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OF ALL THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL EFFECTS that people on psychedelics report, the dissolution of the ego seems to me by far the most important and the most therapeutic. I found little consensus on terminology among the researchers I interviewed, but when I unpack their metaphors and vocabularies—whether spiritual, humanistic, psychoanalytic, or neurological—it is finally the loss of ego or self (what Jung called “psychic death”) they’re suggesting is the key psychological driver of the experience. It is this that gives us the mystical experience, the death rehearsal process, the overview effect, the notion of a mental reboot, the making of new meanings, and the experience of awe.
Consider the case of the mystical experience: the sense of transcendence, sacredness, unitive consciousness, infinitude, and blissfulness people report can all be explained as what it can feel like to a mind when its sense of being, or having, a separate self is suddenly no more.
Is it any wonder we would feel one with the universe when the boundaries between self and world that the ego patrols suddenly fall away? Because we are meaning-making creatures, our minds strive to come up with new stories to explain what is happening to them during the experience. Some of these stories are bound to be supernatural or “spiritual,” if only because the phenomena are so extraordinary they can’t be easily explained in terms of our usual conceptual categories. The predictive brain is getting so many error signals that it is forced to develop extravagant new interpretations of an experience that transcends its capacity for understanding.
Whether the most magnificent of these stories represent a regression to magical thinking, as Freud believed, or access to transpersonal realms such as the “Mind at Large,” as Huxley believed, is itself a matter of interpretation. Who can say for certain? Yet it seems to me very likely that losing or shrinking the self would make anyone feel more “spiritual,” however you choose to define the word, and that this is apt to make one feel better.
The usual antonym for the word “spiritual” is “material.” That at least is what I believed when I began this inquiry—that the whole issue with spirituality turned on a question of metaphysics. Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for “spiritual” might be “egotistical.” Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.
“The psychedelic journey may not give you what you want,” as more than one guide memorably warned me, “but it will give you what you need.” I guess that’s been true for me. It might have been nothing like the one I signed up for, but I can see now that the journey has been a spiritual education after all.
Coda: Going to Meet My Default Mode Network I got the opportunity—a non-pharmacological opportunity—to peer into my own default mode network soon after I interviewed Judson Brewer, the psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies the brains of meditators. It was Brewer, you’ll recall, who discovered that the brains of experienced meditators look much like the brains of people on psilocybin: the practice and the medicine both dramatically reduce activity in the default mode network.
Brewer invited me to visit his lab at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts medical school in Worcester to run some experiments on my own default mode network. His lab has developed a neural feedback tool that allows researchers (and their volunteers) to observe in real time the activity in one of the key brain structures in the default mode network: the posterior cingulate cortex.
Until now I have tried to spare you the names and functions of specific parts of brain anatomy, but I do need to describe this one in a bit more detail. The posterior cingulate cortex is a centrally located node within the default mode network involved in self-referential mental processes. Situated in the middle of the brain, it links the prefrontal cortex—site of our executive function, where we plan and exercise will—with the centers of memory and emotion in the hippocampus. The PCC is believed to be the locus of the experiential or narrative self; it appears to generate the narratives that link what happens to us to our abiding sense of who we are. Brewer believes that this particular operation, when it goes awry, is at the root of several forms of mental suffering, including addiction.
As Brewer explains it, activity in the PCC is correlated not so much with our thoughts and feelings as with “how we relate to our thoughts and feelings.” It is where we get “caught up in the push and pull of our experience.” (This has particular relevance for the addict: “It’s one thing to have cravings,” as Brewer points out, “but quite another to get caught up in your cravings.”) When we take something that happens to us personally? That’s the PCC doing its (egotistical) thing. To hear Brewer describe it is to suspect neuroscience might have at last found the address for the “But enough about you” center of the brain.
Buddhists believe that attachment is at the root of all forms of mental suffering; if the neuroscience is right, a lot of these attachments have their mooring in the PCC, where they are nurtured and sustained. Brewer thinks that by diminishing its activity, whether by means of meditation or psychedelics, we can learn “to be with our thoughts and cravings without getting caught up in them.” Achieving such a detachment from our thoughts, feelings, and desires is what Buddhism (along with several other wisdom traditions) teaches is the surest path out of human suffering.
Brewer took me into a small, darkened room where a comfortable chair faced a computer monitor. One of his laboratory assistants brought in the contraption: a red rubber bathing cap with 128 sensors arrayed in a dense grid across every centimeter of its surface. Each of the sensors was linked to a cable. After the assistant carefully fitted the cap onto my skull, she squirted a dab of conductive gel beneath each of the 128 electrodes to ensure the faint electrical signals emanating from deep within my brain could readily traverse my scalp. Brewer took a picture of me on my phone: I had sprouted a goofy tangle of high-tech dreadlocks.
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