Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

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Zazen, left brain, right brain, self

During the last COVID wave, while activities were restricted and I was largely staying at home, I intensified my zazen (sitting meditation) practice. With more attention to my  practice, I was surprised to find I was easily sitting for 45 minutes and spending less of that time lost in thoughts and more time simply being present here-now aware of the arising and passing on random thoughts, sensations and sensory inputs.

There are four main categories of things that distract my attention from being here-now:

  • Largely verbalised thought sequences. These can be somewhat spontaneous, jumping across subjects and concerns, or more focused on solving a problem, thinking through a situation or piece of work to be done, planning, strategizing, worrying, pondering the past or future.
  • Distracting sensory stimuli with associated thoughts and emotions, eg. An intrusive noise, an insect flying around or crawling on my skin, an itch, or an ache or pain.
  • Images that appear in the minds eye. These can be random or connected.
  • Full-blown dream-like visions or daydreams, sometimes short, sometimes long.

I also occasionally experience auditory or olfactory hallucinations. For example, a voice saying something, or a distinct smell.  But these are rare.

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Neurotransmitters and brain function

Although I’ve taken a general interest in brain function and states of consciousness, until the last few years I really only paid much attention to the relationship between brain waves and states of consciousness, and in particular the use of brainwave entrainment methods to facilitate certain states (see earlier post here). Only in the last few years have I looked more closely into the complex and interacting roles of brain waves, neurotransmitters and various brain networks.

By Thomas Splettstoesser (www.scistyle.com), https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41349083

Neurons (nerve cells) in the brain form elaborate networks, with each neuron having up to 15,000 connections with neighbouring neurons at contact points called synapses. While the nerve impulse travel through the neuron as an electrical impulse, it does not cross the gap known as the synaptic cleft but rather stimulates the release of a chemical messenger: a neurotransmitter. This crosses the synaptic cleft and is received by neurotransmitter receptors on the target cell. A neurotransmitter with increase (excitatory) or decrease (inhibitory) the probability that the target cell will produce a nerve impulse.

There are three main types of neurotransmitters in the brain: small molecules used for fast signal transmission between neurons, small used for slower modulation of network activity, and large molecules (peptides) used for even slower modulation of cell circuit functions. Most neurons have receptors for most of the neurotransmitters in all three of these categories.

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Psychedelics and the health risks of drugs, alcohol and tobacco

In the last decade or so, there has been a renaissance of interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. While natural psychedelic substances have been used by humans for many thousands of years, psychedelics had a massive cultural impact on the West in the 1950s and 1960s. Albert Hoffman, a research scientist working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, accidentally invented LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in 1938 and discovered its psychedelic properties five years later. In 1955, a New York banker named Gordon Wasson sampled the psilocybe (magic) mushroom in Mexico and published an article on his experience in Life magazine.

Scientists discovered the role of neurotransmitters in the brain in the 1950s, and psychedelics inspired scientists to search for the neurochemical origins of mental disorders previously thought to be psychological. Psychedelics were also used in psychotherapy to treat various disorders, including alcoholism, anxiety and depression, with some promising results, although these studies generally did not reach modern standards of research design.

However, psychedelics were also embraced by the counterculture and became linked in the mind of authorities with youth counterculture and the anti-Vietnam war protests. By the end of the 1960s, most Western governments had outlawed and forced underground the psychedelic drugs which had been legal in most places previously, and also shut down all scientific research.

In the 1990s small groups of scientists managed to start conducting various trials of the therapeutic uses of psychedelics and this has led to the so-called psychedelic “renaissance” in which larger well-designed trials of psychedelic use for treating a range of mental disorders are being carried out by research groups at institutions such as Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins University and New York University. Just today, it was announced that the Australian government will be providing $15 million funding for clinical trials into the use of psilocybin and other psychedelics for the treatment of mental illnesses, including depression and PTSD. Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind gives an excellent account of the history of psychedelics, both above ground and underground, and the psychedelic renaissance, and was a best seller. See also this article by Michael Pollan on the “Psychedelic Renaissance”.

As part of my work on the global burden of disease for the World Health Organization (WHO), I carried out several assessments of the direct and indirect health impacts of the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. I recently did an approximate update to year 2019 for deaths directly due to drug use disorders (overdoses and directly toxic effects) and indirect deaths from road injury, suicide and infectious diseases attributable to drug use. A proportion of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C deaths can be attributed to injecting drug use with contaminated needles. The great majority of direct and indirect deaths due to drug use are due to the use of opioids, both illicit and pharmaceutical opioids. Very few deaths are associated with psychedelic drug use, but I was curious to get a ballpark estimate for comparison with other drug deaths. I will present a brief summary of the broad estimates of drug-attributable deaths, then review evidence on the likely contribution of psychedelic drugs.

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Explorations of hypnagogia during lockdown

The restrictions during the second wave of covid-19 have been less severe in Geneva than during the first wave, although France has closed my nearby border until mid-December and instituted strict lockdown again. However, I went to a bakery the other day and saw a notice that said people aged 65 and over were asked not to leave home. I had been keeping pretty much at home in any case, and one of the things I decided to do in this period was to see whether I could achieve WILD, ie. wake-induced lucid dreaming.  I’ve previously had success with DILD (dream-induced lucid dreaming) which is the best known technique and involves becoming aware you are dreaming while you are in a dream. WILD involves transitioning directly from the hypnagogic state into the dream state while maintaining awareness throughout.

The hypnagogic state is the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, during which images, dreamlike visions and other sensory experiences may occur. To achieve WILD, you aim to remain aware as an awake dreamlike vision transitions into a full-blown dream as you fall asleep. I started to pay close attention to what I was seeing and experiencing during the hynagogic period, aiming to stay consciously aware as the dreamlike fragments arose, and to figure out how to figuratively “dive” into the dream. But this goal was postponed as I became fascinated with the variety of hypnagogic phenomena I experienced as I lay with my eyes closed transitioning towards sleep.

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Breathwork and sensed energy

In an earlier post, I described my experience with transformational breathwork and the Wim Hof method. I’ve continued to practice these, and to do some online sessions with the breathwork instructor from the retreat I attended late last year. In looking around for more information on breathwork, I came across a book by David Lee called “Life force: Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic” (Norwich: The Universe Machine, 2018).

Lee gives an overview of and simple instructions for ten types of breathwork, as well as discussing their various purposes and effects, and the relationships between them. This is interesting enough, but his approach to understanding breathwork completely changed my experience of it. He describes the book as an exploration of “sensed energy” and schemes of belief that work best for experiencing, cultivating and manipulating these subtle sensations. In particular, he frames breathwork in terms of the arousal and relaxation of sensed energy.

Transformational breathing produces within minutes a tingling within the hands and feet and a sense of energy surging around the body. Lee advises to simply witness this energy as it circulates and coalesces into definite sensations and emotions. Layers of unresolved emotion may surface and the high level of sensed energy helps them to resolve. So breathwork may untangle pain and discomfort from the past. Lee describes how to modulate the intensity of the breathwork to hover in the space between suppression of this unresolved material and its too intense activation, allowing a process of resolution to occur, rather than repression or re-traumatizing. I certainly experience intense emotions at times during breathwork, and the periods of “tantrum” and application of pressure to particular points on the body enable you to intensify and experience or release these intense emotions.

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Breathwork and altered states of consciousness

Until recently I had paid little attention to breathwork techniques for achieving non-ordinary states of consciousness.  I’ve done zen meditation for many years now, on and off, and spent quite a bit of time paying attention to the breath, counting the breath etc, but I had been somewhat sceptical of claims I had read that breathwork could induce psychedelic-like experiences.

Late last year I went to a 5 day retreat in the Netherlands which introduced me to a number of new (to me) practices aimed at personal transformation. Among these were breathwork sessions which introduced me to several forms of breathwork, including the form of energising breathwork taught by Wim Hof, the Iceman. Our facilitator was a trained Wim Hof instructor. He also taught us another form of breathwork, called transformational breathwork, and I will describe one of my transformational breathwork sessions at the retreat.

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Is ASMR an altered state of consciousness?

A few days ago, I was watching Would I Lie to You (WILTY), a BBC panel show in which contestants have to bluff about their deepest secrets…and the opposing team have to find out which ones are true. One of the best things on TV.  On this particular episode, a mystery guest Charlotte came onto the show, and each member of one team had to explain how they knew Charlotte.  Joe Lycett claimed that “In the evenings, I like to relax by watching videos of her wrapping gifts on YouTube. “

It turned out to be true. Afterwards, I looked up Charlotte on YouTube and found a video of her wrapping presents.

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