Daniel Ingram on Emergent Phenomena
Imagine if Professor Xavier set up an X-Men Institute...
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A weird thing happened to me yesterday. I m staying in a condo complex in Costa Rica, and yesterday we invited the person in the condo above us to come for lunch. We got talking, and discovered a mutual interest in spirituality. My neighbour said ‘the guy whose work has really helped me is this dude called Daniel Ingram’. I was amazed, considering I interviewed Daniel last week and lined him up for today’s newsletter. Coincidence huh?
Daniel is a retired MD who lives in Alabama, and is famous in meditation circles as the author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. First published in 2008, it’s a very good book on Buddhist ideas and practices, clear, logical, unsentimental and unpretentious. And it’s an intriguing book because it basically says ‘here are some instructions for achieving awakening, and by the way I have achieved awakening’. The book’s subtitle is ‘An unusually hardcore dharma book, by the Arahant Daniel Ingram’.
Arahant is a Pali term meaning ‘a being who has reached a state of perfection and enlightenment’. Normally that would set alarm bells ringing. It’s pretty arrogant to call yourself an arahant – is this person delusional, manic, a wannabe cult-leader? It’s good to be sceptical of extraordinary claims, and while I can’t say for sure if Daniel is or isn’t awakened (not being awakened myself) he doesn’t seem obviously power-mad, sex-mad, money-mad or mad-mad. He funds his own charitable organisation (so he gives money away) and gives his book away for free, in contrast to every other contemporary spiritual teacher I know. He does seem to have a lot of energy – I remember the first time we zoomed, he was holding an ipad and he walked and talked constantly during the hour-log zoom. Now that’s what I call zooming. If he is in some sort of expanded state, he seems to have been in it for many years.
Daniel doesn’t consider himself a Buddhist, and appears to prefer a networked, pluralist, scientific and data-driven approach to what he calls ‘emergent phenomena’. In support of that approach, he has founded the Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium (EPRC), a network of researchers and practitioners in turn supported by the 501c charity Emergence Benefactors. The EPRC’s website says:
What many might call “spiritual”, “mystical”, “energetic”, etc. experiences and effects, we refer to as emergent phenomena. We refer to practices designed to lead to emergent phenomena, such as meditation, psychedelics, yoga, prayer, etc., as emergent practices. As emergent practices continue to scale up in society, our aim is to give health care systems, mental health providers, and those who are helping to teach and promote various practices the information they need in order to make better decisions about how to both promote the benefits of these practices and manage the various effects that they can produce…The Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium’s mission is to use ontologically-agnostic, multidisciplinary, first-person, psychometric, neurophenomenological, biochemical, and clinical scientific methods to conduct studies on emergent practices and phenomena to generate clinically-relevant information that can add value to practitioners, patients, clinicians, and healthcare systems.
The EPRC is a network of researchers and practitioners interested in things like unusual meditation experiences, kundalini awakenings, difficult trips and extended post-psychedelic challenges, spiritual emergencies, and so on. It’s an interesting crew - at one EPRC dinner, I was sitting in between a crypto investor, a psychiatrist, and an academic who had recently started seeing ghosts.
The charity that Daniel set up, Emergence Benefactors, supports our work at the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project. I am not an arahant, I’m an arahaven’t, but what I share with Daniel is an interest in and sympathy with people’s wild spiritual journeys, and a desire to help those experiencing difficulties along the way. My focus is particularly on the challenging phases of the journey, but I shouldn’t focus so much on the dark nights that I lose sight of the possibility of new dawns.
What follows is an interview with Daniel, where we talk both about the challenging experiences people can have, and the possibility of ‘awakening’. I was going to put this behind a paywall, but I guess if he’s giving his book away for free, I’d better give the interview away for free too. The EPRC is seeking philanthropic support for 2024, and paid subscribers will get access to the video of our conversation and see just how quickly Daniel rattles off ideas! Enjoy.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I tend to talk about the three Daniel's when I do this. So Daniel One is this kid who started having meditative experiences when he was very young, got into blissful peaceful states and started having lucid flying dreams at around age five, and then took a weird meditation course in fourth grade at a hippie Quaker school in North Carolina. He had his first massive energetic explosion of consciousness at around age 14 while meditating, and then started having all kinds of weird out-of-body experiences for the first time. This carried on for ten years or so.
I started going on very intensive meditation retreats, and then found the maps and all the manuals of meditation on how to do this stuff, how to make sense of it, how to do something useful with it, and I became totally obsessed with that and basically trained to become a meditative athlete, and then ended up writing a book [Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha], founding an online community and hanging out a shingle that said, ‘if you're having weird meditative, energetic, psychedelic experiences, I will talk to you about those for free and won't even take a donation’. When you do that you get to talk to thousands of people about their fascinating highs, lows, weird adventures in the spiritual psychedelic, energetic, mystical, magical, spontaneous, etc paths. And then I became something of an accidental expert with a fascinating friend circle.
Daniel Two studied science and math and then pre med and electrical engineering and then public health school, epidemiology, infectious disease, a lot of biostatistics. Then he was an MD, and worked in emergency medicine and eventually healthcare administration. And Daniel Two was basically taught that Daniel One either didn't exist or was crazy and needed meds, which I don't think was true. Daniel One had the good sense not to tell his Harvard and Yale educated paediatrician father what was going on with him, because my dad now admits he would have done something harmful and thought I was crazy.
And then Daniel Three began to emerge about four years ago, when Dr. Julieta Galante said, ‘why don't you come to Cambridge and spend the summer with me trying to research the stages of insight and, and figure out how we can be the change we want to see in the world. It is the height of ridiculousness that I have a double doctoral degree in the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge University yet I can't talk about my most personally transformative and also sometimes challenging experiences’. And then I mentioned this to my fascinating friend circle, and they're like, where do we sign. Before we knew it, we were the EPRC. And I was the retired guy with some resources. Everyone else had lives and kids and jobs, so I ended up the sort of de facto administrator of this thing. And then we built the charity Emergence Benefactors, because we realised we needed something incorporated that could be a bank and aggregate funds, and administer grants such as for your excellent project, The Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project.
From reading Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, obviously you got very into Buddhism. Can you tell me about that?
Not only Buddhist. There's a lot of influences in this book that are non-Buddhist, there's magical influences, Hindu influences, Christian mystical and Sufi influences, non-aligned indigenous influences. As I mentioned in the foreword warning, I'm not saying this is the right path for everybody. But what really sparked my interest is when I went to Buddhist insight retreats, and started going did my first retreat at the Insight Meditation Society with Christopher Titmuss. It just made a lot of sense. If you want to understand your experience, pay more attention to your experience; you can notice that things come and go, you can make your mind more precise and clear.
And what was interesting is every time I would go on one of these retreats, this set of experiences that I didn't really understand in my past, would happen on the retreat, compressed into nine or 17 or 27 days or whatever it was, in a way that would mirror what had happened during the previous 25 years of my life. I thought, that's interesting. And then on my third retreat in a Malaysian Buddhist meditation centre, when I had been through all these wild experiences, they played this scratchy tape of an old Burmese monk talking about the stages of insight. It’s called ‘the tape’. I had never heard of any of this stuff. And he described in order what I had gone through. And I thought, how did they know? And then they gave me some books, one of which was Mahasi Sayadaw’s Practical Insight Meditation, where I read about the sequence I had gone through it. I found it incredibly empowering and normalizing. And it basically seemed like they had figured out something important about attentional anatomy and how it develops.
Then I started noticing this pattern everywhere in mystical literature – a lot of writers spoke of The Dark Night of the Soul, leading to various states of grace or revelation. It's like all these people had noticed this same basic human attentional development pattern in themselves in their own practice. And they're all writing about it through their own different lenses. So that's Daniel One’s perspective. But Daniel Two, the scientist and epidemiologist and biostatistician, thinks ‘OK, but how do you translate that and get clinical validation, and understand the underlying mechanisms and physiology? How do you incorporate that understanding into health systems?’
Meanwhile Daniel Three is trying to figure out how these two sides can understand each other better and get along. So that’s a little microcosm of what's happening in me and with people such as yourself, Julieta Galante, and the over 230 people that are now in the EPRC and have said, there's something about that resonates with me as well. We’re not the first people to look into this scientifically – we’re really just parts of an iteration, trying to help the clinical mainstream realise something about the deep end, that it has patterns to it that people have been describing for a long time.
When you talk about the stages of insight, is that the ‘jhanas’?
You’ve got two maps that are coming out of Theravada Buddhism, well, three, but I'll start with two. One is the stages of insight. Very simply explained, you see thoughts as thoughts, then you notice that intentions lead to actions, and sensations lead to mental impressions. Your body gets these weird energetic tensions, and then there's some kind of big opening, you might call a kundalini awakening, I might call it the stage of arising and passing away, other people call it peak experiences, you can call it a lot of different things. It's a huge topic and very complicated. There’s a lot of possible phenomenology, lots of descriptions, bright white lights, trembling of limbs, powerful openings, sense of oneness, or void, or all kinds of wild stuff that can happen. I can talk literally for hours about that single topic.
But then there's some kind of a crash, which Theravada would call dissolution, fear, misery, disgust, desire for deliverance [the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ stage], and then opening out into equanimity, some sort of big expansive and integrative floaty thing, and then finally there’s realization. So that's the four stages of insight. And then there's the jhanas and how the four jhanas relate to the stages of insight is a whole controversy – some people say they do, some say they don’t.
So what are the jhanas?
The jhanas are these meditative states of absorption. You would start with ‘I'm stabilising my attention on my object with applied and sustained attention. I've excluded myself from the hindrances and challenging states of mind. And so I have a happy abiding with a strong concentrated mind and bliss and peace, and you know, some mindfulness and presence to what's going on’. And then in the second jhana, the effort is falling away, the state becomes much more natural and develops on its own, it has more rapture, more bliss and more peace, because you're not having to work so hard for it, it's become a natural, skillful thing that you can abide in. And that shifts to the third jhana, which is wide and tranquil and expansive and peaceful. And then there's a fourth jhana, which is the equanimity that is la very neutral body tone. Anyway, that’s an incredibly superficial treatment.
There are some people, such as myself, who think these two maps relate somehow. And this is where you get into controversy. We actually have a study at Harvard, doing insight runs and jhana runs, and we'll see which centers activate when you achieve certain states, we're bringing in all kinds of very adept meditators who can do that same kind of thing. And then we're going to compare that to some of the 5-meo-DMT and DMT data from Imperial College London. So we're going to start answering, at a neurophysiological level, what are the age-old correlations between these deep states of meditation and psychedelic experiences.
Do you feel that a lot of people now are having awakening experiences through psychedelics, contemplation, or just spontaneously? Or is it the same percentage of the population as always? When people ‘pop’, as it were, are they entering ‘stream entry’? What is ‘stream entry’? Sorry that’s two questions.
Well, that's actually a lot of different questions and raises a lot of things. So the proprietary term was ‘stream entry’. Buddhism has a lot of different maps of awakening, or enlightenment, or whatever you want to call it. One of which is the four paths, the first path of which is stream entry, which would be a permanent shift in the baseline perception of reality that reduces certain aspects of suffering. And then, the question is, how many people are getting into that? I actually think the vast majority are more likely related to what I would call ‘the arising and passing away’ stage from the ‘stages of insight’ map.
But Daniel Two would say ‘we need the science on that’. But yeah, the ‘arising and passing away’ stage can be super impressive. And I think the vast majority of these first major openings that are really world shifting, it's something of a point of no return, it's entering spiritual adolescence, it's a big shift. It's like a first taste of something profound, after which the Dark Night occurs.
But again, Daniel Two says ‘we need science on that. What are you basing that on? It's your expert opinion, filtered through your own experiences in orthodoxy.’ And Daniel Three goes, ‘yes, that is true. On the other hand, in an ideal evidence-based medicine world, we would have the physiology, and the outcome studies, and more neutral language that scales and isn't all bound up with Buddhist stuff, but simply looking at phenomenological outcomes’. The EPRC is trying to figure out how to how to be big enough to encompass all those perspectives to make something that helps meditation teachers and clinicians and everybody else deal with this better.
But in answer to your second or third or fourth question, do I think this is happening more? Yes, definitely. I'm quite convinced that more people are having this happen to them as meditative and contemplative technology scales. They're getting into this territory, regardless of whether or not you want to call it something formal like ‘awakening’, which gets very controversial. Let's just say they're getting into what I call ‘emergent territory’. This is a pattern emerging that we couldn't predict from our current knowledge of neurons and serotonin and dopamine and whatever, or our underlying understanding of physics and physiology and chemistry, or even psychology. This emergent territory can have a lot of highs, lows, weird plateaus, variability, it's clearly not a linear path. And that's also the all the territory we're talking about from psychedelics, sweat lodges, fasting, or arising spontaneously, or through childbirth. There's all kinds of ways that people can get into this territory.
I must admit that, because I hung out this shingle and said ‘if you're having these experiences, I'd be happy to talk’, I ended up with a very weird friend circle. Nearly everybody I know, like 95% of people I interact with, have had some of these experiences. So I have real sample bias based on this. Nonetheless, certainly, there are vastly rarer diseases that have vastly more money in scientific research put into them. Let's say 12% of people experience ‘emergent phenomena’, that'd be a billion people. Maybe we spend $1 per person to research some of their most important transformative spiritual experiences. Well, that'd be a billion dollars. Does that sound fair and reasonable? I think it does.
Why is it important to study this area?
The standard pitch line, which I still think is true, is that meditative and psychedelic and other related practices are scaling, the clinical mainstream understanding of them is not, and anyone who think this is not true, look at the textbooks of emergency medicine and emergency psychiatry, they're basically just as bad as 20 years ago when I trained.
Only a fool would want it to be in a modern emergency department rather than the Zendo Project tent if they were having some spiritual crisis. The Zendo Project tent with people who have expertise and training in this are going to give you vastly better care, in terms of normalization, holding space, being able to relate to you skilfully, understanding what's going on with you and being able to have a much more nuanced approach. The standard emergency department approach is basically you either give meds or you don't, you're going to give them a pathologizing diagnosis, you're going to send them maybe to an outpatient programme, something about drug treatment or psychosis, then follow up with a psychiatrist who also similarly has no good diagnostic codes for this. The DSM 5 is a disaster. It's got a few little things like ‘if this is happening in your spiritual tradition, maybe it's okay if you're otherwise functional’. But that's so limited that it's not functionally useful.
My colleagues in medicine didn't go into this to be ignorant and harmful, but in this case they are. And we need to give them vastly better tools to do their jobs better, be less of a threat, more of a benefit. Or let’s say you're a psychedelic facilitator, what are the best grounding techniques? Do we have any good science on that? Nobody's ever done it. We have opinions - maybe heavy foods and exercise. But do we actually have data to back that up? No, it's all anecdotal expert opinion stuff.
And medicine might also be able to recognise the potential in this stuff. If it really can lead to bliss and peace and increase mental well being and reduce suffering, wouldn't that be awesome? Because we're seeing an onslaught of mental illness, for kids, particularly. And if this stuff somehow can help them, which has been promised for thousands of years, we should be studying that, and figuring out how to incorporate it to help all these people who are having a really hard time.
If someone is having some kind of psycho-spiritual turbulent experience, and they went to a psychiatrist, or maybe they were sent to an emergency room, how likely is it they would receive a diagnosis like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia?
Your diagnostic options are very limited. If it's related to a psychedelic, they might just say, this is intoxication from a psychedelic and maybe give them a benzo or anti psychotic and let them sleep it off. And hopefully they have no residual stuff. Because as you know, sometimes people take a psychedelic, they go up, they are weird, they come down, they are not. And they go about their lives and not much has changed. There are plenty of people who have partied plenty of times on psychedelics, and they didn't have a massive existential transformation or any profound benefits or challenges.
But sometimes as we both know, people go up, they come down, but where they land is really, really different from where they were a few days ago. And that ‘different’ might go on for hours, days, weeks, months, years, the rest of their lives. And that ‘different’ might in the short, medium or long term be either for the better or it might be way worse. They might have massive healings and transformations from psilocybin or MDMA. But I also know people who took some MDMA, went way up into a peak experience, and then crashed hard into dark night stuff. So I also think it can facilitate this insight cycle which can be very nonlinear and confusing, in which case they get diagnosed with bipolar, or bipolar two or bipolar two rapid cycling, which is the diagnosis that basically says you're broken for life, you'll be on meds for the rest of your life, it's just going to get worse unless we control it with meds, there's no beneficial outcome to this, except to reluctantly acknowledge that when people are ‘manic’ they may be somewhat more creative but also more prone to risky behaviour and wrecking their lives and driving everybody crazy.
The appreciation of the potential transformative side is very limited. And then the problem is a lot of these diagnoses carry the notion that you are messed up forever. And as Chris Timmerman’s research shows, on psychedelics there's a neuroplasticity and a receptivity to messaging. If you tell someone in that receptive state ‘you are now broken for life and will need meds for the rest of your life and have a stigmatising diagnosis that might ruin your career and make you unemployable and uninsurable’, then this can be an absolutely catastrophic experience, and really detrimental to an entire person's sense of identity, and potentially divorces them from any potential healing or transformative potential that might be happening in this nonlinear process.
Not that I don’t think bipolar in its classic form doesn't exist. I do think it exists. I've seen it, I have friends that I think have it, they don't describe any insights, no transformative stuff, they just get a lot of energy and do damaging things. And then they get really sad and do damaging things. So there doesn't seem to be any obvious benefit to them from this.
But then you've got people who may have both [spiritual insight and bipolar disorder] - this is where it gets really confusing. They have insight cycles, and they have classic bipolar, and sometimes these do interesting things with each other. And then what do you do with that? A mix of meds and meditative practices to facilitate the transformative healing or something. This is going to take a lot of science to sort out, I don't have the right answers, I can simply identify that I think there's a Venn diagram of overlap between two related but somewhat different things.
And then you might be diagnosed as psychotic, which is not helpful. That's a purely pathologizing diagnosis. Maybe you saw angels that restructured your DNA and healed you of your trauma, but you now have a purely pathological label that you were told in a vulnerable state, you were simply crazy, and there was nothing redeeming about your angel experience at all. That can set up these weird internal conflicts when a part of you knows, wow, I really felt healed, but another part says, maybe that was all crazy and there's no validity in my healing. Well, that's not something you want to do as the clinician - totally invalidate something that was really beneficial for somebody. That's not your job, hopefully.
The best diagnosis you can hope for is adjustment disorder, which is sort of this catch-all category of you had something you needed to adjust to, and you're having trouble adjusting to it. But that still is very unsatisfying to those of us who have seen vastly more sophisticated maps that seem not only predictive and descriptive, but also prescriptive in terms of how to do something useful with those experiences.
So I think the best of the [mystical] maps not only describe and normalise and predict what will happen next and predict maybe even what came before but also have the sense of potential - you can take whatever's going on with you, and countless people over thousands of years figured out cool things you can do with your mind that allow you to work skilfully with each of these phases of practice and attain some sort of benefit from it. And again, Daniel Two goes, ‘Where's the clinical data that shows benefit?’ And Daniel Three goes, ‘Okay, let's see how you two can come up with a study that meets both of your needs in terms of honouring what Daniel One thinks is true and honouring the methods and epistemic requirements to make the numbers better and get people off ER beds and reduce medication costs, anxiety, depression, outpatient resource utilisation’. And we think we can do that.
Some people have extended psychotic states after cannabis and / or psychedelics, particularly young people, and I'm very curious about what they're told, and what their families are told, if they go to a psychiatrist or an emergency ward, whether there's ever an understanding, okay, this could be an episode of psychosis, but it doesn’t mean you have life-long schizophrenia. What’s your perspective?
It can go either way. And it depends on sort of how trigger-happy with lifelong diagnoses your diagnosticians are. Not to totally rag on the DSM. In one’s clinical practice, you can see people for whom some of these diagnostic categories make tremendous sense, you just go yep, that really seems to fit some portion of the population I see. But you can also look through that lens and see a lot of shades of grey. I have met many people who crashed into the health care system and got diagnosed as bipolar from what I would think of as just classic stages of insight. And yet it's got this up and down thing they didn't understand that is new for them. They weren't going up and down before. Now they are, and many of them have been diagnosed as bipolar two or bipolar one or bipolar two rapid cycling is the common one. And then they attained to a different stage. And suddenly, they just don't meet any of the criteria for bipolar anymore. And they can identify the time, day and second when it went away. That, from a mental health point of view, is amazing. That's the kind of stuff that needs to be studied. Because if you can take people who are having these wild swings in hard times and suddenly they really don't meet the criteria at all, and they can pinpoint the moment and the phenomenology and even the micro phenomenology that led to that reversal of what was considered a lifetime diagnosis, that should be super interesting to people. So how do we get the data? That takes money.
If someone gave you a million dollars, what's top of your list that you think is the most critical to learn or to build?
We were just actually having that conversation this morning. And it's related to what we call the minimum viable product. So our minimum viable product is actually about $2 million. But I can tell you what I do for a million. So if someone said, here's a million dollars for Emergence Benefactors, what are you going to do with it? First, I would fund your Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project phase two. Next, I would spend $300,000 on what we call the Expert Opinion Study. Most of medicine is based on expert opinion. You get a bunch of people together and you get to go through some sort of process to get to some consensus. What we would do is interview 150 people who have for decades been helping people with this stuff - emergent phenomenology, psychedelics, meditation, sweat lodges, indigenous practices etc. So you've got the Emma Bragdons and the Joseph Goldsteins and the jungle shamans and the trip sitters in Amsterdam and they've spent decades on this work, they know what's out there, they know the range, they've seen it for themselves, they have their favourite things that they think help, they have their ways of conceptualising this. And then we do super long form interviews, hours and hours and hours, what do you see? How do you deal with it? And basically ask them, if we give you a blank chapter that you could write in the textbooks use for board certification and emergency medicine, psychiatry and psychology, what would you write that you think is ready for clinical primetime that you think every clinician across the globe should know?
And then we see where the areas of consensus are, like, everybody agrees, heavy diet helps ground people for example. That is a possible example. And then maybe there's real disagreement on how to deal with some of the dark challenging stuff. And we take these honest areas of controversy, and say, those are the things we need to then go forward with prospective comparative trials. And then we would take the recommendations from the expert study and hand them to people to say, this is literally the best we've got, right now. We think this is better than what you have in your textbooks, here are your diagnostic criteria, here's your diagnosis management strategies, here's your algorithms, here's your trees, here's the pathway for further research. So that's the next thing I would do.
Once people have come through challenging experiences, dark nights of the soul etc, where do they go from there? Where should they go?
That's a great question. Well, culturally, there's already this tremendous sense of 1000 things you can do to make yourself better, right? You can be smarter, you can be more productive, you can be more calm, you can be less anxious, you can be less depressed, you can be more happy, right? However, it would be great if the vast majority of that was actually based on much better data of what really helps. That’s why we need some of the big long term studies - here are the people who did yoga for 10 years, here are the people who did microdosing, or mindfulness for 10 minutes a day, or TM or whatever prayer, are they better? Do you have big enough data to say that we know these things do something useful, because people have limited resources, they have limited time.
I get this question from people with tonnes of resources, billionaires. They ask me, what meditative practice should I be doing? Should I go on a 10 day Goenka retreat, or should I take five grammes of shrooms? I wish I can tell them something other than the skewed impressions of Daniel One. Daniel Two wishes I could tell them what are the predisposing factors for good outcomes. What are your specific goals? Where's the intersection of what you're coming in with and what you want to do. So that people can make vastly better informed choices.
Your book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is interesting in that it says, to paraphrase, ‘these meditative practices were designed not for relaxation or therapy or to be happy, but to lead to awakening, and if you follow them diligently that will reliably happen, and did happen for me’.
Reliably is a funny word, but definitely it’s one of the things that can happen, and that you might expect to happen in some non trivial portion of people who do these practices.
But mindfulness is a fascinating one. Let me give both sides of the argument. On the one hand, from a certain very ordinary point of view, it is true that mindfulness is described in the old texts as something that would inform all the aspects of the various trainings in a traditional Buddhist context.
But the mindfulness movement made something of a grand bargain. Early on, it wasn't quite so clear what the bargain was. But it was recognized that it would succeed in the clinical mainstream by sticking very much to the shallow end - this is going to reduce anxiety and depression, this is going to help people deal with trauma.
It's not that that this wasn't described in the old texts, it is. But the other side was the big prize. That would have been seen as the small prize in comparison to the big prize of awakening. That was the reason for founding a 2500-year lived religion that spread across Southeast Asia and around the world. And so modern mindfulness cut off not only the benefits, but also the known challenges and the weird stuff. These practices were known to lead to powers - seeing beings and weird energetic stuff and lots of strange things that makes the people who want to scale this stuff clinically very nervous, because they know the clinical mainstream is not very ready for that.
But if you look actually at the early books of Jon Kabat Zinn, like Full Catastrophe Living, some of these earlier books do hint that this is about awakening, this is about the full thing. And then they realised that they couldn't scale with that, the market wasn't ready. And again, they might not like my interpretation of this, but Joseph Goldstein knows the wide range of wild stuff that can happen from this stuff. How many 10s of 1000s of people has he heard describe these things. They’re in a very complicated political position. We have this notion the work of the EPRC could help pave the way for more of the full range of what mindfulness is, in addition to every other spiritual tradition that would love to be deeper and better appreciated. We're not just singling out Buddhism here - every Pentecostal who's ever been nervous to talk about their experiences with their psychiatrist or mental health practitioner, everybody who’s had some revelation or saw spirits in the jungle, or whatever it was, we’re trying to help the medical world relate to all of that in a much more skillful, nuanced, sophisticated, value-added way.
So what is the big prize of meditation? What is awakening? And what is your experience of it?
[Laughs]. Those are actually two huge questions. What's been my experience? I've described a lot of this if you want to read tonnes of details, by the way, in Mastering the Core Teachings. Or there's now an audio book available as well on my soundcloud. Those are both free, but if for some reason you want to pay for it, you can buy it on Amazon or Audible. I give all the money I get from that to charity or or a dharma project.
But the final result - it wasn't easy. What I've gotten is somewhat unusual, even in the realm of Buddhist meditation. And I should mention that, by claiming the things I do, there's a lot of controversy about that. So for those who are going to post a bunch of comments or whatever, just recognise that I've heard every single comment you're going to make about being crazy or delusional or exaggerating etc.
But all those qualifiers out of the way, what happened is actually relatively simple to describe in some ways. So imagine, just for a moment, that you're in the room, and your baseline is present to the sights and the sounds, to the actual experience of thoughts, which from this point of view, they are very, very wispy, to the experience of emotions, which take up a very small portion of experience, but are very clear, relatively subtle. So I have, you know, sensations in here related to emotional things. Like, oh, my stomach feels a little bit weird. I wonder what that's telling me. But there's a proportionality. So the default mode network at baseline is very, very deactivated. It's not like I can't look up and see what's on my calendar, all that can happen. But my baseline is much more here in a way that it was not before. And what that does is lend a walking around proportionality to thoughts, which are these super wispy little things that are barely a sight and barely a sound and barely a feeling. I can still think on my feet pretty well and, and obviously was able to be a doctor and do pretty fancy biostatistics and stuff. The capacities are still there, but the perception of them in the moment is at baseline radically different.
And this is something I don't have to work for, or remember to do. And this also gives a radically transformed relationship to emotions. The proportion of anything that can be stressful is a very small portion of experience. And there’s also this very high degree of natural clarity because the mind isn't doing this weird thing where it's trying to figure out how it is in relationship to all these things. It's not constantly trying to turn the sensations in the back of my head into a stable knower and doer or in-control watcher. That process stopped 20 years ago, thank God.
And it's not like I can't think, ‘I am Daniel here talking to Jules and we’re talking about the EPRC’. Thoughts of time, and space, and identity all work fine. But the proportionality and the experience of them and the directness and the clarity about them is radically different. And that has made all the difference. This was the most valuable thing I ever did. It came through straightforward investigation of my sensate reality, and learning to shift through a progressive developmental thing, which is predictable, that eventually leads to something that is way more open, clear, direct, present, proportional, it's just better.
And regardless of whether you call it ‘awakening’ or not, whatever, whatever labels you want to put on it or not, there was a before and after. And this beats the crap out of the previous way of perceiving and relating to reality. So this has been the most important mental health upgrade that ever happened for me, it made my baseline way better, more functional, more clear, more capable. Yeah, just a vastly better relationship with thoughts and emotions, existence, deep questions. So that's, that's the most important thing. And then the ability to instantly drop into, you know, blissful, peaceful states on command basically, or, you know, whenever I want to even just lay down and close my eyes, that's super good. So the jhanas are nice. And you know, something of the expanded palette of experiences that I have when I go on retreat, or even sometimes at baseline that people might relate to a little more strangely, you might call it the magical end of things or whatever, to use one possible bit of language. That's we're going to lose some people here just by saying that, but those experiences occur and the range of them and the relationship to them is just vastly improved. That's a whole other topic. I've talked about that on other podcasts like Liminal Warmth:
Tell me a bit more about that.
For example, I went on a Fire Casina retreat, where you're cultivating experiences that people might consider strange. You know HPPD, this persistent hallucination stuff that can happen after you take a psychedelic? Well, my baseline since I was a child was that I see kind of statically coloured snow, that can sometimes start organising itself into patterns, just at baseline. When I go on retreats, particularly doing visualisation practices, that gets a lot stronger. And that can sometimes form into things that have a lot more coherence and seeming meaning to them. Now, when I initially started having those experiences, it was easy to take them very seriously, perhaps more seriously than they deserved. These days, I take them generally with all the seriousness of the pattern of a cloud in the sky. Even though it might be a beautiful cloud in the sky, turning itself into an interesting pattern or shape or face or message or whatever. So there's something in that increased range that has helped to sort of reinvent my life. And I am deeply appreciative of that, though, it might not ever be everybody's cup of tea.
Do you personally have all encompassing metaphysics or teleology?
I am a strict ontologically agnostic empirical pragmatist. I can see pros and cons to various models. And I very loosely put on some of these hats on when I'm trying to solve certain problems or relate to certain people around certain things for a specific outcome, and then take them off just as quickly and hold none of them as sacrosanct. Personally, that doesn't mean I don't appreciate when people do. And if it's useful for you to hold one of these as sacrosanct, fantastic. But I very much appreciate my materialist aside as much as my cosmic consciousness side, as well as my sides that look at things through various sort of religious lenses and mysterious ones. So I personally am pretty happy to have quite a wide palette to work with a wide range of situations. I also don't think from an EPRC point of view that adopting any of those will scale, because those debates are at least 2800 years old. From a clinical point of view, what I really care about is that clinicians have a very ontologically neutral set of phenomenological frames that will scale globally, stay out off the ontology wars and work as well in Riyadh as Rome or Reno or rural Alabama, where I sit talking to you.
What about your personal teleology? Do you have a sense of the kind of the point of life or the goal of practice?
I actually think questions of meaning are vastly harder than doing things like awakening. This is a doable thing with straightforward technologies that don't need any teleological assumptions, beyond things that you can derive from immediate empiricism in the David Hume sense. I appreciate a wide range of teleologies and yes, I have some of my own favourites. I personally get a lot of value out of service, out of sharing the journey, out of community, out of trying to think about how to lend value to people and communities and the planet and my colleagues in various disciplines. That's very compelling to me. I do all this as a volunteer. In fact, I pay to play [as in, he funds the EPRC at the moment]. I'm retired, I don't need to do any of this. And yet I feel called - as a functional thing, rather than intellectual thing - to do this work, to help the world relate to the deep end better, because that has been so important for me and my friend circle. And that sense provides a tremendous amount of day to day meaning for me, because these experiences themselves have been intrinsically meaningful, and intrinsically had a tremendous sense of relevance, regardless of any traditional overlay.
Going back to the idea of the ‘big prize’, if someone reading this is intrigued by that, what should they do?
That unfortunately tends to be a very long conversation, I get people who reach out to me pretty frequently. And as I say all the time, it's usually a 90 minute conversation to even scratch the surface of it. You have to understand what a person is bringing into this, their aesthetics, their history, what they've tried and worked, what didn't, what their goals are. And there's usually their stated goal, and then their actual goals. If you keep asking, Yeah, but why do you want that? If you do that long enough, usually get to something much more mundane, like what are they trying to heal or solve. I find a lot of people trying to solve real world problems using spiritual methods. There’s often some very real world component where they’re suffering after a breakup, or they don't know what to do with their job. And then there’s people strengths and weaknesses, some people are really strong in one sense or one technique, and yet might be really weak on ego strength in the classic Freudian sense of looking at their dark stuff, and not freaking out, or having a transformative process happen and staying functional in the face of that, you know, or they might be really bad at concentrating, but they’re really good at living a good life and doing something functionally useful in their community. What's their relationship to orthodoxy? What's their relationship to hierarchy? What's their relationship to fancy hats and trappings and symbols? Or do they need something way less structured? What's their relationship to materialism versus non materialism? How rationalist are they? What’s their risk tolerance? What are they willing to give up? Do they have like two kids and three jobs and they've got a tonne of debt, they're taking care of their ageing parents, and they just can't take a lot of risks right now. Or are they like a 20 something year old trustafarian kid, who's willing to go out and climb to the top of the mountain one way or the other as fast as they can? So you get these really different kinds of risk profiles. So this is not a straightforward question. Unfortunately, it's really complicated. I wish it was easy, but it isn't.
One of the wilder things you see when you do this for long enough, is you meet people where you think ‘there's no way you should do intensive practices, you're just not stable enough’. And they do it and thrive and that was exactly what they needed. And other people who you're like, ‘you totally got this, you seem so stable, so put together’. And then they just shatter like a pane of glass in the face of whatever experiences they had, and it goes horribly. What’s going on there? We just don't know. And we've got to admit, we can't perfectly predict what's going to be a good fit. I would love better data.
Do you feel western spirituality is more prone to bullshit at the moment, because of the internet or other historical factors?
There’s more information and data, but is there proportionally more bullshit now? I don’t know. Has there always been a tremendous amount? Yes. And that's why we need good science. It's not like science is a perfect tool. But do I think it has something to lend to this conversation. Why is there so much bullshit right now - part of that is just the massive proliferation of the internet, part of this is developmental. It takes a long time to really develop wisdom and discernment and a sense of what's out there. But now, things are moving so fast that it's hard for older people to keep up with the technology. That sort of Future Shock of fast moving technology is creating this weird gap where older people who do have a level of discernment that takes decades to develop are having a hard time keeping up with how fast the conversations are moving.
I'm worried about the sort of wisdom gap of older people who are not able to keep up with younger people's conversations in the way, whereas that wouldn't have been true 100 years ago or 500 years ago. How do we pull in the wisdom of people who've been around a lot longer and wrestled with these issues a lot deeper - that's part of what the expert opinion project is, these people with a lot of grey hair, who've really thought deeply about this and lived it for decades, you know, some half a century. You know, how do we get their wisdom as part of this conversation?
So $300,000 - please, this is not a big ask to do something super profound for the world. And what would I do with the remainder of a million dollars? The EPRC itself need some money to run it - for the lawyers and accountants and administrators to administer grants and aggregate funds and fundraise. And then there's a few other studies, people like Rosalind McAlpine and Chris Timmerman could use some more funding for their psychedelic phenomenology in neuroscience research. There's a bunch of other very good candidates. So if you've got interest in us, please check out EPRC, help us help Jules to administer his grant and support him and his work and fundraise for him, help us help the whole space.
So there you are. Who knows, maybe there is such a thing as ‘awakening’ and we should take these ancient texts seriously when they talk about it. Anyway, in the meantime, have a read of Daniel’s book and if you’re a philanthropist or wealthy individual interested in this area, do please considering supporting the EPRC. After the paywall, a downloadable video of our conversation.
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