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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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.

Don’t sleep with a patched OS X

I am running a triple-boot (Windows 7, Ubuntu 10.10 and a patched Mac OS X 10.6.3) on a Dell Inspiron 1525 with Intel Core 2 Duo, 250 GB HDD and 3 GB Ram, and using Grub 2 as the bootloader.

A few days ago, Debsankha, one of my collegemates, installed for me the last of these operating systems and fixed the bootloader in exchange for a treat at KFC.

It was working fine until yesterday, when I was working on my desktop and the laptop was on in OS X but wasn’t plugged in. My laptop battery is near the end of its life so it discharges quickly. I couldn’t find a power source for the laptop so I decided to make it sleep to conserve charge till I needed it again. I pressed the power button and chose Sleep, then went back to my work.

Later when I tried to boot it I saw that I couldn’t even go beyond the first boot screen (which is one that asks for the HDD password), because my internal keyboard was disabled. This is a bug with patched OS X’s when it doesn’t have a clean shutdown.

I tried hunting for an external USB keyboard, but couldn’t get one. But I rebooted it a few times and then my keyboard was suddenly working again. Later I discovered that rebooting a few times often reactivates the keyboard.

However, when I chose Mac OS X 32-bit at the grub menu, I got just a blank screen. The light showed some initial hard drive activity, then it went off. The menu entry in grub is supposed to boot OS X via the verbose mode by default (similar to adding the –v flag in the Darwin bootloader), but not a single line of the verbose was being displayed. I looked up online and many threads discussed waking up problems with both original Macs and patched ones. Many of them said that when the screen remains blank, everything’s working fine, except the monitor is not waking. I tested this by waiting for sufficiently long, then typing in my password, pressing enter, or increasing the volume (which is supposed to make a sound), but it appeared that the waking problem was not just with my monitor, and that my system wasn’t really booting. I even tried an external display, to no avail. I changed BIOS settings, trying to get USB devices or the Wi-fi switch to wake the system, but it didn’t work.

Finally I called up Debsankha, who told me to chuck Grub 2 and chainload the Darwin bootloader, and boot with the –v flag. He sent me this link, in which it’s explained how to modify the settings to enable this. Note that the OS X section he talks about is in the /boot/grub/grub.cfg file, which I couldn’t figure out at first.  Make a backup of the file somewhere, in case you screw it up. In any case, you can always generate a working grub.cfg file just by typing update-grub in the Linux terminal, but if you screw up grub, you can’t log in, and then fixing the grub is a bit messy. With the backup, you can just boot with a Live CD or USB and copy back the .cfg. Saves some minutes. To test the .cfg code, you may preserve the existing menu entries, and create a new one, as I did.

IMPORTANT: change the partition numbers in those lines to suit your system. The 2’s there (eg hd0,2) refer to the partition number of the Mac Volume, and the 4’s to that of the / volume of Linux. Check what these numbers are for your system using the Disk Utility. Mine were 3 and 8, for example.

DON’T run update-grub after you change grub.cfg. The file will then be regenerated, and all your changes will be overwritten.

So I did this and rebooted. My menu entry showed up after some tries and I got the Darwin screen, at which I added –v and booted. There were only about 6 lines of text printed, when it tried to load the sleepimage, and said ‘Wake kernel!’

Debsankha looked in the Boothelp file of chameleon and told me to add the flag Wake=No. So I typed –v Wake=No and booted again. This time it worked. It had taken me all of a day.

I’ve preserved the Darwin chainloader entry in my grub. An added bonus is it doesn’t go into verbose by default, so no flags means a GUI boot. Although the ‘GUI’ here is just an inert silver apple in the middle of the screen, I saw that there were quite a few threads even to try and get that using Grub 2.

Debsankha said and I also saw on the web that there might be some kext which would take care of these sleep disorders. However, I have had enough. I’m not going to touch that sleep button again.

If there’s any little point here which you would like to be discussed in detail, you may add a comment. I’ll surely reply.