It brings me such great enjoyment when I see a patient leaving a ketamine treatment filled with joy and energy. They have a beaming smile, move with this sense of lightness, and I can clearly see that they have been transformed by the therapy. At times, patients will try to communicate their experience to me. I have heard a variety of descriptions, such as a feeling of life outside of their body or ego, a sense of floating, a dream-like landscape infused with color and sound. However, the most common report is that the experience is beyond what words can capture.
This journey into the imagination, which is an emotionally heavy, physically detached, wonderous sensation, in almost all cases can be characterized as ineffable. The term ineffable means too great to be expressed in words, and it is often used to describe the profound mystical state where there is a sense of conscious union with the hidden order beyond nature or the divine. It is a state that is fleeting, and leaves a lasting imprint on memory, however, there is a struggle to verbally communicate the full scope to others because of the limitations of language.
So much of our mental life is driven by the verbal chatter in our heads, which is sometimes directed and many times undirected. Our internal dialogue is usually driven by language, and at times we may employ feelings, imagery, even music to plan, interpret, form ideas, reflect on problems, recall previous experiences, or feel. While I cannot truly experience the mind of another person, and I can conceive that some individuals such as those with non-verbal autism this may not be true, but the evidence suggests that most conscious experiences are grounded in thoughts and driven by language.
Our mental life at times can be focused, but the reality is that the mind tends to wander. Many times, we are in two places at once, where part of us is physically and in the moment performing a task or talking to someone but mentally, we are somewhere else, engaged in thought that has nothing to do with the current task. A small and interesting study published in the prestigious journal Science, titled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” formed an interesting conclusion of this phenomenon. These researchers conducted a study that asked about 5000 adults to participate with an iPhone app that would check in on individuals at their current psychological state. The app survey would randomly ask the three following questions:
- To rank your level of happiness on a sliding scale to 100
- To select from a list of common activities what they were doing at that present moment, and
- To indicate if you were thinking about something else while they were completing their activity.
The study found that happiness linked most strongly with whether one was mentally present with the activity they were engaged in. This link was stronger than any specific activities such as performing a hobby, playing, resting, or talking to family and loved ones. It is not what one does but how much one is engaged in the present that correlates to and likely causes happiness. To quote their article’s conclusion, “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
The wandering mind is misdirected by language. However, when you are present and engaged in the moment, our consciousness enters more into a state of open awareness and focus. The chatter of thought becomes constrained, and people describe this as a flow state. Performance is improved, and one feels a greater sense fulfillment.
Meditation is a practice that attempts to experience the mind beyond thoughts and words. In my daily meditation practice, the focus of my attention, which is either on the breath, a mantra, or the visual fixation of the world around me, is constantly interrupted by thoughts. I am never in a fixed state for the full 15 minutes of my sessions. My practice is one of constant and gentle redirection away from my thoughts and back to the target of focus. Over and over, I am interrupted by the wandering mind. It is important not to judge or analyze why I am interrupted by these thoughts, but simply to accept that it has happened, avoid the temptation to feel frustrated, which is a common reaction for someone who likes to achieve, and return to the focus of meditation.
During meditation, I am calm and relaxed. At the end, I feel invigorated and energized. In contrast, the result of a profound psychedelic, such as my participation in Ayahuasca or Peyote ceremonies, this has left me exhausted but simultaneously uplifted and transformed in an ineffable way. There is a glow and sense of elation because these experiences have allowed me to travel deeply into a state of consciousness outside the restraints of words and sensory perceptions. I have also participated in religious ceremonies where a similar mystical state has also occurred, and I spent time in a wildly different mental state. These moments are fleeting and, unlike mediation, not conducive to a daily practice, but it is through mediation that I can walk to the threshold and become primed and reminded of the richness of mental life that can be harnessed when moving beyond thought.
One of the many benefits of meditation is to routinely gain a sense that there is more to consciousness than the words of our thoughts. It supports the belief that the self is more connected and part of the universe rather than separate. Meditation provides a hint that the sense of separation is a direct result of the wandering, thought-driven mind. In these fleeting moments of the ineffable, whether it is gently through meditation, or profoundly through a psychedelic or mystical experience, one can expand beyond the boundaries that we place on ourselves.