Greater consciousness, transcendence, the divine – call it what you will, it is all around us, all the time. We can connect to this incredible experience of super connectedness, of joy, love and the great oneness that unifies everything whenever we choose. But only if we learn how.
According to Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, what gets in the way of our experiencing greater conscious and transcendence is a part of the brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN) that consumes the most energy. It’s a part we tend to hold quite dear. And only in the last decade have scientists begun to understand how it works; its advantages and its often problematic nature.
The scientists in Pollan’s book, say the Default Mode Network is most active when we are engaged in processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, thoughts about the self or ego, moral reasoning, and when we attribute mental states to others, as when we try to imagine ‘what it is like’ to be someone else. In other words, the DMN is the thinking, ruminating, worrying, planning, procrastinating, this is me, and that is you bit. It’s very useful for planning, dreaming up new ideas, being creative and plotting out a life path. But its intense inward focus comes at a very high price. This is the seat of depression, anxiety, OCD, and alzheimers. And the DMN pinches us off from our senses, our intuition and our surrounds. And in so doing, it also pinches us off from greater consciousness.
So what can we do? There are various ways to turn down the powerhouse that is the DMN and reverse its limiting effects on consciousness. Meditation for one. Also prayer, extreme sports, intense experiences of awe, hypnosis and NDE all have marked DMN reducing effects. Pollan explores hallucinogenic drugs in his book. They shut down his DMN and in so doing open him to a huge inflow of sensual information from the world around him. He also experiences the dissolving of his ego and in its place an incredible sense of well being and oneness; ‘what others refer to as cosmic consciousness, the Oversoul or Universal Mind.’
As promised, I will be writing about how you can reach this state of transcendence without drugs in the next post. But I want to look at Michael Pollan’s experiences first, so you can see the similarities with mine. And grasp the intense consciousness raising effects of shutting down the DMN.
On a magic mushroom trip, Pollan began experiencing things with a level of sensory detail, focus and openness he had never experienced before. It was as if the volume on his senses has been turned way up. ‘I felt wide open emotionally, undefended. [Looking out the window at the leaves of the hydrangeas in the garden}. It seemed to me these were the most beautiful leaves I had ever seen. It was as if they were emitting their own soft green glow…but the leaves were also looking back at me, fixing me with this utterly benign gaze. I could feel their curiosity and what I was certain was an attitude of utter benevolence toward me and my kind…I felt as though I were communing directly with a plant for the first time.’
Hippy dippy drug illusions? Not according to scientists like Dr Robin Carhart-Harris at the Imperial College London. He sees profound changes on brain scans. ‘The brain as a whole becomes more integrated as new connections spring up among regions that ordinarily kept mainly to themselves or were linked only via the central hub of the DMN…they communicate more openly with other brain networks. The brain operates with greater flexibility and interconnectedness.’ People who are color blind report being able to see certain colors for the first time when on psychedelics and there is research to suggest that people hear music differently under the influence of these drugs. They process the timbre, or coloration, of music more acutely.
One of the most striking things that happens when the DMN is offline is our sense of self and our separateness vanishes. What emerges in its place is a powerful sense of oneness and communion with everything around us. This happened to Pollan on his Psilocybin trip. ‘I now turned into a sheaf of little papers, no bigger than Post-Its, and they were being scattered to the wind. But the ‘I’ taking in this seeming catastrophe had no desire to chase after the slips and pile my old self back together.. but who was this ‘I’ that was able to take in the scene of its own dissolution? .. It wasn’t me exactly. Here, the limits of our language become a problem: in order to completely make sense of the divide that had opened up in my perspective, I would need a whole new first-person pronoun. For what was observing the scene was a vantage and mode of awareness entirely distinct from my accustomed self; in fact I hesitate to use the ‘I’ to denote the presiding awareness, it was so different from my usual first person..[it} was supremely indifferent, neutral on all questions of interpretation, and unperturbed even in the face of what should by all rights have been an unmitigated personal disaster…The sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more, and there was no one left to mourn its passing. Something had succeeded it: this bare disembodied awareness…which was calm, unburdened, content. There was life after the death of the ego. This was big news.’.
Pollen concludes by saying what happened was: ‘some kind of spiritual experience. I think back on it now as an experience of wonder and immanence. Before ..I had always assumed access to a spiritual dimension hinged on one’s acceptance of the supernatural – of God, of a Beyond – but now I’m not so sure. The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think.’