Thursday, 3 July 2008

Experiments in consciousness.

Last Sunday (29/06) I decided to do a little fasting or rather giving up of attachments. In certain spiritual traditions attachments are seen as one of the root causes of our suffering. This bondage can take many forms, pleasurable activities such as sex, food, drinking and illicit drug use, attachments to routines, to ideas, to our most standard ideas of self. My renouncement of worldly attachments was far less grand and ostentatious than the above list but nevertheless served to provide much in way of unexpected discussion and insight.

I decided to give up Coffee! So what you may say, but the giving up actually produced some unwelcome changes. I gave it up not out of some major health concern but for simply demonstrating to myself the freedom gained by being unbound to attachments. Well within 24 hours several interesting things began to occur which were amplified over the next 48 hours. The effects of which prompted me to hold several discussions over some cherished ideas and practices.

On Sunday I made up my list of things to do for the week along with the things I wanted to give up, one amongst them was coffee which contains caffeine. Come Monday morning for my breakfast of cereal and bagels I simply had milk to replace the warm, luxurious, unfathomably dark, 5 strength ground coffee I drink. Throughout Monday I felt tired, and a slight headache which I attributed to my consuming of eight bottles of beer over the weekend--I’m not a heavy drinker and get generally get sore heads if I do too much. By Tuesday however I noticed several things. I had a persistent though not migraine level headache. I was very tired, nodding off when reading or meditating. I also became very irritable and slightly obnoxious.

On Tuesday I had to shop for a suit for a friends wedding. I remember passing some oddly dressed person on the street and thinking to my self “God what the hell is he dressed like!” This and other similar remarks I made which appeared to me as out of character, especially since in the last few months I have felt a general equilibrium in the mind.

By Wednesday I was expressing several negative attitudes towards myself and situations. I still felt tired and continued to have headaches. Going to the gym I felt a decreased lack of motivation and still persistent negative thoughts which I overcame by simply focussing on my present activities and silencing the mind. When I got home I decided to look up the “dreaded” effects of caffeine dependency.

Now I had played the good little empiricist and had taken into account numerous variables, such as the other things I had given up, like chocolate and milk. Or that low mood could be the result of the perennially crappy weather we get in Northern Ireland. My tiredness could have been a result of lack of sleep and my headaches could be the result of some other problem. By the way I knew that headaches was a withdrawal symptom of caffeine as I had mocked my cousins over their complaints of clucking for a caffeine fix whenever they did not get their mug of coffee.

I looked up the great reservoir of knowledge the indispensable Wikipedia. Sure enough I saw headaches listed as a symptom caused by blood vessels dilating. Irritability was there as well as nausea though thankfully I got none of that. There was one side effect which surprised me though- severing the use of caffeine causes a reduction of serotonin in the brain.

Serotonin, a chemical which is responsible for things like mood, motivation, sleep, sexuality, aggression. Low levels have been demonstrated to be the cause of depression. The clinical term for anti-depressants are SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) what this does is inhibit the uptake of serotonin by the synaptic vesicles which means there is a normal level of serotonin coursing through the brain. Attempted suicide victims have been shown to have extremely low levels in the brain. The opposite of this is something like MDMA which unlike the SSRI actively flood the brain causing a profound change in a persons mood and sense of well being.

I was quite surprised at this discovery of serotonin depletion via caffeine withdrawal and also to discover that I am a caffeine “abuser” as my friend humorously noted when I told him. I consume daily over a thousand mg’s of coffee a day which according to Wikipedia is more than enough to cause tolerance of it.

I have long accepted that certain archaic ideas of a Cartesian dualism between mind and matter is a null hypothesis and that much of our welfare and states of mind are dependant on our biochemistry and neurology behaving normally. Still what does it mean for our ideas of maximising our welfare through spiritual practices?

This question was pertinent to me, as for the better part of a year I have engaged in practices such as Vipassana meditation, the reading of Stoic philosophy and its eastern counterparts in Buddhist traditions. I do mean to say I am a Buddhist just a selective consumer of certain literature and practices. In myself I have noticed several key changes, not least an openness and lightness of mind, sereneness and a better feeling of community with others. There is of course much for me to unpick and interrogate which I will not go into here. But on a pragmatic level there has been a change and if I can credit these states of mind to things like contemplative literature and practices then what does it mean when these states evaporate when I do something so trivial as stopping taking coffee with my bagels?

As I sat preparing to meditate I jolly well asked myself questions like-is this a waste of time? Is this bullshit? I do not have definite answers in my experiments in consciousness but I think there is much reason to suggest that my practices were not in vain. Still it disappointed me to experience a mild depression because of this withdrawal. I explored the issue a little more in my head and concluded that its not that practices and the use of ones attention is a waste of time. Or that we merely be passive in the face of the fact that without the aid of pharmacology we cannot change our biochemistry. but it is the idea that our very wellbeing is precarious, like ships tossed in a storm or a solitary leaf facing the turbulence of autumn, that our consciousness is subject to every fleeting whim and affect of which we have no real control over.

This is of course not original, there is many things which would greatly affect our states of mind, the sudden death of loved ones, a horrendous car accident or the realisation that one has 3 months to live. I settle on the idea that what is truly unsettling is that we have no control over our wellbeing that it is subject to chance whether we can live a good life or not. The conclusion perhaps to that is we might as well take pills all day to make us happy. Though this depends by what we mean by happiness which I wont get into for the purpose of this essay.

There is a more optimistic conclusion, it comes from the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. He said that life is to be likened not to a dancer, subject to the whims and changes of the music but a wrestler who grounds himself and is not swayed or overthrown. As such we should not let our minds be thrown by unruly passion, greed, malice, desire. That we should keep a ready and alert mind to take on whatever life throws at us. All of our attention and practice then should be used as a bulwark against the stormy turbulence just over the horizon of our lives.

When I thought of this passage the events of the last few days were refocused in a new light. The disparaging comments I made in my mind about people and myself did not go unnoticed. I noted them. One of the key practices in Zen philosophy is the recognising of thoughts as thoughts and to label them. When I saw the oddly dressed man walking down the street and when I made my comment I noticed its malice and that it was an unwholesome comment along with it being jarring from the state of mind I have been in the last few months. My thoughts of unhappy work ethic at the gym on Tuesday were labelled by me as simply thoughts without good justification (I did a well above average workout) and that if I was unhappy I should simply work harder. During the workout itself my fixation on negative thoughts was recognised, this allowed me to purposefully focus on the present activities or think about something neutral. Awareness of ones thoughts and actions is of course liberating and powerful for change. The key difference between now and say two years ago was that I did not assent to the thoughts. For example rather than say I am “depressed” or “upset” (this purports to be an objective fact about my state of mind) I observe that my thinking is upsetting me or I am thinking negative thoughts, (which is to say it is not objective but purely subjective) Marcus Aurelius sums it up better than I can with his maximum that “all is as thinking makes it so”.

I have a tentative proposition, perhaps we view things like spiritual practice, whether it be prayer, meditation or fasting along with contemplative literature as software for the brain. The hardware of course being thinks like neurology, genetics, a particularly labile mind. Getting our neurology right allows us the ability to utilise and maximise spiritual discourses like the 8 fold path or the 7 factors of enlightenment or to get the best out contemplation. Perusing though my contemplative books I settled at random on this passage

“The five basic precepts, not killing, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, not using wrong speech, and not taking intoxicants which cloud the mind and make it dull.--

Killing-- it feels so much better to gently remove an insect from inside our home and put it outside put it outside than to kill it

Not stealing means not taking those things which are not given to us

Sexual misconduct can be most easily understood as refraining from those actions of sensuality which cause pain and harm to others, or turbulence or disturbance in ourselves.

Wrong speech- not only tell the truth but refrain from useless and frivolous talk. Restraint of speech is very useful to making the mind peaceful. Our speech should be gentle, cultivating harmony and unity between people.

On first reading we may not find these passages remarkable, as every culture throughout history has had injunctions such as these. Read the passages again though and consider the link between spirituality, ethics and emotions. These are not commandants to be followed out of faith. They give reasons for acting wholesomely in that they help cultivate harmonious states of mind which in turn lead to better social action. We should expect to feel better about ourselves when we follow these precepts. As a guide to living there is much that can be admired in the above passage. These are empirical questions, Love is more conducive to happiness than hate, anger and greed are opposed to serenity and kind generosity. This calls for as the author Sam Harris urges a genuine contemplative science of the mind. As such we already have a wealth of testimony spanning several thousands years pointing to elevated states of wellbeing and how to achieve them. Insight meditation has also been shown to alter the structure of the brain especially the parts associated with cultivating wholesome states. As we speak there is a team of neuroscientists and Zen practitioners working away to uncover spiritual and ethical truths about ourselves--

In the future we will be able to identify the right sets of genes, biochemistry and spiritual practice to fully maximise our potential and live well adjusted lives. In conclusion to my little story about Caffeine I decided to follow another little pearl of wisdom this time from Aristotle “excess in moderation.” I promptly went and made myself a strong cup of coffee.

Michael Faulkner.

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