V. From Shadow to Flesh and Blood
Or, the Elected: Part b
Continuing my comments on Brouwer and Carhart-Harris’s paper on discontinuous change, the over-arching pattern that they put forth - marshalling multiple lines of evidence - is that of a long period of low-level stress, followed by a highly stressful incident or series of incidents, which opens the door to a decisive point - or in brain-speak a state of hyperplasticity - precipitating a sharp turn towards either growth or regression.
The money quote is this one:
once stress crosses a critical threshold (the specifics of which are presently not clear) – in terms of its severity or chronicity – there is an abrupt shift in a system’s functioning (e.g. global brain function) into a radically different mode [whose] evolutionary and adaptive function is to aid radical psychological change when its need is perceived…
The long period of relatively low level stress prior to it crossing the “critical threshold” serves as a kind of primer, so that when you see a pair of disembodied fists headed in your direction you are ready on some level to use that experience for your own transfiguration (fear of pain is reliably worse an experience than actual pain, and the latter can be freeing - oh that was it? That’s what I tortured myself worrying about all these years?). And at last you are freed to do so, or more precisely to begin the long process of doing so.
It’s a priming of the body with steady, low level signals that not all is right, so that when the moment comes it’s the culmination - or the confirmation - of a long process that all points decisively in a single direction: this shit will not stand, man. This way of being is not it.
It’s like most epiphanies - you have a low level sense that you’ve not quite gotten it, and then in a flood it’s all confirmed. And then there’s a loosening as it were of the structures of the self.
After which the real work begins. Confusing the emotional breakthroughs and peak experiences that sometimes precipitate this “radically different mode” for actual change is at the root of so much nonsense. Looking back at Maslow we can see his growing disillusionment with such things alone as some kind of panacea. It merely opens the door, and it is then up to the individual to (with the aid of others and/or one’s surrounds) to then fashion this newly malleable self into something resembling a person.
Such an experience prepares the way for you to begin to actually move forward rather than just flailing around. To use vulgar materialist language, a certain switch has been flipped and provides the ability to coalesce around a question, to focus and channel the self through that question for the slow integration of self and experience. It can provide momentum and a nudge in a certain promising direction - but where that will lead is always tenuous.
But before I continue, a clarification.
We live in an anxiety-stricken culture thereby obsessed with safety, and the idea that unpleasant experience might have an upside is seemingly an anathema to many (particularly in the “mental health” field) - and so I’m leaning in the opposite direction, in an attempt to balance the universe.
But while analogies are easily strained and imperfect, this one is particularly so. I was trusting the non-analogy context to to the bulk of the work - but a better or more complete analogy would be to be punched in the face - but by the person you most loved and who most loved you and whose blow was an expression of that love (i.e. a reverse of Judas’s kiss). Who afterwards cradled your head and wiped your wound clean with the gentlest hands in the history of the universe.
Where a voice, unbidden but indispensable, whispers: “This is my Son [sic], in whom I am well pleased”.
Of course there the analogy is probably going too far in the other direction, but so it goes.
But until then?
Pain, suffering. A slow chipping away at the hard shell of the self. Until finally it reaches the point where the right kind of strike renders it as pliable as a new born babe, and one is - yes - born again.
With a newfound chance to turn to a still darker fate, or forge a new destiny.
While it is virtually impossible to systemically study this process in rock bottom, Numinous and even therapeutic/analytic experiences, psychedelics - because they can be more reliably produced - are an exception. And so, the authors suggest, examining that literature may be particularly fruitful for understanding the mechanisms involved.
Delving into that research they note that during the “high”, psychedelics:
relax the precision weighting (i.e. inverse variance) of high-level priors (internal predictive models), thereby allowing bottom-up information (‘prediction error’) to flow more freely up the brain’s functional hierarchy to impress on high-level cortices and enter conscious awareness…
This process directly disrupts a prime aspect of what I referred to as the “shadow state” (i.e. a diminished, fragmented and often haunted self with minimal access to bottom-up processing) - suddenly under psychedelics experience of what rest of us are pleased to call reality - paradoxically enough - suddenly becomes more possible.
In these (typically high-dose) experiences, discriminative beliefs (e.g. A is different to B) are often moderated and replaced by a sense of reciprocal interconnectedness, which is referred to as the ‘unitive experience’ in studies of ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ experiences. Such experiences may account for lasting psychological changes seen with psychedelics, such as enduring increases in the personality trait ‘openness’ as well as improvements in wellbeing. Thus, during and after profound psychedelic experiences, specific beliefs and the emotional valences attached to them seem particularly susceptible to change…
I’ve previously mentioned the noticing of difference as the fount of all thought, so it’s fascinating to think of the dissolving (or rather, moderating) of difference as the fount of what might be called wisdom.
But this insight is a not uncommon fruit of mystical/numinous experience as well, and one can perhaps without stretching compare it with Bateson’s theory about rock bottom experiences in alcoholism leading to a more complementary versus a symmetrical view of relationships.
And in therapy, a line from Philip Cushman on psychotherapists being an essential link in the modern world connecting isolated individuals with the larger community sticks with me. Because while sufferers go to therapy for a myriad of reasons, most at least indirectly involve the severance or at least the fraying of this link - and in the long run there is no success without its reestablishing (not to mention how therapy often involves defragmenting and the reestablishing intrapsychic connections).
So while not generally reaching levels of “universal interconnectedness” there is a generalization of one’s trust in the therapist and a renewed feeling of not being just an isolated freak. One rejoins the human race and recognizes anew one’s inextricable links to others.
Through the relinquishment of top-down control effected by high-level priors, psychedelics may free suppressed emotions and memories so they may more easily percolate into consciousness awareness. Such emotions and memories may be felt as being emotionally challenging. Feelings of anxiety are common during and after psychedelic experiences as are symbolic/archetypal themes. Intense personal and transpersonal themes can rise to the forefront of awareness. Values can be ‘remembered’ and affect-laden beliefs that previously seemed ‘abstract’ (e.g. ‘love is fundamental’) can be deeply felt.
This comes off as deeply psychoanalytic, though more akin to modern relational psychoanalysis than the classically Freudian - unconscious less as seething cauldron and more as unformulated, unclear, hazy processes and content that are difficult to access or focus on. As Levenson notes about a similar process in analysis:
Data are not buried down “deep”; it is simply not noticed, selectively inattended. Freud's repression is vertical; Sullivan's inattention is horizontal. One might consider that attention is like a sharply focused flashlight on a dark field; our function is to broaden the beam. The difficulty in doing just that is that the analyst becomes part of the collusion to not see.
Perhaps as C. Auguste Dupin, Poe's famous detective, put it: “Perhaps the
mystery is a little too plain …. They consider only their own ideas of
ingenuity, and in searching for anything hidden advert only to the modes in
which they would have hidden it. When under stress, they tend to exaggerate
their own modes of practice—without touching their principles” (Poe, 1938).
To look with a fresh eye is to see what is obvious to everyone except the
expert, with his preconceived version of reality.
The problem is that too many of us become “experts” of the obvious when we aren’t seeing anything clearly. And with psychedelics - and partially because one is no longer “controlling” (i.e. top-down) what one is seeing - it just comes up. It disrupts ones sense of expertise so that finally one can see with, at least to some degree, “fresh eyes”. And this can be revelatory.
Because when someone is in an everyday state, showing them evidence that they are wrong in something they consider themselves an expert in isn’t going to do jack shit outside of perhaps strengthening their original belief. But in this state, similarly to the state that some forms of psychoanalysis and experiential therapies seek to elicit, this evidence comes not from an outside source but from themselves. And so there is nothing to rebel against, nothing outside to harden their hearts and protect their ego from. The noetic quality of psychedelic experience renders it reliably convincing, in the author’s words they are not being told, they “remember”. They are thrown back against the kind of principles that are normally avoided in preference to “practices” or habits.
The old line that “you can’t solve a problem in the same state in which it was created” applies here. These experiences usher in a new state where suddenly painful problems can be helpfully approached and values constrained by a narrow epistemology spring forth to suggest a new direction.
And one of the new “principles” which seems to reliably emerge? Interconnectedness. Relationship. “Love”.
The moderating of difference and the broadening of experience/attention are inextricably intertwined, and for reasons that will be examined in more detail in the coming weeks. But one simple reason is that looking at things through the prism of relationship necessarily expands one’s view. To see connections is to see more broadly and less exclusively. It undermines monomania and obsession, loosens the clutch of narrow instrumental rationality, and - in a rebuke to myself - pragmatism. It muddies the waters in fruitful ways.
Both/and thinking replaces absolutes - which can have giant ripple effects across a personality. I don’t have to choose between loyalty to the past and exploring the future, between being overwhelmed and being empty, I don’t have to be stuck in rigid patterns of interpretation of events and rigid attention to certain narrow aspects of experience.
All of which contributes towards a visceral sense of being flesh and.blood, an integrated self moving through the world with a degree of grace, inextricably embedded in the Whole.
But I find myself dissatisfied with this description - it’s missing something. The analogy of the broadened beam falls short, for while it’s one factor certainly, there’s more to it.
For beyond that there is an upper limit beyond which the beam cannot broaden, nor would one want it - what it shines its light on changes. Derrida talks about the impossibility of reading the same book twice because the meanings of words have changed as your experiences of what they refer to changes (i.e. after every romance the meaning of the word love changes).
But one doesn’t necessarily need the passage of time or new relevant experiences for this to occur. To illustrate this, here's Cushman again talking about a client approaching the edges of this reality:
I was listening to a patient, a troubled mid-thirties male professional, one of the most tortured patients I have ever worked with. We had been meeting for about four years at that time, twice each week. He was in a particularly excruciating experience that day, one that he sometimes slips into: he is certain that no one will want to know how he really feels, everyone will hate him and reject him for what he thinks, and no one will allow him what he needs. And it occurred to me that day that he was describing a world to me, the world that he lived in when he was in this particular state of mind. Suddenly, I saw that world, spread out before him on all sides, peopled with certain characters and voices from his past, from a time when the horizon was originally formed or significantly reordered. I thought of those pop-up books made for children: when we open them, a whole little world of mountains, cities, and individuals instantly pops up and comes to life before us.
Before I could think much about it, before I knew what would happen next, I told him it seemed to me as though a world had suddenly appeared before us, a world that encompassed him on all sides. In this world, the people of his young life live and interact, all according to the rules that he has described to me or enacted with me. These rules create positions in which certain people must live, and these positions determine destinies. I described some of these rules as I had come to understand them, especially those that pertained to how he felt that day.
"Well," he said, "that's life. That's all there is." He paused, cocked his head, and looked puzzled. "What do you mean—that there's some other world?" He paused, and then laughed, a relaxed, pleasant kind of laugh I have rarely heard from him. For a moment, he had glimpsed an alternative perspective, or the possibility of an alternative, and the experience momentarily released him from the tortuous imprisonment he experienced in that old terrain.
This is from one of the books I read in prison, and arguably the most influential. After I lost my way again I went back to these books and compulsively, obsessively poured over them, to locate what about them had helped change my life - and which I hoped might do it again.
But they were inert. I mapped each book out, underlined, photographed what seemed to me the central ideas that had made such a difference, but all for naught.
Because my state had shifted. My beam not only had narrowed but the kinds of things I could focus on and attend to shifted as well - in general but also in those very same texts. I was thrown back into a different pop-up universe, very much like that tortured young man. I knew there was another world because I had experienced it, but it was a lost one - a vague dream the outline of which I could recall but that was now out of reach.
And so what I needed was not a text, not conventional therapy, not life hacks or drug concoctions or a new job or city but a specific kind of experience that enables that shift back to that different state. That opens up a portal to an alternate universe that co-exists with the one I was already in.
And I had a sense that an experience was required. A fixation on and unquenchable desire for altered states, as Bateson once mentioned, is a signal that there is something wrong with one’s default state or repertoire of states. But the problem with those conventional means is that as soon as the drug, the desire, the sleep wears off one is right back where one began. It is merely a temporary reprieve, and indeed that’s all it ever can be.
But these? These - approached in the right way and in the right context - are something different.
They can lead not only to a broadening of the range of one’s attention, but also an alteration in the pattern of what is noticed and attended to and how one reacts to it. The impact of which over the course of time can have startling consequences - forever altering the trajectory of a life.
But it should go without saying that this is a dangerous game, and where such a portal leads is far from pre-determined.
It warrants stating… that extreme negative affect, including paranoid ideation and occasional injurious behaviour, can also arise during psychedelic experiences, particularly if the contextual frame in which the experience occurs is not sufficiently well controlled and supportive.
And not only can the experience itself be horrifying, but its fruits - and that of all “pivotal” states - can be ruin (i.e. lifelong psychotic illness). It’s a double-edged sword. The path to the heights and the depths runs through the same rabbit-hole.
What determines which path one takes? While there are many theorized positive factors, several are well-researched, such as:
(a) preparedness, (b) intentions and expectations, (c) inter-personal trust/therapeutic alliance, (d) community support and (e) other forms of psychological integration.
This is far from the first paper to point out the similarities between the kinds of experiences we’ve been discussing and forms of psychosis. They share a similar architecture (i.e. not just experientially but also neurochemically as nodded to in the “5-HT2A” in the figure above) but - in addition to the above - the dominant emotional state during the experience appears to be a key in which direction it goes. Mixed emotions appear to stir the pot enough to make changes, but the overall and enduring feel and memory of the experience goes a long way towards determining in which direction it nudges one.
For simplicity, ‘wellness’ and ‘illness’ are presented here as discrete binary states but we recognize that this is an oversimplification and that mixed features are also possible, for example symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress and growth can co-exist or ‘flip-flop’ after a traumatic episode, and similarly, mixed euphoric and dysphoric states can occur in manic psychoses. The unifying principle, however, is that change, whatever its nature, is more likely after such pivotal events.
The eternal promise and the perils of change are starkly laid out in these kinds of experiences and states. There are few absolutes in life, but one of them is that sometimes to choose one thing is to not choose something else. To construct a new self means to abandon the old - a creative destruction of a self that however miserable and misery-inducing was perhaps a source of comfort.
But as Nietzsche noted:
“How could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?”
Ashes that are perhaps as likely to scatter into the Shadowlands as to coalesce into a “real boy”.
But such is the “danger of the heights” - or even perhaps the attempt to depart the depths. When all other roads are blocked, sometimes embracing a kind of madness is the only sane option.