Conflicting Ideals

My office is somewhat out in the countryside. Most of the road there is lined with rolling fields with cows grazing. This morning as I was driving to work, I saw one of the cows wading chest deep into this little pond. It made me so happy. What a little goof, I thought to myself. I really enjoy watching them everyday when I’m commuting to and from the office or when we take walks during our lunch break. Sometimes there are even curious babies that approach the fence to watch us as we pass by.

Knowing that my friends at work also enjoy our cow neighbors, I was excited to talk about what I saw this morning. I was quite shocked and caught off guard by the reply I received though. Instead of smiling and laughing at what a silly cow I saw earlier, my friend sadly commented on how he thought the cows were starving. I asked him what he meant, since I hadn’t noticed them looking particularly unhealthy or anything. He told me that he could see their ribs. While this made me very sad, it also made me confused and curious. He seemed awfully upset and sad about it. I almost asked him why he cared.

Obviously I care, and I think it’s right and natural to care about other living beings. That’s why I’m a vegan and don’t include these sentient beings in my diet. But my friend at work is not a vegan or even a vegetarian. Therefore this strange disconnect always intrigues me. It’s amazing how rarely human beings follow their thoughts and beliefs to their logical conclusion. Clearly he cares for these cows and doesn’t want to see them suffer. Yet the suffering that he pays for and ingests at each and every meal is far more gruesome than merely going hungry. If underfed cows could cause him so much sadness, why does he perpetuate far greater abuses?

I’m not trying to blame him or even shame him for the way he lives his life. I am just fascinated by the psychology behind this common hypocrisy. Even though I was once a part of the exact same mindset (animal lover/animal eater) it still doesn’t make any sense to me. But I want to understand how I overcame that mental block. I want to find a way to get other people to make the same connection that I finally made nearly a decade ago.

People often look at others in small religious sects, cults, political parties, or those who subscribe to other ideologies in general and wonder how on earth they could believe the things they do. We tend to think there is just something wrong with those people. Unfortunately we are all susceptible to these oversights in judgement. I would even go so far as to say we all participate in actions that conflict with our personal beliefs. A lot of the time we can recognize these inconsistencies, but feel unable to reconcile them. But there are probably still quite a few that each of us have that we don’t even acknowledge. I, for one, am very concerned about the ones that may exist within my own mind.

I’d like to think I would be grateful if someone were to point these hypocritical behaviors to me so that I could work towards becoming a more consistent and principled person. Yet I don’t know how I would actually feel were I confronted in this way. Most people tend to just get angry and think you are a jerk. This is why, despite my feelings, I don’t bring these types of things up to people anymore. It never seems to help the situation, only hurt our relationship. The mind is truly a fascinating thing. I hope to someday understand it better so that I may use that understanding to help myself, my fellow humans, and the other beings that we brutalize every day.

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Psychedelics

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Yesterday I watched a Ted Talk discussing the effects of psychedelic substances on the brain. I clicked on this video absentmindedly, not really expecting it to tell me anything I hadn’t already heard before. To my surprise I was given new insight into why my psychedelic experiences have been the way they are. It also gave me even more reason to believe that psychedelics really do allow us to connect to some deeper consciousness, a divine connectedness. It is a glimpse beneath the veil of our earthly illusions, and the things we think and perceive in these altered states are perhaps more real than the reality our sober minds produce.

I knew that taking psychedelics altered the way our brains perceive the world. I knew that they break down our biases and inner walls so to speak. They remove the shackles of our well worn neuronal connections and allow us the freedom to explore the vast possibilities of our consciousness and perception. What I didn’t know is that this brain state is very similar to one we’ve all experienced before: childhood. Apparently a child’s brain works in a very similar way to a brain on psychedelics. Isn’t that fascinating? I had often described my experiences with LSD as being a child again in a new world. Nothing is taken for granted. Everything is fascinating and new. There is so much joy and curiosity and discovery to be had.

As children none of us were too enmeshed in certain ways of doing things or seeing the world. There were many more possibilities open to us. As we age, our brains naturally start to sink into patterns, strengthening certain neural networks while allowing other, less used pathways to shrivel and shrink with disuse. Eventually we begin to feel trapped in our ways of thinking and seeing the world. It feels impossible to change or view the world from a fresh perspective. And in reality, while it is still quite possible for us to change, it will be much harder than it might have been when we were younger.

Imagine a cart being pulled over the soft earth. Once you’ve made tracks in the dirt, it is easier to follow those tracks again. The more you follow those particular tracks though, the deeper they become. Eventually it will be quite difficult to make new tracks or break out of the ones we have been taking. A child’s mind is an image of virgin land, no tracks, no footprints even, just a great expanse of possibility and wonder. This is one of the reasons, I believe, that adults tend to enjoy children so much. While our own minds may feel incapable of breaking free of our patterns on their own, spending time with a child is sure to be full of surprises and new experiences. Children have the ability to pull us in new directions we would have never considered on our own. Kids are funny. Kids are weird. Kids are surprising, unpredictable even. That is the magic of a newly developing brain. That is the magic we may all experience again for ourselves with the help of psychedelics.

This comparison to a child’s mind helps explain a lot of the experiences I’ve had with LSD. The idea that psychedelics are able to break down our preconceived ways of seeing the world only strengthens my conviction that the feelings and truths I’ve experienced in that altered state of mind are real. LSD isn’t making me hallucinate or become delusional. LSD helps me to break through the illusions that I live inside of. It helps me see the world for what it is again, through fresh eyes, with the innocence and imagination of a child. I don’t for a second believe it’s a coincidence that one of the reoccurring perceptions people come away from a psychedelic experience with is that we are all connected. There is a powerful feeling of connectedness, contentment, joy, peace, trust. It is reconnecting with the wisdom of the universe, a deep sense of reassurance that everything is as it should be. There is also the ever present image that everything in life is a cycle, and that it’s okay to have faith in and surrender to that cycle. Now more than ever, I feel confident in that belief.

Alex Grey's “Gaia” | Pinkocrat

How Understanding Neuroplasticity Changes Everything

There are few things that I’ve learned about that have completely changed my life, but neuroplasticity is one of them. I’m just as excited about it now as I was when I first heard the term in my psychology classes at university. Up until that point, I was mostly resigned to the fact that, being in my twenties, my brain had already passed through the formative years in which it had any real potential to change. I felt that even though I was young, my brain was already set to mostly continue on the path it was placed on by my genetics and my experiences in my childhood/teen years.

I can still feel how thrilled I was to learn that wasn’t the case. As someone who is very data driven and fact focused, I would have never implemented yoga or meditation into my life if I hadn’t learned about neuroplasticity. Before that I wanted to believe in the healing potential of these practices, but as far as I could see, there was no hard evidence to show it did anything at all. (Granted I must not have been looking very hard.) But I learned that by mindfully practicing stillness, compassion, love, peace, focus, anything really, you are strengthening those neural pathways in the brain just like a muscle. What could be more incredible?

For the first time in my life, I saw, and truly believed, that I could be anything I wanted to be. It wouldn’t necessarily be easy or fast, but I was guaranteed to change if I put effort into it. I didn’t have to be that sad, angry, troubled, teenager anymore. I could be anyone. I could be cheerful, optimistic, friendly, loving, calm, kind. I didn’t have to feel like I was “lying to myself” by trying to change, like I used to. I knew it would work. I had the science to support me.

Even though it’s been years since I started intentionally redirecting my brain, I’m not quite where I want to be yet. As we all know, progress is not linear. I’ve encountered many setbacks along the way, especially this past year. But still, I have made some incredible progress. I never would have imagined at 18 that I would be the person I am today at 27. I still have a long way to go, but I am so much closer. A lot of the negative neural pathways that I maintained as a teenager, have all but withered away. And realizing all of this, remembering all of this, has reminded me that I can change. I’ve done it before. And it’s that belief in myself that ultimately makes it possible. I have neuroscience to thank for that belief.

I have been strengthening some pretty unhealthy pathways in my brain in 2020. It won’t be easy to redirect myself from those powerful urges and habits. But I’ll do it. I’ve already had a huge success yesterday. It may not have been perfect, but every little bit of progress counts. I feel so much better this morning. More awake, more energetic, more positive, more loved. That’s how I think of this effort, as an act of self-love. It keeps me motivated, happy, excited about the process. It feels so good to step away from this strange auto-pilot I’ve defaulted to and really be present with myself again. I have a long road ahead of me. But for the first time in a long time, I am eager to continue on this journey.

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Memory

There is a lot that we still don’t understand about the way our brains store and organize our memories. There have been a few times in my life where I’ve considered keeping a detailed journal of each days events. Part of me is afraid that there are important moments that I am going to forget. There could even be some I’ve already forgotten. There are definitely a lot of instances in college that I was too drunk to form adequate memories, but I do have a hazy recollection when a friend brings up different moments. It would certainly be interesting to look back on a written record of a memory years later and see if my memory recalls it as accurately as the written version. Seems unlikely that it would.

It is unsettling to know, but our memories aren’t very reliable. Eye witness accounts have been proven to be highly flawed, even when about a momentous event. How can we trust our own memories of simple every day things? When I look back on my life, I wonder how much of it has been colored by my own interpretations and emotions. How much has been altered? How much has faded away?

I have always been perplexed when people say their earliest memories are when they are 7 years old or something equivalent. Really? Is that when most peoples’ memory record begins? I have memories from before I was even able to speak. I certainly have lots of memories from before I was in school. But this discrepancy between myself and others has made me ponder my own memories even more. When I really think about it, those early “memories” do feel different than, say, a memory of being in middle school. I feel somewhat more removed. Like I am remembering other times when I’d told the story of that memory. It made me wonder if I should even count that as a memory any more. Maybe that’s why other people don’t claim to have memories from that early on in life.

I think the majority of us feel extremely confident in our ability to remember our past accurately. It is scary to realize that despite this confidence, the only thing we really can be certain of, is that those memories aren’t entirely correct. We may never know exactly what happened in our pasts. But then again, maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe the ways our brains change our memories over time is just as important.

It seems to me that the more we learn and discover about the human brain, the more it appears that our reality is actually a clever illusion. This is terrifying and fascinating to consider. It is scary knowing we can’t really trust our own senses to portray our world with 100% accuracy. However, at least for me, this is also an exciting realization. To me this information also sends a message that we still don’t fully comprehend this existence. There could be so much more about consciousness and the universe that we can’t even imagine from our current perspective. It opens up a Pandora’s box of possibilities. It even makes me question the finality of death.

The things we reveal, the insights we uncover as we delve deeper into the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and biology may scare us. But they also may excite us. They may open up our understanding of this world, this life, in ways that no one could have anticipated. So while my brain may not be the same as a camera, recording my memories like a video, I will trust what it does save for me. And I will keep going. I will keep facing this crazy existence that may just be a clever illusion created for me inside my own head. It can be frustrating to accept there are things I just can’t understand. But I am still eager and hopeful that some day I just might.

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