First, I've made some progress in understanding what Sam Harris means when he says "Consciousness is not inside your head," a semi-perplexing statement that I wrote about recently.
After writing that post, I've listened to a couple of other guided meditations by Harris on his Waking Up app. In one, he talked about how consciousness is akin to the familiar metaphor of waves and the ocean. The waves aren't separate from the ocean, just as consciousness isn't separate from the things that we're conscious of.
In the guided meditation I heard today, Harris made a similar point about being aware of our breathing. He said that we shouldn't feel that we're observing the breath from a conscious vantage point up in our head, since the breath isn't separate from consciousness. It's within consciousness.
Everything is, given that nothing exists for us if we're not conscious of it. So the way I see it (not sure if Harris agrees with this), it's a mistake to look upon consciousness as if it were a thing -- like water or air. Consciousness is better viewed as a process, the brain in action.
Thus it makes sense to say consciousness is not inside the head, even though the brain is. Consciousness is an emergent process of the brain that allows us to be aware of the world inside and outside of us. When I see a tree, the seeing of leaves, trunk, branches, and such isn't separate from my consciousness that makes seeing possible.
It's all consciousness, just as waves that can appear very different are all ocean.
I also want to share some thoughts about an article in the April 24/May 1 issue of The New Yorker, The Forgotten Drug Trips of the Nineteenth Century: Long before the hippies, a group of thinkers used substances like cocaine, hashish, and nitrous oxide to uncover the secrets of the mind.
Download The Forgotten Drug Trips of the Nineteenth Century | The New Yorker
The technology of nineteenth-century drug exploration, in both professional scientific circles and amateur intellectual ones, was the self-experiment. Since the seventeenth century, scientists had considered this the best method to understand substances that affected moods and perceptions: trying them on other human subjects was a risk, and animal experiments could provide only external indications of mental changes.
By the end of the eighteenth century, when Davy inhaled his first dose of nitrous oxide, the self-experiment was an established practice, with its own protocols and reporting conventions. Its Achilles’ heel, for some, was the way it mixed competing kinds of observation. As the young Sigmund Freud, investigating cocaine as a medical student in the eighteen-eighties, realized, it involved a self-splitting, an impossible assertion of two types of truth at once—that of the researcher and that of the experimental subject.
This tension defined the psychonauts’ project.
Along with many others, I carried on in this spirit during some of my college years, 1966-1971, at San Jose State College in the San Francisco Bay area. Since San Jose wasn't nearly as cool a city as San Francisco or Berkeley, me and my hippie friends identified more with those locales, which we visited often in various states of drug-induced highness.
I'm not going to claim that we were dedicated to exploring the nature of psychedelic consciousness under the influence of LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin, or the non-psychedelic influence of marijuana (which I'm still engaged in "research" with here in Oregon). Often we were just out to have a good time.
But some of us combined Eastern philosophy with psychedelics. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was a particular favorite, since it described various levels of consciousness experienced by dying or dead people.
I ran into a young guy who was traveling around the country, hoping to be able to enter the light spoken of in the Tibetan Book of the Dead that he'd seen while on a psychedelic trip, yet was reluctant to move toward out of fear of the unknown.
This guy was the friend who accompanied me on a trip to the Santa Cruz mountains where, under the spell of mescaline, we simultaneously concluded that the universe is a paper bag turned inside out.
That experience points to the issue that is talked about in The New Yorker article about nineteenth century drug explorations. It's difficult, if not impossible, to be a dispassionate observer of your psychedelic trip while you're in the midst of doing the "psychonaut" traveling.
He and I deeply felt the truth of the paper bag turned inside out nature of the universe while we were high. The next day, as now, that notion seems vacuous and meaningless. So which is true? The inspiration while under the influence of a drug, or the later sober assessment of the inspiration?
I'd say that both are true, since set (one's mindset) and setting (where one is using a drug) combine to produce a certain experience. Here's a pertinent excerpt from The New Yorker article:
To a stubborn handful of psychonauts, though, the most “objective” data about drugs were precisely those culled from experience. Jay foregrounds Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a mid-nineteenth-century French psychiatrist who encountered hashish—the concentrated, hallucinogenic extract of the cannabis plant—while travelling in the Middle East.
Hashish was then known to Westerners mostly secondhand, its effects filtered through the lens of fictions such as “The Arabian Nights.” When Moreau took a strong dose in 1840, however, he found that it was uniquely educative in the psychiatric context.
Each of the effects he experienced could be read as a symptom of mental illness: the nervous excitement, the distortion of space and time, the hallucinatory perceptions. Hashish took him to a place that looked and felt like insanity, then led him, temporarily, inside it. It allowed him to understand his patients with greater nuance: he could now recognize what “the ravings of a madman” were like, having “raved himself.” “Personal experience,” he wrote, “is the criterion of truth here.”
Reading this, I was reminded of my first LSD trip. A college friend who had used LSD before took it with me. However, he wasn't able to handle the situation when I convinced him that the psychedelic experience we were having proved that we were insane.
We talked about what this meant. The best we could come up with was that yes, we now were insane, but being crazy wasn't all that bad. In fact, maybe it was good. We had no conception that our LSD trips were going to end soon and we'd be back to normal.
Oregon, where I live, has become the first state to legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. The initial class of facilitators graduated recently. Fairly soon it will be possible for people to pay for a supervised psilocybin trip under the guidance of a facilitator.
Psilocybin offers benefits for those with PTSD, a fatal illness, serious depression, and other problems. I'm unsure if I'd want to use it, but I would seriously consider it. Especially since someone would be there to keep me from thinking that I was insane.