Firstly, does openly detailing the phenomenology of the later stages of awakening help or hamper people who are trying to remodel their minds in this way? There is an issue with giving people the answers before they have attained these insights for themselves, as it can prime them into thinking they’ve got what is being detailed before they do. This may cause them to prematurely tick off an achievement, when actually there is more insight or deepening for them to do. And we want people to properly get this stuff so that they actually get the full reduced suffering benefits!
I think one quite stark issue with explaining openly and in depth these sorts of things is that it’s very easy to parrot someone else’s words. This is something to look out for in all areas of learning. You read about particular phenomena and become very steeped in the terminology, jargon and phrasing of expressed esoteric states that you can recite enough verbiage to convince yourself that you’ve ‘got it’.
One trap I see is that certain descriptions of altered perception sound similar to one another, even though the sense of self, or no-self, consciousness, form, emptiness, infinitude, oneness, non-duality and all their relations to one another are actually being conceived of quite differently by different people — despite their sentences sounding alike.
For this reason, I really encourage people to come up with their own ways of describing their insights and not just default to the common spiritual catchphrases. This not only brings novel descriptions which may help the rest of us, but is a much better indicator to yourself that you understand the relevant insight and are less likely to be deceiving yourself.
I believe the culture is coming to understand quite well the distinction between a conceptual understanding and an experiential understanding. However, this is a simplistic parsing, when actually degrees of insight are much more layered. It is one thing to have temporarily experienced something and be able to recall that experience in memory, another thing to be able to induce an experience with more or less reliability given enough time, and something else to have a mode of viewing accessible at a moments notice by the quick flick of attention, and even another thing to have a realisation constant and pervading without even needing ‘to flick a switch’ with attention to get into it. And yet another thing to have the insight so integrated that it’s well linked up to linguistic faculties and one can talk from that insight and of the insight, live. And it seems most of these distinctions can only be fully appreciated retroactively, until after one has deepened to the next level of insight.
An analogy for understanding these differences is the degrees in ability to solve a math equation. You may remember an answer to a math problem, but not be able to solve that question now even if you tried. You may be able to solve the math equation, but it would take you some time. You may be able to plug it into a calculator and solve it rapidly whenever it is presented to you (and although it is a super quick move for you there is still a little sense that it requires some minute drain of energy — even as little as just having to push a button). Or you may just have to look at the equation and instantaneously know the answer without the sense that it took any effort.
Despite the problems of providing ‘cheat sheets’ to meditative aspirants, I think not being open and honest about meditative attainments does everyone a disservice by keeping people in the dark about what amazing possibilities there actually are to positively transform your mind. This prevents further interest, dialogue and research in this incredible area of human development.
People don’t want to bullshit themselves, though our mind has many ways of doing that to itself. I think as long as we retain this understanding that self-deception, bias and priming are inevitable, we can take up certain defences by encouraging environments of humility, feedback from all angles, and remembering that the real insights hold up over time. If you think you have achieved a certain truthful insight into the nature of mind, then it should be tenable and withstand scrutiny. Don’t be afraid to pressure test it. Although there are pitfalls, many people I speak to are able to take on a mature perspective here.
It is as though each data point of experience is known to itself, in its own place, and doesn’t relay back to some central point of knowing. If I feel a sensation in my knee, the knowing of the sensation is all in the knee and there isn’t a sense that that sensation is related to anything happening in the head. Sensations appear in their own place and that information lacks directionality.
Before losing the centre, if I felt a sensation in the knee it came with other information signals such as: “Down there” and although the sensation was in the knee, it appeared like the knowing of the sensation was in the head. There was a sense of direction and lag/delay of the attention being directed from the head down to the knee and then that sense qualia of the somatic sensation had to be relayed back to the epistemic agent in the head.
The process was perceived like this:
Attention is aimed down to the knee from the head → sensation in knee detected → sensation data sent back up to the head → sensation is now known in the head, but happening ‘down there’.
Now, all this directionality and time delay is removed from the process of knowing sensations.
This is particularly cool when hearing sounds, as the sounds are perceived/ processed/understood/known from their origin. I no longer have the sense that I am hearing from my ears, or that sounds travel to my ears. If I place a speaker in one corner of the room and play music from that speaker, and then I stand on the other side of the room, the comprehension of that music is perceived as fully happening at the speaker without the sense of that information needing to travel to the body. Somatic sensations in the head have nothing to do with understanding sounds in the environment.
The lack of identification with any part of this process or part of experience is also important here. With the absence of a centre, I mean there is no longer the sense of a single unified epistemic agent — one being who is the knower of all that is happening in experience. (I will explain this more in the section ‘The Hive Mind’.)
By 2nd path, I could get a sense of sensations knowing themselves. I remember distinctly a moment when I was walking down a hallway and really noticing that the sensations in my feet were aware where they were. Though the sensations were intimately felt to be me, which was a change from merely having sensations, but not yet close to having vanquished the singly positioned epistemic agent.
What I don’t mean by centrelessness
When I speak of centrelessness I don’t mean that there is a centre that can move around. Before the centre dropped away permanently, I could move the sense of the centre. By default, it was in the head behind the eyes, but I had learnt how to lower it to the chest or stomach if I wanted to. If I moved the centre to the chest that meant that sensations in the chest were perceived as being ‘closer’ to the point of knowing and then head sensations were perceived as happening ‘up there’ — whereas, normally head sensations were closest, and chest sensations were tagged as being ‘down there’.
I also don’t mean that I can notice centrelessness on a whim, momentarily but the centre comes back. Indeed before this last great shift, I could notice the centre appear and disappear at a rate of around +/-2.5 times a second. If I tuned into this I could at any moment briefly have a non-dual centreless experience. However, the centre would keep flickering back into experience. But on May 21st 2021 it flickered out and didn’t come back.
I also don’t mean that anything I focus on becomes the centre. I don’t mean that the centre is just vague and not detected as a specific spot in experience. If there is still the sense that sensations are known with direction: ‘Down there’, ‘over there’, ‘to the left’, ‘to the right’ or even ‘here’ that is an indication that there is still a centre of knowing despite how vague, diffuse, non-specifically locatable, momentary, changing, or empty it may appear to be. Again, for me, the signal of ‘directional knowing’ is just absent now.
I also don’t mean that there is a persisting or even temporary/flickering signal of a centre of knowing, but that it is perceived as empty, holographic, non-self, or lacking substantiality while present. I mean that signal no longer arises, at all. It is one thing to notice the emptiness of an impression in the mind. It is another to no longer have that impression show up altogether.
In Daniel Ingram’s words “There is nothing subtle about it: anything and everything that arises exhibits these same qualities directly, clearly. When I was third path, particularly late in it, those things that didn’t exhibit these qualities were exceedingly subtle, and trying to find the gaps in the thing was exceedingly difficult and took years and many cycles.” There is no subtle, time delaying attentional shift that needs to take place to notice centrelessness. There is no sense that if I squint my focus in some way and block out other parts of experience does the sense of centrelessness show itself. It is abundantly and immediately obvious during all moments of experience. Even after a year of permanent centrelessness and boundarylessness, though its novelty has worn off, my appreciation for the looseness and airy quality and subsequently the freedom from the majority of suffering that it brings is pervasive day to day.
With other strange anomalous shapes of consciousness, perhaps the centre is non-obvious. Though if there is still a sense of a container space with edges, then this provides some reference to a middle of sorts.
Also when someone has come to ‘The Witness’ perspective, in which they feel as if there is a massive plane of unadulterated awareness which is behind everything, it can seem like this has no discernable edges or any real centre to it. This is not the kind of centrelessness I am referring to. At the witness stage, things can be quite vague as to where exactly the epistemic agent is, yet despite this vagueness there is still a subject/object split.
With true centrelessness comes boundarylessness. If there is a sense of some kind of structure or form to the mind with edges then that leads to a kind of centring (even if that centre isn’t precisely known). Before the centre disappeared there was the sense that the mind was bubble-shaped, and everything in awareness was encapsulated in a consciousness balloon of sorts. That balloon could grow or shrink but there was always an edge detection unless I went into Jhana 5 or 6 and up. What I realised is that the boundary of the mind was a confabulation of the edge of the visual field coupling with ‘hard’ sensations in the side of the head, giving the impression that the mind has a hard ending.
Now, there is clearer perception that visual stimuli are distinct from somatic sensations and those sensations in the side of the head have been decoupled from the edges of the visual field — this popped the bubble of the mind! Now the jhana factor of Jhana 6 is always available. And to iterate, just like with centrelessness, it is not like the sense of the boundaries appear and then disappear when I look for them or pull a meditative move, or that their impressions are there but understood as empty. I mean they no longer form now.
These infinity mirror rooms are one of the most accurate reflections of 4th path. How these rooms look, is how my regular state feels — constant abiding in boundless, 360-degree awareness with no centre. And I don’t mean this as a metaphor or analogy. I literally mean this is my day to day, moment to moment perception.
Each hanging diamond represents a node of experience; each self-illuminating, self known, without reference to each other. No one diamond is more special than another. No one diamond, or even cluster of diamonds, is more responsible for holding the whole experience space together than another, and certainly not for controlling what happens in this space.
Of course, there are limits to perception and seeing does not go on forever in all directions. The eyes have their limited range and field of view, but where stimuli cease they are no longer felt to be indicating a structure to the shape of the mind. This is why I say it brings freedom from the cage of the mind — the sense of finally not being trapped in a contained experience space, but having realised its false walls and having dissolved into the fabric of existence — the (non)space between being and non-being.
The spider-web analogy
I have been influenced by valance structuralism, a theory made popular by QRI, and I suspect they are barking up the right tree; it is that the topology of one’s world simulation matters in terms of how it deals with stress and dissonance resulting in more or less negative valance, aka suffering.
Excerpt from featured article: Consider the tautness of a spider’s web. If a fly lands on it, at one part, the whole web will shake and the energy will transfer throughout in such a way that the spider can locate where on the web the fly landed. If the web is too taut then the energy of the fly landing won’t dissipate far enough for the spider to receive the information. However, if the web is too slack the fly could just break the structure of the web.
It might be interesting to consider why spiders build webs with a centre point and not as a straight or crisscrossing lattice.
So to relate this to consciousness and metabolising stress… I would say my consciousness now feels like it’s tauter and lattice-woven rather than spider web-shaped with a middle. So this means when a stress point is activated somewhere in the experiential space, its energy doesn’t ripple as far out as it would have before, thus not being as disruptive.
And if we liken the spider on the web to the epistemic agent, if he is situated on one spot and for all goings-on on the web to be known their information must travel to him, then the web must be not too taut so that all the ripples can reach him and he knows what’s going on. The problem with this set-up is that it means that knowing requires instability.
However, if we do away with the spider (a single point considered the epistemic agent) and make it so that knowledge is attributed to the web itself, then the web can afford to be much tauter/less shaky/more robust, causing less negative valence. This is a big reason why I emphasise centrelessness as a major contributing factor to the attenuation of dukkha.
So in some way, I could say my experience (centerless consciousness) is more stable in this way (especially when it comes to mood stability), but this stability doesn’t feel rigid or stiff, but rather very airy.
Indra’s net can have too much slack in it if it’s not sewn together tightly and uniformly.
The Hive Mind
When the centre disappears so does the sense that everything is known ‘here’. ‘The Here and The Now’ are empty constructions tagged onto sense data. They are additional features not intrinsic to the perception of qualia. Rip those tags off! Eventually, what is left is the clear apprehension of sense data not happening anywhere, and without the sense that they are all known by one unified epistemic entity — there is no all-seeing, omniscient ‘god mind’ (though this point of view is not alien to me either) — instead, sense data are just known in themselves, to themselves, and yet there is fantastic coordination nonetheless.
Phenomenologically, the wires that connect all these sense data together have gone underground and what is left is a seeming hive mind with emergent intelligence. The sense of unity, oneness, and separation has disappeared and if they are to appear they are understood as not revealing the true nature behind the curtains of consciousness (‘unity god consciousness’ is still part of the dream). They are just appearances in the mind and are hollow, and are a level removed (meaning latent properties) from knowledge of direct, raw experience.
Crucial to the centre disappearing was the uprooting of the hindrances of ‘the will to be’ and ‘the will to not be’. With a decentralised mind, there is no one part of experience that can speak for all. When I posit the question “Do I wish to continue living or not?” it’s like the question fails to connect in some critical way, it becomes nonsensical and there is no one to answer this question. Whereas before, when the sense of a centre was still intact, I could come up with an answer to that question. Now it doesn’t connect. I can prefer if certain sensations weren’t appearing, but no one, or no part can answer for the whole and decidedly determine “Yes, I want to keep living!” or “No, I wish consciousness would just blank out, forever”.
The organism can still determine it is hungry and a part can speak up in these situations, but when it comes to something so existential about an entity persisting through life or after death, something about this thought just doesn’t resonate anymore.
This releases a lot of stress and clinging to life and rejection/fear of death — though the real test would be to see how I react in the face of an actual life-threatening situation, so who knows. I suspect mammalian survival instincts would kick in hard. But at least in regular life those psychological attachments and fears seem greatly reduced.
Here is a great example of hive mind activity. Human LCD — the ORIGINAL
There is no centre to these displays, no visible command centre. There are just the parts doing their own thing, yet there is the ability to display complex images which give the impression of a united intelligence communicating with sophisticated behaviour. This is very much how my mind is understood to itself.
Note that even if the impression of a centre were displayed by this human LCD spectacle how that wouldn’t actually be revealing a true commanding centre, as the underlying decentralised system hasn’t changed. It’s still just individual people holding up their own colour placards at different times, despite on the surface giving the appearance of an image with a centre — that’s not a true centre. I would argue this is the case for all minds whether one realises it or not.
See also the gorgeous murmurations of starlings for another example. Flight of the Starlings: Watch This Eerie but Beautiful Phenomenon | Short Film Showcase