Eastern enlightenment is not what you think. I mean, maybe it is. But it’s probably not. There’s a reason it’s so elusive, and there’s a reason that it hasn’t joined western science and the western world the way that curiosity and discovery have as a driving force.
This is the story of my mistake accidentally discovering enlightenment.
I was noticing some weird symptoms. I felt cold. Which was strange because I have never been cold. Nicknames include “fire” and “hot hands”, my history includes a lot of bad jokes about how I am definitely on fire. I am known for visiting the snow in shorts and a t-shirt. I hit 70kg, The least fat I have ever had in my life. And that was the only explanation I had. I asked a doctor about it, I did some reading – circulation problems. I don’t have circulation problems at the age of 25. I am more fit than I have ever been in my life. I look into hesperidin (orange peel) and eat myself a few whole oranges including peel. No change. I look into other blood pressure supplements, other capillary modifying supplements… Other ideas to investigate. I decided I couldn’t be missing something because there was nothing to be missing. I would have read it somewhere already. So I settled for the obvious answer. Being skinnier was making me colder.
Flashback to February 2016
This is where it all begins. I move out of my parents house into an apartment with a girl I have been seeing for under 6 months. I weigh around 80kg (that’s 12.5 stones or 176 pounds or 2822 ounces for our imperial friends). Life happens and by March I am on my own. I decide to start running. Make myself a more desirable human.
I taught myself a lot about routines and habits and actually getting myself to run. Running is hard. Actually, running is easy. Leaving the house is hard. But I work that out too.
Some of my fellow Sydney Rationalists have decided that we want to go trampolining. This is almost certainly an excellent idea and we start going weekly. There’s a warehouse with large area of trampolines. I am in charge. I round up my friends on a Monday night to go trampolining. The most strenuous workout hour that lazy nerd types have ever had. The first time we try it we are out of breath within 10 minutes of our hour long session. We make a lot of jokes about it.
My running routine (3 times a week now) looks something like:
- Go to bed shirtless (prior intention)
- Roll out of bed in the morning
- Go to the bathroom
- Leave the house to go for a run.
- Don’t think about it too hard.
Barefoot, shirtless, don’t think about it too hard, go for a run.
Enough people in my life suggest that I should try lifting, including my ex. I do something between scoffing and deciding “not just yet”. I continue my running and trampoline and start to notice serious pain. At this point I am 77kg (down from 80kg and trending down). That’s because I’ve been dieting. Sticking to a routine diet with a calorie deficit. New rules – only healthy food in my house.
Everything hurts. Especially after trampoline. I do some reading and decide it’s some kind of DOMS. At the same time I investigate protein powder because it seems like a good thing that healthy people do. Also I am lazy and could stand to be more lazy with food.
I wander down the street to one of those strange stores with obnoxiously large bottles on the shelves and mutter something like, “I don’t know anything about protein powder, what am I looking at”. The lovely lady at the counter gives me a tour of the entire shop, explaining which products were in fact just overpriced versions of the other ones. I end up spending 15 minutes deciding between cookies and cream and strawberry flavoured whey protein powder in obnoxiously large jars. I also jump on Ebay and buy some Creatine because hey! Why not? It’s worth trying.
Trampolining is one of the most strenuous exercises you can do to your whole body at once. Throwing your body around uses every muscle you have. Which is why I remember the day so well. I was up to my 5th day’s worth of pain from trampoline. I remember a week earlier, considering quitting the whole exercise thing because of the recurring pain problem.
The “Rage-against-the-trampoline” group coins the “weakest link” theory (Sam comes up with the puns). In the process of using several of your muscles at the same time, one of your muscles will be the weakest link. Which is to say that it won’t be as strong, as flexible or as durable as the others. That’s the one you’ll feel tomorrow. And the day after. And maybe the day after that.
We can now jump for 45mins before being tired.
I reached 74kg. I just assumed that 5 days of pain was the cost of exercising a human body. The constant experience of minor or major pain is just what fit people put up with (I was still completely out of tune with my body). Then the day came that I actually tried the protein powder.
I was thinking, “maybe all this pain is for other people and not for me”. I came up with the theory that maybe there are two kinds of people. “People who enjoy exercise” and “people who don’t”. In theory the people who enjoy exercise are the ones who are fit already. The ones who don’t are the ones that are fat. The ones that hate the exercise (and maybe get less salience from exercise, less dopamine reward perhaps), won’t ever change. Maybe people can’t change? I talk to Tim (he’s my 60 year old weightlifter friend). He suggests planning rest days and actually honouring them because your fitness actually grows on the days that your muscles repair. The days that you don’t exercise are more important than the days you do. Maybe I am working too hard.
And then it happened. On a whim. I figured I would try this protein thing. I made a milkshake with protein powder. It took about half an hour to take effect. I was sitting at my desk in pain from some combination of running, trampoline and whatever torture I was delivering my body at present. And I was reading the internet, or writing my blog, or doing something irrelevant when I started sweating. And my muscles started to buzz, and they weren’t hurting, and my heart sped up, and I got excited. And suddenly a voice in my head said “I want to go for a run”. And I didn’t know why, or where that voice came from. I went for a run.
And then I realised. When you don’t have enough protein in your body, because you’ve been dieting so hard that you’re not eating any more protein, and you’re exercising like a wild animal… you are breaking and damaging your muscles and there’s no way they can repair and grow. Even with enough rest days. It’s going to hurt. But when you get enough protein, pain that can last 5 days goes away in 24 hours.
I go to the supermarket and buy some fish oil, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C. Just for kicks to see if vitamins can magic away more problems. I start doing some light research on examine.com to see what else I can buy. I find a bunch of names, make a list of things to try, get confused or distracted and give up.
I read https://www.julian.com/learn/muscle/prep and following on from my Protein success I start planning for starting some lifting like behaviour. I jump online and find someone selling a 5kg dumbell for $10. I figure why not. I meet a scrawny 18 year old and swap my dollars for a lump of metal. I start playing around with it. It’s heavy to begin with, but it gets lighter. I approach the plateau of how much muscle can be improved by occasional deciding; I should hold that thing in the air today. I can hold the weight out with a straight arm for 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds.
The Julian guide suggests a few specific supplements and I don’t hesitate before ordering the one I am missing. As I wrote before… you must be willing to experiment. The three are:
- Citrulline Malate.
The guide quotes:
3. Supplement: Citrulline malate
If you’re not looking to get very muscular and don’t plan to continue past the 2 month mark of this program, you can skip this since you won’t need the endurance boost.
Citrulline malate is the final muscle building supplement worth taking. Citrulline malate (CM) has been demonstrated to significantly increase the volume of sets (we’re talking an extra 50%) you can perform in a workout session (study, study). We’re going to need the muscle endurance boosts CM provides when we hit the third month of this program.
CM is an amino acid found in several foods including musk melons, squashes, gourds, cucumbers, and pumpkins. There are no known side effects when it’s taken at the recommended doses. (You can dive into the CM research over at Examine. You can also peruse the reviews left for citrulline malate products on Amazon.)
The recommended dose for CM is 8 grams (0.28oz), which is 4 scoops of the product linked above. Take this 60 minutes before your workout. (The timing is important; you won’t feel the endurance enhancing effects until 60 minutes have passed.)
There is no benefit to taking CM post-workout or on non-workout days. Just take it before workouts.
A heads up that CM is incredibly sour 😬 Mixing it with other drinks will completely ruin them. So take it with a tiny bit of water and drink it in one shot!
That’s pretty sweet. I went straight to ebay and ordered some. I also had creatine already. The full list looks something like:
- Fish oil
- Citrulline Malate
- Garlic paste (Alum)
And some new ones to try out, “5-htp”, “l-theanine”, “Sam-e” (from examine.com).
I try them one day at a time, then I try to take everything at once because who can wait? Most of these are vitamins, life is pretty variable anyway. Your normal diet heavily influence the vitamins and nutrients you get. If it’s a random Western diet you’d get a mix-match of vitamins any other day of the week.. swapping up vitamins won’t matter for a one-off trial. Or at least that’s what I thought.
I had a great day! Turns out that when you pump yourself full of vitamins you take a boost in all manner of ways. Like the weakest link theory. Chances are one vitamin or another was slowing down whichever processes your body was trying to do. I get some sweet gainz – clarity of thinking, strength boost, focus, healing time… super human capacity to love… turns out that music sounds better when I am in a better mood. Good to know.
I can now trampoline for an hour and a half without dying.
I learn that there is a difference between wet and dry protein. A big difference. The difference is water weight. A 100g piece of fish is only 30g of protein. Not nearly as much as I first thought. When the Recommended Daily Intakes (RDI) suggest 0.5-2.2g of protein per kilogram bodyweight they are talking about dry protein weight. Not wet protein. I literally double my protein intake over night and I feel like I reached the next level greater. Everything is going great. Except eating enough protein – that’s now hard to do.
I can now trampoline for two hours in the same night. I’m sore the next day, but that goes away quickly now.
Late December 2016
I am pretty much on top of the world. Nothing hurts more than a day after trampoline. Starting to go trampolining twice a week. I’ve been training for long enough that I am probably more fit than I have ever been in my life. I weigh 72kg. I’m clearly on the higher end of the testosterone scale. Judging by how often I am finding myself starting conversations with strangers (assertiveness)… judging by my sex drive… and judging by my ability to feel empowered/agenty. A blood test confirms 27nmol/l. inside the normal range, but only just. For a healthy young person that’s fine.
I go to a beach with friends. A very charismatic friend of mine points out that there appears to be a pipe on the cliff wall next to us. “wouldn’t it be cool to go in there” he says. 3 people agree and laugh at the idea. No one moves. Something about being top of the range of testosterone can make you boldly do things. I silently get up and climb into the pipe about 3 metres up the cliff face. It’s a neat rainwater tunnel about a metre in diameter which goes about 300m before the pipe gets too small for a human to get through. it’s about two streets away at the other end by GPS. I walk back and report my finding. I climb out of the drain and onto the ground. My Very Charismatic Friend decides to copy me. He successfully climbs into the pipe. I suggest that maybe he wants to take his phone as a torch. Then I realise that based on the fact that he managed to get into the pipe without a torch… he’s not always good to go off on his own, and I should go with him.
I go to climb the wall… Put my hand on a branch, and craaaaack… I fall 3 metres through the air and land on my left foot. I hear a crunch but I don’t show other people I am in pain. I hobble back to the car eventually. I never get an x-ray for it, but for now I can’t run. I can’t even walk.
It took about 6 weeks to heal, as you might expect for a broken bone. I didn’t go to a doctor, because they probably can’t do anything, and I don’t really like doctors. While I was waiting for my foot to heal I decided that I probably don’t need to be downing all my supplements. I can’t exercise, what are supplements going to do?
I try swimming but it just doesn’t stick. Trampoline is out of the picture now.
Somewhere between taking some supplements and not others, something went out of wack. I ran out of COQ10 which I was fairly sure was doing nothing. I switched brand of protein, I was having difficulty keeping track of how much Citrulline Malate and Creatine I was taking (two powdered substances that you have to measure out). My dose would vary between 1g and 5g depending on the day and how much I convinced myself was the “right amount” today. Sometimes I would eat protein, sometimes I wouldn’t. I started up a google form for myself, but my adherence to the form went on and off. My adherence to my supplements goes in and out.
My head went cloudy sometimes, I would crash in the afternoons sometimes.
S0ph1a shared the PNSE paper. It was a curious read at the time but nothing more.
(February 2017 at the start)
Symptoms also include reduced sex drive (don’t worry – I can get it up but I am just not interested in initiating), lack of motivation, and this strange feeling of enlightenment and contentedness. I already know that summer is my season for high sex drive. And anything that’s not summer is essentially, “not the season”. As I’m getting the feelings of enlightenment, that “everything will be okay” sense. I am also reading a lot of books. Spirituality books since they take my fancy right now. Books like Waking Up by Sam Harris, Search inside yourself by Chade-Meng Tan, Gateless Gate. I am probably about 20 books into the year’s 80 or so. I have this strange feeling that they are all agreeing with each other. That every book that I read is starting to make sense of and drawing a part of a bigger picture. I take this as a clue that I am going in the right direction. The epiphany is getting closer and growing larger. I’m “working it out”. “It’s all making sense”.
My adherence to my supplements goes on and off. I am lethargic but I don’t know why. Starting to get annoyed with how often I notice being cold. That’s a shock to my system. I look up more things and discover the vasodilation and vasoconstriction dichotomy. I notice that I recently reduced my cholesterol which would have had an impact in the general vasodilation direction.
It was at this point in writing this story that I found a 600 page textbook on vasodilation and vasoconstriction and went down a rabbit hole trying to understand biochemistry well above my education level in human physiology. After two days of procrastination I stopped and decided to go back to telling the story.
I discover Zen Koans. But I work out how to feel the feeling of Zen Koans. I sit with Erratio online sharing various koans and describing them to each other over the slack. I work out how to think like a koan wants you to think (hint it’s not hard and I have instructions in that post). But the only way I get there is through mysterious enlightenment feelings. I investigate Taoism.
Lethargy symptoms, feeling cold symptoms, sex drive symptoms are all still there. Things are not improving and I’m getting really annoyed with my poor adherence to supplements so I decide to stick to my routine religiously. I write it out on paper. I am at 5g of Citrulline Malate and 5g of Creatine, any other quantity of either supplement and I just forget the number. Or forget which of the two measurements is which supplement. I am forgetting things more. I start using more lists to compensate for forgetting things. Concentration is hard. I spend more and more time on my couch and not at my desk. I have long stretches of not writing anything at all.
Taoism is an interesting one. It’s in the enlightenment cluster, that’s for sure. But Taoism is strange because any time you try to talk about Taoism it’s said to be not the “true way”.
Dào/tao literally means “way,” or one of its synonyms, but was extended to mean “the Way.” This term, has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnamable process of the universe.
Let me try to put it this way. I am going to describe something specific. This specific thing is designed not to be described. Taoism is “the true way” to live. Think “the path”, righteousness, “a good life”, all these other names. Seeking that “way”, that’s the way to be. But attaining the way, there is no such thing. There is just the seeking. You can’t show someone the way any more than you can show someone an invisible dragon. You can kinda describe what an invisible dragon is going to be like but you can’t show someone else the way.
That’s enlightenment for you. It evades description by design.
I remember the PNSE paper from 6 months ago. I am having more enlightenment symptoms. I reread it twice because I couldn’t remember it very well the first read through. I am at location 1-2, noticing bits of the continuum in my life. But it’s okay, everything is connected. I feel very calm. I notice my solution to an interpersonal problem is, “let’s talk about it until we work it out”. I take the position that I seem to have a good understanding of how everything is connected but I have a poor ability to explain it (not sure how I concluded that since poor ability to communicate is as good as not having a good explanation. I was so sure of myself that I knew I was right if only I could communicate it). I try to solve the interpersonal problem but don’t make much headway. I write down what I want to communicate and try to talk about it with the person. It doesn’t help me clarify things.
Lethargy symptoms are really impeding my life. I decide to try going off my supplements one at a time to try to work out the cause of the problem. I go off fish oil for a day and notice that I get a critical brain loop. I go off garlic and don’t notice much change. I go off magnesium for a few days and nothing happens. A month later I look back to notice reduced sleep quality. I sleep an hour extra a night on average without magnesium. I go off vitamin C and can’t seem to pin down a difference… I go off Creatine and nothing happens at first. Eventually I find myself without energy.
I research the finders course protocol and Jeffrey Martin – creator of the PNSE paper. I find Gateless Gatecrashers, I look into other meditation methods, including non-self/non-duality, mental noting, mindfulness, mantra, and more. I can see how they all get different people to the same enlightened place. According to the finders course and the PNSE paper you need to get the right method for the right time of your life. I can see what methods won’t work for me. I can’t explain clearly but it’s got to do with the version of a brain that you have and the relationship you have with reality. I think my best method is via gateless gatecrashers. Also mindfulness doesn’t suit me (so HA to everyone who commonly suggests mindfulness meditation).
I go off citrulline malate for 48 hours. And it hits me. Lethargy gone. Cloudy headed thinking gone. Ability to be productive returns. I spend 10 hours at my desk in a row. I write several thousand words. I send off 10 emails and clear my inbox. I power through my to-do list. I stick to my diet for the first time in months. I send emails, I round up outstanding notes, reorganise myself. Reset my GTD system and power through for a day.
I start doing some research into citrulline malate. Turns out it’s a vasodilator. Vasodilation symptoms also include getting cold, poor sense of smell, lethargy, low sex drive…
I look over that interpersonal problem and the notes I made. I think about how I will solve it now. The solution that comes to mind is now, “it’s my way or the highway, so shut up and listen or else”. Which is a stark contrast to before.
My sense of smell comes back strong. The fascinating part is how it could be so clear one day to the next. Food tastes better – probably connected to a sense of smell. [editor note: I may be remembering this relationship backwards]
Some science about Vasoconstriction and Vasodilation
Vasoconstriction is when all your veins and capillaries are constricted. It probably means you have higher blood pressure – because everything is under pressure. Your heart is working harder, you would find it hard to exercise, like trying to run with restriction on your lungs. Any movement is hard. Some dietary causes include:
- Caffeine (peripheral vasodilator, central vasoconstrictor)
- Stimulants (Amphetamines)
- Salty foods, high sodium concentration foods
- Saturated and trans fats
- Refined carbs. The more refined ones.
- Anything that can cause cholesterol build up in the blood vessels (high cholesterol generally)
- glycyrrhizic acid (licorice) (also increases cortisol and decreases testosterone)
- Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
- Lots of alcohol
Then there’s Vasodilators. Also influenced by a bunch of dietary choices.
- some alcohol (not too much) (also some people get vasoconstriction)
- Green vegetables
- Garlic, onions
- red wine, grapes
- fish oils
- most nuts
There are more than just this list. Including other foods and medications.
This year I read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. The book proposes a link between physiological states and emotional states. Some of the side remarks include that a strategy to reduce anger is to leave the room. By changing your environment, you give your heart rate a chance to calm down and from there you become less angry.
The same applies to many other physiological states. For example seeing dilated pupils is a clue of attraction. Which is why bars often have dim lighting, then everyone’s pupils are dilated and everyone looks attractive.
Citrulline Malate is a weightlifting supplement. When you are lifting, you want to deliver the nutrients (protein, BCAA, glutamine, other vitamins…) to your muscles to help with repair. And you want those supplements to circulate to all of the muscle and be absorbed as much as possible to help with the growth of muscles as fast as possible. So ideally you want some vasodilation effect to help that happen. In addition to that, if you exercise when vasodilated, your heart will have an easy time delivering blood and oxygen to your muscles. You will have better endurance, and you will have more capacity to use your muscles.
If you think about the physiological state that you might reach after spending ten years meditating in monasteries as monks do to achieve enlightenment. It’s probably pretty damn calm. If you think about the physiological state of vasodilation, this seems like a pretty obvious link. One that the finders course, while overselling itself is probably very very aware of.
My pill to enlightenment is 5-10g of citrulline malate a day for 6 months. But I wouldn’t suggest you take it. There is no guarantee that citrulline will cause the same cluster of experience in you as it did in me. Without paying attention to the symptoms and how they influence your head it’s likely to leave you feeling lethargic, sleepy, cold, forgetful, fatter, with less salience for food, distractable and easily zoning out, unable to concentrate on hard problems, unable to access heavy churning mind, but also very calm, relaxed and “at peace with the world”.
Other symptoms include the feeling that no matter what happens, everything will be okay. Famine, natural disaster, lose your job, major car accident… It won’t matter you will feel like everything will be okay. That’s what the enlightenment state is like. I suspect its two parts. The first is a physiological calmness that hangs around. And the second is the detachment from reality in that you remain physiologically calm in light of stresses that previously increased physiological symptoms (elevated heart rate, blood pressure, etc). Unless you go through an inhuman amount of stress. As reported in the PNSE paper:
some individuals reported that stressful life events caused them to lose their PNSE. The first hint I had of this was a woman who approached one of my associate researchers after I spoke at an event. She lost her PNSE of 5 years at a time when her father had just died, her son was ill and unlikely to survive, and her husband of many years had left her.
I look back at the continuum from Vasoconstrictor to Vasodilator and the fascinating thing that strikes me is that, (apart from a few outliers), Vasoconstriction has the lifestyle of: coffee, fast food, salt, alcohol. Vasodilation has the classic “health foods” lifestyle – Green plant foods, tea, ginger, fish oil, red wine, nuts. Almost like all the health food fads neatly line themselves up into the physiologically relaxing territory, and all the unhealthy foods are the ones that put your blood pressure up. Almost like all health fads are clustered at one thing and the western diet is clustered at another thing.
It’s a curious phenomenon and the correlation is too strong to be a coincidence. All health foods? The memes are clear. Yoga and heath food diets at one end and deep fried cheeseburgers at the other end. But what does that mean now? That’s left as an exercise for the reader.
Seth Roberts – Author of The Shagri La Diet, was an advocate for self experimentation like the story above. He passed away in 2014 through an unforseen heart attack while hiking. He was fit and healthy but it’s not clear exactly what he was trying out at the time and if his habit of inventing new experiments to try on himself had a hand in his death. A word of warning. I was an idiot here. I fundamentally changed my mindscape by taking a substance that I was not fully informed about. I wanted results and I wanted them fast. The results could have been a lot worse. When playing with constriction and dilation I could have caused a stroke. I didn’t because I am young and healthy. But that experiment was more dangerous than I am willing to admit among polite company.
A father of self experimentation is dead from unknown causes. Be very careful if you decide to try. Do your reading, then do more reading, then track lots of variables, then be hesitant and take things slowly when you alter your normal behaviour. Take care of yourself. And good luck.
Meta: this post is 4800 words long. It took 5+ hours to write and 5+ hours to edit. I am trying out a new narrative style. This story is about as true as I can recount. It’s scary what you can do to yourself. You only have one life in which to make mistakes. Be careful.