Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me (6)

The Meditation Connection

A note to new readers: I have recently applied to be included in a Health-Canada-approved study into the use of psilocybin in the management of treatment-resistant depression (TRD). I have survived the first few stages of the screening process and I hope to join the study in a couple of months. I will share the experience with interested readers here. In the meantime, how I got to this point is the subject of this series of blog posts.

My goal in this post is to try to put into words what I have learned from meditating, and then to explain how I hope to apply that knowledge to my experience with psychedelics.

Meditation and Me

In the several decades before I learned to meditate, I took up a lot of other activities, hobbies and personal-improvement strategies that were intended to raise my spirits, improve my health, and/or increase my knowledge. I took on projects intended to overcome bad habits (with greater or lesser success, depending on the habit), took courses and lessons (sewing, piano, Spanish, you name it), travelled when I could. I made friends, joined groups, and attended cultural and recreational events. I wrote – fiction and nonfiction. But always there remained something bleak inside of me from which none of these activities could ever completely distract me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had always thought of meditation as a bit “out there,” but by the time I got around to considering it seriously (i.e., ran out of other options), science was getting serious about it too. In addition to the great numbers of individuals who were talking about how meditation had improved their lives, reports on actual research studies into its physical and psychological effects began to appear. To address self-improvement goals in the past, I had generally chosen interventions that been proven to be of merit scientifically (e.g., nicotine patches) or had strong track records (e.g., Weight Watchers); in general, my trust in science and statistics had been vindicated. So when I started meditating, in addition to testing the waters for myself, I started to read the literature.

Research into Mindfulness

Not only have scientists from a multitude of disciplines taken an interest in mindfulness in recent years, research centres with meditation as their focus have now been established at several universities – the Center for Mindfulness Science at the University Southern California (USC), for example. Such cooperative ventures allow researchers in fields ranging from the social sciences to the clinical sciences to work together to investigate the effects of various forms of mindfulness on human health and well being. Faculty at the USC centre include “Buddhist scholars, world-renowned experts on the neuroscience of feeling, emotion, and cognition as well as national experts in self-report science, social science, educational science and research across a wide range of clinical disciplines.”

In a conversation entitled “The Science of Mindfulness,” posted in two parts on Sam Harris’s Waking Up site, Harris and Jonas Kaplan, associate director for mindfulness and neuro-imaging at the USC centre, agree that research into mindfulness and meditation is not an easy task. The many challenges include: reaching agreement about the definition of such terms as “mindfulness,” “meditation” and “meditation practitioner”; finding enough very-long-term meditators (40,000 lifetime hours, for example) with whom scientists can compare mental and physiological status to those with little or no experience; the perennial problems of self-reporting when it comes to conditions of well being (“one man’s meat is another man’s poison,” and all that); and the constraints of current technology when it comes to measuring changes deep inside the brain.

Studies relating to mindfulness that avoid such pitfalls have been published, such as one in Nature regarding the effects of mindfulness training on the brain’s insula networks, but we are still at the very early stages of scientific investigation in this field. Enthusiasm for the potential of meditation has grown to the point where practice has in some cases moved ahead of the science; Kaplan says that meditation has been used in the treatment of psychiatric disorders for which its benefits have not (yet) been shown.

What we do know so far is that there are differences in the way the brain behaves when people are meditating and when they are not, and that there are differences between the brains of long-time meditators and those who do not meditate. What is not clear is what these differences mean.

The Half-Full Part

Kaplan points out that the research undertaken at USC and in many other places is not being done to prove the value of meditation, but instead to look objectively at the measurable effects of the practice. This is not to say that there are no obvious benefits to meditation: masses of anecdotal evidence suggest that it may alleviate depression and anxiety. (Here Sam Harris interjects a caveat, noting that meditation can also have negative effects, both physically and psychologically, depending on the type of meditation and the person.)

Harris says that measurable benefits such as stress reduction may be unimportant to practitioners anyway: for many, the main benefit of meditation is the awareness that we are not identical to your thoughts. This awareness, in itself, helps to relieve a lot of guilt, anxiety and other forms of suffering. So even when we are so new to the practice that we are unable to sustain our independence from thought for more than a few moments, the fact that we know it can be done is likely to make us feel better.

It takes many years to reach a stage of true proficiency in meditation, just as it does with any worthwhile enterprise, but the journey in that direction can add value to our lives. “You can recognize the benefits yourself long before they show up in the world,” Harris says.

In a Big Think video entitled “How Meditation Can Change Your Life,” Emma Seppälä, scientific director at the Stanford University Center for Compassion, tells us that research shows that our minds typically wander at least fifty percent of the time, and that when our minds are wandering, we are never as happy as when when our minds are in the present moment – “even if [we’re] doing a task [we] don’t particularly like.” She adds (and this is a big plus for me) that learning to focus better means that “you’ll naturally be more productive.”

What Meditation Has Taught Me

For much of my life, the number of negative or even merely distracting and time-consuming thoughts that normally arise in my mind and prompt me to dwell on them has been a significant barrier to my productivity and my happiness. Meditation has helped me to separate myself from those thoughts at least once or twice a day. That doesn’t sound like much, to me it is huge. And I know that I can increase the extent and power of that relief if I keep practising. It takes a very long time to become truly proficient.

I have been meditating for ten minutes a day for a couple of years or so. At the beginning I was rigorous about meditating every day, but as is typical of me, it became every other day, then once a week. Then a couple of weeks or more would pass. But when things got tough inside my head, I’d remember meditation and give it another go. Now that I can see the benefits and know what I am working to achieve, I meditate increasingly often. Even if I don’t remember it all the time, I have reached a point where I absolutely recognize that every thought and memory and emotion that comes into my awareness is impermanent. It will go away again. And I have also learned to recognize what remains when no thought is present – no thought, no feeling, nada. That is pure “consciousness.”

What It’s Like

After trying out Headspace, Calm, Ten Percent Happier, and other meditation apps, all of which had (for me) their strengths and drawbacks, I have settled happily into the Waking Up platform, due to the wealth of options, resources, voices, and points of view it offers. In addition to meditations guided by long-time practitioners with areas of interest that range from “Loving Kindness” to “The Koan Way,” there is a “theory” section with talks on such interesting-to-me subjects as “Mind and Emotion,” “Free Will,” and “Mind and Brain.”

Sam Harris, the creator of Waking Up and my favourite meditation guide these days, suggests that consciousness is kind of like physical space. If there is a chair in my office, the physical space in my office does not stop at the edge of the chair. The chair is part of the office space. I can add books, a desk and other things to my office, but that does not change the space itself. The physical space around me is kind of like the backdrop into which everything else may come and go. And it extends away forever: through the walls and out beyond them and on and on and on. Thoughts, feelings and emotions are like the chair, the books, a pen. They are “impermanent.”

To use another analogy, the sky does not stop and start where there are clouds or comets. These things occupy the sky but they come and go. The sky is permanently the sky. So too with consciousness: it is inside, outside, everywhere. It is not located in my big toe or my elbow. Although it can feel as though it is located in my head, it’s not there either.

My consciousness is also timeless: there is really only now. That is all I have. This moment. And this one. And this one.

Everything is just happening. So too with thoughts. Notice these internal sounds and images that appear like waves on the surface of your mind.

Sam Harris

To truly recognize that consciousness is permanent and everything else is impermanent has offered me a form of liberation. I have learned to recognize a thought when it appears in my mind, to see it as separate from me, and to watch it simply flatten and disappear. Then I can go back to resting in the space of consciousness that remains.

When I do attain this uninterrupted state of awareness for a few moments (that’s all I get, being a relative newbie), it is restorative. This is partly because in order to reach a state of “resting in consciousness,” I do not need to work or strive in any way. I just let go. I can do this with my eyes open or shut, and I can do this with a guide talking into my headphones or I can do it in a silent meditation.

Even though thoughts continue to appear while I am meditating (ranging from “My ankle itches” to “Oh my god, Ukraine“), I am getting much better at letting them go, and for longer and longer moments. This gives me a mini-break from negative emotions and even physical sensations. And as a person who has worried about everything for her whole life, this is no small matter.

I’m also learning how to let go like that even when I’m not meditating. Whether I am dithering over whether I might have offended someone on Facebook or despairing over a loss I experienced twenty years ago, I can occasionally remind myself that these thoughts are appearing in my consciousness, but they are not my consciousness. They are not “me.” They have come, they are not bad or good, and I can let them go.

“Thoughts are like soap bubbles,” says John Kabat-Zimm, professor emeritus at UMASS Medical School.

The Bigger Picture

I have not chosen to practice one of the forms of meditation that is rooted in spirituality and based in centuries of Buddhist or Hindu teachings. Nor does my interest lie in a wholly secular practice, intended only to help me relax, lower my blood pressure, and avoid what some of us call “stinking thinking.” The objective of the type of mindfulness I am striving to attain is, in Sam Harris’s words, “to radically transform [my] sense of who and what [I am],” and to gain “fundamental insights into the nature of [my] mind – insights that change [my] whole approach to life.”

It is to expand on this kind of knowledge that I am also interested in the psychedelic experience. Practitioners of meditation who have taken psychedelic journeys have said that psychedelics help you to reach the same state of awareness about the nature of consciousness as meditation does, but faster. Since I (probably) don’t have 40 years to do it the long, slow way (by becoming a guru or even by sitting with one for days on end), nor do I have the interest, this seems like a promising alternative.

I am very curious to know whether the potential benefits of psychedelics in the treatment of depression, anxiety, addiction and so on are related to the principles that I am investigating as I practice meditation, including awareness of the impermanence of thoughts and feelings, and the permanence nature of consciousness.

Note: I am still waiting to hear back with a scheduling date for my experience with psilocybin, but I do not expect that it will be before the first of June. In the meantime, I intend to review a couple of books about psychedelics, and I am creating a page of resources for others who are interested in reading what I’ve read. So stay tuned….

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