Jumping to an Outer Self

I had a strange and frightening dream experience today. Then I had a theory of the operation of the mind that I thought of when I lay in bed for a while afterward thinking about the experience. I shall first describe to you the dream, and then the theory.

The dream was that I am photographing a huge concert in Austin. It is nighttime and anything is hardly visible, but I am on a raised rim around a huge rectangular concert ground teeming with a dense population of dark human heads numbering in the tens of thousands. The ground centers on a deep pit of some sort from which a faint red glow emanates, presumably the source of the music, but I cannot see it clearly for the forest of black heads around. Everything is blurry and unclear and dark.

Apparently some others are there to photograph it as well, and with alarm I watch them step off the raised rim onto the sea of people, and the surface of this dark granular sea begins to move swiftly  to the central pit as they step on it, like a crowd of small dark pebbles rolling to create a moving surface. They move along with it until they drop into the central pit.

I do not want to do this so I step away and into a covered area beside the rim. I think there is a person standing there, leaning against an opening, looking out to the concert ground. Maybe not a person. I had a feeling it could be a individual of an alien species of sorts, and this gathering that I am at is not something entirely human.

There is a box or something on the ground that I stumble on, and a jacket or something I was carrying drops to the ground, along with my phone, which opens up as it hits the ground to spill its battery (it’s a Nokia E5 that does this every time it hits the ground in real life).

I stoop to pick it up, and as I do so, the frightening part of the dream begins.

I feel a very sudden onset of a heavy, heavy drowsiness land on me. My eyes get immediately heavy and my body is hard to pick up off the stooping position. Everything in me  wants to lie down and drift away into the unobserving nothingness of sleep, and my mind launches a vigorous and alarmed fight against this. It is a very frightening feeling, because sleep never arrives like this, so it must be something else, and it is my own body that is betraying me. Everything is getting dark, and it is my own instincts that are bullying me to let go and fall asleep, while my self feels like a small person trapped inside this fast-darkening human body machine, taken by sudden fear and shock but not knowing how long it can keep up its small, fragile, important fight.

At this point I look to the floor and notice that the battery that spilled out of my phone is blue. My battery is actually not blue. Which means, I tell myself, I am dreaming. I have been taken already. The battle has been lost. This is not waking life any more.

I think I fall gently to the floor on my back, and the panic inside me soars to unbearable heights. I cannot go like this, I tell myself. I remember the person/alien standing there. I do not know who it is, but surely they shall not be so unfriendly as to not offer me help in such a crisis.

‘I need help!’ I shout out. There is no response.

At this point I half-open my eyes with a lot of effort. And I see bits of my room that I am sleeping in, in Austin. I see a beam on the roof, and the Tintin poster I put on the wall. This part is not a dream. I do really see this with my half-open eyes.

But I am not able to wake up.

This really, really frightens me. This has never happened to me before. I know that I have breached the layer into final wakefulness, but something is still keeping my mind from being able to fully wake up, try as I might. It is also strange because it is not that I am too tired and sleepy to fully wake up, and that I am not trying hard enough out of my drowsiness. There is a full battle going on inside my head, but this highly increased activity has no effect on being able to finally wake up. It is indeed a very, very strange thing to find oneself in.

I put all my resources together into one concerted effort, and then I feel something. I feel a shift in perspective, as if I am now a new person who is outside this experience, looking at the struggle I was going through as a dream that needs to be woken out of. I feel myself as being on the outer loop of a nesting, no longer the character struggling in this story, but a real-life person waking up from a dispensable dream in which this character resided.

And that’s when I actually woke up. I fully opened my eyes and looked through the crack of my blanket at the morning sunlight pouring into my room, illuminating the white ceiling. I checked to see if this is what it felt to be fully awake. My faculties were returning as they always do each morning, and I was assured that I was awake.

An epilogue is that I lay in bed for some more and drifted off into drowsiness again, and somehow managed with my sleepy antics to land a desk lamp on myself that shook my entire half-asleep world and jolted me finally into wakefulness enough to get me out of bed.

Now comes the theory, and the theory is about that final part where I stepped out of a loop and into a surrounding perspective that helped me wake up.

As I was lying in bed after this experience, still in a half-asleep state, I was thinking in my head how such a shift of character was possible. How in my mind I could both be a person, and then in a moment be another person regarding the first person as their dream.

And I had the following ‘insight’. I do not claim this in any way to be a well-founded theory of any sort, but I thought about it later and it seemed to link to some other ideas about the operation of the mind in an interesting way, so I thought it would be good to preserve it.

If you consider the brain as a very complicated computer, which I almost certainly believe it is, only using neural circuits instead of logic gate circuits, one can draw analogies between the working of the brain and that of a computer, although computer architecture today is at an infant stage in many ways compared to the complexity of the human brain.

A computer runs many processes at any given time, and they are interrelated in increasingly complex ways. Without going into the hard problem of consciousness, if the brain is the hardware, the mind, our thoughts, and our sense of self doing things must be some complex fallout of the processes that go on all the time in this vast and complex neural circuit.

It is important now to consider that like a computer, the brain is supporting many processes at once in its network. The sense of self doing things is a fraction of these. It has many subconscious processes, some which we may choose to become conscious of if we direct our attention to, and may let them recede back into the subconscious at our will (think of the exercise of trying to isolate all the noises in a noisy environment, or listening for a particular instrument in a piece of music). Some processes are forever in the subconscious and cannot be brought into attention. Similarly, there is data that can either be consciously pondered or packed away as memories that recede from the consciousness until retrieved perhaps many years later. (There is data in your mind now that you cannot think of unless someone produces a very specific cue, when it jumps right up.) The sense of self and conscious thought is only a group of processes in the brain amidst this sea of processes, illuminating a fraction of the other processes and data by shining its small light on them as and when ‘we want’.

Now this was my theory, that the collection of processes in this neural hardware that embodies the feeling of the self is not a concrete, unchanging one. In other words, ‘we’ inhabit different collections of processes in the hardware at different times.

At this point I think it relates in a way that I’ve been hearing said a lot in the context of mindfulness meditation or vipassana, for example by Sam Harris, that the self is only one of the incessant stream of thoughts arising in this one unchanging background of consciousness. ‘Pure consciousness’ is the substrate on which thoughts evolve, such as hunger or boredom or the feeling of self and having a body and doing things. The final objective of mindfulness meditation as I understand it is to dissolve the state of the mind into this pure consciousness, undisrupted by the arising of thoughts. In the context that I am talking about, the potential in this complex circuit for processes to go on that sense the outside world, take decisions and reflect internally, is the one unchanging substrate. The processes themselves that arise, operate transiently and quit to make way for others are only temporary, and our (so-perceived) continuous ‘sense of self’ is a constant real time transition of inhabiting different collections of processes in the neural circuitry. Note that I do not aim at all to explain how a collection of neural processes can assume a ‘sense of self’. This is related to the hard problem of consciousness that I do not even want to hint that I can solve.

Now, just as in a computer we can have encompassing processes running, observing or controlling subjugate processes, so can happen in the computer inside our head as well. In fact, in a computer of such staggering complexity, it must happen. For example, the rush of anxiety as you face a crowd of people on stage is a process in your mind. You can choose to observe it as it happens (then you’ll be taking the first steps to mindfulness). At that point, the self is a process that is observing this other process, both occurring in this complex neural circuit.

What happens then when the process that ‘we’ inhabit shifts from a nested process to another that observes the first? Would the experience be somewhat like what I went through? That could explain how I was both the actual person struggling to wake up, and then switching to be the other person who felt like they were dreaming of the first and could control its termination.

As I was lying in bed, still half-asleep, these are the thoughts that went through my mind. As I said, I am not claiming any of these to be founded in anything at all. They just seemed to be interesting ideas, and may in future spring new ideas and connections that can actually be placed on firmer logical grounds, so I decided to blog about it.

Let me know what you think.

The following is a truncated clip from one of Sam Harris’ lectures talking about mindfulness meditation in the context in which I referred to him.

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The Death of Consciousness

Up until a couple of years ago, I had a pretty strong conviction that some grand, strange things happen after we die. A sort of ultimate union with the source in which all consciousness become one and individuality and identity are lost forever. I used to imagine it as a grandiose play of bright flowing lights in a space of otherwise black nothingness.

My ideas have changed since. They may change again, and even change back, but as of now they are different. I still don’t know, of course, what really happens after we die. No one really can at the moment, but one possibility I had not considered at all sounds pretty valid to me now.

Have you ever fainted? I have never fainted, but I hear that when you come around, it’s as if you enter into light again from an unmeasured period of complete blankness. As if you had simply left for somewhere. This is different from sleep. We drift off to sleep and drift out of it. We dream in it. I don’t know about others, but I have an approximate sense of time even as I sleep. When I wake up, I can roughly tell how long I’ve been sleeping. I’m more accurate in the order of minutes, and not so much when I’ve been sleeping for hours. But at least the errors are of the same order as that of the duration of sleep. It’s like a CMOS clock that keeps ticking after you turn off your computer. So sleeping is not a complete blank, except in the special case of people with a specific brain injury that renders them incapable of dreaming. They have testified that sleeping for them is a period of complete blankness, which even causes them to always feel unrested.

What is blankness? It will undoubtedly be difficult to describe it, for our language is built with the purpose of communicating conscious experience, which blankness is the absence of. To put it simply though, a period with no conscious experience whatsoever must be a period of blankness. What is it like? Again, by its very definition, it cannot be like anything because you never feel it. You are nowhere when it happens. You just come around later with no memory of it whatsoever. I don’t know if you retain a sense of time passed after you recover from a fainting, but from things I have heard, I don’t think so. It’s as if someone just cuts off the flow of time at one point and stitches it to another point some time down the line, and you miss whatever happened in the story of the universe in the middle.

Thus, blankness is physically achievable, whether via fainting, brain injury, going into a coma, or some other mechanism. Even though it may be an experience many of us have never had and thus cannot even imagine (I don’t think there’s anything to imagine about it even if you’d had it), it is undebatably possible. And people have come back from it and described it as complete blankness, devoid of experience or journeys or revelations or other worlds.

So why isn’t it possible that the experience after death is just that? Just nothingness? It is already evident that spending time without any conscious experience of anything is possible. With death this state just has to continue forever. If it is quite possible for you to ‘be nowhere’, why not in death? Why is it so difficult for some, including my past self, to believe that?

Almost the whole of what we call this enigmatic consciousness is shaped and structured by our raw sensory perception. Our consciousness, supposedly abstract and transcendental of our physiology, nevertheless turns out to be a collection of inward imaginings of various physical stimuli. We can think, you say, which has nothing to do with our senses. But what do we think? We think images, happenings, things in motion, colour and sound, time flowing and events unfolding as we perceive them in our mind through much the same routes that are analogous to our raw physical senses. We cannot imagine feeling a magnetic field or ultraviolet rays or perceiving another thinking mind. No matter how much we claim our consciousness to be transcendental of our physical senses, we cannot imagine any experiences outside the standard sensory perceptions.

If our consciousness, the only kind of consciousness that we all know personally, is thus so tied down to our biology, then when that biology demonstrably stops working at what we know as death, why shouldn’t our first assumption be that consciousness also switches off right there? If a problem with a small part of our physiology can evidently cause us to faint and switch off our consciousness, why should we expect that with absolutely no part of it working any more, we shall have experiences and meet people and go places? That we shall be judged for our actions in our lifetime, and accordingly be sent to different destinations? It sounds just like life all over again, with conscious experiences deriving from the same sensory perceptions we are used to, and logical decision-making abilities, except without the service of any of our physical senses or our brain whatsoever. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t there a problem here? Now think of all the religious war we have fought over the things that supposedly happen once we’re dead and how many consciousness-es we have snubbed out in the process.

The more I think of this, the more my favourite little theory of the grand bright uniting lights falls apart in  a hundred sad little pieces. I am known to cause myself these unhappy things, armed with just a keyboard.

But indeed, why are we so easily persuaded to believe that there exists experience after our body has stopped working? Why do we, after an entire lifetime of continuous real-time proof that our consciousness is inseparable from our physicality, expect it to just carry on after death? Is it because we fear nonexistence? I, for one, do. Although I cannot put down simply why one should fear it, it is a deep-seated fear among many. But I have a hunch that it is a baseless, irrational fear. It is not simply a fear of the unknown, as some would opine. I do not, for example, as far as I can tell in my limited self-analysis, have a fear of the unknown. I think it is instead a fear of estrangement, of being torn away from all that we know and love and depend on. Familiar people, things we like to do, and all that we love about the world. These are things that exist, and they will be absent in nonexistence. The only limited substitution we can imagine for nonexistence is thus complete solitude, in a stifling static blackness. But it is, as we see now in the light of the discussion, a false picture. For in nonexistence, one cannot oneself exist. Experiencing nothingness, in the form of static blackness, is not non-experience. If there is no experience, one cannot experience this nothingness either. Thus, there can be no loneliness, no estrangement, no sadness. There can only be nothing. Sadness therefore lies only in our moments of thinking about a false picture of nonexistence, not in nonexistence itself. So what are we finally worried about? Should we worry at all? One moment you’re here and you’re happy with everything around you, the next moment you’re not there, you’re not anywhere. What’s to worry about? It’s completely twisted, this fear and deep sadness that we have built around the prospect of death.

In conclusion, I still don’t know if this is what happens after death, but it sounds like a likely possibility, and also by Occam’s razor I suppose any alternate, more elaborate theories can be dumped in favour of this one. In the end nobody can be sure. But we’ll all find out anyway, won’t we?

What do you think happens after death? Why do you think so? Hit me with your thoughts.

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My First Steps to Lucid Dreaming

I think last night I took some of my real beginning steps to lucid dreaming.

Let me briefly summarize what lucid dreaming is. It is a highly aware form of dreaming in which you have complete knowledge that you are dreaming and can willfully direct the course of events and happenings in your dream. This art can be practised.

I think I came across this phenomenon (among many other delightful things) while roaming about on StumbleUpon. I tried the exercises on the websites a long time, perhaps a year or two, ago, and I think they worked a bit. They instructed that I keep a notebook, a dream journal, handy on the bed as I go to sleep. If I wake up in the middle of a dream, I was to jot down whatever I could remember in the notebook.

I had dreamt of the death of a close relative. I woke up and wrote down in the notebook, sleepily, just the name of the relative, because I really didn’t have the strength or the will to write any more. Then I went back to sleep.

I woke in the morning to discover I’d never even tried out the plan of keeping a notebook on my bed. The whole thing had been a dream. But I remembered clearly which relative I had dreamed of as dying.

So I guess that was probably my very first step to lucid dreaming, a long time back. Then the next step was last night, or what I suspect as early this morning. (It’s weird how you still preserve a sense of time while you sleep. Maybe it’s a false, distorted sense, but nevertheless a considerably clear sense.) I’ll try to describe to you the dream I had in all the detail I can master.

I had many dreams last night, all very confused and possibly interwoven. I’ll skip the irrelevant ones and get to the one that was important.

It was a remote, wild place, possibly somewhere in the mountains. A storm was raging at night and it was raining and very muddy all around. There was either some natural or man-made calamity going on, and we were stuck and needed to get out of there. I vaguely remember that my mother and sister were there.

I think I was outside on the street in front of a wooden bench of some small tea-shop in the middle of this, when I remembered about lucid dreaming.

The very next thing I remember is that I was lying flat, face down on the ground in a comfortable position, and was feeling as if I was being sucked downwards in a strong sudden whoosh. It was a floating, weightless sensation as if I were swimming effortlessly on water, at the same time that I was sinking very fast downwards in response to some great force pulling me in. It was a very passive, light sensation, like you have when you have downed some glasses.

I was tremendously happy. I remembered an interview of a guy who’d just been able to dream lucidly and was very happy. (It was a real interview I had watched in a BBC video in my laptop. See, that’s how in lucid dreaming you are much more conscious and can access your conscious memory like you normally do. You don’t experience the reduction of consciousness or mental abilities that you usually have in a dream.) I was happy, for I knew this was happening because I had identified that I was in a dream, and as an immediate consequence was being sucked out of it. I think my flat, face down posture was actually my awareness of my own body that was sleeping on the bed, dreaming. So, my first lucid dream, I thought happily.

I started feeling an increasing pressure on top of me, though, particularly on my head, as I kept sinking like that. As if I were going down deep into water and the pressure on top of me was building. I tried to keep calm, telling myself that this is all in the dream. No matter how bad this gets, you’re actually all fine on a bed, sleeping, and no real bodily harm will be done. Keep calm, I told myself, but panic was rising.

Suddenly I was out of the sensation. But I wasn’t on my bed. I was standing in a brightly lit, expensively decorated, majestic corridor, like in some palace. It didn’t seem weird at that time that I didn’t wake up on my bed.

The corridor had no doors or windows opening laterally. It was narrow, and just went on forwards, pillar after pillar, very brightly lit, until it ended at a narrow vertical piece of wall. At the foot of this wall there was a very expensively decorated, majestic trunk.

I approached the trunk and was looking at it. I think I also crouched and touched it.

Then I think the dream ended or something. I think what I felt was that my sleep was getting lighter and I was gaining waking consciousness. You know when at the end of a dream you’re waking up and you know you’re conscious but you still try to continue the dream, adding to it consciously but it’s not as much fun any more? I think that’s what was happening. I was disappointed.

I told myself, ‘you need to get out of this. For that, you have to open your eyes.’ I had done this before when I was on the operation table for my fractured wrist and under sedative drugs. That was one hell of a trip I’ll talk about some other time.

And sure enough, as I opened my very heavy eyes with a lot of deliberation, I realized that I rose at once from all the confused layers of dreams and saw the bedsheet under me. White with interweaving patterns of green. It was a calculated, deliberate, forced action, not very pleasing, to have to wake like that. But it was very real. I could tell that I was now awake and my head was working clearly.

I was sleepy still though. Nevertheless I tried to analyze my dreams a bit. I realized that the first bit, being sucked out of that dream within a dream, was closer to lucid dreaming. I also realized that I had ‘woken’ from it into another dream which was much less lucid, in the sense that I wasn’t as conscious in it. It was very vague and I wasn’t directing the course of events or thinking too much by myself or making decisions. It had been more like watching TV. And I also realized that waking from that hadn’t been like lucid dreaming at all. The dream had just faded away and I had slowly woken up, trying to continue it using my conscious self, which is not lucid dreaming at all.

I was disappointed. I think I went back to sleep.

I woke up much later. I was on a blue, purple and red bedsheet. I checked it carefully. I couldn’t believe it. There is no white and green bedsheet in the house, nor do I remember having slept on one. This bedsheet, though, I remembered.

I think my mother was waking me up. It was midday. There was a lot of sun around. I realized that the first lucid-like dream, the second vague dream, and the third very conscious, very real, waking up and analysis, had all been dreams. Dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. Four layers. I stared at my mother’s face for a while, I think. Then I remembered to ask myself one of the lucid dreaming exercise questions: ‘Is this a dream?’ Because I was seriously not sure any more how long this would continue.

Fortunately, that’s where it stopped. It’s the same blue-purple bedsheet on which I am sitting right now as I write this. But it was one hell of an experience. I am looking forward to more adventures soon. I am pretty sure lucid dreaming works, and I will see this to the end.

Have you ever had any unusual experiences with dreams? Let me know; it will be interesting.

Dream

I dreamt of her.

I keep having dreams of her.

What will never be for real,

keeps haunting me in these dreams.

In the dream, she called me on the phone.

While I was talking, she came up from behind

and held me.

I moved away her arm.

Then it all went away, and I woke up.

 

These dreams, my dreams

they start to melt

in the daytime sun

and wear away through the busy day.

 

I wait for another.