Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Creating/Discovering New States of Mind

Just some quasi-random musings that went through my head yesterday…

Our society puts a fair bit of energy, these days, into creating new technologies and discovering new scientific facts.

But we don’t put hardly any effort at all into creating/discovering new states of mind.

I think maybe we should – and at the end of this odd, long, rambling blog post I’m going to suggest a specific type of new mind-state that I think is well worth trying to create/discover: one synthesizing spiritual mindfulness and intense scientific creativity.

On Old and New States of Consciousness

First, bear with me while I spend a few paragraphs framing the issue…

When I read Stcherbatsky’s book Buddhist Logic years ago, I was struck by the careful analysis of 128 states of consciousness. Allan Combs’ book The Radiance of Being provides a simpler, smaller conceptual analysis of states of consciousness, with similar foundations. These and other similar endeavors are very worthy – but how can we really know that the scope of all possible varieties of human consciousness-state has been thoroughly explored?

All sorts of amazing new states of consciousness will become possible once the human brain has been enhanced with technology – brain-computer interfacing, genetic engineering, mind uploading, etc. Advanced AGI systems may enjoy states of consciousness far beyond human comprehension. However, it seems quite possible that ordinary human brains may be capable of many states of consciousness not yet explored.

The individual human mind is not all that individual – so the states of mind accessible to an individual may depend to some extent on the culture in which they exist. The catalogue of states of mind available in medieval India when Buddhist logic was invented, may include some states that are extremely hard for modern people to get into, and may omit some states of which modern people are capable.

The Perceived Conflict Between Scientific and Spiritual Mind-States

I’ve often wondered whether there’s some intrinsic conflict between the states of mind labeled “spiritual enlightenment”, and the states of mind consistent with profound scientific discovery.

Great scientific creation often seems to involve a lot of struggle and persistence – along with long stretches of beautiful “flow” experience. Great scientific work seems to involve a lot of very hard thinking and analysis, whereas enlightenment is generally described as involving “stopping all thought.”

Personally, I find it a lot easier to be mindful (in the Zen sense) while walking through the park, washing the dishes, lying in bed, or building a chair -- than while analyzing genomic data, working out the details of a new AI algorithm, writing a novel, or debugging complex software code. Subjectively, this feels to me like it’s because being mindful requires a bit of mental effort at first – to actively pay attention to what my mind and body are doing. Once the effort is done, then mindfulness can flow along effortlessly for a while. But then I may drift away from it, and that little jump of effort is needed to become mindful again. This dynamic of mindfulness drifting and returning, or almost drifting but then not actually drifting after all, seems not to function properly when I’m doing something highly cognitively intensive. When I’m doing the highly intensive thing, I get deeply “into” the process, which puts me in a wonderful flow state for a while – but then when the flow state ends, I’m not necessarily in a quasi-enlightened mindful state. I may be elated, or I may be exhausted, or I may be frustrated. I can then try to be mindful of my elation, exhaustion or frustration – but this is then a moderately substantial effort; and definitely my degree of mindfulness is lower than if I hadn’t bothered to do the cognitively intensive thing.

Now, it might just be that I’m not a particularly enlightened guy. Indeed, I have never claimed to be! I do have my moments of spiritual purity and cosmic blissful wisdom and all that -- but then I also have some pretty boring routine moments, and also moments of being totally un-mindfully overcome with various kinds of positive or negative emotion. However, observing other humans around me, I note that the same dichotomy I feel in my mind occurs in the outside world. I know some enlightened minds, and I know some productive, brilliant artists and scientists – but I don’t know anyone in the intersection. Maybe someone of this nature does exist; but if they do, they’re an awfully rare bird.

You could argue that, since being a spiritual genius is rare and being a scientific genius is rare, it’s not surprising that few people lie in the intersection! But I’m not just talking about genius. I’m talking about passion. Who has true devoted passion for spiritual enlightenment, and also true devoted passion for doing revolutionary science? Most people I know, if they like either, pursue one as a central goal and the other as a sort of sideline.

I don’t particularly want to be this way myself – I’d like to pursue both simultaneously, without feeling any conflict between the two. But in practical life I do feel a conflict, and I tend to choose science and art most of the time. Yes, from the enlightened view, the dichotomy and the conflict are just constructs of my mind. And when I’m in certain states of mind, I feel that way – that dichotomy and all the rest feel bogus and mildly amusing. But when I’m in those states of mind, I’m not doing my best art or science! Similarly, thinking about playing the piano, it clear that my best music has been played in states of heightened emotion – not states of enlightened emptiness.

I think the difficulty of maintaining a mindful mind-state and scientifically intensely creative mind-state, is deeply tied with the conflict between modern scientific culture and some older cultures like those of ancient India or China, that were more spiritually focused. The enlightened master was one of the ideals of India and China; and the great scientist or artist is one of the ideals of the modern world. The differences in ideals reflect more thoroughgoing cultural differences.

You could say that both the great scientist and the enlightened master are exaggerations, and the right thing is to be more balanced – a little bit scientific, a little bit spiritual. Maybe, as someone said to me recently, an enlightened master is like an Arnold Schwarzenegger of the spirit – hyper-developed beyond what is natural or useful (except in contexts like the Mr. Universe contest where being at the extreme is useful in itself!). And maybe great super-scientists are unnecessarily and unhealthily obsessive, and science would progress OK without them, albeit a little more slowly. But something in me rebels against this kind of conclusion. Maybe it’s just that I’m an unbalanced individual – reeling back and forth endlessly between being excessively scientific and excessively spiritual, instead of remaining calmly in the middle where I belong -- but maybe there’s more to it than that.

A New Scientific/Spiritual Mind-State?

What if, instead of being frustrated at the apparent contradiction between the mind-states of spiritual enlightenment /mindfulness and intense scientific creativity, we took it as a multidimensional challenge: to create a new state of mind, synergizing both of these aspects?

The ancient Indians and Chinese didn’t include this sort of mind-state in their catalogue, but they didn’t have science or modern art … they had a very different culture.

Can we discover a new, intrinsically mindful way of doing science and art? Without sacrificing the intensity or the creativity?

What if we pursued the discovery/creation of new states of mind as avidly as we pursue the creation of new machines or chemical compounds? What if there were huge multinational organizations devoted to mind-state discovery, alongside our chemical and pharmaceutical and computer engineering firms?

Zum: A Thought-Experiment

To make the above idea a little more concrete, let’s imagine a specific social structure designed to produce a synergetically scientific-spiritual state of mind. Imagine an agile software development team – a group of software developers working closely together on a project – that was also, simultaneously, a “zendo” or “dojo” or whatever you want to call it … a group of people gathered together in the interest of their own enlightenment. That is, they were simultaneously trying to get stuff done together, and to help each other maintain a state of mindfulness and individual & collective spiritual awareness.

I can’t think of a good name for this kind of combination, so I’m going to call it a “Zum”, because that word currently has no English meaning, and it reminds me of Zen and scrum (the latter a term from agile software development), and I like the letter “Z.”

I have heard of a new type of Vipassana meditation, in which a group of people sit together and while they meditate, verbalize their feelings as they pass through – “cold”, “breathing”, “warm”, “stomach”, etc. One can imagine a Zum engaging in this kind of discussion at appropriate moments, in the midst of technical discussions or collaborative work. Would hearing others describe their state like this interrupt thought in an unacceptable way? Possibly. Or would people learn to flow with it, as I flow with the music I listen to as I work?

What would a Zum be like? Would it help to have a couple enlightened masters hanging around? – maybe sitting there and meditating, or playing ping pong? That would produce a rather different vibe than a usual software development lab!

The key ingredient of the Zum is the attitude and motivation of the individuals involved. They would need to be dedicated both to producing great software together, and to helping each other remain mindful and joyful as much as possible.

One thing that might come out of this is, simply, a kind of balance, where the team does reasonably good work and is also rather happy. This certainly wouldn’t be a disaster. Maybe they’d even be a bit more effective than an average team due to a diminished incidence of personality conflicts and fewer stress-induced errors.

Another possibility is that, if this sort of experiment were tried in a variety of different styles and places, eventually a new state of mind would evolve – one bypassing the dichotomy of spiritual mindfulness versus intensely creative science or art production.

Solo Zum?

But do we really need a Zum? Organizing groups of people in novel configurations involves considerable practical difficulty. Why not become a one-person Zum? Experiment with different ways of practicing intense scientific creation and mindfulness at the same time – maybe you’ll come up with something new. Try to describe your internal methodology so others can follow in your footsteps. This sort of experimentation is every bit as valid and important as scientific experimentation, or personal experimentation with smart drugs. The human brain is far more flexible than we normally realize, it’s hard to say what may be possible even without technological brain modification.

Heh... well I'm really not sure how much any of that means, but it was an amusing train of thought! Now, it's time to pick up my daughter from school, and then get back to work.... I will be trying to be as cosmically aware as possible while my work proceeds ;O ;-) ... and probably not succeeding all that well !! So it goes... bring on the brain chips please...

This blog post was written while repetitively listening to various versions of A Tear for Eddie by Ween. This one is perhaps my favorite, though the studio version is great too.


Anonymous said...

As a cognitive science grad in india, i see the conflict you mention is real. As in on the one hand my interest in science and stuff has led me in one direction, while i have tried quite a few of the meditation techniques. From my viewpoint they don't seem orthogonal (Though i don't know/can't explain how else they are). But explanation for that would be the plane of projection i am using is very different from a typical western mind. I wish i could explain more about the differences, but i can only observe that there seems to be something akin in the greek vs roman mythologies/histories.

Oh and having worked in the s/w industry for some time i like the name zum..:-)

Marius said...

I often "listen" to drone music when doing intensive cogtinive work

Anonymous said...

My problem is transitioning from one state to the other, monkey mind doesn't seem to want to sit no matter how many times it sits and finds it to be oh so pleasant. When I sit, no problem at all. When I get up there's a whole other set of practices (what Chogyam Trungpa called 'meditation in action') I try to bring to bear. The book 'Buddha's Mind' helped me to see more clearly that everything I find problematic about my self is some variation of a purely biological theme. I try to keep an eye on the direction of the arrow of my development, not where I am at any particular moment, to what seems to be helping or hindering my awakening.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, I grew up in a group meditation community. I didn't like the community much but the group meditation had a positive effect. I have also traveled in India and had various states of consciousness in different company and places. I think you are right about the Zum and I highly encourage that. I am not a computer scientist though I would gladly be a part of your Zum. I have a link for you passed to me by a psychologist. At the University of WI there is this - - some Tibetan monks under the guidance of Dalai Lama started it with Dr. Davidson. Now they have moved on to studying children in meditation and other things. This may provide some insight into the intersection of science and enlightenment you seek. That is another thing I heartily encourage. Last, there is the Noosphere, it's off topic but something that I think should be on your radar and blogroll. Here is the link - - this is a measurement project. Consciousness experiments seem to be measurable. Thank you for your blog. Sometimes I feel that something is impeding AGI. I come to you for perspective. Please use my free music to help you into the flow state - - I hope you find something as good as Ween, I love Ween, Ween will overcome!

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter which way you go-- if you keep heading in the same direction eventually you'll wind up having gone around the entire world. If, however, you embark on a random walk, switching directions at various points in time, then you may cover a lot of ground, but you won't have been around the world.

beauty said...

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Anonymous said...

Glenn Gould (Canadian pianist) famously remarked, 'The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity'. If you watch any videos of him playing, and I recommend doing so, you may see some characteristic mental states displayed.

lah said...

In the Vedic traditions there's this concept of the three gunas, or qualities of existence: tamas, rajas, & sattva, which roughly translate to dullness, passion, & clarity. Thaddeus Gola's The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment chooses the terms: mass, energy, space.

I suspect that the "enlightened minds" you speak of map to sattvic or "space" qualities: calm, emptiness, acceptance, etc. And that when you speak of "cognitive intensity" you're talking about rajasic or "energetic" qualities: movement, anger/fear, effort/reward, etc.

I don't believe that integrating these two is possible. Working as a software engineer at a startup, I struggle with this same conflict.

I think the way out is the flip side of the integrated state you imagine... that is to say, I believe it's unnecessary. You seem to be identifying enlightenment only with sattva/space. Can you see it instead as mastery/acceptance of the interplay of all three? Now I rest, now I work, now I see. If these are balanced, each becomes richer.

You may one day produce a beautiful scientific discovery unexpectedly after a deep stillness. And you may one day, following an enlightened intent, act with tremendous intensity and passion.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Zum.

perceived pattern said...

Hi Ben,

After only a week or so of experimenting on my own with vipassana meditation, an "everything is complex pattern evolution" frame of mind became very clear to me. It would be a few months before I would find your book "The Hidden Pattern" in doing research. I hadn't been able to find anyone else who thought of evolving "patterns" as the fundamental unit of existence previously.

I wonder whether you had experimented with meditation before your patternist (pattern evolution) investigations. I find it interesting that I independently began using pattern in the same way as you after initial meditation experiments.

A year or so later, I attended a 10-day Goenka vipassana meditation retreat. Afterwards, I thought about the same thing you wrote here. How meditative practice and great scientific / engineering thinkers could make for some interesting happenings -- and how it hasn't happened because scientists categorically reject meditation, "enlightenment", etc. as spiritual bunk, and spiritualists don't tend to come to find scientific learning and engineering as important.

The Goenka vipassana style of silently feeling how faulty and illusory our bodily sensations are seems very scientific to me. Start with what you know, and build reality from there.

Most people I've spoken with who practice vipassana were still dualists, many believing in some flavor of a literal cycle of rebirth. For many, it reinforced (or created) unsupported beliefs about their place in reality. Sadly, Goenka slips in mentions of literal rebirth and literally feeling "quantum waves" in his instructional videos.

At the end of the silent meditation when we were given time to talk I found a person who was slightly scientifically-minded and we talked a bit about the experience and how we were seeing things. He began feeling everything as very interconnected, etc. Nudging, I mentioned how similar patterns of behavior occur at different scales and involving different things (e.g., tree branches branching to find light, axons branching to find useful neurons, etc). I suggested the word pattern might be a good way of describing things at all scales, down to physical reactions, and he began rattling off the exciting consequences instantly.

I wonder if silent meditation is a good way to hack the brain to silence our self-illusions long enough to see the way things truly are. Patterns evolving, no more, no less.

Ben Goertzel said...

I've never done Vipassana -- but I did meditate fairly seriously starting during middle school (inspired by reading some Ouspensky), and then had my first "one can meaningfully view everything as pattern" revelation a couple years after that...

perceived pattern said...

Googling meditation and patterns, came across this funny "aha!" moment of a meditator finding the perfect word to describe something otherwise hard-to-describe:

37 seconds in.

Anonymous said...

I think this documentary is very relavent to this post. Talks about a heat based wisdom that we need to create to go hand in hand with science and the rest of the faculties that run our world today.

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