Thursday, July 11, 2019

Core Transformation

Core Transformation was invented by an NLP practitioner (I know, stay with me) who eventually realized that the semantic content was kind of besides the point and started experimenting with diffusing the classic NLP taxonomy of 'helplessness,' 'hopelessness,' and 'worthlessness' through working with felt-senses rather than words.

Self work in general is about finding patterns, understanding their causes, and modifying those patterns to get better outcomes. The farther upstream a broken pattern is the more downstream fixes it can affect. Core Transformation is about altering a deceptively simple pattern with large ramifications.  The pattern is that when you desire something, you make a contract with yourself to suffer until you get the thing. The motivation this generates creates the activity needed to go out and get the thing. This is already a poor strategy even when dealing with concrete needs like food and socializing. It really turns nasty when you use it to try to get intangibles like 'justice,' 'safety,' 'esteem,' etc.

People very often object to this idea. Their strategy for life is so entangled with this method that their strong belief is that if they don't suffer they will become homeless vagrants or some other such ineffectual person. Several points:
  •     1. We know from animal training methods and incentive experiments in psychotherapy and professional incentive management that aversion based behavioral modification doesn't actually work. It tends instead to create a general avoidance field around whatever is associated with the punishment. Hence, akraisia.
  •     2. We know from surveys of practitioners that people who instantiate a positive motivation based schema typically don't see strong changes in their productivity and conscientiousness (least impacted personality factor by this sort of work).
  •     3. People in the left tail of neuroticism become more functional, not less. Their fears of becoming even less functional is a stability defending meta-aversion to modifying things they think are keeping them alive. In the high-threat mode, everything is flagged as a potential threat, including exiting the high-threat mode. It's also worth noting that this becomes a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy in that people living in this mode will be drawn towards situations that reinforce the narrative (covered in more detail in Opening the Heart of Compassion).
  •     4. This stuff is mutually reinforcing with ego's 'forever' identity based narratives. 'If I relax then I become the sort of person who is just relaxed all the time and never does anything AHHHH!' Whereas what actually happens is that given the ability to choose which stresses to take on, rather than it being an involuntary process, we choose a lot better in apportioning our efforts to the things we care about. One of the noticeable changes is that people take on fewer projects, but put more effort into those they do take on. Most of us, if we were taking a rigorous accounting, would be forced to admit that our project start:project finish ratio is quite bad by default. Core Transformation puts us directly in touch with these and potentially lots of other objections. The point isn't to sweep them under the rug but to identify the true content of these objections and figure out how we want to engage with that while letting the non-true parts drop away once all objecting parts are actually satisfied.

I don't think Core Transformation will work very well for those unfamiliar with Gendlin's Focusing, so you'll need to run the guided audiobook of that a few times until you feel like you can lock onto felt-senses. It's also similar to the Bio-emotive framework talked about by Culadasa for those familiar with that. Core Transformation basically takes focusing and makes it recursive in a single session. Instead of stopping when we reach a felt-sense, we continue to use prompts to dive under that felt sense to arrive at deeper intentions that those feeling parts might have. The basic idea is that mental, emotional, and somatic content are all downstream of strategies you are following to try to take care of yourself. As we continue the dive process we eventually arrive at the hoped for reward that that process is trying to get us. Then a funny thing happens.

This next part feels a bit tricky to talk about because language itself tends to be based on the intentional stance that we all habitually inhabit. We find that the reward isn't actually out there in the world, in the related objects of our goal. How could it be? Obviously the good feelings associated with the goal are states that our nervous system is capable of generating. (more wireheading objections are coming, please just stay with this for a bit). In fact, to be a useful motivating scheme, we have to have access to at least *some* of the state in question. A verbal description or a mental picture without the associated felt sense wouldn't actually be motivating. We have to 'know what we're looking for.' During this process, as we uncover layers of strategies and dive down closer to the original motivation, we'll experience bits of these states. Connierae found that people pretty consistently label them in just a few ways. Things like 'peace,' 'feeling loving/loved,' 'okayness.' As we experience these felt-senses objecting parts jump into the picture. We're not supposed to feel these positive states unless we've done our homework and eaten our vegetables. The process then recurses with these objecting parts to discover *their* goals etc. I've personally facilitated and run personal sessions where this goes 4-5 levels of objections deep. The cool part is that when parts discover that they have the same goal, they are way more willing to coordinate/cohere. There are probably some echoes of Lippmann's Folding here as well (for those familiar with that framework).

What, ultimately, is the answer to the generalized objection that without this aversive motivation scheme we won't be able to pursue goals? The key question that Connierae has us ask ourselves is:

What would it be like to pursue [some goal in the world] already having full access to this state?

This isn't just replacing the stick with the carrot, a shift from running away to running towards. We just already have the carrot. The answer to this question isn't really shareable because it isn't verbal. But I've never seen the answer cash out as 'sit around doing nothing.' That the strategy used to pursue your values changes doesn't eliminate the fact that you have values. It doesn't seem to be the case that you were pursuing your goals only to feel a certain way. Rather, feelings were an available method that the organism seized.

I think it's quite useful that with Core Transformation, relative to other integration schemes, you experience the rewards during the session. It's not predicated on some future benefits. Once you get a genuine taste of integration there's a lot of motivation for more as your parts start getting along better.

Here's a handy summary of the Core Protocol. It is highly useful to read the book though. Especially the first half. The second half is more like optional add ons to the core process. I'm probably leaving out a lot of detail that I don't think about very often as some of the mental moves become habit.

Amazon link to book

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

What is suffering?

This one is so easy even non buddhists know it. Suffering is desire. Right? But what does this actually tell us? To stop desiring? This sounds

  1.     equally as intractable as 'stop suffering'
  2.     doesn't even sound good? if we take this super literally wouldn't buddhism just be some sort of stoicism strategy?
  3.     even worse, at the limit it sounds like we would be totally non functional, maybe we'd have to live at a monastery and be fed by the other monks because we can't even desire to eat or something

This frame on things is highly misleading for most people until you are *well* into the buddhist paradigm, have some practice experience under your belt, and realize that both 'suffering' and 'desire' have very specific meanings with non-obvious implications. Let's try again from a different side of things. Suffering is a strategy for the whole organism to coordinate action. Some sort of common currency in the motivation system, directing us away from harmful things. Suffering exists because it is useful to you as you are currently wired.

The obvious question becomes: is it possible to get all the same benefits by wiring things differently? If so how do we get from here to there? The brain has built a lot on top of this basic foundation, so it's not surprising that it throws an error flag when you contemplate throwing it out wholesale with no preparation or ideas of the consequences. Which relates to people's ideas about buddhism. Even if you intellectually know that buddhism isn't magic, on some level a belief is lurking that you do some mysterious practices and then one day, likely far in the future, you somehow don't suffer. Maybe all at once after a ton of very boring practice.

But buddhism accords with the rationalist agenda. There is no magic moment. You carefully investigate the causes of suffering and figure out how to end their inputs and/or rewire things so that the same inputs no longer lead to the activation of suffering as a motivation program. (Okay, some of the moments feel slightly magical, though they always make sense after you get a bit of distance from them ime.) Back to rewiring. The idea is emphatically *not* to take it on faith that there is some better thing and you better work diligently for it, sight unseen. Instead, you learn to rewire and start with areas of experience that are mostly safe on fail. Once you catch on to the tricks, even the mild versions, you're invited to try them out and see how they go. Notice you are suffering in a moment, apply technique, suffer less. Now check, are you responding better or worse to the situation at hand?

What if there is a literal panther? who am I to second guess hard wired evolutionary responses, maybe panic is good? Maybe so. We do have two different paradigms of effective people in life or death situations, the berserker and the calm collected samurai. Which one wins might very well be a matter of the battlefield at hand. But I strongly suspect the samurai wins more, given random battlefields. And I think even if I practice hard for a very long time, I'd still get adrenaline if I encountered a tiger. I bet I'd put the adrenaline to better use too.

We could go into more exploration of the utility of fear, and I just want to point out that this, right here, is untangling some of the loops of meta-fear. and object level fears often strongly resist being engaged with until meta level fears are disarmed. That's a lot of what Internal Family Systems is about, gaining the trust of protector systems that help protect more vulnerable fearful parts. The difference between buddhism and psychotherapy is that in buddhism you're invited to do more jumping out of the system and recognize that many mind created problems are best dealt with on a level other than more mental chatter and imagery. (namely somatic and/or ways of shaping attention/awareness that tend to dissolve problems rather than 'solve' them. consider, for example, relaxation as an antidote to tension. Did someone teach you to relax? Would a finer mental model of the physiological aspects of relaxation help all that much? Have you ever considered that relaxation is a skill and maybe you get way better at it really fast if you deliberately practice it?)

All of this gets at what people think is supposed to be happening during meditation. Aren't I supposed to feel better? Shouldn't meditation get easier over time like any other skill? It will get easier in the sense that you'll gain some more familiarity with the mental moves in question. But it stays about the same in the sense that your system surfaces whatever it thinks you're ready for, usually slightly before you really think you're ready for it. Meditation can be a lot more like being a garbage ma-ahem-a sanitation technician than it is like being a blissful lotus god. Even once you get tuned into the unlimited free pleasure circuits a bunch of your attention goes to all the ways in which this experience is unstable. In fact each of the words 'unlimited', 'free', and 'pleasure' could have asterisks leading to whole books. And has. They're about as boring as you might suspect.

And this is why you might have heard me talk about why I sometimes think we should just throw out the entire edifice of 'meditation' and start over, because the half that isn't busy telling you to be mindless is telling you about all sorts of experiences you then think you're supposed to be having. And yes, obviously people have weird experiences. And yes, those experiences cluster in such a way that comparing notes winds up being useful. But all of that has to operate on a backbone of paying very close attention to what is happening moment by moment. Not what's supposed to be happening.

And what is it that's actually happening? All you did was sit down in a quiet spot with an intention to pay attention to something simple. And you're failing completely. You're failing about as hard as you imagine it's possible to fail at something this simple. And you're suffering. And all sorts of bullshits about your life are flying around hitting each other and you. Why are you wired like this?



Good, now we can begin at the beginning. Better get used to it because spoilers: you start from the beginning just about every time you sit down to wrestle with whatever the hell this is. Just like every time you warm up in the gym you start with the empty bar. In a scientific experiment we isolate variables so that we can examine them individually. In meditation we dampen all the obvious sources of suffering by creating a controlled environment, and then:

Hello suffering, what exactly are you?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

God Says You're Unclean. We Sell Specially Annointed Washcloths.

You are a janitor showing up for your first day on the job. Unbeknownst to you, you’ve signed up for a real doozy. The company campus you’ve been hired to clean had startup founders who simply never thought about the fact that things needed to be cleaned. The accumulation of dirt was slow enough that they simply adapted. Though their behavior is hugely impacted by the piles of garbage and the excessive sick days of the employees, from the inside, it feels normal. How else could it be? At some point the CEO, either through chatting with other CEOs or seeing some research online or some other fortuitous chance, figured out that maybe this idea of a janitor, someone whose full time job it is to clean things up, might actually pay for itself. The CEO runs a pretty tight ship though, and is also very short term results oriented as a result of being reinforced by market pressures. So, you, the janitor, are initially hired on a ‘gig economy’ basis. You inquire where the cleaning supplies might be located and are directed to a closet that, while technically containing cleaning supplies is, if anything, even more filthy than the rest of the campus. You find one (semi) clean sponge. There’s not even any soap. You’re informed that you’ll only be paid to clean 15 minutes a day to see if it works out. The condition of the campus begins to make sense to you, these people don’t even begin to understand basic concepts around cleaning up. Now, if you were optimizing for the long haul, you’d know that your first order of business would be to clean up the cleaning supplies closet. Having the necessary specialized tools available and in good working order would be an enormous force multiplier. But you also know you’re an experimental hire. If you don’t show any results after a couple weeks, you’re out. So you decide to split your time. If you literally only use the sponge you won’t get enough done to avoid being fired. If you spend your time doing things in the true optimal order you also will get fired for failing to show legible results. You spend a bit of time upgrading your cleaning tools and the rest of your time cleaning up areas that are legible to the person who will be responsible for your employment decision, the CEO. The CEO will see the obvious benefits, keep you on, and you’ll have the time to really get this place in shape. Happy with your plan, you set out to execute it.

You run into immediate problems. Cleaning the areas most directly relevant to the CEO also interrupt his work flow. On the one hand, he definitely likes seeing the results. He feels like he’s getting his money’s worth. On the other hand, seeing you wipe away the grime right in front of him makes him pretty uncomfortably aware of some of his own gross habits. Over the next few days an even worse problem begins to make itself known to you. As soon as you clear a small area, that area becomes a target for everyone’s trash. Empty a bin and everyone is suddenly competing to throw things into it rather than their own already overflowing trash bins. But you learn as you go. You start doing things like putting some of the bigger bins nearest to the doors that lead to the dumpsters and clearing them first. You’re also getting to know the habits of various employees and where they tend to generate the most trash and strategically placing bins near those places. You’re making progress, but there’s always a background tension lurking in the chance that you’ll be fired.

Maybe you could come in on a Sunday, you suggest to the CEO. You could get so much done in just a few hours. The CEO informs you that the company operates 24/7/365. You know this is a lie, but you keep your mouth shut. One of the employees pulls you aside and tells you that, actually, some people clean up a bit during the night when most are asleep, otherwise this place would have gone under years ago. You know that some dedicated down time would transform the place, but you also know that such suggestions will get blown off as completely impossible. Okay so, this is a metaphor. It’s kinda jarring to be abruptly tossed out of it, right? Like storytelling is this sort of trance like thing where we’re hallucinating this meaning structure together. But being jarred out of it is exactly the mental motion that happens when something unexpected happens and the employees suddenly see the trash that was there all along. Like the employees are forced to take winding paths through the heaps of empty wrappers of past food and office supplies, your mental process follows trails that seem normal from habit, but are rather roundabout to avoid the various fears, frustrations, shames, and other cast off wrappers of past experiences. Cleaning involves wading right into these piles of trash. If your proxy measure for progress is how clean things *seem* then things are getting worse. You thought there was something called ‘being clean’ that you could consume, just like any other experience. Yet when you take a bite, it only shows you that your apartment is full of pizza boxes. But that’s the point. If the pizza boxes are invisible you literally can’t clean up. You just trip sometimes, randomly from your perspective, and curse the universe for your bad luck.

People think that the meditation isn’t working *because the meditation is working.* This presents an immediate problem: isn’t this exactly like those scams where people give you something that makes you sick and then tells you that you’re flushing ‘toxins’? And yes! It is kinda like that situation. The part of you throwing error messages is a good and valuable part of you. We somehow need to know how we can judge between those situations (toxins) and the situation where you see miserable people sweating in the gym, see little benefit after 6 weeks, and give up on this whole exercise thing as a scam.

And crossfit is a scam. Likewise, most of what is being sold under spiritual branding is being taught by people who haven’t reached the traditional minimum threshold for teaching so that they can speak from direct experience (stream entry, though traditionally people who reached this minimum threshold would become deputy teachers, who guide under supervision until a head teachers is confident they can engage with a variety of problems on the path without typical mind fallacy-ing all over their students. Immature schools appeal to one particular cluster and often have negative responses to people clearly being a bad fit, more mature schools recognize that there are some different clusters and triage people into good teacher student matches. This requires teachers to have some humility about their particular way being best, which is difficult in the face of the overwhelming nature of some of the ‘big’ meditative experiences. People who have experienced faulty high certainty on psychedelics know something of the space). 

And I want to clarify that this isn’t the thing where I’m trying to get you to meditate if that doesn’t seem like a good idea to you. This is the thing where if you’re already experiencing the down sides of having much greater sensitivity to things, I’m trying to convince you that turning towards those down sides is a quicker route through than the strategy you’ve been following of numbing yourself with distractions. Insert the entirety of The Body Keeps the Score here. What do Buddhist practices have to add to this? Well, if you read enough of the psychotherapy literature you come to the conclusion that it is mostly cribbed from Buddhist practice. CBT was ‘invented’ by someone with heavy exposure to Buddhist practice, the inventor of DBT went on to become a zen teacher, etc. Others do independently rediscover many of the same things, which is obviously what happens if these experiences tend to cluster in obvious ways and you keep carefully investigating what’s really there. And that’s fine. Much of it is way way more accessible in terms of concrete directions than the mysterian trappings of the spiritual community. But recall what I just mentioned about unqualified teachers. If you pursue these avenues, and *actually do the thing* you will, by virtue of basic competence, quickly reach territory beyond what these sorts of texts have to tell you.

So, I’ve previously mentioned concentration, insight, and integration as the three major legs of practice. This is a useful taxonomy and if you’ve been exploring on your own you’ve probably already seen how various practices slot in. What are useful texts in each area for going past the basics?

(granted the same caveat as mentioned above, these works appeal to me and thus are not a good fit for everyone. How much you resonate with a practice matters more than most other things. But my guess is still that finding a practice that works *in each category* is a recipe for success)

For concentration I really like The Mind Illuminated. Culadasa’s book on Insight isn’t out yet but when it does come out I expect it to be of similar landmark-in-the-space quality as TMI. For a basic understanding his handouts from Insight focused retreats are highly useful, link below. For integration I really like Core Transformation by Connierae Andreas. I also think integration is the most grab bag of the categories, as in people tend to vary more here. A high level overview though maybe of non-obvious relevance at first is Opening the Heart of Compassion by Lowenthal and Short. Honorable mentions include things like Gendlin’s Focusing, Feeding Your Demons by Tsultrim Allione, Byron Katie’s The Work, Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, Self Therapy by Jay Early, and the aforementioned The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. (all of these are on libgen iirc)

We also have a tendency towards what I call perverse monism. The desire to explain everything using one unifying principle. This tendency serves us hugely in a variety of ways, compression is what allows beings of limited cognitive resources to be something like a general intelligence at all. But it misfires sometimes, and in this case leads to schools of contemplative practice that throw out one of the three legs of the stool that supports good practice. Concentration based schools tend towards monasticism since it is hard to maintain concentration in a chaotic householder life. Insight based schools throw people into the deep end of their own trauma without offering practices to alleviate the resulting suffering, indeed insight teachers often have no idea what is even going on if they haven’t been through the dukka nanas themselves. This is exacerbated by insight methods being the easiest to teach (Goenka style body scanning on the one hand and Noting on the other) and thus having lots of underqualified teachers. Integration heavy schools spin endlessly in processing your ‘stuff’ because they never upgrade the machinery that would reduce the inflow of new garbage. This means you never hit the magic inflection point where you’re processing faster than you’re adding to the pile and thus make cleaning yourself out inevitable. These schools also have perverse incentives to not get you to that point or teach you to be able to do this processing without facilitation.

I also do want to have a deeper discussion about epistemic standards in areas with hard to judge measures of progress. I think a lot of people’s experience of me at this point is as yet another Buddhism maximization guy, and again, the flags thrown by your system in that regard are good and true. I think that post is going to need to be partially dialogue based though. More chats with skeptics with high epistemic standards would be good. For now I’ll just say that I think the Buddha would have called bullshit on modern Buddhism as well. I started off skeptical and my research so far has updated me in the direction that Buddhism has been strongly infected by both ascetic and vedantin strains of thought that the Buddha made effort to react against in his descriptions of proper practice. And that leaves aside the plain old standard superstitious nonsense.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Translating the Buddha

The issue, as it seems to me, is that almost every text you read on Buddhism does not attempt to do the actual work of translation. It seems that the first transmission of Buddhism to the west reified a bunch of translations of terms, such as concentration, equanimity, tranquility, mindfulness, suffering, etc. Works since then have mostly stuck to rearranging these words in different combinations and referencing the same metaphors that have been in use since the time of the Buddha. If these authors had true discernment they would realize that the umpteenth text on 'establishing the noble bases of tranquility secluded from sensuous ignorance' or what-have-you aren't helping anyone who didn't already get the message.

At this point I want to say that I think this approach is 'working' for the fraction of the population it is going to work for. If we want to make the practical fruits of Buddhist practice dramatically more accessible to a broader range of humanity we need people to do the hard work of translation to put the Buddha's teachings in forms that will be accessible to various groups of people.

The hard work of translation is to attempt to use language to point your mind at the same distinctions that the original author was trying to point to. Attempts to do this will inevitably fail in lots of ways, but can hopefully communicate enough of the core message that people can piece together the essential causal relations after which, having had direct experience as a result of skillful practice, they can help to improve the translations further.

So, putting my money where my mouth is, I want to try to produce a translation of what I see as the core causal loop that causes progress on the Buddha's path. I'm attempting this because I believe the core causal loop is actually quite small. The Buddha had a tougher task because he had to explain causation, locus of control, and other critical concepts to farmers from scratch.

To begin with, you may think that the purpose of meditation is to eliminate thoughts. But read the Pali Canon and you find a text rife with concepts, schemas, diagnostic methods for various classifications of mental activity, meditation taxonomies, sensory taxonomies, feedback loops etc. Pretending you're already enlightened and that there isn't hard work to do is something the new agers have borrowed from some shitty spiritual schools of various flavors. I refer to people preaching such messages as mindlessness teachers.

To be clear, a decrease in discursive thought, and especially unpleasant mental contents that don't seem to serve any purpose, are one of many pleasant effects of proper practice, but don't really need to be focused on. It is a benefit that arrives in stages on its own.

So, what is the core loop?
It's basically cognitive behavioral therapy, supercharged with a mental state more intense than most pharmaceuticals.

There are two categories of practice, one for cultivating the useful mental state, the other uses that mental state to investigate the causal linkages between various parts of your perception (physical sensations, emotional tones, and mental reactions) which leads to clearing out of old linkages that weren't constructed well.

You have physical sensations in the course of life. Your nervous system reacts to these sensations with high or low valence (positive, negative, neutral) and arousal (sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activation), your mind reacts to these now-emotion-laden sensations with activity (mental image, mental talk) out of which you then build stories to make sense of your situation.

The key insight that drives everything is the knowledge that this system isn't wired up efficiently. Importantly: I don't mean this in a normative way. Like you should wire it the way I say just because, but in the 'this type of circuit only needs 20 nand gates, why are there 60 and why is it shunting excess voltage into the anger circuits over there that have nothing to do with this computation?' way. Regardless of possible arguments over an ultimately 'correct' way to wire everything, there are very low hanging fruit in terms of improvements that will help you effectively pursue *any* other goal you set your mind to.

Funny aside, emotional 'resistance' might be well named, it might be literal electrical resistance in the CNSs wiring as a result of this spaghetti logic.

So back to these stories and story building blocks that are the outputs of this system. You generated a bunch of the primitive building blocks when you were very young and throwing everything together on an as needed basis with no instructions. You both have a back log of such stories and story building-blocks and are generating new ones all the time. Practice improves each of these situations. It improves the backlog by going through and reprocessing stories that aren't actually reality aligned when examined. Again, not pointing to edge cases here but things in the 'your partner humming the spongebob theme shouldn't make you furious because of something that happened when you were 12' class. You can clean up all the obvious stuff and then let your future self (who now has more resources) think about how to wisely deal with the fuzzy edge cases. It improves the new stories coming in (partially by learning as it processes the back log) by building far fewer incoherent stories out of pieces that don't fit together, and building less of the shittier building blocks in the first place.

I'll go ahead and name these things now to connect them up for people who have some knowledge of existing translations.

Concentration meditation gives rise to a mental state where the mind is very calm and inclined to neutrality. Of the same sort you'd want in a good judge.

Insight meditation makes one aware of the causal links in the perceptual system between physical sensations, feelings, and mental reactions.

Sankharas are the stories and story pieces that get reexamined and refactored as a result.

So what is the core loop of meditation practice?

Concentration puts you in the ideal state for insight.

Insight stirs up Sankaras.

Examining Sankharas riles up the mind, eventually leading to a desire to do some more concentration in order to calm down and keep making progress.

Clearing Sankharas cause concentration to go much better. And onward.

Why is concentration ideal to prepare you for insight practice?

Insight requires a high degree of temporal and spatial resolution in order to see the finer linkages between mental activities that normally flow past you without you noticing. Concentration meditation improves that resolution.
Second, to examine the Sankharas is to, to some extent, reactivate the sensations, feelings, and mental reactions associated with them. Since the ones we are most concerned with are the ones that are causing the biggest negative reactions in our lives, we need the mind to be calm and tranquil in order to do this work. Concentration greatly improves this tranquility as well.

How do insights stir up Sankharas?

This would require more speculation about somatic theories that don't yet have a good evidence base. Subjectively, it feels like building up insights into particular kinds of linkages between physical sensations, feelings, and mental reactions causes areas of your backlog that are particularly heavy in those linkages to get some activation and thus be available to consciousness.

You've experienced this if you've ever had a conceptual insight and then spent the next week noticing ways it was applicable, seemingly spontaneously. The only difference here is that insight can also be non-conceptual (ie, insight into how two particular physical sensations interact might generate no verbal content/mental talk but some sense of something happening.)

How does clearing Sankharas improve concentration? The mental talk, emotional avoidance, and physical discomforts that interrupt concentration practice are built from unendorsed linkages.

So, the Buddha taught a method of concentration, a system for developing insight that we know as mindfulness, and to use these to both stop building new stories and to clear out our backlog of stories. That's actually it. The rest is details for how this plays out in practice. Failure modes can get a bit weird, and even if you do it right some mind blowing states and experiences can pop up. So there's lots of whataboutism for all that.

The miswired central nervous system story gives us simple answers to things like trauma (extreme levels of miswiring of things into fear and freeze responses), why stuff like yoga and exercise help (general CNS health, probably capacitance/fuse breaker improvements), why psychotherapy sometimes but not always activates childhood memories and the significance of that, and why practitioners claim they have a much better life but can't always explain why (they perform the same actions but with much less internal resistance).

So then why all the rest of this crap?

Well, besides my post on why practitioners make so many metaphysical claims, it's also just that there's a lot of idiosyncrasy in first unwiring a randomly wired CNS and then rewiring it in arbitrary order. Especially when you don't really know that that's what you're doing as you're doing it and your mindlessness teacher is a bit clueless as well (though may still have good pragmatic advice despite bad epistemics.)

In addition, note I said that each of the practices is actually a practice category. Though the Buddha taught one specific concentration technique and a simple series of insight techniques, but there are probably a dozen alternatives in each category that seem to work for some people and which entire traditions have subsequently built themselves around and gotten into fights with rival schools about.

Note: I am fairly confident this is how things work up until 2nd path. Since approximately zero percent of people make it beyond that point I'm not too worried about this.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Why do contemplative practitioners make so many metaphysical claims?

To paraphrase Culadasa: awakening is a set of special insights that lead to drastically reduced suffering. This seems straightforward enough, and might lead one to question, if this is the case, why the vast landscape of teachers and practitioners making what seem to be some fairly wild claims about reality? Even if it is the case that these claims are some combination of mistaken, pedagogical in intention, reframes of more mundane points using unfortunate language etc, it would still raise the concern that these practices are, de facto, making their practitioners less connected with reality and decent epistemic standards in their mental models and communication with others. What gives?

I believe I have an explanation that covers some of the territory here. I don't claim it covers all of the phenomenon in question. Hopefully it will be of some benefit in clearing up certain confusions.

In order to have the necessary insights, practitioners engage in cultivation of prerequisite skills. One long lived and fairly straightforward model of such skills is the 7 Factors of Enlightenment:

  1. Physical Relaxation
  2. Equanimity
  3. Joy
  4. Energy
  5. Determination to Investigate
  6. Concentration 
  7. Mindfulness
These skills are not binary. Each one deepens along a spectrum as you practice. As the skills deepen, you begin to have more direct perception, on a moment-by-moment basis, of how beliefs and values (is and ought) are formed and interact with one another. This direct perception very often leads to changes, as unhelpful linkages are noticed and either drop away if no longer needed, or are upgraded into versions more closely aligned with how the world is or skillfully realizing values. For those familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, something very similar is at play here. In CBT, your attention is drawn to the way that a situation can trigger a feeling, which triggers an associated thought pattern, which drives a compensatory action etc. Perception of the linkages provides more intervention points.

Depending on where a person starts (existing linkages between beliefs and values) they may be led to come up with a variety of ideas about the 'true nature of reality' along the way as these linkages  change. Even if this map-territory error isn't made, a significant and unexpected shift in how you relate to your own life, ie the story you use to make sense of your current belief-values stack, can be a lot to take on. The urge to 'make-sense-of' intermediate steps in the refactoring process can be very strong.

Imagine a big network of beliefs and values. Let's say that our attention has been drawn to one particular cluster that handles some aspect of our life. It might be financial security, physical well being, relating to others, etc. One of the things that seems to happen is that, in the course of practice, we learn that one particular type of linkage isn't true. I'll give the concrete example of the assumption that if you hear someone say something, it means they really believe it. This might sound bit silly when stated explicitly like that, but it's definitely a linkage that can be floating around in subtle, unexamined patterns. Now, let's say you have, in the course of contemplative practice, an insight related to this linkage. After having this insight, you start noticing this linkage come up in subtle ways in all sorts of situations. Having seen it as false, there is the feeling that you are reevaluating some assumptions you had about these various situations. You're 'clearing out' these false linkages as you find them, as life presents you with situations that activate various areas of your belief-values network and you notice various instances of the linkage.

Having this as a basic picture we can start to make sense of some of the things that happen to people as they have various insights. Let's say you had a whole cluster of beliefs around, say, religion. You can imagine that these beliefs were tied to the rest of the network via all sorts of linkages. As insight occurs and more and more false-linkages are pruned away, various chunks of the network can come off in idiosyncratic order as life presents you with situations that draw your attention to various parts of the network. If a bunch of 'values' based linkages fall away, it can lead to feelings of meaninglessness or, at the other end of the spectrum, intense affective activation, positive or negative. If a bunch of 'belief' based linkages fall away, it can literally feel like reality is dissolving. This is much much more literal than many people will be willing to believe before it happens, especially if they have little to no drug experience. When this happens with parts of the network that are involved with the visual system, for instance, the visual field can actually dissolve into a bunch of vibrations temporarily as you refactor parts of the network related to extremely low level things like edge or motion detection (this is also where 'auras' come from imo).

We used a fairly mundane examples, but you might be able to imagine that this can get pretty disorienting when it involves things you assumed were immutable (the classic example of course being changes in the sense of self). This is one of the big reasons equanimity is considered such a core skill for this process to unfold without causing undue distress. This process can have a poor interaction with a particular personality type. The sort of person who, upon being given a screwdriver, runs around compulsively disassembling everything they can find that was built with screws. It could also be framed as the same sort of tendency that lends one to completionism in video games combined with the addictive quality of insights. The felt sense that The Big Answer is just around the corner. The one that will finally give us the power to arrange the world to meet our neglected needs. 

I think it's useful to note that the range of insights is truly vast. In fact, the Theravadans say 'insight is infinite' because the range of skillful action in the world is so vast. You won't be able to 100% this save file any time soon, so you can relax and be a bit more methodical, strategic and skeptical as you go. You saw through a false linkage. Great! But before you go running off to evangelize to others, realize that your new realization is only slightly better. This doesn't mean it isn't helpful to talk about such things with others. Some other people may be at a similar enough stage in their network refactoring that they derive great benefit from what you share. Recognize also this tendency in others, to evangelize at you parts of the process that are particularly salient to them due to their path up the mountain. "Holy shit, I fell into that crevasse and broke my leg and it was a year before I managed to heal and climb out. Everyone needs to know about that and anyone who doesn't emphasize it is irresponsible." But the mountain is large, people are climbing it from many sides and using many techniques. Some are insistent that you need a particular kind of rope, some are obsessed with first aid for the particular kinds of injuries they or a friend sustained, some are trying to build wheelchair accessible ramps up to the parts of the mountain they think are best. Additional metaphors here. Bonus points for noticing the ways this post itself could be an example of the thing.

Making sense of the intermediate steps is attractive for both good and bad reasons. It is good to find ways of making things stable so that you can continue to meet your responsibilities to others and lead a functional life. Dissolving the constructs that lead to you prioritizing exercise, eating well, and sleeping should be seen as dissolution of the goodness of the means, not the ends. E.g. you were using fear based motivation to keep you exercising, which you subsequently saw through. This doesn't mean exercise was bad, it means your method was bad and you should find an upgraded one. It is attractive for bad reasons when it involves things like showing off how clever you are. Many teacher-student groups revolve around a teacher having reified a particular set of insights and then, via selection effects, found a decent sized group of people who are at the right stage to think those insights are The Big Answer they've been looking for. Both teacher and students in this dynamic tend to stagnate. Good teachers are less concerned with particular insights and more concerned with strengthening of the process that generates insights. 

These sorts of mental models are all well and good, but presumably lots of other practitioners engage with various helpful mental models as well, and many of them, maybe even most, seem to go off the rails on the claims about reality. Is there more to say about that? I have enough experience with meditation and psychedelics at this point to claim that some forms of meditation have similar effects, one of which is boosting openness to experience. In my personal opinion, shooting openness sky high without a balancing increase in healthy skepticism reliably lands you in whacky belief town. Most practitioners are not starting with solid prerequisites about map-territory distinctions, probabilistic over binary reasoning, and strong ability to demarcate is and ought (positive and normative) claims. Most schools are not, in my experience, emphasizing the very skeptical nature of the Buddha's inquiry into his own mental processing. I think the law of equal and opposite advice holds here: skeptics need a healthy dose of faith, enough to give practices an honest try. People who are riding high on a breakthrough insight (and some of them are pretty damn spectacular) need a healthy dose of skepticism. Traditionally, one waits 'a year and a day' before making claims about a particular breakthrough in order to give it time to settle and attain context within your overall progress.

Everything gets easier if you understand this to be an investigation of the map and not the territory. Making claims about reality based on the fact that your cartographic tools have changed is silly. In polishing the lens of our perception we see that it has a lot more scratches than we thought. And notice that we introduce new scratches on a regular basis, including in our efforts to polish it. "Isn't this also an example of belief?" the astute reader might ask. This is explained in the Pali Canon when the Buddha explains reaching the point that the 7 factors of enlightenment themselves are the last remaining things to be seen though. Dissolving your cartographic tools is the last thing you do on your way out.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Orientation on the Contemplative Path

A few things I wish I had encountered or known to ask about early on.

1. How long do I need to try a specific technique before I know if it's working?

People sometimes stick with a practice for years, see no significant improvement, and are led to believe that this is normal. The benefits of meditation are not some far off thing. An intelligently structured contemplative practice (hereafter practice/s) should have tight feedback loops, otherwise how would you know you're doing anything at all? Where we run into difficulty is that because meditation interacts with all our mind junk, strong resistance can come up during practice. There needs to be some sort of guiding principle on when to keep going and when to try something different. The answer, from surveys and measurements taken during longer term practice intensives, seems to be about 30 hours of practice. If a practice hasn't shown some sort of tangible, legible benefit in your thinking process, emotional stability, or skillful behavior in the world it very very likely isn't the practice for you right now. This doesn't mean it is a bad practice or that others might not derive great benefit from it. This also doesn't mean it might not be useful to you in the future. But it isn't the practice for you right now. Granted, there are exceptions to every rule, and some people get something out of gritting their teeth and sticking with a practice for a long time. But I strongly suspect they could have had an easier time trying other things. 30 hours might sound like a long time, but its just a month of practice at one hour per day. This caps how much of a time waste any given technique is. In the beginning it is very likely that you can get away with less: two weeks of practice time should show some results. If you try lots of things for two weeks each and nothing works you may need to resort to the longer standard of 30 hours.

2. Will this turn me into a monk?

Much of the popular material on contemplative practice comes from schools of Buddhism that are, historically, monastic traditions. This has imparted a strong flavor to the resulting discourse around how to structure practice. Emphasis on discipline, big commitments to specific schools, long retreats, renunciation, etc is very common. Modifications to practices to make them dovetail better with householder life are often not mentioned, glossed over quickly, or subtly looked down on. But teachers need to engage with students as they actually practice and not as they wish they would practice. The good news is that integrating your practice with life is often as simple as holding the intention to. As practice improves perceptual clarity and attention span, you'll find that intent can accomplish more than you thought. The four pillars of householder practice are a formal sitting time, a teacher/group they can go to for getting unstuck and helping maintain motivation, micropractices sprinkled throughout the day, and the occasional retreat. I've personally never seen anyone get those together and not make dramatic progress. Progress is not reserved for those who make the biggest sacrifices or are determined to transcend reality or whatever. Any absolutist claim that you must do X in order to make progress can be safely ignored.

3. How do I know progress when I see it? What's getting measured?

This one has an easy answer, neuroticism. Okay, it's a bit more complicated than that. It's just that the Big Five personality assessment factor neuroticism, sometimes inverted and labelled as emotional stability, has so far shown the largest response to contemplative practice. Both quantitatively in that we can actually measure it, and subjectively in that it is very obvious from the inside that something has happened when it drops. The granularity of this measure is probably on the order of at least a few months though, so I also want to directly address the sense in which I referred to progress before, on the order of two week chunks. I think illegibility of progress is one of the main sources of frustration for newbies. I also think it's one of the big reasons for the success of noting and other concentration techniques. Basically, any technique with a tighter feedback loop is going to do better with newbies who, by definition, haven't improved their perceptual clarity much yet and therefore need bigger, and more frequent landmarks to know whether they are headed the right way. 'Let go of gaining mind' sounds good, but we can save that for year two when you have some chance of actually getting something out of it. The most traditional source of all, the Pali Canon also holds forth at great length about all the various things you can use to track progress. I'll mention here one I've gotten a lot out of, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. They are
  1. Physical relaxation
  2. Equanimity or emotional relaxation, lack of push-pull, or amelioration of the compulsive aspect to attractions and aversions
  3. Energy, more in the coffee sense than the woo-woo sense
  4. Joy, less some subtle profound thing and more are you happier in a straightforward way
  5. Determination or stability of your intent
  6. Concentration or stability of your attention
  7. Mindfulness, detectable as sensory clarity, how high resolution does your experience seem
Practices will generally be aimed at improving one or more of these. And if you ask which of these a practice is supposed to improve and get confusing answers or a generic 'all of them', that's a red flag. So when I said improvement in 2 weeks, one of these should jump out at you when you review. Beware choice supportive bias, or the tendency to want to justify the effort you expended. Don't settle for ambiguous progress. Dramatic progress is possible, and it's much better to get a bit annoyed trying 6 different things over the course of a few months than waste a year doing something that you think is making you a little bit more relaxed. The side effects having too high a standard here seem better than the side effects from too low a standard. Practice needs to pay rent.

4. Will meditation solve my problem with X?

One of the major problems in the spiritual community is unsupported claims that this or that practice is a panacea. Most people understand that claims that breath work will solve cancer are bogus, but claims about solving depression, anxiety, OCD, etc have at least a modicum of believable anecdotes surrounding them. But meditation should be thought of in terms similar to CBT, it will give you some extra tools and perceptual clarity around negative patterns. It won't magically eliminate the work you have to do to tinker with those patterns and implement better patterns. It does have a tendency to make that work feel less aversive. After a while you'll notice a pattern where it's the younger teachers claiming their system solves everything. Old teachers have been around long enough to see that it doesn't. My guess for where this tendency towards exaggeration comes from is the neuroticism decrease. From the inside, a large enough decrease in neuroticism feels like it solves a lot of problems because there is a realization that your problems were made up of two parts: the actual problem, and your reaction to the problem. The bigger that latter part was in terms of sucking up your emotional energy and resources, the bigger a relief when it is alleviated.

5. But I heard that we're supposed to ______

'Clear your mind', 'have perfect equanimity', 'breathe in this pattern established by the grand double lama of the pure realm'. The information overload of modernity has lead to a major problem whereby students are hearing about dozens of techniques with no context. It is extremely similar to the problem in the exercise world where you see 'Usain Bolt's workout routine!', 'How X got ripped for this movie!' etc. Without an understanding of some of the basics of how exercise and diet work, as well as how appropriate different exercises might be for different goals and people at different stages in their progress towards getting in shape, all the information is just confusing. One of the reasons that you see quite a few sources recommending to start with a very basic breath awareness or other focusing exercise is that this is the equivalent of advice to just jog around the block every day. Which is to say it prepares you to be able to engage with more stuff in the future without being overwhelming. Of course, you also don't want to be part of a school that says 'yeah just jog around the block every day for 20 years' and ignores the fact that interval training and weightlifting exist and have incredible health benefits.

6. What's the point of all this? Traditional answers seem disconnected from reality, which is concerning.           

There is a recurring, valid question among newbies about whether and how practice affects agency, or coherent behavior towards worldly, worthwhile goals. Another, more extreme version is the question of whether meditation is ultimately aimed at wireheading. Most schools don't seem to engage with the question much and of those that do the answers are often unsatisfying or don't really seem to address the core concern. And I'm going to be 100% honest. The reason there's no universal, satisfying answer to this question is that it does happen. Monastic, renunciation based schools ultimately are trying to get you to disengage from the world because their philosophy is that that is of the greatest benefit. Some schools have had strong reactions against any jhana practice (blissful meditative states of absorption) precisely because some people do turn into bliss addicts and stop making progress. On the other hand, every teacher who I trust reports that this is pretty rare, and much more likely to happen to people who practice without the feedback of a teacher and community. You can go look at the list of 7 Factors above and imagine that someone who is well above average in those areas is going to have a dramatically easier time being effective in the world. Of the ultra successful people Tim Ferriss interviewed for his Tools of Titans book , 90% had a mindfulness practice of some kind. We can only draw limited inference from a heavily selected for data set like this, but we can at least say that it certainly doesn't *preclude* high degrees of agency. I'll also note a bit of concrete advice. To paraphrase Shinzen Young: mindfulness tends to make people a bit spacey, concentration tends to make people a bit racy. A good school should be offering you diagnostic principles so that you can balance yourself out in your practice. Notice whether a school makes a point of talking about how to integrate practice with day to day challenges or if this is left as an exercise for the reader.

7. What about the dark night?

Wildly overblown AFAICT. Daniel Ingram seems to be bipolar and seems to believe in trying to power through it with the harshest practices available rather than pursuing evidence based treatment and taking it easy on the practices/going at a less stressful pace. His approach has drawn others who have had similar experiences into a fairly prominent internet community which magnifies the apparent frequency. Again, these types of experiences seem most likely for people who aren't in a feedback loop with a community who can offer various ameliorating practices to try if harsher emotional experiences come up. My own conjecture is that a lot of the problems arise out of beliefs around permanence and causing damage to oneself i.e. the 'what if I broke my brain forever?' paranoia familiar to many who have had a bad time when trying various substances. Some of the survey work of Jeffrey Martin is useful here. Of long term practitioners he found that ~98% of them reported that the changes they experienced were highly positive. ~1% didn't like the changes. Upon learning of techniques that could reverse the effects, 100% of such people had success (n=4 or 5 IIRC). Lest this fall too far in the reassurances camp I'll also say this: meditation isn't safe. In the same sense that psychotherapy isn't safe, that exercise isn't safe, that drug assisted therapy work isn't safe, that being 100% honest with your coworkers or romantic partner isn't safe. No one can guarantee that you won't lose your job, lose friends, end a marriage, have a depressive episode etc. Seeing your own life with dramatically greater clarity isn't going to be all sunshine and rainbows unless your life is all sunshine and rainbows (fat chance). Come to think of it, the person straining the hardest to pretend that their life is sunshine and rainbows will probably have a worse time than others. I say this because to me, this is a very different claim than the claims around the dark night, which seem to imply that some sort of special, metaphysically mysterious misery is going to be visited upon you without warning. Based on my own limited experience with the dukkha nanas so far, and comparing with what various teachers have to say, it seems to me to be much closer to the more mundane classes of unpleasantness, akin to the same sorts of things that come up in therapy. This also helps us make sense of the more dramatic claims. Therapy can be brutal for people with serious trauma. Sometimes such people get fed a line about meditation being a panacea as mentioned previously and, well, predictably lousy shit happens. Especially if they are talking to a teacher or resource that tells them to just bear down harder and they have no support network.

8. I'm back to being scared?

This post isn't to convince you to meditate. It's to provide info for those who can't avoid meditating. If your baseline experience is acceptable to you, why are you poking at the device it runs on?

If you have more questions after reading this, please do ask.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Link Roundup March 2017

The always wonderful Sarah Perry gives a taxonomy of memetic immunity hazards.

Dirdle uses some of the discussion around fake news to talk about the important idea of self-sealing memeplexes, i.e. memetic immunity as a truth insulator.

Grognor chronicles the history of the first of the Glass Bead Game players, otherwise known as Weird Sun Twitter.

The Archdruid continues his missives on the implications of Schopenhauer's work. How the expression of psychological maaldies are affected by mutual knowledge, how popular metaphors infect the theories of one's day, and what we're supposed to do on the object level.

Amanda decomposes signaling into several possible dimensions. I think this is good because signaling has been too much of a curiosity stopper in social analysis.

Graham Johnson says if you're going to try to escape to other places you might want to check that you aren't just bringing with you the things you're trying to escape from.

Devin Helton with a deep look into urban fracturing.

Katja Grace on people forgetting how to enforce payoff equilibria against defectors.

Venkat goes down the reactionary rabbit hole drawing interesting parallels between the current political climate and that that lead to the Treaty of Westphalia and the emergence of the modern order.

TheZvi on traveling to Mexico and experiencing the strange phenomenon of having everything *not* be constantly trying to get you.

The Sublemon creates a set of links for their posts organized into textual analysis, theory, and introspection.