BG 232: The Dark Night Project

Episode Description:

We’re joined again this week by Brown University neuroscience researcher Willougbhy Britton. Willougbhy begins this episode by going into further depth into some of the typical experiences that have been reported during her research into the difficult stages of the contemplative path. She lists out typical changes in cognition, affect (emotion), perception, and other psychological material. She also explores the typical duration of these experiences and explores some of the philosophical and practical ramifications of these stages.

Toward the end she also speaks about how she and her colleagues–all part of this emerging group of contemplative scientist hybrids–have come together to create a new contemplative development mapping project. This new generation of scientists are studying the mind, and have immersed themselves not only in scientific methodologies but also in contemplative practice.

This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, The Dark Side of Dharma.

Episode Links:


Vincent: And I was wondering if we could back track just for a moment and talk a little bit more about you said at one point you’re calling them symptoms, but now you’ll just refer to them as experiences. But these expected yet difficult types of experiences if you could say a little bit more about the range of what types of things people can experience, what things you’ve heard in reports maybe even from your own experience. I think it’d be interesting in the spirit of transparency and talking openly about these things to put it out there on Buddhist Geeks as well.

Willoughby: So, in psychology, we have this little book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM. It’s like our little bible. And they like to divide things up into category. So I sort of divided these experiences into categories, but they’re just completely made up. So the first category is cognitive experiences. There tends to be an, I would say, increased sampling rate of reality. So your ability to notice things has increased.

And that might be pretty fun on retreat but when people get off retreat they still have so much information coming into their systems that it can feel very overwhelming, like stimulus overload. And along those same lines a lot of increase in sensory clarity and sensory threshold. So meaning that you can hear much softer sounds which also means that louder sounds sound louder and you might even feel them in a different sense.

Like a truck might feel like it’s actually driving through your whole body rather than just hearing it and that goes with every sound. So that’s the sort of cognitive effect. They tend to be very just overwhelming and disorienting. I would say one of the most, besides sort of sensory overload, one of the most common central features–it’s not everyone but its pretty close, which is a change in the way people experience their sense of self.

And this can be an attenuation in self or it can be a complete dropping away. And even though you can read about this and think that this might be the goal of the contemplative path. For a lot of people it’s very very scary when that happens. And so when I mean dropping the sense of self, it can be a lack of a feeling like there’s anybody controlling. So one word are coming out of the mouth like who would be speaking them. When you move your arms and legs and walk it’s not really sure who decided that. When somebody ask you a question there’s almost a panic feeling because you don’t know who’s going to answer the question. There’s a sort of temporal disintegration. So the sense of time can fall apart, along with that your sense of a narrative self over time. Part of the sense of self is about being able to have continuity over time. And if you just don’t have that kind of sense of past and future and you only have a sense of now, your sense of self just by not having a past and a future and being able to imagine that can be sort of truncated and attenuated.

And then temporal disintegration can kind of go even further beyond that where people almost like they’re waking up in a new reality every several minutes. And they don’t really have any way of describing the reality that came before that and it can be very disorienting. You can wake up and really have to study your environment to figure out who you’re talking to and what the conversation is about. You can learn to get good at that, but it’s pretty disorienting for a while. And then I don’t know if this go in order but I think that the most common symptom, it’s hard to say but again these are all really common, but one of the most common symptoms is fear. And the lost of the sense of self I think is very tied in with this fear. And people can have really phenomenal levels of fear. I mean really just existential primal fear.

And what’s interesting about this fear and what I think seems to differentiate it from a lot of other kinds of fears is that it doesn’t seem to have any reference point. It just comes out of nowhere. It can be very debilitating. And then along with fear spectrum you also anxiety and agitation and panic and paranoia. Those are pretty common. Then there’s a sort of affective dimension. Affective is emotional. And the affective dimension seems to go in both directions. There can be a massive lability.

Your emotions can get really high in both direction both manic manifestations, euphoria, sometimes grandiosity and also the worst depression, meaninglessness, nihilism the other end of things can also happen. In addition to that, people can also just lose all affect all together. They don’t feel anything. Things become numb. So it’s a pretty wide range of changes. But I don’t think anyone has gone through, anyone that we’ve interviewed hasn’t had some kind change in their emotional life.

And usually it’s sort of an eruption of emotional material. So that comes to the next level which is a de-repression of the psychological material. Very often it can be traumatic material but it can also just be whatever can be traumatic in our lives. It doesn’t necessarily have to be memories of death or abuse or something that would sort of classify as classic trauma. It can just be whatever our particular psychological knots are. They seemed to come up with practice in a way that doesn’t necessarily seem to be contained to the cushion. It’s almost like you tear something open and then it’s just open. That’s the sort of affective dimension. And then the last dimension is physiological. So there seems to be a lot of physiological changes which are really surprising to a lot of people.

So things like general musculoskeletal body pain, headaches, and very strange sensations. Because we told people not to use the word energy so we got a lot of metaphors. So things like being plugged into a wall, like having a thousand volts running through you. There are a lot of electricity type metaphors. And then finally we gave up because people just kept using the word energy. So it’s not really a scientific word but it seems to measure something so some kind of movement sensation in the body. Vibrations a lot of different kinds of vibration. Changes in temperature. People are having really hot flashes and burning sensations. And then the one that I am really fascinated by because everything that we’ve been talking about up until this point has been subjective, like you can’t really see it on somebody. But the last category is involuntary movements. They look like convulsions. People twitch. They report feeling like a lightning bolt going through them but you can actually see it. This is something that you could actually take a video of. Their arms flap. Grimacing; different kinds of facial ticks and contortions. That’s kind of the laundry list. Oh yeah, I forgot one whole category, which is perceptional changes. And perceptional changes along with this faster sampling rate there also seems to be I don’t know if I would call them hallucinations but experiences in every sensory modality especially visual lights.

So that would be a perceptional change. So the lights again are particularly interesting to me because they tend to differentiate a spiritual experience from a potentially psychiatric situation. But seeing pinpoints of light, people call them Christmas lights, they might be different colors or lightning of the visual field in general. I should say that all of these symptoms or sorry, experiences, these are not just things that are happening on the cushion during meditation. These are things that are happening off the cushion which is where this starts to become difficult. They’re fine when they’re on the cushion. But you need to go to work and these are happening. People are having involuntary movements at their desk at work and you know eruption of emotions that’s where it becomes difficult is when it comes into your daily life. And the other thing that was very surprising to me was the duration of symptoms.

So I asked people how long did this last and how did this affect your life to a point where it was really difficult for you to work or take care of children. So we call that clinical impairment. So far in our sample the average amount of time that somebody is impaired so this is not just how long this experiences last but how long they are to the point of interfering with daily functioning. The average amount of time was 3.4 years. It’s actually quite a long time and there’s a huge range in that duration. And so sort of the next wave of research is trying to figure out what determines that duration. So people seemed to go through these experiences fairly quickly like under a year and other people can last a decade. So we’re trying to figure out what are some of the factors that might predict that.

Vincent: Nice. I think for a lot of people, though not so much people that have been into these type of things for a long time cause they tend to see for themselves that this isn’t the case, but a lot of people have a kind of Pollyanna idea about meditation that one it’s leading towards greater and greater things like joy, freedom, bliss, clarity that its something of a linear process. It’s increasing over time. And it sounds like in your descriptions that that’s clearly not the case. And so that brings up some interesting questions. And I don’t know that you could answer them all but that I suspect you’ve been thinking about these questions. One question that comes up is why? Why does this happen? Is it useful? That’s another question. Is it important? And then is it necessary? So I just throw some of those at you and feel free to response to whichever you care about.

Willoughby: Well I mean those are the million dollar questions. I think that if we didn’t have to suffer this much then that would be a good thing to know. So that’s obviously one potential avenue of the research is to ask teachers is this necessary? And I don’t have an answer to that. But I can say that it’s seems to be pretty common and it’s definitely not new. You know it’s in the text in spades and in the text across traditions and not just Buddhism. You see it in Christianity too. So I’m guessing that a deep understanding of suffering is going to be important for being liberated from suffering. I mean that sort of make sense. But I don’t know if it’s necessary. I think there might be paths where it’s not quite as harrowing as in some other paths. I don’t know. It’s a really really hard question. And you know I asked a couple of teachers. I said what percentage does this happen to? And when I said ‘this’ I mean experiences in meditation that are challenging enough to interfere with your life and be very very unpleasant and difficult. What percentage does this happen to? And one teacher said 100%. That if you go far enough in your spiritual practice this is going to happen. It’s part of the path.

So I don’t know if that’s true. But it is definitely true that that when I hang out with researches or people that don’t have a lot of meditation practice that’s where I get all the resistance and a lot of questions about sort of the prior psychiatric history of a practitioner. Whereas when I hang out with really advanced practitioners, nobody ask that question. So it does seem to be the case that the longer that you practice and the more intensely that you practice that these types of experiences seemed to be the norm.

Vincent: Interesting. I know that I oversimplify things here.

Willoughby: Yeah.

Vincent: I can’t help but oversimplify them cause I’m not an expert in all these fields. But it seems to that there’s kind of a competing logic between modern psychology and then this sort of contemplative tradition because in my understanding of like psychology and the DSM, you know that you mentioned, a lot of the assumption is that we are trying to get rid of these difficult states or symptoms and try to get back to health or balance and that that’s the kind of general movement; away from the difficult toward the not difficult.

And then the contemplative logic is kind of paradoxical. It’s like actually we go into the difficult not avoiding it because there’s some deep sense of freedom that can happen through being okay with difficulty and then being okay with not difficulty. Like you’re okay with expansion and okay with contraction. And that it’s not about getting to one side of this pole or getting to one place in this constantly changing situation but it’s actually sort of knowing the situation as it is.

And that’s just a really different logic and it kind of doesn’t make sense. I would imagine the other camp might look at that and go, “What? That doesn’t make any sense.” But there seems to be, obviously, some truth to it. So I wonder as a psychologist and as a practitioner how these logics kind of compete in your own experience and then with what you’re doing.

Willoughby: It’s interesting you know I do see a competing logic but I don’t see that the two sides are psychology and contemplative practice. I just see one as being naive and one as being mature on both sides. I think that a lot of people get into meditation thinking that they can not have any suffering and that they’re just going to bliss out and their mind is going to calm down and it’s just going to get calmer and calmer and calmer the more they sit and boy are they surprised when that’s not the way it happens.

So I think actually in a lot of people’s minds meditation actually fits the sort of naive panacea view and that psychology and psychotherapy, I mean you don’t go to psychotherapy to talk about happy things, you go to talk about your suffering and get into it and why it happens and all that. So I think that both of them can very avoidant and both of them can also be extremely deep and in the best case scenario they can work together to untangle various knots.

Vincent: Okay. Cool. That’s a helpful distinction to kind of look at the naive and mature kind of view of each. That’s really cool. And then I wanted to talk a little bit about what seems like to me is from the outside a kind of community of researchers. I met a couple of you at the recent Buddhist Geeks conference and we had a chance to chat for a little bit.

And I was so excited to see that there were younger researchers out there interested in things like this, doing work on projects like yours. There’s another project you mentioned before the interview called the Contemplative Development Mapping project. I thought that sounds so incredibly cool. And there seems to be a kind of, you could say, like a cohort or community around you guys.

You’d mentioned at the conference that there was kind of a, you kind of knew who was in this community and who wasn’t. It’s a pretty small group. I wonder if you could describe a little bit about the culture that’s forming there and how that community stands out for you. Are you guys doing something different, unique? What’s going on there? It seems really fascinating.

Willoughby: I think that the contemplative science has been around long enough that there has been sort of a new generation of contemplative scientist hybrids they’re called. And you have to really credit the Mind & Life Institute for really fostering that. And so there’s a number of us that were sort of brought up by Mind & Life and really encouraged to not just study meditation from a third person scientific perspective but also really know what we’re talking about from the first person perspective and really encourage practice.

And so I mean I was already a practitioner before I became a scientist. But that model was very much encouraged. So I think that there’s a new cadre of scientists that are really serious practitioners who spend a lot of times in monastic settings, really done a lot of retreat time and really know what they’re talking about in terms of the liberative possibilities of practice and it’s not just about stress reduction, which is one whole paradigm that science is involved in.

And I think that the further potentials of practice are now becoming research but also taken seriously by these younger cognitive researchers. And you know the confluence with the pragmatic dharma movement and I can’t tell you how exciting it is that there are meditators who have a lot experiences were willing to talk about them. That’s new. And we can’t really get very far as scientist if what’s actually happening in their experiences is not allowed to be talked about.

That’s opening up a whole new possibility of opportunities for research. We can really start triangulating with neuroscience and with behavioral test and then with this new vocabulary that we have. So it’s a really exciting time to be in this field.

Vincent: And tell me a little bit about this Contemplative Development Mapping project, just a little bit about what that’s about. Because it sounds like in order to do the work you’re doing in these difficult stages, you also have to take on this question of difficult stages in relations to what? What are these stages that we’re talking about?

Willoughby: So the contemplative development mapping project is really again the confluence of a number of people who have all been studying contemplative development in their own discipline. So this could be there’s two neuroscientists in the group, there’s two Mahasi-trained monks and a number of religious scholars and sociologists.

And we’ve all been learning about the different maps. And the maps don’t always line up and we’re trying to figure out if there’s a way to find very identifiable clear sign posts of progress. It may line up with a given map and it may not. Again one of the exciting things about the place that we found ourselves in history is that we have a tremendous amount of communication between cultures but also we have all these technology that we can use.

So we’ve never been able to explore these states and stages before with things like fMRI or EEG. Those are new tools that we can use. This group is basically trying to do that. It’s trying to use all of our expertise together collaboratively to start to identify the contemplative development. And I know this has been done before by other groups but this is just a sort of another kind of attempt to try to do that.

And yeah the Dark Night project, my project, is sort of the area that I specialize in and I’m collecting reports about where these difficulties fit in the bigger map. And other people might be more interested in, you know, what happens post stream entry? What does full enlightenment looked like? Those kinds of questions. My sort of population specialty has always been the people that are really struggling. And again my goal has always been to make sure that they get the support they need.

Vincent: Nice. And connected to that I know in addition to wanting to put up this sort of handbook that you also have opened a place called the Cheetah House which, as I understand it, is like a halfway house for folks who are struggling with these stages. Tell me a little bit about that and what that is about.

Willoughby: Yeah. The Cheetah House is the contemplative study house and it’s located in Providence, Rhode Island, very close to Brown University. It started off because we have a program at Brown called the Contemplative Studies Initiative that includes meditation laboratory courses, so just regular college courses where the lab portion is meditation training.

And a lot of students got introduced in meditation that way and then they would go off to India and ordained and maybe do some long retreats and take vows and become monks for a while and then they’d come back to Brown. And Brown would want them to live in dorms. And that was not really a very appropriate environment for them. A lot of them haven’t spoken in months and were really coping with a lot of challenging mental states.

So in some ways it was a reaction to giving a place for this Brown students to come back to but then as I started doing this research project and realizing how many people there are out there who have encountered difficulties and one of the most classic descriptions is just having no idea what had happened to them and spending all of their time managing their experiences by themselves that the tremendous amount of shame and isolation was something that was totally unnecessary.

And that the most helpful thing and this is across the board the number one most helpful thing was to find somebody who knew what was happening, had been through it themselves and could just be a big brother in the process. So our job mostly especially for people who can’t come and live here is to be a hub for collecting dark night yogis who made it through the other side and can offer a helping hand and just an ear to hear and offer advice. But also we do offer, it is residential, so we have five rooms here and we actually have a room opening this fall. So if you’re listening to this and you feel like you might need a very supportive environment for your difficult stages, that’s what we specialize in.

Vincent: Now you’re going to have like 30 applications for that one.

Willoughby: And we don’t care. We want to meet you anyways. It’s really terrible to be alone in this process. And everybody who lives here knows that and so we just want to reach out and just have a phone call.

Vincent: Thank you. This is really cool stuff. I’m so glad to hear more about what you’re doing and it sounds like really good work. So thank you again Willoughby for sharing your research and we’ll hopefully be able to stay in touch with you and find out how things progress.

Willoughby: Yeah. Thank you. It’s been really fun.


Willoughby Britton

Willoughby Britton received a B.A. in Neuroscience from Colgate University, a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Arizona, and completed her clinical internship at Brown Medical School. She received sleep/EEG technician training at Harvard Medical School and was a Research Fellow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA/NIH) and at Andrew Weil's Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. She spent several years in Asia studying meditative techniques and received her mindfulness instructor certification training at the Center for Mindfulness at the UMASS Medical School. Dr. Britton's research includes sleep, emotional disturbances, and new treatment/prevention strategies. She recently completed a 3-year NIH-funded clinical trial on the neurophysiological effects of mindfulness meditation in depression, and continues to examine the link between sleep, affective disturbance and emotional regulation strategies.