An Inner Voyage: Reflections on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside by the seashore, in the hills, and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul—

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book 4


Amidst the chaos and uncertain times we are living in during this global pandemic, I wanted to reflect on some wisdom from Marcus Aurelius that can help us reframe events and shift perspectives.

In this quote Marcus reflects on the notion that despite our external circumstances we can always find solace within.

Many of us seek to escape our day-to-day realities through retreat or travel. Travel can provide us with an opportunity to explore new landscapes, ideas, histories and cultures. Moreover, it offers us a temporary distraction from the ‘rat race’ and daily routines, in which we often operate in auto-pilot mode for.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world is directed to reside inside, refrain from travel and remain in isolation to stop the spread of the virus. Nonetheless, I think we can use this time as an opportunity to cultivate solitude, and become more acquainted with our inner selves.

Rather than finding peace or tranquility though retreat, Marcus urges us to find it within ourselves. This can be done through living in the present moment, self reflection and contemplation. We can become aware of beauty and intricacies of life that we often ignore because we are too busy to do so. In the horrors of the Holocaust, Anne Frank was able to relish in the simple pleasures that life had to offer at that time. A glance at nature to recharge, find stillness and take a glimpse at the sublime.  In her diary she writes,

“As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?”

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Image source

Once we learn to find contentment within ourselves, in the mundane, we can find it anywhere.

Stay safe, and remain resilient.

Shaking the Snow Globe: A Theory of Psychedelics

Image Source

Admittingly, I was first hesitant to write about psychedelics. For better of worse, these substances have become associated with the anti-establishment and counterculture movements of the 1960’s. Consequently, psychedelics carry a lot of stereotypes and cultural baggage from the past. Nonetheless, after reading Michael Pollan’s fantastic book, How to Change Your Mind and looking into additional research I became convinced of the potential of psychedelics to bring about transformative experiences. If used under the guidance and supervision of trained medical professionals, psychedelics have been shown to have significant positive effects in mental healthcare.

Psychedelics which include substances such as DMT, LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) produce altered states of consciousness resulting in temporary changes to cognition. At a rudimentary level, psychedelics appear affect the brain’s serotonin system, fostering new neural pathways in the brain.

You may still be wondering, how one experiencing these peculiar and strange altered states of consciousness can have lasting effects on one’s perspective of the world, and effectively address a range of mental health issues.

One of the leading theories that seeks to explain how psychedelics affect the brain is Robin Carhart-Harris’ Entropic Brain Hypothesis. The theory develops a model in which different states of consciousness are ordered based on their level of entropy, or rigidity they encompass.

Many mental illnesses including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessions and eating disorders are characterized by inflexible thought patterns and fixed narratives we develop based on how we conceptualize the world. These illnesses narrow of perspectives, in which we become terrorized by our own destructive ‘egos’. Our incessant fears or past traumas become filters to how we shape our lives and view reality.  

On the other end of the spectrum are high entropic states of consciousness which are embodied by chaos. These states are characterized by disorder and flexibility.  Examples of high entropy mental states include infant consciousness, sensory depravation and psychedelic states. A basic diagram depicting this model can be seen below.

Robin Carhart-Harris Entropic Brain Theory

Psychedelics are particularly useful for individuals with on the ‘low entropy’ side of the spectrum.  They help disrupt negative patterns of thought which have become ingrained in our minds by introducing more flexibility – more entropy. Observed by scientists, when an individual is on psilocyn “thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information.”  A visual representation of the difference between a placebo (image A) versus a brain on psilocyn (image B) can be seen below.    

Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks 2014

 A hallmark of the psychedelic experience is ‘ego dissolution’, the disappearance of our sense of ‘self’, and a feeling of ‘oneness’ with the universe.  Michael Pollan describes his experience with ‘ego dissolution’ on psilocybin

The sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more. Yet something had succeeded it: this bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference. I was present to reality but as something other than my self. And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, which was calm, unburdened, content.

 From a neuroscience lens, psychedelics decrease activity in the default-mode network which is considered to be region of the brain which is synonymous with ‘the self’ or what we call ‘I’. When activity in the default mode network falls off, the ego disappears temporarily liberating us from the excessive and unproductive ruminations of the mind. When this occurs, we can rid ourselves of destructive stories and ideas we hold dear, and have the opportunity to craft new narratives. 

Psychedelics may be a shortcut to achieving what long experienced meditators have been training years to attain, the relief from what Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’ or the ‘no-self.’ In this state we are liberated from attachment, and the separation between subject and object disappears. At a minimum, psychedelics show us that there exist many different forms of consciousness and unique perceptions of reality that we can experience throughout our lives. This offers us a unique opportunity to view the world from a different lens.

  To quote William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience,

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness

William James: Author of The Varieties of Religious Experience

These are no doubt powerful substances which if used in the wrong context can have negative repercussions both on an individual and societal level. Nonetheless, if used in as a medicine rather than as a recreational drug in a safe and regulated environment, psychedelics can perhaps give us a momentary glimpse of enlightenment.

Next time I’ll explore in more detail what the clinical trials are revealing about the therapeutic use of psychedelics in mental health care. 

Till next time,

AA

Reverse Engineering Bliss: Hacking the Flow State

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:04KJER0243.jpg

High stake situations require complete and utmost concentration. Any distraction or lapse of judgement can shift your attention away from the present moment, hindering your efforts to achieve a state of effortless flow. This could make all the difference in the final moments of a championship game or dictate whether you are in peak performance mode when giving a big presentation at work. In the case of extreme sports, there is no room for error. For athletes such as free solo rock climbers, being in a flow state is a matter of life or death. Scaling a boulder thousands of feet above the ground demands one to be immersed in their climbing, and plunge into the here and ‘now’.

We do not need to perform dangerous or extraordinary feats to achieve a state of flow. Many of us at some point in our lives have achieved these states of consciousness in one form or another. We all have interests and passions that we pursue for there own sake, irrespective of any attention or other benefits we may gain from them. We engage in these activities in which we experience moments which distort our sense of time, optimize our performance, silence our ego and make our actions feel effortless.

For me as a musician, these flow states occur when I ‘let go’ of over analyzing what I am playing, forego the fear of failure and channel my emotions into my guitar. This is why I admire the late great guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. His live performances and remarkable solos are an exemplar of what is means to be in flow. Describing his 1969 Woodstock performance, David Moskowitz in his book The Words and Music of Jimi Hendrix writes,

The guitar solo in the middle of the song illustrated how lost in the music Jimi could be. He played for several minutes with his eyes tightly shut and the solo reached a climax with Jimi returning to his old trick of playing with his teeth.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jimi-Hendrix-1967-Helsinki.jpg

The question thus remains – are these just spontaneous fleeting moments that we experience at random? Moreover, can we attain these states in any sort of systematic way?

Building off the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Steven Kotler’s research identifies four triggers that can help you get in a state of flow.  

  1. Clear Goals:  In order to achieve a state of flow, one must have a concrete understanding of what they want to achieve. Having a clear set of tangible goals provides purpose and structure to your efforts and ambitions.  
  2. Immediate Feedback: Just as a musician knows if they have played the wrong note or the surgeon is constantly aware of status of their patient, immediate feedback is a significant requirement of flow. It enables us to continually alter our actions in response to the situation to achieve our desired result, and meet the necessities of the current situation.
  3. Concentration in the Present Moment: To be in peak performance mode, we must be immersed in the activity. High levels of concentration effectively narrow our attention on the task at hand. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in his seminal  book Flow, during these states of consciousness:

Only a very select range of information can be allowed into our awareness. Therefore, all the troubling thoughts that ordinarily keep passing through the mind are temporarily kept out of abeyance. 

4. Challenge /Skill Ratio:  The flow state exists between boredom and anxiety. That is, it occurs when an individual is pursuing an activity that has the appropriate level of challenge for their skill level. For instance, a tennis match is most enjoyable to play when the two players are evenly matched. When a skilled player competes against  an amateur, they get bored as they lack the challenge and competition. They fail to utilize the full capacity of their skills. On the contrary, the amateur is filled with anxiety as they are stretched beyond their present level of competency.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lucgaloppin/6324319992

We all strive to experience moments which send shivers down our spine. Moments which provide us with temporary respite from the daily grind – the rat race. Experiencing flow puts you in a meditative state, jolting you into the ‘now’, silencing the nagging thoughts and trivial problems that we ruminate on throughout our day-to-day existence.

We can get to these optimal experiences and experience flow through pushing our boundaries. By pursuing our unquenchable thirst for new challenges.  Through learning new skills, and continually seeking novelty and unique experiences.  

It all begins with finding what activities resonate with you. The sort of things that you pursue because they have intrinsic value to you – activities that you engage it not primarily for fame or fortune, but because you deeply love and admire them.

So, what gets you in the state of flow?

Till next time,

AA