In the Dharma and Draw yesterday, I was talking to Jenny about the loss of the sense of self. Ron’s post about the PCC and reading the article about it got me thinking more about it. For context, a few months into my freshman year, we had moved to a different state and I found it extremely difficult to make friends. For better or worse, I think it was sometime sophomore year that I connected with the heads who at least seemed willing to tolerate my presence, people who probably consumed cannabis on a daily basis. I seem to be extremely sensitive to cannabinoids, and of course, there was zero explanation or guidance about what to do or what to expect. So, I just imitated what other people were doing.
In my case, consuming the same amount of cannabis resulted in seeing auras, having great difficulty distinguishing between thoughts and what was happening and drastic weakening of the concept of “who I am” that lasted for an indeterminate period of time, at least weeks, possibly months. I also experienced tachycardia and odd heartbeats where it felt like each side of the heart contracted twice–I didn’t believe that I was having a heart attack, but it certainly added to the anxiety.
The depersonalization and derealization (DPDR) seemed further exacerbated by an appendectomy with sodium pentothal as part of the anesthesia. I frequently had dreams that I had woken up, gotten out of bed, and started my day. At some point the narrative would go off the rails. I encountered items that were unusual, seemed out of place, behaved in ways that didn’t make sense. And then I would realize that I had not actually woken up and recognize that I was still dreaming. I became increasingly afraid that I would end up in a coma, unable to wake up. I had mirror agnosia, when I looked in the mirror, the image that I saw did not feel like “me” because it was like the mind was no longer generating the concept of “who I am”. I had no sense or internal image of “what I looked like”.
Lately, I have come to realize that concentration, but not necessarily right concentration, seems to come to me naturally. When I felt like I was losing my mind, I would spend hours working on seed bead bracelets using something similar to a brick stitch that my younger sister had learned during a summer class at the local natural history museum that she taught to me, and I improved on. Fully concentrating on this activity to the exclusion of everything else felt very soothing. I have a small working memory, but seem to be able to empty this working memory of everything except for the task that I am focusing on.
Lately, I have also come to recognize that there is a lack of balance, however. I have relied on this concentration skill very heavily for work. When I’m not in this focused state, things seem chaotic. I will remember something that I need to do then forget it a moment later and have to wait until I remember it again. I will start a task then remember something else that I need to do and move on to a different task without completing the first one. Which I’m also recognizing is very much the way that I am writing this narrative. I sometimes think of this like standing beside a merry-go-round, the same horse will come back around eventually, but sometimes it takes awhile.
Since the Jhana retreat, I have found it very difficult to maintain a daily practice, things feel very chaotic and in flux. I’m still giving a twice weekly guided meditation for the folks at work that I have done since fall of 2019, and I attend a few group meditations. Yet, I’m still having profound insights every week regardless. I’m hoping that daily practice will become easier to attain now that I have freed myself from the requirement to spend every other week commuting to the office.
Having a completely different routine every other week has been incredibly unsettling for me. I’m having more fibromyalgia pain symptoms. I’m having much more frequent migraine scotoma from a few times a year to as often as twice a week, these had been painless in recent years, but have been getting some mild headaches as well. By Thursday of the week that I’m supposed to be going into the office, I have such muscle soreness that I end up working from home instead, but able to return again on Friday.
Coming back to identity belief, without any context or anyone to guide me, I thought that I was going insane, possibly schizophrenic. I terrified to try psychedelics or any other drugs given the reaction to cannabis although I had opportunities.
I didn’t realize how heavily I depended on self concept until that was gone. Self concept becomes like a measuring stick for maintaining a consistent narrative. I realized that I would ask myself questions like: Am I the kind of person who does Z? If I do Y, will other people perceive that as inconsistent with who I believe myself to be? Not having this measuring stick takes some retooling and reorientation. For a long time, a lot felt like mechanically going through the motions disconnected from any sense of purpose or meaning.
There’s a whole other story about getting involved with the est training aka Landmark Forum around the time of the Werner Erhard expose and going down that rabbit hole for about 5 years. At best, I think that training is incomplete in ways that I am just beginning to understand. I believe their training is missing important elements of The Noble Eightfold Path and without those pieces, you can become dependent on the organization unless you know those pieces exist and how to provide them.
I think it may be possible to participate in Landmark and maintain healthy boundaries, but that becoming a part of the “Assistant Program” and leadership trainings is very cult-like at least very high demand unless things have changed dramatically. Successes were thanks to Landmark while failures were due to character flaws. The be all and end all to save the world was always to enroll people in courses. On the downside, I think that I also learned how to mask more effectively, that is how to more effectively perform the simulacra of “normal” for the viewing public.
There is a sort of New Speak that people embrace in Landmark and stop talking like typical people, “but these are important distinctions!” The “self” is often discussed in an aversive way as “your it” or “your story” which has some truth, but making it aversive is unwise and keeps it in place rather than leading to liberation. I cringe when I hear certain jargon around mindfulness like people talking about “creating a container”–maybe that’s fine as a meta conversation with other teachers, but it sounds very weird and jargony in my opinion, likely nonsensical and cult-like to beginning meditators.
During my time with Landmark, I was completely free from drugs, but still frequently experienced prolonged periods of DPDR especially after a few days of training. The positive for me was learning to become comfortable with DPDR and realize that self concept is not essential for survival. During this time, I became interested in and started learning about shamanic practices, at first expecting that psychedelia would be involved until I began to have success with drumming and left Landmark to pursue shamanic practice, which became my practice for over a decade.
Ultimately, I understand that self concept is a mental fabrication, a sankhara, it does not have permanent existence anywhere and cannot be the self. However, this varies on a spectrum for me between intellectual concept and felt sense. This becomes more felt sense during retreats and for a short period after, but tends to fade over time. Learning the Five Precepts provided a sense of relief, having a simple set of rules of thumb independent of a constructed “self” to guide right action.