Beyond the Human Cage

After decades spent trapped — in my dreams, by an unhealthy self-narrative and by my own actions — I stumbled across what turned out to be the missing piece of a puzzle. The solution had escaped me for as long as I could remember. I finally played that last piece; and for the very first time in my adult life, I exited my mind’s prison, and walked away.

The author © Nadia Dara Diskavets 2015

At 51, I finally exited the game.

After decades spent trapped — in my dreams, by an unhealthy self-narrative and by my own actions — I stumbled across what turned out to be the missing piece of a puzzle. The solution had escaped me for as long as I could remember. I finally played that last piece; and for the very first time in my adult life, I exited my mind’s prison, and walked away.

One week later, I am still processing what happened. That’s because whatever ‘it’ is, it occurred below the level of consciousness, finding its outlet in a dream. This dream, beginning no differently from nearly every other one I’ve had for perhaps four decades — one in which I am being chased unyieldingly, or bound to repeat an inescapable sequence of acts from which there is no end — was the very first one in which I can recall not succumbing to my own psychological labyrinth.

The way in which it played out — one that has already manifest in waking changes — was incredibly complex. It was, perhaps, the most complex dream I’ve had, boasting three more levels of confinement and emotional torture than the nine Circles of Hell Dante Alighieri described in his epic medieval poem, The Inferno.

But it’s just a dream… right?

Dreams

Dreams, I believe, are no less real than the thoughts we generate in a wakeful state. Perhaps, as Michael Pollan learned in writing his book, How to Change Your Mind, it’s because we now know from fMRI research that the dreaming self is — like other so-called ‘altered states’ — simply a version of reality that is unburdened by the rigid paradigms to which our brains’ master controller, the default mode network, strictly adhere. The DMN, which is a large-scale brain network, is also the seat of our ego — past, present and future — and the true differentiator between adult humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.

I say ‘adult’ because even human children’s brains have yet to develop one.

Pollan learned about this while interviewing Robin Carhart-Harris, a researcher at the Imperial College of London. Carhart-Harris’ work centers around high-entropy and low-entropy states, and investigates the controlled administration of psychedelic therapies in order to understand what happens to the brain in an altered state. High-entropy states include psychedelic experiences, infant consciousness, magical thinking and divergent (creative) thinking — states in which the mind is wide open, and ego and judgment are minimal or absent. Dreams live under that designation, as well, for the most part. Low-entropy states include narrow or rigid thinking, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anesthetized states.

Low-entropy states, Pollan reports from their discussion, “are not the result of lack of order in the brain but rather stem from an excess of order.” He continues, “When the grooves of self-reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes over-bearing. This is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality.” Carthart-Harris believes this is the result of a hyperactive DMN, which he says can “trap us in repetitive and destructive loops of rumination that eventually close us off from the world outside.”

When ‘the adult in the room’ goes to bed, as our DMN does in any high-entropy state, some version of magic happens, scientifically. As Pollan writes, “thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information.” He goes on, “In effect, traffic is rerouted from a relatively small number of interstate highways onto myriad smaller roads linking a great many more destinations. The brain appears to become less specialized and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or “cross-talk,” among its various neighborhoods.”

And here’s where it comes home to the dream I had: “The increase in entropy allows a thousand mental states to bloom, many of them bizarre and senseless, but some number of them revelatory, imaginative, and, at least potentially, transformative.”

A picture is worth a thousand words. Carhart-Harris and his team published fMRI images from experiments they conducted, in 2014, using a technique called magnetoencephalography. In them, the number of neural networks as described by Pollan is visually clear, underlining the enormous degree to which a brain on high-entropy ‘creative’ or ‘open’ states comes alive.

The brain’s extra-DMN network off and on psilocybin © Matthew M. Nour, et al 2017

So the question is, does any of this magical thinking last, once we ‘wake up’ from a dream, an immersive creative act or a psychedelic experience; or for that matter, once we grow up to develop a healthy (or unhealthy?) DMN?

The answer is yes, it does last. That’s because our perceptions are our realities, in the end; and any experience that is powerful or insightful enough remains with us once the spark that ignited it has ceased to be. That is, when we awaken, or age.

Dreams, in my view, not only feel real, often fouling our mood, or making us feel invincible, as we walk through our day; they are, according to many (most?) scientists and psychiatrists alike, our brain’s attempt to sort out the day’s — or decade’s — experiences.

To process them.

And to do this, it appears, parts of our DMN must disconnect. In other words, we must quieten our ever-present, judgmental truth/falsehood, good/evil, likely/impossible, better/worse, me/you/them narratives—the ones in which human beings all excel.

At least, when we are in a ‘normal’ adult state of mind.

The Exit

There are very few ways to interpret the myriad, chimera-like, nightmarish forms of dream that have dogged me since childhood. They have all, invariably, followed one of two trajectories: I am either being chased — as quarry — trying to avoid my capture and ensuing eternal imprisonment and torture; or I am attempting to achieve a goal, however small or large, but it remains perpetually, frustratingly, out of reach, unachieved.

I have been dogged by a sense of helplessness and inadequacy that has haunted me throughout adulthood. The way in which I internalized and then acted upon these feelings has likely played a large part in my ‘successes’ as an adult, in the way that people usually measure them: productivity.

But the measure of a life isn’t in how many dollars we earn, or the accolades we garner. Rather, it’s measured, in my view, by our internal wellbeing, absent any other influence. Said another way, the lightness of our hearts; our inner peace.

Mine were never good dreams; they have been horrible, frankly. But I learned to consciously divorce my waking hours from the miasma of my sleeping ones, and to function seamlessly in the default world, to borrow a term from Burning Man.

On my long odyssey—the vanquishing of my personal demons—several things have conspired to prime me for the catharsis I finally experienced, just last week.

It began with a creative childhood. Much to my parents’ chagrin, from the time I could hold a pencil, as my mother was fond of saying, I was drawing something: on paper, on walls, on any available surface. Thousands of dollars were spent repainting my house over a multi-year period in which I could not be dissuaded from covering every square inch I could reach, however hard my father spanked me. My ensuing life as an artist, photographer, graphic designer, woodworker, poet, painter and architect has exposed me to all manner of mind-expanding influences, from the process of creative discovery itself — perhaps the world’s most enduring DMN-free undertaking — to the two colleges in which I spent years honing several crafts, to the artists to which I was exposed and befriended, both there and in the decades following, to the professional practice of those crafts over a thirty-year career, so far.

I am, as far as humans go, primed to live comfortably within liminal — or embryonic, open-ended and transitional — psychological space, such as that in which most artists reside.

Then, just a few years ago, I came across a number of books about perception that helped me to see my own behaviors and mindset in a new light. They included Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics; Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind; Jamie Wheal’s Stealing Fire; and Mo Gaudet’s Solve for Happy. All of these books are some expression of the same basic idea: that our worlds are the product of abstraction, in the form of the subjective meaning we assign to what we come across; and that we can, with the right tools, shift or transform our perceptions.

In addition to the books, a contemporaneous meditation practice I picked up allowed me, for the first time in ‘waking’ life, to experience significant psychological and emotional transcendence, somewhat regularly. Meditation has been both incredibly powerful, and empowering.

In fact, all of these things have been.

So when Burning Man came along just fifteen months ago, I was finally ready for what it held in store for me. This included a long-held but never-indulged curiosity about psychedelic substances. Dabbling in these proved to unlock yet other parts of my consciousness (outside the control of my DMN), opening new doors to (life-affirming) perception, and in the process, posing a counterpoint to some long-held, negative beliefs about reality, and my place in it. The insights I gained as a result of those experiences deal with souls, reincarnation, relationships, parenthood, purpose and human capacity.

You know — small subjects.

Taken together, once you’ve read, meditated and experimented enough, both creatively and pharmacologically, the mind becomes primed for what’s possibleonce again. This is no small matter, because the absence of a DMN in childhood conspires to separate us slowly, over an eighteen-year period, from our foundational liminal — and peaceful — state.

Burning Man restored my faith in the inherent goodness of humans. If there is a place (or event) on Earth that reflects humanity at its most open-minded, loving, generous, empathetic, inclusive and creative best, it is that annual festival in the desert. It had been so long since I found that level of acceptance and optimism that I’d largely forgotten it existed, within the context of a world that cares mostly — outside of one’s family or tribe — about self-preservation.

Entheos rising at Burning Man © Anthony Fieldman 2019

Final Thoughts

So there I was, forty years into nightmarish dreams, dogged by a sub-optimal sense of self, when just a week ago, without any direct trigger or conscious epiphany, but primed by all of the things that have nudged me toward overcoming my childhood feelings of inadequacy and helplessness, ‘it’ happened. That night, I was embroiled in a complex, twelve-layer Hell, attempting to claw my way back up to the Earth’s surface, where I had begun the dream, key by key, game by game, door by door. Until that night, I’d never found the ‘exit’, whatever version of it preyed on my mind, on any given night. The last item or act that would allow me to breathe freely, lightly, was always out of reach. Instead, I remained unfree—the victim of a heavy life, perceived.

It has been a hell of a burden to shoulder forty years-worth of nightmares.

But that night, for some reason, I didn’t give up, or give in. Instead, I willfully overcame the usual obstacles, with extreme psychological effort, and just one layer below the Earth’s surface, grabbed the proverbial devil—the master controller—by the neck, tossed him aside, escaped the demons that chased me, took an elevator back up to the retail shop where I had unwittingly accepted an invitation to ‘an event’ that turned out to be purgatory, and stood in front of the duplicitous shopkeeper, smashing the device he used to send me there and, standing face to face with him — the first unsuspecting victim ever to do so, in my dream world— warned him that the next time he tried that on me or on anyone else, I was going to come for him.

When I awoke, a new calm sat somewhere inside of me that I’ve not felt in a very, very long time; as though something that has hung over me, unresolved, finally left.

I cannot point my finger on the exact puzzle piece that allowed me to exit my psychological prison. I know only that a life of priming—of embracing versions of reality that don’t squarely align with the narrative of my four-year old, heartbroken self—the one who decided, for reasons I may never fully know, that I was never good enough on my own, without proving my worth externally again and again and again, every way possible—set me on a path to uncover an alternate reality. A reality in which I was exactly what I believed I never was: accepted, as is, by my biggest critic.

Me.

I was, I believe, the architect of my very own prison, regardless of what external forces may have planted that thought in my young brain. It held just one prisoner, for a very long time: a person—or persona—whose self-defeating, subjective abstraction of reality continued not only to dog me in waking life, but to visit me at night, when my master controller was sleeping, and the rest of my mind came gingerly out of hiding. Every night, while I slept, all the parts of my brain that my DMN normally held at bay would tell me that all was not right in my world, and that they were there to help me break through the cage that I had fashioned all those years ago, and strengthened relentlessly with my own actions, until just the other night.

Over the past week, my dreams have all followed a similar trajectory: either adversity, overcome, or benign things that reflect a being at peace. You know, what we think about when we cite “the stuff of dreams”.

My new reality.

Well, it’s game over.

Time for a new adventure.

Architect | Photographer | Writer | Polyglot | Windmill Jouster | Nomade Civilisée.

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