time beings and psychedelics / shrike

I need songs that better segue into post content. Anyway, Hozier is always lovely.

I'm going to try to be more systematic about getting some thoughts down about the books I'm reading. They won't necessarily be "book reviews", but maybe more thoughts, questions, and bits of resonance that I find.

A book that I read during the first week of the Asia trip was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Reading that book was a magical journey (so lovely that I read Ozeki's first novel, My Year in Meats, as soon as I got home), but it is Dogen's concept of time that has stuck with me. Basically, if you haven’t read the novel (which I highly recommend), it’s about a 16 year-old Japanese American girl named Nao who keeps a diary, and Ruth, a Japanese American writer who finds the diary on the coastlines of British Columbia after the 2011 tsunami. Time, and the concept of time, plays a pretty integral part in the story. Ozeki’s magic realism reminds me of Haruki Murakami, whose work I fell in love with in college but grew distant from as his characters starting feeling redundant (lonely male narrative). Anyway—the important thing here is Dogen’s concept of time. Here is a translated excerpt from Dogen’s work.

"The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another. The way-seeking mind arises in this moment. A way-seeking moment arises in this mind. It is the same with practice and with attaining the way.

Thus the self setting itself out in array sees itself. This is the understanding that the self is time."

The complexity of this concept is not something I feel like I have enough grasp on to explain, but is something that I've been thinking about a lot and trying to make sense of. I finished reading Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind today, a book about the history and scientific revolution of psychedelics. There's a lot to unpack with that one, but the dissolution of ego is a phenomena that Pollan discusses extensively. A sense of detachment from the self is an experience that many have while on psychedelics, and it is that phenomena that is said to change the way people perceive and experience the world post-trip. The book goes on to discuss ways in which psychedelics can be used to help users cope with death, addiction, and depression (with many supporting studies and interviews with people who have sought psychedelic treatment through pilot research projects at NYU, Johns Hopkins, etc.).

The part that I found fascinating was a brief explanation of the "default mode network"—the part of the brain that becomes active when we are daydreaming and self-reflecting.

"If a researcher gives you a list of adjectives and asks you to consider how they apply to you, it is your default mode network that leaps into action. (It also lights up when we receive 'likes' on our social media feeds.) Nodes in the default network are thought to be responsible for autobiographical memory, the material from which we compose the story of who we are, by linking our past experiences with what happens to us and with projections of our future goals."

I have pretty much zero knowledge of neuroscience so this may be an oversimplification, but I took the default mode network to more or less be the part of the brain where the ego lives. And interestingly, this is the part of the brain with reduced activity during psychedelic trips where users felt disconnected from self and experienced ego dissolution.

However, while psychedelics are one way of reducing activity in the default mode network, meditating can also have a similar effect. And then suddenly, it made sense why this idea of a universal "time being" would spring up in Buddhism, a religion rooted in mindfulness practice and the transcendence of self.

Basically, my reading came full circle today. I still have many questions about the brain functions of the default network, about the science behind meditation, and about the philosophy of a universal time being. As someone who has meditated almost every day since I was around 7 or 8, I wonder about my own ability to manipulate activity in my default network and whether the detachment of self that I experience while meditating is at all similar to that of a psychedelic trip. I love when things that I perceive to be so different come together like this.

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Normal waking consciousness feels perfectly transparent, and yet it is less a window on reality than the product of our imaginations—a kind of controlled hallucination.
— Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind