Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,
where we discuss science
and science-based tools for everyday life.
I’m Andrew Huberman,
and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology
at Stanford School of Medicine.
Today, my guest is Dr. Sam Harris.
Dr. Sam Harris did his undergraduate training
in philosophy at Stanford University,
and then went on to do his doctorate in neuroscience
at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He is well-known as an author
who has written about everything
from meditation to consciousness, free will,
and he holds many strong political views
that he’s voiced on social media
and in the content of various books
as they relate to philosophy and neuroscience.
During today’s episode,
I mainly talked to Dr. Harris about his views
and practices related to meditation,
consciousness, and free will.
In fact, he made several important points
about what a proper meditation practice can accomplish.
Prior to this episode,
I thought that meditation
was about deliberately changing one’s conscious experience
in order to achieve things such as deeper relaxation,
a heightened sense of focus or ability to focus generally,
elevated memory, and so on.
What Sam taught me and what you’ll soon learn as well
is that while meditation does indeed hold
all of those valuable benefits,
the main value of a meditation practice,
or perhaps the greater value of a meditation practice
is that it doesn’t just allow one
to change their conscious experience,
but it actually can allow a human being
to view consciousness itself,
that is to understand what the process of consciousness is.
And in doing so, to profoundly shift the way
that one engages with the world and with oneself
in all practices, all environments, and at all times,
both in sleep and in waking states.
And in that way, making meditation
perhaps the most potent and important portal
by which one can access novel ways of thinking and being
and viewing one’s life experience.
We also discussed the so-called mind-body problem
and issues of duality and free will,
concepts from philosophy and neuroscience
that fortunately, thanks to valuable experiments
and deep thinking on the part of people
like Dr. Sam Harris and others,
is now leading people to understand
really what free will is and isn’t,
where the locus of free will likely sits in the brain
if it indeed resides in the brain at all,
and what it means to be a conscious being
and how we can modify our conscious states
in ways that allow us to be more functional.
We also discussed perception, both visual perception,
auditory perception, and especially interesting to me,
and I think as well, hopefully to you, time perception,
which we know is very elastic in the brain.
The literal frame rate by which we process
our conscious experience can expand
and contract dramatically depending on our state of mind
and how conscious we are about our state of mind.
So we went deep into that topic as well.
Today’s discussion was indeed an intellectual deep dive
into all the topics that I mentioned a few moments ago,
but it also included many practical tools.
In fact, I pushed Sam to share with us
what his specific practices are
and how we can all arrive at a clearer
and better understanding of a meditation practice
that we can each and all apply
so that we can derive these incredible benefits,
not just the ones related to stress and focus
and enhanced memory,
but the ones that relate to our consciousness,
that is to our deeper sense of self and to others.
Several times during today’s episode,
I mentioned the Waking Up app.
The Waking Up app was developed by Sam Harris,
but I want to emphasize that my mention of the app
is in no way a paid promotional.
Rather, the Waking Up app is one that I’ve used
for some period of time now and find very, very useful.
I have family members that also use it,
other staff members here at the Huberman Lab Podcast
use it because we find it to be such a powerful tool.
Sam has generously offered Huberman Lab Podcast listeners
a 30-day completely free trial of the Waking Up app.
If any of you want to try it,
you can simply go to wakingup.com slash Huberman
to get that 30-day free trial.
During today’s discussion,
we didn’t just talk about meditation,
consciousness, and free will.
We also talked about psychedelics,
both their therapeutic applications
for the treatment of things like depression and PTSD,
but also the use of psychedelics
and we discussed Sam’s experiences with psychedelics
as they relate to expanding one’s consciousness.
I also asked Sam about his views and practices
related to social media,
prompted in no small part by his recent voluntary decision
to close down his Twitter account.
So we talked about his rationale for doing that,
how he feels about doing that,
and I think you’ll find that to be very interesting as well.
Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize that this podcast
is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.
It is, however, part of my desire and effort
to bring zero cost to consumer information
about science and science-related tools
to the general public.
In keeping with that theme,
I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.
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And now for my discussion with Dr. Sam Harris.
Dr. Sam Harris.
We were just talking about this.
You are indeed a doctor.
You’re a scientist.
I cannot save your life,
but I might save your non-existent soul
if we talk long enough.
Well, neither of us are clinicians,
but we are both brain explorers
from the different perspectives, some overlapping.
And I’m really excited to have this conversation.
I’ve been listening to your voice for many years,
learning from you for many years.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that my father,
who’s also a scientist,
is an enormous fan of your waking up app.
Has spent a lot of time over the last few years.
He’s in his late seventies, he’s almost 80.
He’s a theoretical physicist.
Walking to the park near his apartment
and spending time meditating with the app
or sometimes separate from the app,
but using the same sorts of meditations in his head.
So he kind of toggles back and forth.
And even, I shouldn’t say even, but yes,
even in his late seventies has reported
that it has significantly shifted his awareness of self
and his conscious experience of things happening
in and around him.
And he was somebody who I think already saw himself
as a pretty aware person,
thinking about quantum mechanics and the rest.
So a thank you from him indirectly.
A thank you from me now directly.
And I really want to use that as a way to frame up
what I think is one of the more interesting questions
in not just science and philosophy and psychology,
but all of life,
which is what is this thing that we call a self?
You know, as far as I know,
we have not localized the region in the brain
that can entirely account for our perception of self.
There are areas of course, that regulate proprioception,
you know, our awareness of where our limbs are in space,
maybe even our awareness of where we are in physical space.
There are such circuits as we both know.
But when we talk about sense of self,
I have to remember this kind of neuroscience 101 thing
that we always say, you know, when you teach memory,
you say, you know, you wake up every morning
and you remember who you are.
You know who you are.
Most people do.
Even if they lack memory systems in the brain
for whatever reason,
pretty much everyone seems to know who they are.
What are your thoughts on what that whole thing is about?
Do we come into the world feeling that way?
I would appreciate answers from the perspective
of any field, including neuroscience, of course.
Yeah, well, big question.
I mean, the problem is we use the term self
in so many different ways, right?
And there’s one sense of that term,
which is the target of meditation
and it’s the target of deconstruction by the practice
and by just any surrounding philosophy.
So you’ll hear, and you’ll hear it from me,
that this self is an illusion, right?
And that there’s a psychological freedom
that can be experienced on the other side
of discovering it to be an illusion.
And some people don’t like that framing.
Some people would insist that it’s not so much an illusion,
but it’s a construct and it’s not what it seems, right?
But it’s not that every use of the term self is illegitimate
and there are certain types of selves that are not illusory.
I mean, you know, I’m not saying that people are illusions.
I’m not saying that you can’t talk about yourself
as distinct, yourself as a whole person
and, you know, as psychological continuity
with your past experience as being distinct
from the person and psychological continuity
of some other person, right?
Obviously we have to be able to conserve those data.
It’s not fundamentally mysterious
that you’re gonna wake up tomorrow morning
still being psychologically continuous
with your past and not my past, right?
And, you know, if we swapped lives, you know,
that would demand some explanation.
So the illusoriness of the self doesn’t cut against
any of those obvious facts.
So the sense of self that is illusory,
and again, we might wanna talk about self in other modes
because there’s just a lot of interest there
psychologically and ultimately scientifically.
But the thing that doesn’t exist,
it certainly doesn’t exist as it seems.
And I would wanna argue that it actually
is just a proper illusion,
is the sense that there is a subject interior to experience
in addition to experience.
So most people feel like they’re having an experience
of the world and they’re having an experience
of their bodies in the world.
And in addition to that,
they feel that they are a subject internal to the body
and are very likely in the head.
Most people feel like they’re behind their face
as a kind of locus of awareness and thought and intention.
And it’s almost like you’re a passenger inside your body.
Most people don’t feel identical to their bodies
and they can imagine,
and this is sort of the origin, the psychological origin,
you know, the folk psychological origin of a sense
that there might be a soul
that could survive the death of the body.
I mean, most people are what my friend Paul Bloom calls
common sense dualists, right?
The default expectation seems to be that
whatever the relationship between the mind and the body,
there’s some promise of separability there, right?
And whenever you really push hard on the science side
and say, well, no, no, the mind is really just
what the brain is doing,
that begins to feel more and more counterintuitive to people
and there still seems some residual mystery that, you know,
at death, maybe something is gonna lift off the brain
and go elsewhere, right?
So there’s a sense of dualism that many people have
and obviously that’s supported by many religious beliefs.
But this feeling, it’s a very peculiar starting point.
People feel that, you know,
they don’t feel identical to their experience, right?
As a matter of experience,
they feel like they’re on the edge of experience,
somehow appropriating it from the side.
You’re kind of on the edge of the world
and the world is out there.
Your body is in some sense, an object in the world,
which you, you know, it’s different from the world.
You know, the boundary of your skin is still meaningful.
You can sort of loosely control your body.
I mean, you can’t control,
you can control your gross and subtle, you know,
voluntary motor movements, but you can’t,
you’re not controlling everything your body is doing.
You’re not controlling your heartbeat and your, you know,
your hormonal secretions and all of that.
And so there’s a lot that’s going on
that is in the dark for you.
And then you give someone an instruction to meditate, say,
and you say, okay, well,
let’s examine all of this from the first person’s side.
Let’s look for this thing you’re calling I.
And again, I is not identical to the body.
People feel like their hands are out there
and if they’re going to meditate,
they’re going to close their eyes, very likely.
And now they’re going to pay attention to something.
They’re going to pay attention to the breath or the sounds.
And it’s from the point of view of being a locus of attention
that is now aiming attention strategically at an object
like the breath, that there’s this dualism that is set up.
And ultimately the ultimate promise of meditation,
I mean, there are really two levels
at which you could be interested in meditation.
One is, you know, very straightforward and remedial
and non-paradoxical and very well subscribed.
And it’s, it’s the usual set of claims
about all the benefits you’re going to get
from meditation, right?
So you’re going to lower your stress
and you’re going to increase your focus
and you’re going to, you know, stave off cortical thinning
and there’s all kinds of good things
that science is saying meditation will give you.
And none of that entails really drilling down
on this paradoxical claim that the self is an illusion
or anything else of that sort.
But from my point of view, the real purpose of meditation
and its real promise is not in this long list of benefits.
You know, I’m not discounting any of those,
though, you know, the science for many of them
is quite provisional.
It’s in this deeper claim that if you look
for this thing you’re calling I,
if you look for the sense that there’s a thinker
in addition to the mirror rising of the next thought, say,
you won’t find that thing.
And you can, what’s more, you can not find it
in a way that’s conclusive and that matters, right?
And it has a, there’s a host of benefits
that follow from that discovery,
which are quite a bit deeper and more interesting
than engaging meditation on the side of its benefits,
you know, de-stressing, increasing focus and all the rest.
I have a number of questions related to what you just said.
And first of all, I agree that the evidence
that meditation can improve focus, reduce stress, et cetera,
it’s there, it’s not an enormous pile of evidence,
but it’s growing.
And I think that especially for some
of the shorter meditations,
which I these days view more as perceptual exercises,
you know, talked about this on the podcast before,
but for those that haven’t heard it before about,
you know, perception, you can have exteroception,
extending to things beyond the confines of your skin,
interoception, which is also includes the surfaces
of the skin, but everything inward.
And meditation through eyes closed,
typically involving some sort of attentional spotlighting,
something we’ll get into,
to more interoceptive versus exteroceptive events,
et cetera, including thoughts.
And so I think of at a basic level,
meditation as a somewhat of a perceptual exercise.
You can tell me where you disagree there
and I would expect and hope that you would.
But I would like to just touch on this idea
that you brought up,
because it’s such an interesting one of this idea
that our bodies are containers
and that we somehow view ourselves as passengers
within those containers.
That’s certainly been my experience.
And the image that I have is of,
as you say that is of myself or of people out there
that sit a few centimeters below the surface
or that sit entirely in their head.
And of course the brain and body
are connected through the nervous system.
I think sometimes a brain is used to replace nervous system
and that can get us into trouble
in terms of coming up with real directions and definitions.
But the point is that there is something special
about the real estate in the head.
I think for as much as my laboratory
and many other scientists are really interested
in brain body connections through the nervous system
and other organ systems that the nervous system binds,
that if you cut off all my limbs, I’m going to be different,
but I’m fundamentally still Andrew.
Whereas if we were to lesion a couple of square millimeters
out of my parietal cortex,
it’s an open question as to whether or not
I would still seem as much like Andrew
to other people and to myself even.
And so there is something fundamentally different
about the real estate in the cranial vault, right?
You can even remove both of my eyes, I’d still be Andrew.
And those are two pieces of my central nervous system
that are fundamental to my daily life,
but I’d still be me.
Whereas, and this doesn’t, I think,
just apply to memory systems.
I mean, I think there are regions of the frontal cortex
that when destroyed have been shown to modify personality
and self-perception in dramatic ways.
So it’s a sort of obvious point once it’s made,
but I do think it’s worth highlighting
because there does seem to be something special
about being in the head.
The other thing is that sitting a few centimeters
below the surface or riding in this container
makes sense to me,
except I wonder if you’ve ever experienced a shift
as I have when something very extreme happens.
Let’s use the negative example of,
all of a sudden you’re in a fear state.
All of a sudden it feels as if your entire body
is you or is me and now I need to get this thing,
the whole container and me to some place of safety
in whatever form.
This is also true, I think, in ecstatic states
where you can feel really, when people say embodied,
I wonder whether or not we normally oscillate
below the surface of our body.
When I say oscillate, I mean, in neural terms,
maybe our sensory experience is not truly
at the bodily surface, but sits below the bodily surface,
more at the level of organ systems and within our head.
And then certain things that jolt us,
our autonomic nervous system into heightened states,
bring us into states of, bring us closer to the surface
and therefore include all of us.
Again, I don’t want to take us down
a mechanistic description of something that doesn’t exist,
but does any of that resonate
in terms of how you are thinking about
or describing the self?
Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot there.
First on the point of the brain being the locus
of what we are as minds.
Yeah, I mean, there are people who will insist
that sort of the whole nervous system
has to be thought of as,
when you’re talking about our emotional life
and the insulus connection to the gut
and you just, the sense of self extends beyond the brain.
But I totally take your point
that a brain transplant is a coherent idea
and you would expect to go with the brain
rather than with the viscera.
And so in that sense,
we really are the old philosophical thought experiment
of being a brain in a vat.
I mean, we essentially are already,
the vat is our skull and we’re virtually in that situation.
The horrible movie, I’m sorry,
I can’t help but interrupt.
When I was a teenager,
my sister and I used to go to the movies
every once in a while.
We’d trade off who could pick the movie.
And she took me to see once the movie,
Boxing Helena, the David Lynch film.
I never saw that.
Where he amputates the limbs of a woman
who he’s obsessed by and keeps her.
It’s a really horrible film.
And about 20 minutes into it,
my sister just turned to me and said,
I’m so sorry.
And the question then was whether or not two siblings
should actually persist in a movie like that.
And we decided to persist in the movie
so that we could laugh about it later,
but it was rather disturbing.
I don’t recommend the movie,
nor do I recommend seeing it with a sibling.
But in that movie that the woman,
he takes her as a container
and restricts her movement, right?
Quite sadistic and horrible thing, really.
David Lynch, interesting mind perhaps.
But the idea was that,
was to question how much of the person persists
in the absence of their ability to move, et cetera.
Could there be love?
Could there be these other affections?
Anyway, a rather extreme example,
but one that still haunts me
and I suppose I’m thinking about still now, yeah.
Well, so just to follow that point,
there’s a lot about us that we don’t have access to
unless we enact it physically.
Like, if I ask you,
do you still know how to ride a bike, right?
There’s no place in your memory where you can inspect
by just sitting in your chair
that you’ve retained the knowledge
of how to ride a bike, right?
Like it’s a procedural memory
is different from semantic or episodic memory.
If I asked you, do you know your address?
Yes, you can recall your address just sitting there.
But if you had had a micro stroke
that neatly dissected out your ability to ride a bike
and left everything else intact,
you might think you could ride a bike,
but suddenly you stand up next to one
and you have no idea what to do with it.
And that would be a discovery
that would only happen
if you were motorically engaged with that object.
And I’m sure there’s,
we could probably come up with a hundred things about us
that really seem core to us
and are not separable from our personhood,
which seem to only get invoked
when we’re out there moving in the world
and we have limbs, et cetera.
And, but yeah, no, it’s the seat of consciousness.
I mean, the right framework to talk about all of this
from my point of view is consciousness and its contents.
Right, so we have consciousness,
the fact that there’s something that is like to be us,
right, the fact that the world
and our internal experience is illuminated,
that it has a qualitative character.
And then there’s the question
of what is that qualitative character?
What is it, you know,
what kinds of information do we have access to?
What does it feel like to be us?
How do different states of arousal change that?
So you talked about fear.
Yeah, I mean, fear can change a lot of things,
but, and, you know, various neurological deficits,
or, you know, you can add drugs to the mix.
You add psychedelics that radically transform
the contents of consciousness.
From my point of view,
consciousness itself is simply the cognizance,
the awareness that is the floodlights
by which any of that stuff appears, right?
So consciousness doesn’t change, but its contents change.
And to come back to meditation for a second,
many people think meditation
is about changing the contents of consciousness.
There’s some contents you wanna get rid of, like anxiety,
other contents you want to encourage,
like calm and, you know, unconditional love,
or, you know, some other, you know,
classically pleasant pro-social emotion.
And that’s all fine, that’s all possible.
But the real, you know, wisdom of, you know,
the 2000-year-old wisdom of meditation
that really is the, you know,
the chewy center of the tootsie pop
is a recognition of what consciousness itself
is always already like, regardless of the contents
and the changes in contents.
And this is why, I mean, we might talk about this,
but this is why they’re mutually compatible.
Psychedelics and meditation for me are somewhat orthogonal
because psychedelics is all about making wholesale changes
to the contents of consciousness.
And there’s, you know,
some wonderful consequences of doing that.
There can be some harrowing
and terrifying consequences of doing that.
But generally speaking, I think, you know,
used wisely, they can be incredibly valuable
and the therapeutic potential there is enormous.
But the crucial disjunction here
is that there really is something to recognize
about ordinary waking consciousness,
that the consciousness that’s compatible
with my driving a car to get here on time, right?
You know, you don’t have to have the pyrotechnics
of being on LSD to see the,
to transcend the central illusion
that I’m saying is the thing to be transcended,
which is the sense that there is a duality
between subject and object in every moment of experience.
And to take it back to something you said
about just all of our different modes in ordinary life,
the interesting thing is I think people
are constantly losing their sense of self
and they’re not aware of it.
And I mean, there’s probably an analogy
to the visual system here,
which is to a visual saccades,
which perhaps you’ve spoken about
at some point on your podcast.
Not enough, so please.
Yeah, so what happens with our, you know,
every time we move our eyes, this is called a saccade
and we do that about three times a second or so,
just normally, there is a, you know,
the region of motor cortex that affects that movement
sends what’s called an efferent copy of that motor movement,
which is used as information that propagates back
to visual cortex that suppresses the data of vision
while the eyes are moving.
Because otherwise, if you weren’t doing that,
every time you moved your eyes,
it would seem like the visual scene itself
was lurching around.
And people can experience this for themselves
if they just, you know, touch one of their eyeballs
on the side, you know, not all that hard
and kind of jiggle it, you know,
and then you can roll it around,
you can jiggle it from side to side.
You can see that a movement of the eyeball
that’s not governed by your ocular motor system
delivers a jiggling of the world,
because it’s not, your brain is not anticipating it
in the same way and it’s not,
you’re not producing that same, you know,
predictive copy of the movement.
It’s a little bit like,
we have some action sports filmers on our staff here,
that the gimbal, you know, that holds an iPhone,
like you see the kids on surfboards or skateboards
or something, they’re going to hold a phone
while moving around, or the people who, the vloggers,
does anyone even still use that for his vlog?
Moving around and it’s image stabilization, essentially,
that keeps the camera steady.
And these are more than cameras, of course,
for those listening, I’m pointing at my eyes,
but they do far more than just what a camera would do.
But yeah, this internal system of image stabilization,
yeah, I can see perhaps where you’re going with this,
that it allows us to remain in a self-referencing scheme
as opposed to sort of paying attention
to just how confusing it is to track the visual world
at some level.
Well, actually where I’m going is that,
so people are having this suppression of vision
three times a second on average,
and they’re not experiencing it, right?
So like, you’re literally like,
you’re effectively going blind and you’re not noticing it.
It’s very fast.
Yes, it’s very fast.
Now, there’s an analogous suppression, I would say,
of the sense of self that occurs every time attention
gets absorbed significantly in its object, right?
So like, we even have this concept of, you know,
losing yourself in your work or, you know, losing your,
I mean, the classic flow experiences have this quality
where there’s, and this tends to be
why they’re so rewarding, where there’s just,
if you’re in some, you know, athletic activity
or, you know, an aesthetic one,
or you could be having sex or you could be,
whatever it is, some peak experience,
its peakness usually entails there being some brief period
where there was no distance between you
and the experience, right?
For that moment, you were no longer looking
over your own shoulder or anticipating the next moment
or trying to get somewhere where you weren’t,
or, you know, micromanaging errors or like this,
you know, there’s not, there’s just the flow of unity
with whatever the, you know, whatever the experience is,
you know, a surfer on the wave, right?
And we love those experiences.
And then we are continually abstracted away from them
by our thinking about them.
Like we were thinking, oh my God, that was so good.
Or how do I get back to that?
Or, you know, you’re looking at a sunset,
it’s the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen.
And then you’re continually interrupting the experience
of merely seeing it with a commentary
about how amazing this is.
And I wonder, you know, what are real estate prices here?
I mean, is it possible that we could move here?
And like your mind is just continually narrating
a conversation you’re having with yourself,
I mean, you’re telling yourself things
that you already know as though there were two of you
rather often, right?
Like, you know, you’re just, you know, I’m looking for,
you know, which is the water?
And I say, oh, there it is, right?
But like, I’m the one seeing it.
Who am I saying, oh, you know, there it is too.
As though there’s someone else who needs to be informed
about the thing I already saw, right?
So it’s, there’s something about our internal dialogue
that is paradoxical.
Is there any neurologic condition,
colosselectomy or anything like that
where somehow people feel more unified with the self
on a continual basis?
The observer and the actor within,
whether it stay more as a complete sentence,
is there any known neurological syndrome,
makes it sound like a bad thing, but it could be a good thing
whereby people feel that the actor and the observer
within them are unified continually.
There’s not a pathological one.
Some of the work on the default mode network
suggests that that’s at least part of the story, right?
So the default mode network,
which has been talked about a lot of late
because it has come up both in the meditation literature
and in the psychedelic literature,
but its original discovery was that, you know,
and the reason why it was called the default mode
was that in virtually every neuroimaging experiment
ever run, they found that between tasks,
when the brain was just in its default state,
these midline structures would increase their activity
and then they would reliably diminish
whenever the person in the scanner was on task.
And usually that meant some kind of outward looking,
you know, visual discrimination task.
I mean, but it could be, you know, it could be visual,
it could be semantic, it could be,
but it tends to be their eyes are open
and they’re paying attention to something
that’s being broadcast to them through,
you know, monitor goggles,
or, you know, they’re looking at a mirror
that’s showing them a computer monitor.
But the, so the general insight was
there are these midline structures in the brain
that seem to be increasing their activity
when the brain is just kind of idling between tasks,
waiting for something to happen.
And then further experiments found tasks
that actually up-regulated activity there beyond baseline.
And those tasks seem to be self-referential
so that when you ask people, you know,
you give them a list of words and you say,
well, do these, any of these apply to you, right?
You know, and so people, or you ask people to think about,
you know, actually in one experiment I did,
when you, you know, when you’re challenging
people’s beliefs, when you’re challenging beliefs
that have more of a personal significance,
like political or religious beliefs,
you get an up-regulation in these regions
as opposed to just generic beliefs about, you know,
you’re in Los Angeles, this is the table,
you know, there’s something to which, you know,
people are not, you know,
holding fast as a matter of identity.
So anyway, both meditation and psychedelics
seem to suppress activity in these regions,
which we know are associated with both self-talk,
mind-wandering and explicit acts of self-representation.
Could we say that they are somewhat autobiographical
because they access memory systems
and in the way you’re describing them
and in the way that a colleague of mine
who’s been a guest on this podcast,
I don’t know if you’ve interacted with him before,
but I think you’d very much enjoy
whatever interaction you would have as David Spiegel,
he’s our Associate Chair of Psychiatry.
He and his father actually,
his father then he founded hypnosis
as a valid clinical practice in psychiatry.
And hypnosis, which is obviously
a heightened sense of attention with deep relaxation
is known to dramatically suppress the default mode network.
He talks about this a lot.
And I always wonder as we take down activity
within the default mode network,
what surfaces it in its place
and is what surfaces in its place,
does that somehow reflect
that the two are normally in a push-pull?
Because that’s not necessarily the case, right?
When I fall asleep, I can hallucinate,
but that doesn’t mean that during the day
the fact that I’m looking at objects
is what’s preventing me from hallucinating.
If I close my eyes, I can get imagery,
but there’s this kind of a different illusion,
the illusion of antagonistic circuitry sometimes.
I don’t want to take us off course,
but the default mode network seems to,
want to be there, quote unquote.
It seems to be fighting for our attention
unless we give ourselves a visual target
or an auditory target or some salient experience
of some kind it sounds like.
And then I’m surprised to hear that meditation
reduces activity in the default mode network at some level
because meditation to me oftentimes involves
paying attention to some sort of perceptual target.
Maybe you could eventually explain
how it might do that or why it might.
Yeah, and I don’t think it’s the whole story
because obviously outward going attention is not,
even if you’re having the kind of egoic saccade
that I’m talking about where you’re like,
you’re actually not clearly aware of yourself.
You’re not clearly defining yourself
as separate from experience
for the moment of paying attention.
So you are sort of losing yourself in your work.
That’s not the same thing as having
the clear meditative insight of selflessness
that I’m claiming is the goal of meditation.
But there is a, you know, to wind back
to the original point I was making
and the reason why I drew the analogy to visual saccades,
I do think there’s a continuous interruption
in our sense of self that goes unrecognized.
And, but the conscious acquisition
of the understanding that the self is an illusion
is a different experience.
And it’s because you’re then focusing on this absence.
Actually, there’s another analogy to the visual system
that applies here, which is to the optic blind spot.
I mean, it’s like, so, which is a good analogy for me
because it cuts through a bunch of false assumption
as to where that you would look for this
or how this relates to ordinary experience.
So as many people know that we have in both eyes,
we have what’s called the blind spot,
which is a consequence of the optic nerve
transiting through the retina.
I mean, unlike cephalopods, I think,
I mean, I think cephalopods have their optic nerve,
you know, as, you know, an omniscient being
would have engineered it connecting the retina from the back
and therefore there is no blinds,
the area of blindness associated with its transit
back through the retina.
Photoreceptors on the outside.
Humans, for whatever reason, put photoreceptors,
well, I always say I wasn’t consulted the design phase,
something put a photoreceptors combination of things,
but photoreceptors in the back.
And so you actually have to send the highway of information
through the pixel center of the eye.
Yeah, cephalopods and Drosophila,
The design is more at its face logical.
Mammals, very illogical design,
at least as far as our judgments go.
But it gives me a good analogy.
So I’ll take it.
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So in any case, we have this blind spot,
which you can, I think most people learn this in school,
although my daughters had not been taught this in school.
I just showed them this for the first time
like a month ago, which, and they were briefly fascinated.
And then they want to return to their screen time.
But anyway, you can take a piece of paper
and you make two marks on it,
and then you cover one eye and you fixate on one mark.
I mean, you can look this up online
if you need details about how to do this.
And while staring at one fixation point,
you move the paper back and forth
and you can get it to a place
where the other mark disappears.
And you can run this experiment long enough
to satisfy yourself that there is in fact a blind spot
in your visual field, which with one eye closed,
you don’t normally notice.
The reason why you have to cover one eye
is because each eye compensates
for the blind spot of the other.
So, but which is to say that if you close one eye
and survey the visual scene,
something really is missing, whatever you’re looking at.
If you’re looking at a crowd of people,
somebody is missing a head and you’re not noticing it.
And it’s not easy to notice because,
you know, the brain doesn’t tend
to vividly represent the absence of information.
I mean, it’s just like,
it’s just part of the game that’s not being rendered.
It’s not showing up as a break in the visual field.
It’s just not there.
And you’re, I mean, people have argued
that there’s a kind of filling in phenomenon that happens,
but I think that can be misunderstood or exaggerated.
But the eye movements themselves that you described before,
I guess I should say that the saccade analogy
of about transiently and repetitively erasing the self
works perfectly here because indeed micro saccades,
little smaller saccades that occur all the time
also prevent our eyes from fixating at one location
for long enough to observe our blind spot,
even if one eye is closed.
So if we, the experiments done with paralytics
to essentially lock eyes at one location,
basically things just start disappearing.
We’d all love to think that we’d start hallucinating,
but actually we start going blind.
And those experiments have been done.
And on humans, I hear they’re quite terrifying.
But I mean, you can do that for yourself too.
It just, you know, it begins to just all melt away
in a warm glow, no psychedelics required.
But the interesting point there is that
when you ask yourself, okay, so this,
because of the, as a consequence of the eye’s anatomy,
there’s this thing you can see
that is absent from your experience.
But the question is, where is that in relationship
to the rest of you, to your mind?
Is that deep within, or is that in some sense
right on the surface of experience?
And there’s this expectation that people have,
again, I think conflating meditation
with a search for changes in the context of consciousness.
They’re looking for, you know,
much more subtle things to notice about the mind
or much, you know, vaster things to notice.
Psychedelics sets up this expectation that, you know,
you do, you know, a massive dose of mushrooms or LSD
and everything changes.
I mean, you just get this full, you know,
beatific vision and you get not only visual changes,
but, you know, emotional changes
and you get synesthesia where you’re like,
you’re just, you have much more mind in so many ways.
So they begin, having these experiences
or reading the mystical literature,
you begin to think, okay, well then freedom
is really elsewhere, or it’s really, it’s deep within.
It’s like, it’s not coincident with the ordinary awareness
that can see this coffee cup clearly
and that can just transition attention to, you know,
reading an email with a sort of full sobriety
of just, you know, ordinary waking consciousness.
But the truth is this insight into selflessness,
this insight into the non-duality of subject and object
is as close to ordinary consciousness
as this insight into the optic blind spot.
Like where do you have to go
to have this insight into the blind spot?
No, you just have to, you don’t have to go anywhere.
You just have to set up the experiment correctly
such that, you know, you can see the data,
but the data’s right on the surface.
It’s like, it’s almost too close to you to notice.
I mean, if it’s at all hard to notice,
it’s because it’s so close
rather than it’s, you know, deep within or far away.
And there are other analogies like,
I don’t know if you remember those mind’s eye
pieces of artwork that were the random dot stereograms
where you have an image that pops out.
I always find it very difficult to see those
because I have a very dominant eye, you know,
but some people-
People can’t see those.
These are these images that used to be
at the kind of like touristy shops.
People would say, oh, there it is, the whale.
And I’m thinking, I don’t see it.
You know, kids that swim a lot when they’re younger
and they tend to breathe just to one side.
I don’t know if this was you, this was definitely me.
They tend to, will keep one eye closed.
You set up a pretty strong ocular dominance
biasing your vision to one or the other eye early in life,
whether or not you’re learning how to be a bow hunter
or you’re learning how to throw darts or shoot billiards
or anything involves selectively viewing the world
through one eye for even a couple of hours
can set up a permanent asymmetry
in the weighting of visual flow,
flow of visual information from the eye to the brain.
It’s reversible, but only through the reverse gymnastics
of covering up the other eye intentionally.
So I actually be, I had to be reverse patched for a while
because I was seeing double because I lost binocular vision.
I don’t stand a chance in hell
of seeing an image pop out of a random top stereo,
which is kind of ironic
because I did my PhD on binocular circuitry.
But nonetheless, if people can see these
or if they can’t,
I think they provide a really terrific example
of what you’re talking about as a larger theme,
which is that perceptually you see a bunch of dots
and then all of a sudden what you thought wasn’t there
are suddenly there, but can just disappear again.
Or there are certain visual illusions,
if we were to include others,
that once you see them, you cannot unsee them.
So there’s the faces, vases, figure ground type stuff.
And then there’s sort of ocular competition.
You show two different images to the eyes,
each of the two eyes.
It is near impossible for people
to perceive them both simultaneously.
So it’s a little bit of what you’re describing.
I mean, these seem to be fundamental features
about the way the neural circuits are organized,
that they don’t want to stay fixated
on any one thing for very long.
To do so either takes training, intense interest,
intense fear, intense excitement.
When I say intense, I guess I come back to this idea
that the autonomic nervous system
is somehow governing our ability
to spotlight at any one location for very long.
Is that a useful framework
or is that going to take us down a different path?
Well, it’s sort of a different path for this.
The only point I was making is that
the seemingly paradoxical claim
that something can be right on the surface
and yet hard to see, right?
So there are things that are,
because it’s, and again,
this seems to justify the expectation held by,
I would think, the vast majority of people
who get interested in these spiritual things,
for lack of a better word,
that the truth must somehow be deep within, right?
Like there’s really like,
there’s some distance between where you’re,
between the one who is looking
and the thing that has to be found, right?
And you have to go through this long evolution of changes.
I mean, there’s many metaphors that set this up.
It’s like you’re at the base of a mountain
and you have to climb to the top.
And so you have to find the path,
however secure it is to get you there.
But there really is a distance
between where you’re,
between your starting point and the goal.
And what I’m arguing, you know,
and this is a kind of a non-dual,
to use a term of jargon,
is a non-dual approach to meditation
as opposed to a dualistic one.
That there really is a,
the path and the goal are coincident, right?
That there’s a,
that you have to unravel the logic
that you have to unravel the logic
by which you would seek something that’s outside of you,
you know, the present moment’s experience,
you know, i.e. not available,
really not available to you now.
Because so many things worth having,
so many skills worth acquiring
really are not available to you now.
It’s like, it’s like, you know,
if you want to be a pianist
or if you want to speak Chinese,
or if you want like, like the,
there’s something you don’t know
and then you want to learn that thing.
And there’s a whole process, right?
And you might not be capable of doing it, right?
You might, and, and real mastery is far away, right?
If you, if you’ve never hit a golf ball
and you want to hit a golf ball 300 yards straight, right?
You know, I can pretty much guarantee
you’re not going to do that initially
and you’re not going to do it, you know, on day two.
And you’re not going to do it reliably for the longest time.
And there’s real training, you know,
in front of you to be able to do that reliably.
And insight into, and really the core insight,
I mean, the insight that is, you know,
the core of, you know, the Buddha’s teaching
to take one, one historical example of this,
really is available now.
And it is not, I mean, you know,
granted it can be very hard won for people.
I mean, I had probably spent a year on silent retreat
in, in, you know, one week to three month increments
before I sort of got the point I’m making now, right?
So like, I, you know, it’s, it’s quite,
I mean, literally, and this is, these are, you know,
these are retreats where you spend, you know,
12 to 18 hours a day just meditating,
trying to, to, you know,
unpack the kinds of claims I’m, I’m, you know, making now.
So there, it’s, it’s possible to rigorously overlook this.
It’s possible to stand in front of the mind’s eye image
and stare in a way that is guaranteed
not to give you pop out, right?
And to be, to be adept at, you know, staring in that way.
So it’s possible to be misled.
And so what I’m, what I’m trying to argue here
is that there’s, there’s a fair amount of leverage
you can get with, with better information,
which can kind of cut the time course
of your searching for this thing
and, and, and kind of cancel your false expectations
about just where this is in relation
to your ordinary waking consciousness.
And it’s possible to get bad information
and to have a bunch of experiences.
You know, you go, you go and do an Ayahuasca trip
and you have, it’s incredibly valuable
and it’s valuable for all the ways
in which it changed the contents of your consciousness
in, in, you know, startling ways.
And you had insights into your past
and into your relationships
and into why you’re not as loving as you might be.
And there’s lots to think about.
And you’re like, okay, that’s all great.
That’s all something that, you know, you can,
you can talk about, but there is, it’s,
it truly is orthogonal.
I mean, if it makes a point of contact
to what I’m talking about, it’s really just at one point,
you know, and it’s at the point where
this sense of, of subject object division
in consciousness is illusory
and vulnerable to investigation.
And if you investigate it
as sort of the right plane of focus, you know,
you pick the analogy you want from, you know,
whether it’s, you know, setting up the, the,
the optic blind spot experiment in just the right way
so that you can see that, you know,
it’s actually not, the data is not there.
Or, I mean, the bistable percept is, is great because,
you know, when you see one of these images,
like the vase face diagram, or, you know, the Dalmatian,
you know, that it looks like just a mess of dots.
And then you see the image of a Dalmatian dog pop out.
Once you see it, you really can’t unsee it.
I mean, like once you have the, the requisite conceptual,
you know, anchor to it, then every time you look,
you’re going to find it again
and it eventually becomes effortless.
And that’s what ultimately meditation is.
I mean, this kind of meditation,
you ultimately learn to recognize
that there’s no separation from you,
between you and your experience, right?
There’s not the experience on the one hand
and the self on the other.
There’s just experience, right?
There’s just seeing, hearing, smelling,
tasting, touching, thinking, feeling,
you know, proprioception,
add whatever channels of information you want to that.
But there’s just the, there’s just the totality
of the energy of consciousness and its contents.
And there’s no, it’s not that you’re on the river bank.
And this is, this is how it can seem in the beginning,
even when you’re practicing meditation,
it can seem like you’re on the river bank,
watching the contents of consciousness flow by.
And then, and meditation is the act of doing that
more and more dispassionately.
So you’re no longer grabbing at the pleasant
or pushing the unpleasant away.
You’re just kind of relaxing
and in the most nonjudgmental frame of mind,
just witnessing the flow, right?
But if you’re doing that dualistically,
you feel like the meditator.
You feel like the subject aiming attention.
And so now you’re on the river bank,
watching everything go, go past.
But the truth is you are the river, right?
Experience itself is that there is just experience itself.
You’re not, you’re not on the edge of experience
and everything you can notice is part of the flow, right?
And there’s, and there’s no point from which
to abstract yourself away from the flow,
to stand outside it and to say, okay, this is,
this is my life.
This is my experience.
This is my body.
Yes, you can do that.
I mean, those are all just thoughts,
but that’s more of the flow, right?
And so there is a,
there’s a process by which you would eventually recognize
that there’s no distance between you and your experience.
And again, you can,
you can wait for those moments in life
where experience gets so good or so terrifying,
you know, or it’s just so salient, right?
Your amygdala is driving so hard.
I mean, so you’re in a war
and you can’t think about anything because the, you know,
the enemy is shooting at you
and this is the most thrilling video game
you’ve ever played in your life
and your life is on the line or you’re, you’re, you know,
at the peak of, of some, you know, athletic event
where there’s just,
you don’t know how you’re doing the things you’re doing,
but it’s all happening automatically, right?
But, you know, those are, those are, you know,
one 100th of 1% of one’s life, you know,
and, you know, what I’m calling meditation
is a way of simply understanding the mechanics of attention
whereby you are denying yourself
that unity of experience so much of the time
and recognizing that that’s, you know,
it’s based on a misperception
of the way consciousness always already is.
Well, if there wasn’t an incentive
to learn how to meditate properly,
that was one.
I’ve been meditating a fair amount since I was in my teens,
but more along the lines of just paying attention to breath
and, you know, recognize thoughts,
sort of observer, open observer type meditation
or focused attention,
I would suppose more of the focused attention type.
We’ll get into these a little bit later,
but I have a number of questions
related to what you just said.
I love the idea that this thing that we would all do well
to understand, to observe consciousness itself,
as opposed to trying to alter the contents of consciousness
may sit much closer to us than one might think that it,
and that because it sits so close to us
that that might be one of the reasons why we miss it.
I go right to a visual system example.
I mean, if you don’t, if you’re wearing corrective lenses
and there’s a spec on your lens, you know,
typically you’re looking out through the lens
and so you wouldn’t observe that spec.
Any number of different analogies could work here.
The fact that there are states,
however few positive and negative ecstasy,
extreme ecstasy and extreme fear
being the two, I think, most obvious ones
that seems like we agree on
that allow us to capture the sense of completeness of self
or the unity of the observer and the actor.
The fact that those are seldom for the non-trained,
for the non-meditator, suggests to me two things.
I think one perhaps worth exploring more than the other,
but one is that what’s really being revealed
in the states where we can feel the unity
of the observer and the actor
is understanding something fundamental about the algorithm,
not the online algorithm,
but the algorithm that is our nervous system.
Just as you mentioned cephalopods,
mantis shrimp see an enormous array of color hues
that we don’t, right?
Their maps and representations of the world
are fundamentally different.
Pit vipers see in the infrared.
We’re restricted to somewhat of a limited range
within the color spectrum,
but still more vast than that of dogs or cats.
Okay, so understanding that for seeing
what a pit viper can see for moments
would be informative, perhaps sensing heat emissions
as a human might be invasive,
then maybe that’s why we don’t do it.
So the question is, to just make it straightforward,
is why would the system be designed this way?
Again, neither of us were consulted the design phase,
but that brings me to perhaps the more tractable question
which is about development.
I mean, I’m a great believer that the neural circuits
that encouraged healthy parent-child relations
or unhealthy parent-child relations,
as the case may be in childhood,
stem from the initial demands
of internal versus external states,
which is exactly that we’re talking about,
which is that a young child feels anxious
because it needs its diaper changed.
It doesn’t really know it needs its diaper change
or it’s cold, or it’s uncomfortable,
or it’s hungry, or it’s overly full.
And so it vocalizes and then some external source
comes to us and relieves that hopefully, right?
And so the fundamental rule that we first learn
is not that we have a self or that things fall down, not up,
but is that when uncomfortable externalize that discomfort
and it will be relieved by an outside player.
And then of course, there’s a repurposing of that circuitry
for adult romantic attachments.
I don’t think anyone doubts that.
And that can explain a lot indeed
about attachment and so forth.
So something about our developmental wiring
and the algorithms that these neural circuits run
tend to bias most people, the non-practice meditators,
to live a somewhat functional life, at least,
without this awareness of actor and observer.
And so what you’re really talking about
is a deliberate intervention to understand
and resolve that gap in the algorithm.
Do I have that right?
I’m more or less restating what you said
in a way that I’m hoping will serve as a jumping off point
as to why questions are always very dangerous in biology
or any, you know, and-
Or in relationship.
Or in relationship.
Or in relationship, right, exactly.
Although I think it all does really harken back
to this early developmental wiring,
which of course is modifiable.
That’s the beauty of the nervous system
is it’s the one organ that seems to be able to change itself
at least to some degree.
So what are your thoughts about the organization
of the circuitry to essentially under normal conditions
to not reveal what seems to be
one of its more important and profound
and for, you know, dare I say, enlightening features, right?
It’s almost as if we are potentially like mantis shrimp.
We can see so many more colors than we actually see,
and yet we don’t.
We sort of opt, most people opt not to.
And I would argue that one of the great strengths
of the waking up app, for instance,
that it essentially walks you through the process
of being able to arrive at these things
without having to go do one year or three year
long silent meditation retreats.
So if you could just elaborate for a moment
before we move on about, you know,
what are your thoughts about how the circuitry
is arranged by default versus the,
and what that means for there to be an intervention
that we have to intervene in the self
in order to reveal the self?
Well, so the two big questions there,
one about evolution, one about development.
So with respect to evolution, I mean,
it’s important to recognize that evolution
doesn’t see our deepest concerns about human flourishing
and human wellbeing, you know.
It’s all about the awesome.
It’s just, you know, we are set up to spawn
and to survive long enough to help our progeny spawn
if we can do that.
And that’s it, right?
And so anything that was good for that,
including, you know, tribalism and xenophobia
and, you know, all kinds of hardware and software flaws
that reveal themselves to be flaws in the present time
when we’re trying to build a viable global civilization.
But, you know, they redounded to the advantage
of our ancestors somehow, or they just,
there are things about us that we’re simply not selected for.
They just kind of came along for the ride.
You know, what Stephen J. Gould called a spandrel,
you know, so we are not set up by evolution
to be as happy as we possibly can be.
And certainly, and to do almost anything
that interests us well.
I mean, we’re not set up by evolution
to be mathematicians or musicians
or to create democracies that are healthy.
I mean, evolution can see none of this.
And we’re doing these things based on cognitive
and emotional hardware that we’re leveraging
in new directions, right?
I mean, we have, we are primates and we are, you know,
we’re communicating with, you know, small mouth noises.
I mean, we’re language using primates
and all of that is clearly evolved.
And we’re doing these amazing things, including science,
you know, however improbably we’re actually able to,
you know, almost entirely with language,
understand reality that at a scale
that exceeds us in both directions.
I mean, the very vast and the very small
and, you know, also temporally, the very old.
We have, you know, visions of the far future.
We can figure out, you know, where, you know,
an asteroid is gonna, you know, cross earth’s orbit
a thousand years from now, if we just do the math.
And it’s amazing that we can do all of those things,
but evolution is blind to all of that, right?
And so we have, in terms of what we care about
and certainly in terms of what we,
what’s gonna ensure our survival as a species,
we have flown the perch that was created for us by evolution.
I mean, we’re just not, it’s not just the primate things.
And so, so it is with learning how to regulate our emotions
and, you know, punch through to a self-concept
or beyond a self-concept that is more normative
psychologically that allows us to, you know,
not be terrorized by our apish genes
as fully as we seem to be,
even in the presence of more and more destructive technology
that, I mean, like, you know,
we’re still practically chimpanzees
armed with nuclear weapons, right?
I mean, and that is, you know, increasingly dysfunctional.
And very soon we’re gonna be in the presence of minds
or apparent minds that we have built, you know,
that are as intelligent as we are or, and very quickly,
you know, probably 15 minutes after that,
far more intelligent than we are.
And so what we do with all of that is again,
something that we have to figure out
based on the minds we have, the minds we can build,
the minds we can change, you know,
we can meddle with our own genomes now
and that will produce its own consequences, you know,
in ourselves and in future generations,
if we meddle with the germline.
And again, all of that is just, you know,
evolution is just sort of the womb we came out of,
but it’s not, it didn’t anticipate any of that, right?
So, you know, mother nature has simply not had
our best interests at heart, right?
And we might die off and from the point of view
of mother nature, that’s fine
because 99% of every species dies off, you know?
So there’s that, but when you’re talking about
the individual developmentally,
so, you know, we all come into this world again,
as a fairly hairless primate
that needs a tremendous amount of care by others.
And the logic of that is that, you know,
you know, the reason why we’re not a gazelle
that can run, you know, 45 minutes later
and then basically do all the gazelle things
perfectly soon thereafter,
the reason why we have, you know,
we have this time of immaturity
and that becomes, has become functional for us
is that it’s just, we’re far more flexible
and we can learn based on the needs of an environment
to do, you know, so much more than a gazelle can.
And language is a part of that.
And, you know, in the last 10,000 years or so,
culture increasingly has been more and more a part of that.
And there’s probably a layer at which we can plausibly
talk about cultural evolution, you know,
and cultural evolution interacting
with biological evolution to change us.
But when you’re talking about the development
of an individual, each of us comes into this world,
I think, not recognizing ourselves in any sense
that would make sense to reify.
I mean, it’s not that there’s nothing there.
I mean, there could be some kind
of proto self differentiation,
but I think it takes a long while
and there is very likely a coincidence
between really recognizing others.
We recognize others first
and we’re certainly in relationship immediately
and we orient to human faces and we, you know,
even detect other humans as good
and bad moral actors very early.
I mean, certainly long before we recognize ourselves
in a mirror, the experiments run again,
this is Paul Bloom and colleagues experiments run
on kind of the moral hardware
and software of developing toddlers.
But I think at this point, they push it down all the way
to like six months of age where you’ll get these infants
staring at kind of a puppet show
and they’ll show a greater interest
in classically good actors versus bad actors,
you know, cooperators versus defectors
in various puppet show games.
So there’s, it’s not that we have no mind
and no proto awareness of others and of self,
but what eventually happens certainly
as we become at all facile with language use
is that we become aware that not only are we
in relationship to others,
but we are an object in the world for them, right?
So that like we have enough people pointing at us
in our cribs, right?
And impinging upon our experience, right?
You know, you’re being physically moved
and prodded and touched and consoled or not consoled.
And just imagine what all of these,
you’re on the receiving end of 10,000 interventions, right?
And you’re completely helpless for the longest time.
And all of that attention,
you have all of these people coming up, you know,
to the crib and making faces at you.
Cheering for you.
Yeah, and it’s all pointed at you, right?
So there’s a, you know,
there’s a classic magical narcissism
that gets constructed there.
If you take the psychological literature, you know,
at least a certain strand of it seriously.
And I think it’s largely apt to think of a child
at that age as a kind of,
there’s a kind of narcissistic structure there
where it’s all kind of going inward.
And at a certain point you realize,
okay, I’m the center of all of this, right?
Like it’s not just a movie that you’re, you know,
where you’re completely absorbed in
and you’ve lost your sense of self.
I mean, this is to talk to yet another example
of what it’s like as a grownup to lose our sense of self.
And one of the things I think we find so fascinating
by television and film is that
when we get totally absorbed in it,
we’re in this very unusual circumstance where we’re,
you know, our brain is basically reading it
as we’re in the classic social circumstance.
We’re presented with, you know,
the facial displays of other people.
In fact, you know, we can get some of the,
sometimes these people are 10 feet tall, right?
Or their faces are 10 feet tall.
You leave a closeup in a movie theater.
So it’s like this super stimulus in terms of evolution.
And they could be making direct eye contact
with a camera, right?
So you have this gigantic face staring at you
and yet you’re totally unimplicated socially.
You can’t be seen.
And something about you, you know you can’t be seen.
And so you’re completely,
you completely lose self-consciousness
and yet you’re able to examine
with completely free attention,
again, because you’re totally unimplicated,
the facial minutiae and the mimetic facial play of people
at a very close range.
I mean, you’re seeing people close.
I mean, you’d have to be, you know, physically just,
you know, about to kiss your spouse.
Like that’s what a closeup is in a film, right?
Like that, you never get that close to people, right?
And yet here you’re in a situation where you’re unobserved
and you know that.
And so, I mean, this is a bit of a tangent,
but it’s the other side of what’s happening
developmentally for a kid.
When you’re in a movie theater watching a movie,
you are truly invisible and yet you’re right there
seeing, you know, however harrowing the human drama is,
you’re seeing it play out and you’re seeing it up close.
And it is in principle, a social encounter
that your genes are ready for,
but they’re not ready for you to be invisible, right?
And so that’s, what’s so magical about it.
But what happens developmentally for a kid
is that you’re not invisible.
You are an object that is constantly being overrun.
The boundaries of your sensory engagement with the world
are constantly being impinged upon by others.
And at a certain point you recognize,
okay, I’m at the center of this.
And the way this gets enshrined as a self,
I think is probably coincident
with our learning the language game.
We learn to play with others.
We’re talking to others.
People are talking to us.
And at a certain point, we’re talking to ourselves
even when the other people leave the room, right?
So, and you can hear if you ever have been with a toddler
when they’re externalizing their self-talk,
you hear them talking to themselves,
they’re playing and they’re having a conversation.
They were talking to you, the parent,
but then you left the room and they’re still talking.
You come back in and they’re still talking, right?
And what happens to us, strangely,
and this comes back to the logic of evolution,
we never stop because evolution never thought
to build us an off switch for this, right?
I mean, language is so useful
and it gets tuned up so strongly for us.
And there was never a reason to shut it off, right?
There was never a reason to give you this ability to say,
oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have four hours of quiet now
and like no self-talk.
And so for most of us, I mean, I think there are people
who for whatever neurological reason
or idiosyncratic reason,
undoubtedly there’d be a neurological reason for it,
don’t have any self-talk.
But for most of us, we are covertly talking
basically all the time.
And there’s an imagistic component of this for many people,
you’re visualizing things as well,
but there’s just a ton of white noise in the mind
that feels a certain way.
And what you discover in meditation ultimately
is that the self is what it feels like to be thinking
without knowing that you’re thinking, right?
A thought arises uninspected
and seems to just become you, right?
So like you and I are talking now
and people are listening to us,
they’re struggling to follow the train of this conversation
because it is competing with the conversation
that’s happening in their heads, right?
So I’ll be saying something
and a person listening will say,
well, what does that mean?
Or like, oh, but wait a minute, he just contradicted himself
or like, and there’s a voice in your head
that is also vying for your attention much of the time.
And so it’s, the first discovery people make in meditation
is that it’s just so hard to pay attention to anything,
the breath or a mantra or a sound, whatever it is,
because you’re thinking every,
you’re thinking about the thing you need to do in an hour
and oh, it’s so good that I downloaded this app.
And I’m like, oh, this is really good.
This is gonna be good for me.
But that chatter isn’t showing up.
You’re not far back enough
in the kind of the theater of consciousness
so as to see it emerge.
It is just sneaking up behind you
and it feels like me again, right?
It feels like when someone is thinking the thought,
well, what the hell does that mean, right?
They’re not seeing it as an emerging object
in consciousness, it just feels like me.
It just feels that that’s, it is,
subjectively, it’s like the mind contracts
around this appearance in consciousness.
And it really is just, it is just a,
it’s just a sound with the voice of the mind.
If you actually can inspect it,
it is deeply inscrutable
that we ever feel identified with our thoughts.
I mean, how is it that we could be a thought?
These thoughts, a thought just arises and passes away.
And when you inspect it, when you go to inspect it,
it’s, you know, it unravels,
it’s just, it’s the least substantial possible thing.
And it could, but yet it could be a thought of self-hatred.
You know, it could be a thought that unrecognized
totally defines your mood.
You know, it’s like,
I mean, just again, this all can seem kind of abstract, but.
But I think it’s extremely concrete
from the perspective of the neural circuits
that we’ll return to maybe in a few minutes.
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If you could elaborate a bit on this notion
of internal chatter and external stimuli
and the bridge between them,
because I think that for some people
that might be intuitive.
I think for others it’s not so obvious
that language is ongoing in the backdrop.
Because sometimes, I think some people
are more tuned into that language.
For some people it’s louder volume.
For some people it’s more structured.
I have a colleague at Stanford
who’s been on this podcast called Diceroth,
who’s like one of the preeminent bioengineers,
he’s also a psychiatrist,
and he doesn’t call it a meditative practice,
but he has a practice where each evening
after his five kids are put down to sleep,
they’re older now,
but in the quiet of the late hours
of the night, early morning,
he sits and forces himself to think in complete sentences
with punctuation for an hour.
This is the way that he has taught himself
to structure his thinking
because of the very fact that you’re describing,
which is that ordinarily there is an underlying structure
to what’s internal,
but it’s disrupted by external events
and typically it’s not coherent enough
to really make meaning from.
So it’s almost like somebody sitting down
to write in complete sentences,
but forcing himself to do it in his head.
But for many people, including myself,
that’s a foreign experience
and we only experience structure
through our interactions with the world and other people.
That if I’ve taken the time to try and explore ideas
with eyes closed and I’ve been able to do that,
there are certain pharmacologic states
that we could talk about that facilitate that.
And no, those are not amphetamines.
Those do exactly the opposite, by the way.
But I think people exist in varying degrees
of structured and unstructured internal dialogue
and in varying depths of recognition
of that internal dialogue.
And so the question I suppose is,
is just the recognition that there’s a dialogue
ongoing internally, is that itself valuable?
Yeah, and that also can take some time.
So here’s a claim I would make
that some people might find surprising,
but I think this is an objectively true claim
about the subjectivity of most people,
which is that unless you have a fair amount of training,
unless you just happen to be some kind of savant
in this area, which most people by definition aren’t,
or you have a remarkable amount of training
in what’s called concentration practice in meditation,
I believe this is a true claim
that if we just put a stopwatch on this table
and people could just watch 30 seconds elapse.
And I set all of our listeners or viewers the task
for the next 30 seconds, just pay attention to anything,
your breath, or the sight of your hand
or the sight of the clock or any object
without getting lost in thought,
without getting momentarily distracted
by this conversation you’re having with yourself.
This couple of things would happen.
One is no one would be able to do it, right?
And this is not just a superficial inability.
I mean, if your life’s dependent on it,
you wouldn’t be able to do it.
I mean, if the fate of civilization depended on it,
none of our listeners would be able to do this.
And yet some percentage of them are so distracted by thought
that they will actually try this experiment
and think they succeeded, right?
And for these people, what happens is you put them
on a meditation retreat and you have them spend 12 hours
a day in silence doing nothing but this, right?
So the practice is just pay attention to the breath
when they’re sitting.
And then eventually you incorporate everything,
sounds and other sensations.
And then you interleave that with walking meditation
where they’re paying attention just to the sensations
of lifting and moving and placing their feet.
And then once the practice is going,
you incorporate sounds and sights and everything.
But so you can pay attention to everything,
but the goal is for every moment
you are going to cultivate this faculty of mind,
which increasingly is known as mindfulness, right?
So, and mindfulness is nothing other
than this very careful attention
to the contents of consciousness.
But the crucial piece is,
it is not a moment of being lost in thought, right?
You’re not blocking thoughts.
Thoughts themselves can arise,
but in those moments of being truly mindful,
you’re noticing thoughts as thoughts,
whether it’s language in the mind or images,
you’re noticing those two
as spontaneous appearances in consciousness.
So if most people,
certainly anyone who thinks they can pay attention to,
they can do the experiment successfully
that I just suggested,
pay attention to something for 30 seconds
without being lost in thought.
You put those people on a meditation retreat,
what they’re going to experience is,
on the first day,
they’re going to feel like,
oh yeah, I was, you know,
I was with the breath or I was walking,
you know, I was with the sensations of walking
and I’d be there for like five minutes,
you know, solid,
and then I would get lost in thought.
Then I’d come back, you know,
five more minutes,
I’d be lost in thought and then get back.
But as the day has progressed, you know,
even, you know,
10 days into a silent meditation retreat,
they’re going to experience more and more distraction.
They’re going to, it’s going to seem like,
okay, wait a minute.
Now I can’t pay attention to anything
for more than five seconds, right?
That is progress, right?
Because what they’re discovering
is just how distractible they are, right?
And, you know, so some,
for some people that will be immediately obvious,
for some people it’ll actually take a lot of practice
to realize just how distracted they are.
What you just said,
which was that at some point
we can start noticing our thoughts.
I can notice my thoughts,
but what you’re talking about is as a goal state
is not being distracted by thoughts,
but actually seeing the relationship between thoughts,
self and other types of perceptions.
And here I think recognizing and seeing thoughts
is a form of perception.
It’s just an internally directed perception.
This raises a topic that I’m also obsessed by,
which I think neuroscience can somewhat explain,
but still incompletely that the circuits and mechanics,
et cetera, are not yet known,
which is about time perception.
And, you know, a simple analogy would be
that there are a lot of small objects flying around
in the space that we happen to be having this discussion,
but they’re moving so fast that I can’t perceive them
or they’re entirely stationary.
So I can’t perceive them
because of the reasons we talked about before
in the visual system.
My eyes are moving in perfect concert
with these small object movements,
and therefore I am blind to them.
A slight shift in time perception,
think of this perhaps as a change in the frame rate,
my camera frame rates, faster frame rate,
you can capture slow motion, slower frame rate,
you’re going to get more of a strobe type effect
if the frame rate is low enough.
Could it be that our time perception is not one thing,
but we have one rate of perceiving time
for external objects at a given distance,
which we know is true.
Another frame rate for objects that are up close,
we know this to be true,
even if those objects are moving
at the exact same speed, right?
I mean, this would be the sitting on a train,
the rungs on the fence seem to be going by very, very fast,
but the ones in the distance seem to be moving slowly.
This is the way the visual system
and time perception interconnect at some level.
You’re up on a skyscraper,
the little ants of cars and people down below,
you know they’re moving much faster
than you perceive them to move,
but it’s a distance effect.
I mean, you see a plane,
it’s could be going 300 miles an hour.
And it’s not because of the lack of resolution.
The lack of resolution is incidental.
We know this because in animals such as hawks
that have twice the degree of acuity,
as far as we know,
they have the same distance associated shifts
in time perception.
So could it be that we are running multiple streams
of time perception, multiple cones of attention
that include cones of attention to our thoughts
and that somehow through meditation,
we start to align the frame rate
for these different streams of attention
so that they all fall into the same movie, if you will,
although it’s not just a movie with visual content.
What I’m doing here is clearly I’m becoming a lumper
rather than a splitter.
I’m sure this violates certain rules
of time perception, neural circuitry,
but I’m not sure that it’s entirely untrue either.
And does it survive at all as a possible model
for what you’re describing?
And if the answer is no,
I’m perfectly comfortable with that.
Well, it’s dependent on what you mean by meditation.
This is where you sort of the particularities
of what one is doing with one’s attention
under the frame of meditation really matter
because there are ways to practice mindfulness
in particular where the frame rate
really does seem to go way, way up, right?
And there’s actually been some research done on this
where you take people before and after
a three month silent meditation retreat
and you give them some kind of visual discrimination task
where they have to like detect,
I think they used a tachistoscope.
Is that the tool for it?
There’s something that presents,
you know, like very quick pulses of light.
And in any case, you can discriminate
just in any sensory channel, I would imagine,
you can make finer grain discriminations
if you’re practicing mindfulness in a very specific way,
which is to be making these fine grain discriminations
more and more and do nothing else
for three months, which is a way of practicing.
So the classic mindfulness practice
in what’s called Vipassana meditation
is to pay scrupulous attention to seeing,
hearing, smelling, tasting, touching
in a way that breaks everything down
into this kind of microscopic sensory moments.
So, you know, you’re, rather than feel your, you know,
your hands pressing together,
what you’re trying to feel with your attention
and you’re feeling more and more
is all of the micro sensations of pressure
and temperature and movement
such that the feeling of hands completely disappears.
You realize that a hand is a concept
and all you have is this cloud of punctate
and very brief sensations.
And so anything you think you have as a datum of experience
as you bore into it with your attention,
it resolves into this kind of diaphanous cloud
of changing sensation.
And that can be even something as captivating
as like a, you know, a serious pain in your body.
I mean, you could have like, you know,
you could have injured your neck, you know,
and so you have some excruciating pain in your neck.
If you just are willing to pay attention to it, you know,
and just pay a hundred percent attention to it,
your, a couple of things happen.
One is your resistance to feeling it goes away by definition
because you’re now your goal is just pay attention to it.
And you recognize that so much of the suffering
associated with the pain was born of a,
of the resistance to feeling it.
You’re kind of, you’re bracing against it
and all of your thinking about it, you know,
you’re thinking like, well, why did I do this to myself?
Should I see an orthopedist or why,
how long is this going to last?
And you’re, you know, maybe I herniated a disc,
like all of that self-talk is producing anxiety.
And, you know, I’m not saying there’s never anything
to think about there, but, you know,
either you can do something about it in the moment
or you can’t.
And so much of our suffering in the presence of pain
is the result of resisting it, worrying about it.
Think it’s just all of the,
everything we’re doing with our minds,
but just feeling it, right?
So when you just feel it, again, it breaks apart
into this ever-shifting collection of different sensations.
And it’s not one thing and it never stays the same.
And it’s, and so there’s two things happen there.
One is there can be a tremendous amount of relief
that happens there where you can achieve a level
of equanimity, even in the presence of really unpleasant,
you know, physical sensation.
And this is true of mental sensation as well.
So it’s true of emotions, you know,
the classically negative emotions like anger or depression
or, you know, fear.
The moment you become willing to just feel them
in all of their, you know, punctate and changeable qualities
they cease to be what they were a moment ago.
They’re just there.
And they, when you’re talking about emotional states,
they cease to map back onto you and your self-concept
as meaningful in the same way.
So that suddenly, you know, the anxiety you feel,
let’s say before going out on stage to give a talk,
you know, a moment ago, it was, it had psychological meaning.
It felt like, you know, okay, I’m anxious.
How do I get rid of this?
You know, why am I this sort of person?
Why, you know, should I have taken a beta blocker?
You know, this is the conversation
you’re having with yourself.
The moment you just become willing to feel it
as the pure energy of the physiology of, you know,
of cortisol release, it ceases to have any meaning.
It just, it ceases to be a problem in that moment
because it’s no more, it no more maps
onto the kind of person you are
than a feeling of indigestion or a pain in your knee
maps onto the kind of person you are.
It’s just, it’s just sensation.
Anyway, but back to the main point here,
which is that if you train your attention in this way
to notice the particularities of sensory experience
and emotional experience, like you’re looking
for the atoms of experience, you know,
you get better and better at that.
And certain things happen.
But one thing that, you know,
one thing that I really do think happens
is there’s a kind of frame rate change in,
in the data stream where you really are just,
you’re just noticing much, much more.
All of that is a very interesting way of training.
It’s not what I tend to recommend now.
It’s a great preliminary practice for what I do recommend
because it gives you, it really teaches you the difference
between being lost and thought and not.
It really teaches you what mindfulness is,
but it tends to be done, you know,
by 99.9% of people in a dualistic way,
which you’re, again, you’re, you’re, you’re set up to think,
okay, I’m over here as the locus of attention, you know,
and I’m continually getting distracted by thought.
And the project is to not do that anymore
and actually pay attention to the breath
and sounds and sensations.
And, and every time I get lost in thought,
I’m going to go back to here,
but this whole dance of I’m lost in thought.
Now I’m, now I’m strategically directing my attention again.
All of this seems to ramify this sense of self,
the sense of there’s one to be doing this.
There’s somebody holding the spotlight of attention
and getting better at coming back
to the object of meditation.
Again, it’s inevitable that 99.9% of people
are going to start there and stay there
for some considerable period of time.
But the thing I like to do when I talk about all of this
is undercut the false assumptions
that are anchoring all of that as early as possible,
because where I think you want to be
is recognizing that there is no place
from which to aim attention, right?
This whole dualistic setup of subject and object
is the thing that is already not there.
And it’s not that you, it’s not that it’s there
and you meditated out of existence successfully.
It’s really not there.
And if you, if you learn how to look for it,
you can see that it’s not there and feel that it’s not there
and it no longer seems to be there, right?
It’s like, it’s not, and it becomes like, again,
like a bistable percept where you looked at it long enough
and you thought, okay, now I see the vase and the face
and I can’t unsee it.
And every time I look, it’s there again, right?
And so, yeah, I mean, so to come back to the example
you gave with your colleague at Stanford,
whose book I know I have, I haven’t read it.
This is a, he wrote a book, Projections, right?
So it’s on my stack to read, but it’s the opposite.
What I’m recommending essentially the opposite end
of the continuum of the sort of internal exercise
he was doing.
So rather than, so, you know,
he’s doing something very deliberate and controlled
and he is deliberately thinking in complete sentences
and kind of commandeering the machinery of thought
and attention in a way that I would imagine,
I mean, I’d be interested to talk to him about it,
but I would imagine he really feels like he’s doing that,
Well, he’s an engineer.
As you describe it in this way, it reminds me,
he’s a physician, but he’s also an engineer.
So it’s really about taking the raw materials of thought
and engineering something structured from it.
I think, you know, I haven’t been in Carl’s mind.
Yeah, but if we got him talking on that,
I’m sure we would get a sense of what it is.
We’ll do that conversation at some point.
So it’s the exact opposite of what you’re describing.
The exact opposite would be to recognize
that the sense of control is a total illusion, right?
It could, because you don’t know
what you’re going to think next, right?
And even he, in the most laborious way, I mean,
he could just get as muscular as he wants with it.
He still doesn’t know what he’s going to think next,
Because thoughts simply arise, right?
Like, you know, you can run this experiment for yourself
and this connects up to the topic of free will,
which we might want to touch.
But, I mean, just think of any category of thing.
You know, if I asked you to think of, you know,
the names of cities or of, you know, friends you have
or of famous people you can, you know, remember exist
or think of nouns or, you know, anything.
And just watch what comes percolating
into consciousness, right?
Now, there are things you can’t think of, right?
There are things you don’t know the name of.
You know, there are languages you don’t speak.
There are famous people you’ve never seen
or never heard of, right?
So you have no control over that part.
Like those names and faces are not going
to suddenly come streaming into consciousness.
But of the totality of facts and figures and faces
and names that you do know, right?
Only some will come vying for inclusion, right?
And they’re not, and there’s a sort of, you know,
we could make guess that we know something
about the neurology of this, but we, you know,
depending on what channel you’re waiting for thoughts in.
I mean, it’s going to be different if it’s visual
or semantic or episodic memory.
I mean, all of these things are different,
but wherever you kind of point your inner gaze
of attention and wait for the next face or name,
certain things are going to come
and certain things aren’t going to come.
And how you land on one, right?
So it’ll be this process.
If you’re paying attention, you might think,
we’ll say we go with names of cities, right?
You just say, you’ll think of Paris.
You’ll think of London.
You’ll think of Rome.
You’ll think of Sedona.
You’ll think like, so these names will come.
And if I ask you to just say one, right?
Minneapolis is what came to mind.
For me, it was very straightforward.
It was Minneapolis.
The famous person was Joe Strummer.
And they just, like, I can give you reasons
why I think those came to mind, recent conversations.
Okay, so we know a fair bit about much of this.
So one, we know that your reasons,
obviously could be right or wrong.
They’re very likely to be wrong
because we have this sort of confabulatory
storytelling mechanism, even in an intact brain
where we just, we seem to never lack
for the reasons why something came to mind.
And we can know we can manipulate people
in ways that prove that people are just reliably wrong
and confident, you know, confidently so
about the reasons why they thought of things or did things.
But leaving that aside,
even if you’re completely accurate, right?
There are people’s names who you know
and city’s names that you know
that inexplicably just didn’t come to mind.
And if we ran this experiment again and again and again,
they wouldn’t come to mind if your brain
was in precisely the state it was in a moment ago.
If we could return your brain to the state
it was in a moment ago,
correcting for, you know, all the deterministic changes
and all the random changes that would have to,
you know, be corrected for to just get all the synapses
and the synaptic weights and, you know,
everything in the state it was in
to produce Joe Strummer in Minneapolis, right?
You’re going to, if we rewind that movie,
that part of the movie of your life,
you’re going to say Joe Strummer in Minneapolis
a trillion times in a row, right?
So this is why, in my view,
the notion of free will makes absolutely no sense, right?
And you can add as much randomness
to that process as you want.
It still doesn’t get you the freedom
people think they have.
There’s another conversation to have about, you know,
why none of that matters and why things only get better
once you admit to yourself that free will is an illusion.
And yes, you can get in shape and you can diet
and you can do all the things you want to do
and you don’t have to think about free will.
But from a contemplative meditative point of view,
the thing to notice is that everything
is just springing into view, right?
You’re like, there’s no place from which you are authoring
your next thought because you would have to think it
before you think it, right?
Like there is just this fundamental mystery at our backs
that is disgorging everything that we experience.
What if I’m speaking?
So if I’m talking about something
and I have some command of that information,
I can often sense what I’m going to say next
and then find myself saying it.
Hopefully that’s what I’m saying, not something else.
I’ve certainly said things I didn’t intend to say
or never thought I would say in life,
but when engaged in speech or action,
it at least gives us the illusion, I think,
that we somehow have more command over our thoughts.
Well, you have a script.
I mean, it’s like there are things you know a lot about
and you’ve talked about them a lot
and you know you have the things you want to say
about those things and the things you don’t want to say
or you wouldn’t want to say.
And you know you can,
it still is a bit of a high wire act
because you can misspeak
or you can fail to get to the end of a sentence
in a grammatically correct way.
And again, all of this subjectively,
this whole process is mysterious to you, right?
Like you don’t know how you follow
the rules of English grammar, right?
Like your tongue is doing it somehow
and when it fails, it fails
and you’re just as surprised as the next guy that it failed.
And you mispronounce a word and,
okay, I don’t know what happened there,
but if it keeps happening,
I’m going to worry I had a stroke.
And if it stops, I’m not going to worry about it.
So it’s still mysterious,
even when you’re doing it in a very rote,
deliberative and repetitive way.
But when you’re talking about something
you’ve talked about a lot
and you know, you sort of know where you’re going to go, right?
Like, and this is, you know,
we have many conversations like this.
It is somewhat analogous to like a golf swing
where it’s like, you know how you want to do it.
There’s going to be all kinds of errors
that are going to creep into your execution of it
in real time.
But there’s like, you basically have a pattern.
And so you have certain linguistic patterns
which you’re following.
Again, none of this is a proof of free will,
but I will grant you that, you know,
phenomenologically it feels different
than just waiting for the next thought to come.
But my point is that even if you’re,
I mean, you can trim it down to the simplest possible thing.
I’m like, you take two things you like to drink, right?
You may, you like coffee and you like tea
and you’re deciding which to have, right?
Both are on offer.
You’ve got two cups in front of you.
And the question is, you know, which, you know,
or here I’ve got water and I’ve got coffee,
which am I going to drink next?
It’s incredibly, it’s the simplest possible decision.
And no matter how long I make this decision process,
I could literally sit for an hour trying to figure out
which to reach for next.
And I could have my reasons why,
and I could have all my self-talk.
There’s going to be a final change in me
that’s going to be the proximate cause
of me deciding one over the other.
And that no matter how laborious I can make it seem
in terms of my reasoning about it,
it is going to be fundamentally mysterious
as to why I went with one rather than the other, right?
Whatever story I have, because it’s like,
it’s still going to be as mysterious
as you thinking of Joe Strummer
when you absolutely, like,
you know of the existence of Marilyn Monroe just as much.
And yet she simply didn’t occur to you, right?
It’s like, it’s fundamentally mysterious.
Like there are people who are even more famous
than Joe Strummer to you, right?
Who, I mean, I’m sure he may be somebody
who you have thought a lot about,
but there are people who,
like if we could just inventory, you know,
your conscious life going back the last 10 years,
there are people who you’ve thought about
more than Joe Strummer, yet they didn’t appear, right?
So, and that’s, that is mysterious, right?
And they could have, but they didn’t.
And so, and what I’m saying is that
this mystery never gets banished in our experience,
whatever stories we have to tell about it.
Like, because if the story is,
oh, well, I went for the water
because I, you know,
I think I’ve been drinking too much coffee.
You know, I listened to Andrew Huberman’s podcast
and he was talking about caffeine
and I think I probably-
It’s good for us, but you don’t want to overdo it, yeah.
Okay, so let’s say that is actually the causal chain.
Like I listened to your podcast,
you said something about caffeine.
Now I’m self-conscious about my coffee intake, right?
But that’s just adding a couple of links to the chain.
There’s still this fundamental mystery of,
well, why did I find that persuasive?
And why did I find it persuasive now
and not five minutes ago when I was drinking the coffee?
Right, like, why did I just remember it now?
Or why was it effective now?
Like, you only have,
your experience in every moment
is precisely what it is and not one bit more.
Like, and this subsumes even moments of real resolve
and effort and, you know,
picking yourself up by your bootstraps
and changing everything.
It’s like, you’re on a diet
and you’re tempted to eat chocolate
and you think you’re about to reach,
and you say, no, I’m not breaking this diet.
This diet is actually going to stick, right?
Okay, why did that arise in that moment
and not at this analogous moment on your last diet, right?
And why did it arise now
to precisely the degree that it did?
Why will it be as effective as it will be
and have the half-life that it will have
and not, you know, 10% more or less?
Like, all of those are always mysterious to you.
Well, could we give a, as we did before,
an evolutionary and a developmental explanation?
An evolutionary explanation might be
that directed attention and action
is metabolically demanding.
It would be inefficient or impossible
for us to be in constant, you know, deliberate action
and with access to all the relevant information
as to why we would do anything.
So our ideas literally spring to the surface
at the last possible moment
in order to offset the metabolic,
the great metabolic requirements of having ideas
that are related to goal-directed action
or that goal-directed action is expensive.
That’s one idea.
The other idea would be, and we know this as a fact,
which is that initially the brain is fairly crudely wired.
That’s not true within the neural circuits
that control breathing, heart rate, et cetera,
but within the neural circuits of sensory perception,
thought, et cetera, they’re fairly crudely wired.
And then across development,
there’s a progressive pruning back
and also in parallel to that,
a strengthening of the connections
that underlie directed action and thought.
And here, I don’t mean directed as in free will.
I mean, just that I can decide to imagine an apple
and imagine that apple, for instance.
There seems to be some maintenance
of the fine random wiring in systems.
I mean, we’ve seen this even in worms,
in flies, in so-called lower invertebrates
and lower vertebrates.
And we see this in humans.
And it seems to be that there’s a lot
of background spontaneous activity.
I mean, I’ve sunk electrodes into the brains
of humans, macaques, carnivores, and mice.
And in every case, most of what you hear is called hash.
And it has nothing to do with hashish,
it’s just on the audio monitor,
you’re picking up a bunch of action potentials.
You’re listening to a chorus of action potentials,
but it’s rare to find a neuron that faithfully fires
to represent some sensory stimulus in the world.
And you can arrange that marriage experimentally
so that you can arrive
at those strong signal-to-noise events.
But I was always struck by how much noise there is
in the system all around, all the time.
And people argue, is the noise really noise, et cetera?
And there’s still a lot of debate about that.
But I can imagine that some of the spontaneous nature
of thoughts just relates to the fact
that there’s a lot of background spontaneous activity
in the brain.
Now, why that is, is a whole other discussion.
But if I were to sort of set up two constraints
that there’s a lot of spontaneous activity,
it’s going to generate random thoughts.
Thankfully, not much random action,
although there’s a little bit of random action
in our daily lives.
And then against that, say, well, any deliberate thought
or motion is going to be expensive, right?
It’s a metabolically expensive organ to begin with.
And so you just have to, evolution has arrived at a place
where spontaneous geysering up of things
upon which deliberate thoughts and action are superimposed
is the best arrangement overall
for this very metabolically demanding organ.
Is that, I mean, what I basically gave
was just kind of a biological description
of just one narrow aspect of it.
But can we get comfortable with that?
And the reason I say get comfortable is that,
you know, I’m here,
admittedly, I’m forcing a little bit of a striptease
towards what I think I and everyone else wants to know,
which is how to meditate
and why in particular meditation convinces us
that something doesn’t necessarily have to be eliminated,
but that was actually never there.
I feel like we’re now set up sort of almost like a,
you’re not contradicting yourself by any means,
but in my mind there’s a contradiction
and here’s the contradiction.
I love this statement that meditation over time
or done properly reveals to us
that we’re actually not trying to make the gap
between actor and observer go away.
It was actually never there.
To me, that’s one of the more important statements
that I perhaps have ever heard.
And it inspires me to go further down
this path of meditation
because I’ve never experienced that,
not deliberately and certainly not through meditation.
If I ever experienced it, it was transient enough
that I’m intrigued to experience it more.
So on the one hand,
you’re telling me something was never there
and there’s a profound experience to be had
by anyone that’s willing to do the work
to arrive at that experience of the loss of that illusion.
On the other hand,
I’m hearing that there’s a profound gap
that really does exist,
which is that we believe that our thoughts
are somehow from us
and indeed they’re from in the cranial vault someplace,
maybe in the body a bit as well,
but that we over attribute the degree
to which we are that and that is us
in a way that’s volitional, that we control.
And so once I’m hearing that there’s something,
there’s an illusion that we can eliminate.
And on the other hand,
I’m hearing that there’s an illusion that we can’t eliminate
and maybe these are unrelated
and I’m bridging them in an unimportant way
that seems only important to me,
but somehow I can’t resolve these two.
And maybe the thing to do then is,
can we separate them in terms of a practice to witness them
that would allow us to resolve them separately?
Right, so I think I’m hearing the problem.
There’s this, well, let me kind of bracket
the whole free will discussion
because it really is the flip side of this coin
that the obverse of which is the illusion of the self.
Okay, so at least I might be on the right track.
They are the opposite sides of a coin.
To me, they seem very different in essence.
No, because what I’m calling the sense of self
and what I think most people feel
as their core sense of self is this feeling of,
I mean, it’s the feeling of being the locus of attention,
but it’s also the feeling of being the locus of agency.
Like I can do the next thing.
Like who’s doing this?
Who’s reaching for the cup?
I am, right?
I intended this and now I’m doing the thing.
And my conscious intention
is the proximate cause of my reaching, right?
And so I’m the author of my thoughts and actions essentially
and my specific uses of attention, right?
So I can pay attention to the breath.
I get lost in thought.
I come back to the breath.
But on some level, the thoughts themselves
are more of my doing something
with almost a authorial intent, right?
Like I’m thinking like,
what the hell is this guy talking about?
I know I’m thinking,
I know who’s thinking these thoughts.
I am, right?
Like the person who really doesn’t get what I’m saying
is thinking something like that, right?
What the fuck is this guy talking about?
Like I know I’m here.
I’m a self, I’m a body, I’m a mind.
I can reach for things that these intentional actions
are different from things that happened to me, right?
A voluntary action is different from an involuntary one.
So having a tremor is different
from consciously deciding to pick up a glass, right?
So obviously everything I’m saying about meditation
and the self and free will
in order to be a sane picture of a human mind
and of reality has to conserve the data of experience
such that, yes, I can acknowledge the difference
between a tremor and a deliberative,
voluntary motor action.
And the things you do volitionally are different,
not just psychologically and behaviorally,
but they just have different implications
for like in a court of law,
you accidentally hit someone with your car
or you did it on purpose.
That’s still a distinction that matters, right?
Importantly, it tells us a lot about the global properties
of your mind such that we have a sense
of what you’re likely to do in the future.
If you’re someone who likes running over people
with your car, you’re a psychopath
who we need to worry about.
If you’re someone who did it by accident,
well then you may be culpable for the level of negligence
that allowed that to happen,
but you’re a very different person
and we treat you differently and we’re wise to.
So anyway, let’s bracket all of that.
There’s this, I mean, there’s some fundamental,
there’s some false assumptions
about the underlying logic of this process,
which I think it’s worth addressing.
And it was actually, there’s a kind of found object
in the news that I talk about at one point,
I forget where it is in the Waking Up app,
but there’s a story that I stumbled on
on the internet.
I think it’s about 12 or 13 years old
of a tourist bus in, I think it was Norway.
It was somewhere in Northern Europe
and it had about 30 people on it.
And one person was described as an Asian woman
and they went to a rest stop and everyone got off the bus
and they shopped and had lunch.
And this Asian woman changed her clothing
for whatever reason.
And they all got back on the bus.
I think the relevance of it being an Asian woman
is that there were language barriers
that explained what later happened.
So everyone gets back on the bus,
the Asian woman has changed her clothing
and the bus is about to leave,
but then someone notices,
hey, there was an Asian woman who got off the bus
who hasn’t come back yet.
And they tell the driver this and this poses a problem.
So now everyone’s waiting for this person to return.
But in fact, everyone was on the bus
that this woman had just changed her clothing
and was not recognized by her fellow travelers.
So everyone gets concerned as this tourist doesn’t show up
and they start looking for her, right?
And they can’t find her.
And so a search party is formed and the Asian woman,
because of whatever language barrier,
heard that there was a missing tourist.
So she joins the search party,
which in fact is looking for her, right?
And this goes on into the night
and they’re readying helicopters for a dawn patrol
to find the missing tourist.
Now at some point along the way,
I think it was at like three in the morning,
this tourist realizes that she is the object
of this search, right?
And obviously the whole thing unravels.
She confesses that she changed her clothes
and the problem is solved,
but the problem is not solved by the logic
that the seeker is expected, right?
So it’s like, it’s not true to say
that the missing tourist was found
in the way that was expected, right?
Because the missing tourist was never lost.
The missing tourist was part of the search party, right?
And so when you think about it from her point of view,
like what happened, she’s part of the search party.
She’s looking for the missing tourist,
not knowing that she in fact is the missing tourist.
So what happens at the moment she realizes
that everyone’s looking for her, right?
Like what is, the search isn’t consummated
in the way that is implied
by the logic of everyone’s use of attention.
And yet the problem evaporates
and there’s something deeply analogous
about the structure of that and the meditative journey.
Precisely in, again, not talking about all the changes
and the possible changes in the contents of consciousness
that could be good, which again,
they come along for the ride anyway
when you do the thing I’m talking about.
It’s on this point of looking for the self
and not finding it.
And there is this sense that, okay,
the self is here and it’s a problem.
It is the string upon which all of my conscious states,
mostly unhappy ones are strung, right?
It’s the thing that is at the center of my anxiety.
It’s the thing that I don’t feel good about.
It’s the thing that when criticized, I sort of let implode.
It’s the center of my problem.
And now I’m trying to feel better
and meditation has been handed to me
as a possible remedy for my situation.
And it’s billed as a remedy.
In fact, I’m hearing from this guy
that this is the thing that is gonna cause me to realize
that myself isn’t where, or as I thought it was.
So now I’m gonna look, right?
And so again, the sense is I start out
far away from the goal here.
I start out with a problem.
I’m now meditating on the evidence of my unenlightenment.
I can feel my problem.
I feel that I’m distracted and distractible.
And I feel as this sort of cramp
at the center of my life, it’s me.
And I’m not as happy as I wanna be.
I’m not as confident as I wanna be.
I’m more distractible than I wanna be.
And now I’m paying attention to the breath, right?
This is what the search party feels like.
This is what the confused tourist feels like
in her own search party.
And she’s looking for the missing person.
And so the angle of, the inclination of all of this is,
and the logic of it is all wrong, understandably so,
given how we all get into this situation.
But it’s useful to continually try to undercut it
and recognize that the thing that’s being looked for
is actually right on the surface,
there is no one looking.
There is no place from which,
if you’re paying attention to the breath or to sounds
or noticing the next thought arise,
this sense that you are over here doing that thing
is actually what it’s like to be thinking
and not knowing that you’re thinking.
There’s a thought, there’s an undercurrent of thought
that’s going uninspected in that moment.
And so there is just a,
there’s a continually looking for the mind,
a looking for the center of experience,
a looking for the one who is looking,
which again, which is the kind of the orienting practice
And there’s a lot more I say about this, obviously,
over at Waking Up,
but it’s the experiment you have to perform
in order to get ready to recognize that this whole,
the search party was formed in error, essentially.
And the problem that you’re trying to solve
with this practice does evaporate in a similar way,
which is like, you don’t actually get there
in the way that you’re hoping for, right?
It’s like you drop out the bottom of this thing
in an unexpected way.
It’s not, there’s actually another kind of a similar
parable or anecdote that I don’t remember if it’s Zen
or Sufi, or I mean, I’m sure it’s been reappropriated
in many different ways, but, or by many different traditions.
But there’s this, you know, the case of somebody
who’s lost in a town and they’re asking for directions,
you know, you could put this in Manhattan.
You can, let’s say you’re wandering Manhattan
and you’re a tourist, you don’t know where anything is.
And you stop and ask someone, you know,
where is Central Park?
And the person thinks for a second, they says, oh yeah,
unfortunately you can’t get to Central Park from here.
Now that is a very strange, I mean,
if you think about that for a second, you realize,
okay, that’s a, that’s an absurd claim.
There is no place that you can’t get to from the place
you’re starting, you know, on earth, right?
It’s a failure to describe the physical relationships
between anything in the world.
Yeah, that’s just not the world we live in, right?
So, but it’s a funny thing, but on some level,
that is true of meditation.
It’s like, you can’t get there from here.
Like the sense of you, the sense of you as subject
isn’t brought along to this thing you’re looking for.
Like you’re like, you’re, you know, it’s almost like,
it’s almost like you’re making a fist
and you’re trying to get to an open hand.
The fist doesn’t get to take that journey as a fist.
Like you don’t, the fist doesn’t go along for the ride.
The fist comes apart, right?
And on some level that our subjectivity is a,
kind of an intentional fist.
You know, it is a contraction of energy.
Again, it’s so much bound up in thought
for most of us, most of the time.
That is, and when properly inspected,
there’s just this, you know,
evaporation of the starting point.
But there’s not this, there’s not this fulfillment of,
I’m going to get this fist, it’s going to just going to,
if I, you know, if life gets good enough,
if I get concentrated enough, focused enough,
you know, if I austere enough, if I renounce enough,
if I desire less, if I, you know,
you know, with enough good intentions,
this fist is going to move
into some sort of sublime condition, right?
That’s not the logic of the process.
I really appreciate these models and analogies
for conscious experience,
both as most people experience them and harbor them.
And then it’s as a way to frame what’s possible
through a proper meditation practice.
I do want to talk about what a proper meditation practice
looks like a bit.
But at some point, I do want to raise a model
of maybe even just perceptual awareness
to see if it survives the filters that you’ve provided.
But first, just even if briefly,
and then we could return to it,
you know, what does this meditation practice
or set of practices look like?
Obviously, the app is a wonderful tool.
I’ve started using it, as I mentioned in the beginning,
my father’s been using it for a while,
and many people have derived great benefit from it.
But if we were to break it down meditation
into some basic component parts,
as we have broken down normal perceptual experience
and some of its component parts,
I can just throw out some things
that I associate with meditation,
and maybe you can elaborate on how these
may or may not be applied.
For instance, there is almost always
a ceasing of robust motor movement.
I know there are walking meditations and so forth,
but it seems like sitting or lying down
and perhaps not always, but often,
limiting our visual perception, closing the eyes,
right, directing a mind’s eye someplace.
Is there a dedicated effort toward generating imagery?
What are the component parts?
And where I’m really going with this is
why would those component parts eventually
allow for this disillusion of the fist
or the realization that there is no distinction
between actor and observer and so on?
Yeah, yeah, well, so to answer that second question first,
ultimately meditation is not a practice
that you’re adding to your life.
It’s not a doing more of anything.
It’s actually ceasing to do something.
It’s ultimately non-distraction.
I mean, it’s ultimately you’re recognizing
what consciousness is like when you’re no longer distracted
by the automatic arising of thought.
It’s not that thoughts don’t arise.
It’s not that you can’t use them.
It’s not that you’ve become irrational
I mean, all of that, you still have all of your tools,
but everything is in plain view.
I mean, there’s an analogy in Tibetan Buddhism,
which I love, which is kind of in the final stage
of meditation, thoughts are like thieves
entering an empty house.
You know, there’s nothing for them to steal, right?
So in the usual case, thoughts are,
there really is something in jeopardy.
Every time a thought comes,
I’m not meditating anymore.
And not only that, I feel terrible
because of what I’m thinking about most of the time, right?
And so it’s totally understandable
that thoughts seem like a problem in the beginning.
And for certain types of meditation,
they are explicitly thought of as a problem
because you’re trying to focus on one thing
to the exclusion of everything else, including thought.
And that is what I called concentration practice earlier.
And that is a, you know, that’s a training
that can be good to do.
It becomes a tool that you can use
for other kinds of insight,
but it’s a very specific
and it’s kind of brittle skill in the end.
I mean, it’s a skill,
just like I’m gonna pay attention to one thing
and I’m gonna do that so well
that everything else is gonna fade out.
And it’s somewhat analogous
to what you described in the visual system.
If you have a laser focus to one fixation point,
everything else in your visual field
begins to fade out.
But meditatively, if you have a laser focus
on any one thing, whether it’s the breath
or a candle flame or whatever it is,
not only does, I mean,
let’s use the breath for a second
because your eyes can be closed.
I mean, you can lose all sense of everything.
I mean, you can lose all sense of hearing
and your physical body can disappear.
I mean, like literally it can become incredibly subtle
and vast and drug-like.
And many people approach meditation thinking
kind of climbing the ladder of those changes
into subtlety and vastness.
That’s the whole game, right?
And it can be a deeply rewarding game to play.
And it also does come with all kinds of ancillary benefits.
I mean, all the focus and the calm
and the kind of smoothness of emotional states.
I mean, all of that comes with greater concentration
and it can be quite wonderful.
But again, at best, that’s a tool to aim in the direction
that I’m talking about now with respect to meditation,
which relates to more what I would call
and ultimately kind of non-dual mindfulness.
So mindfulness generically, and for most people,
certainly in the beginning, dualistically
is just the practice of paying careful attention
to whatever is arising on its own, right?
Now, in the beginning, it’s natural to take a single object
like the breath as a starting point, it’s kind of an anchor.
But very, very quickly over the course of even
your first week of doing this,
teachers and various sources of information will recommend
that once you get some facility,
once you know the difference between being lost in thought
and actually paying attention to the breath,
well, then you can open it up to everything.
You can open it up to sounds and other sensations
in the body and moods and emotions
and even ultimately thoughts themselves.
And so very quickly, you can recognize that
thoughts are not intrinsically the enemy to this practice.
They are also just spontaneous appearances
in consciousness that can be observed.
But for some considerable period of time,
people will feel that there is a place
from which that observation is happening, right?
There’s just, I’m now the one who’s being mindful.
And however attenuated that sense of self can be,
I mean, again, it can get very expansive.
I mean, you can lose, as you get anything,
just a modicum of concentration,
you know, it becomes very drug-like and you get,
you know, the boundaries of your body dissolve
and your feeling of having a body can disappear.
And, you know, if your eyes are closed,
you know, your visual field can be,
most people when they close their eyes initially,
they just forget about their visual field.
But, you know, if you close your eyes right now,
you notice your visual field is fully present.
And, you know, it’s, we call it dark,
but it’s not quite dark.
There is this sort of scintillating
some field of color and shadow
that’s there in the darkness of your closed eyes.
And that can become a sky-like domain of kind of vast,
you know, visual expression that opens up
as you get more concentrated with, you know,
with your eyes closed, right?
So you can very much be aware of seeing
with your eyes closed in meditative practice.
But from the point of view of mindfulness,
the logic is not to care about any of the interesting
changes in experience that come
as a result of practicing in this way,
because what the underlying goal is,
is to be more and more equanimous with changes.
So not to grasp at what’s pleasant or interesting
and not to push what’s unpleasant or, you know,
boring or, you know, otherwise non-engaging away.
What you want is just a kind of a sky-like mind
that just allows everything to appear.
And you’re not clinging to anything or reacting to anything.
Could I ask you what your thoughts are
about the differences between nouns, adjectives,
and verbs in the context of what we’re talking about
and you’re describing?
And the reason I bring this up is that, as you know,
and I know everything in biology is a process, you know,
we would never ever say, oh, you know,
the perception of that red line on a painting
is a noun, right?
I mean, it’s an event in the visual system.
You’re abstracting some understanding
about that thing in the outside world.
And I think it’s very useful in thinking about the brain
and people will notice I notice, excuse me,
actively avoid the use of the word mind
because I figure, especially with you sitting across from me
that I’ll step in it if I do.
But the brain generates a series of perceptions
or what have you by through processes, not nouns.
And so when thinking about biology,
I think of development as an arc of processes.
Aging is an arc, perception is an arc of processes.
They just exist on different timescales.
And so a little bit of what I’m hearing
is that inside of an effective meditation practice,
there’s a little bit of a certainly non-judgment,
but discarding of the noun and the adjective
modes of language, like red apple.
Okay, it’s a red apple, but then you sort of need
to eliminate some other adjectives about it.
It’s a rotten apple.
It’s a, you know, ripe apple.
And instead view the appearance and disappearance
of that apple as a, it’s just a thing, a process,
as opposed to an event.
And now events could, we could really get
into the language aspect of that.
That just reveals how diminished language is
to describe the workings of the brain at some level.
I don’t know if any of this resonates,
but it seems to me the goal or one of the goals
is to start to understand the algorithm
that is the fleeting nature of perception,
but to not focus on any one single perception.
And then to not even focus on one single algorithm,
but to, at some level, there’s a,
what is revealed to the meditator over time
is some sort of macroscopic principle
about the way perceptions work at a deeper level, right?
That there’s sort of a deeper principle there
that sits below our, certainly our normal everyday awareness,
but that in paying attention to the mechanics
of all this stuff and not judging those mechanics,
not naming those mechanics,
or just naming them and let them pass by,
that there’s some action function, some verb is revealed.
And that maybe that verb,
maybe the word to describe that verb is mindfulness.
Maybe mindfulness is really just a verb to describe that.
I don’t know.
But is there anything here or am I creating, am I?
I don’t know if I’m creating just like useless straw
or if there’s actually a seed here of something real.
But to me, anytime I want to understand something
in biology or psychology,
I try and broaden the time domain
and think in terms of verbs, not nouns or adjectives.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
No, that’s very useful.
And that’s somewhat adjacent to this distinction I make
in between dualistic and non-dualistic ways
of experiencing the world.
So even dualistically, everything is still a process, right?
And we’re misled by the reification
that noun talk gives us.
So, and this applies not just to something like mindfulness,
but even to something like the self, right?
So the sense of self is also a process.
I mean, it’s a verb.
It’s not, so we’re selfing more than we are selves, right?
And there, you know, even appropriate uses of the term self
that don’t go away even when you recognize
that the core subject self is an illusion.
There are states of self, right?
Where you can recognize in your life
that you inhabit very different modes of being
depending on the context.
So like there are moments where you,
just by walking into a certain building,
you suddenly transition into a different state of self.
Like suddenly you pass through a door
and now you’re a customer in a store, right?
So we know what that customer feeling is.
Like you’re now the person who’s getting the attention.
It’s a very kind of formalized type of attention
from the person who’s running the store and, you know,
or a restaurant, you’re a customer in a restaurant, right?
That’s a, I just remembered something that’s kind of funny
that was born of a mismatch of this.
I’ll come back to that in a second.
But so there are, so we go through, you can be a,
you know, you can be a student in the presence of a teacher.
You can be a parent in the presence of a son or a daughter.
You can be a spouse in presence of your spouse.
And all of those shadings of like the change in context
really does usher in some fundamental psychological changes
in just the states of consciousness
that are available to you.
I mean, and it’s, and some of this is really, I mean,
I’m sure we could understand a lot about this, you know,
personally and, you know, generically,
but it is pretty mysterious.
I mean, like, I mean, there are people who I know,
who I, you know, I’m with them in a certain way.
And like, based on something I’m getting off of them,
like, I can’t be that, I’m effortlessly one way with them.
And there’s no way I could be that way with somebody else.
Right, like, it’s just, I don’t know if it’s the pheromones
or their, you know, their facial,
it’s just the way they are, their facial expression.
But I mean, there are people with whom
I’m really kind of effortlessly funny.
And there are people with whom, you know, I couldn’t even,
it would never occur to me to be funny
no matter what happened, you know?
It’s like, and I have like longstanding relationships
with these people, you know?
So like, it’s just very, you know,
all of that’s very mysterious.
But anyway, the difference there is not in this core sense
of subject in relationship to all the objects.
It’s in kind of the states of self.
And all of that is just, is very verby, right?
Like all this is a pattern of changes.
It’s a pattern of what’s available
and what’s not available, the capacities that are,
you know, that come online or not in those various contexts.
But no, the memory I just had,
which I hadn’t had in a long time,
but it was one of these moments where I realized
the power of these shifts in context for states of self.
So I once, I was a young man,
I think I was probably 22 or so and single.
And like, you’re just like trying to figure out
how do you meet women?
And like, how does one get confident to do this well?
And I walked into a restaurant
and a kind of a woman was walking toward me,
you know, toward the front door of the restaurant,
but she was walking toward me in a way where I just
by default assumed she was the hostess in the restaurant,
but she wasn’t the hostess.
She was just a, you know,
someone who had just eaten there, I guess.
So I walked through and she comes out.
And so there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in me
that’s set up by literally just this change in architecture.
And so I just said hi to her in a way that I would,
presumably I would say hi to any hostess
who was coming up to ask me where I wanted to sit.
But what had actually happened is I had said hi
to a total stranger in a way that I tended at that point,
never to say hi to total strangers,
because I was shy and, you know, it was just like,
but apparently I gave her like a 10,000 watt,
you know, high of like all of the confidence
you would have if you were that sort of person.
And it just ushered in a complete, like, you know,
so I went to my table and this woman,
like came back into the restaurant,
like gave me her phone number, right?
Which was something that was just
completely foreign experience to me, you know?
And it was based completely on my misunderstanding
of the situation I was in, right?
And so anyway-
Among the misunderstandings that one can have
and then action engage in life,
I would say that was a somewhat adaptive one.
Yeah, but then you realize that, okay,
but then there are certain people
who recognize this machinery to whatever degree
or have kind of natural aptitudes
for bringing certain things online or not,
such that, okay, they can make these states,
they can consciously make these states of self,
you know, this level of gregariousness, say,
available to them in different,
in the circumstances where it’s actually useful to them.
So if you’re single and you want to meet people,
well, it’s actually very helpful to feel confident enough
to just go say hi to strangers
and ask them how they’re doing
and to be, you know, online, you know, in that way,
where at that point in my life, in that circumstance,
you know, by default, I was going to ignore this stranger
who I was passing by in the doorway of a restaurant,
but thinking she was the hostess,
I was engaging her, you know, fully.
So anyway, you can consciously,
again, this does not invoke free will at all,
but yes, you can consciously decide to play
with these mechanisms such that you can decide
what states of self would be more normative to have,
you know, given what you want in life.
And you can become increasingly, you know,
attentive to the ways in which you get played by the world.
You know, you’re a kind of instrument,
your mind is a kind of instrument,
your brain is a kind of instrument
that is continually getting played
by the situations you’re in.
And you can become more of an intelligent curator
of your conscious states and your conscious capacities
just by noticing the changes in you.
Like I, in graduate school,
this is something I talk about,
I think at some point in waking up,
this became very stark for me because I had,
you know, I was a, you know, an old graduates dude
and I had taken 11 years off at Stanford
between my sophomore and junior year, right?
So I like, when I went back to school-
Talk about a leave of absence.
Yeah, no, it was, yeah, yeah.
But I mean, so Stanford had this, you know,
you might know this,
they have this stop out policy
where you never really drop out, you just stop out.
So you can always go back,
you don’t have to write letters
saying that you still exist every, you know,
two years as you do in other schools.
So anyway, I showed up after 11 years and,
but, you know, so I was really on a deadline
and I felt late for everything.
So I’m kind of, you know, finishing my degree,
you know, as quickly as I can as an undergraduate.
And then I jump into graduate school
and I’m an old graduate student and I’m, you know,
there’s a real sense of kind of urgency.
Like I’m late, I should have done this earlier.
I want to get this stuff done.
But then 9-11 happened.
And I, just as I had finished my coursework at, you know,
getting my PhD and I was just getting into my research,
but 9-11 intersected with my life in such a way
that I just had to drop everything and write my first book.
And I did that.
And then I just had to drop everything
and write my second book
because of the response to the first book.
And so essentially I had like four years
where I was AWOL doing my PhD,
but I was still had a toe in the lab
and I was still showing up occasionally,
but I was becoming this kind of cautionary tale
from the point of view of grad school,
but I was also becoming kind of a famous,
you know, or semi-famous writer.
Cause my first book had been a New York Times bestseller.
And I just, I was, you know,
so I was getting some notoriety as a writer.
And so I was doing things like, you know,
I was giving a TED talk,
but I still hadn’t finished graduate school, right?
So like, it was just, it was,
I think that timing’s right.
Maybe I had just finished graduate school
when I gave the TED talk, but anyway,
so I was rowing in two boats and one boat was sinking
or, you know, showing every sign of being damaged.
And I was literally like, you know,
getting letters from the head of the department saying,
you know, we’re concerned about you.
But on the other hand, I was like becoming a, you know,
a quasi celebrity in that world too,
you know, at least in a world that was overlapping.
So I was having the experience of like going in,
I mean, the moment where this crystallized with,
for me in a, in a fairly peculiar way was
I had a meeting at like three o’clock with my advisor,
who was just this guy, Mark Cohen
and the Brain Mapping Center at UCLA is a fantastic guy.
Great advisor, I did not extract as much wisdom from him
as I should have, brilliant scientist.
And, you know, he’s, for him, I’m late, right?
At least in my head, like he,
it’s not that he was riding me so hard,
but like in my head, I’m very self-conscious
about how I’m not living up to his expectations
at this point.
So I have a meeting with him at like three o’clock
and I’m just kind of wilting, you know, under my, you know,
his gaze and my own imagined, you know, inner gaze of his,
you know, but that two hours later,
I have a meeting with his boss, you know,
a dinner meeting with his boss who wants to meet with me
to get advice on launching his book.
We have the same publisher,
but I’m like the much bigger author at, you know,
at Norton, you know, and he’s coming to me for advice.
And so I’m ricocheting between two diametrically opposite
self-states that are, again,
this comes down to architecture.
It was literally like the state I was in
walking into one building and then leaving
and walking into another building on the same campus.
And they were completely opposite self-concepts.
Like in one context, I’m a fuck up.
In another context, I’m a celebrity who’s-
And you have mastery and virtuosity
and we’re developing it very quickly.
Yeah, and, but so again,
this is a kind of a stark version of that,
but everyone has some version of this
just in bouncing between talking to their mom
and then talking to their best friend
and then talking to a stranger
and talking to someone who’s very successful,
talking to someone who’s not very successful.
Like all, you notice your vulnerability
to all of this stuff.
And ultimately what you want is
a level of psychological integrity
that is truly divorceable from that.
Now, I’m not saying you’re ever going to get it perfect.
There’s always going to be some,
I mean, I can’t talk about the ultimate fulfillment
of this process.
Like I’m not a Buddha.
I’m not saying I’ve finished the project,
but I think there’s more and more,
as you become sensitive to these changes
and you become sensitive to what it’s like
to actually not be psychologically reactive
and not be definable by your own self-concept,
your own idea.
I mean, you’re not identifying with anything.
You’re not hanging your hat on anything.
You’re not thinking about yourself in terms,
in the kind of terms that you would export to others
and then care about what they think about you, right?
Like there’s a kind of invulnerability
that arises that’s not born of being well-defended.
It’s born of being evaporated, right?
It’s like you’re no longer keeping score in those ways.
Once again, we’re at the,
I really appreciate that description
because these days I’m really intrigued
by something we’ve known for a long time
that you’re certainly familiar with
is the prefrontal cortex’s ability
to establish context-dependent rule sets.
Stroop task would be a basic example
of reading numbers or letters on cards
and then switching to having to report the colors
that the letters and numbers are written in.
It’s a basic task,
but prefrontal cortex is obviously important
for setting context-dependent thought and behavior
and directed action.
But within the context of all these different variations
of the self, depending on graduate school
or relationship or sitting alone in one’s room,
yeah, there are different rule sets arise,
and somehow we are able to have a sense,
a coherent sense of self that encompasses all of those.
Functional people can toggle between them as needed
and not overlap them inappropriately,
at least not to the extent that it’s career failing
or life failing.
Although there are sad examples of that,
many of which exist in the Twitter space.
I know several colleagues, not directly of mine,
but people who through mistakes made with their thumbs
where they forgot context or forgot to realize
that the context on social media is near infinite,
but the context that it existed in their head
might not be clear in the way that they communicated
something and they lost their jobs
by saying what were perceived as insensitive things
in some cases were in fact offensive, insensitive things.
In some cases it’s debatable, right?
In any case, I think that the image that now comes to mind
relates to something you’ve said several times
that it’s not about eliminating something,
it’s about revealing that something
was never actually there.
And then in terms of sensory experience
and these different aspects of the self,
I had this image in my mind of,
I’m not an experienced scuba diver,
but I’ve done enough of it, worn a wetsuit.
You wear a complete wetsuit with the hood.
And this idea, if you were born into that wetsuit,
you might think that, yeah, you nudge up
or lean up against a wall and you experience it one way.
But were you to shed that wetsuit,
you go, wow, there’s this incredible landscape
of somatosensory experience that I had no idea.
That goes way beyond levels of sensitivity, right?
Now you’re talking about fine two-point discrimination
and light strokes, and this could be positive or negative,
pain in other ways too.
But what you’re describing is essentially
that the wetsuit was never really there,
but was created through a series of action steps.
And I think what we’re migrating towards here
is a set of foremost non-intuitive
or non-reflexive action steps that reveal to us
that in fact, we’re not wearing this wetsuit.
Now you raised one topic,
which I think is analogous to this wetsuit,
which is this notion of distraction.
That normally distraction is masking
what would otherwise be a better experience of life.
I can think of distraction
as falling into two different bins.
One would be the kind of distraction
that is internally generated,
like the fact that thoughts arise
and pull me down different alleyways and avenues
of my brain and my thoughts and my experience.
And then the other would be,
and that would compete with my ability
to really focus on something.
And then another form of distraction,
which captures my ability to focus intensely,
but has me focusing on the wrong things.
And here, I think the judgment of wrong
is reasonable to include.
If for instance, I’m being impulsively yanked
to something on social media,
I’m being impulsively yanked
to someone else’s pain and experience,
and somehow confusing that with my own experience.
This isn’t empathy, but just being yanked around,
my attention as a spotlight is kind of like
over here, over there.
I’m not feeling as if I’m the one
standing behind that spotlight controlling,
or I’m not the spotlight,
just to keep with what we’ve been building up here.
So could you tell us a little bit about distraction
and tell me whether or not these two forms
are in any way accurate or inaccurate?
I’d be happy for them to be inaccurate.
And whether or not there are other forms of distraction
that we need to be on the lookout for.
And again, I think what most people are seeking
is what is the way to not just enhance our ability to focus,
but to shed this wetsuit-like cloak
that limits our experience that I’m calling
and that you’ve called distraction.
Yeah, I get what this,
I mean, distraction is one component of it.
The other aspect of it is identification with thought
and the feeling of self is bound up in the sense
that I’m the thinker, I’m the one attending,
I’m the one vulnerable,
I’m the inner kind of the inner homunculus
that’s vulnerable to experience.
And I think it can be gratified by it or not.
And it’s constantly trying to improve it
or in mitigate negative aspects of it.
It’s the sense that there’s kind of a rider
on the horse of consciousness
as opposed to just consciousness and its contents.
So it’s, again, it rides atop this illusion of control,
So to go all the way back to the question you asked about,
what do I recommend as a starting point for meditation?
Some of your assumptions are in fact true.
Yes, I mean, it’s, you know,
I often recommend in the beginning people close their eyes
and you do a sitting practice
and that’s different from a walking practice.
I mean, you can do both,
but people tend to start, you know,
sitting with their eyes closed.
But again, ultimately where this is going is
it’s not an art of meditation properly recognized
is not an artifice that you’re adding to your life.
It’s not even a practice.
It is less rather than more, you know,
and therefore it is also coincident with, you know,
potentially every waking moment.
There’s nothing that you can do with your attention
once you know how to meditate
that in principle excludes meditation
because meditation is just a recognition
of an intrinsic character of consciousness
in each moment.
And all you have in each moment is consciousness
and its contents, whatever you’re doing.
So in the beginning, you know,
you’ll be very deliberate and precious
about deciding to practice meditation
and you’ll set aside 10 minutes in the morning
and you’ll do that.
And then, and it’ll seem very different
from the next 10 minutes when you’re, you know,
spilling out onto your to-do list
and you’re trying to figure out, you know,
what the day looks like, right?
But ultimately you want to erase this boundary
between formal practice and the rest of life
such that it’s just not remotely findable.
And that’s achievable.
And I think even from the very beginning,
you can relax this conceptual distinction
between meditation and its antithesis,
because it’s not at the level of anything you’re doing.
It’s at the level of what’s happening
in your relationship to thought.
You know, like what can you notice
when you know, it’s the transition from,
you know, the bistable percept.
You know, you’re looking at the image and you see nothing.
Let’s say this, you know, the Dalmatian,
you know, it’s just the spots on the paper
and you just, you don’t see, you don’t see anything.
And then all of a sudden the Dalmatian
or the face of Jesus or whatever the image is,
pops out and then you see it.
It’s the transition from nothing to something, right?
That you, the practice becomes the transition
from being lost in thought and then waking up.
And it’s very much like breaking the spell of thought
and identification with thought is very much like
waking up from a dream and having,
it’s like that transition, the whole,
like you’re having a dream
and there’s a couple of things are true there.
I mean, it really is a kind of, it’s a psychosis
that is just not, we don’t problematize
because you’re safely in bed and you’re not moving
or unless you’ve got some kind of sleep disorder,
you’re not walking around harming yourself or anybody else.
So, but to be in bed and to not know it
and to think you’re running along a beach
or you’re getting tried for murder in a court of law
or whatever the thing is
that you’re completely delusional about, right?
That is psychosis, right?
And so like you’re fundamentally unaware
of your circumstance.
And then you, the two things can happen there.
You can either become lucid within the dream, right?
Which is interesting.
And that’s a whole, there’s a whole phenomenology of that
which can be practiced.
But more commonly, you can just wake up from the dream
and all of a sudden the problem you thought you had
is no longer there.
And you have a completely different context
for your conscious life.
Like now you know you’re in bed,
you were safely in bed all the while.
There really is something analogous
when you break this identification with thought, right?
You’re just, you’re having a thought
that seems to be some kind of, you know,
moral or psychological emergency.
And yet you can,
the moment you see daylight around it,
the moment you see that the mind is larger
than this mere appearance, right?
Then you have it, suddenly you have a degree of freedom
that a moment ago was just unthinkable, right?
And you’re also, you recognize,
you sort of come to in a way,
you recognize your circumstance in a way
that you weren’t a moment ago
when you were just talking to yourself,
when you were just identical to that conversation.
So this is all to say that ultimately meditation,
I mean, so again, there’s another apparent paradox here.
Many people don’t know much about meditation.
They’ll say things like, you know,
well, you know, for me, running is my meditation
or skiing or rock climbing or playing the guitar,
something they like to do
that gives them an experience of flow.
That’s what they go to, to feel better.
And that’s the opposite of all the chaos of their lives
or their time on Twitter or whatever it is.
In virtually every case,
it’s not true to say that that is effectively meditation.
By learning to play the guitar,
you’re not gonna learn what I’m calling meditation.
And you’re not gonna learn it by, you know,
cycling or getting,
no matter how good you get at any of those things,
you’re not gonna learn it by doing those things.
But paradoxically, I mean, not really,
but it can seem like a paradox,
once you know how to meditate,
then you can meditate doing all of those things, right?
Meditation is totally compatible with playing the guitar
or skiing or doing any ordinary thing you like to do, right?
So once you know how to meditate,
and again, it’s totally natural in the beginning
to formalize it and to set aside time each day to do it,
because it is a training.
I mean, it is something that in the beginning
you have to get used to,
but once you’re getting used to it,
then there is no good reason not to be experiencing
this thing I’m calling meditation,
this insight into the centerlessness of consciousness,
the non-selfhood of consciousness.
You should experience it
when you’re playing your favorite sport
or when you’re having a conversation with somebody.
And then to come back to your initial assumption
about eyes closed, a lot of practice,
even formal practice can be done eyes open,
and it’s important to do it eyes open,
because so much of our anchoring of our sense of self
is based on visual cues.
I mean, we know that if you give people
the right visual cues,
you can translocate their sense of self.
You can give them an out-of-body experience
with a video display,
where you can literally make them feel
like there’s a body swapping illusion.
You can make them feel that they’re in another person’s body
looking back at their body
if you run the cameras the right way.
I’ve done this in VR,
seeing an image of they create an avatar for you,
and then your bodily movements
generate the movements of the avatar,
and you start gaining presence,
as they call it in the VR lingo, very quickly.
And then pretty soon,
you lose sense of your own bodily representation.
And it’s a little eerie.
What’s eeriest to me is going back into,
of course, never left,
but back into your actual body
when the VR goggles pop off.
The world seems almost overwhelming,
the number of sensory stimuli
that are in like a laboratory room,
which is actually quite sparse.
So exactly what you described,
this translocation of notions of self
through visual experience.
But conversely, when you lose the sense of self,
the sense of self I’m talking about,
it can be especially vivid and salient with eyes open,
because so many of your reference points to selfhood
are delivered visually, right?
Especially in a social situation.
It’s like, I’m talking to you,
you’re looking back at me, right?
The implication of your gaze
is that I’m over here behind my face,
implicated by your gaze.
So the sense that you’re looking at something
is the sense of self in that social context, right?
And so if your facial expression changes,
like I’m saying something,
and if you kind of furrow your brow,
like, well, what the hell’s here?
And I can read into that facial change,
some inner state of yours that is salient to me.
All of a sudden, we’ve got this sort of dance
of like, I’m noticing you reacting to me,
and that’s changing the way I’m feeling about what I’m…
That’s the purview of every neurosis
everyone didn’t want, right?
And every relationship.
I had a girlfriend when I was a postdoc
who was very, very…
She was brilliant, really, still is.
And she always said that every relationship…
There are four arrows, she used to say.
She’s a neuroscientist, still is.
And said, there’s the arrow of…
She was talking to me.
So she said, me to you,
and kind of what you perceive coming from me,
and then there’s you to me,
and then there’s an arrow from the middle
going right back at each one of us,
which is our own perception
of what the other person is thinking about us,
and it’s feeding back on the other arrow.
And she gave me this very clear,
but model of basically relationships.
The relationship failed,
but it was good while it lasted, I should say.
And, but the four arrow model of relationships
actually shows up in every type
of one-on-one relationship,
and it’s probably an under-description
of the total number of arrows.
But I think it’s exactly what you’re describing,
is that perception of self through the eyes of other,
whether or not we’re empathic or not,
strongly shapes the way that we access
different context-dependent rule sets
about what we’re going to say and not going to say.
It’s very dynamic, right?
Yeah, so, but the freedom that I think we want,
and people can sometimes experience this,
it’s just haphazardly,
but the thing that the center of the bullseye
from the meditative point of view
is to get off that ride entirely.
And to, so that losing the sense of self
in this context of a social encounter
is to give up your face, essentially.
Like you’re like, so, and what that entails is,
or what that gives you is the free attention
to actually just pay attention to the other person, right?
And the other person is now no longer quite an object
in the world for you.
There’s really just a kind of a totality
of which that person is a part.
And actually, you know, Martin Buber,
the kind of mystical Jewish philosopher,
talked about the kind of the I-Thou relationship.
And this, I think it’s, you know,
it’s been a long time since I’ve read Buber,
but, and I don’t know if he goes, you know,
far enough to be truly non-dualistic,
but this distinction between I and thou,
the kind of the thou part of it is,
I think, potentially this,
or again, it’s been several decades since I read him.
But there’s a way of beholding another person
where you have the free attention
to simply behold them, right?
Like, you’re no longer,
you no longer care what they think about you.
You don’t feel neurotically implicated by their gaze.
You don’t feel, you’re simply the space
in which they’re appearing, right?
And so you’re free.
Like, there’s just, there’s no, and people can feel,
and so you’re, by definition,
you’re no longer self-conscious, right?
And when, and this phrase, self-consciousness
really does get at this, what I’m calling the self,
the illusory self as a kind of contraction.
And you can notice this for yourself.
Just imagine what it’s like
to go from not being self-conscious
to suddenly being self-conscious.
And the proximate cause of this, you know,
almost invariably is suddenly recognizing
that somebody’s looking at you, right?
It’s like, you’re in a Starbucks and you’re, you know,
you’re alone and you’re reading the newspaper
or whatever it is.
And this is, it now sounds highly anachronistic.
It’s been three years since I’ve held a physical newspaper
in a Starbucks, but you know,
you’re just minding your own business and you look up
and you’re just, you’re seeing, you know,
a room full of strangers,
but then you notice that someone is just looking at you,
you know, and so like that moment of eye contact, right?
Suddenly that throws you back on yourself
as a kind of, suddenly you’re the object in the world
for that other person.
That recognition is a, the tightening there,
the kind of contraction there is a further ramification
of this feeling most of us have most of the time
of being the center of experience.
Like the place you feel like, it’s like, you know,
we’re all walking around with a fist
and in moments of self-consciousness,
the fist gets really tight, you know?
And that’s the thing that gets fully relaxed
when you discover this, what I’m, you know,
at various points called the nature of mind
or the non-dual nature of consciousness
is just that there is no center to this experience.
And when you recognize no center,
then even when your gaze is aimed at another person’s gaze,
there is no implication going back to the center
because there is no center, right?
And rather than that being an experience
of weird detachment or confusion,
or it’s actually an experience of greater relationship
because you’re no longer, you no longer defend it.
You’re not defending anything over here.
Like you’re not, you’re not braced against anything.
You’re just the space in which that person is showing up.
And so it’s an experience of being much more comfortable
in the presence of another person,
whatever your relationship,
because you’re not contracting, right?
And then when you do, when you have that, again,
and this is meditation, right?
This is a meditation that is totally compatible
with having a conversation with somebody.
And then when you notice yourself contracting,
like when you notice you’re not doing,
you’re not meditating anymore,
you’re just, you’re actually reacting.
Like they just said something or looked a certain way.
And now you’re cast back upon yourself
in relationship to them.
That becomes a kind of mindfulness alarm, right?
Then, you know, that, it becomes like the,
the unsatisfactoriness of that psychologically
becomes more and more salient, right?
And it’s, because that’s not,
one, that’s not the way you wanna be.
I mean, it’s like, it’s the antithesis
of being as comfortable as you were a moment ago,
but two, it’s something you’re doing unnecessarily, right?
Like, it’s like, you’re like, again,
you’re making a fist when you don’t have to make a fist,
And it’s, again, you can leave aside
all those circumstances where it’s appropriate
to react to someone.
And, you know, I’m into martial arts and self-defense
and yes, you’re not supposed to be just
this puddle of goo out in the world
who can be just mistreated by people
and, you know, never put up, you know, resistance,
but it’s psychologically, you know,
even if a state like anger or contraction
is sometimes normative and appropriate,
the question is how long is it normative
and appropriate for?
Like, how long do you wanna stay angry for?
In my experience, these kind of classically
negative emotions like anger and fear
are appropriate as salience cues.
You know, they orient you to, you know,
an emergency or a potential emergency,
but then in dealing with the emergency,
they’re almost never the state you wanna be in.
You know, it’s like, you don’t, you know,
like it’s better to actually be calm in an emergency,
you know, so.
I think that, and again, the language is insufficient
to describe what you’re telling us,
but I think what comes to mind for me
is this distinction between situational awareness
and self-awareness, and we need both,
but under conditions of emergency, true emergency,
or motivated desire,
we need to dial down the amount of self-awareness
in order to be more effective
within the situational awareness.
But you said something very important,
my lab has been working on fear-like states for a long time,
so I’m gonna, I confess I’m gonna rob this from you,
but I’ll credit you every time I describe it,
is that the fear or the threat detection state
or set of events acts as a flag,
but is not meant to persist in the way
that the flag went up.
If one is to be in their most adaptive state.
Actually, Jocko Willink and I were talking about this.
He talks a lot about detachment and open gaze,
things that my lab is interested in,
visual system and autonomic interaction,
so why broadening the gaze literally
broadens the time domain of thinking,
and you’ve come up with new solutions
to complex problems in real time, and so on,
and you’re describing an everyday set of interactions
where that could be very useful,
and yet there seems to be something
about the way you describe meditation
and what you’ve managed to arrive at
and what practitioners of meditation can arrive at,
which is something more than that.
Like, it’s not just about being effective
or optimizing all the language we see thrown around a lot
in the space that I live in these days,
but something fundamentally more important
about how to experience life and the self,
this realization that what you thought was there
was never really there,
but that there are constraints that limit that,
and so to try and fracture those constraints one by one,
would you say that meditation as a practice
done for a few minutes each day or with the app,
that it’s a kind of a step function,
is it very nonlinear in terms of people’s progress?
I’m certainly going to go start doing more meditation
based on this discussion, truly,
because anytime someone describes
that there’s kind of a myth that we’ve been living in,
I become obsessed with the idea of dissolving that myth.
That’s a very seductive phrase,
so thank you for using that one.
There is no better marketing tool,
which is, I realize what you’re not trying to do here,
but that’s, for me to capture my efforts,
you tell me that there’s a myth that I’m living in
and that it can be dissolved
and that opens up a better landscape.
What is the process like?
Do some people make progress very quickly?
Do some people experience kind of step functions
What does the meditation practice look like over time?
Do you still meditate or have you just threaded it
through your jujitsu, your writing, your daily life,
your coffee, your time with your wife, et cetera?
Yeah, so just to come back,
just to talk about the myth for a second.
So they’re really, what you just enunciated
was a kind of a second doorway into this whole project.
So the usual door is through the door of suffering,
for lack of a better word.
I mean, people feel unhappy in a variety of ways
and they get more sensitized to the mechanics
of their own unhappiness.
And meditation is one of the things on the menu
that is explicitly billed as a remedy for unhappiness.
And it is, and that’s,
I think that’s probably the most common path to this.
But another path is just intellectual interest.
I mean, just wanting to know what’s real
about the mind subjectively, in a first person way.
And there’s no contradiction between those two things.
I’m motivated by both of them,
but it’s a totally valid doorway into this.
There are definitely step functions.
I mean, I would say there are at least two.
I mean, and they really are articulated along the lines
of the framework I’ve been describing
of dualistic and non-dualistic mindfulness, right?
So in the beginning, you’re gonna start out,
99.9% of people will start out
dualistically paying attention
and noticing the difference
between being distracted by thought
and then being on the object of attention,
whether it’s the breath or sounds or whatever.
And eventually that opens up
to all possible objects of attention, including thoughts.
And there’s still this fluctuation
between being distracted
and then being mindful of whatever.
And the fact that it’s open to all possible objects
differentiates this type of practice
from anything that is narrowly focused on one object,
like a mantra or a visualization or society.
Those are other paths of practice
that are more concentration-based and interesting.
But the benefit of mindfulness is that very quickly,
you realize it’s by definition compatible
with all possible experience
because you’re not artificially contracting your attention
down to something,
you’re just being aware of the next thing,
a sight, a sound, a taste, a thought.
So the first step function
is to very clearly experience the difference
between being lost in thought
and being clearly aware of any part of experience,
and to notice the freedom,
the comparative psychological freedom that gives you, right?
So you can, like, something’s made you angry
and now you’re thinking about all the reasons
why you should be angry and have every right to be angry
and what you’re gonna tell that person when you see them.
And then you notice you’re thinking, right?
And you notice the connection
between the thought and the anger, right?
You’re like, the minute spent lost in thought
about what’s making you angry
is the thing that dragged through
the physiology of anger, right?
And the moment you notice that once you’re mindful,
once you can be mindful,
you can notice thought as thought
and how quickly that dissipates,
that just the language and the imagery,
just you couldn’t hold onto it if you wanted to.
And then you notice the physiology of the anger
is just this kind of meaningless,
you know, kind of inner incandescence
that has its own half-life and degrades very, very quickly
when you’re no longer thinking about the reasons
why you should be angry.
You can’t hold onto the anger.
The anger itself dissipates, right?
And from the point of view of the one who’s being mindful,
this is tremendous relief.
I mean, and at minimum, it’s a degree of freedom.
You can, at that point, decide,
well, how long do I wanna be angry for, right?
Is it useful to stay angry?
Do I wanna be angry for one minute, two minutes,
five minutes, 10 minutes?
Or, and before you have that capacity to be mindful,
you’re gonna helplessly be as angry as you’re gonna be
for as long as you’re gonna be that way,
just based on the kind of the time course
of your thinking about it, brooding about it,
telling your wife about it.
You know, like just the, you know,
it’s just gonna be this conversation-based misadventure
in, you know, negative states of mind.
And you are going to be the hostage of that
for as long as you’ll be the hostage of that.
You’ll have nothing you can do apart from just deciding
to, you know, check out and watch Game of Thrones again
for the third time, right?
Like, it’s just, you can divert your attention
to something else, which is, you know,
sometimes a good thing to do.
But mindfulness, even dualistic mindfulness
gives you this capacity to just observe
the mechanics of this and then get off the ride
when you, whenever you want.
So that really is a step function.
Like, first there was a time when,
there was a time before you could do that,
and then there’s a time after which you can do that.
The other step function is noticing
that there is no one who is doing that.
I mean, this is the non-duality, the selflessness,
the centrallessness of awareness, right?
The fact that there’s no place from which
the mindfulness is being aimed,
but the fact that there’s just this open condition
in which everything is appearing, you know,
To have you as, at that point,
your mindfulness no longer becomes,
it’s no longer this dualistic effort
to strategically pay attention to anything
as opposed to being lost in thought.
It’s just what’s left when thoughts,
when the present recognized thought unravels,
even before it unravels, what’s recognized is
you are simply identical to the condition
in which everything is appearing.
Again, this is not a,
I’m not making a Deepak Chopra-like
metaphysical claim about the mind.
You know, this is not, I’m not saying the mind
isn’t what the brain is doing.
I’m not saying that you’re recognizing the consciousness
that gave birth to the universe.
I’m not making any broad claims about metaphysics.
I’m just talking about as a matter of experience,
there is just this condition
in which everything is appearing, right?
And what you’re calling your body,
again, as a matter of experience,
I’m not saying that we can’t have third-person conversations
about physical bodies in a physical world,
but as a matter of experience,
the only body you’re ever going to directly encounter
as your own is an appearance in consciousness, right?
So consciousness is not in your body.
What you’re calling your body is in consciousness.
it’s like everything is just appearing in this condition.
And again, you’re not aiming,
this is not a spotlight that you’re aiming at the body
or at, you know, there’s just this condition
in which everything,
including anything you could call yourself is appearing.
And so, yeah, so that’s the second step function
is to recognize that this is already true.
Consciousness is already without this thing
you’ve been calling your ego,
hoping to unravel it through meditation.
Consciousness is not going to get any more selfless,
any more centerless,
any freer than it always already is recognized as such.
And so that’s the step function at that point
is your mindfulness at that point,
the thing you come back to when you’re no longer distracted
is that recognition again and again.
And then it becomes, yeah,
it becomes compatible with anything you would do.
And so to answer your question, yes,
I still practice, you know, formally, you know,
sometimes, you know, frequently, but not, you know,
I definitely miss days and I don’t do it for,
I mean, you know, I don’t rule out the possibility
that I will go back on retreat at various times
just to check in with that
and see if that makes a difference.
But, you know, I tend to sit for,
I mean, I tend to, I’ve designed my life
so that I can spend a lot of time meditating
without having to be formally meditating.
Like, so, you know, you know,
I’ll go for a hike for two hours, right?
And what I’m doing when I’m hiking is identical
to what I’m doing when I’m quote meditating,
you know, sitting in a chair, you know,
doing nothing but meditate.
So it’s, yeah, I mean, I just, again,
I’m very interested in erasing the boundary
between what people are calling meditation
and the rest of life.
And so that’s, in teaching these things,
I tend to emphasize that from the beginning
because I think it’s very easy to set up,
to get gulled by a bunch of assumptions
that cause you to be very split in your sense
of what your life is about.
And like, I’m sort of banking my meditation over here
because I’m meditating two hours a day diligently
and this is gonna be really good for me.
And then over here is the rest of my life,
which is not nearly as wise or as useful
or it’s like, this is the stuff
that is still the area of my problems.
And I think it’s useful to recognize you’ve got one,
you’ve got one life, you know,
and you’ve got this single condition of consciousness
and its contents in every mode of life.
And there’s something to recognize about it.
And you’re always free to recognize that,
truly even in your dreams, right?
I mean, it’s just not, it never stops.
So that’s what I tend to emphasize.
So earlier you told us that meditation is not
about changing the content of conscious experience.
And in a different podcast that you were on,
I heard you say something to the effect of
that normally we are in our daily experience
and unless we are trained in meditation,
unless we’ve dissolved this illusion of the gap
between actor and self and observer,
that we require certain sensory events
to create collisions within us
and with the natural world that sort of, you know,
blast us into a different mode of being.
I want to use that as a way to frame up this idea
that some things such as psychedelics,
but also a very long hike, a very long fast,
you know, who knows, a banquet, you know,
different types of life experiences
do exactly the opposite
of what you’re describing meditation does,
which is that they actively change the content
of our conscious experience.
So much so that we often remember those
for the rest of our lives.
Could you tell us why psychedelics can be useful
and here I’ll give the caveats
that maybe you’ll feel obligated to give as well,
but this we’re talking about use safely and responsibly,
age appropriate, context appropriate,
ideally with some clinical or other type of guidance,
legality issues obeyed, et cetera.
All that stated, psychedelics to me are an experience
of altered perception, internal and external perception,
altered space-time relationship, somewhat dreamlike.
I think it was Alan Hobson at Harvard
for a long time talking about the relationship
between psychedelic-like states and dreamlike states
because of this distortion of space-time dimensionality.
And I haven’t experimented with them much.
I’ve been part of a clinical trial, three doses of MDMA,
which certainly altered the quality
of my conscious experience in ways that led
to a lot of lasting and at least for me, valuable learning.
So what are your thoughts about psychedelics
in terms of how they intersect with the discussion
that we’ve been having and what utility do they play
in recognition of the self
or in other sorts of brain changes?
Well, so yeah, let’s just price in all those caveats
that people can anticipate.
These drugs are not without their risks.
And it’s one problem is that we have this single term drugs
or psychedelics, which names many different types
of substances and they’re not all the same.
And so like MDMA is not even technically a psychedelic.
I think it has an immense therapeutic value.
And it actually was my gateway drug
to this whole area of concern.
Amphetamine pathogen, right?
It’s sort of an amphetamine and a pathogen at the same time.
Yeah, I mean, it’s often called-
M pathogen, excuse me.
Yeah, an amphetogen.
Not pathogen, M pathogen, yeah.
An amphetogen or an antactogen it’s been called,
but it doesn’t tend to change perception
in the way that classic psychedelics do.
And it’s also serotonergic,
but it has to be in some part differently.
So then even LSD and psilocybin,
which are much more similar in classic psychedelics,
both are also serotonergic, but they’re not merely so.
And they’re also different.
And the higher dose you take of these drugs,
the more you at lower doses,
everything can kind of seem the same.
At higher doses, they begin to diverge.
And we can talk about the pharmacology if you wanted to,
but I would just say that for many of us,
I mean, certainly for me,
psychedelics were indispensable in the beginning
in proving to me that this was,
that a first person interrogation of the mind
was worth doing.
Because I was somebody who at age 17 or 18
before I had any real experience with MDMA
or LSD or psilocybin.
If you had taught me how to meditate at that point,
I think I would have just bounced off the whole project.
I think my mind was, I was just,
I was so cerebral in my,
just my engagement with anything.
I was so skeptical of any of the spiritual,
the religious and spiritual traditions
that have given us most of our meditation talk,
that I think I just would have,
and I know many of these people,
like I have tried to teach,
Richard Dawkins to meditate and Daniel Dennett to meditate.
I’ve ambushed them with meditation
both in a group setting and one-on-one,
not Dan, but Richard,
I ambushed on my own podcast with a guided meditation.
And he just,
from his, he closes his eyes, he looks inside
and there’s nothing of interest to see, right?
Like it’s just, it’s like, it’s not,
he doesn’t have the conceptual interest in him
that would cause him to persist long enough
to find out that there’s a there there, right?
Now, this is not a problem with LSD or psilocybin or MDMA.
I know that if I gave him a hundred micrograms of LSD
or five grams of mushrooms,
or 20, 25 milligrams of psilocybin,
that’s probably not the analogous dosage
to the five grams of mushrooms.
Five grams of mushrooms would be more than that.
I forget what it is of MDMA, maybe 120 milligrams.
I think the MAPS dose is,
which is the one that’s under clinical trials
is 125 milligrams with an option
of a 75 milligram booster.
Funny, I don’t remember that.
The facts that come to hand,
but there’s just no possibility
that nothing’s gonna happen right now.
Something with a psychedelic,
with MDMA, most people tend to have,
certainly under any kind of guidance,
tend to have a very positive pro-social experience.
But with a psychedelic,
you might have a somewhat terrifying experience
if you have, we’ll quote, a bad trip.
And I’ve certainly had those experiences on LSD
and to some degree on psilocybin.
But the prospect that nothing is gonna happen
is just in a million,
nearly a million cases out of a million,
just not in the cards.
I mean, just neurophysiologically,
something’s gonna happen with the requisite dose
of one of these drugs.
And if that thing that happens
is psychologically at all normative
and pleasant and interesting and valuable,
which it is so much of the time,
and certainly under the appropriate set and setting
and guidance, it can be a lot of the time
for virtually everybody.
Again, there are caveats.
If you’re prone, if you think you have a proclivity
for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder,
this is almost certainly not for you.
And anyone doing the studies like Johns Hopkins
for the therapeutic effects of any of these drugs,
they’re ruling out people with first degree relatives
with any of these clinical conditions.
But so for somebody like me at 18
who didn’t know that this was an area
of not only interest, but would it be
the center of gravity for the rest of his life
if only he could pay attention clearly enough
to see that it could be, right?
I was someone who very likely, again,
I don’t know, I don’t have the counterfactual in hand.
I don’t know what would have happened
if someone had forced me to meditate
for an hour at that point.
But I know I wasn’t interested in it until I took MDMA.
I know I wasn’t having these kinds
of experiences spontaneously that showed me
that there was an inner landscape that was worth exploring.
I was a very hardheaded skeptic
who was very interested in lots of things,
but there was no alternative to me
just thinking more about those things, right?
I mean, the idea that there’s some other way
of grasping cognitively at the interesting parts
of the world beyond thinking about the world, right?
I just, that just wouldn’t have computed for me at all.
And if you had, so I just, and I literally,
no one ever gave me a book to read or,
the noun meditation very likely
meant absolutely nothing to me
before I took my first dose of, in this case, it was MDMA.
So what the drug experience did for me is it just proved,
I mean, so one of the limitations of a drug
is that obviously no matter how good the experience,
the drug wears off and then you’re back
to more or less your usual form.
And now you have a memory of the experience
and it can be a fairly dim memory.
I mean, some of these experiences are so discontinuous
with normal waking consciousness
that it can be like trying to remember a dream,
you know, that just disappeared,
that it degrades, you know, over the course of seconds.
And then it could have been the most intense dream
you’ve ever had.
And for whatever reason, you can barely get a purchase
on, you know, what it was about.
And, you know, there’s some psychedelic experiences
that are analogous to that, but for most people,
most of the time, there’s a residue of this experience.
And with something like MDMA, they can be quite vivid
where you recognize, okay, there was a way of being
that is quite different than what I’m tending to access
And it is different in ways that are just, you know,
obviously better and psychologically more healthy.
I mean, it’s possible to be healthy psychologically
in a way that I never imagined, right?
And then when you link it up
to the traditional literature around any of this stuff,
again, so much of it is shot through with superstition
and other worldliness of religion.
And, you know, as you know,
and I think you’re probably aware of this,
no, and I think your listeners probably know,
I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing all that,
but there is a baby in the bathwater to all of that, right?
It’s like, it’s not that somebody like Jesus or the Buddha
or any of the matriarchs and patriarchs
of the world’s religions,
it’s not that they were all conscious frauds
or, you know, temporal lobe epileptics,
or like there’s a pathological lens
that you can put on top of all that,
but once you have one of these experiences on psychedelics
or on a drug like MDMA,
you know that there’s a there there,
you know that unconditional love is a possibility, right?
You know that feeling truly one with nature, right?
I mean, just so one with nature
that you could spend 10 hours in front of a tree
and find that to be the most rewarding experience
of your life, right?
That’s a possible state of consciousness.
Now, it may not be the state of consciousness
you want all the time, you know,
you don’t wanna be the crazy guy by the tree,
you know, who can’t have a conversation about anything else,
but once you have one of these experiences,
you recognize, okay, there’s some reason
why I’m not having the beatific vision right now,
and I can’t even figure out how to aim my attention
so as to have anything like it.
And that’s a problem, right?
Because it’s available, right?
And it’s the best, you know,
it is among the best things that has ever happened to me,
right, and now I can just only dimly remember
what that was like.
So how do I get back there on some level?
And that seems, so that invites, again,
a logic of changes, a logic of seeking changes
in the contents of consciousness,
which sets someone up for this
protracted or seemingly protracted
and fairly frustrating search to game their nervous system
so as to have those kinds of experiences more and more.
And again, it’s not that that’s in principle fruitless,
but it is from the point of view
of the kind of the core insight of the core wisdom
of what I would take from a tradition like Buddhism,
which is not, you know, it’s not the only tradition
that has given voice to this,
but I would argue has given voice to it
in the most articulate way.
Again, leaving aside any of the superstition
and other worldliness and miracles
that we don’t have to talk about at the moment.
And you certainly don’t need to endorse
in order to be interested in this stuff.
And so that’s the bifurcation
between all of the utility of psychedelics
and what I’m talking about
under the rubric of meditation is at this point of,
okay, once you realize there’s a there there,
what do you do?
And what’s the logic by which you’re led to do it?
And it’s possible, like if your only framework
is the good experiences,
the good feels you had on whatever drug it was,
and a further discussion of like what that path of changes
you know, can look like,
and that can become in a religious context,
it can come in just a purely psychedelic context
or, you know, some combination of the two.
I think you can be misled to,
you can just be, you can be misled
to just seek lots of peak experiences.
You’re just trying to string together
a lot of peak experiences,
hoping they’re gonna change you.
Every one of which by definition
is going to be impermanent, right?
I mean, it’s first it wasn’t there,
then it’s there, and then it’s no longer there.
And then you’ve got a memory of it, right?
The quest, what I think it’s,
what everyone really wants,
whether they know it or not,
and they’re right to want,
is a type of freedom that is compatible
with even ordinary states of consciousness,
which can ride along with them
into extraordinary states of consciousness.
I mean, so what I hadn’t done psychedelics for 25 years,
because I mean, again,
they were super useful for me in the beginning.
Then I discovered meditation
on the basis of those experiences,
got really into meditation and realized,
okay, this is a much more,
this really is, you know,
conceptually, this makes much more sense to me.
This is delivering the goods, you know,
in terms of my experience.
There’s no need to keep having these, you know,
seeking these peak experiences with drugs.
But it had been, you know, 25 years since I had done that.
And there was this resurgence in research on psychedelics.
And I was being asked about psychedelics
and I was talking about their utility for me.
But again, these were distant memories.
And so I, and there was also one type
of psychedelic experience.
I was aware that I had never had,
I had never done a high dose of mushrooms blindfolded,
you know, like every mushroom trip I’d ever had,
I’d been out in nature and interacting with, you know,
you know, it was just been a very transformed
sensory experience of the world and of other people.
But I’d never done it alone, blindfolded,
just purely, you know, inwardly directed
and at a high dosage.
I’d done high doses of LSD, but not mushrooms.
So I did that, you know, and it was very useful.
And I spoke about it on my podcast.
There’s actually, there’s, I think if you search
Sam Harris mushroom trip on YouTube,
you get the 19 minute version of that,
my describing that trip.
It was incredibly useful.
And, but what was doubly useful was my mindfulness training
in the context of that explosion of synesthesia.
I mean, it was such an overwhelmingly strong experience.
And there were so many moments where it could have gone
one way or the other based on my sense of just, okay,
I’m going to try to resist this.
You know, it was like, it was, it was, it was in truth,
irresistible because it was just so much,
but there were moments where I was aware of, okay,
this is like letting go of self, you know,
in this context is, is the thing that is going to,
you know, make the difference between heaven and hell here.
You know, and cause there’s,
there are experiences that are so extreme
that you can’t even tell if it’s agony or ecstasy.
It’s just, it’s just,
everything has turned up to 11, right.
And it, and the difference between the two is like,
you know, the tipping point is just, it’s on,
it really is kind of a high wire act in some sense,
you know, you can just fall to one side or the other.
And yeah, so what I think people want is they certainly
want to be able to extract from the psychedelic experience,
wisdom that is applicable to ordinary states
It’s like, what is the thing you can realize in a moment
of having a conversation with your child that isn’t
distracting you from that relationship?
It’s not a memory of when the world dissolved or, you know,
when you were indistinguishable from the sky,
but it’s just a way of a way of having free attention
and unconditional love in this, you know,
totally ordinary and potentially chaotic human experience,
you know, which can be psychologically fraught
and you can meet, you know,
iterations of yourself that you don’t like that are,
that are not equipping you to be the best possible person
in that relationship.
And what we want to do is cut through all of that
and actually, you know, be in love with our lives
and with the people in our lives more and more of the time.
And that’s, there’s, I’m not saying that’s the psych,
you know, that repeated psychedelic journeys aren’t,
can’t be integral to that project,
but you know that it can’t,
that the project can’t be being high all the time, right?
So whatever is extractable from the occasional,
you know, psychedelic trip has got to be mappable
into ordinary waking consciousness.
And the point of, the real point of contact
does kind of run through this, you know,
what I’ve been calling the illusion of the self.
And again, it is, that part is discoverable
without any changes in contents, right?
So you don’t have to suddenly feel the energy of your body,
be rush out and be continuous with the, you know,
the ocean of energy that is not your body, right?
Like that’s an experience that’s there to be had, right?
I mean, there’s no doubt, but this,
the truth is just looking at this cup
is just as formless and as mysterious as that, right?
When it’s seen in the right way.
And that’s, and that’s, that’s what, you know,
meditation encourages to, you know, one to recognize.
Well, I share the experience that MDMA
significantly altered my perception of what’s possible
in terms of an emotional stance towards self and others,
including animals, right?
Something that runs very deep for me
and that I had been kind of actively suppressing
in anticipation of having to put my dog down,
but also, you know, I’m not,
I don’t know how to frame it except to say, you know,
my lab did animal research for years
and I was always very conflicted about it
because I love animals
and yet I wanted to understand the brain
and we need to work on animal brains.
Rodents or what?
Yeah, I’ll be very direct about this.
My laboratory, I’ve worked on many species.
I’ve worked on mice and rats.
I’ve worked on, admittedly, I’ve worked on,
I’d done some cat experiments.
I’ve worked on large non-human primates, including macaques.
I no longer work on any of those species.
I’ve worked on cuttlefish, cephalopods,
a discussion for another time,
brilliant little creatures,
maybe as smart as us or who knows, maybe smarter.
And now I work on humans
because I couldn’t reconcile the challenge inside me,
which was my love of animals and working on them.
I just couldn’t do it any longer.
And MDMA didn’t set that transition.
That transition actually had been set a lot earlier
and it was something I really grappled with.
It didn’t keep me up at night,
but it was always in the back of my mind.
In any event, I hope what we discovered was worthwhile,
but that’s a bigger debate.
And I have strong feelings about this
and maybe it’s a topic for another podcast,
but I’m very happy that now I work on humans
and they can tell me
if they want to be part of the experiment or not.
And I trust them and I trust their answers.
I think that MDMA in its role as an empathogen,
I think really did set an understanding
of what’s real and true.
So I think truths like that become,
I felt that they didn’t hit me square in the face.
I just could, the feeling behind the conflict
made itself evident
and what to do about it made itself evident.
So I suppose MDMA did assist the transition
to purely human research as opposed to animal research.
The other thing that I noticed it did is
it made it not scary to confront things
that were scary to confront in my conscious life.
And I could think about things in my conscious life,
but it brought them close in a way
that I could get closer and closer to the flame
and then gain some understanding.
I’ve still amazed at how answers arrive
both during the session
and then the weeks and months that follow.
If one puts the attention to it,
I think that’s why it’s important to have a guide
of some sort or to have some pseudo structure
because otherwise you can,
one can get attached to the sounds in the room
and just, and there’s probably meaning there,
but I wanted to do some deeper work.
I have not had experience with psilocybin
at least not since my youth
and I don’t recommend young people do it.
I regret doing LSD and psilocybin as a young person.
I don’t say that for politically correct reasons
or liability reasons.
I just think my mind was not developed.
And, but I’m intrigued by something.
So here’s the question.
How is it that psilocybin in particular
and high dose psilocybin and the ego dissolution
that people talk about on psilocybin,
how do you think that lines up with some of the experiences
that you’ve been describing
for a adequate meditation practice?
Because that’s something that I did not experience on MDMA.
In fact, if anything, I experienced for the first time
what really feeling like a isolated container was
and the difference in how empathy and being bounded,
having in other words,
good boundaries and empathy could be symbiotic.
I experienced that for the first time there.
And I do think that there is learning inside of these states
that translates into everyday life
when one is not on these states.
And the last thing I’ll say is,
no, I don’t feel the impulse to go
and do 20 more MDMA sessions.
I think that the three is part of this study
were very effective for me.
And, you know, as they say,
if you hear the calling again, you might do it.
But I’m very curious about psilocybin in particular
and this notion of ego dissolution
because we’ve been talking about the self.
Well, so there are different ways
in which the sense of self can be eroded or expanded
or there’s lots of experiences
that can still have a kind of center to them,
but be very novel and transformational.
And one can reify those as a kind of goal state, right?
And it’s sort of, there’s a concept in Buddhism
that I think is useful.
It doesn’t translate well to English
or it can set up kind of false associations in English
that are unfortunate.
But so there’s a concept of emptiness in Buddhism,
which sounds again, kind of gray and dispiriting in English,
but it’s, what it’s sort of cognate terms
are things like unconditioned,
unconstrained, open, centerless, right?
So it’s, there’s a, and that is,
so when I’m talking about non-duality,
when I’m talking about the loss of a sense of subject
and then what’s left,
in Buddhism they would often describe
what’s left as emptiness,
but emptiness is not a something.
It’s not a, and it’s importantly,
it’s not the same thing as unity, right?
So it’s not a oneness, right?
Because it’s, what’s left,
and that when the center drops out of experience,
it’s not like you are suddenly merged with the cup, right?
It’s, but now granted, you know,
this is where psilocybin and other psychedelics
can give a false impression of, I think, what the goal is.
You can have kind of seeming merging experience.
You can have unity experiences on psychedelics,
which can be quite powerful,
especially with nature, with other people and with nature,
where you can just feel like the energy of your body
becomes incredibly vivid and powerful.
It’s just like you’re just,
everything is just buzzing with life energy,
and then when you touch another person’s hand
or you touch a tree,
there can be this sort of continuity of energy,
which can be this overwhelming experience of,
and again, this is just a 20 megaton change
in the contents of consciousness, right?
This is a non-ordinary state of consciousness,
but this gives some indication of how this happens.
Back in the day when I was in my 20s
and I was experimenting with, this was LSD,
but some friends and I had decided,
we had this brilliant idea,
we would camp above mere woods
and then take some LSD at dawn
and then walk down, like a mile, I think,
from the campsite into the actual proper grove of trees
and commune with the giant redwoods,
the tallest trees on earth.
And so we dropped the acid at dawn and we start walking,
but the acid came on almost immediately.
And we didn’t get, I mean, we got nowhere near the woods
and we got stopped by a tree
that was just like an ordinary 20-foot oak tree,
like the most boring tree in the world.
And that tree absorbed like the next six hours
of our conscious attention,
because it was just, you know, it was the tree of life.
I mean, it was just, there could be no better tree.
So we’re talking about non-ordinary states of consciousness
wherein a merging with life and with the world is possible.
And that is a, so I’m not saying
that kind of experience isn’t possible,
but there’s a sort of expanded self-reification
it is a kind of ego dissolution,
but there’s a kind of egoity
that sort of goes along for the ride as well,
or can go along for the ride.
And the real insight into emptiness,
the real sort of centerless, you know, center of the bullseye
is a recognition that in some ways equalizes all experiences.
I mean, again, it’s just as available now
in this ordinary, you know, podcasting experience
as it is when you’re merging hands-on with an oak tree
and, you know, on, you know, 400 micrograms of acid.
And this is, you know, this is the whole universe.
And so it’s the equality of those two experiences
that this concept of emptiness captures,
which a concept of oneness doesn’t quite capture,
because oneness is really this peak experience
of being dragged out of your, you know,
your somethingness into a much bigger somethingness, right?
Emptiness is just no center, right?
And then everything is in its own place, right?
There’s still sights and sounds and sensations
and thoughts and feelings,
but there’s just, there’s no center
and there’s no clinging to anything.
There’s no clinging to identity.
There’s no clinging to the good stuff.
There’s no resistance to the bad stuff.
There’s no, this is so pleasant and unpleasant,
gets sort of strangely equalized.
And there’s this very, it’s very expansive.
And most importantly, it doesn’t block anything.
So yeah, if for whatever reason,
if your nervous system is set up to have the,
oh my God, I’m now merging with the tree experience,
that’s possible from the state of no center, right?
And on my, you know, my recent,
I mean, now not so recent,
three years ago, it was right before COVID,
but my last, you know, big psychedelic experience,
you know, there was, I was very much experiencing that.
Whereas, you know, insofar as I, you know,
you know, at the peak,
there was no me to remember any of this stuff.
But, you know, insofar as I could experiment with,
is this really different from anything else?
You know, there is a kind of equalizing
to the emptiness recognition,
even in the presence
of a completely transformed neurophysiology.
And so that’s, again, there’s a point of contact.
I mean, the real point of contact
between psychedelics and meditation for me is,
but for my experiences on psychedelics,
I don’t think there’s just no way
I would have had the free attention
to be interested in the project at all.
And there are other aspects to the project.
It’s not just having this insight into selflessness.
It’s all of the ethical ramifications of that.
It’s just like, what kind of person do you want to be?
What are your values?
What is a good life altogether
when you are talking about relationships
and, you know, political engagement
and the changes you can make in the world or not make?
Or it’s just, you know,
what kind of person do you want to be?
There’s a much larger consideration.
And, I mean, as you discovered, you know,
an experience on MDMA can
really both expand your model of what is possible
and what is desirable, what is normative.
I mean, just what kind of, you know,
what kind of self do you want to be in the world?
And it can also help you cut through things
that are inhibiting your actualizing
any of those possibilities in ordinary waking consciousness.
I’ve certainly found that to be the case.
I mean, you raise a really important point,
which is that once these learnings take place,
these understandings take place
inside of psychedelic journeys,
and I do believe they translate to neuroplasticity.
I do want to highlight the point for people.
Oftentimes people say, you know,
this mushroom or this psychedelic, it opens plasticity,
but of course, plasticity has to be directed someplace.
Plasticity is just a process like walking
or anything else underlying neural process.
And I think it’s impossible for me to understand
what compartments of my life have been impacted
by these three MDMA sessions.
But I, in some ways, I wonder whether or not,
not just the transition away from animal research,
but also a deeper realization of the love
for learning and sharing information.
I won’t go so far as to say this podcast is happening
because of that particular session,
but these things, they splay out
into multiple domains of the self.
And I do think that the key features
that feel most important to me to mention
are that it really identified true loves,
things that I truly love and made me less cautious
about feeling how intense those loves really are.
And then also lower the inhibition point of exploring,
like, well, what would that mean, right?
You know, and one of the reasons I bring this up
and why I think it’s so important that you mentioned,
you know, some issues around politics and ethics
and many things have splayed out from your exploration
of psychedelics, meditation, neuroscience, philosophy,
you know, all the things that are you.
And of course, that’s only a subset,
is that so much of what I hear and see,
so much of what I hear and see
in the kind of self-help space
contradicts itself and leads back to the origin
without a lot of progress.
And for instance, we hear, you know,
absence makes the heart grow fonder,
but then out of sight, out of mind.
You hear about radical acceptance,
but then what if it’s radical acceptance of non-acceptance?
Right, I mean, there are some experiences in people
for which I radically accept the fact
that I want nothing to do with them.
Am I supposed to transcend that?
So these are the questions I think that keep a lot of people
from exploring things like meditation
because they feel like, well,
is the idea to just be okay with everything?
Is radical acceptance just like,
well, just, you know, bulldoze me with things,
even if they’re, you know,
and my goal is to somehow surpass the idea
that they’re harmful.
And I don’t think that’s actually the way
any of this stuff is supposed to work,
although I don’t claim to be the authority on it either.
I, you know, I think notions of radical acceptance
and radical honesty and any number of different sayings
that one can find out there
are really the most salient beacons and guides
that most people have in order to try
and navigate tough areas in their life,
including the relationship to self,
but others and political orientations.
And so I feel like almost all those things
can be used to anchor down in a stance
that may or may not be informed or to open up to ideas.
And so I think that none of this can really be solved
in a single practice, it sounds like,
but it does seem to me,
based on what you’ve told us today,
is that only through a deep understanding of the self
as it really is,
as opposed to this illusion that you framed up,
could we actually arrive at some answers
about like what’s actually right
for each and every one of us?
Yeah, I mean, there’s one generic answer
that I think can be extracted
both from psychedelics and from meditation,
and just from just thinking more clearly
about the nature of our lives.
And it’s to become more process-oriented
and to be more and more sensitive
to the mirage-like character of achieving our goals.
Right now, I’m not against achieving goals,
I have a lot of goals, I’m very busy,
there are lots of things I want to get done
and I’m as satisfied as anyone to finish a project.
But if you look at the time course
of all of that fulfillment,
and there are a few lessons everyone I think has to draw.
One is most of your life is spent in the process, right?
Like the moment at which the goal is fully conquered,
that is just, I mean, that has a tiny duration
and it has a very short half-life.
And the moment you arrive at it,
it begins to recede because in the meantime,
you have all these other goals
that have appeared on the horizon.
You’ve got people asking what you’re gonna do next.
And in some sense, if you’re focused on goals,
you really can never arrive, right?
And I think what we’re looking at
we’re all looking for in life,
whether we’re ever thinking about taking psychedelics
or practicing something like meditation,
we’re looking for good enough reasons
to let our attention fully rest in the present, right?
Now, like, I mean, that is the logic of success.
Like the sense, like I’ve got all these things I wanna do,
if I could just get rich enough or fit enough
or dial in my sleep well enough
or improve my life in all these ways,
get the right relationship,
wouldn’t it be great to be married?
I wanna start a family.
I want all of these things.
Why do I want these things, right?
I want these things because I’m telling myself,
it’s not that all of those things are wonderful, right?
I’m not discounting those relative forms of happiness
or sources of happiness
because it’s all completely valid,
it’s completely valid to want those things.
But in the present, one thing is absolutely clear,
it’s possible to be miserable
in the presence of all of those things, right?
And you can add great wealth and fame
and everything on top of that.
It’s possible to be absolutely miserable
having everything anyone could seemingly want, right?
You just have to open a newspaper
to see people living out that predicament, right?
You know, spectacularly wealthy, famous,
healthy, successful people
who could do anything they want in life apparently,
and yet they’re doing this thing
that is completely dysfunctional
and making them needlessly miserable.
I won’t name names.
But some people come to mind at the moment.
So there is a clear dissociation
between having everything and happiness that’s possible.
And it’s also possible to have very little, you know,
and almost nothing and to be quite happy.
I mean, you might not have met these people,
but you know, I have met people who have spent,
you know, 10 years alone in a cave, right?
You know, and they come out of that cave
not floridly neurotic or psychotic.
They come out of that cave beaming with compassion and joy.
And I mean, it’s like they’ve been taking MDMA
for 10 years essentially, and they come out of the cave
and now they’re gonna talk about it, right?
So, and I’m not necessarily recommending
that project to anyone, but I’m just saying
that is a psychological possibility.
So you have a double dissociation here,
whether you can have everything and be miserable,
you can have nothing and be beaming with happiness.
So what is it that we actually want
in all of our seeking to arrange the props in our lives
and the story to have a convincing enough story
to tell about ourselves that we’re doing the right thing?
What is all of that effort predicated on?
It’s predicated on this desire and this expectation
that if we could get all of this stuff in the right place
and not have anything terrifying to worry about, right?
Everyone we love is healthy for the moment, right?
And we’re healthy and we’ve got something
to look forward to on the weekend.
And there’s not a plumbing leak in the house
that we have to immediately respond to.
And we like our house and our career is going fine.
And there’s something good to watch on Netflix
and we have all of it, right?
Now, can we just actually give up the war, right?
Can we fully locate our sense of wellbeing
in the present moment?
Is it, can we relax the impulse to brood about the past
or think anxiously about the future for long enough
to discover that all of this here is enough, right?
Because our life is, we have this finite resource of,
I mean, we absolutely have the finite resource of time,
but within this, the finite resource, the continuum of time
we have the even more precious resource of free attention
that can find our fulfillment in the present, right?
And because even if we’re guarding our time
to do the things that are most important to us,
we can spend all of that time regretting the past
or anxiously expecting the future
and telling it to just bouncing between past and future
in our thinking about ourselves and our lives
and basically just dancing over the present
and never making contact with it, right?
So I think what we want is a circumstance
where attention can be located in the present
in a way that’s truly fulfilling.
And unless you have had some kind of radical insight
that allows you to do that on demand,
you are in some sense hostage
to the circumstances of your life to do that for you.
You’re constantly trying to engineer a state of the world
that will propagate back on a state of self
that will make the present moment good enough.
And what meditation does,
and psychedelics to some degree does this,
but meditation very directly does this,
it reverses the causality
and lets you actually change states
such that you can be fulfilled before anything happens,
Nothing, your happiness is no longer predicated
on the next good thing happening.
You can be in the presence of the next good or bad thing
already being fulfilled and already being at peace.
You know, I mean, there’s a,
I think they’re misleading nouns.
We can throw it at what is left there,
but it is, you know, tranquility, peace, freedom,
lack of contraction, lack of conflict.
I mean, like all of that can be more and more of a default.
And all of that is also compatible with deciding,
you know, yeah, why not get in shape?
Why not engage this project?
Why not, you know, change your career?
I mean, it’s not that you need to be somebody who accepts,
to your point, you can notice all of these
non-optimal things because no matter how much you meditate,
you know, you’re very likely going to spend
a lot of your time still lost in thought,
still identified with it and still wanting,
still caring about the difference between dysfunction
and normativity in your life, right?
And the question is, what can you locate when,
the question, it’s really, it’s like,
how much can you puncture that seeking happiness project
with the recognition that you’re already free, right?
That is, that’s what meditation makes possible.
You can keep just a thousand times a day
letting some daylight into this search space.
And so it’s, but it is still compatible.
Like you can, I mean, working out is a great
frame in which to look at this because,
I mean, in working out, when you really work out,
you know, I’m thinking, you know, mostly,
I mean, it’s really, it’s anything,
but it’s, you know, resistance training or cardio
or something like jujitsu.
You’re intentionally putting yourself
in classically unpleasant circumstances physiologically.
I mean, so if you, if you were, you know,
imagine what it’s like to do anything to failure, right?
Well, if you just check in on what the,
on what that is like at the level of sensation,
I mean, that is, it’s basically a medic,
it feels like a medical emergency, right?
I’m like that, if you were having that experience
for some other reason, like if you woke up
in the middle of the night and felt what it feels like
to be deadlifting, you know, on your 10th rep on a set
where you’re gonna, you know, you would fail at 11, right?
Like that is just, you know, that’s an emergency,
but because you understand what you’re doing in the gym
and you’ve sought it out and like,
it’s actually something you like doing, right?
And you can get a real dopamine, you know,
hit from doing it.
That, what you’re doing when you’re doing that
is you’re owning a kind of a,
like you’re actually transforming
a classically negative experience
into something that’s almost intrinsically positive, right?
Certainly the net on it is positive.
You can do that.
And being able to do that is more and more
the experience of being actually at peace,
even while exerting a really intense effort
in one direction.
So you can be straining and I’m sure physiologically
showing a lot of stress.
I mean, I’m sure that, you know, cortisol is up
and like, you know, blood pressure’s up,
heart rate is certainly up.
So it’s like, as far as the body is concerned,
it’s stress as far as the eye can see,
but you really can be deeply a quantumist and at peace
because again, because of the frame around it,
because of the concepts attached to it,
because you know what you’re doing,
you know why it’s happening and you want it.
So that’s an attitude you can bring
into other stressful things that take effort to accomplish.
And so it’s not that you just need to be a pushover
when you learn how to meditate or when you take MDMA
or you work on yourself in any of these ways.
But what I think you want to find
is you want to find your point of rest
in the midst of any struggle.
I would say that the, certainly MDMA,
and again, I have less experience with meditation,
but they really, I think, put us ultimately in positions
of what can only refer to as real strength.
These can make what before seemed like impossible decisions
or even concepts or emotional states
to even think about for any period of time
without deliberately distracting
or avoiding in some other way
and be able to lean into those with open eyes.
And I think that’s, to me, that’s my definition of strength.
I don’t know what other people consider,
but there’s definitely something real there in each case.
This may seem like a divergence,
but I and many other people are very curious
about a recent decision that you made,
which was to close your account on Twitter.
You still have an Instagram account, I noticed.
Although I never, I mean, my team manages that.
It’s a lot friendlier over at Instagram.
I’ve been there a lot longer.
I’ve never even seen it, so.
Oh, it’s pretty good, actually,
considering, imagine what would happen if you did deepfake.
They’re doing a good job with it.
But your decision to close your account on Twitter,
I think, grabbed a lot of eyes and ears,
and there’s a lot of questions about why.
It was a very large account.
It correlated with a number of things
that for the outsider, people might be wondering
about new leadership, new people who had been booted off,
brought back on, or at least invited back on, and so on.
You are certainly not obligated to explain your behavior
to me or anybody else for that matter,
but I’m curious if you might share with us
what the motivation was for taking the account down
and how you feel in the absence of,
I mean, your thumbs presumably are freed up
to do other things.
Yeah, I was getting like an arthritic right thumb,
I think, and I think it’s-
If you don’t mind sharing,
I think there’s a lot of curiosity
about you and your routines.
You’ve been very generous in sharing that, your knowledge,
but also kind of like what makes you tick,
what motivates pretty big decisions like that.
It wasn’t a major platform for you.
It was the only social media platform I’ve ever engaged.
I mean, like you said, I have an Instagram,
I have a Facebook account,
but I never used those as platforms, right?
I was never on them, I’ve never followed people,
and I’ve never, and all the posting has just come from,
it’s just marketing from my team.
But Twitter was me, I mean, for better or worse,
and I began to feel more and more for worse.
And it was interesting because it was very,
I’ve talked about it a lot on my podcast
about just my love-hate relationship
with Twitter over the years.
Many good things came to me from Twitter,
and I was following a lot of smart people,
and it had become my newsfeed
and my first point of contact with information each day.
And I was really attached to it just for that reason,
just as a consumer of content.
And then it was also a place where I was,
I genuinely wanted to communicate with people
and react to things, and I would see some article
that I thought was great, and I would signal boost it
to the people following me on Twitter,
and that was rewarding,
and I could literally help people on Twitter.
Like, I mean, there were people
who I’ve raised lots of money for on Twitter
just by signal boosting their GoFundMes.
And so I was engaged in a way that seemed productive,
but I was always worried that it was
producing needless conflict for me
and was giving me a signal in my life
that I was being lured into responding to
and taken seriously that was out of proportion
to its representation of any opinion
or set of opinions that I should be taking seriously.
So I was noticing that, and again, this evolved over years.
I mean, this long before,
long predated recent changes to Twitter.
But I was noticing that many of the worst things
that had happened for me professionally
were first born on Twitter.
I mean, just like some conflict I got into with somebody
or something that I felt like I needed to podcast about
in response to on Twitter.
It’s so much of it, it’s either it’s Genesis was Twitter
or it’s the further spin of it
that became truly unpleasant and dysfunctional
happened on Twitter.
Like it was just Twitter was part of the story
when it got really bad.
And I’ve had, you know, vacations that have gone sideways
just because I got on Twitter and said something
and then I had to produce a controversy
that I had to respond to.
And then I had to do a podcast about that and blah.
And it was just, okay, this is a mess, right?
And so at that point, you know, I have friends
who also had big Twitter platforms who would say,
you know, why are you responding to anything on Twitter?
Just tweet and ghost.
You know, just due to having Joe Rogan sat me down
and tried to get me talking to Bill Maher.
And both of them engaged Twitter in that way.
I mean, I think they basically never look
at their at mentions.
They never see what’s coming back at them.
They just, you know, they use it effectively
the way I use or don’t even use Instagram or Facebook.
I mean, I don’t even see what’s going out there in my name.
And so I could essentially do that for myself
on Twitter, presumably.
And I did that for some periods of time
but then I would continually decide, okay,
now it’s all balanced again.
Maybe I can just communicate here.
Cause it was very tempting for me to communicate with people
because I would see somebody clearly misunderstanding
something I had said on my podcast.
And I think like, why not clarify this misunderstanding?
And my efforts to do that almost invariably produced a,
sometimes it was a kind of a meandering process of discovery
but often it was just kind of a stark confrontation
with what appeared to me to be just lunacy
and malevolence on a scale that I never encounter elsewhere
in my life.
Like I never meet these people in life, right?
And yet I was meeting these people
by the tens of thousands on Twitter.
And so the thing that began to worry me about it,
and again, this, I understand that people have
the opposite experience.
I mean, depending on what you’re putting out
and what you’re, you know, the kinds of topics
that you’re touching, you could have just nothing
but love coming back at you on Twitter, right?
But because I’m very essentially in the center politically
and because I’m on my, this is now on my podcast.
This is not in the waking up app.
I’m often criticizing the far left
and criticizing the far right.
I’m basically pissing off everyone some of the time, right?
So, and it’s very different.
If you’re only criticizing the left,
you hate, no doubt you get hate from the left,
but you have all the people on the right
who just reflexively and tribally
are expressing their solidarity for you, right?
And who are dunking on your enemies for you.
And, you know, when your enemies come out of the woodwork.
And if you’re only criticizing the right,
I’m sure you get a lot of pain from the right,
but you’ve got the people on the left
who are tribally identified with the left,
who are just going to reflexively defend you.
If you’re in the center criticizing the left
as hard as anyone on the right ever criticizes the left,
and you’re also criticizing the right
as hard as anyone on the left criticizes the right,
you’re getting hate from both sides all the time.
And no one is reflexively and tribally defending you
because you pissed them off last time.
You’re like, you might be getting hate from the left now
and the people on the right agree with you,
but they can’t forget the thing you said about Trump
on that podcast, you know, two podcasts ago.
So they’re not going to defend you.
And so what I, I basically created hell for myself
on Twitter because it was, I just, you know,
it was just a theater of,
it was just pure cacophony most of the time.
And what I was seeing was, I mean,
like there’s no way there’s this many psychopaths
in the world, but I was seeing psychopaths everywhere.
I was seeing like the most malicious dishonesty
and, you know, just goalposts moving and hypocrisy.
And, I mean, it was just, I mean, some of it’s trolling
and some of it’s real confusion
and some of it is psychopathy,
but it’s like, it was so dark that I worried
that he was actually giving me a very negative
and sticky view of humanity
that was, I mean, one, it was, you know,
I think it is an inaccurate,
but two, it was something I was returning to so much
because again, I was checking Twitter, you know,
at least a dozen times a day.
And I’m sure there were some days
where I checked it a hundred times a day.
I mean, it was, again,
it was my main source of information.
I was constantly reading articles
and then putting my own stuff out.
That it became this kind of fun house mirror
in which I was looking at the most grotesque side
of humanity and feeling, you know,
implicated in ways that were important
because it was just, it was reputationally important
or seemed to be important.
I know a lot of these people.
It’s not, these weren’t just faceless trolls.
These are people with whom I have had relationships
and in some cases, friendships who,
because of what, you know, largely Trump and COVID did
to our political landscape in the last, you know,
half a dozen years,
were beginning to act in ways that seemed, you know,
starkly dishonest and, you know, crazy making to me.
So I was just noticing that I was forming a view
of people who I actually have had dinner with
that was way more negative based on their Twitter behavior
than I think would ever be justified
by any way they would behave in life with me.
You know, I mean, it’s like,
I was never gonna have a face-to-face encounter
with any of these people that was this malicious
and dishonest and gaslighting and weird, right?
As was what was happening hourly on Twitter, right?
And so I just began to become more sensitive
to what this was, you know,
just the residue of all of this in my life
and just how often the worst thing about me
in my relationship with the people in my life,
you know, they just talking to my wife or my kids
was just the fact that I had been on Twitter
at some point previously in the previous hour
and there was some residue of that, you know,
in my interaction with them.
You know, it’s like, what are you stressed out about?
What are you annoyed about?
What are you pissed off about?
You know, what can’t you get out of your head?
What is the thing that you now feel like you need
to spend the next week of your life focused on?
Because it went so sideways for you.
All of that was Twitter, you know,
a little, I mean, literally a hundred percent
of that was Twitter.
And so I just, at one point it was actually
on Thanksgiving day, I just looked at this
and I just, I mean, there was very little thought
went into it.
I mean, literally, I mean, you know,
it was more thought involved in you, you know,
whether I wanted coffee when you asked me
when I showed up here.
I mean, it was just like at a certain point,
I just saw it and I just ripped the Band-Aid off
So, and to answer your other question,
it’s been almost wholly positive as you might expect
given the litany of pain and discomfort I just ran through.
But I mean, it’s also, it’s surprising to recognize
how much of a presence it was in my life
given the sense of what is now missing.
I mean, it’s like, there’s no question
there’s kind of an addictive component to it.
I mean, like when I look at what Elon’s doing on Twitter,
forget about his ownership of it.
And I mean, I’m not, you know, I’ve got a lot to say
about the choices he’s making for the platform,
but just his personal use of it
is just so obviously an expression of,
I mean, I don’t know if addiction is the, you know,
clinically appropriate term, but, you know,
his dysfunctional attachment to tweet
to using the platform.
Forget it, again, forget about changing it and owning it,
but just the degree to which it is pointlessly disrupting
the life of one of the most productive people
in any generation.
That was also instructive to me
because I know Elon and I just, you know, he’s,
from, you know, kind of a friend’s eye view of the situation
it’s so obviously not good for him
that he’s spending this much time on Twitter.
That I just brought that back to me.
It’s like, well, if it’s not,
if this is what it’s doing to Elon
and he’s got all these other things
he could be doing with his attention,
how much of my use of Twitter is actually, you know,
a good idea and, you know, optimized to my wellbeing
and the wellbeing of the people around me.
So anyway, it was,
there was an addictive component to it, I think.
And so when that got stripped off,
I, you know, I do notice that there’s,
I mean, there’s some, there are times I pick up my phone
and I realized that this is like the old me
picking up my phone for a reason that no longer exists.
Cause it’s not that much, you know, I, you know,
I have a Slack channel with my team
and I’ve got email obviously,
but it’s like, that is not much of what I was doing
with my phone really in the end.
And so like, it’s just,
my phone is much less of a presence in my life.
And so it’s almost wholly good,
but yeah, it’s, you know, there’s,
I think there is some danger in,
or some possible danger in losing touch
with certain aspects of culture, which again,
I’m not even sure, I mean, there’s this question of,
you know, how much is Twitter real life
and how much is it just a mass delusion?
I don’t know, but insofar as it actually matters
what happens on Twitter,
or insofar as I was actually getting a news diet,
which I’m not going to be able to recapitulate for myself,
or I’m just not in fact going to recapitulate for myself,
even if I could,
if any of that matters, I haven’t discovered that yet,
but it’s, yeah, I mean, there’s,
it was taking up an immense amount of bandwidth
and it’s impressive.
I mean, I think I said, I, you know,
it was like I amputated a phantom limb, right?
Like it was not a real limb,
but it was this continuous presence in my life
that it’s weird.
It actually relates to the concept of self
in surprising ways, because I felt
there was a part of myself that existed on Twitter.
And I, you know, I just performed a suicide of that self,
rather like that’s, this is ending right now.
And, you know, there’s no residue.
There’s nothing to go back and check.
There’s just, it’s gone.
And I didn’t even, I didn’t go back and look at my,
like what’s interesting to consider is that, you know,
I’d been on Twitter for 12 years.
I don’t keep a journal.
I mean, Twitter, my timeline would have been
a kind of journal.
I could have gone back to a specific hour
and a specific day and looked at what I was
paying attention to.
I mean, that could have been an interesting record
of just who I’ve been for a decade.
And probably a pretty humbling record
of who I’ve been for a decade
in terms of the kinds of things
that captivated my attention.
But I didn’t even, you know,
I didn’t even think to go, you know,
nostalgically just look at any of that
or see if any of it was worth saving or archiving
or thinking, I just delete, you know,
and it was,
and so my actual sense of who I am
and my engagement with my audience,
my, you know, the world of people
who could potentially know me,
like what does it mean to be, to have a platform?
You know, where do I exist digitally?
My sense of all of that got truncated
in a way that
is much less noisy.
I mean, it’s amazing how much
can’t get fucked up now in my life.
Like it’s like with Twitter,
almost anything could happen, right?
Like the next tweet was always an opportunity
to massively complicate my life.
There is no analogous space for me now.
And, you know, so what I’m going to say on your podcast,
what I’m going to say on my own podcast,
what I’m going to write next,
that’s much more,
you know, deliberative
and the opportunities to take my foot out of my mouth
or to reconsider all, you know,
whether any of this is worth it.
Is it worth, is this the hill I really want to die on now?
It’s much more, can be much more considered.
And I mean, I think all of that’s to the good,
but even more important than that is that there’s not,
I’m not getting this continuous signal
that is always inviting a response,
whether on Twitter or on my own podcast or, you know,
And it’s just much less noisy.
I mean, life is much less noisy and cluttered.
And that’s, you know, that is definitely feels better.
It’s just, it’s a hundred percent better.
I’m happy to hear that.
I know a number of people miss you there,
but you sound happy.
I sense the genuine happiness in it.
Several things come to mind.
First of all, thank you for sharing your rationale there
and how it went.
I think for a lot of people, they think,
oh, you must’ve like walked around in circles for hours
talking about it.
It was as many good decisions are executed, right?
You know, I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s work.
In many ways, Cal’s, I’ve never met him,
but we know each other through the internet space.
Really ahead of his time with this notion of deep work
and limiting distractions.
I think he’s even got a book about a world without email
or something really extreme.
So he had, I mean, he deserves some credit
because he had been somewhat approximate cause to this.
He had been on my podcast and he had encouraged me
to delete Twitter because I had been,
I had been sort of in reaching some kind of crisis point
with it prior to that podcast.
And so we’ve talked about it.
And I had recorded that podcast, but hadn’t released.
I actually recorded the podcast the day before
I wound up deleting Twitter, but hadn’t yet released it.
So in my podcast with him, in the intro to it,
I then give a post-mortem on my deleting it.
But he was one of the last people who was in my head
around these issues.
And I, you know, that was not by accident.
I had invited him on the podcast
because I increasingly wanted to think about, you know,
whether this was totally dysfunctional.
Well, I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s
and I am on social media.
I’m on Twitter.
I had some, you know, high friction interactions there.
And I have a process for dealing with those.
I tend to avoid high friction confrontations online,
but Instagram is a much friendlier place, by the way,
if you want to come over to where like the nice kids,
the cool kids actually hang out.
Strangely, I’m not looking for a substitute.
Okay, well, I didn’t, I don’t let me entice you
over there, you do.
But I think that this notion of really being able to access
what Cal calls deep work, what Rick Rubin talks about,
you know, being able to touch the source of creativity
and focus on a regular basis does require
that one have certain types of, and in some cases,
zero interaction with certain platforms
that merely being on a platform
and blocking people that would just won’t provide.
I think a lot of energy opens up.
And I’m fascinated by this concept of energy.
I mean, we only have so much energy,
neural energy to devote.
And in many ways, what you described,
there’s really, I think, striking parallels
to what I’m talking about all along these last hours,
which is that sometimes the thing that feels so powerful
that has such a gravitational pull
and that we think this is experience, this is life,
this is just the way it is, actually is an illusion.
And when you step away from it,
you realize that there’s this whole other dimension
of interactions that was available all along,
but that we, for whatever reason,
we’re intervening in by way of our reflexive,
So I think there’s a poetry there.
I was a hard case, but yeah, I got religion on this point.
And it’s a good change.
Well, Sam, I want to say a couple of things.
First of all, every time you talk, I learn so much.
And that’s in the dimensions of neuroscience,
even hardcore neural circuitry type stuff,
which is sort of my home.
When you talk about philosophy or meditation or psychedelics
and even politics, a topic that I’m woefully
undereducated in, but you have this amazing ability
to blend and synergize across things.
And I think today what occurs to me is that
not only is that no accident because of your training
and the rigor and the depth
at which you’ve explored these different topics,
but also your openness to it.
But I think, at least for me above all,
is because I think you are able to encapsulate
this idea of the self and the different ways
in which we each and all can potentially interact
with the environment and our inner landscape.
Your description of meditation, I have to say,
now has forever changed the way I think about meditation.
I would no longer just think of it as a perceptual exercise.
On the podcast, I’ve been talking about it
as something to do for these various benefits,
the benefit set of more focus, more stress, et cetera,
of which certainly exists.
But what you described today has such an allure
and holds such a promise that, as I mentioned,
I’m certainly going to change my behavior.
And I know I’m speaking on behalf of many, many people.
And I just want to extend my thanks
for your coming here today to teach us even more,
because of course you have your podcast
and the app, the Waking Up app.
And the fact that regardless of the political landscapes,
regardless of what neuroscience feels about psychedelics
or where things are at any point in time,
you strike me as somebody who is very committed
to sharing knowledge and thoughtful, deep discourse
so that people can benefit.
And there are very few people like you.
In fact, there’s probably only just one.
And so I feel very grateful to be sitting
across the table from him for these last hours.
Oh, nice, nice.
Well, I really enjoyed this.
And I want to congratulate you on what you’ve built here,
because your podcast is everywhere.
And I just, you know, I’m a fan.
And even more than that, I’m continually seeing the evidence
of you reaching people and benefiting people.
And it’s just, it’s really, I mean, like,
this is the, one of the best examples of, you know,
new media just carving out a space
that people didn’t really know existed, you know,
because like, this is not television, it’s not radio,
and all of a sudden people have time to hear a conversation
of great length that goes into, you know,
nitty gritty scientific detail on, you know, hormones.
I mean, like who would have thought that was even possible?
And so, yeah, I mean, just congratulations.
It’s fantastic to see, and I’m just very happy
for the opportunity to talk to you and your people.
Well, thank you.
It’s very gratifying to hear, and I feel very blessed
in no small part because of our conversation today.
Thank you so much.
To be continued.
We’ll do it again and again and again.
Thank you for joining me today for my discussion
with Dr. Sam Harris.
I hope you found it to be as enlightening as I did.
And be sure to check out the Waking Up app
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Please also check out his incredible podcast,
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Thank you once again for joining me
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