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Pattern recognition in reverse: Emptiness through drawing, meditation, psychedelics

This post is about various means by which one can overcome the mind´s tendency to construct and show us a world that is "fabricated" (as the Buddhists say), and more of the world is it appears before the construction.

 


 

You can have a tiny "deconstructionist" experience, akin to yogic meditation experience of many years, in the following ways:


  • Visual: With a mind as still as possible, look firmly at an object for a long time. Eventually, it may no longer appear as - say - a chair, but as a collection of shapes and colors

  • Auditory: Repeat the same word - it doesn´t matter which - very often. After a while what you say may have lost its meaning - it may just appear to the mind as a sound empty of meaning.


Above , you see one of my drawings from 1963, when I was 9 years old. Our village teacher made us paint "realistic" paintings. When we deviated and gave in to the joy of color and shape, we were reprimanded.


So, I learned to draw in a way that was tightly bound up with concepts: the concept of chairs, people, flowers, houses, etc.


Essentially, I was forced into seeing the world through a tight conceptual lense, feeling ashamed when I went astray by the teacher pointing out that "THAT is not a face!".


My mother remembered vividly the afternoon, when I tried for hours to get the painting of a bee right. She told me that I was desperately crying for having to start again and again, because some aspect of the bee was "not right". No wonder my artistic skills in this area never flourished!


Drawing and art: Betty Edwards on dissolving chairs into patters when drawing, 1979



Only sometimes in the 1990 when I accidentally picked up a copy of Betty Edward´s "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", did I understand what had gone wrong: for the first time in my life, I took up a pencil, looked at an object as a collection of lines, curves, light and shadow, and drew a hand.


Actually, I did not draw a hand. My eyes followed extremely slowly the contours of e.g. the outer rim of the hand, did not even look at the drawing paper, and let my hand with the pencil "automatically" follow my what my eyes saw. Not bothered with getting a hand right, not bothered with producing what my conceptual mind thought a hand should be. I was just following the lines without thinking. In a way, this was already a kind of concentration meditation.


And I liked my drawing! I liked it because quite effortlessly, this new collaboration of eye and hand, freed of concepts, had freed my drawing. My drawing eventually, where I drew abstract patterns the way my eye actually perceived them represented much more a real hand than I had ever been able to produce when I drew "the concept of a hand".


From that point on for a while I drew the faces of my children and wife with enthusiasm. Sadly I lost my drawing book. But I do remember the joy of painting that I had never had as a child.


Betty Edward´s "non-conceptual drawing" pointed forward to mahamudra meditation that I was to meet later.

Meditation: Daniel P Brown on meditation, pattern recognition, and desconstruction, 1981


Daniel P Brown is one of the meditation teachers - such as Culadasa - who have always tried to link the Eastern meditative traditions to Western science.


In particularly, two strands of Western science are linked to meditation training and concepts:

  • Development psychology (what Wilber calls "growing up and cleaning up" as opposed to the Eastern "waking up") such as trauma and attachment theory.

  • Cognitive psychology / cognitive science and neuroscience (such as presented by Goleman in "Altered Traits"). The combination of East and West is also called contemplative science. It includes, for example, EEG research of meditators while meditation.

Dan Brown uses both links in his "high intensity training" retreats. As cognitive science and neuroscience made headway in the last 40 years, he continually updated his training material. Here, I am just focusing on the link to cognitive psychology as established by 1981, the time of writing of his dissertation.


And here is the early basic proposition by Dr Brown, made in his 1981 dissertation:


Deep yogic meditation in parts "is analogous to the process of pattern recognition in cognitive psychology, but in reverse." (Brown 1981, p. 590)

This hypothesis rests on the "constructionist" theory that what we perceive is the result of bottom-up process of receiving sensory stimuli, and aggregating them across levels of ever higher abstraction to what eventually appears in the mind as recognisable objects and instances (e.g. a specific car is an instance of the type "car").


Of course, as science is now much more aware, there are also top-down processes shaping the earliest impressions into what the mind has already learned. However, Daniel Brown in this 1981 dissertation rests on the early versions of this approach which emphasised the bottom-up nature of perception.


What does the yogi do during mediation to "reverse" this process?


Daniel P Brown describes it extensively in the 700+ pages of his dissertation. Essentially, the yogi deconceptualizes their mind by systematically training themselves to perceive at the level of more elementary sense impressions.


In the end, Brown suggests, in line with Culadasa´s (2017) later "The Mind lluminated", that the yogi trains himself to look "behind the scenes", and arrives at lower levels of processing of sensory and mental artefacts. Only through repeated and ever-deeper dismantling the fabrications will the yogi reach enlightenment - defined as insight into the artificial, constructed nature of all perception.


This "deconstruction" process applies to all types of internal events and objects: to visual objects, auditory perceptions, the felt sense, and even to thoughts and emotions-


At the end of the yogic deconstructionist process, "only pure autonomic activity remains". The affective effect is stripped off the experience, as it is seen as "empty" (Brown 1981, p 655).


Note:

I have made such an experience once in a psychedelic ceremony, where I experienced only the autonomic reaction of tears, but without corresponding emotions.


Dr Brown´s 1981 foresighted statement that "there there are no constructivist theories of affect within cognitive psychology, the meditative texts anticipate this current trend within other areas of cognitive psychology" (Brown 1981 p 655). The 2016 book by Lisa Feldman-Barret, "How Emotions are Made" fulfills exactly this promise.


He also formulated what Chandaria (2022) called


Descending the hierarchy of cortical fabrication

When I link this back to my experience with "Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain", it appears obvious: Betty Edward helps with seeing the world "naked".


The Bayesian Brain and Meditation - another desconstructionist view


His "pattern recognition in reverse" description is taken up to day also by Chandaria (M. Taft & Chandaria, 2022). Chandaria´s description integrates the newest neurological research and concepts also used in Artificial intelligence, nearly half a century after Dan Brown´s initial attempt.


This slide uses the Buddhist term "fabrication" and "un-fabrication".



Culadasa on the hierarchical board room model of the mind , 2016

...writing


Culadasa is a meditation teacher who did his quiet work in his Sonora desert retreat until he "exploded on the scene"in 2016 with his ground-breaking "The Mind Illuminated. Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness".


This book is - I believe - one of the truly great achievements that has helped many meditation-resistant lay-persons like me to actually start meditating. I heard of it through the Peter Attia podcast first - and if someone is scientific, it is Peter Attia.


A large part of the book is given to what he calls "Interludes" that give the reader a first view of contemporary brain science, at a high level, as it pertains to sensory and mental perception and what consciousness is. In these interludes he mixes Buddhist and cognitive science terms.


In particular, I want to point out two strands in his mapping of cognitive science to Buddhism: the implied " Global Workspace Theory" of what consciousness is, and on the hierarchical model of processing (as held by Daniel P Brown).


The Global Workspace Theory of the Mind


This theory represents consciousness as something akin to a boardroom, in which the board members (the subsystems of the mind; the six senses, including the cognitive mind), share a common workspace (such as a Powerpoint Presentation). They "project" their respective sensory and mental content into this space for "discussion". Eventually, the agreement of the board members determines, what we will experience as conscious mental event. Thus , there is no conscious agent as such.


An example is, when a driver on a dark road has to decide whether the object appearing in front of the car is a person or an animal, or even a hallucination.


This theory is highly intuitive and plausible. However, as the AI researcher Joscha Bach points out, it does not rest of emipirical research, but is a model essentially arrived at through introspection (just like meditation). Being an experienced meditator himself, Bach does not refute the model.


Bottom Up Processing,


Culadasa´s mind model rests essentially on a hierarchical model of the mind, as I have described it in the section on Daniel P Brown. Culadasa´s version is updated with newer research, but essentially the same.


And, identical to Daniel P Brown, he sees cognition as the aggregation of sensory input over many levels into what we eventually perceive as specific inner or outer objects (e.g. a bird, a thought).


Meditation, for Culadasa, achieves a similar result as described by Dan Brown: the ability of the meditator to become aware of deeper levels of processing through deconstruction.


Psychedelics


Here, Culadasa in a footnote adds a new aspect. Culadasa is not only a meditation teacher. In his youth, he had also become an expert on psychedelics. As he describes publicly on Youtube, he had become known as the "drug doctor", since he became known to lead people in difficult psychedelic experiences into calmer water. In fact, like Jack Kornfield and many other spiritual teachers, he came to Buddhism through psychedelics.


Now, back to "reverse cognition": Culadasa claims, from theory and from personal experience, that the basic process of de-aggregation and de-conceptualisation in meditation has its equivalent in psychedelic experiences.


In particular, this is true for some visual phenomena. In meditation and under the influence of psychedelics, the visual field can be modified in very similar ways. It can, for example, be decomposed into very fine-grained patterns such as lines, threads, squares, triangles etc.


In modern art, some psychedelic artists have brought back these changes of the visual field into their art


Here is a partial section of one of Alex Grey's "Sacred Mirrors" series.


Alex Grey, Universal Mind Lattice (section)


The following description of the typically to be expected patterns is taken from Loel Guinness´ "Rainbow Body" (Guiness 2018)

There may appear white atmospheric phenomena, straight lines, or zig-zag like phenomena, like lightning or phenomena like a mirror of crystal or like the wings of a bee, or like golden eyes or like smoke, or like a mirage or points of light, as if looking through a yak hair blanket or from the inherent radiance of the five or modes of primal awareness, there may arise various different forms such as rainbows or glossy, silk cloth being opened. Or patterns of nets and half nets or chessboard patterns. Or patterns of triangles or stupas, lotus, flowers and so on. Or they may appear tigles of rigpa that have the color of crystal, like scattered globulies of quicksilver, or tigles arranged in pavilions, surrounded by five halos of rainbow light, or like the threads of compassion that are rays, or like extended threads, which are white or silver, or like chains of iron or like chaotic ribs of parasols, or like combs scattered in space and so on. (Guinness 2018, quoting Druchen)

These description have to taken as exact descriptions of the visual field of the meditator, not as metaphors etc. They describe quite precisely one of my experiences with Ayahuasca.


In fact, it is interesting to compare Grey's psychedelic art with the cover page image of the quoted source book of Mahamudra meditation


The Precious Treasury of the Expanse and Awakened Awareness: The Ornaments of the Definitive Secret


Resources



Brown, D. P. (1981). Mahamudra Meditation-Stages and Contemporary Cognitive Psychology (Dissertation). http://abhidharma.ru/A/Tantra/Content/Raznoe/0028.pdf

This dissertation is a free download. It is a massive, highly technical volume that nevertheless gives an unparallelled insight into the education of a yogi.It draws on the knowledge of cognitive science as of the late 1970s, so it is not the newest in this regard.As compensation, Daniel P Brown gives some insight into the experiments with tachiscopy. to which he still referred in his retreats in 2021.The Universits of Chicago library entry:

https://catalog.lib.uchicago.edu/vufind/Record/470630


Brown, D. P., & Thurman, R. (2006). Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition (Annotated). Wisdom Publications. https://www.amazon.com/Pointing-Out-Great-Way-Meditation/dp/0861713044

This text is discussion topic on a conscious.tv series

The book builds on the 1981 dissertation by Daniel P Brown "Mahamudra Meditation Stages".


Brewer, J., & Brown, D. P. (1999). Mapping complex mind states: EEG neural substrates of meditative unified compassionate awarenes. Scribd. https://de.scribd.com/document/459103680/neuroawakening-pdf


Shamil Chandaria. (2022, October 30). The Bayesian Brain and Meditation [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eg3cQXf4zSE


Culadasa, & Immergut, M. (2017). The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Hay House Uk.

https://www.amazon.com/Mind-Illuminated-Meditation-Integrating-Mindfulness/dp/1781808201


Edwards, B. (2012). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: The Definitive, 4th Edition (4th ed.). TarcherPerigee. https://www.amazon.com/Drawing-Right-Side-Brain-Definitive/dp/1585429201


Feldman-Barrett, L. (2018). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Main Market). Pan.


Guinness, L. (2018). Rainbow Body. Serindia Publications, Inc. https://www.amazon.de/Rainbow-Body-Loel-Guinness/dp/1932476873

Gyaltsen, T. S., Brown, D. P., & Gurung, G. S. (2022). The Precious Treasury of the Expanse and Awakened Awareness: The Ornaments of the Definitive Secret (English Edition) (2nd ed.). Mustang Bon Foundation.


Taft, M., & Chandaria, S. (2022, December). Meditation and the Bayesian Brain with Shamil Chandaria. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://deconstructingyourself.com/meditation-and-the-bayesian-brain-with-shamil-chandaria.html





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