In praise of — Purpose;Psychedelics; Passion & Prayer
The mind of a monk in compassion meditation; a woman having an orgasm; the man engrossed in writing music and someone tripping on psychedelics. They are all `high’ on the pleasure of ego dissolution.
In my research on the pleasure derived from ego dissolution i have found the brain sees a lot in common when experiencing these four activities. It seems logical then to think these 4 activities practiced in moderation could form a natural part of living a tranquil, healthy, adult life.
The common enemy: Our default sense of self. The voice in our head. That sense of me, that always comes on when we are awake and not occupied. Our self-awareness seems to operate like a constant companion while organizing conscious experience. This voice reminds me a lot of my mom that scolded me while tidying my room. The utilitarian matriarch in my head.
It’s that default mental network of pathways that tells stories to ourselves (often about ourselves). I believe it’s what the Buddhists labeled as Suffering before Science came online.
But there also exists a counter force in us that wants to escape that constant self observation and finds pleasure when it gets it. Roy F. Baumeister, a social and personality psychologist talks at length about this pleasure seeking desire from this burden in his work when he says that self-awareness is frequently a burden.
“For our brain, escaping continual self-observation seems an under appreciated pleasure.”-Roy Baumeister
Talking about the neuroscience of Pleasure, Nadia Webb in the Scientific American wrote. “Bliss, both sacred and profane, shares the diminution of self-awareness, alterations in bodily perception and decreased sense of pain.”
- Meditation (What i label as Prayer in my opening paragraph) offers relief from this self-preoccupation and one of the few tools for creating a durable boost in happiness — perhaps by dampening activity in regions implicated in judgment, comparison, planning and self-scrutiny.
Meditating on Compassion shifts the attention of the brain from self observation and analysis to someone other than the default self. This creates pleasure in the left frontal cortex of the brain. The reported depth of meditation also corresponds to activity in the brain’s pleasure centers, such as left forebrain bundle, anterior insula and precentral gyrus. This overt pleasure is accompanied by a shift in emotional self-regulation; meditators are more aware of thoughts and feelings conceptually, but less emotionally disrupted by them, according to one study. Pleasure is also linked to a loss of awareness of the boundaries of our body. Expert meditators also show an acute reduction in the activity of the default mode network by altering bodily self-awareness and enhancing activity in specific brain regions, such as right angular gyrus — regions that become most lively during attempts to imagine ourselves from a stranger’s perspective.
2. Orgasmic Passion: According to Nadia, unlike meditation, orgasm seems a heightened sense of being within one’s body rather than the sense of being outside of it. During orgasm, the cerebellar deep nuclei and vermis, also in the cerebellum, glow. The cerebellum used to be thought of as the “motor bit” tacked onto the back of the brain. The deep nuclei are mysterious, but they seem involved in planning and initiating movement, motor learning, rhythm, synchronizing and smoothing of movement.
Further proof of this `neural naughtiness’ is shared by Dr. Andrew Newberg in the book he co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, Why We Believe What We Believe, suggests that mystical experiences are described as blissful or ecstatic because they share many of the same neural pathways in the parietal and frontal lobes that are involved in sexual arousal.
When Newberg scanned the brains of nuns and Buddhists undergoing mystical experiences, they reported feelings of timelessness, spacelessness, and self-transcendence. Newberg believes a cause of these feelings is the reduced activity he saw in their parietal lobes, the orientation area of the brain responsible for perceiving three-dimensional objects in space.
3. Psychedelics- This is another substance that has similar positive impact on loosening the default mode networks rigidity. According to the Scientist.com article on decoding the tripping brain, “studies show that psychedelics disrupt established networks in the brain, potentially allowing new connections to form. While on psychedelics, people commonly experience ego dissolution, a loss of the sense of a separate self, and an enhanced feeling of connectedness with the outside world.
Recent neuroimaging studies have revealed that the intensity of this experience correlates with changes in brain activity, primarily in the default mode network (DMN) — a system of brain regions that is more active at rest than during tasks, and that is thought to be involved in, among other things, processing information related to the self.”
New research provides preliminary evidence that psychedelic drugs can improve mental health by making individuals more accepting of distressing experiences. The study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, adds to a growing body of literature that indicates using substances like psilocybin can result in sustain improvements in depressive symptoms.
Richard Zeifman, a PhD student at Ryerson University and research intern at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and his colleagues found that the use of psychedelics in both ceremonial and non-ceremonial settings was associated with decreases in experiential avoidance, which in turn was associated with decreases in depression severity and suicidal ideation, 4-weeks after psychedelic use. Psilocybin/magic mushrooms, LSD, and ayahuasca were the most commonly used substances in the study. “Our findings suggest that one of the reasons that psychedelic therapy has positive therapeutic effects is that it helps individuals to be less avoidant and more accepting of their emotions, thoughts, and memories (even though such experiences may be distressing in the short-term),” Zeifman told PsyPost.
“More broadly, our results provide further support for the negative mental health effects associated with avoidance. This can be summed up with a saying that is often used in the context of psychedelic therapy, that ‘The only way out is through.’”
4. Purpose: Or being repeatedly in a state of `Flow’.
Steven Kotler writing in Psychology Today, describes the mental state of flow as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It’s also a strange state of consciousness. In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates — meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened — and that includes creative performance.
He goes on to say that — Flow is also caused by “transient hypofrontality” — the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex.
During flow, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control — goes quiet. The DLPFC is our inner critic, that voice of doubt and disparagement. As a result, with this area deactivated, we’re far less critical and far more courageous, both augmenting our ability to imagine new possibilities and share those possibilities with the world.
As you can see this state of mind has huge consequences for creativity and living life with a sense of freedom not ordinarily felt in our normal waking self. In essence if we can find this state of flow our brain takes over and rewards us with a great sense of pleasure and creativity.
I just finished reading `The Element’ by Ken Robinson that adds another layer to this perspective. He talks about people thrive when they are in their Element. He describes this place as when the things we love to do (personal passion) and the things we are good at (Natural Aptitude)come together. He calls it the sweet spot where our imagination is realised through repeated acts of creativity and we find our most authentic self.
Getting high on purpose, prayer, passion or psilocybin is nature’s way to give us a relief from our default self and experiencing our heightened self. We need them both. We just have to learn how to moderate them for living a tranquil, selfless life and creating the most complete version of our self.