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meditations on first meditations

[Dislcaimers/potential confounders:

↳ At the time of writing, I have been taking SSRIs (for depression) on and off for about 3 years, but consistently for the last year.

↳ At the time of the central experience in this piece, I had also taken two Solpadine (standard dose) for a muscle ache. I take Solpadine pretty infrequently so its effect is usually fairly pronounced for me; that’s not to say it was causative, but it may have been a catalyst at some level. It’s a mild over-the-counter pain killer though, I have taken it many times over the years without anything like this happening.]

***

When I first considered writing about meditation (and yes, the stupid Cartesian gag-title was there from the start), it was very much in the spirit of the rest of the stuff here – a diary-style account of something I wanted to encourage self-reflection on. I expected it to be a kind of narrower version of the habit log. However, last night, out of the blue, I had an extremely powerful mind-altering experience while meditating. This has never happened before, I was not expecting it, and frankly, this ‘kind’ of thing is not really my scene. I’ve managed to lucid dream just once, and I’ve experienced sleep paralysis once, but by and large my conscious experience has been pretty standard. This was a remarkable experience unlike anything else I’ve encountered.

I have some very, very basic knowledge of the terminology used in some Buddhist traditions, but it’s utterly shallow and I think it would just be confusing for me to refer to it when I have no real understanding of it. So instead I’m going to use my own terms in basic language, and people with a better grasp of the various traditions and schools can match that up as best they can – unfortunately I definitely can’t.

Before I get into the experience itself though, I’m going to write some ‘dear diary’ background stuff, because I honestly think it’s important in understanding what led to the experience.

***

My first time engaging in any kind of regular meditation was while about a year ago while attending counselling sessions at Pieta House. As part of my treatment, my counsellor asked me to spend 20m a day engaging in sensory exercises. These consisted of focusing on each sense in turn (sight, sound, so on) for up to 30s, moving on to the next sense whenever I lost concentration on the current one. I could have done this in a ‘dedicated’ way at home, but I typically did it while walking to and from town. Frankly, I think I was just trying to squeeze it into a slot when I wasn’t doing anything else, and I was very bad at actually sticking to this commitment. Classic!

Nevertheless, especially in the first few weeks, I found it very effective at producing what I can best describe as a kind of ‘calm awareness’. By that I mean I felt very much in the moment, serene, and fundamentally content. This would usually fade about 30m or so later, but my mood would still be notably buoyant afterwards. It was good stuff, and frankly was pretty much all I expected from meditation. I had a strong base-skepticism toward more ‘fanciful’ accounts of meditation, e.g. ‘infinite bliss’ and so forth. In retrospect, I think I suspected (no doubt with some arrogance) such experiences to be philosophical ‘eureka’ moments of the kind that I had already experienced through my study of philosophy. In particular, I remember reading Plato’s Republic and Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, and having profound experiences of joyful intellectual enlightenment concerning perception and causation respectively. It wasn’t that I doubted the transformative nature of these reported experiences, more that I thought they were somewhat less significant (and more familiar) than as described.

Then about 6 weeks ago I saw this piece at SSC, and began exploring the various interlinked pieces, particularly this review of Daniel Ingram’s book. I found this very interesting, because like a typical slavish acolyte, Dear Leader’s willingness to give these ideas credence melted my base-skepticism. I began reading around the subject, including Ingram’s book, and meditated a couple of times. It was interesting, but the meditation itself didn’t really get me anywhere, probably because I barely did any. Classic 2: El Classico!

One thing that stuck with me though was this excerpt from the SSC review:

One such detail is the infamous “vibrations”, so beloved of hippies. Ingram notes that every sensation vibrates in and out of consciousness at a rate of between five and forty vibrations per second, sometimes speeding up or slowing down depending on your mental state.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in the days and weeks that followed, I began to notice this in my day-to-day life. It’s hard to describe, but I would have these brief experiences of my senses (especially my vision) ‘shimmering’ or ‘flickering’, before snapping back into normal perception as I lost concentration. I think at some subconscious level, reading about this had put me on the look out for it, and every now and again I would pick up on these sort of granular features of consciousness.

It was fascinating and enjoyable, and gradually began to happen more often. Of course, being me I STILL didn’t take this as a hint that I should try and apply myself to meditation a bit more. That is until last night, when I was having difficulty sleeping and decided to do some concentration meditation and see if that helped. Frankly all I wanted out of it was a good night’s sleep.

***

Previously my concentration meditation had focused on breathing, but for some reason I thought this would be a bad way to get to sleep, so I decided to focus on my hands and the sensation of moving my fingers. It was late, the room was pitch black, and the windows in my house have excellent sound insulation, so it was a bit like a sensory deprivation scenario.

Something I had read about when researching concentration meditation was that an important step was to ‘notice yourself noticing’ the point of focus. I hadn’t been able to do this and didn’t know what it meant, but this time a few minutes into the meditation, it clicked, and the effect was incredible. The best way that I can describe it is to say it felt like taking a step back from my sensory experience, and seeing my conscious state from ‘without’. Upon doing so, I experienced a pulsating/vibrating current of pure pleasure in my brain. I want to make something really clear: this was a feeling of such bliss that the only similar experience I’ve had were the peak periods while taking MDMA. However, although it was similar in intensity, it did not ‘feel’ chemical – it was more akin to hearing a really satisfying musical note, only it feels like ecstasy. Imagine a trumpet solo making you orgasm. Or don’t. Anyway, it lasted only moments before I fell back into my normal concentration. Without really thinking about, I started focusing on the movement of my fingers again, and before long I experienced another rush of bliss. I didn’t know what I was doing, and still don’t, but I was able to repeatedly access this hyper-aware stream of pleasure for short periods of time. Based on descriptions, I believe this experience corresponds to parts of what is known in the Theravāda tradition as the “first jhāna”, although as I said earlier I can’t really say that with any authority or even conviction.

What happened next was a bit weirder. As I was trying to access this current of pleasure, I instead slipped into something that felt ‘deeper’, for want of a better word. It felt like falling into a space in the back of my head even more remote from my sensory experience. This feeling was profoundly disassociative, and gave me a kind-of-terrifying sense that I had separated from my ‘self’ and might not be able to get back. At the same time though, the current of pleasure was even more intense. It almost felt like I could hear it, a sort of pulsating, throbbing frequency. I actually found myself trying to get back out of this state in a slightly panicked way. I usually came out of it fairly quickly, but even then, I had the worrying sense that it had nothing to do with my efforts – that it just happened to stop, and that you could just get stuck there in that disassociated state of consciousness. I also couldn’t seem to get back into the previous current of pleasure – I would go straight into this intensely pleasurable, but kind of scary disassociated state.

After doing this for a while, and finding myself unable to fall asleep – just constantly entering this weird frame of mind – I decided it was probably pretty late and I should get some rest. By now I was actually hungry, so I got up to get a glass of milk. Turns out it was 5am and I had been doing this for about 4 hours. The milk, cheese, and glaring house lights did the trick, and when I went back to bed I conked.

***

I’m not gonna lie. I’m pretty fucking hyped about this. Turns out the blokes sitting around all day for thousands of years were onto something – who knew? I meditated twice today, first while walking then and briefly once I got home, and whilst neither was really ideal or proper, what was interesting was I DID feel that pleasure current again. I couldn’t get into it fully like I did last night, and the feeling was not as intense, but it was definitely there at the periphery of my focus. From that I’ve concluded that this is real, reproducible, and a matter of concentration. Given that I have borderline zilch practice at meditating, it’s hardly surprising that I couldn’t hold the feeling reliably or for more than a few seconds. More practice will presumably be key.

I don’t really have much more to say – this is so recent, and so completely out of the blue, that I don’t have a lot of informed perspective to add. But tl;dr: you can do really funky things with consciousness through concentration, some of which are like taking MDMA and some of which are like the end of Being John Malkovitch. Yikes?

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