The following story is to give the reader a personal experience of how alpha feedback works. The physiological processes of alpha brain waves are strongly coupled to our experience of conscious awareness. Alpha waves reflect even very subtle shifts in awareness or consciousness. This story will help to share with the reader some of the insights into consciousness that flow from doing alpha feedback. As you read it, try to note the development of the perspective of the “Witness” and imagine how such a perspective could be useful to someone who knew in advance what would be happening to him or her.
In 1968 I had been a subject in Joe Kamiya’s alpha feedback lab on three prior occasions when our story begins. The three prior sessions (part of an ongoing study) had been on three days earlier in the week, and each day had featured about 50 minutes of actual feedback time. A laboratory technician had affixed the scalp and ear (ground) electrodes, escorted me into the sound and light reduced chamber, and monitored the equipment from an adjacent room. When instructions were given, or the end of the session was to be announced, the technician spoke over an intercom. But this fourth session was to be different. Having been intrigued in the formal experimental sessions by the warbling tone said to reflect his brain’s activity, I returned to the laboratory to find that no experiments were scheduled, so I requested that I be “hooked up for feedback” and allowed to explore, on my own, with the feedback signals. The lab technician was agreeable, affixed the electrodes, escorted me into the experimental chamber, and then left, closing the door. She then started the electronic equipment and, unbeknownst to me, went upstairs and became involved in another project since I was not generating data for any of the ongoing studies. Several hours later, apparently forgetting the trainee in the experimental chamber, she went out to lunch with the rest of the lab crew. While she was at lunch, she suddenly realized, 3 1/2 hours later, that she had not checked on her subject. Everyone left the restaurant in a rush and hurried back to the laboratory. Then the technician and 8 to 12 others came bursting into the feedback chamber in some alarm and interrupted the last stages of an incredible adventure.
As I closed my eyes, I sat straight and perfectly still, and I relaxed, for I had learned in my first three sessions that this helped make the feedback tone louder and steadier. If I could sit quite still for one of the automatically timed 2-minute epochs, I would be rewarded by seeing a large score when the three-digit illuminated display lit up as the tone briefly shut off. The scores were derived from integrating the amplitude of my alpha activity and represented the total alpha energy I had produced during the previous 2 minutes. If I had to cough or move or my attention wandered from the task, the tone would decrease, and that epoch’s score would be smaller. I was most interested to know what made the tone stay on and what turned it off, so I listened very closely to the minute fluctuations and tried to relate them to something: anything, … how I breathed, how I sat, what I was thinking.
And there were little successes along the way. When I breathed more slowly, the tone was a little louder and the score a little higher. If I relaxed fully into the emptiness of the bottom of each expiration, that would sometimes help too. Even though it was totally dark, the tone and scores were sharply reduced if I opened my eyes. So I had some control. I could probably have produced statistically significant differences between “enhance” and “suppress” conditions if I had been asked to. However, I still didn’t feel as though I really knew how to enhance alpha. Pleasant relaxation helped, but there were tantalizing bursts of very loud sounds that I would have liked to have sustained. I would even have been happy to know how to produce such bursts at will – even if I couldn’t sustain them when such a burst would occur. I would mentally leap at it to analyze it, evaluate it, and thus, I thought, understand, and reproduce it. But alas, it was not to be. A year later, I was to hear Ram Dass say, “the burning gem was in my hand, but when I reached for it – boy, it was gone.” But for now, I was in a rut and didn’t understand how to get out of it. The tone would come on strong, and I would focus my attention on it, and it would retreat into relative silence. It was almost teasing me. I tried all sorts of maneuvers. I tried “reaching” for it slowly; it retreated slowly. I tried to remember what I’d been doing just before the tone burst began, and I discovered, to my considerable amazement, gaps in what I had always thought had been a continuous and unbroken stream of my conscious awareness.
Now I had two challenges instead of one: (1) The first challenge was that I could not grasp, analyze, or fully control a tone originating from my own alpha brain waves, and (2) the second challenge was that I had discovered gaps GAPS! in my stream of consciousness, lapses of awareness, which I could not explain or account for. Moreover, while intensely considering the implications of this dual (frustrating and disturbing) dilemma, I suddenly noticed that there was minimal feedback sound in the chamber, and my scores were quite low. I realized that while my mind had been racing, my muscles had tightened up, and I took fast and shallow breaths instead of the preferable slow, deep ones. So I started again: I relaxed, I watched my breathing to make it slow, deep, and regular, and I again noted the tone getting louder and louder. I tried to puzzle out my problem while remaining relaxed and slow breathing. When I finally succeeded in separating my thinking process from an uptight body to concentrate without noticeably tensing or shifting my breathing rate and depth, I began to notice that thinking itself was what was blocking my alpha and reducing the tone. Now I realized that the lapses of awareness that preceded those interesting, loud alpha bursts might actually have been instrumental in evoking or permitting the emergence of the bursts. So then I tried not focusing on the event of a burst when it occurred. That was hard. I was sitting in a dark, soundproof room, and there was little to do besides listening to the tone. The tone would start one of its bursts, and I would try to ignore it, but I could only do so for a fraction of a second before my attention would swing around and focus on the tone. When it did, the tone would shrink like a balloon being squeezed by my conscious attention. But that fraction of a second was a wedge for my understanding. By slightly prolonging each burst, I noticed that my scores were getting larger, so I persevered. I didn’t know it then, but I was practicing the Witness, distancing myself from the processes of my consciousness, and there was no mistaking success for failure. If I failed to keep my attention from focusing on the event of a tone burst, that burst would be dramatically and immediately squelched.
That almost instantaneous feedback accelerated a most difficult self-awareness learning process, which might have gone on for years with less success if it had lacked the feedback. As the scores got slowly larger and the tone remained loud for a longer fraction of each 2-minute epoch, I began to notice a strange sensation of lightness. Where my body had pressed against the chair and the floor, the pressure began to give way to the sensation of just a gentle touching. When I “noticed” this and focused on it and began to reflect upon it, I was at once alerted by the tone, which got softer, And I had another clue: reflective or analytical thinking got in the way of alpha enhancement. That clue helped enormously because I hadn’t fully realized up to then that by adopting an attitude of “not-noticing,” I was suspending rational and analytic thinking. I realized that I had, in fact, been aware of tone bursts even when I didn’t focus my attention on them. The real work was in being aware of but not focusing on the tone bursts with the egoic, analytic modes of consciousness. A certain part of me, that ego center concerned with DOING things, with success or failure, suddenly relaxed, and I watched myself floating above the chair, which was in the middle of a little room, which was filled with the loud alpha feedback sound. Floating above the chair? Floating!?? My relaxed detachment evaporated, and I awoke back into rational and analytical consciousness almost as from a dream. Of course, as I did so, the tone volume decreased sharply from its loud intensity, so I knew I had been awake and not drowsy or asleep while experiencing this “floating.” If I had been asleep or drowsy, there would not have been a loud tone (indicating lots of alpha) to vanish as I “awoke” to rational awareness.
“I was floating above the chair,” I marveled to myself. I realized at once that my mental focusing on what had been happening had terminated the happening, so as quickly as possible, I readopted the detached attitude, and the tone again started to increase. Before long, I was again looking down on my body from a position near the ceiling of the room, although how I could see anything in the total darkness, I cannot explain. It wasn’t a normal kind of seeing. I was almost afraid to deal with the fascinating situation because I had learned that conceptualizing the situation I was in would catch me and pull me down and reduce the tone and my scores. So I merely floated and observed, and tried to fend off the constant temptation to evaluate, speculate, analyze, reason, congratulate. This last one was especially troublesome. After a particularly sizable series of increases in the scores, which left me feeling indescribably high, light, mellow, clear, and pure, I slipped on a fleeting prideful thought. I permitted a conceptual thought to flash through my mind, “Gee, I’m doing pretty good.” And crash! I was tumbling back into my normal consciousness. The conceptualization caught me and pulled me down. While I was struggling to regain the disinterested composure of the high alpha state and its loud tone, I noticed the gradual intrusion of the demand of my body for air. I wasn’t breathing. I was living sufficiently detached from my physical body that there was not enough consciousness left to run my respiration processes. I then remembered seeing, as a child, a man on the Ed Sullivan TV show who had breathed pure oxygen for several hours before the show and then was able to remain submerged underwater in a glass tank without having to breathe for almost the entire show, which might have been 45 minutes or more. I longed for such a breathing aid so that I might dwell more permanently in this high alpha state and not have to be concerned with breathing. I did the next best thing. I alternated between periods of slow deep breathing and periods of non-breathing with enhanced alpha. For a while, I would steal part of my attention away from the detached state and use it to regularize my breathing. As a child, I had done extensive long-distance underwater swimming, so I knew how to hold my breath. I would restore my body to an ample supply of oxygen by consciously pumping my lungs slowly and deeply. Then I would withdraw my attention from my breathing and enter into the detached state to just float and feel ecstatically high. I had an image of this process of alternating between breathing and enhancing alpha: I saw the world through the eyes of a white bird, and my pumping of lungs was like the bird’s flapping its wings. Flapping and pumping carried both of us to a great height. Then I could cease to breathe consciously, and the bird would stiffen its wings and soar outward. Simultaneously, wheeling and turning ecstatically and gradually drifting downward in effortless circles while my body gradually drifted downward to poorer blood oxygen levels and, eventually, the necessity to begin to breathe again consciously.
During that drifting downward of the body processes, which was really me (for I had ceased to identify with my rational ego-self), would be off soaring in feedback enhanced alpha. I could see that the essence, which was really me, was different from my body and was even different from my thoughts, for I had actually ceased to identify with my rational ego self and with the thoughts in my mind. I was off soaring in the bliss of feedback-enhanced alpha.
I was able to exist outside of time, which flowed past almost unrippled by my presence. The only time-like phenomenon was the alternation between willed breathing periods (which I entered only reluctantly) and the detached states of pure being I entered so joyously and eagerly each time as soon as I was oxygenated enough to cease from breathing. Even the briefest and subtlest conceptual thought which intruded into my mind during those periods resulted in a faltering of the feedback tone. With this infallible indicator of egoic thoughts, I was more and more able to non-think. But non-thinking did not mean non-awareness, contrary to everything my education and experience had lead me to believe. I discovered thoughts to be multi-layered constructions. – artifices of a certain egoic relationship to the world, …to myself.
A sheep is still a sheep after the wool is shorn. In many ways, its perception may even be enhanced by the removal of the insulating wool. The warming sun and cooling breezes are probably felt more readily after shearing. The wool was removed from over my eyes with thinking gone, and the new awareness seemed vast. Gradually, I even became aware that a person was in a feedback situation and that a lot of alpha activity was happening. In an inner secret sort of way, I even realized that if I were to think about it (which I now knew better than to do), that person would be revealed as me. This was an aspect of the multi-layering of thought I had seen earlier. Thoughts could exist at different levels of ergodicity and different degrees of attentional focusing. I am now aware that a whole science of thought could develop around research into such experiential explorations. Still, at the time, I knew only that an ego aspect was lacking in the type of awareness that could exist in harmony with the alpha activity.
As this process of quieting the egoic rational processes began to merge into a condition of ego dissolution, my ego, unprepared to dissolve, countered with FEAR. Fear of falling is the only fear I can clearly remember, but there were other vague and nonspecific fears too- – all of which reduced my alpha activity or stopped its increase. Slowly I learned to deal with these fears the way I dealt with other thoughts: I fled my thoughts and filled my awareness with the feedback tone, now an almost constantly increasing presence. The scores, also constantly increasing, were like mileposts of my ascent. The chair and the room were left below as I rose ever higher in what appeared to be the front seat of a roller coaster car. I became aware of an approaching summit and inwardly delighted at the expected rush from swooping down the descent tracks. The rate of increase in my scores slowed, and the summit was attained. The scores stood above 550 – over ten times the minimum I’d seen at about 50 earlier in the day. I felt poised for a plunge of prolonged ecstasy. My gaze followed the tracks downward, eager to see the succession of dips and hills I imagined would follow the initial plunge. But I was startled to see that the tracks, instead of veering upward again near the ground, bore relentlessly downward, entered, and were swallowed by the blackest hole I had ever seen. The blackness lapped like a liquid at the tracks and the edges of its pool. As I started downward toward this engulfing, enveloping blackness, I, my ego, understood through a flash of intuition that if it entered this place that ego dissolution would occur, and it would no long Be In Control. So my ego told me the Big Lie and filled my mind with the warning thought that if I entered this place, I would never emerge, and I would cease to be. Since I was a Physics major with a Protestant fundamentalist religious background, I was totally ignorant of mystical experiences, ego dissolution, transcendence, etc.,…and I foolishly believed my ego’s self-serving warning, …and I panicked. A soundless scream of fear and unwillingness filled my mind, …and of course, my alpha instantly disappeared, so the feedback tone disappeared; then the whole scene disappeared, and I tumbled back into he-who-was-sitting-in-a-chair in Joe Kamiya’s feedback laboratory. At once, I felt sheepish embarrassment for over-reacting; then, a vague sense of loss and regret at having missed some opportunity began to grow. I tried to resume the attitude of alpha enhancement, but the doorway I was now seeking remained closed and unapproachable. [The good news about alpha training is that you can only get as much experience as you can handle and integrate. The bad news is that you can only get as much experience as you can handle and integrate.]
There were other experiences after that, also of considerable interest, but the physical fatigue and the fear of the abyss conspired to keep my alpha levels well below those at which the most profound experiences had occurred. The fatigue, which I had also felt in the three earlier sessions about 5 minutes before the technician ended those sessions caused me to estimate I had been there for about 45 minutes. I was therefore not at all surprised when the door began to open, but I was surprised when the technician burst into the room in a sudden flood of light and a state of some alarm. In the background were about a dozen people, most of the lab crew, who had all been at lunch together when my technician remembered, [“Oh my God!”] that she had forgotten me in the feedback chamber, and they all rushed back together in the VW camper bus to “rescue” me. The rest of the afternoon was spent in telling and retelling the story of my adventure. For two days afterward, I walked around feeling light and buoyant and not at all sure I was touching the ground, which remained about 2 feet below the soles of my shoes. Four months later, still moved by the realness of what had happened, and having heard that similar things can happen in meditation, I started Raja Yoga lessons to prepare for another encounter with the Unmanifest, which my ignorance and unreadiness had led me to fear and to avoid.
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