Epistemic status: Speculative. While my use of certain scientific terms is bound to be inaccurate, I ask the informed reader to make her best approximation of the intent behind my usage of a particular term (versus a different term that would be unequivocally wrong).
A river of dark red liquid streamed from the crevasses of a pale beige mountain, soaking and discoloring all that it touched. It was blood—my blood. Glimmering shards of glass littered the sofa and floor.
That I somehow decided to bash my hand through my friend's window while tripping makes an easy target for two forms of moralistic parable:
- A cautionary tale against LSD use (and drug use, writ large)
- And/or the desire to have an experience worthy of literary treatment
On the first point. My experience is a serious outlier—not even close to the rule—and to teach your kids never to try LSD based on what happened is about as inane as building a $7.5 billion security theater in response to an isolated incident of extreme Sunni fundamentalism.
On the second. While it is true that I wanted to have an experience worth writing about, I am not so boneheaded as to intentionally physically injure myself to elevate it to that status. Those of you who know me can testify that, with regards to violence, I am quite the pacifist, and that, if I must engage in violent acts of any sort, on the line between pen and sword I stand as close to the pen as is physically permissible. So the next logical question would be: What the hell happened?
What I am about to say will sound crazy, but scratch what I said just now.
I didn't decide anything, "I" had no part whatsoever in what physically happened. Call it sleepwalking, call it demonic possession, whatever you will, "I", as the conscious entity typing these words, was not in control of my body or, indeed, my mind for the majority of the trip. Thoughts more or less entered a space in which they occurred, and my body more or less animated itself through what I can only abstractly characterize as "a complex net of heuristics" that had little connection with my conscious intention.
It sounds crazy because it defies perhaps the most fundamental assumption that we hold, namely, the conception of the self, that there is a me it is like at all times to be. There is a "drunk me," a "tired me," an "angry me," and it's all well and good to call these "altered states of consciousness," to say "Calm down, you're not yourself right now," but the extent to which English is typically used to classify external observations of the self does not accurately capture, in this specific case, my internal experience; "acid me" is categorically separate from the prior three:
We will need to be more precise if we wish to sanitize this contradiction. So, a few words on precision. Consider the word "love". Defining "love" remains an exercise of perennial poetic interest because of the degree to which it is entangled in various nets of abstraction. You can attack it from a thousand different angles and it will never yield a definitive answer. You can group all these abstractions into the umbrella term "love", but then it becomes so general as to be meaningless.
It seems fairly obvious in retrospect (doesn't it always?) that you can do this with any word, to various degrees. The reason words like "centiliter" and "carburetor" appear less flexible is that they are less so entangled, existing in far fewer structures of meaning within which sense can be made of them. Hence, less interesting; once a thing is fully defined, there is no need, indeed no capacity, for further interrogation. We can be happy with "snow" as "that fluffy white stuff that falls from the sky," but the Eskimos have 300 words for its different shades and varieties (actually a myth, but the principle behind it is sound).
The word we are here to interrogate (finally) is neither "love" nor "snow" but "I". This central signifier of selfhood is fraught with meaning; it is a complex bundle of definitions compacted into a single letter or vocable sound—your preference. A common trope is to begin with the dictionary(.com), where "I" is:
The nominative singular pronoun, used by a speaker in referring to himself or herself.
This definition presupposes the existence of a singular entity acting as the pronoun's referent, and for all practical purposes, there might as well be. But I would like to suggest this is mistaken. As such, I will begin by developing an ontology of selfhood, of which I conceive two fundamental components:
- The experiencing self
The Experiencing Self
Is that which has conscious experience. Sensations. Qualia.
The rest of this post assumes the existence of the experiencing self, generalized across humans as a species.
Either it exists or is the ultimate running joke.
Aside from the well-known German word for body double, I borrow this term from one John David Ebert and mean it altogether metaphorically. My post On Self-Definition is concerned entirely with doppelgangers.
A doppelganger is more or less a mental model of you, as a named (Richard, Rachel, Raphael) or otherwise (that gal who does a few living statues on the bodega corner) entity, in the mind of an experiencing self. Isaac Newton no longer has an experiencing self, but he has plenty of doppelgangers. Fictional characters are, in the exact same way, pure doppelgangers. God is a doppelganger.
The crux of this ontology is a very special doppelganger, a doppelganger prone to being conflated with the experiencing self especially in individualistic societies upon which the conviction in and cultivation of its reality are almost necessarily based:
Or, alternatively, self-conception. When you look in the mirror, the person in the mirror isn't you (qua experiencing self), it is a doppelganger—the doppelganger—with whom you identify. This identification process, which several psychological theories call the formation of self-consciousness, is pretty much natural because there is a 1-to-1 relationship between, say, you moving your arm and the mirrored image moving its arm. The experiencing self locates itself within the ego, and this happens very early in life.
For the psychologically normative, the mechanics of identification are relegated to the unconscious and occur more or less continuously through life. Identification reflects the Heraclitean river much more than Jekyll and Hyde, although certain members of our species experience varying degrees of shock when they, for whatever reason, decide to contemplate the profound difference between two ego states, say, me as a high school idealist versus me as a jaded working professional, me as a lonesome bachelor versus me as a devoted parent.
Keep in mind what I said earlier and you'll see the ego is a false location. It is a convenient location, it is a practical location, it is a location on which modern civilization as we know it is basically predicated, but it is, ultimately, a false location. Because doppelgangers do not experience. Observe an example of how to illustrate this poorly: One day several years ago I attended a meditation session in college and the student running it put on a YouTube video to facilitate. The guru (loaded term, I know) in the video had us chant, on alternate breaths, "I am not the body. I am not even the mind."
First of all, would anyone try to explain quantum mechanics to a third grader1? If she's precocious, she might take the inevitably metaphorical, inevitably abstracted explanation she's given as prima facie true, but no self-respecting physicist would entertain, even momentarily, the idea that she actually understands what quantum mechanics is about. In a similar vein, it strikes me as a recipe for disaster that while the guru may be correct, he's having people accept a conclusion without them first having become familiar with the (or any) epistemological chain from which it can be derived.
So what's really going on here? Where is the true location of "I"? Here we must build another ontology. It is one thing to be told "don't put your hand on the stove because it is hot" and another to experience the searing pang of 350°F iron. This is the difference between belief and knowledge, between mere semantic intellectualization and internalized, embodied experience. I use the term grok to mark the transition. The true location of "I" is the experiencing self. At the same time, this is not a concept that you can grok through linguistic manipulation, and certainly not through verbal repetition, in the same way that chanting "E=MC squared" would be patently ridiculous.
You will argue, fairly, that I am using language to manipulate how you conceive of the word "I" and the concept of self. But what differentiates my attempt from the guru's is that mine creates a positive location for the "I" (in the experiencing self) while the guru's is negative; mine is (I hope) clear and structured while the guru's is obfuscatory, accounts not for entangled nets of abstraction, amounts to ungrounded dogma. With this dichotomy in mind, contemplate the paradox: The guru spoke eleven words; I wrote thousands. If you allow me to be pretentious for a hot second, it is the difference between a college lecture and a nursery rhyme. But what is common, I suspect, in our approaches is the belief that regardless of whether you believe that "I" is the experiencing self (and not the mind, body, or ego), knowing this is a different matter altogether. To grok this concept, you must have an experience which, on the metaphysical level, is equivalent to burning your hand on the stove2.
My ego, the "I" which I had identified with for basically my entire life, was not the entity that decided to bash its palm through the window and incur a "laceration of deep palmar arch of right hand." For all intents and purposes, the LSD altered my cognition to a state where my ego was effectively submerged into my unconscious. Indeed, while I laid on the couch, I distinctly remember the experience of dissociating from my body, from my senses, and "sinking" into a purely noumenal realm. As an experiencing self I felt neither the sensation of palming through the glass nor any physical pain from having my palm slashed. "Pain" was not experienced, indeed, by me, even though, when my ego began to periodically resurface (like a man drowning in rapids gasping for air) in the hospital, sensations of pain were felt.
I rationalize the acts as having been committed by a doppelganger called "It". For the majority of the trip, my experiencing self identified itself with "It" (and not my ego). The most accurate model of "It" I can think of comes from improv theater guru Keith Johnstone, in the form of mask practice:
A new Mask is like a baby that knows nothing about the world. Everything looks astounding to it, and it has little access to its wearer's skills. Very often a Mask will have to learn how to sit, or bend down, or how to hold things. It's as if you build up another personality from scratch; it's as if a part of the mind gets separated, and then develops on its own.
-Impro, p. 168
The reason why one automatically talks and writes of Masks with a capital 'M' is that one really feels that the genuine Mask actor is inhabited by a spirit. Nonsense perhaps, but that's what the experience is like, and has always been like.
What Johnstone describes, poetically, as being "inhabited by a spirit" is, in my ontology, what I call identification, the process by which the experiencing self locates itself within a doppelganger (one's ego being, for most people, the most potent). Indeed, "It" was (is?) a juvenile being with simplistic notions of good and bad. Upon retrospection, the then-gripping narratives that entered my mind through "It" fell apart like a house of cards, much like "dream logic." Nevertheless, what "It" believed, "It" believed with absolute conviction. Not only that, but much to the detriment of my ego, "It" actually followed through on its beliefs.
A brief note on "angry," "tired," and "drunk" selves. The stew of your unconscious changes temperature, viscosity, and flavor depending on how your experiencing self focuses its conscious attention, which is why you're a "different person" at work, with your parents, friends, or partner. This is also why it's important to avoid so-called "toxic" people and environments—because they kind of poison your stew. But the real takeaway is that these are ego variants, not different selves. They are variants of self-conception, the ego. And while it would be a hilarious and perhaps not entirely futile exercise to rename your variants, e.g. "work me"=Hilda, "screaming sports fan me"=Braun, "drunk me"=Hemingway, "high school me"=Biff, they are much more Richard1, Richard2, Richard3, Richard4. Even if I consider myself as having completely different values and beliefs than high school me, Richard4 is nevertheless part of my ego identity. I do not consider "It" an ego variant as it is an other-identification, not a self-identification, as evidenced by the fact that there was literally no moment of self-consciousness while "It" possessed me; I thought I was dreaming.
The other counterargument to my ontology which (to my chagrin) must be addressed goes something like: "In order for something to take a truth value, there must be a system within which truth can be assessed, and statements like yours and the guru's are sheer gibberish which cannot fit into any conception of normative empirical science. They are unfalsifiable on the whole and not even wrong." First of all, there is a difference between claiming that something cannot be addressed by science and claiming that science is not yet advanced enough to address certain questions in meaningful ways. That we have neither the tools nor the common gestalts (what the hell is "consciousness") to address these questions does not preclude their relevance to our phenomenological experience. As John Searle puts quite plainly, there is obviously something "it is like" to have conscious experience (it begins every morning when we wake up in bed), and I believe this observation, in itself, is grounds enough for philosophical and poetic conceptions of the psyche that are not dependent on measures of empirical validity while also not precluding the possibility of empirical assessment.
Anyone who managed to get through that last paragraph without themselves wanting to smash their hand through a glass window deserves to spend a few months reading great Russian literature, not because I'm congratulating them on their masochism, but because such an individual is precisely the kind that needs to get a clue. Anyone with a modicum of sense already and implicitly understands what I just said without the need for excruciating philosophical excursis. To this latter individual: Rest assured that banging it out was, if you can imagine, infinitely more painful than was your experience of reading it. My apologies.
So you can see how saying "My mind produces the experience of being" is one thing and saying "I am my mind" another. For the record, I believe that in time we will have the empirical tools to bridge these gestalts in meaningful ways. Hell, I'd say we're getting close. But until then, just remember that doppelgangers are fictitious, and that the ego is a story you tell yourself about yourself. It might be the most powerful story in your collection, but it is not That Which Has Experience.
Tripping Balls in Hospital Halls
At one point, "I" woke up in the hospital and believed, from my gut, that I was living in a computer simulation. There was no way that this was real. Me, chained to a hospital gurney? Bleeding profusely out of my hand? No, no, this is a dream, I need to wake up and get back to the living room where I had been cozily snuggled under a few layers of blankets, listening to some groovy music. Closed my eyes...
Opened them again. Shit, I'm in a different room. This looks like something out of Half-Life or Metal Gear Solid V. Yeah, that's definitely what's going on, the hospital scenes in these games are definitely part of my memory. Faces changing shapes. Glitching. I must be constructing this in my mind.
A nurse comes in, asks me a few questions. Oh, an NPC (non-player character). Since I'm living in a simulation, she should be able to read my mind. I'm not going to say anything. Wait, she asked me the same question again? Oh I see, this is an interactive game, not a cutscene. Fine. Is it, though? I grab the nurse's forearm with my left hand; her face contorts into an annoyed expression, she tells me to stop. What the hell. Oh, I'm thirsty. This simulation is pretty real... If this simulation is reality now, anything is possible. I'm strapped to this damn thing, they could torture me. Oh god oh god...
Some water comes. Fine. My mouth and throat are parched. If everything I remember about my life before this was an illusion, at least I have this water. I need to take a piss too, how do I express this? Can I just go in my pants? I try—nope, too embarrassed. Why can't I just drop this stupid emotion and go? Oh wait, here she comes again, asking if I need to go (I say yes). She gives me a plastic canister and says "I'll close the curtains." I guess embarrassment is built into the game engine, huh.
I'm being wheeled down a hall. The rectangular fluorescents on the ceiling are evenly spaced. Shit, I'm still chained to this fucking gurney. They're going to dump me into a landfill of corpses just like in that one movie Soylent Green. I want to resist, but then: If I resist, they're probably going to torture me. Gotta choose between Hell and Hades... Where's the humanity?
But I get stalled in a waiting area. This simulation is so realistic. People are moving at 60 frames per second—no, it's so fast, too fast, faster than real life—180? This is definitely a simulation. My friend is next to me, but he's saying things I would model him as saying. My mind is definitely making this shit up. Oh, how do I get back to that living room, how do I do it, how, how? I close my eyes again.
But of course, this was no dream.
If we are to be frank, I experienced no small amount of suffering throughout this whole ordeal3:
- Physically, having an immobile right hand alternately throbbing and searing with pain for days on end was, to put it mildly, harrowing.
- Emotionally, having to cope with the fact that everything that happened actually happened felt like swallowing a bottle of bitter pills, one by one. More on this later.
- Temporally, I spent much time in the waiting rooms of medical institutions waiting, for instance, to get my hand X-Rayed to ensure there wasn't any glass still embedded in my wounds, and to get stitched up. Several weeks spent healing; the opportunity cost is high.
- Financially, I incurred thousands of dollars in medical fees, and hundreds more to repair the (rather large) window I smashed.
- Poetically, I could lament that my hand will never be able to feel things the same way again, or that its inevitable scarring will permanently disfigure its previously pristine appearance.
This section is best kept short and sweet, for, regrettably:
As a fact, we cannot give suffering precedence in either our individual or collective lives. We have to 'get on with things,' and those who give precedence to suffering will be left behind.
One point to take home. Doppelgangers do not suffer, for suffering is an experience. It is the experiencing self that suffers. Constructs do not experience, humans do.
Zen Buddhism and various meditative practices strive, insofar as such a thing is possible, to center focus on this experiencing self as a thing-in-itself. If this seems like a recursive operation, that's because it is. In this frame, you can see how concepts like Enlightenment and Satori come to exist; they are the experiential equivalent of dividing by zero.
Focus, of course, is the easy part. "Focus" is an act which the experiencing self is capable of performing; focus well enough on an activity and you can enter a state of flow; you've probably experienced this playing sports or video games, writing, programming, whatever. Location, finding the center, is the difficult part. For some people, it may actually be impossible. To focus on a task is easy, sure, but to focus on the thing that is doing the focusing, the thing from which the act of focusing originates? A paradox.
- Does "the experiencing self" exist, in itself, beyond the linguistic label I've given it?
- If it does exist, how is it located?
- Given that it exists, and that it has somehow been "found," what exactly does the process of focusing on it entail?
What qualifies this digression as a topic of interest is, as I mentioned in my prelude, all the reports of having seen God or experienced Nirvana while on acid. Indeed, about an hour or two into my trip, before the glass, before the emergency ward, I experienced a feeling of unity unlike anything I'd ever experienced. My thoughts began folding into themselves at a constant rate of acceleration until they collapsed into a single point, and in this moment (the episode lasted perhaps 3-5 minutes in real time) of collapse, of universal identification, I grokked, among various other things, that to inflict pain on another person was the same as to inflict pain on myself. One who emerges from the trip having internalized this belief almost naturally strives to reduce harm and promote harmony.
Upon philosophical inspection, this does not hold much ground4. It requires a web of predications each spindle of which, when interrogated, reveals the flimsiness of the overall structure. For instance, I specifically fixated on humans as the class of being associated with experiencing pain. Not for a second did a dog, frog, or other animal enter my mind, much less a rock, a tree, an ocean wave, or the planet earth as an entity in itself. Furthermore, I presupposed pain, and while I somehow managed to dissociate "bad" from the network of connotations I associate with "pain" as a categorical term, I did not for a second even consider the biological basis—the sensory nerves and their corresponding receptors—from which all metaphors (poetic conceptions) of pain are necessarily derived.
In practice, what "reduces harm" and "promotes harmony" becomes a wildly political debate; here the philosophical horse has been beaten so beyond any known shade of death that for me to even consider participating constitutes an already-committed act of masochism. However, I will venture the following:
- Enlightenment, insofar as what I experienced corresponds to what others describe as having experienced, is, in itself, an experience worth having (provided you are capable of having it).
- Depending on your perspective, it is either a total collapse or complete unification of belief states, resulting in a temporary immersion in positive affects unique to the experience of enlightenment.
- "The enlightened" is not a useful phrase for capturing any quality in those it describes beyond the fact that they have undergone the experience of enlightenment. Connotations of wisdom and transcendence should be wholly disregarded if not widely ridiculed.
Also curious is the phenomenon where those who have achieved said enlightenment develop the desire to spread or communicate the experience to others; they attempt to inculcate the belief that it is either a desired state of experience or mode of existence. This is understandable in quite the same way that anyone who's ever tried chocolate would love for those who have never tasted the rich flavor of cacao to give it a go. But one does not simply feed enlightenment into peoples' mouths. At the same time, the world is full of charlatan gurus peddling lies and no reliable way of determining the bona fide article.
How can you hear if you are deaf? How can you see if you are blind? Neuroscience proves the quite obvious assumption that people without certain sensory capabilities experience the world differently. My theory is that the capacity for enlightenment (as a category term) is dependent on neural structures that are either nonexistent, inherent, or crafted (via neuroplasticity). This would explain the old refrain about meditation about how some people reach Nirvana on their first go, some take years, maybe decades, and some never, regardless of how long or well they practice.
As this "oceanic feeling" faded away, I began to yearn for its return. Midway upon the journey of my acidity, I found myself attempting to identify with my experiencing self; I couldn't do it. Now I see why: I had inadvertently constructed a doppelganger of my experiencing self, and that which has experience is fundamentally separate from its conceptions. The desire for this impossible unification is the source of much distress.
But regardless of whether Enlightenment is real, taking LSD has enabled me to grok a couple things. Firstly, that it is possible to grok things that are not tied to reality. It is possible to believe, deep in the marrow of your bones and the heart of your hearts, statements like "In this astrological period, Mercury is in retrograde and therefore people are more prone to lying"5. At one point in the trip I remember believing, with absolute conviction, that "being" and "time" were the same thing. Moreover, I strongly felt that all words meant the same thing. Neither of these statements are true (more on this later), but that it was a curious private experience to behold cannot be denied. Consequently, it is possible to believe true things without grokking them. I was good at math in high school and used it to pass tests, but had no fundamental understanding of why it worked (I still don't). For a more pertinent example, doppelgangers, as an ontological category, are something I intellectualize about without fully grokking. If it's true that doppelgangers exist—and it does appear to be—I do not feel its truth; it is not part of my neuroendocrinology. I have not, in other words, embodied its signification.
The more important realization, the sheer facticity of the split between experiencing self and ego, came post hoc.
In The Matrix, Neo takes the red pill and wakes up out of the computer simulation he'd been living in for his entire life into a completely unfamiliar stark and grim reality. Let me tell you that waking up in what you perceive to be a hostile environment and coming to realize your entire past was simulated is a horrifying experience. That was me in the hospital. I did not realize I was in for a second such reckoning.
The morning after, I had to come to terms with the fact that what had happened actually happened, that there was no such option as waking up back in my friend's living room, that this was reality. A reality of shattered glass, shattered hand, and shattered ego.
Without the use of my hand, what had been my home became an alien environment; I had to readjust every facet of my daily routine, as well as my short- and medium-term plans to allow for recovery. But from this, there is insight left still to gain. When I say "The ego is the story you tell yourself about yourself," the word "story" implies that it is a linguistic construct, something that can be communicated. Part of it is, most of it isn't. For example, the functioning of my right hand, one of my deepest internalized assumptions, is part of this embodied "story." Without it, I could not write, I could not read, I could not edit videos or cook pasta or fry eggs...
Being unable to do any of the things which I find meaningful, on top of having to consciously retool everything from brushing my teeth to getting dressed, resulted in a profound loss of my sense of self (as if the LSD trip hadn't been enough). I also realized that, however much I rationalized away the previous day's acts as having been committed by "It", it was my ego that would have to take responsibility for the consequences. Denying this would mean a failure to reidentify, and a failure to reidentify would mean, in effect, abandoning the life I'd spent over two decades building; I had to construct a new narrative in which yesterday's events could be contextualized within the greater life story I'd been telling myself; this was about as easy as taking a scene from a psychological thriller and injecting it, non sequitur, in the middle of a rom-com and convincing the audience it belonged. Speaking of which, I spent the entire week watching between 3 and 5 movies a day and having friends bring me lunch, feeling guilty the entire time.
My conclusion here is that being able to rejuvenate or, in cases where that's not possible, retool one's sense of self is an existential survival skill.
More horrifying than even waking up to a false reality, however, was another thing I grokked during the trip: the Buddhist concept of dukkha.
When you hear the phrase "desire is the root of all suffering," it is easy to strawman the word "desire" into things like "materialism," "consumerism," and "selfishness" (granted I am not a proponent of any of these). But it's more basic than that. Consider how you become hungry and thirsty. Consider how your body presents itches for you to scratch. Consider that however much you try to rationalize that these things are neither good nor bad, your body nevertheless expresses a preferred state of being (non-itchiness). Consider, yes, that preference itself cannot be eliminated because it is biologically built into your experiencing self; the desire not to desire is nevertheless a desire.
Schopenhauer's great pessimism was the result of contemplating this idea and concluding, in the final analysis, that, because it was the essence of being, it could not be escaped. He formulated a doppelganger called the Will that blindly pushes and pulls everything in the universe to be whatever it wills, independent of human agency:
Within Schopenhauer's vision of the world as Will, there is no God to be comprehended, and the world is conceived of as being meaningless. When anthropomorphically considered, the world is represented as being in a condition of eternal frustration, as it endlessly strives for nothing in particular, and as it goes essentially nowhere. It is a world beyond any ascriptions of good and evil.
-Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The days following the trip were overcast with additional depressive spirals brought about by the sheer impact of this grokked idea (which, ironically, I thought I'd worked through years ago). However, I also realized that this was unsustainable and somehow bubbled up the solution: I could just not care. I was doing fine before the trip, and if it happened to trip me up a little, no worries, roll with the punches, heal, pick yourself back up again when you're ready.
But you know, we can go further.
It seems fair that to counteract this most horrible idea in the universe would require something equally powerful, equally impossible: amor fati. To love one's fate. To believe that if things must indeed be as they are, then you would have them as they are, and no differently. To say, "I desire to desire." And then to let that spiral into a positive infinity.
Aside from all this abstract bloviation, what was the tripping actually like?
Ignore the religious imagery, stare at a white wall and try to imagine these densely layered swirls of red, blue, and green layered on top of it. Got it? Good.
Two things to notice about this GIF: its looping recurrence and its folding into itself.
The texture of this wolf "breathes."
Finally, focus on the movement in this video; this is what turning your head or rolling your eyes feels like. (Unlike in the video, my mind did not project dog faces onto every surface it visualized.)
You now have the requisite gestalts to reconstruct the visual phenomena of my acid trip; the task is on you to imagine the patterned RGB overlay on Creazione di Adamo, the Escherian fractality of the paper-folding GIF, the "breathing" effect of the wolf (projected into 3D), the sensation of movement in the punny "grocery trip"—all this as a single, continuous phenomenon. As I witnessed straight lines and sharp edges bend, breathe, and melt into waves, my thoughts also warped into circular, nonlinear patterns.
From an auditory perspective, I did not hear any sounds which I had not previously heard in my life. I did not, for instance, suddenly develop the ability to communicate with whales and dolphins via sonar. What did happen was, in intervals of about 600ms, echo hallucinations. Each sound that entered my ears echoed between 4 and 5 times, equal in intensity to the original stimulus, before abruptly stopping. A constant buzzing sound emanating from a computer monitor became louder and intensely annoying, on the order of a mosquito bite I couldn't scratch. Oddly enough, my tinnitus remained stable. Unpleasant music became intolerable while pleasant music inspired both good feelings and bright pastel colors in my headspace; in this vein I was able to briefly manifest synesthetic effects.
However, more than anything it was these auditory illusions that convinced me the entire hospital visit was a hallucination. Through my ward voyage they persisted, becoming the largest component of my dissociation, of my convincing myself that I was dreaming while my real body was still lying on the couch comfortably snuggled in its blankets.
I paid little attention to the tactile sense, which may mean it remained, at least relative to the others, well-regulated. On the other hand, certain chronic pain with which I am—unfortunately, what else—afflicted became significantly more insufferable, not because the sensations themselves worsened appreciably but because my tolerance did. On the other hand, once I felt both the texture of the gauze stymieing my bleeding and the cold iron of the gurney bars, I began to reidentify, although the resulting shock prevented full reidentification until several days later.
Tastewise, nothing out of the normal until I left the hospital. Then, even after brushing with toothpaste and several meals, a strange sweetness. Is this how my saliva tastes? As a whole, my mouth felt alien until two days after (I couldn't stop licking my cheeks and teeth), perhaps indicating that my brain had to reaccustom itself to bodily identification.
I consider smell to be my most impoverished sense and if anything funny happened to it, I paid no attention whatsoever. I also lament the fact that I smell so poorly, for not only is smell the sense most closely tied to memory, but to the neurological production of flavor qualia. That's right, I would enjoy food significantly more if only I had an average nose. Maybe if I simply smelled better (pun not intended), I'd be living a more holistic life, engaged much more with the world of people, much less with the world of ideas. Nevertheless, the hopsital's odor of antiseptic iodoform lingered with me through the next day.
Interpretation of Dreams?
As my environment began warping around me, I, predicting there was little likelihood of my being able to balance myself as the effects intensified, specifically instructed my friends to ensure that I wouldn't hurt myself or break anything (there was a mug filled with water that could've shattered, so I put it outside of arm's reach). In addition, I made sure to lie down so as to not hurt myself. Finally, readers will note my earlier stated aversion to physical forms of violence.
An elementary Freudian psychoanalysis may reveal that by focusing so intently on being safe and harmless, I repressed affects of violence and instability into my unconscious, which then manifested themselves when my ego and its conscious defenses dissolved to unleash the emergent "It" (id?). This reading, while convenient, is incredibly reductive and assumes far too much about causality to have any predictive power. Note: In-credible. It is about as useful as popular understandings of the word "karma," by which the quotidian Horoscope guzzler associates any present good or bad event (of any magnitude of "goodness" or "badness") with a past event of the opposite polarity and exclaims, always proudly, always betraying their cluelessness, "That's karma!"
A leading metaphor for the brain among today's artificial intelligence researchers is that it's a pattern-matching machine. This TED Talk is a wonderfully lucid demonstration of how modern machine learning (as in Google Image Search) works.
What I personally find a bit ridiculous is how, (let's just assume) without ever having taken LSD, without ever intending to simulate its effects, indeed without even having any gestalt of "hallucinogen" "psychedelic" or "LSD" in mind when designing their machine learning algorithms, Google researchers managed somehow to simulate its visual phenomenology. This must be how Lee Sedol felt while facing AlphaGo—"Wow, this machine can actually play... What? It's better than me?"—except instead of Go as the conceptual metaphor, I have consciousness: "Jesus Christ, if what I saw on acid was real, Google is making real steps to creating an actual mind."
As a thought experiment, assume there is a part of the brain that distinguishes what is a pattern and what is not. Can you tell what differentiates the group of six squares on the left from the group on the right?
Now "gravity" obviously doesn't pertain to static 2D images on a screen, but you can imagine everything on the right falling over. Independent of gravity actually existing, what if you don't have a concept for gravity? You'd be at a loss. Suddenly patterns like rudimentary psychoanalysis and colloquial karma start making sense. What if you don't have a concept for concept? What if you don't have concepts? Yes, I'd like to recommend (read: add myself as a statistic to) the hypothesis that LSD fudges with the brain's pattern-matching function such that it perceives everything as a perfect pattern of itself. This explanation, "enlightenment," and "seeing God," then, are linguistic representations, under different epistemological frameworks, pointing to the same experiential phenomenon. My preferred poetry: pure experience; experience in itself. Does that qualify me as a guru?
I believe I've provided a decent-enough summary of how has this whole thing has affected me. How will this continue to affect me? Time will tell. While it may be impossible to determine any true causality between the trip's effects on my brain and my future actions, it will not prevent me from constructing just-so stories to that end.
Attitudinal realignments? I would not say I'm less afraid of death, primarily because there is no reasonable argument that what occurs after death matches the phenomenology of "enlightenment," although I can now easily see how people come to believe that it does and why such a belief (especially internalized) would remove or at least significantly reduce thanatophobia. I am envious of such individuals. What I will say, however, is that I am more appreciative of life and the experience of living. I can now say, with confidence, that I believe experiencing selves are worth caring about, and that I support any culture that recognizes the existence and promotes, broadly defined, the well-being and flourishing of experiencing selves. On the ethics of natalism and antinatalism, I remain uncertain.
All in all... What will be, will be!
Not that I believe any of this stuff is nearly as complex as quantum mechanics. The extremity of my example is intended simply to make my moral pop out. ↩
The particularity of this experiential trigger will, almost necessarily, be different for different people. For starters, if you're interested, you could go on a psychedelic voyage or a meditation retreat, or you could study the Kabbalah. There are also, I suspect, different degrees of "grokking it," just as (controlling for psychological variation) one who has been burned more intensely will almost necessarily be more afraid of being burned than someone who's had a milder experience. ↩
A close reader may, after reading the sentence to which this footnote refers, be able to induce that for me, the internalization process admits only affects that meet a certain standard of rigor; prima facie grokked concepts, faced by my epistemic immune system, tend to regurgitate themselves from the realm of grokkage back to the realm of speculation. In theory, to grok a thing is also to reinforce faith in the episteme under which it can be grokked. ↩
I do not believe in astrology and consider it a ridiculous practice on the whole. ↩
What kind of writer, or, hell, artist showcases their scraps of production? Only the bravest, to be sure. There is some merit to the idea that any final product would not exist in the form that it does without the necessary edition and culling of, perhaps not inferior but at least (perceived) inessential, content. As to why these failed to make it, I'll leave you to speculate.
The experience of conscious operation is so ingrained in our daily quotidian that to suggest it is an illusion would be more ridiculous than to suggest 2+2 does not equal 4. But talk to any mathematician and they will be quick to point out that a common set of basic assumptions must be held in order for any mathematical operation to attain validity, assumptions that, counterintuitively, could only have been arrived at through a process of induction made possible through perhaps experientially obvious but not fundamentally given observations. For example, quantification, the act of applying a label to a grouping of objects: one apple, two apples.
For another perspective on this doppelganger drama, consider again the concept of love. Your basic, vanilla-variety romantic love. Do we love a person or a jumble of characteristics? If I did not possess characteristic X, be it fashion sense, physical beauty, job prestige, intelligence, humor, music taste, would Edita still have fallen for me? If I were just three inches shorter? Two? The questions we do not wish to consider hide truths we do not wish to acknowledge. It seems to me that "true love," if such a thing can be conceived, must be, at its most fundamental, love of a unique experiencing self without concern for its ego garments. How does this work in practice? It is one thing if Edita no longer wants to watch football games together, it is another entirely if she begins stealing money and having affairs. I believe most reasonable people would have no ethical qualms urging me to separate from her at that point, however such a separation would destroy the possibility of true love, the love through thick and thin, the love of her experiencing self. So: "Till Death Do Us Part" is a practically untenable philosophical ideal. Don Quixote's love for his "Dulcinea" is just such a love, and we all know how terribly that ended for him.
I suppose this is a tad (just a tad!) pessimistic, so I'll toss something else out there; see how you react: Doppelganger love is real love. Even if it is false, even if it must be false, who cares?
No, I still cannot see Magic Eye pictures, a severe cognitive disability which been a constant source of frustration since elementary school. Maybe ayahuasca will do the trick.
2018 update: I suspect words like "God" and "Enlightenment" are frequently used to describe (periods of) tripping experience because its phenomenology, being completely divorced from quotidian phenomenology, almost compels those experiencing to reach for the most abstract terms available in their conceptual vocabulary whenever they try to convey the texture of the experience to others. As frustrating as said others might find this, for the speaker, nothing else fits or feels more natural; everything else feels off.