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The Mystical Entropy Project: workshop I

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The Mystical Entropy workshop consisted of a three-day event with various academics and scholars from around the world. They sought answers to the calling question of whether we can use the concept of ‘entropy’ to characterise key ideas from mystical traditions, and how this would facilitate scientific research into mystical practices and experiences.

The Mystical Entropy workshop consisted of a three-day event that was organised by Michiel van Elk (cognitive neuroscientist at Leiden University and board member of the OPEN Foundation), Aidan Lyon (philosopher at Leiden University) and hosted by Anya Farennikova (philosopher at University at Amsterdam).  The event took place on October 12-14 at the IJ-kantine in Amsterdam and was attended by a highly interdisciplinary group of individuals coming from every corner of the world. As a result, I had the pleasure and good fortune of engaging in deep conversations with cognitive neuroscientists, physicists, computer scientists, philosophers, religious scholars of Judaism and Sufism, meditation teachers, yoga teachers, a lawyer, and to top it all off, a Buddhist monk who practices in a monastery in the Hollywood Hills.

If this was not already the perfect recipe for facilitating information-rich, and sometimes highly entropic (uncertain and disorderly) conversations, the Mystical Entropy workshop adhered to a so-called Open Space Technology (OST) methodology. Rather than using a top-down approach where the organizers choose the various topics of interest prior to an event, the OST methodology comprises a bottom-up approach in which the participants get to pick the various topics of interest and set up the agenda for the day.

Naturally, this occasioned some entropy (‘uncertainty’) in some of the participants during the opening and introduction on the first day. But I imagine this to be the case for the organisers Michiel, Aidan, and Anna in particular. Then again, the OST approach also brought with it a certain meta-vibe and essentially seemed like a perfect fit for the topics at hand. Indeed, what better way to organise and conduct a three-day workshop about entropy and mysticism – concepts that are by themselves already elusive – than to create a container in which both the setup and outcome are somewhat entropic. And all this to seek out the calling question of how we can use the concept of ‘entropy’ to characterise key ideas from mystical traditions, and how this would facilitate scientific research into mystical practices and experiences.

Origin Stories

The workshop was initiated by Aidan, Michiel, and Anya by giving an introductory talk on how this workshop came to be. Aidan was introduced to the topic of ‘entropy’ by one of his professors whilst still a student of mathematics. He became immediately enamoured by the subject, read as much as he could, and ended up bugging his professor with tons of questions until his professor gave up and grew tired of him by responding: “Aidan, this is ultimately a philosophical question!” This led Aidan to study and pursue philosophy to gain a better understanding of entropy.

Michiel, on the other hand, grew up in a very religious town near Amsterdam. As a young boy, he attended various ceremonies in church where he witnessed individuals becoming cured from the most extreme forms of diseases and how they were freed from the devil. These early experiences with the ‘ecstatic’ imbued in him a fascination with the topic of mysticism. Together with his natural curiosity, he became an academic in cognitive neuroscience to better understand these types of religious and mystical experiences.

Anya also made an encounter with the mystical at a very young age, except through something entirely different. She shared a personal story during her introduction of how she was born in Belarus when it was still part of the Soviet Union. When it declared its independence on August 25, 1991, this meant that Anya was finally able to view cable television instead of three national channels, was allowed to wear denim jeans, and could listen to a wide variety of music genres. But the memory that stuck with her the most was her first piece of bubble-gum of the so-called brand ‘Love is…’ which, after eating it for the first time, seemed to have given her a full-blown mystical experience. Fast forward to somewhere in the year 2018, all three thinkers met up due to their mutual fascination with these subjects, thereby converging the fields of philosophy and cognitive neuroscience, and the Mystical Entropy workshop was born.

The Marketplace of Open Space Technology

Anya then explained to us in more detail the setup and potential merits of OST. But before we continued, we had to get up of our chairs, touch the ceiling, then touch our toes, and roll around our shoulders for a few minutes. Only then were we thrown into an entropic state that was going to last for the upcoming three days.

As mentioned previously, OST requires input from the participants to set up the agenda for the day and to create a marketplace of ideas. This allows for the option of merging workgroups and relocating them if there seems to be a considerable overlap between topics. Another responsibility was that each workgroup ‘leader’ had to write a report on what was discussed during the session. At the end of the day, other participants could read this report and provide feedback or ask for clarification.

Naturally, there was some trepidation from all the participants following Anya’s presentation, but as the Dutch saying goes: “when one sheep crosses the dam, more will follow!” Indeed, before we knew it, the agenda for the first day was set after only 15 minutes.

The Mystical Entropy workshop agenda for day 1 (sessions 1 and 2) using Open Space Technology

Humble Beginnings: embracing uncertainty, disorder, and information

To say that the three days of the Mystical Entropy workshop were engaging is definitely a huge understatement. As I already mentioned, the group that showed up at the workshop was highly interdisciplinary. Consequently, the various discussions I participated in resulted in some of the most interesting, deep, but at several times also very challenging, conversations I have had in my entire life and early academic career. Naturally, to summarize what was discussed one week following the workshop is nothing short of an insurmountable task. What follows represents a rough impression of what I experienced during these three days and the main current challenge. 

Most of the workshop sessions I attended were oriented towards the measurement of the mystical experience and, to a lesser degree, how the concept of entropy might be used to conceptualize such an extraordinary, altered state of consciousness. Topics here varied from potential tools we can use from cognitive neuroscience to better understand the mystical experience, whether (informational) entropy can be used to clarify mystical experiences of unity or ego-dissolution, the potential problems with the conceptualizations and operationalizations of the mystical experience, and novel conceptual frameworks such as Cusp Catastrophe Theory to describe the dynamics of conscious states during mystical experiences.

The workshop session hosted by Josjan Zijlmans on the second day stuck with me the most. Josjan already caught my attention a few years ago when he co-authored the paper Moving beyond Mysticism with James Sanders. This paper proposes to demystify psychedelic science and to use unambiguous secular frameworks with alternative questionnaires, as opposed to the widely used Mystical Experience Questionnaire, to predict the (psychedelic) experience of interest and potential clinical outcome(s).

This paper received a response from Joost Breeksema and Michiel van Elk in which they argue that psychedelic science should embrace the study of mystical experiences, not only because of their clinical significance, but also because these experiences have a long and rich history in religion and have been extensively studied by several religious scholars. For the interested reader, I highly recommend the journal club from the Amsterdam Psychedelic Research Association where all authors were invited to debate this question.

This session particularly grabbed me because, as it turns out, it is extremely hard to talk about concepts as the mystical experience and entropy. As a result, we risk losing our ideas in translation because we might have diametrically opposed views of what these concepts actually entail. This is in part because, as Aidan has written in his Mystical Entropy Manifesto prior to the event, the mystical experience and entropy “are notoriously difficult to define” and that even entropy itself “is a mystical notion.”

As it turns out, there are numerous types of entropy in physics that has left me with various questions for future study. What are all the kinds of entropy? Which one of these could conceptualize the mystical experience in the most parsimonious way possible? The same holds true for the mystical experience, not only after attending Josjan’s workshop session, but also following other sessions where the phenomenology (subjective experience) of the mystical experience was widely discussed and met with considerable debate. Indeed, what kind of characteristics or features are essential to the so-called mystical experience? Is there only one (perennial) mystical experience? Or is there a Buddhist-like mystical experience and a more Sufi-like mystical experience?

Some of the attendees were jokingly telling me over lunch that they even got more confused after some of the workshop sessions. And to show some epistemic humility, I can certainly say the same for myself and was lost in some of the discussions. But then again, maybe this state of uncertainty and of not knowing might just be the experience that some of us need as it potentially helps bring us back to the so-called beginner’s mind of shoshin. And maybe this could eventually lead to a better understanding of the mystical experience and entropy.

In a sense, the workshop as a whole felt like going back to the drawing board and attaining shoshin. This can be particularly important for us academics. All of us can get stuck in a rut every once in a while. We become rigid in our way of thinking. We only stay in our field of interest. Shaking up our belief systems with more entropy – uncertainty, disorder, and information – certainly changes our way of looking at things and potentially put more ‘balance’ to this belief system.

Lunch with all attendees of the Mystical Entropy Workshop in the IJ-kantine Amsterdam

Memento Mori

The workshop sessions were interspersed with various experiential sessions to get us out of our heads that varied from yoga, meditation, to biofeedback. One session that stayed with me for days after the Mystical Entropy workshop took place on the first day of the workshop and was created and led by Dr. Mark Miller, a philosopher, cognitive scientist, and happiness aficionado, who is affiliated with several universities across the world, including the Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies at Monash University,  the Psychology department at the University of Toronto, and the Centre for Human Nature, Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience at Hokkaido University. From the very beginning of the Mystical Entropy workshop, Mark already caught my attention because of his highly energetic persona marked by his turbulent stride through the IJ-kantine. As soon as he proposed a session to reflect on death, a practice that intrigued me ever since reading the Stoics, I knew I had to be there.

We sat around in a circle in the main room (Sophia) with approximately twenty individuals. Mark instructed us to sit comfortably in our chairs and to close our eyes. He then posed the question: “Will I die?” This question essentially became a mantra and was repeated several times for about two minutes and followed by his answer: “Yes, you will die.” Other questions and reflections on death continued for the next ten minutes, including “When will I die?”, “How do I want people to remember me when I die?”, and “Where do I want to be if this were my last day?”

Mark instructed us to slowly open our eyes after ten minutes and silently reflect on the thoughts that came up during the meditation. He then went around the circle and asked every participant to give one word, or describe in one sentence, the most important thing to him or her. Across the board, people announced words as love, meaning, relationships, authenticity, and family. Mark has conducted these sessions all over the world and never in his life has he heard someone say: “I want to be remembered because of my kick-ass Ferrari.” Indeed, across cultures he has found that human beings are ultimately longing and striving for the same: love, meaning, a sense of purpose, family, and relationships. And I think this experience brought us closer as a group and further facilitated the sessions in the days to come.

Experiential sessions at the Mystical Entropy Workshop (left: biofeedback, right: meditation guided by music)

In closing

On the final day, I talked to Aidan in the main room when everyone was rounding things off and preparing their presentation of the respective workshop session. Seeing how things came to fruition these past few days, I was eager to ask him the question of how he thought the workshop turned out, to which he responded: “I cannot believe how perfect it is!”. I can imagine the anticipation must have been very stressful and to see it turn out with such engagement from all participants must have been extremely satisfying and fulfilling.  

After an hour of presentations and further discussion, it was time to finish the Mystical Entropy workshop with drinks and good food. This was also the time for us to show our creative side and I was astounded by the talent of some participants. In just one evening, I have seen a professor of religion play the blues on piano, a cognitive neuroscientist performing four dances of ballet, a physicist reciting a self-written poem, and I got to perform in a jam session with other attendees from the event.

A second Mystical Entropy workshop has already been scheduled for next year that will have a primary focus on neuroscience. By then we will probably have tackled the current challenges at hand and come to a better understanding and definition of mystical experiences and entropy. Hopefully, the second edition will be as successful as the first and we can explore various neuroscientific frameworks to conceptualize these key concepts.

Jam session after dinner at the final day of the Mystical Entropy workshop

Stephan Tap

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