Where is your mind when you aren’t working, problem solving, talking, listening, reading, writing, watching or being watched? When you’re just sitting there twiddling your thumbs? (And your phone is dead?)
If you’ve been following the recent research into the effects of psychedelics on the brain, you will know that this is when your “default mode network” comes online. This medial frontoparietal network is responsible for maintaining our sense of self by ruminating on relevant memories, envisioning the future and daydreaming. You will also know that one of the most striking effects of a high dose of a psychoactive compound like psilocybin is the inhibition of the default mode network, the experience of which is commonly referred to as “ego dissolution”.
When you are so engrossed and absorbed in a task that you forget about everything but the task at hand (in extreme sports for example) you are in a state known as “positive samadhi”. This means that you are completely present in what you are doing, the opposite of daydreaming. The same goes for absorption in a novel or film or being carried away by an enthralling piece of music. You might describe it as being in a state of “flow” or as being “in the zone”.
In psychedelic therapy, this typically happens when listening to music. This is really the same thing as the shamanic “trance” states induced in drumming and ecstatic dance. You are so lost in the music that you forget yourself completely. But what happens when there is no music and no other stimulus to focus on?
If you have tried meditating, you will know how difficult it is to stop thinking and enter a state of serenity and quiet when you’re not engaged in any specific activity other than meditating. The “monkey mind” will just keep chattering away as the “default mode network” keeps firing away. This is even more excruciating on psychedelics, if the DMN hasn’t been fully deactivated. Silence is not for beginners.
When there is music, we can engage our other major brain networks, such as the attention and salience networks. This relieves us of the mental loops associated with the self-oriented default mode network. However, although we may learn a lot about “positive samadhi” and reduce or even eliminate the distracting invasive thoughts characteristic of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), we won’t necessarily learn much about “absolute samadhi”.
Absolute samadhi is the state of quiet emptiness and clarity when “just sitting” (shikan taza). You are not engaged in any task, so none of your task-focused brain networks are active. But neither is your default mode network. In the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha says, “Develop a mind that is vast like space, where experiences both pleasant and unpleasant can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle or harm. Rest in a mind like vast sky.” In Tibetan Buddhism, this state of “vast sky” is called rigpa, the pristine awareness of the fundamental ground of existence.
Imagine if your default mode was rigpa, instead of the usual running commentary of the ego’s tiresome broken record of self-concern. Imagine if between every action, instead of the background noise of the DMN, there was “vast sky mind”, and if during every task there was “one-pointed mind” and wei-wu-wei (effortless effort). Imagine if your life experience flowed between “absolute samadhi” and “positive samadhi”. This is what Zen training is all about, the cultivation of a life of meditation. It is also what Psychedelic Zen training is about.
Sometimes, however, the jiriki (self-power) way of Zen needs to be supplemented by the tariki (other-power) way of Shin. Especially in the intense throws of a heroic dose of psychedelics, we need prayer as much as meditation. Here is where Christianity comes into its own. Where Buddhism has perfected the art of meditation, Christianity has perfected the art of prayer:
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”
Matthew 7: 7-8