The Intuitive Self – A Discussion with Dante

The nature and question of the sacred has been contemplated by humanity since the dawn of our species. Philosophers, mystics and theologians have spent countless hours in an effort to develop rituals and frameworks to establish a path towards the sublime.

This begs this question however if the notion of the sacred can be fully comprehended by the finite individual. Perhaps rather it is a feeling, emotion or instinct that can only be known by our intuitive, self outside the scope of the rational mind. One of the most explicit representations of this idea can be found in the Tao Te Ching, Daoism’s seminal text. 

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name

Lao Tzu

I will explore this notion in future posts, but for now I will introduce Dante who provided his perspectives on spirituality, and introduced us to his contemplative practices in the interview below. I met Dante through Rosemary and we connected over our mutual interest in Nietzsche, particularly the notion of Amor Fati (love of Fate). I asked him some questions and he provided his responses below.    




  1. How would you define spirituality?

It varies from individual to individual, so I will give you a definition that only applies to my perspective.

Spirituality is a sensitivity towards recognizing reality from a position independent of the ego.  The ego (or subjective sense of self), is blinding towards the state of things as they are.  There is a famous quote: “we don’t see things the way they are, we see them the way we are”.  For one to be “spiritual” one must only have this sensitivity, a desire to see things the way they are.  I don’t see it as inevitably seeking some truth or reality. Rather it is more akin to seeking the discernment to recognize reality when it is presented.  I make this distinction because the truth may come, or it may not, but the ability to recognize it is where the value lays.   

2. What types of spiritual practices do you engage in?

Since abandoning all the major world religions one after another through my childhood, I’ve learned to simplify my practice.

A daily meditation practice is the crux of my practice.  I take my meditations from a variety of sources, and practice what I need to practice.  It takes pieces out of Vedanta, Buddhism, Yoga and secular neuroscience, and blends them into an East-West hybrid that suits my needs quite well. 

One can only sit in quiet meditation for so long before going broke and getting kicked out of their apartment, so I’ve adapted to apply my meditative practices into my vocation.  Modern neuroscience shows states of “flow” in activity induce similar brain function as compared to states of deep meditation.  So when I am doing a job I really enjoy, I find flow states very meditative. This is important to me because I like living in the city.

Finally, I think the most valuable part of my practice to me is the practice of service.  To me, the real value of my practice is the ability to do good in this world.  Volunteer work, mentoring, a kind word, a piece of advice, or even picking up some trash in the park, is an irreplaceable part of my spiritual practice.

3. The Canadian-American writer Saul Bellow said “Science has made a house cleaning of belief.” One of the predominant paradigms in the 21st century is that of technology and scientific progress. How do you reconcile scientific fact with spirituality?

This is an important question for me.  As a scientist and an engineer, I have found many challenges in diving into spiritual practices. 

As I continue to learn more about both in my practices, I have decided for now that the two need not be reconciled.  To me, it is like the night sky is to the day.  The two exist on different planes, have different purposes, don’t understand each other and perhaps never will. But they both have an important place in the world, and thus, with a healthy dose of skepticism, should be appreciated and admired for the value they bring.

4. As we grow older, we develop more rigid patterns of thinking, and it can become easy to fall into mundane routines of everyday life. How do you deal with these issues, and maintain a connection to your spiritual purpose?

Learning stops once the mind perceives existence as mundane. 

My solution to this is to remain childlike (to recall Nietzsche’s famous allegory).  The child “is innocence and forgetting…a sacred Yes”.  In this state one is able to create, to will existence through the creative energy the child wields so freely.  Children are capable of learning at an astonishing rate, and psychologists have linked this to their sense of wonder and play.

 I make a point to always consider myself at play, to perceive this life in astonishment.  We’re biological meat sacks flying through infinity on a rock.  There’s a giant ball of fire in the sky that keeps us alive but can also give us cancer.  Looking at the world through this childlike perspective keeps me from falling into the trap of growing up in the conventional sense.

5. It seems like spirituality and eastern contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga have become increasingly popular in recent years. How do you make sense of this trend? 

I think every human has an intrinsic sensitivity to spirituality as I have described it in question one.  Since the beginning of time, people have sought to understand our state of existence.  We find a strange solace in seeing that is bigger than just our selves (or our egos).  This is just a swing of the pendulum of human consciousness.

 I make a point to always consider myself at play, to perceive this life in astonishment. 

Amor Fati and The Acceptance of What is Necessary

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This idea of surrendering ourselves to something beyond our control is foreign to our natural inclinations as human beings. At our core we are meaning making creatures who tirelessly seek to rid the world of uncertainty, and have power over our natural environment. We develop myths, rituals, belief systems, and socio-political institutions all in an attempt to influence the outcome in our favour – to shape our own destinies. According to the author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the development of culture is humanity’s attempt to reduce the inherent unpredictability of the external world, to make order out of chaos.

Greek Mythology: Image Source

Despite the sophisticated technologies and narratives we develop, we remain at the mercy of Fate.  Our attempts to tame and influence the external world to our favor are futile at best. A friend gets suddenly ill, a natural disaster tears apart our community, we don’t get the job that we think we deserve. Through this we learn about the indifference of the universe. This idea is further exemplified in Seneca’s brilliant prose,

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves…….. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within

Seneca: On Tranquility of Mind

What philosophy and ancient wisdom teaches us is to embrace hardship and uncertainty rather than run away from it. Rather than seeking comfort or security, we must willingly plunge into the abyss – the great unknown. Leaning in to fear and discomfort is where growth and personal transcendence happens.

Plagued with a life of hardship and illness, Fredrich Nietzsche found solace in the idea of Amor Fati, the love of fate. In his book Ecce Homo he writes,

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.

Nietzsche is not asking us to endure what happens to us, but embrace it – love it. To accept times of embarrassment, despair and remorse is to comprehend that every experience shapes who we are and who we become. To embrace Amor Fati is to come to terms with who you are. It is not a call to resignation nor apathy. Rather it is an understanding of the inherent vulnerability of the human race, and an acknowledgement of the fact that there are things we can and cannot control. 

When I first came across this concept I was completely captivated, so much so that I wanted to get a tattoo (still forthcoming) of the phrase to have the opportunity to constantly be reminded of its significance. It’s a prompt that will encourage me that we always have the power to reshape or reframe events to give them a new meaning.  

We are too quick to judge and interpret situations without taking a broader perspective. Both Buddhism and Stoicism teach us that events in themselves are neither inherently good nor bad. Rather it is up to us to decide how we can interpret them.  While a time of hardship or difficulty may seem insidious in the present moment, you may look back on this period in retrospect as one of transformation and personal growth.

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Like the Stoic philosopher Seneca alluded to, in some shape or form we are all chained down to something beyond ourselves – be it the will of Nature, Fate or Fortune. Instead of engaging in a senseless fight against what is outside of our influence why not embrace it with open arms. Why not take ownership over it and imagine this was something destined for you?

 In times of doubt, chaos or uncertainty , remember Amor Fati. I can see of no other way to live.  

Shaking the Snow Globe: A Theory of Psychedelics

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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