April 18, 2012

How to Enlighten the World

I was recently dialoguing with a neuroscientist about the possible merits of biofeedback versus direct modulation for bringing people to no self experiences. Here are the main points that I made.

Let's start by making a few assumptions in order to simplify the discussion.

  • Assumption 1. One or more "ego switches" actually exist in the brain--understanding that a “switch” might involve more than one location      and might even involve a complex temporal relationship between locations. 
  • Assumption 2. The switch(es) are in fact dimmers that can be turned down but also completely turned off.
  • Assumption 3. Our ultimate goal is to bring the student to the point where they can let the switch to be on or totally turn it off at will any time in daily life. In terms of traditional Theravada, this would be equivalent to being able to access “fruition states” at will.
  • Assumption 4. A quick, easy process that reliably leads to balanced, integrated liberation would trigger an exponential propagation of enlightenment within a few generations (and, thus, dramatically change the course of human history for the better).
  • Assumption 5. Our process would involve three components: 
    • A. Conceptual Content. People would learn cultural, philosophical, and scientific perspectives on the no-self experience as well as ethical and behavioral guidelines, possible challenges around integrating no self into daily functioning, etc. 
    • B. Formal Focus Techniques. Probably pretty similar to those we currently use in mindfulness practice.
    • C. Techno-boosts. Technological intervention that allows us to turn off the ego switch(es).  
We already have components A and B. The role of the techno-boost would be to dramatically accelerate their impact. In other words, I don't see the techno-boost as a replacement for mindfulness practice but rather as an effective accelerant to what we do already. (Think a one-year class at any community college during which a sequence of techno-boosts are implemented and integrated through lecture and discussion). 

If assumptions 1-3 are in fact correct, then the question becomes "What sort of techno-boost should be used?".
  • Should it be some form of biofeedback? (EEG, rtFMRI, or some other physiological parameter….) 
  • Should it be direct modulation from the outside? (TMS, focused ultrasound, deep brain stimulation….)
  • Should it be a combination of modalities?
It's reasonable to assume that biofeedback would be the way to go because it involves a learning process and our ultimate goal is that the student should gain insight and regulatory control. On the other hand, I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility that direct modulation might prove more effective than biofeedback. 

In my way of thinking, there are three desiderata for any techno-boost to no self:

  • It should be dramatic.
  • It should be reliable.
  • It should be universal.
By dramatic I mean it leads to a strong and impactful experience of no self. By reliable I mean it’s able to induce that in a given individual consistently, and by universal I mean it works more or less equally well for most people. 

It's possible that direct modulation could induce states of no self more dramatically, reliably, and universally than biofeedback. However that still leaves open the question of how much the student would learn from those experiences.

The most dramatic example of (a kind of) no self produced through a completely physical means that I'm aware of is “athymhormic syndrome.” This condition apparently obliterates the ability to auto-boot egoic existence (although its victims can be booted temporarily by someone talking to them). 

Based on the limited information I've been able to gather on this syndrome, it seems that at least for some of its victims, their default state is a complete disidentification with mind and body (which is my definition of arhatship). This is brought about by tiny lacunar infarcts that apparently obliterate key pathways involved in autoactivation of self. 

When I first heard about this condition, I did the following thought experiment:

What if I took a beginning meditator and temporarily induced that state through "reversible lesions" while having them listen to a guided meditation CD (to keep a “meditating self” booted). And what if I kept this procedure going for, say, ten hours straight. Would this allow a beginning meditator to have the experience of an arhat doing an all-day “strong determination” sit? If so, might it not profoundly and permanently rewire them in that direction? 

Of course, I recognize that there are a gazillion possible problems with this scenario. For one thing, we don't really know if our first three hypotheses are correct. Secondly, all of the external direct modulatory technologies are problematic. TMS probably cannot be focused tightly enough or deeply enough, DBS is massively invasive, and ultrasonic neuromodulation is pre-clinical. But, if it turns out that ultrasonic neuromodulation is both safe and effective, then it might be just what we're looking for because it can be focused to millimeter precision at any depth within the brain. 


  1. I wonder what the rationale is for assumption 1. I know nothing about the brain science behind this, but I do know what my own vipassana practice felt like from the inside. The experience was very much like watching grass grow. I reasoned this was the case because, well, I was waiting for my neurons to form new connections! And neurons don't grow fast, they grow slowly (relatively). Learning meditation might not be different from learning any other skill that way.

    Now, when I finally got my first fruition, I reasoned about it (afterward of course) in the following way. The practice leading up to that point was really causing these new connections to come about. When the connection was finally strong enough, and the conditions were right, there was an immediately discharge of energy at that point, I conked out, and then the system came back online. Except that first conk-out really strengthened the other connections, too, because now I was seeing rather effectively through the illusion of a fixed, separate self.

    What I'm saying is, I don't know if there's a "Switch" in the brain just waiting to be flipped. While it's true that some people just wake up one day for no apparent reason, I'm guessing the vast majority of people who do wake up do so because they work their butts off. In the brain, that translates into building these new connections, just like you'd build connections if you were learning to play guitar. One day you just "get it", at which point you can play a Jimmy Page lead or, in this case, start to see through an illusion.

    Also, the fact that the early stages are marked by seeing through an illusion rather than the illusion going away completely is interesting. To me, that indicates that it's a much more gradual process. Rather than throwing a switch, you're gradually building a switch (a new pathway around the normal processing paths) to be thrown at the right moment.

    Now, if human minds were not instantiated in neurons, we wouldn't have to wait for grass (or neurons) to grow. We'd know the algorithm that coded for it, so we could just create a being without the illusion of a permanent, fixed self - just as, presumably, we'd be able to create a being without the illusion of a geocentric universe. At that point we begin to have the discussion you start in the latter part of your post. Though I think the assumptions you raise are interesting, because to me it seems like the physical reality of the brain probably more closely resembles what I'm saying rather than what you're saying. But we won't know for sure until we get a very good look inside! :-)

    1. der Augenblick - I totally agree that neural change tends to be a gradual process, like grass growing. But I do also wonder if higher-intensity stimulation could process rapid brain-change...

      One-time 'learnings' from a short, intense event with little or no lead-up are not uncommon - e.g. PTSD, cases of extreme brainwashing, Lorenz's imprinting, tales of 'sudden enlightenment' etc...

      Considering such, maybe the 'switch' metaphor is not entirely inaccurate.

    2. I think the idea of a techno-boost is not bad but what's the difference between learning mindfulness and any other kind of learning? IMO if it was really feasible, it would have already done something to make us able to finish school in less number of years.

  2. ego I think is more the lack of something, e.g. enlightenment. It might be more fruitful to switch ON more parts of the brain to gain enlightenment and fill the void where ego "resides", in the brain, the heart, or wherever the void is most empty.

  3. Ambitious. Two other possibilities should be considered:
    1) Drugs
    2) Some sort of Audio/visual conditioning... think Clockwork Orange, but this would make you an Arahant instead of a psycho.

  4. What are your thoughts on using DMT/Ayahuasca as a boost?

  5. That's a retarded idea for over a million good reasons.

  6. Ayahuasca, “a retarded idea for a million different reasons?” Really? I can think of maybe a couple of millennia or more reasons why it might not be such a bad idea for exactly the kind of boost that Shinzen is talking about.

    And in fact, when I read Shinzen’s post I was actually hoping that someone would bring it up. Apparently someone already has.

    My last experience with Ayahuasca clued me in that much more permanently to some of the Assumptions that Shinzen has stated above. Namely, Ayahuasca recently pointed out the fact that all experience is simultaneously arising out of each moment, and that the ego (sense of individual self) is in fact a structure closely linked to or synonymous with the personal or small-I thinking process. And that this structure does in fact exist in a place towards the back of the brain. And further, that by simply having a sense of where it exists in the brain, it can be turned up or dimmed down, with better proficiency as one gains more and more control over this part of the brain or maybe we could just say as one’s concentration improves.

    Ayahusaca also showed me that this small-self thinking process is also synonymous with the suffering self. As I believe I’ve heard Shinzen say, “No self, no problem.” Where’s that dimmer switch again?

    And yet, Ayahuasca is no substitution for a daily mediation or “concentration practice” as my Master Ayahuasquero once told me. In fact, my Master Ayahuasquero says he knows of people who have been “drinking” for 30 years, but because they do not have an integrating daily practice, their daily lives have hardly changed.

    And one more reason why Ayahuasca might not be such a bad idea: just as we’ve seen with pharmaceuticals versus el natural supplementation – more and more doctors are going the holistic route whenever possible for a variety of reasons that do not have to be restated here.

    Maybe Ayahuasca is not such a bad idea after all, Shinzen?

  7. Very interesting post.
    Biofeedback certainly seems most appropriate, especially for Mindfulness-style praxis - where the emphasis is on teaching the brain to be free to access mindfulness skills anytime, anywhere... rather than trying to attain a certain peak state (ala drugs, concentration/trance praxes)... I reckon that direct modulation might be more effective for the latter.

    I've yet to try biofeedback, but have been looking into buying an Emotiv EPOC (home-use 14-sensor EEG machine), it would be utterly fascinating to use in conjunction with formal praxis among other things. Has anyone here used one? I tried out the other home-use EEG on the market - the Neurosky one (only has 1 sensor), but found it far too simplistic and limited for using, it was more like a toy, though maybe useful for beginning meditators. Would definitely be interested to hear any "intermediate" or "advanced" meditators opinions on the Emotiv though.

    [as a side note, i notice neurosky also have a 'mobile' eeg device for smartphones. If this was actually a high quality device, you'd have the option for the EEG 'techno-boost' for praxis in daily life... hmmm...]

  8. On the matter of Ayahuasca & other serotonergic psychedelics, there's absolutely no question that they CAN induce deep sensory clarity, and even equanimity and concentration, and frequently lead to 'ego-death/no-self' experiences and potentially profound insight.

    But used stupidly & recklessly, its pretty clear that they can magnify the tangling of thoughts & feelings, short-circuit concentration etc.

    Their unpredictability makes them a techno-boost thats probably not going to be suitable for the masses for quite some time, let alone accepted. The scientific community is finally starting to take them seriously again, with some amazing studies being done (maps.org is a good place to start if yr curious)...

    As far as techno-boosts go, here's a fascinating article I really enjoyed on combining Direct Modulation and Biofeedback with formal meditation praxis: http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v18n2/v18n2-25to27.pdf

  9. Looking up athymhormic syndrome in Wikipedia, it does not sound like something I would want to have induced. It sounds like suffering to me.

    Regarding drugs, I think many older Western Buddhists came to Buddhism through psychedelic drugs. This was partially true of myself (there were other drivers too) but I would not recommend them. The results are too unpredictable. Now, that is not to say that it might not be possible to develop a drug that induced egolessness without serious side effects, but I don't see this as ever being a priority for the drug companies as there would be little profit in it (greed at work here).

    I don't have a very clear view of what a technoboost sufficient to enlighten millions of people would look like. Maybe coupled to some kind of computer game or something. Perhaps brain implants of some kind. But these don't sound like meditation, they sound like doing violence to reality in a certain way.

  10. For enhancing and enlarging the results of meditation, I recommend the CDs of Dr. Jeffrey Thompson.
    For instance, there is the Brainwave Suite, which contains sound/music concerning the following themes:
    Awakened Mind (Alpha-Theta)
    Insight & Intuition (Theta)
    Relaxation & Meditation (Alpha)
    Sleep & Rejuvination (Delta)
    I made remarkable experiences with these CDs, even at a time when I wasn't practising Basic Mindfulness. I guess, this falls under "direct modulation from the outside".
    Thank you so much for all the good work!
    Blessings: Christoph

  11. In my experience, DMT can take you much further than the initial realization of anatta but it requires, or at least is facilitated by, strong concentration and high levels of discernment so as not to be dragged into the potentially hallucinatory aspects of the experience. For me, as a long-time insight meditator and psychonaut, n-n-DMT - with or without an MAOI - will at least bring a reasonably skilled meditator to the ethically-neutral ground, if not to the actual Clear Light.

    Based on that, I'd suggest that using DMT or Aya to bring about experiential realization of anatta would be akin to opening a walnut with a sledgehammer. Even LSD, except possibly in sub-psychedelic doses so as to 'loosen up' self-related conditioning, would be too much for many and, due to the legal status and other issues, probably pretty difficult to study in a way that would allow for development.

    I know I'm a bit late commenting on this, but the comment by the fellow calling himself Stephven is poorly informed and disrespectful and so I hope this provides some clarity.


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