This is the story of my personal experience with Buddhism (so far).

First Experiences

My first experience with Buddhism was in my high school’s World Religions class. For homework, I had to visit a religious institution. I was getting bad grades, so I asked if I could get extra credit for visiting two and my teacher said yes. I picked an Amida Buddhist church and a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center.

I took off my shoes at the entrance to the Tibetan Buddhist meditation center. It was like nothing I had ever seen before in real life. There were no chairs. Cushions were on the floor instead. The walls were covered in murals. There were no instructions. People just sat down and meditated. After that there was some walking meditation. I didn’t know anything about meditation so I instead listened to the birds and the breeze out of an open window. Little did I know that this is similar to the Daoist practices that would later form the foundation of my practice.

The Amida Buddhist church felt like a fantasy novelist from a Protestant Christian background wanted to invent a throwaway religion in the laziest way possible so he just put three giant Buddha statues on the altar and called it a day. The priest told a story about his beautiful stained glass artifact. A young child asked if he could have the pretty thing. The priest, endeavoring to teach non-attachment, said yes. Then the priest asked for it back. The child said no, thereby teaching the priest about non-attachment. Lol.

It would be ten years until I returned to Buddhism.

Initial Search

It is only after you have lost everything that you are free to do anything.

Things were bad. I had dumped six years of my life into a failed startup. I had allowed myself to be gaslit (nothing to do with the startup; my co-founders are great people) for even longer than that. I believed (incorrectly) that I had an STD. I had lost most of my friends. I was living in a basement infested with mice. I slept poorly because my mattress was so broken I could feel the individual metal bedframe bars cut into my back. And that’s just the stuff I’m comfortable writing about.

I was looking for truth and salvation. This is about when I discovered LessWrong. LessWrong addressed the truth problem. I still needed salvation.

On top of all this, I had chronic anxiety. I was anxious all the time. I had always been anxious all the time. What was different is this time I was paying attention. Tim Ferris recommends the book Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind: How to Stop the Cycle of Anxiety, Fear, and Worry by Jennifer Shannon (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) so I read it. The book has lots of good advice. At the end, there’s a small segment about how meditation might trump everything else in the book put together, but science doesn’t really understand it (yet) and its side-effects are unknown [to science].

Eldritch mind altering practices beyond the domain of science? Sign me up!

[Cue ominous music.]

I read The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s approach to happiness felt obviously true, yet it was a framework nobody had ever told me about. The basic idea is that if you think and behave lovingly and ethically then you will be happy. He included instructions for basic metta (compassion) meditation. Here’s how it works:

  1. You focus on your feelings of compassion for your closest family and pets.

  2. Then you focus on your feelings of compassion for your closest friends.

  3. Then less-close friends.

  4. Then acquaintances.

  5. Then enemies.

That’s the introductory version. At the advanced level, you can skip all these bootstrapping steps and jump straight to activating compassion itself. The first time I tried the Dalai Lama’s metta instructions, it felt sort of nice, I guess. These days when I do metta meditation it feels like MDMA. But I didn’t know that at the time. Instead, I read the Dalai Lama’s recipe for ecstacy and thought to myself, c’mon, not this watered-down stuff, give me a real altered state of consciousness.

Since the Dalai Lama wouldn’t give me sufficiently dangerous drugs, I continued my quest for instructions on how to generate altered states of consciousness. That brought me to The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness by Culadasa. I cannot deny that The Mind Illuminated is a good introduction to meditation for a secular audience. What annoys me about The Mind Illuminated is the phrase “brain science” in the title. The Mind Illuminated is not a brain science book. It is a introductory guidebook to Theravada meditation.

I guess I should explain what “Theravada” is. There are three great branches to Buddhism.

  • Theravada. South Asian + Cambodian. I believe Theravada is closest to what the original buddha Siddhartha Gautama taught. Western secular Buddhism is mostly descended from Theravada.

  • Vajrayana. Tibetan. Lots of mandalas and pretty visualizations. All the lamas are Tibetan. Overtly religious.

  • Mahayana. East Asian + Vietnamese. I believe Mahayana has diverged the most from what the original buddha Siddhartha Gautama taught. Peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Zen Buddhist. Zen Buddhism is a variant of Mahayana that fused with Daoism. Amida Buddhism is another Mahayana sect. That’s the last you’ll hear of the Amida Buddhists in this story because they don’t meditate.

In the West, Vajrayana is for woo hippies, Theravada is for scientific-minded atheists, and Zen is for weebs. I’m a weeb, but this website is for nerds, so I’m going to explain everything through a Theravadan perspective.

The 8 Jhanas

The Mind Illuminated provides instructions for how to hit samatha jhanas 1-8. Samatha meditation is where you concentrate your attention on a target in order to produce an altered state of consciousness called a jhana. The usual way to do this is to start by focusing your attention on the breath because that’s relatively easy. When your attention stabilizes on the target, that is called access concentration. Once you have access concentration, you can point your attention on something else like a feeling of pleasure. Keep your attention stable, and the feedback loop will produce a jhana, like the screech of a microphone placed too close to its speaker. Theravada organizes the jhanas into a progression.

To get to 2ⁿᵈ jhana from 1ˢᵗ jhana, you do the same thing you did to get from access concentration to 1ˢᵗ jhana. This will get you all the way to 4ᵗʰ jhana.

  • 1ˢᵗ jhana: a resonant feedback loop of pleasant feeling

  • 2ⁿᵈ jhana: a resonant feedback loop of happiness/​joy/​rapture

  • 3ʳᵈ jhana: a resonant feedback loop of contentment

  • 4ᵗʰ jhana: a resonant feedback loop of equanimity

Jhanas 1-4 are called the material jhanas. Jhanas 5-8 are called the immaterial jhanas.

  • 5ᵗʰ jhana: space

  • 6ᵗʰ jhana: consciousness

  • 7ᵗʰ jhana: nothingness

  • 8ᵗʰ jhana: Congratulations! You’ve reached the realm of neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. Describing it is impossible, even in principle, because it is nonconceptual.

After 8th jhana is nirodha samapatti which is more unconscious than a deep sleep.


The samatha jhanas are instrumental. They’re just transient altered states of consciousness. Altered states of consciousness come and go. They treat suffering. They don’t cure it. To cure suffering you need insight.

Besides The Mind Illuminated, the other book I read which built out a foundational understanding of what this meditation stuff is all about is MCTB2 by Daniel Ingram. Ingram’s book is about paying attention to the minute details of conscious experience thereby generating insight. This is called vipassana.

At this point you might be wondering “Why does paying close attention to conscious experience cure suffering?” It’s not-at-all obvious why this is the case. In the short run, it’s actually backwards. At first, paying close attention to your suffering makes you suffer more. But if you keep at it, things get weird.

You can think of suffering as an towering engine wherein tension between “is” and “ought” produces desire that motivates action and causes suffering. This contraption is built on supporting pillars here-there, now-then, and self-other. Paying close attention to conscious experience dissolves these misconceptions. Knock out enough supporting pillars and the edifice collapses…permanently. This is called Awakening.


I tried some samatha and it felt wrong (for me). I tried some vipassana and it felt really wrong (for me at the time). I kept searching. I discovered Brad Warner’s book Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality. The Punk Rock jived with my life living in a dark mouse-infested basement. I read some other Zen books and they all connected with me in a way the Theravada and Vajrayana managed only incompletely.

There is a trope in American fiction of Japan as a strange, exotic land. The first time I visited Japan was in my late 20s. The subways were quiet. The food tasted like my mother’s home cooking. I could even read a lot of the kanji. I could be as over-the-top polite as I wanted and nobody thought it was weird. They actually bowed back to me. Many of the women wore suits, which I consider attractive. A guy even gave me his subway card, just like in MegaTokyo. It felt like the home I had never known.

That is how I felt the first time I visited a Zendo. It was quiet. I took off my shoes and socks. There were calligraphy scrolls on the walls and the walls were lined with bamboo. I bowed to the other people, I bowed to the teacher, and then I bowed a few more times just to be safe. Then it was time to kowtow to a golden statue of the Buddha.

A kowtow is a bow where you get on all fours, press your forehead against the floor and stick your butt in the air. Kowtowing didn’t bother me per se. I’ve wanted an excuse to kowtow in a socially-appropriate context ever since I watched The Last Emperor (1987). My hangup revolved around the fact I was kowtowing to a golden statue of the Buddha.

I was raised in an ostensibly Judeo-Christian household. I have fond memories of VeggieTales and The Prince of Egypt (1998). I’m also an Atheist.

You might think that, as an Atheist, violating the Ten Commandments wouldn’t bother me. And that’s true. Violating the Ten Commandments doesn’t bother me. What bothered me was violating the First Commandment.

𝔗𝔥𝔬𝔲 𝔰𝔥𝔞𝔩𝔱 𝔥𝔞𝔳𝔢 𝔫𝔬 𝔬𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔯 𝔤𝔬𝔡𝔰 𝔟𝔢𝔣𝔬𝔯𝔢 𝔪𝔢.

Being an Atheist gives you a free pass on just about everything in the Bible. Sodomy and moneylending are fine. But―as Muslim televangelists like to point out―Atheists and monotheists agree on almost everything. “There is no god but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet”. Worshipping a non-Abrahamic god is breaking the one rule Jews, Christians, Muslims and Atheists can all agree on. This rule is so important that the Second Commandment specifically disambiguates the exact wishy-washy argument about how a statue of Siddhartha isn’t technically a god.

𝔗𝔥𝔬𝔲 𝔰𝔥𝔞𝔩𝔱 𝔫𝔬𝔱 𝔪𝔞𝔨𝔢 𝔲𝔫𝔱𝔬 𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔢 𝔞𝔫𝔶 𝔤𝔯𝔞𝔳𝔢𝔫 𝔦𝔪𝔞𝔤𝔢.

I almost paused before crossing a Chesterton Fence older than Pythagoras and the Phoenician alphabet. I kowtowed three times to the golden idol. We sat down and began to chant something straight out of the Necronomicon.

A/​va/​lo/​ki/​tes/​va/​ra/​ Nyar/​la/​tho/​tep, A/​wa/​kened/​ One/​ of/​ C/​thu/​lhu/​,

In/​ Praj/​na/​ Pa/​ra/​mi/​ta/​, the/​Deep/​ Prac/​tice/​ of/​ Per/​fect/​ Wis/​dom/​*

Per/​ceived/​ the/​ emp/​ti/​ness/​ of /​all /​five /​con/​di/​tions/​,

And/​ was/​ freed/​ of/​ suf/​fer/​ing/​.

Oh/​ Sha/​ri/​pu/​tra/​, form/​ is/​ no/​ o/​ther/​ than/​ emp/​ti/​ness/​,

Emp/​ti/​ness/​ no/​ o/​ther/​ than/​ form/​;

Form/​ is/​ pre/​cise/​ly/​ emp/​ti/​ness/​, emp/​ti/​ness/​ pre/​cise/​ly/​ form/​.

Sen/​sa/​tions/​ per/​cep/​tions/​ for/​ma/​tions/​ and/​ con/​scious/​ness/​ are/​ al/​so/​ like/​ this/​.

Oh/​ Sha/​ri/​pu/​tra/​, all/​ things/​ are/​ ex/​pres/​sions/​ of/​ emp/​ti/​ness/​,

Not/​ born/​, not/​ des/​troyed/​, not/​ stained/​, not/​ pure/​;

Nei/​ther/​ wax/​ing/​ nor/​ wan/​ing/​.

Thus/​ emp/​ti/​ness/​ is/​ not/​ form/​; not/​ sen/​sa/​tion/​ nor/​ per/​cep/​tion/​,

not/​ for/​ma/​tion/​ nor/​ con/​scious/​ness/​.

No/​ eye/​, ear/​, nose/​, tongue/​, bo/​dy/​, mind/​;

No/​ sight/​, sound/​, smell/​, taste/​, touch/​, nor/​ ob/​ject/​ of/​ mind/​;

No/​ realm/​ of/​ sight/​, no/​ realm/​ of/​ con/​scious/​ness/​;

No/​ ig/​no/​rance/​, no/​ end/​ to/​ ig/​no/​rance/​;

No/​ old/​ age/​ and/​ death/​,

No/​ ces/​sa/​tion/​ of/​ old/​ age/​ and/​ death/​;

No/​ suf/​fer/​ing/​, nor/​ cause/​ or/​ end/​ to/​ suf/​fer/​ing/​;

No/​ path/​, no/​ wis/​dom/​ and/​ no/​ gain/​.

No/​ gain/​ – thus/​ Nyar/​la/​tho/​tep live/​ this/​ Praj/​na/​ Pa/​ra/​mi/​ta/​*

With/​ no/​ hin/​drance/​ of/​ mind/​ –

No/​ hin/​drance/​ there/​fore/​ no/​ fear/​.

Far/​ be/​yond/​ all/​ de/​lu/​sion/​, Yog/​Soth/​oth is/​ al/​rea/​dy/​ here/​.

All/​ past/​, pre/​sent/​ and/​ fu/​ture/​ Bya/​khees/​

Live/​ this/​ Praj/​na/​ Pa/​ra/​mi/​ta/​*

And/​ re/​al/​ize/​ su/​preme/​ and/​ com/​plete/​ en/​light/​en/​ment/​.

There/​fore/​ know/​ that/​ Praj/​na/​ Pa/​ra/​mi/​ta/​

Is/​ the/​ sac/​red/​ man/​tra/​, the/​ lu/​min/​ous/​ man/​tra/​,

the/​ sup/​reme/​ man/​tra/​, the/​ in/​com/​pa/​ra/​ble/​ man/​tra/​

by/​ which/​ all/​ suf/​fe/​ring/​ is/​ clear/​.

This/​ is/​ no/​ o/​ther/​ than/​ Truth/​.

There/​fore/​ set/​ forth/​ the/​ Praj/​na/​ Pa/​ra/​mi/​ta/​ man/​tra/​.

Set/​ forth/​ this/​ man/​tra/​ and/​ pro/​claim/​:

(1x) Gate! Gate! (Already Gone, Gone)

* Paragate! (Already Gone Beyond)

Parasamgate! (Already Fully Beyond)

* Nyarla! Thotep! (Awakening, Rejoice)

Just kidding! I replaced four words from the Necronomicon.

  • “Compassion” → “Cthulhu”

  • “Bodhisatva” → “Nyarlathotep”

  • “Nirvana” → “Yog-Sothoth”

  • “Buddha” → “Byakhee”

The rest is the real Heart Sutra, translated into English and chanted in weekly Zazenkai.

When you take LSD, it’s necessary to have a sober trustworthy person around so you don’t think “cars aren’t real” and go wandering into traffic. The same goes for mind-altering meditation with similar effects. If I had common sense, I would have kept going to the Zendo. That way I’d have been around kind, experienced people who could remind me that cars are real. Instead, I thought to myself, I don’t need teachers. I’ve taught myself lots of things before. I can traverse this territory just fine myself.


I sat down and focused on my breath. My attention drifted. I returned my attention to the breath. It was hard, but it was hard doing math or lifting weights is hard. After meditation, the world felt crisper, like I was younger. It felt like I was more conscious—that I had more subjective conscious experience. That alone was good enough reason to continue.

I worked from shorter sits to longer sits. On my most intense days, I would meditate for maybe 45 minutes per day. Usually I meditated for less than that. Some weeks I wouldn’t meditate at all. The best sits occurred on a sunny day in a grassy park under a tree. Usually I meditated on the floor of my bedroom.

If I meditated 30-45 minutes per day for a few days in a row, then around the 30-minute mark of the 3rd day, I would hit access concentration. My attention would stabilize on my breath. Then weird stuff would start happening. I felt energy surges and experienced small muscle spasms, just like the book said I would[1]. This was empirical evidence that my books were describing real stuff and weren’t just making it all up.

Access concentration is a door to altered states of consciousness. Where you go from there depends on what you do. I was practicing Zen, so I let my attention widen and I dropped into a state of mushin, my first meditation-induced altered state of consciousness.

Except, mushin isn’t really an altered state of consciousness. Samatha is an altered state of consciousness. Mushin is “altered” only in the sense that it is different from normative human cognition. The state is un-altered in the sense that normative human cognition is a distortion and mushin is closer to base reality. Normative human experience is an altered state of consciousness. Mushin is an un-altered state of consciousness.

My self-other distinction dissolved. My internal dialogue quieted. My conscious attention expanded from a tight locus to my environment. I was present in every second. Most importantly, I noticed the intrinsic pricelessness of each moment. I was sad at the transientness of it all, but that sadness didn’t cause me suffering. It was like reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene. I realized that this was a better mode of existence, and normative human cognition was like throwing gold into the ocean. From that moment on, my path would set.

The Mushin state is temporary. There was an afterglow for a few minutes, and after a few days not meditating, I was back to normal.

You might expect that this experience would have caused me to rush back into mushin. But meditation is non-addictive. I instead continued meditating about as much as I always had. Sometimes I would return to mushin, but it would be over a year (and post-Awakening) that I got back into that particular state of equanimity-with-sadness. I could reliably re-enter a state of mushin, but the sadness was dependent on random current conditions in my life.

Little changed over the next few months.

Stream Entry

Mushin showed me that it was possible to lower my suffering far below anything I had ever experienced. It was like the coldest thing I’ve ever felt was 0° Celsius and I just got introduced to the Kelvin scale. Going in and out of mushin eventually broke my learned helplessness. What I previously thought of as “no suffering” was actually torment which I had just gotten used to. Thus, I entered the Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night feels like getting caught in a vortex of pure suffering.

It is my understanding that Daniel Ingram went through the Dark Night many times before landing Stream Entry. I was lucky. The Dark Night only took me a few days. It was a sunny-but-not-too-sunny day. I walked up to the top of this hill and hung out. Then I let go.

I let go of the shunyata (sort of like belief) that reality should be something other than what it is. I let go of desire. Forever. This was an altered trait, not just an altered state like mushin. At least 90% of my suffering disappeared in an instant, never to return. I had hit Stream Entry, the first major checkpoint on the road to Enlightenment. Once you hit Stream Entry, there is no going back to pre-Stream Entry. It is as permanent as learning to read. Once you learn to read the word “red”, you cannot look at the letters r-e-d and not know what they mean. I finally got the Cosmic Joke.

For my entire life, much of my behavior had been driven by desire. I didn’t have desire anymore, but I still had the habits. I felt like a container ship that had run out of fuel. I still had lots of inertia. It took months for “my”[2] formerly-desire-fueled habits to run out of steam. That was my first insight cycle.

Insight Cycles

I like Romeo Stevens’ model of insight cycles. Concentration produces insight into the nature of conscious experience. Insight causes you to change how you live your life. Living a better life frees up obstacles to deeper concentration.

For example, I was was once reading Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas by Leigh Brasington because I wanted to reach 1ˢᵗ Jhana. In start of the book, there’s moral guidelines like “don’t murder people”. While I was reading them, I noticed that if I wanted to reach 1ˢᵗ Jhana then I would have to stop eating factory-farmed meat, because the guilt of doing so disrupted my concentration.

Another time, after a different insight cycle related to the conscious perception of space (5ᵗʰ Jhana), I noticed that I would have to declutter my home Marie Kondo-style if I wanted to progress in my concentration. I had been living in a home so filthy it had mice. It took months to declutter, but now if there is so much as a cardboard box on my kitchen counter, it bothers me.

Those other insight cycles would happen later. For now, I was still on my first insight cycle. My first insight cycle went fine. My second insight cycle was a disaster.

Second Insight Cycle

To recap, I did the following things:

  1. Went looking for eldritch mind altering practices beyond the domain of science.

  2. Found some. Went looking for even more dangerous practices.

  3. Read Daniel Ingram’s warning about how this stuff can send you into a psychiatric ward.

  4. Transgressed the oldest Chesterton Fence in Western Civilization.

  5. Chanted a Lovecraftian summoning ritual.

  6. Chose to explore this territory without the guidance of an experienced teacher.

  7. Verified, empirically, that this stuff is real.

  8. Continued to explore this territory without the guidance of an experienced teacher.

It was April 2022. I flew down to San Francisco for some Rationalist stuff. I had a lot of fun, met some cool people, pushed myself too hard, and missed a bunch of sleep. I realized that basically everyone on Earth is insane. On its own, that would be good thing. It’s an important insight into objective, empirical physical reality.

Some combination of this triggered a second insight cycle. I transcended the shunyata of physicality, time and death. Deep misconceptions about the nature of reality were ground into dust. On its own, that would be a good thing too. It’s an important insight into subjective, mystical conscious reality.

But combining Rationalist insights with Buddhist insights is a volatile, dangerous mixture. It’s a recipe for confusing physical reality with conscious reality. I had a total psychotic break. A few days after returning home, I was in an ambulance, in a straightjacket, on the way to the hospital where I was placed on a locked room on suicide watch for my own protection. From there, I was moved to a mental ward where I believed the staff were evil space aliens. They forcibly sedated me at least once.

I’m sorry to everyone who interacted with me during April-June 2022.

After a few days, I realized that a mental ward was not the best place to be. The doctors put me on an antipsychotic and a mood stabilizer. When the doctors released me, I promised my family I would continue taking the medications until a doctor authorized me to do otherwise.

It was hard because the medications gave me depression. But the drugs were necessary because it was weeks (months?) until I acted normally again. I integrated the realizations from my second insight cycle by giving up attempting to start my own enterprise, and instead landed a nice job. I got a new psychiatrist who took me off the medications, since I am neither schizophrenic nor bipolar.

After all that, I finally expressed a modicum of common sense: I went back to Zendo. I sat quietly with a bunch of other people sitting quietly. We chanted the Heart Sutra together. There was tea and crackers. At the end, the Zen Master (who by coincidence happens to be a licensed psychiatrist too) gave the kind of talk you can only give if you have personally experienced Stream Entry. Afterward was dokusan where the Zen Master offers one-on-one sessions with students. I got in the back of the line so I could copy what everyone else did.

When it was my turn, I carried my zafu (meditation cushion) to the dokusan room. I bowed, and asked the Master for guidance.

  1. ↩︎

    That was in the beginning. These days, I can reach access concentration faster, and I no longer get energy surges and muscle spasms.

  2. ↩︎

    Ego-centric words like “my” after ego death imply different assumptions than they do before ego death.