're practicing meditation is you try and step back and look at the lens of your mind – if you'll allow me – and what happens is it's hard to maintain cause you have such deep developed habits of directing your attention back out towards the world. Then you start thinking about got to do my laundry, got to do this and then what you have to do is you have to bring your attention back again. You have to do that, you have to recenter and step back and look at your mind rather than automatically looking through it and you keep practicing. And that's like "aaaaaah!" and it's arduous but these like doing reps. That's meditation. Meditation is that you're building this ability to step back and look at your mind. And then what happens is, remember how we went back in layers? We went into the probe and then into our fingers and into the sensations. When I do this with people, it's often the people who've had some mindfulness training that can step back all the way into their sensations. That's not a coincidence.

So I stop – I start, now I'm looking at my mind. And then I start looking at the more subsidiary layers of my mind, the deeper layers by which I was looking at the upper layers and then I step back again, I step back again. So now I'm just looking at my consciousness. And eventually I step back and I'm not even conscious of anything. I'm not conscious of this sensation, I'm just conscious. It's what's called the Pure Consciousness Event. You're not conscious of anything. You're just fully present as consciousness. You don't – You're not aware of yourself. You're not looking through yourself machinery. You're not looking through your consciousness... you're not even looking through your mind you're just fully conscious – the pure consciousness event! This is the event that results from this (down scaling).

Resonant At-Onement

What about if you were to really – really scale up? We'll think about things that you might have heard associated with the Buddhist view. I see... I'm going to see everything is interconnected and everything is flowing impermanent. I'm going to create this overarching gestalt and the gestalt is going to be so overarching it's going to include and encompass me. I'm going to experience this resonant at-onement. And you already know what that's like because we've already talked about it. Think about that as just a super flow state in which I'm deeply at one with everything – super flow state. "Resonant at-onement".

I don't use atonement because that has a particular Christian meaning that I'm not trying to invoke here, at-onement. See this model of mindfulness explains why people get into these kinds of mystical experiences. If they do a lot of meditative practices, they will get a pure consciousness event. If they do a lot of contemplative practices they will develop this empathetic, participatory, flowing, super-flowing, resonant at-onement. But remember what we want ultimately, is we want these two together (up and down scaling).

Non-Duality

There's a third state. And this is actually the state that matters. This is called the state of non-duality. So let me try and explain to you a way in which you can at least imagine you could get into it. It's a way I train people. Imagine that you're going to be cycling - scaling up and scaling down with your breath. So as you inhale you scale up and you do that sort of resonate at-onement. You're trying to be, right, flowing at-onement with everything and then as you exhale you're doing the Vipassana. You're trying to step back as close as you can to the pure consciousness event. And you oscillate back and forth with the breath. You often have to do that for years. But what can happen, and there's other ways of getting into this state. This isn't exclusive. This is one way, the way I was taught. What can happen, is you can have the third kind of mystical experience. It's not the pure consciousness event; it's not resonant at-onement. It includes both and transcends both. It's both at the same time. Your awareness is deeply to the depths of your consciousness and deeply to the depths of reality. And it's completely at-one. It's just all at once.

This is a prajana state; a state of non-duality. This is one term for wisdom. This is kind of mystical experience. Now this is the state that's actually sought for, that non-duality because this is the state that should lead to a comprehensive capacity for insight. Because you're not going to have an insight about nine dots and four straight lines. You're going to have an insight into the fundamental – the guts, the grammar of the agent-arena relationship. You're pushing to the ground of the agent and you're pushing out to the circumference of the arena and you're pushing that machinery to optimize. So that you can see in as deeply integrated a fashion as possible that connectedness between the two.

So you have the capacity for an insight. Not into this problem or that problem, but an insight into your existential modes of being. This is how you can 'remember' the being mode. You can have a fundamental insight into it. Now this is in fact of course what Siddhartha experienced. He'd been practicing the Vipassana and a contemplative practice called Metta, very deeply, very powerfully. And it looks like one of his great innovations was to conjoin the two together. He often talks about them. And what happened was a radical transformation. He experienced enlightenment - and we're going to talk about what that might mean. So after his enlightenment, after his awakening, he's walking down the road and people come up to him and his visage has changed! Think about what you – think about when you are watching – when you see somebody and you know they're in the flow state and they're flowing. You can – that grace and that energy and that the musicality of intelligibility that's playing across their face and their gestures and their motions. And you can't – you're... Most of it you're only picking up implicitly but you've got a sense "what's going –oh that's so beautiful, that so graceful, it's so much power..." and there's a charismatic... And you're just caught up in it. So these men are approaching Siddhartha and he's filled with that.

And so they say to him, "Are you a god?" Think about what conditions have to be like where that's a reasonable thing to ask of someone. And he answers very clearly, "No, I'm not." "Are you some kind of angelic messenger or being?" "No, I'm not." "Are you some kind of prophet?" "No I'm not." "Are you just a man?" "No I'm not." They're frustrated. "What are you then?" "I am awake." That's how he gets his title. He moves from talking about an identity he could have to a fundamental way of being – "I am awake". He has fully deeply – the depths I've tried to indicate here – "Sati"; remembered the being mode in a way that isn't an insight about this or that problem, but is a fundamental insight into what it is to be a human being. A systematic set of insights that optimizes your entire being. That triggers and empowers a fundamental transformative experience.

So, as a cognitive scientist, especially one who studies the connections between Buddhism and cognitive science, I've become very interested in these kinds of experiences that people have, and I have colleagues and collaborators who are also interested in it. Why do people pursue altered states of consciousness? Why is the mindfulness revolution, which is the pursuit of altered states of consciousness, so powerful? Why are we going through the psychedelic revolution right now? Because unlike other therapeutic pharmaceuticals, psychedelics work exactly by bringing about an altered state of consciousness. Why is this so powerfully important? Why is it that we're not the only creatures, in fact, that pursue altered states of consciousness? It looks like the more intelligent a creature is, the more it will pursue altered states of consciousness. Caledonian crows will tumble down rooftops in order to make themselves dizzy. Which is a risky thing to do but they do it because they are enjoying the altered state of consciousness.

Why is it that these, that some of these altered states - mystical experiences, certain types of psychedelic experiences within a therapeutic context (we're going to talk about all of this) – can bring about and afford such powerful transformations? What is it that's going on there? And here's what's interesting, sometimes people will have a kind of altered state of consciousness that in my mind it recapitulate the axial revolution. Look, normally when you have an altered state of consciousness - let's pick up on Siddhartha's metaphor: awakening, wakening up. That's in contrast to being asleep to dreaming - so what happens in your typical state of altered state of consciousness, one that you experience every night, you're dreaming. And when you're in the dream state you think that that world is real. You interact with it as if real. But when you wake up you go, 'Oh that was just a dream that wasn't real. This is real. This.' Normally, when we come out of an altered state of consciousness, we point at it the finger of rejection and say that isn't real. "Oh I was drunk, that's not real". "Oh I was high, that's not real." But sometimes people have certain kinds of experiences - altered state of consciousness - in which exactly the opposite occurs.

Quantum Change Theory

They go into that state and they come back and they say, 'That was more real. That was really real. And this is less real.' You see how that's axial? That's like "wait!!! That higher, higher – why do we call it a higher state of consciousness? – that higher state of consciousness, 'that', I had access to the real world". And when I come back, like somebody in Plato's cave, I've come back out of the sunlight. This, I now realize, is only echoes and shadows. It's less real. In fact, and because of my desire to be in contact with what's real, I'm going to change myself and I'm going to change my world to try and recapture Sati. SATI!!! 'To remember' what that's like (taps the top of two circles on the board (Śūnyatā)). "I want to live in greater contact with that 'really real'", and so they start to transform their whole lives and their whole self. The whole agent-arena relationship is completely and radically, radically, revolutionary restructured. This is known as "quantum change theory" – bad name, bad name, good theory.

People do this. This is, of course, very important for understanding what happened to people like Siddhartha. In fact, most of the world religions that emerge at the axial revolution are predicated on the idea that there are higher states of consciousness. That should empower, challenge and encourage us to engage in such quantum transformation. To go through these radical transformative experiences. It's obviously at the core of Buddhism. You experience Satora-Satori. You realize Śūnyatā. It's at the core right of Vedanta. When I experience Moksha and release. It's at the core of Taoism, I realize the Dao.

Optimizing the Ability of Forging Transformation

So, how is it, right, that these experiences have such authority? But it's not just that they're important historically... They're at the core of the world religions... And you say "Well, what about the Western [religions]?" Like Sufism within Islam and the Christian mystic tradition and Karbala... All of the wisdom – all of the world traditions point to these higher states of consciousness that can bring about these radical, modal transformations in our cognition and our very being. And that's important enough! But when you do surveys - if you look at some of the work that's been done - 30 to 40 percent of the population has experienced these events. And it's like flow – across cultures, language groups, socioeconomic status, gender... Pervasive, and universal. Not universal in the sense that everybody has it, but universal in the sense that [there] doesn't seem to be any type class or order of human beings that is not capable of experiencing it.

So both qualitatively, historically and quantitatively, scientifically, this is an important phenomena. And here's what's really important for our purposes. There's a deep connection – remember I said before – there's a deep connection between how often you flow and how meaningful you find your life. That is also more radically the case for these states. People who have experienced these higher states of consciousness and undergone these quantum changes, these deep transformational experiences, reliably import – and there's good experimental evidence to support it – that they have had a significant increase in meaning in life. In fact, many people report these experiences as the most significant in their life and that a lot of the meaning of their life is hinged upon these transformations. There are deep connections between awakening and recovering meaning. There are deep connections between awakening and insight - as I've already indicated and we'll come back to see, there's a deep continuity between this kind of insight (9 dot), mystical experience and full blown awakening experience.

My lab, we've just finished running - with my associate Anderson Tod, my lab director lab manager Jensen Kim, all of my wonderful RA's (Research Assistants), and they'll show up in the acknowledgment – we just have submitted a paper because we ran an experiment. We did a massive Mechanical Turk survey trying to see if there was a relationship between if people have a mystical experience and how meaningful they find their lives. And there is, in fact, a significant relationship between mystical experience and if you have meaning in life. We did a more fine grained analysis and this is consonant with the work of Samantha Heintzelman and others – experimental work showing that it's something like a capacity for insight, making sense which is often called coherence in the literature, that seems to be what's doing all the heavy lifting. So it doesn't really matter – if you'll allow me – so much what the content of your mystical experience is. In fact, very often there's no content, they are ineffable.

But what seems to be happening is you're somehow optimizing your capacity for making sense, both inwardly and outwardly. It's like what's happening is some improved optimization of this of anagoge and people find that deeply meaningful. So there is good reason to believe –I'm not, I'm not advocating Buddhism here. Because I've already pointed out there are similar claims in all of the mystical traditions and I'm not claiming that those traditions are all identical. I'm not Aldous Huxley. But, there seems to be some deep truths here about the nature of attention, the nature of mindfulness, and the enhancement of the ability to enter into these higher states of consciousness that can significantly alleviate existential distress and bring about a pervasive and profound kind of optimization of our insight and our capacity for finding our lives meaningful. And that would be - being able to do all of those things, right; alleviate the existential anxiety, create a systematic kind of insight, a transformation of ageny and arena that recovers the being mode - [to] forge transformation – I mean isn't that the core of meaning. And the ability to do it, wouldn't that be the core of wisdom?

So what I want to do is I want to continue on and I want to explore this. What's going on with mystical experiences? What's going on with these higher states of consciousness? Why are psychedelics coming back into the center of the cognitive scientific investigation? We've got to talk about consciousness. We have got to talk about altered states of consciousness. We've got to talk about higher states of consciousness and transformative experience. And what is the knowing that's going on here. Because it's no knowing of words. There's no words, there's no content – Pure Consciousness Event – they're not conscious of anything. This is everything's the same, it's just there's the resonant at-onement, the flowing.

What kind of knowing is it? That's what we're going to take a look at next time. Thank you very much.

Other helpful resources about this episode:
Notes on Bevry
Summary and Transcript on awakeningfromthemeaningcrisis.com

A Kind Donation

If you like what you read and have gained value by being here, we hope you can consider making a small donation so we can keep this blog running. Even a few dollars for a cup of coffee would be awesome!

Want to know when the next one comes out?

Enter your information below and you’ll be informed right when it’s published!