LSD, Meditation, Enlightenment, and Ego Death

post by Fink · 2014-04-20T19:41:39.459Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 33 comments

A little background information first, I'm a computer science/neuroscience dual-major in my junior year of university. AGI is what I really want to work on and I'm especially interested in Gortzel's OpenCog. Unfortunately I do not have nearly the understanding of the human mind I would like, let alone the knowledge of how to make a new one.

DavidM's post on meditation is particularly interesting to me. I've been practicing mindfulness-based meditation techniques for some time now and I've seen some solid results but the concept of 'enlightenment' was always appealing to me, and I've always wanted to know if such a thing existed. I have been practicing his technique for a few weeks now and although it is difficult I believe I understand what he means by 'vibrations' in your attentional focus.

I've experimented with psilocybin mushrooms for about a year now. Mostly for fun, sometimes for better understanding my own brain. Light doses have enhanced my perception and led me to re-evaluate my life from a different perspective, although I am never as clear-headed as I would like.

I've read that LSD provides a 'cleaner' experience while avoiding some of the thought-loops of mushrooms, it also lasts much longer. Stanislav Grof once said that LSD can be to psychology what the microscope is to biology, with deep introspection we can view our thoughts coalesce. After months of looking for a reliable producer and several 'look-alike' drugs I finally obtained a few doses of LSD. Satisfied that it was the real thing I took a single dose and fell into my standard meditation session, trying to keep my concentration on the breath.

I experienced what wikipedia calls 'ego death'. That is I felt my 'self' splitting into the individual sub-components that formed consciousness. Acid is well-known for causing synaesthesia and as I fell deeper into meditation I felt like I could actually see the way sensory experiences interacted with cognitive heuristics and rose to the level of conscious perception. I felt that I could what see 'I' really was, what Douglas Hofstadter referred to as a 'strange loop' looking back on itself, with my perception switching between sensory input, memories, and thought patterns resonating in frequency with DavidM's 'vibrations'. Of course I was under the effects of an hallucinogenic drug, but I felt my experience was quite lucid.

DavidM hasn't posted in years which is a shame because I really want to see his third article and ask him more about it. I will continue practicing his enlightenment meditation techniques in an attempt to try to foster these experiences without the use of drugs. Has anyone here had experiences with psychedelic drugs or transcendental meditation? If so, could you tell me about them?

33 comments

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comment by TylerJay · 2014-04-21T16:31:50.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't really have any recommendations, but I do have a story. LSD was actually one of the catalysts that helped me find out about the idea of AGI and the LessWrong community. The story ended up a little long, but I figured I'd share if anyone was interested.

When I was 17, I started experimenting with LSD. I tried successively higher doses until one day I had a very strong experience. I often describe LSD as something that forces you to "drop your filters," the idea being that we take in so much sensory data at any moment, we can't possibly process all of it at once. So what we do is we categorize things into more general levels of organization. Instead of looking at each discrete sight quantum ("pixel" for lack of a better word) of a tree, we instead see the general shape, color, texture, and classify it as a "tree" in order to save processing power. LSD inhibits this process, making you look closer and actually see the details. I suspect that this is why some people report having a better appreciation for nature and natural beauty after taking LSD.

As a parallel to this phenomenon, LSD makes you take a closer look at yourself, your actions, and your trajectory in the same fashion. For me, it started all the way at the beginning, at the level of individual atoms and molecules. At the time, I had a basic understanding of physics and evolution. During my trip, I looked at the sand and saw how it moved in the waves, then started chasing the details of what I was seeing all the way down to atoms and molecules (mentally, of course). Then I started visualizing a rough outline of how the first replicators might have come about; how many would be dashed against the rocks and destroyed. But eventually some would get more complicated and have a slightly higher chance of surviving. At this point, it's all about survival and being able to replicate. Certain variations would make them more likely to survive, but often these would require more energy, like locomotion. Eventually, they would get larger and the energy demands would be greater and they would have to have more purposeful movements to obtain food. Once we're at the point where they have brains, reward centers would develop to guide their actions to make them more likely to survive and replicate.

While many of my ideas at the time were not quite right, if not wrong entirely, I think this was the first time that I'd intuitively understood the idea of evolution. So eventually I got to the point in this process I was imagining where survival needs are all taken care of and I thought about how people would have those reward systems still in place and that might not be a good thing.

I started asking myself, "What is the next 'noble' step to take". I remember that that was the way I phrased the question at the time. I pictured people getting to this stage and then just falling into a cycle of trying to bliss out their reward systems and never advancing. I didn't yet understand the philosophical idea of objective vs subjective morality. I wondered if there was some "right" thing for people to do once they got to this step. What should happen next?

Well, I never got past that point on my trip, but I had gotten to the point where I could start asking the right kinds of questions. Once I was back in a sober state of mind, I took to the internet and started searching. Eventually, I found Eliezer's Levels of Organization in General Intelligence, the technical details of which were over my head, but I learned from it. I was amazed at what I was finding, so I googled the author. That brought me to Yudkowsky.net which lead me to LessWrong and the sequences. I read through all of them and they gave me the foundations of my current understanding, along with helping me realize that AGI is quite possibly the most important problem in the world.

I was amazed with how often one of the articles in the sequences would directly address a question or an uncertainty I had spent a lot of time thinking and wondering about. However, more important than answering the questions, they helped me phrase them the right way.

So my deep wisdom on LSD is that it opens doors, but it won't get you through them. It can help you see things with fresh eyes, without your filters, and gives the opportunity to reshape your understanding if you choose to.

Replies from: Transfuturist
comment by Transfuturist · 2014-04-24T17:49:46.070Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wonderful story, and a good explanation of how psychedelics can be used to aid intuition. :)

comment by MarkL · 2014-04-20T22:29:43.336Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

transcendental meditation

Robert Forman has done TM for many, many years, and he writes about his experience in this book:

http://www.amazon.com/Enlightenment-Aint-What-Its-Cracked/dp/1846946743/

His perspective is balanced and thoughtful.

You might also be interested in my meditation blog which is often (particularly in earlier posts) but not always from a rationalist perspective:

http://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/dark-night-and-what-enlightenment-is-like/

http://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/experiences-of-long-term-meditators/

Replies from: RomeoStevens
comment by RomeoStevens · 2014-04-21T19:15:23.034Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh hey! You run that blog. Just want to say I really enjoy the content you post.

Replies from: MarkL
comment by MarkL · 2014-04-21T22:33:19.823Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Motivating, appreciated.

Replies from: RomeoStevens
comment by RomeoStevens · 2014-04-22T05:15:19.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you mind my asking how your identity interacts with rationality memes? You say that your earlier posts are often from a rationalist perspective. How has your perspective changed over time?

Replies from: MarkL
comment by MarkL · 2014-04-22T10:46:00.374Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just mean, in the beginning, I made more of an effort to simulate an LW-rationalist perspective and write accessibly or intriguingly to people who knew that memeplex. I've gotten lazier in later posts, just writing about what interests me, from my perspective. I don't really consider myself a rationalist. A "transrationalist" maybe. But maybe it's all semantics--non-straw-vulcan, Keith Stanovich's reflective rationality, etc.. I am fascinated by phenomenology, metacognition, and evolutionary psychology, and "rationality" is only one interacting, interweaving component for living the good life and changing the world. It's also a trap if considered in isolation:

http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Valley_of_bad_rationality

Some people get permanently stuck in that valley. I feel like I bypassed it because of my philosophical background, practices, and interests, but maybe I'm Dunning-Krugering.

Replies from: RomeoStevens
comment by RomeoStevens · 2014-04-22T19:35:00.340Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My feeling is that the valley of bad rationality is mostly using it as a tool to identify poor reasoning in others instead of in oneself.

Replies from: MarkL
comment by MarkL · 2014-04-22T22:18:52.042Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I look at it as an empowering concept, apologetic, or an explanation of how "rationality" can go awry. I think Mitchell Porter says it best:

But the really hard questions are characterized by the fact that we don't know how to think rigorously about them - we don't have a method, ready at hand, which allows us to mechanically compute the answer.

http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/aq5/anyone_have_any_questions_for_david_chalmers/5zxw

Rather, grasping at easily available ontologies and attempting to reason with them will not get you very far when you're trying to do that with your life (at least at first). But some people, I think, don't learn how to go below easily available ontologies to create new ontologies (or comfortably rest in uncomputable but navigable ambiguity) that are closer to "what's actually going on," to move forward in their lives and projects. Hence "rationality" doesn't work for them.

comment by Tenoke · 2014-04-20T20:38:19.433Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I definitely do not oppose psychedelics, but if you think that doing more of them or meditating more is going to significantly improve your 'understanding of the human mind', you are likely deluding yourself (if you are just doing it for fun, then that is another thing).

The low-hanging fruit has been picked, and probably the most productive thing you can do is to read textbooks on the topic.

Replies from: None, ChristianKl, None
comment by [deleted] · 2014-04-21T19:53:39.991Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that understanding the human mind isn't the same as understanding your mind.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-04-20T23:13:51.886Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that you get far by reading a textbook of meditation. Understanding mental states that you have never experienced yourself is very hard.

The low-hanging fruit has been picked

I don't think there's a good reason to believe that's true. Things like heat production during certain states of hypnosis aren"t topics that are well researched.

Replies from: Tenoke
comment by Tenoke · 2014-04-21T06:46:07.131Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that you get far by reading a textbook of meditation.

Textbooks on the human mind, not on meditation (as I am talking about what helps to understand the human mind)..

I don't think there's a good reason to believe that's true. Things like heat production during certain states of hypnosis aren"t topics that are well researched.

My statement was aimed at the idea that if you've already done a lot of mushrooms and meditation, doing another psychedelic (like LSD) or changing your meditation techniquie is going to have diminishing returns (e.g. compared to the much bigger insight or low-hanging fruit that your first trip provides).

Replies from: 4hodmt, ChristianKl
comment by 4hodmt · 2014-04-21T16:32:58.057Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As somebody who's also done a lot of mushrooms, the first trip provides comparatively little insight. You're so busy observing all the novelty that you don't have much time to think about it. When you're more familiar with the common effects there's time for introspection without missing anything interesting.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-04-21T21:44:17.854Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you want to really study how a state works, than you need control to go in and out of the state.

If you want to research how a certain mental state leads the body to produce additional warmth than it's highly useful to be able to have control to go in and out of the state by conscious decision.

Researching the mind isn't easy. You don't see very well what the human mind does through putting people into an fMRI. Having awareness of what happens in your own mind is a good way to understand minds better.

Of course you can also learn something through experiments but it's often hard to know from reading a scientific paper in which state the participants have been during the experiment. A lot of psychology experiments are also not well replicated so you don't really know which effects are stable and which aren't.

People who are not aware of what happens in their own mind also frequently project their own issues into other people. That makes it hard to understand why other people do what they do. Meditation helps you to become aware of the stuff that happens inside your own mind.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-04-21T03:17:07.696Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you have done LSD, please explain.

If you have not, then hard downvote for stupendous arrogance.

The most "productive" thing to do is both use psychedelics AND read textbooks, which I assume Fink already does.

(Side note: parent is currently at the the top, and is inanely academic. I'm now further understanding the necessity of "post-rationalism" a la Will Newsome.)

Replies from: Tenoke
comment by Tenoke · 2014-04-21T07:00:32.288Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you have done LSD, please explain. If you have not, then hard downvote for stupendous arrogance.

That shouldn't matter at all in parsing the validity of my argument, but yes, I have..

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2014-04-21T17:54:26.122Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Citations are needed for what you said. A description of significant experience with a variaty of psychedelics and an explanation of how that led you to think that marginal returns on "understanding the human mind" are so steep might be satisfactory.

The human mind is not close to being "solved" by any sane definition of "solved". Systemetized research on the psychedelic experience has been repressed for decades, and current best efforts on doing so (see, e.g., psychonautwiki.org and DMT-nexus) haven't gotten very far.

Not ignoring the virtue of things like psychonautics is an advantage that "post-rationalism" has on standard-fare LW rationalism.

comment by Metus · 2014-04-20T19:56:15.564Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gwern has, of course, some material vaguely related to your text.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-04-20T22:07:11.154Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"No, that one was too perfect - too cut and dried. Usually you have to do a bit more analysis."

This quote from "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" page 52 where Feynman relays experiences from his dreams (he did try hypnosis and other methods too) should prompt you to ask how much you really experienced of your thought processes and how much your mind dutifully projected into your 'experiences'.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2014-04-21T12:41:59.362Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You might want to check out Buddhist Geeks and DAniel lngram.

comment by Rukifellth · 2014-04-29T11:33:12.160Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I experienced what wikipedia calls 'ego death'. That is I felt my 'self' splitting into the individual sub-components that formed consciousness. Acid is well-known for causing synaesthesia and as I fell deeper into meditation I felt like I could actually see the way sensory experiences interacted with cognitive heuristics and rose to the level of conscious perception.

I've recently come into a deep spiritual terror after such an experience I had while sober (albeit in a slightly manic state from sleep deprivation and some caffeine). Afterward, I refused to speak to prevent any unnecessary harm to whoever I'd seek advice from. This is the first time I've seen anybody describe the experience like this, and I was wondering if you knew any resources or persons of experience.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-04-21T00:15:12.216Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I will continue practicing his enlightenment meditation techniques in an attempt to try to foster these experiences without the use of drugs. Has anyone here had experiences with psychedelic drugs or transcendental meditation? If so, could you tell me about them?

I don't have drug experience but I do have experienced plenty of different mental states in meditation. Do you have questions in need of answers?

Replies from: Fink, raisin
comment by Fink · 2014-04-21T02:06:17.308Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What forms of meditation do you practice? What are your techniques?

How long have you been practicing meditation, how often do you meditate and how long do your sessions last?

What altered states have you experienced? Could you describe them in detail?

What do you think of DavidM's post? Do the four states of consciousness he mentioned seem familiar to you? How much truth do you think there is to his articles?

How has meditation affected your life? What are your ultimate goals with meditation? Are you close to reaching them?

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-04-21T21:45:19.555Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How long have you been practicing meditation

Ten years I read a book and started meditating based on what I understood the book to say. Only in the last 2 and a half years I had a decent teacher. I follow the framework laid out by Danis Bois who these days calls his method perceptive pedagogy.

What altered states have you experienced? Could you describe them in detail?

Those aren't good questions to answer, because I don't know how you will understand the words I write well enough:

To get back to what DavidM wrote:

The distortions these processes produce are so severe that, without training, it is unlikely that one will even be able to conceptualize what they are, or what it would mean for the assertion that one's cognitive processes are distorted in this particular way to be true or false.

A year and a half ago a teacher spoke about how one can feel present and how one can feel that one exists. I asked for the difference between feeling present and feeling that one exists. The answer that I got was, that I probably never strongly felt that I exist and therefore at this time there no way to tell me the difference.

What do you think of DavidM's post? Do the four states of consciousness he mentioned seem familiar to you? How much truth do you think there is to his articles?

I do agree with stage one. I would also recommend a beginner to focus on the breath and to feel it in the belly.

As far as stage two goes, I understand what he's talking about but I'm personally more interested into things that much slower.

Replies from: Fink
comment by Fink · 2014-04-21T23:24:41.013Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you could I would still like you to try to describe the altered states and cognitive distortions you mentioned, either here or in a PM. Even if I might not understand the context behind your descriptions I would at least like to hear them, especially given my recent experience.

comment by raisin · 2014-04-21T20:07:49.962Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How effectively can long-term meditation cure anxiety?

Replies from: TylerJay, ChristianKl
comment by TylerJay · 2014-04-21T22:26:55.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've made this recommendation before on LessWrong, but you should check out The Relaxation Response. It's not specific to anxiety, but it takes a very scientific approach toward mediation and its health benefits. The technique he describes is also not very hard to do. I find it very relaxing and even find it effective at mitigating acute anxiety.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-04-21T21:17:30.682Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the last week I felt a lot of anxiety because I procrastinated an important task. As long as I consider that task to be important and don't do it I will feel anxiety and meditation won't solve the issue.

To get rid of the anxiety I have to either completely the task or make a decision that I don't consider it to be important. The task itself won't get done by sitting down and meditating. It actually requires action.

What meditation can do is that you get aware of the reason why you feel anxiety and give you awareness of yourself. If you want you can let go of all goals and sit all day in meditating in some monastery without any anxiety. If you are on LessWrong that's probably not your goal.

When I'm waiting in the train station for a train than I often practice my Salsa dancing turns. I don't feel anxiety if someone watches me because I'm not attached to impressing a random stranger. There no unconscious desire to impress the stranger that causes me anxiety because I don't fulfil that unconscious desire.

Most of the anxiety that I feel is due to not living up to standards that I set for myself.

comment by P.J. Bramah (p-j-bramah) · 2019-12-26T00:31:23.525Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Beautiful..so awesome to see that it has affected people in similar ways.

comment by Craig Mckenley (craig-mckenley) · 2018-04-06T14:58:48.994Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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comment by alternativenickname · 2014-04-24T11:22:25.692Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have done a few LSD trips. The first one was really weird, the rest were with smaller doses and less intense. They've given me a couple of mildly interesting ideas, but for the most part I don't feel like I've really gotten anything useful out of them. (I keep thinking that given the reputation that the thing has, there has to be some way of getting more out of the experiences, but for a large part it feels like my mind gets temporarily dulled by the thing so that I can't really think or do anything interesting, and then I just get bored and start waiting for the trip to be over.)