Is waking consciousness just a dream within a dream?

Buddha Dreaming
Buddha Dreaming by Alice Popkorn – “Our life is shaped by our mind”. Source: Flickr

Earlier this week I was honoured to spend some time as a guest at Night Club, chatting to its founder Andrew Holecek about dreaming, meditation and consciousness. Night Club is an online forum where members learn how to become lucid during their dreams – fully aware that what they’re experiencing is a fantasy created by their own minds. But Night Club offers a whole lot more than this, because the practices and disciplines that can be deployed to cultivate nighttime lucidity also help members penetrate the illusions of their waking consciousness.

Andrew is a renowned lucid dream and dream yoga teacher who has written several wonderful books on this and related subjects. At the request of my publisher a few months ago he had kindly set aside some time to read my own book Am I Dreaming? before it hits the shelves on 1 August, and subsequently invited me to be interviewed for Night Club.

We had plenty to talk about and the interview is now live (see below).

Am I Dreaming? explores the neuroscience of altered states of consciousness, such as dreams, trance, hypnosis, meditation and the psychedelic state, and the role they can play in improving our spiritual and psychological wellbeing. The major surprise that came from my investigation of the latest scientific thinking is that all forms of consciousness, including ordinary, waking consciousness, are based on hallucinatory, virtual reality conjured by the brain and are powerfully influenced by expectation and belief.

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The shameful history of psychedelic gay conversion therapy

Anti-gay preacher London Gay Pride 2011
London Pride 2011: Public and medical attitudes to homosexuality have come a long way since the psychedelic sixties, but in most countries “conversion therapy” remains legal in private practice and under the guise of religious “ex gay” counselling. Photo: Jason/Flickr

In the softly lit Acid Room of Hollywood Hospital, Ravel’s Bolero is playing through expensive speakers. Prints of Dali’s Crucifixion and Gauguin’s Buddha hang on the wall. Dressed in pyjamas and a bathrobe, a man swallows 400 micrograms of LSD – a truly heroic dose – stretches out on a plush couch and dons an eye mask. For the next 6 to 12 hours, a female and a male member of staff – representing his mother and father – will watch over him. “Just go with the experience – whatever happens,” they advise. Later, in the midst of the trip, they encourage him to gaze at photographs of his loved ones and contemplate his reflection in a hand mirror, dredging emotionally charged, repressed memories from his subconscious and sparking life-changing flashes of insight.  

In the 1950s and 1960s, wealthy clients paid to be psychoanalysed in the Acid Room at this private hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia, for problems ranging from relationship difficulties to alcoholism, depression and – it now transpires – homosexuality. Research papers and medical records that have gathered dust for decades reveal that LSD and mescaline-assisted “conversion therapy” was available not only in Canada, but also in the US and the UK. (more…)

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Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels

In an age of instant gratification and limited attention spans, why would anyone take up meditation? Perhaps for its soothing, stress-busting effects? Focusing on their breath or a mantra, even beginners start to notice the calming influence of their body’s “relaxation response”, the physiological flipside of the adrenaline-fuelled fight-or-flight response. Among other things the relaxation response slows respiration and heart rate, eases muscle tension and lowers blood pressure, and the changes are associated with a quieting of the brain’s “default mode network”, responsible for mind-wandering, rumination and worry.

But can that really be the whole story?

A peaceful mind is a wonderful thing and for many this is the biggest incentive to meditate regularly – not least for those of us prone to anxiety and depression – but there is another, related benefit that has received scant scientific or medical attention: meditation can be pleasurable, even ecstatic. In the Buddhist meditation known as jhana, for example, the early stages are characterised not only by feelings of peacefulness, but also joy and happiness. Continue reading “Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels”

The man on a lone mission to prove ayahuasca can treat bipolar disorder

Ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi
The ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi which contains an enzyme that prevents the breakdown of a wide range of psychoactive drugs. Credit: Jairo Gavlis Henao/Flickr

Expert opinion is heavily weighted against Benjamin Mudge. “If you asked your average psychedelic scientist, your average ayahuasca ceremony facilitator or expert in the field, or if you asked your average psychiatrist,” he says, “they would all say ayahuasca is dangerous for people with bipolar disorder because there’s a risk of manic depressive mood swings getting worse.”

And yet Mudge regularly drinks the South American psychedelic brew, claiming that it has stabilised his own bipolar disorder. (more…)

A puke bucket and an ancient medicine: is ayahuasca the future of PTSD therapy?

Combat posttraumatic stress disorder PTSD
Combat veterans with PTSD are beating a path to Peru in the hope that the plant medicine ayahuasca will help them process traumatic memories. Credit: Peter Murphy/Flickr

I’m sitting on a blue plastic, wipe-down mattress with my back to a wooden pillar. Within arm’s reach on the floor is a small torch to light my way to the toilet during the night, on the other side an orange plastic bucket to puke into. As the light fades my four companions, each with his or her own plastic mattress and bucket, disappear from view while on every side the barks, croaks, growls and cries of jungle life grow louder. Twenty minutes ago I gulped down a draught of the bitter psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca and I have convinced myself that I can feel its hot, unstoppable progress through my body, from my seething guts into my veins and onwards to my brain.

This is hardly a recreational drug experience, what with the nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, not to mention the possibility of a truly terrifying trip, yet thousands now beat a path to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil every year to drink ayahuasca. Some are just looking for an exotic thrill, but others hope for enlightenment and healing from this ancient plant medicine. In the past few years, many of them have been war veterans desperate to escape the nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Read more at theguardian.com where this post was first published.

Mindfulness shows promise in the treatment of schizophrenia

Pedestrians on street lined with shops in Hong Kong
Research in Hong Kong suggests that a specially designed mindfulness-based therapy is safe and effective for people who have schizophrenia. Photograph: Kit Ng/Flickr

I’ve known Andy (not his real name) since we were at college together in the 1980s. In those days he was a drummer in his own Heavy Metal band, a bundle of untamed energy. His friends joked that he reminded them of Animal from the Muppets. Above all else he loved partying and being the centre of attention. But the sudden death of his father halfway through his course hit Andy hard. He started to spend more and more time alone in his room with his books, obsessively reading and thinking. Pastimes that had once given him pleasure no longer held any appeal.

The old, extroverted Andy never returned, and shortly after graduating – ejected from the relative calm, stability and familiarity of college life – he began to suspect he was the target of a conspiracy involving the government, the military and several people we knew. Fearing for his life, he lashed out at a stranger in a public park and wound up in a police cell. A few weeks later he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and sent to a secure psychiatric hospital. (more…)

This is the happiness of the Buddha

Buddha statue in Vietnam

Last weekend, a few months after the publication of Siddhartha’s Brain in Dutch, I gave a lecture about the science of mindfulness to a very polite, attentive audience at the wonderful Brainwash Festival in Amsterdam. Here’s a transcript.

Ladies and gentlemen, each and every one of us here will face two key problems in our lives. The first problem is that as creatures of biology, particularly when we’re young, we spend lots of time and energy pursuing the pleasures of sex, money, social status. And as biological creatures we also invest a lot of energy trying to avoid pain and unpleasantness.

For most people, this is what they mean when they talk about the pursuit of happiness. But pleasures never last and sooner or later, as we get older, we’re all going to experience the pain and unpleasantness of ill health and ageing. It’s just a fact of life.

So that’s our first problem, and I’m sure none of this is news to you.

The second problem is much more surprising and counterintuitive, but is just as important. The second problem is that we think way too much. Every second that we’re awake, our lives are dominated by what’s going through our minds. (more…)