Manufacturing Bliss (Nadia Asparouhova, April 2024, Asterisk)

If the mind is like a car, we are still learning how to tune its gears. Psychedelic substances such as MDMA, psilocybin, and LSD offer one promising path, having reemerged from the shadows of prohibition to find new roles in therapeutic treatment. It turns out that inducing altered states of consciousness, in the right setting, can help people work through depression, anxiety, and addiction, as well as navigate major life transitions such as loss or terminal illness.

But what if we could engineer these altered states without any external substances or stimuli? Enter the jhanas, a growing meditation trend that’s made its way into some corners of tech. Practitioners claim they can induce extremely blissful mental states that rival life’s peak experiences, available at any time with enough concentration.

Jhanas, if they are as accessible and transformative as they seem, create new inroads to understanding, and improving, how our brains work. By revealing the mind’s potential to transform our subjective experience, they point toward a radically expanded notion of what happiness can be — and where it comes from.