Let Us Pray

That in which awareness arises, beyond time and space, is totally mind-blowing.

One day, it’ll be recognised by everyone within their awareness.

For now, let’s ensure our immediate material needs are met, but that we don’t become trapped in what our ignorance produces, nor in the effects on us of others’ ignorance.

Let’s not be distracted by whatever is not working towards this, but repeatedly step back from it.

Because that in which awareness arises is what life on earth is really all about, and this amazing, indescribable realisation is always there, supplying the strength to recognise that everything is okay.

Job done!

(My paraphrase of The Lord’s Prayer.)

Keeping Up the Meds

I fell into the trap of assuming that a little meditation is as good as a lot. But I’ve rediscovered recently that a lot is so much better than a little.

I’d fallen into the habit of snatching 20-40 minutes a day (max), usually skipping it altogether at the weekends. I was labouring under a fantasy that where meditation was concerned, I was done, and it had no surprises left.

What switched me back on was a simple craving for some peace. So I sat for a whole hour, twice in a day, and noticed how much easier it was to do the same the following day. This was the first thing I’d forgotten: more meditation gives you more energy (to expend on whatever you wish.)

I’d also assumed that, after fourth path, meditators no longer experience the cycles of insight. Yet after sitting again for 1-2 hours per day, rather than 20 minutes, it was easier to see that they do – it’s just that the cycles can turn quite fast. Sitting occasionally for 20 minutes simply isn’t conducive to a firm grip on where we are.

Then I had the shock of my life when I ran into a fruition! Conscious thought faded and I was watching my mind forming a dream. I recognised it as one I’d dreamt a few weeks before, yet it was unfolding all over again from its beginning, in real time. I was not remembering the dream, but experiencing it over again, except also watching it fully conscious. This blurring of thinking and dreaming, remembering and experiencing, changed the usual mental landscape into something completely alien and indescribable, and – pop – a fruition. The afterglow lasted a couple of days.

Here’s how a typical one-hour sit generally plays out for me.

To begin with, there’s awareness of the broken mechanism of self. The act of looking fails to join with any trace of a looker. Looking is like scanning a mobius strip of experience, failing ever to find its non-existent other side.

Yet this is only ‘failure’ from the perspective of the looker – and he’s not to be found anyway. So eventually the ‘brokenness’ yields to what is truly the background to experience, which remains uncreated and boundless. This I’ve come to regard as the living, working presence of the Holy Spirit.

Concentration and mental quietness can heighten the connection, bringing into awareness experiential insights. These might include the compassion inherent in existence: how everything is allowed to arise from nothing, and vanish back into it without trace; or how God is that which is absolutely unlimited by Itself, which makes It so good, It even accommodates that which isn’t good at all.

When it occurs to me that I’m not as focused as I could be, or that the mind is wandering, then concentration is exposed as a fraud. Because if ‘this’ isn’t already what I’m trying to make my focus, then just what the hell else do I suppose there is? The whole concept of ‘concentration’ is senseless!

This realisation quickly puts the kibosh on thought. It kills ‘intentional’ mental activity stone dead. Internal chatter falls silent. Dreams still arise, but can be watched consciously. I might even fall asleep, but can be conscious of sleeping.

If awareness remains alert, without lapsing into a murky identification with the content of dreams, eventually the dreams, too, fade out. What’s left is the milky-blue radiance of an impersonal consciousness with no content or commentary. (Which is rather relaxing.)

I might stumble across any of these insights or states, or stumble out again. Towards the end, usually I begin to feel bored, restless, or hit some other form of suffering – because that’s what happens when human beings sit dead-still on their arses for a while.

As the suffering grows louder than other sensations, I turn my mind into it. Or if I find my mind turning away, I turn my mind into how it’s turning away. If it becomes unbearable, I turn my mind into its being unbearable. Because if ‘unbearable’ can be looked at, how is it unbearable? And if it can’t be looked at, then how do I know ‘unbearable’ is what it is?

There’s no escape from consciousness. Always here. Always effortless.

Finally, meditating for longer seems to re-open the gate to paranormal experiences. The 13th of this month was the anniversary of my father’s death. He was also born on the 13th, and had moved into a house numbered 13 a few months before he died.

So I sat for an hour on the 13th this month, before it was light. Nothing remarkable happened, and I wasn’t expecting anything. At the end of the session, my stopwatch sounded – but didn’t give its usual 20 beeps. It got just over half-way, then crapped out. When I picked it up, it was flashing ‘12:00’ and had reset. It had never done this before and I assumed the batteries had died. But, after resetting the correct time, it has worked fine since.

I wish I’d mentally counted the beeps, as I often do. Something tells me I would’ve reached 13. A coincidence, of course. But meaningful coincidences seem to come a little thicker and faster when I’m putting in more time on the cushion.

No prizes for guessing my resolution for 2013. Happy New Year, everybody!

On Dreams and Architecture

Appian Way

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, ‘Appian Way’, frontispiece for ‘La antichità romane’ (1756).

As I lay awake, I began to feel
that my body’s image from my body
had detached. It’s not entirely pleasant,
this sensation, yet tends to descend
only if I’ve slept too deep for too long
which, these days, is a sure-fire guarantee
I’m not affected by it too often.
This morning when it came – or, namely, when
the mind’s own notion of its body
had stronger than the body grown in strength,
with eyes shut I made an experiment:
moving the mental body a quarter-turn.
When this I’d done, it felt so fully real
(as if I’d made the movement actually)
another virtual quarter-turn I took,
so in my mind my head was resting now
where physically should have been my feet.
Set neurophysiology aside!
Always, in this state, imagination rules.
For of the brain, we have no direct sense;
but, of the mind, it is experience!
Far be it from my intent to argue
that ‘the soul’ departs to disport abroad;
or even that a portion of the brain
(the part, perhaps, that bears within itself
a picture of the body’s pose and motion)
has o’erstepped its mark at times like these,
assuming prominence more than usual.
All I know is this: that having turned about
in the bed an imaginary body,
I opened now imaginary eyes
and found a room not unlike that recalled
from childhood, where my younger sister slept
when we both were kids – excepting its size:
the ceiling high, the walls widely parted,
which – for a child’s room – gave a curious feel
of uncluttered and more than ample space.
A remembered room, so, remembered too,
its bigness perhaps by my childish eyes.
I knew full well that I was in a dream
and stared about in wonder, to discern
what light I saw by. I knew with eyes shut
in reality I lay. And yet I saw.
What kind of seeing is this, lit somehow
by lightless impressions from inside?
Of objects there are none within to see,
nor of reflected rays to see them by.
It is my habit now when in this state
to make a thorough survey of what’s sensed,
inspecting how this seeming-seeing fools
us with a semblance of solid things.
Under applied attention it unweaves.
Look for colour and you will find none; look
for touch, there’s none there either to be found;
nor taste, nor sound, nor smell; yet it presents
as something having each and all of these,
but in the nature of the thought of them,
rather than external things revealed.
In the mysterious night-world of sleep
seeming is semblance enough for being;
light’s mere concept is enough to see by;
memory’s furniture fills the void;
and body is surplus to requirement.
Needed only are body’s sensations
to make a sense of separateness between
impressions from one side or another.
Is mind a place? Milton’s Satan thought so
and built of it a Hell in Heaven’s despite.
But had he looked at what he took for mind,
and paused before assuming it as his,
he might have glimpsed the gaps between the weave
and grasped the awesome truth: that even here,
in our deepest, most interior recess,
we’re no more with ourselves than anywhere,
for self is God’s only, spending, spending,
promiscuously always and forever.

Interior of the Patheon.

Piranesi, ‘Interior of the Patheon’.

Architecture is human habitat,
but in imagination comes to speak
of what is given and of what surrounds.
Buildings in a dream perform no function,
need no plans nor labour of erection,
so, freed from all material constraint,
they can assume forms close to an ideal.
The cities of my dreams throng with structures
cleaving to imaginary purposes.
Gasometers or giant cisterns haunt
the skylines of these imagined townscapes.
Beneath a columned dome last night I walked,
with distant birdsong in autumnal light,
between funeral monuments interspersed
with landscaped gardens, waterfalls, fountains –
yet it was the quality of that light
which seized my heart tightest by its beauty:
golden radiance, seeming to collect
in the porcelain summit of the dome
then raining down, like diagonal mist,
onto the shining tombs and epitaphs.
I stared until light became thought only,
growing in beauty as it grew unreal.

Ruins of a sepulchre on the Appian Way

Piranesi, ‘Ruins of a sepulchre on the Appian Way’ (1764).

Thoughts by their nature arise un-unique.
To re-think is to think exactly again.
In dreams, place partakes of this nature.
On having woken, often there’s a sense
we visited nowhere new but returned
to an instance of a former idea.
‘The same place, but a different guise’ is
common in dreams, impossible awake.

There is a vast clock tower, its timepiece
long-broken, or sounding spasmodically.
With weeds the rusted face is overgrown.
Underfoot, debris crunches as we climb
mouldering concrete stairs to its apex.
The dim, dank air is musty with a scent
familiar, of old, abandoned spaces
that dates back somehow to the seventies:
a place in the old house, under the stairs,
where my parents hung coats and stored the shoes,
so much in use and never decorated.
Why the tower should smell like this inside
I cannot fathom, yet each time I dream
of it,in one of a myriad forms,
this odour is a constant that betrays
something hinting at commonality –
but what it might be lurks in mystery.

Ancient altar, with other ruins

Piranesi, ‘Ancient altar, with other ruins’.

There is one other place I’ve visited
so many times, I cannot hope to count.
So often and so many times, perhaps
of all the dreams I’ve dreamt this is the one
my mind tends towards above all others.
A dual place it is, of two clear parts:
linked cemeteries, one old, one new.
The newer one is bright and clean and fine.
The dead lie hidden, decently arrayed.
It’s modern, or else sometimes dating back
to the nineteenth century: regal, sombre,
melancholy – for sure – but well-controlled,
unlike its older twin, which breeds nightmares.
Ancient and decayed, the soil here threatens
to crumble, crack, like mouldy honeycomb,
exposing rancid vaults, mottled coffins,
or – worse – the putrid freight that hides inside.
This place, sometimes, deep-most at its core
resolves to an effigy of decay:
a hunk of oozing scalp, with hair attached;
or severed member, nothing else beside;
as if the place were pointed all at that.
Often, in the prelude, I am firstly
by the newer graveyard, where all is well,
except – already – a faint foreboding.
Inevitably, mischance will intrude:
a wrong turning, a moment’s confusion,
or sometimes an ineluctable pull,
collecting me into the old graveyard’s
slow-motion aura of threat and terror.
‘It dates back to the eighteenth century.’
Prosaic-sounding, yet inside a dream
details can unlock a store of horror.
A serif font ne’er did anyone harm,
yet in the chiselled script upon these stones
the evil genius of this place cavorts.
In curlicue and italic flourish
a brooding evil grins malevolent.
Duped by this place, or having stumbled
within its orbit by my own neglect,
the machine-like demon that here presides
let’s fly the shutter, and up it snaps,
and behold: oozing death and rank decay!
So predictable, that over the years
dreaming is become like recognising,
and as or just before the trap springs shut
often I wake myself by will alone.

The Effects on Lucid Dreaming of Galantamine and Alpha-GPC

Inspired by the work of Thomas Yuschak, previously I tested the effects on lucid dreaming of the dietary supplement alpha-GPC, with some positive results. I have now been able to test a combination of supplements Yuschak suggests is even more effective: alpha-GPC and galantamine. The latter is available in the UK only on prescription, but I was able to obtain some from a supplier in the US.

The variety I used is a plant extract from the red spider lily (lycoris radians). Synthetic forms and extracts from other species of lily are also available.

The technical part

Galantamine is an inhibitor of acetylcholinesterase, which is the substance that breaks down acetylcholine in the brain. As described briefly in the previous article, acetylcholine has been demonstrated to play a role in dreaming. Galantamine, by interfering with the brain’s ability to break down this substance, seems to extend and strengthen the neurochemical process that underpins dreams. Galantamine reaches its peak effect quickly (in about 1 hour). It has a half-life of 7 hours, but takes approximately 48 hours to clear from the body.

(4aS,6R,8aS)- 5,6,9,10,11,12- hexahydro- 3-methoxy- 11-methyl- 4aH- [1]benzofuro[3a,3,2-ef] [2] benzazepin- 6-ol

The chemical structure of Galantamine.

Because galantime prevents acetylcholine from breaking down, rather than actively raising its level, Yuschak recommends combining galantamine with a choline salt (of which alpha-GPC is one of the most efficiently absorbed). This supplies an added boost of acetylcholine, in addition to the action of the galantamine.

I went to bed at 10.15pm and fell asleep as normal. At 3am I got up, went to the toilet, and took 4mg galantamine with 300mg alpha-GPC. Instinct advised me to use plenty of water. I returned to bed, but took a long time to fall back asleep – at least an hour. I also got up once more for the toilet, which may have been due to the water.

It’s not working

I lay awake for so long I started to wonder whether the effects would wane before I’d even started to dream. But then I noticed my mind slipping into fugue-like meanderings, where I was neither quite asleep nor awake. I was homeless and cooking a pan of rice outdoors. Then I realised I’d lit the gas but had forgotten to add water. I rushed around, trying to find water before the rice burnt, but problems and obstacles kept springing up that I had to deal with first.

Even though it seemed that I wasn’t, actually I was sleeping – and dreaming too, but non-lucidly. Things suddenly seemed very, very clear, and I wondered if the night had started at last. I lay for quite some time, assessing whether I was dreaming or awake. But when the room around me remained steadfastly normal, I concluded I must be conscious. Nevertheless, I took the uncertainty as a promising sign.

Later, I became aware of absolute darkness, but I was fully aware within the darkness. I felt vibrations throughout my body. At certain moments, my body would shoot off in a particular direction at huge speed. There was no sensation of rushing air, or any motion sickness, just pure movement in a straight line, either behind or to one side.

I was struck by the total lack of imagery. I seemed to sink down into a place that was completely black and silent. The thought arose that I had descended to the lowest point of Hell, but thankfully I was aware that it was only a thought.

It’s interesting to note that the plant from which galantamine is extracted (red spider lily), is supposedly described in Chinese and Japanese translations of the Lotus Sutra as ‘ominous flowers that grow in Hell’, guiding the dead into their next reincarnation. (This is according to Wikipedia, at least, but I should say that searching English translations of the sutra didn’t turn up any more details, or anything to support this assertion.)

Lycoris Radiata

Red spider lily (Lycoris Radiata). A flower with funereal and autumnal associations in China and Japan.

A couple of times, I ascended from Stygian darkness into a place lighter, but still dim, where rudimentary imagery began to form. There were vague outlines of a room and of a couple of people I recognised. There were erotic sensations in the body. But the imagery seemed ‘made-up’ and I was unimpressed by its level of realism.

‘This is still not working,’ I thought.

At one point, having returned to the absolute darkness, I tried to move my limbs and realised I couldn’t. I recognised this as sleep-paralysis and was not perturbed by it. I couldn’t physically move, but I still had the sense of my body, so I ‘moved’ this instead, in the hope that I might leave the physical behind and finally get the show on the road.

I moved my astral limbs, and pulled up my astral body a little, but as soon as I tried to roll completely out of the aura of my physical body, I was roughly pulled back.

This part of the night’s adventures came to an end with an unexpected return to waking consciousness, and a feeling – somehow – of the closing of a definite phase. I sensed that a window for what might have been the night’s most powerful experiences had now closed.

The long, straight track

The way now seemed clear for some orthodox lucidity. I was walking with my partner through sunny winter scenery. The landscapes and architecture were dazzling and intricate, including a curious housing estate of mock Tudor dwellings, with beams that connected the buildings themselves to form ‘meta-mock Tudor’ patterns. There were also endless lagoons, reflecting the cold, golden light.

We walked a fixed, straight path that sometimes led through narrow doorways in and out of houses and shops. People politely stood aside and let us through, as if they were accustomed to giving priority to travellers on this route.

Not entirely convinced I was lucid, I made an effort to recall my previous intent to witness the raising of Lazarus. Immediately, by the side of the road, a wooden cross appeared and a passer-by announced that Lazarus would soon be raised onto it. This struck me at the time as somehow not quite right. In any case, we didn’t seem able to stop, so the cross receded behind us as more scenery and more of the road ahead came into view.

Later, the walking ceased and a new principle had taken hold: that there was an undiscovered basement in the house, rarely used, although we found some evidence – in the form of displaced objects and the remains of meals – that, unknown to ourselves, we sometimes spent time down there. Again, I decided to take the opportunity to find out more about Lazarus.

On a table before me a small blue-grey statue appeared, of a woman suckling two male children (who, it must be said, looked a little too old for breast-milk). The statue had a Grecian look, but seemed a little primitive and unformed. A commentary spoken by an unseen woman began: ‘Lazarus and Jesus were sons of the goddess Moong. They were born in 1356BC. After they had grown to young adulthood, they travelled together in Italy.’

Then a woman with a professorial appearance (she reminded me a little of Mary Beard), came in and said: ‘Those dates are far too early, and they never would have come to Italy. It’s just too far west.’

I reflected that, even so, this might make some kind of mythical sense. The idea that Jesus and Lazarus were brothers and the progeny of a primal goddess was certainly interesting.

Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus — either that’s a very big wolf, or they’re not shown to scale.

After waking, the suckled brothers and the reference to Italy brought to mind the myth of Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf and became founders of the city of Rome. Like Jesus, according to some versions of the myth, Romulus ascended to Heaven after his death – he became the god Quirinus (the divine personification of the Roman people). Christianity itself, of course, ultimately became the religion of Rome. But the fate of Remus, like the fate of Lazarus after his revival by Jesus, is uncertain. In some versions of the myth Remus simply disappears, although in most he is killed – often by Romulus himself. Jesus and Lazarus, like Romulus and Remus, are ‘rivals’ in the sense that both of them lived on after death, but true divinity belonged to only one of each pair. The other died (and also, in the case of Lazarus, was brought back from death) in order to legitimate his rival.

Returning to the dreams – later still, the council had closed the offices of a Pakistani businessman implicated in all kinds of malpractice, but Conservative Party activists had forcibly reopened the building. They accused the council of racism and of harming the local economy.

The likelihood of Tories defending the rights of the oppressed appeared to me rather slim; this crook was probably one of their donors. Their angry and tight-lipped response to my allegations confirmed my suspicion.

‘Why am I dreaming this?’ I wondered. In waking life I’d noticed recently a growing tendency in myself to express what I think is true, even though it might not go down well or present me as likeable. ‘This is good practice,’ I decided, and continued making a nuisance of myself to the Tories.


The lucid dreams were similar in quality to those I experienced using alpha-GPC alone. However, they seemed to last longer and – when I awoke – gave the impression they would have continued indefinitely if I’d chosen to sleep on.

Side-effects and unusual physical sensations were more pronounced with the galantamine in combination with alpha-GPC. My stomach seemed a little perturbed, and a ghostly nausea surfaced once or twice, but it was too insubstantial to attract much attention. More noticeable was a throbbing sensation inside my skull, at a specific point to the left and slightly to the rear from the crown of my head. It was semi-painful, a bit like a headache, but came and went and was mild enough to remain mostly in the background.

Pro Galantamine

Pro Galantamine. This brand is extracted from the red spider lily. Other kinds are available.

Having checked some brain diagrams, the affected area might have corresponded with the left superior parietal lobule, which has been related to the function of spatial orientation. (I’m not qualified in neurology, so this is just my observation.)

I noticed another peculiar sensation, partly dizziness, partly muscular weakness, that became especially evident when I climbed the stairs for the toilet, and made me extra watchful, because I felt as if I were slightly not in control of my body. It seemed as if awareness were so much focused in my head that the rest of the body wasn’t quite so available as usual to attention. This dizzy feeling remained in the background for several hours after waking and whilst going about my normal tasks.

I would certainly use the combination of galantamine and alpha-GPC again, but I would not be inclined to increase the dosage. I would try to focus more on the out-of-body phenomena that dominated the earlier part of the night (because this seems to be galantamine’s unique contribution) and I would try to ensure that I fell asleep much sooner after taking the pills.

Taking alpha-GPC on its own is pretty much like taking vitamins. The effects of galantamine are more noticeable, however, and I would advise anyone thinking of using it to do some thorough research and make sure they are fully aware of the risks.

The Effects on Lucid Dreaming of Alpha-GPC (Glycerophosphocholine)

In Advanced Lucid Dreaming: The Power of Supplements (Lulu, 2006), Thomas Yuschak describes how a combination of galantamine and alpha-GPC (glycerophosphocholine) can help induce powerful lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences, and how other substances can be used to support this.

Unfortunately, galantamine is now available only by prescription (in the UK, at least), probably because it has been found effective in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, so my experiment was limited to alpha-GPC alone.

The following is a simplified description of how alpha-GPC effects dreaming. To anyone seeking more detail and ideas for further experiments, Yuschak’s book is likely to be of interest.

The technical part

Alpha-GPC crosses the blood-brain barrier and acts as an acetylcholine precursor. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that research has linked with the ability to think, learn and remember. It also plays a major role in the regulation of sleep: its levels gradually rise during the night, in tandem with decreasing levels of serotonin.

[(2S)-2,3-dihydroxypropyl] 2-trimethylazaniumylethyl phosphate

Chemical structure of alpha-GPC. (A source of Choline, which is supposedly good for you — in appropriate doses.)

Our sleep consists of alternating phases of deep, dreamless sleep, and of relatively lighter, dream-filled sleep – also known as ‘REM sleep’. As the night begins, the phases of dreamless sleep are longer at first and the phases of REM shorter. This relationship gradually reverses as morning approaches. REM sleep is therefore associated with lower levels of serotonin and higher levels of acetylcholine, whereas in deep, dreamless sleep the ratio is reversed.

I went to bed at 10.30pm and fell asleep as normal. Then, at 3.40am, as my acetylcholine levels were naturally beginning to rise and the phases of REM naturally growing longer, I took 600mg of alpha-GPC and returned to bed. I had some difficulty getting back to sleep, and after about 30 minutes I got up again for the toilet.

The fun begins

Some time later my landlord came in to say he was taking his niece out for the day. I heard him explain, ‘Duncan is testing the effect of supplements on dreams’. But then I remembered I was at my partner’s house – so the appearance of my landlord could only mean one thing…

‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ I exclaimed.

It was totally indistinguishable from being awake. It didn’t feel at all like I was dreaming; I only knew, logically, that this had to be the case. When I looked closely at articles in the room (some coloured chess pieces near the window, for example) I knew they didn’t exist in reality – and then I noticed how other items were in different places from where I knew they really were.

Still a little nervous that I might be making a huge mistake, I drew the curtains apart and forced myself through the glass. It gave way like jelly.

So now I was certain – and I recognised it had to be the drug, making the dream more vivid than usual. As I floated to the pavement, the dream showed no sign of breaking apart. The concrete under my feet was as solid as reality.

Beforehand (for reasons I won’t explore here) I’d set myself the task of visiting the gospel scene where Christ raises Lazarus. ‘Take me to Lazarus!’ I shouted at the sky, spreading my arms. Darkness rushed over me and I sank into the ground. But then, disappointingly, I awoke.

Back in again…

Hoping to regain the dream, I lay still with my eyes shut. But whilst awake, I was becoming conscious of the effects of the drug. The mind felt fluid, in a state of rapidly rolling forward. For a time, there was hypnagogic imagery of a printing press. Black characters on white scrolling past. The typography and arrangement of letters was gorgeous: isolated characters, sometimes in combinations, as if to draw attention to their beautiful shapes.

This gave way to some internal dialogue, which immediately detached itself and became an external character: a tall woman, hair in a black bob, wearing a floral-print dress. My reaction to this also split off and became a person. In an instant, there were four of them, distinct personalities, all gabbling away in conversation on the effects of the drug.

The next I remember, I was at my parents’ old house, helping my mother stack food in the cupboards, our long-dead cat weaving between our feet, looking as scraggy as she had during her final months. I was holding a sack, and when I bent to sniff inside, discovered it was full of huge cornflakes, each a couple of inches wide. Making sure Mum didn’t see, I let some drop near the cat, who wolfed them down gratefully.

I’m not sure I was always entirely lucid. It seemed that four or five times during the night, I realised I was fully conscious, threw myself out through the window, and tried to realise my Lazarus goal. But the drug wasn’t particularly improving my habitual shortcomings when it comes to lucid dreams: either I wasn’t quite lucid, or – when I was – it lasted only a short time. The drug was heightening the intensity and fluidity of my usual experience, but it wasn’t fixing its usual problems.

'Advanced Lucid Dreaming', by Thomas Yuschak.

Yuschak’s book is self-published, but available from usual outlets.

After a couple of failures, I gave myself a break and simply enjoyed the scene from the window. My partner lives on one of Brighton’s quirkier shopping streets. The architecture was now augmented, upwards and outwards, with hardly any sky or road between the facing buildings. Everywhere were ramshackle stalls and entrances, giving the place a third-world feel.

When I jumped down, someone told me that two Buddhist monks had come to work on a neighbouring stall. I grabbed some cartons of lychee juice – which seemed an appropriate gift. The two monks had shaved heads and dark-red robes. As we chatted, it became clear they were more concerned with the rules and culture of their tradition than in mastering meditation and gaining insights. Still, they were nice guys, and it was interesting to talk about their travels.

In fact, everyone, everything, seemed to want to talk. The mind itself was in a state where it felt far easier than usual to discourse at length, to spin out stuff in a swift and ceaseless stream. But it was a problem to make any of it stick. It seems I have forgotten a great deal. I had to make a conscious effort to rescue these fragments.

Deep stuff

Things other than dreams were occurring. Before bed, I’d read an email from a friend about working with spirits. She was wondering how supplication of spirits or gods relates to that deeper level of religious insight, in which we recognise all is well – right now – just the way it is. If the goddess Yemaya gives us something that isn’t this all-pervading sense of wellness, then what is Yemaya?

I didn’t have an answer until, between the dreams, one arrived. It said: ‘The question is wrong.


Icon of the goddess Yemaya. In Santeria, she is the mother of all living things.

‘Yemaya isn’t anything. This is the realisation that everything is well. But if we can’t help having to take something from her, then with the infinite compassion of nothingness, the goddess will give.’

I made another tilt at Lazarus. Transitions in lucid dreams between scenes and states are always tricky, and can often chuck you out into waking consciousness. Yuschak describes a technique he calls ‘seeding’ (p. 163). Whilst falling asleep, we drop into our mindstream conscious images which, if our timing is on, will grow into our desired scene as we slip into dreaming. The challenge is to do this lightly enough. If it’s too conscious, we won’t fall asleep. If it’s too lax, the images will grow in unintended directions.

Of course, I failed. Despite picturing myself outside the tomb, hoping Christ might show up once I’d dropped off, I was too loose. My images took on their own life and meandered far, far away. Somehow, I ended up sitting on the floor beside four people on a sofa, explaining what I was trying to do. A plump girl in glasses, with curly hair, seated closest to me, kept talking across everyone. Finally I realised it might be good to shut up and actually listen to her.

‘There was a phone call for you,’ she said.

‘Who was it?’

‘A beautiful voice. Can you imagine,’ she went on, ‘picking up the phone and hearing this most beautiful voice reciting the most beautiful passages?’

‘What were those passages?’ I asked.

‘Captain Pigeon.’

‘I’m sorry?’

She repeated the name.

‘I don’t know who Captain Pigeon is,’ I apologised. ‘We don’t have him where I come from.’

The people on the sofa stared in amazement and pity.

‘Of all the TV programmes,’ the girl explained, ‘Captain Pigeon is the only one with no death or violence.’

I smiled, because although I hadn’t made it to the tomb of Lazarus, this felt like some kind of sign. The pigeon or dove is an important Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit, for peace, and for John the Baptist. If I’d been awake, this might have been a synchronicity. But I wasn’t awake, so it was only a dream of one.

Piero della Francesca, 'The Baptism of Christ' (c. 1448-50).

Captain Pigeon, a.k.a ‘The Holy Spirit’ or ‘the dove from above’. (Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, c. 1448).

In a synchronicity, mind and reality come into alignment: a girl dreams of a golden scarab, and the next day a golden beetle flies through the window. I had wanted to see Christ raise Lazarus, but instead I’d had a phone call from Captain Pigeon. This might have been a synchronicity inside the dream, but – I realised – outside the dream it would not be meaningful at all.

‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘In here, I have absolutely no terms of reference.’

And then, bizarrely, the meaninglessness suddenly assumed an intense and paradoxical meaning. The non-synchronicity became one. Because Captain Pigeon, by drawing attention to his own senselessness, had transcended the dream. It felt like a message smuggled from another dimension.


I woke at 7.04am, when the drug would have reached its peak and was starting to decline. I could tell I wouldn’t sleep again, so I took the opportunity to examine the remaining effects in a more conscious state.

Its basic quality was that state when we’re consumed by an activity and cannot let it go; the feeling of being interested in and happy to work away at something all night. The label on the jar promised ‘mental acuity’. I’m not sure I quite agree with that. It seems to provide momentum rather than focus.

I can also confirm Yuschak’s observation (p. 71) that dreams under the drug seem inclined to feature music. At one point, from no visible source, I heard a funky piece played on a harpsichord; and whilst sitting by the people on the sofa, I heard trashy, but oddly light, dubstep being played. Whenever the music played, it was loud, which created an odd effect: because it was not actually sound, but a mental image of sound, it was possible for it to play at an ear-splitting volume, yet I could still ‘hear’ perfectly well (at the same time) conversations and other events in the dream.

A jar of alpha-GPC.

Alpha-GPC is available from health shops. (Other brands are available.)

Reported side effects for alpha-GPC include insomnia and nausea. At 600mg I experienced none of the latter. The former was mitigated by ensuring five hours sleep before taking the drug. After this, indeed, my sleep felt rather light and brittle. After waking at 7am, I was fine at first, but 3-4 hours later started to feel tired. I also felt a little low and irritable as the effects wore off, but I’m a miserable git anyway, so this was nothing extraordinary.

I’ve seen numerous posts on forums from people who tried alpha-GPC without results. This is not surprising. It’s a diet supplement, not a psychedelic; it only enhances the conditions for lucidity and does not directly induce it. Combining psychological techniques with alpha-GPC makes it more likely to trigger lucidity, and it’s absolutely necessary to time the dosage correctly. A few hours of sleep should always be taken beforehand, not only to guarantee some rest, but also to ensure maximisation of effect during the later stages of the night (or early morning), when the REM phases are at their deepest and longest.

I shall definitely be using it again – sparingly, so as not to build tolerance. But I won’t be following the directions on the jar to use it as a dietary supplement and chug a couple every day. However, as I make my living mostly from writing code, it struck me that it might occasionally prove handy in this context.

The Magickian versus the Paranormal Investigator

Suppose that a woman believes she is haunted. She has recently found a new partner, and he’s about to move in, but various odd experiences suggest the continued presence of an ex-partner, who tragically killed himself in the same house several years ago.

The woman calls a friend, a self-professed magickian, to help uncover what’s going on. The friend takes some photographs in the house, and on one of them an ‘orb’ appears, precisely in the spot the ex-partner’s head had lain on the day the woman found his body.

This is not a scientific, rational investigation. This case finds its resolution in a magickal ritual to lay the ex-partner’s spirit to rest. But was the house ever really ‘haunted’, and did it ever actually contain a ‘ghost’?

We might be able to decide, if anyone knew what a ‘ghost’ is, or what ‘haunted’ means. As things stand, ‘spirits of the dead’ is only a theory for the nature of ghosts – one that, so far, lacks any substantial evidence. But the ‘orb’ in the photograph – there’s now some good evidence as to the nature of those: they’re particles of dust or moisture, reflecting light from close to the sensor of a digital camera [1].

Rather than assuming the return of a dead person’s spirit, this case is more adequately explained by a misattribution of natural phenomena, perhaps motivated by the widow’s guilt over finding happiness with a new partner.

an orb

Imagine the hilarity, had this orb elected to manifest in a more meaningful position.

The mind (or brain) is hard-wired to find meaning where none exists. ‘Ghost’ and ‘haunted’ are two such meanings projected onto experiences that are actually nothing of the kind.

This sounds like a rational view, but it pretends to an authority it cannot support, because its assertion of non-meaning is also itself an instance of the mind manufacturing a meaning in order to explain something to itself – in this case, the nature of misperception.

Rationalism usually has nothing to do with transcendent realities, so it seems odd to appeal to a notion of meaninglessness beyond what any human being can experience, because although we can have the experience of ‘seeing a ghost’ (albeit mistaken), we can never have the experience of ‘not seeing a ghost’.

This is not to claim there is no misperception, or that any view or meaning is as valid as any other, but simply that mind is always meaningful, and so the battle for rationality is not on the side of meaning against non-meaning, but on the side of meanings that are faithful to perception against meanings derived from other mental faculties (such as thought, imagination or intuition).

Although a rational investigation of the case would have reasonably concluded there was no evidence for a ‘ghost’ or ‘haunting’, nevertheless ghost and haunting can remain meaningful terms for describing what happened – the kind of experience that the woman had. There’s no evidence for ‘ghosts’, but there is evidence for things that could give rise to the experience of one. Likewise, there is no evidence for consciousness, mind, or the self – although there are neurological correlates, which might or might not indicate something that gives rise to them – because these are terms for entities that by their nature fall outside of our perception [2]. Nevertheless, we would find it difficult to get along without those terms. They are three privileged ‘ghosts’, with whom we have become so familiar, it seems unlikely they shall ever be exorcised.

Turning now to the photograph of the ‘orb’ (that speck of dust), its appearance encapsulates the whole issue of using magick or ‘spiritual methods’ in approaching the allegedly paranormal.

another orb

If orbs were the manifestation of a spirit, I imagine this one saying: ‘WTF are you even *doing*?’

There are some evidence-based theories for how Ouija boards, mediums, EVP recorders, etc., obtain their supposed results. None of these theories has anything to do with post-mortem communication, but everything to do with autosuggestion, misperception and possible fraud. Even so, many have found that if we persist in the use of these methods, eventually they can yield a result that seems so mind-blowingly improbable we might be left wondering if they might work after all.

Our ‘orb’, albeit a humble dust mote, had the temerity to appear in a meaningful place. No matter its mundane origin, we can’t deny its random and yet exquisite sense of position. Likewise, during a Ouija session, when the board spells out information known only to the observer seated apart at a safe distance, who cares if the operators’ fingers are unconsciously driving the planchette? Results are results!

Or are they? This is the point at which we must evoke coincidence. Rightfully so, for if a means of manifestation is provided, then stuff can and – given enough opportunity, eventually – will appear. To manifest any concept expressible in English, all we have to do is provide 26 letters and some kind of randomised selection process. (If it’s non-random, then even better.) A human voice is but sound within a certain acoustic range: make that range available, provide some form of random sounds within it, and eventually a ‘voice’ shall speak.

This is the essence of magick: decide on a goal; provide some kind of format or means through which it can be said that the goal is met. Often, eventually, it shall then in some form come to pass. Not because the chosen technique or magick itself ‘works’, or has any effect (in the sense commonly understood) upon physical reality, but because it enables us to have an experience of its having done so [3]. Because human experience is inherently meaningful, this can have a shaping impact on our lives indistinguishable from a more conventionally direct experience.

Occasional ‘hits’ like these, in themselves, prove nothing. To achieve proof, a sub-branch of magick is used, known as ‘science’, which cleverly defines a goal and a means of manifestation that are both limited to perceptual phenomena, augmented by instrumentation where appropriate.

Because, through perception, we share the same physical reality, the ‘magick’ wrought by science is repeatable and objectively verifiable. It becomes possible to predict and to know the results of certain procedures, rather than simply to experience them as true.

The magickal or spiritual goal of creating meaningful experience is not ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’ (a common confusion, perhaps especially among those who seek it), but is instead the empowerment it can confer through meaning. Meaning is a source of motivation in life like nothing else.

For the woman in our example, the appearance of the ‘orb’ could provide confrontation with her grief, and perhaps the means of coming more fully to terms with it. But magick is always risky, especially for those with no support-structure or previous experience in occultism; it offers no guarantee that we will find it easy to cope with the powerful experiences it can throw in our direction.

For this reason, the role of the paranormal investigator is to stick with science, collecting evidence for rational causes (where this is to be found) and handing the meaningful or experiential dimension of the phenomena back to the experiencer. In most cases, this should help to safeguard from harm the person affected by the experience.


[1]Orbs! At last some definitive evidence that they are not paranormal‘ (2010), by Steve Parsons.

yet another orb

Only some orbs are particles of dust or moisture. Others are projected directly from the ajna chakra of evil cats.

[2] ‘Self’ is that for which we suppose experience arises, so whatever falls within experience is not self. ‘Mind’ is supposedly what thinks and experiences, not necessarily those thoughts and experiences themselves. ‘Consciousness’, we assume, is what provides all the qualities and things of which we are aware – which makes it problematic to suppose that consciousness itself has qualities or is a thing.

[3] My personal view is that the paranormal is real, in the sense offered here: an effect upon physical reality that has no physical cause other than the intention of a person or discarnate entity. But apart from subjective experiences, I have no evidence for this, and no notion of what form the evidence could take. Until I do, I accept that this is merely my opinion.

The Varieties of Religious Idiocy

Scientists can make discoveries, or they can fail to do so. The scientific method is what it is, and no one argues that the scientific method itself is what makes bad scientists. Yet in the case of religion, it’s very often argued that religion itself is what creates ignorance.

In practice, of course, it’s not a level playing-field. It’s accepted that to do good science you must be capable of a certain level of understanding, but the same is sadly not applied to religion. It is supposed that in the field of religion any idiot’s opinion is as valid as any other’s.

So let us reflect on religious idiocy…

In general, the biggest idiots of any persuasion tend to turn nasty over little things: a football team losing, or someone’s pint getting spilled. This reflects a primitive level of engagement with the world: namely, that certain things are ‘mine’ and these should be defended. Primitive it may be, but in primitive contexts it’s effective at safeguarding survival.

A priest blesses machine guns

Catholic priest blesses weapons for the military in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

It’s not difficult to imagine how geniuses of this calibre behave when they come into contact with religious traditions: they identify with one tradition above all others and defend it by any means against the rest. This is the root of tribal and sectarian conflict, which has nothing to do with the doctrinal contents of any religion, but everything to do with how frightened animals react when their identity feels threatened.

But it truly is stupid, because although it works fine as long as we’re kicking someone else around, eventually someone bigger comes along and kicks our arse. ‘Hang on a minute,’ someone will declare, ‘this isn’t much fun any more. Wouldn’t the world be better if someone put their foot down and exerted a little authority?’

And – lo! A slightly less moronic structure springs from the daftness of the first: the appeal to authority. When this makes contact with religious traditions, now we encounter the idea that holy books are ‘the Word of God’; that every sentence is a literal truth to be obeyed to the letter. So the Earth is only a few thousand years old, because that’s what the Bible says. Indeed, whatever old book we borrow our morality from, well, it has to be applicable to the present day – otherwise, that would just plunge us back into chaos, wouldn’t it?

Ultimately, this structure collapses also under the weight of its own crappy assumptions (for those brave enough to allow it). To illustrate, I had a conversation recently with someone in this mindset, who told me how his obedience to God was so absolute, he would willingly kill his kids if God told him to.

Rather than notifying social services, I convinced myself this probably wasn’t going to happen. It’s rarely fruitful to argue with those in this mindset, because the very purpose of it is to safeguard its own authority; the less it accommodates, the better (from its point of view). But if I’d wanted to argue, I would’ve reminded him of a recent tragedy, in which a guy drove his children into the woods and killed them. ‘So would you agree,’ I would’ve said, ‘that if this man told us God had commanded him to kill his kids, then he’d committed no crime?’

The ‘authority’ mindset fails because religious experience is subjective. If someone hears the voice of God, does that mean other people have to jump to attention? Religious experience is a shoddy, useless arbiter of human affairs. Any book can say what it likes, but if what it says is contradicted by our own experience, which should we stick with? If it’s authority you crave, then stick with the Book of Rules. But if it’s knowledge, you have to follow where experience leads, even though it can be difficult and scary.

Thus we arrive at the next structure of understanding, which is the point where scientific reason becomes possible, because here we accept direct experience as the only reliable guide.

When this mindset comes into contact with religion, often it turns away in disgust. There is a general falling-off of religious practice in cultures (like our own) where this view has become fairly dominant. But religion can survive contact with it. Meeting people who seem to inhabit this perspective, I sometimes get an odd feeling that in one sense they’re not really ‘religious’ at all.

Burning monk

A Buddhist monk burns himself to death in protest at the Vietnamese government.

Scripture, for them, tends to be a guide rather than the rule, interpreted according to individual conscience. The everyday experience of everyday people is important to those in this structure, which can call down upon them, from less sophisticated cohorts, accusations that rather than ministering to spiritual concerns they are dabbling in politics. In fact, they are simply remaining faithful to experience of the world as it is, to the here-and-now.

It’s striking how similar (in some senses) the discourse of liberal religion is to contemporary scepticism. Like liberal clerics, sceptics are often passionately and genuinely concerned with exposing and combating injustice, abuse, and shining light onto cruelties.

Blessings upon both their houses! But even this mindset crumbles, because if my experience is the arbiter of what is real for me, then the same is true for you, and for the next man, and for the next woman, and so on for everyone. Every view – it begins to seem – is as valid and equal as any other. Even science is just a ‘discourse’.

Oh dear. We seem to have fallen into what commonly passes for post-modernism!

When this mindset engages with religion, we get The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Believe in whatever you like, as long as it makes you happy and you gain from it what you intend. Some forms of New Age belief fall into this perspective (but only some, mind you), and certain branches of modern occultism. Also, quite a few of those who have consciously chosen a non-local religious tradition: western Buddhists, Kundalini yoginis, and suchlike. And why not? We’re all on the same journey, right? All following different paths toward our own equally valid notions of truth.

But, guess what? This viewpoint fails too – once it becomes apparent that although every person’s experience is indeed as valid as anyone else’s, this is only true in the experiential sense. In other words, our experience is of equal worth, but what about our understanding of that experience?

And so we end up right here, the place we’re looking from right now, which is the view that the understanding that informs our experience varies wildly from person to person. Some views are less stupid and intolerant than others. Hence the view that is most comprehensive (which here is also the criteria for ‘most true’) is the view that can include and yet discriminate between the widest range of other views.

When this mindset connects with religion, we arrive at the spiritual investigator, who engages with a number of traditions, or perhaps with a number of practices within a tradition. He or she arrives at the following observation, gained directly from his or her experience: that although some of these traditions and practices lead us to the same destination, many do not.

Dianetics – for instance – leads to a different set of experiences from those arrived at through Zen, which leads to something comparable with (say) Ramana Maharshi self-enquiry, but which is different again entirely from what a Jehovah’s Witness experiences when they succeed in luring you to your front-door.

To anyone acquainted with spiral dynamics or integral theory, I’ve not said here anything very original or new. I’ve simply tried emphasise how religion, like scientific method, is something people can fail to understand or apply. Science does not produce ignorance; our misunderstanding takes care of that. The function of science is always to produce knowledge.

The function of religion, on the other hand, is to produce direct experience of what has been variously called ‘the Absolute’, ‘Emptiness’, or (perhaps its most widely abused and misunderstood term) ‘God’. This is not conceptual knowledge of the kind that science reliably supplies, but where it is motivated by actual engagement with the nature of experience, neither is it a form of stupidity.

Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster: a post-modern faith erected upon its own inherent absurdity.

Religion works, just as the scientific method works. But whereas people are more inclined to admit their ignorance in the face of science, unfortunately there are religious morons aplenty with utterly no clue, who still believe they’re qualified to tell you the Meaning of Life or what God thinks. They may indeed be stupid, but that doesn’t mean religion is.

All you need to do is ask them how they know. The answer that they give will probably point to which mindset they currently inhabit.

(If it’s the first or second, you may need to run away.)