What is a bodymind knot?

Posted on 29 May 2024 by Cube Flipper

Some years ago a mysterious wanderer told me of a strange document to be found on the internet. Authored by the meditation coach Mark Lippmann, it details a set of meditation practices in curious, charming, stream of consciousness prose. I found I related strongly to its mindset of noncoercive self-modification, and wound up binge-reading most of it.

At points, the document makes a number of remarkable claims which stuck with me over time. One of these is as follows. From the section titled brief, loosely related notes on unknotting, untwisting, untangling:

  1. There’s sort of a way in which experience accumulates or “tangles up” from the perineum to the crown of the head, over a lifetime. This may have something to do with ontogeny​/​phylogeny​/​something of the neural cord​/​crest, etc., in prenatal development. Around the perineum can be especially tangly. Around the neck can be especially tangly too.

  2. Part of untangling things is something like applying “structure preserving transformations” to “safely move things out of the way” so one can “metaphorically peer deeper and deeper down into the system,” as if one was above the head looking down into the neck, down through the volume of the body. It can be like the center of a square of tissue paper is placed on top of the perineum, with a dab of glue securing it to the perineum, and then the tissue paper is “crumpled” and twisted upwards through the volume of the body. And so what’s described here is gently untwisting and uncrumpling the tissue paper to expose that anchored part of the tissue (and finally then even that can flow, sort of).

  3. Knotting and tangles can feel like knots and tangles, but also “seams,” pockets, bags, crumples, etc.

  4. Unknotting, untangling is a combination of directness and indirectness. The “knot itself,” not to “inappropriately reify” a “knot as such,” while of course being spatially​/​experientially nebulous, dynamic, might seem to be localized or semi-localized in “body experience” and​/​or “inner space” and​/​or muscle tension and​/​or some or all of these. And​/​but, it can be helpful to consider there to be thin tendrils reaching diffusely basically everywhere. So, sometimes, one might focus too much sort of on “the knot itself,” but untangling will likely involve a tremendous amount of time “very far away” from the knot. It can be good to balance directness and indirectness. And, of course, these are “leaky abstractions,” and “puzzle solving” will ultimately be radically concrete, engaging with the specific, particular details of one’s own life history, mindbody, bodymind, etc.

  5. In addition to “within the body” or “within inner space” (or pocket worlds, or pocket realities, suffusing or entangling with “the world out there,” and so on), one might also explore the surface of the body. It can be as if bedsheets or very-high-surface-area, thin parachute material is wrapped around the body again, and again, and again, including through the body, multiple times. This is to give a sense of just how wrapped and tangled things can be. And this can be pretty normal, over a few decades of living! And then meditation is partly a painstaking unwrapping, untwisting of these wrappings and wrappings, slow, shimmery, tingly, undulation or buzzing over large surfaces areas. Just another way it can be like, of many, on and off or over extended periods of time. And so, “untangling” something “seemingly very small,” say, in the perineum, or the face, or the neck, etc., might involve sort of unwrapping football-field-amounts of sensation, material, something, to kind of “get all the way down” to unwrapping that small twist. That is “everything” was kind of involved in that small twist.

Note: when I say “unwrapping bedsheets,” it’s sort of like it slides along the surface, like all this is happening in cylindrical or concentric layers, layers of surfaces, multiple simultaneously layers of cloth sliding against each other in different directions, mostly, until there’s only a single layer, and not like sort of “big-unwrapping-ness-es out into space around the body,” or something. Just metaphors, though relatable to sensation and experience, sometimes.

I get the picture Mark would advise against taking this too literally – but – I think I have to. See – I’ve had experiences like this, or at least I have observed somatic phenomena which gesture fairly strongly in the direction of Mark’s description being quite accurate; and on occasion I hear tell from others that they have had similar experiences, too.

One of these in particular was quite weird, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it ever since. I tweeted at Mark about this one some time ago, but it’s time for a full writeup.

Draining a psychic abscess

I’d taken some 2C-B without realising that I was also suffering from a phenibut comedown. Yeah, I know, pretty dumb behaviour, but here we are. I spent several hours rolling around in bed, riding out a particularly harsh body load. When I looked in the mirror, I noticed that my left pupil was significantly more dilated than my right one.

From the next morning onwards, I suffered from chronic headaches. These were bad enough at one point that I sought professional help, and even had an MRI scan to ensure that the continuing anisocoria was not indicative of something worse. The headaches were accompanied by odd sensations in the roof of my mouth, perhaps suggestive of some kind of somatic migraine. At times, it felt like the representation of my hard palate was so bent out of shape that it self-intersected.

Eleven months later I was still experiencing chronic headaches, though they had lessened over time and weren’t cramping my style too much. I decided to book a session with the massage therapist Elena Lake, whose work I had heard about through her Twitter account. Perhaps some craniosacral work would improve my situation?

I explained to her what I’d been dealing with, and we started with a gentle, methodical fascial release session from head to toe, to see if releasing tension around the body would free up some space.

Once this was complete, we paused for a bit, and then she asked me whether or not I was comfortable with her working on the inside of my mouth, as this could be effective for some cases of head tension. I’d had craniosacral work like this done before, so I was fine with this. She pressed her finger firmly on a patch of gum above my upper right incisor – and then did the same for my upper left incisor.

Hang on, she said. I need to do the other side one more time. She pressed hard above my right incisor once again. In the roof of my mouth, something unfolded – and this is the point at which the reader will have to decide whether or not they trust my introspection capabilities – along a dimension orthogonal to the three familiar ones.

Soon afterwards, we wrapped things up, had a short debrief, and I headed onwards – feeling loose and limber but also a little dazed by what had just happened. The headache and mouth sensations were significantly diminished, though not entirely gone.

After I got home that evening, I decided that what had happened was worth putting under the microscope. By this, I mean I got into bed and had some ketamine as well as some Δ8-THC. I think of both of these as essential parts of a phenomenological toolkit:

  • Ketamine slows down the rate at which sensations propagate, making them easier to observe.
  • Cannabinoids add noise to my experience. This means that each sensation is more likely to be slightly different to the previous one. We are sensitive to differences, so this helps illuminate the structure of sensations.

I also knew that THC was one of the things which would tend to cause the mouth sensations to flare up. So this time, I triggered them deliberately, and instead of flinching away in irritation I rested my attention on them and let them waft around gently, doing their thing.

Unexpectedly, this precipitated a great unwinding. In hindsight, I think the initial knot which had unfolded during the session was like a knot in the neck of a garbage bag, keeping an entire Pacific garbage patch worth of material trapped in place – whose structure was revealed as it came undone:

  1. The bag’s neck was twisted around and around many multiples of times, winding up through my nose. This came unravelled very rapidly, at a rate of maybe five revolutions per second. I’m not sure how many revolutions there were, but it seemed like quite a lot – perhaps even thousands.

  2. Part of the bag’s body was wrapped around into a hollow spherical shape about 5 cm in diameter, suspended at the very center of my skull. As this structure unwrapped, layer by layer it released a series of memories like a pass the parcel game. Each one of these memories contained a brief flashback to a recent moment when I’d gotten particularly frustrated or irritated by the headache I was dealing with. All of them were genuinely banal in nature. Again – very fast, maybe five such memories at one memory per second – flash flash flash flash flash.

  3. The rest of the bag’s body was impressed against the inside of my cranium, wrapped around many times. This was where the headache itself lived, and as the layers peeled off I felt the tension dissipate.

I was struggling to figure out how to illustrate this structure, but then I realised I could just draw on top of my MRI scans. To be clear, I don’t think it was literally embedded within my head in this way. I believe this structure was embedded within my internal representation of my head, wherever that may be.

This was all over in about five minutes or so. Once this was done, I flexed my jaw, and found my face felt a few centimeters wider. It was as if for some months I’d been operating with a crack in my windshield but no way to get out of the car. The next morning, I stepped outside, and saw the world through a clear windshield once again.

Adjusting a Rössler attractor’s parameters back and forth generates an effect which is aesthetically similar to the “unwrapping” process. Rössler attractor particle cloud simulation from Evgeny Demidov’s personal website.

What just happened?

Yeah, okay, so that was pretty weird. Was that a nauseating amount of detail? I’ve had other, similar experiences of somatic layers shifting around – mainly while also working with a combination of ketamine and cannabis – but this was the strangest one I’ve yet encountered.

I should be clear about why I’m so interested in such phenomena. I’m curious about the structure of the phenomenal fields in general, but in this case, I have a rare opportunity to peer into the structure of the somatic fields, specifically.

One thing that can make studying these things quite challenging is the idea that our brains work by continually making predictions about sensory input, and any sensation which matches predictions gets filtered out – so if there is any ongoing structure which we would like to observe, then its full extent might only be observable when it changes. So, if I experience a large step transition such as this, I intend to leverage it as much as possible towards greater understanding.

Open questions

What can we infer from all this? These wrappings strike me as superfluous – perhaps even a learned antipattern or spandrel of some kind? So, what are these phenomena, and where might they come from?

What are these structures?

I’ve had a small number of people better acquainted with these things that I am suggest that what I experienced is known as a saṅkhāra. I am told that when working with these, various structures may be encountered throughout the body – including spheres and vortices – and as they are deconstructed there may be sensations of untwisting, unwrapping, fizzling, or even explosions.

I found it encouraging to hear that other people experience this sort of thing – and that they even have a name for it. This gave me some peace of mind that I’m not trying to wring an overfit model from a singular data point.

What is the substrate in which these structures are embedded?

A body map can be a highly ephemeral thing. I can recall being quite young when I noticed how my sense of having a body would come and go as I ran my hands over my skin – just a hollow shell of sorts, its gossamer texture sporadically illuminated by the spotlight of attention.

I find this shell to be quite malleable. I can adjust the location of my molars just by running my tongue over them in the appropriate way – and on a moderate dose of psilocybin, sometimes my teeth might flip upside down entirely.

The somatic field does not always seem to relate to the visual field in a consistent way. There’s a somatic puzzle of sorts which I like to prompt people with: Blink your eyes, while maintaining awareness of sensations on your eyelids. Where are those located in space relative to your visual field?

Other tricks like the well-known rubber hand illusion always made intuitive sense to me. Just as the visual system solves an inverse optics problem, integrating data from two eyes into a unified depth map – the somatosensory system solves an inverse somatics problem, integrating disparate sensations into a unified body map – and if presented with adversarial data, it might reify a misplaced appendage.

The somatosensory cortex doesn’t know where each nerve ending exists within three-dimensional space. So how could it do this?

It’s possible to create a map of the locations where afferent nerves terminate within the somatosensory cortex – this is known as the cortical homunculus. Let’s say hypothetically that there exist cortical travelling waves which scan the surface of the somatosensory cortex – and these are used somehow to paint the state of the cortical homunculus into experience once per cycle.

From the paper, Functional harmonics reveal multi-dimensional basis functions underlying cortical organization. From the linked diagram I have isolated functional harmonics ψ3, ψ7, and ψ11, which appear to map onto the sensorimotor system.

If the cortex itself could adjust the propagation rate of waves across its surface, then this could be used to adjust distance and curvature within the somatic field until the whole system arrives at a harmonious solution to the inverse somatics problem. We’ve seen a similar model before, as proposed by Steven Lehar – where a variable wave propagation rate is used to encode depth in the visual field. Why not something similar in the somatic field?

A system like this could support a wide variety of phenomena, including:

  • Regions where the waves travel faster (i.e., adjacent locations oscillate with more similar phase) could generate a sense of contraction. Insofar as this could also influence motor output, this could also cause the associated muscle groups to contract or even cramp up.
  • Eddies in these waves could give rise to loops and knots.
  • Disparate regions of similar phase could give rise to wormholes.

These are interesting ideas in their own right, but I had a hard time imagining where the additional windings might come from. Surely the travelling waves would have to traverse the somatosensory cortex multiple times per consciousness frame? I observed lots of windings – which might set a high lower bound on the frequencies required?

I was thinking about this the wrong way. If the amplitude of the travelling waves were to increase into the nonlinear domain such that they began to distort – like an electric guitarist turning up the gain on a distortion pedal – this would generate additional overtones which could correspond to the additional superfluous layers.

Then perhaps good somatic annealing practices would be about attenuating these superfluous overtones and then using the increased slack in the system to more easily untangle any knots or loops – restoring smooth phase gradients while generating the sensation of unwinding.

Is the self itself a knot?

To answer this question, we should first attempt to understand what the self is. This is something I have a long term interest in, but it’s also a tricky question, prone to sparking disagreements. My own impression is that what we call the “self” appears to be a cluster of various phenomena, the most relevant of which in this context might be a habitual returning of attention to a location at the center of the head – the egocentric point.

This attentional habit might also be dissolved by various means. Roger Thisdell and Nick Cammarata are two meditators who have both created infographics to describe the different patterns of attentional modulation which one encounter on the path of meditation. Note the frame in the upper left corner in both diagrams:

The (De)Objectification Path, by Roger Thisdell
Shades of Awake Experience, by Nick Cammarata

Suffice it to say, I get the impression that the self might have a concrete location in subjective space. The question remains, if one were to trace the invisible field lines which guide attention within the phenomenal fields, would one also find a concrete attentional structure? If so, perhaps this might vary across people – simple patterns of contraction in some, and intractably knotted hairballs in others.

I think it’s impossible to say much more without more detailed phenomenological accounts from people who have experimented with these things – I put the call out on Twitter, and received a few interesting responses. I recommend checking out what Nick had to say. Note how he distinguishes between the self and the center, here:

with the bubble analogy it’s like the whole path is popping bubbles of various sizes but for me (and others report this too) the two big ones are some big one around self (stream entry?) and an even bigger one way later for the center, two phase shifts, others relatively small

for me the center dissolving was sort of equivalent in “letting go”s to the prior 2yrs of meditation (maybe 1-2khrs?) but in like ten seconds. There’s been bubbles since then too but tiny in comparison

But – to continue speculating – if the self might have a concrete attentional structure, maybe there’s nothing preventing multiple adjacent or even nested structures from arising? If so, perhaps that could explain how a group of alters, headmates, or tulpas could find themselves sharing the same body. Firsthand accounts of plural system phenomenology are fascinating in their own right – and are something I’d like to investigate when I have the time.

To what extent is dissolving these knots critical for the path of enlightenment?

Enlightenment, like the self, is another concept I am wholly unprepared to hang a definition on. I do quite like the balloon animal metaphor Mark has used elsewhere to describe the path of meditation, where one might start off at five and untwist themselves all the way to zero:

being an enlightened, untwisted balloon seems kind of lame/boring on face but like now you’re a vibrating string with no knots and you can superimpose a huge number of vibrating frequencies (action, experience) simultaneously. and you couldn’t do that as a balloon animal.

I’m not sure that Mark’s talking about the phenomenal fields in particular, but personally I’ve found modelling them as an elastic sheet to be fruitful when trying to study their dynamics at a local scale. I wouldn’t be surprised if similar dynamics were also applicable at the global scale – and if this was the case I would very much expect that reducing global tension or at least redistributing it evenly would have positive valence effects.

How might memories get trapped within these structures?

Andrés Gómez Emilsson is a consciousness researcher at the Qualia Research Institute. He is an advocate of electromagnetic field theories of consciousness, and also believes that something called electromagnetic field topology could solve what Mike Johnson calls the boundary problemhow do we determine the correct boundaries of a conscious system in a principled way?

From his paper, Don’t forget the boundary problem! How EM field topology can address the overlooked cousin to the binding problem for consciousness (Gómez-Emilsson and Percy, 2023):

Field topology refers to the geometric properties of an electromagnetic field object that are preserved under continuous transformations, such as stretching, bending, or twisting. In an electromagnetic context, topology can be used to describe the patterns of field lines or equipotential surfaces that define the distribution of the field.

Within the complex topology of electromagnetic fields produced by the brain, we can consider what patterns might emerge with different levels of stability and at different spatial scales, from the sub-neuron level through to potential brain-wide fields. One type of stability emerges when field lines occur in closed loops, potentially enclosing an electromagnetic field which itself might have complex patterns and vortices within it.

One analogy is via the twisting of balloons to create knots or pinch points, such that it is possible to have complex inside/outside dynamics.

If this is unclear, consider how the Hopf bifurcation can split a two-dimensional vector field into two segments over time, separated by a limit cycle:

Andrés’ paper is worth checking out – I recommend starting at section four, there’s some wild ideas in there. He also has a video on this topic, in which he uses a balloon to explain how a region of spacetime might become topologically segmented from the rest of the universe:

So it’s likely that I’ve spent far too long thinking about bag, bubble, and balloon phenomenology – but what if: what we call saṅkhāra are actually orphaned topological segments, which remain invisible until they unravel, at which point they barf out their phenomenal content? Andrés’ paper speculates that the generation and dissolution of topological segments is a normal part of the brain’s normal moment-to-moment functioning – but perhaps, sometimes things get stuck.

Can the phenomenal fields really support higher dimensions?

Richard P. Stanley made the claim that qualia space is a Hilbert space – i.e., an infinite-dimensional space – and I think I can work with it. Accounts of DMT-induced non-Euclidean geometries are already in the psychonaut water supply – are higher dimensions that much more of a stretch?

Let’s say the phenomenal fields are constructed out of distance relationships, as discussed earlier. Perhaps for the sake of a sane organism it is desirable that this graph of relationships converge upon a three-dimensional manifold – but otherwise, there’s no particular reason that this graph of relationships could not bend, rotate, or extend into additional dimensions. Apparently this comes in handy when untying knots – as knots are not knots in four-dimensional spaces.

Untying a trefoil knot. Colour indicates position in the fourth dimension.

However, I did have a very thorough discussion with Roger Thisdell which may or may not have dissolved some of my preconceptions about knots:

Roger: The thing about knots is you’re working with a very three-dimensional level of abstraction. At some point it’s necessary to work with that level of complexity, but it’s really nice when you can flatten things to two dimensions.

Roger: I think this is what equanimity does, so when you get to the stage of equanimity, things are easier to work with, because now you’re working with a much more – maybe not completely two-dimensional, but two-point-five-dimensional space – and then you can just kind of take the knots more head on.

Roger’s illustration of the stages of insight.

Cube Flipper: Oh, right, so once you flatten it you can see its projection and it’s much easier to figure out how to solve it. Is that what you’re saying?

Roger: But I don’t have to. It solves itself.

Cube Flipper: This is so counter to what I was anticipating. That’s fascinating.

Roger: Let’s talk about working with the center point – when I dissolved the center. When you start off it’s ambiguous because you don’t have much fidelity, much clarity on it. And then, it’s quite sort of mangled in the head, in your experience, and there are like through lines and it’s sort of not at the back, not at the front, but sort of in the middle there, or something like that. You’ve got this three-dimensional space you’re working with, and you not only have to find it vertically or horizontally, but in the z-direction as well.

Roger: So something is either in consciousness or it’s not, and it’s not that it’s far away from you and you need to get close to it. So these knots, it’s not that there’s a far side that’s eclipsed by the near side, or I need to get around it, it’s just – it is what it is. I don’t have to travel towards it to get more clarity, I’m already working with it, it’s already here, it’s in attention.

Roger: And it was through high-pressured attentional effort on it, as it is, and in a very accepting way of, like, this is it – that I was able to burst it, to get through it. Because you’re not able to fully be with it if you’re still implying that there’s something behind it or in it or around it, which a three-dimensional knot would suggest, right? But if you’re working with a two-dimensional object…

Cube Flipper: This is very opposite advice to what I was expecting. This is great. I love it when things are this surprising. Forget the higher dimensions, you just need two.

Surely these are all just hallucinations, right?

Daniel Ingram is a meditation researcher and author who is also a member of the Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium, an organisation devoted to the study of – well – this kind of thing. As it says on their website:

What many might call “spiritual”, “mystical”, “energetic”, etc. experiences and effects, we refer to as emergent phenomena. We refer to practices designed to lead to emergent phenomena, such as meditation, psychedelics, yoga, prayer, etc., as emergent practices.

As emergent practices continue to scale up in society, our aim is to give health care systems, mental health providers, and those who are helping to teach and promote various practices the information they need in order to make better decisions about how to both promote the benefits of these practices and manage the various effects that they can produce.

Suffice it to say I endorse their mission. I had the chance to speak to Daniel recently about what I experienced, and what he had to say was: Nobody calls a migraine aura a hallucination.

I think that’s a reasonable final word.