Saturday, January 25, 2020

(mis)Translating the Buddha

Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Desire is the cause of all suffering. Only by realizing the truth that impermanence and no-self are the fundamental reality can one reside in boundless freedom by uprooting that which nurtures and maintains the defilements.

This is a good example of how Buddhism has been transmitted to the west. It's worse than not helpful, it's actively anti-helpful. As in it obscures actual understanding. It confuses practice instructions (for noticing specific mental events and how they affect you) with metaphysical confusions about the world via the mechanism of linguistic confusion.

Starting over.
Tanha is the cause of Dukkha. Understanding Anicca and Anatta inclines the mind toward Nibbana by removing the Upadana that maintains the creation of Sankharas.

At least now it is clear that we have no idea what is going on, which forms a much better foundation for investigating on our own. Take my attempt here with a grain of salt. Many book length treatments have argued different sides of this. I only hope that this can serve as a starting point for your own experiential investigation that is somewhat less confused, as well as make future engagement with other interpretations less confused.

To reiterate and emphasize. The above sentence full of Pali terms is about detectable mental events within the stream of physical sensation, feeling tones, mental talk, and mental image that makes up moment to moment experience. If something sounds weird it's just that you've never reified it before because it goes by very fast (10-40hz range). Meditation is about training the mind to be able to notice these more subtle events and then instructions for noticing certain things about the causal relationship between these subtle events and how good your moment to moment experience really is. The purpose of meditation is not to become a really good meditator, to experience certain cool temporary states (though some are helpful), etc. But direct insight into the basic building blocks of your experience.


Tanha is usually translated as desire or craving but this is wrong and misleading. Tanha is more literally translated as 'fused to' or 'welded to'. It immediately follows the mental moment that you zoom in with the attentional aperture on something. It could be that a flower or an item on the shelf at the supermarket captures your attention, or you turn your head to catch more detail as you pass by an accident on the road. Many hundreds of thousands of such events take place in the course of a single day. With most of them attention then relaxes and makes space for the next thing. But with some small proportion you find the mind doesn't quite 'unclench' from the object or some aspect of the object. This tension aspect is why it is sometimes translated as ‘grasping’ which is closer. Imagine something you aren’t finished with being pulled out of your hand and you tensing your fingers to resist.


Dukkha is usually translated as suffering, which sort of works but misses important stuff. A more literal translation is 'a difficult emptiness.' Approaches, even quite effective ones, for dealing with the suffering of life were already in existence at the time of the Buddha. Both schools that preached constant absorption into pleasurable meditative states, and schools that preached a doctrine and practice of 'non-duality.' Both of these approaches survived, became mixed up with Buddhism, and today there are schools claiming to teach Buddhism which actually teach these methods. These methods do in fact decrease suffering, but they are only partial solutions. Both because they are reliant on maintenance of certain states and ways of being, and because while they deal with suffering caused by the immediate senses, you are still left with a more fundamental suffering related to feelings of emptiness or, Dukkha's other translation, 'worthlessness' and related feelings (nihilism etc. in the west). You've encountered this for yourself if you've experienced something cool during contemplative practice but then had a kind of 'so-what?' moment. The sense that this experience, while interesting and probably a temporary respite from your worries, hasn't actually addressed the core problem. People especially have this coming back from retreat. If this were just considered on its own, without the teaching of the antidote, this might be called worthlessness, that it seems like things are never satisfying and thus nothing has any value.


Anicca is translated as 'impermanence' but this is off and it's worth pointing out how this happened. In the 19th century when a lot of initial western translations of Hindu traditions was occurring, much of the translations of Buddhist texts were done by Sanskrit scholars. This is interesting because it was foreseen as a problem by the Buddha. There is a discourse where Sanskritists come to the Buddha and he specifically warns against conflating Pali and Sanskirt terms as highly confusing (because there is a bunch of overlap in affixes and grammar)! He tells them not to translate the teachings into Sanskrit because it will lead to nothing but problems. In modern times we are saddled with exactly this having come to pass. The Pali words for impermanence are Adduwan or Aniyata and the Buddha uses these terms elsewhere. This happened due to Sanskrit translators thinking that Anicca was the same word as Anitya, the Sanskrit word for impermanence. So what is an actual translation of Anicca? Something more like our inability to maintain things as we like. This sounds philosophical, but there is a specific mental event it points to, namely the inverse: Nicca. And this gets at an extremely important point in how this stuff works. If suffering were truly just coming in from the outside in thousands of different forms (i.e. the way things seem on cursory inspection) then we wouldn't have much hope of a single intervention helping us. Nor would we be confident in any such intervention since some new form of suffering can always show up. But if suffering is a result of something we're doing, then if we can figure out how to stop doing that, the suffering stops. Which we can confirm for ourselves in moment to moment experience. So Nicca is our tendency to believe that things could or should be maintained to our satisfaction. This is an identifiable mental event in how we reify an object or concept. Ignoring the very ephemeral nature of moment to moment experience in favor of only noticing those aspects which do occur as stable. Spotting it for yourself is very powerful. If this were just considered on its own without the teaching of the antidote it might be related to feelings of hopelessness. That there is no hope of maintaining the conditions that lead to things we like. Thus, the flow of positive and negative experiences are undependable, indefinite in duration, intensity, and frequency. That our hopes of forcing them to be stable with our mind will be in vain.


Anatta. Oh boy where to even begin? Like Anicca, Anatta was translated by Sanskritists as the same as the Sanskrit term Anatman. A literal rendition of Anatman is ‘no-soul’ but is also generally interpreted as ‘no-self.’ This has probably lead more people astray than any other mistranslation. And again we have a passages from the Buddha warning against this specific problem. People come to the Buddha to argue about self vs no-self doctrines and he repeatedly says that if you hold a view of the self as existing then you are in error, and that if you hold a view of the self as not existing you are in error. The first major milestone on the Buddhist 4 path model is the release from having any particular view of the self because the whole point of the first milestone is that you’ve improved your understanding of the causal relations between mental events enough that you’ve seen that this distinction was predicated on a confused concept. Furthermore, if we were to take the translation of no-self as valid a bunch of discourses don’t even make grammatical or logical sense. Of course not making logical sense is considered a feature by mindlessness schools.

Like Anicca, Anatta is pointing to the inverse of a specific mental event, Atta. Atta is a little hard to translate, we can translate it as more like a verb or more like a noun (Pali is weird). If we see it more like a noun it might be translated as ‘essence’ and if we translate it like a verb it might be translated as ‘to take/have control/ownership of.’ Together we have the notion that if something has a real immutable character or ‘essence’ to it that we understand, then we can really control it and that this control won’t be subject to change. Anatta is to point out the error in this way of seeing things. The point is to notice the mental event that represents objects or concept as though they could or should be inherently or essentially controllable/ownable. If this were to just be taken on its own without the teaching of the antidote it might be called helplessness, that things are without the possibility of being controlled. We use the mind to falsely pretend we are more in control than we are. This faculty of mind feels like one of those child’s car seats that has a fake steering wheel on it, made famous by The Simpsons opening credits. The mind either deludes itself by carefully moving the fake steering wheel in line with what it sees so that it can pretend it has control, or it strains itself throwing its weight ineffectually into cranking hard on the wheel when the car goes places it doesn’t like.

And this isn’t an argument that trying to gain a better understanding of causal relations so that we have real steering wheels instead of fake ones is bad. Again, the point is to spot the mental moment of playing with the fake steering wheel instead because it is easier. Now, this must relate to theories of self somehow, it couldn’t be that everyone is totally deluded about this central aspect of Buddhism right? Well, yes and no. Self-making, identification, separating self from world, and insight into such are very important for decreasing suffering. But rather than the philosophy that many/most delve into we have something comparatively simple, just the mental act of Atta applied to ourselves! So we come to believe that we have an essential nature that our dissatisfactions are accruing to. We believe that we ‘obviously’ have ownership over ourselves and that we ‘should’ be in control of ourselves. It’s just that this isn’t how things are in moment to moment experience, so it causes a lot of problems. People get really caught up in this set of insights, but at its core it really is just the specific moment of a mental act that we learn to identify (ha) and stop doing as we gain awareness that it isn’t actually helping in the way we thought.

(Breakout section for epistemologists, skippable if you aren’t into analytic philosophy)

The above section on Anatta seems to be a place that Buddhism comes unavoidably close to metaphysical claims. No inherent essence sounds like it might be a form of idealism, like a denial of there being any real stuff ‘out there’ that follows fully structured rules (like Maxwell’s equations, say, or any other strong invariant). Many of the people reading this would likely consider themselves Quinean naturalists, materialists, etc. Consider the difference between how an invariant like Maxwell’s equations actually shows up in moment by moment experience vs the inference that they describe a naturalistic world (i.e. unified, even if we don’t always have efficient bridges between different successfully predictive representations). In moment to moment experience we experience noisy measurements. When we do experiments of successively higher resolution we see that the error bars converge towards the relevant invariant equations. We infer that the invariants are what is really out there. The uncertainty is in the map (with the human nervous system as noisy map maker) not the territory. This is totally reasonable. In the Buddhist conception we aren’t concerned with the validity of successive maps that we build for different purposes and what they say about how reality ‘really is’, but with the nature of the convergence process itself i.e. a map making consideration and not a territory consideration.

What Anatta should be taken to mean in relation to philosophy of science is more like ‘you should never have a prior that is non-updateable by sense data.’ This immovable prior would be something like being convinced that one had penetrated to the real ‘essence’ of something. In practice it would be taking our successively better models of control with a grain of salt so that we don’t shit a brick when they suddenly fail out in the tails (tails come apart!). My sense of why this happens in the first place is that if we’re going to be propagating lossy compressions for efficiency anyway, then it would be really nice to just be able to multiply by one or zero rather than some point estimate or, even worse, trying to properly combine full distributions. This probably isn’t a big deal in the short term, but by default we have too many zeros and ones as placeholders in the belief network at a super low level. This is just another way of saying that we seem to reify things in an improper manner, leading to problems where higher level representations don’t orient our attention properly towards real causal levers. This sort of pretending that lossy compressions are actually lossless (X is Y) probably contributes to our transfer learning, but Awake people seem if anything above average at using metaphors to illustrate causal relations while not getting confused by them.

Also, while irrelevant to our human situation, even a jupiter brain with a TOE should probably have knightian uncertainty. ;)

Between Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta we already have a very important understanding. What the Buddha is saying is that by default our way of viewing the world is that things should or could have a stable, unchanging essence, by understanding that essence we can thus control things and thereby bring about conditions that leave us satiated and full. That the mind can make things stable, controllable, satisfying. That if we do this well enough we will no longer ‘go hungry’ for that which we can’t obtain. And that this way of viewing things unavoidably leads back to the suffering of emptiness, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, because it was never aligned with how things actually work. That we never investigate how things actually work because to do so would force a confrontation with exactly these feelings that we were trying to avoid.

In short, that Nicca, Atta, and Sukha (the opposite of Dukkha) are maladaptive strategies. Not only do they not get us what we want but they maintain the conditions that lead us to keep using them. Instead of seeing that the whole strategy is broken we keep trying to do it more skillfully, making finer and finer carvings to try to only cut out the bits of things that are stable, controllable, satisfying. Rather than claims of truth about the universe, the claim that learning about these reduces fundamental ignorance is just a claim that we're unaware that we’re already doing this.


Nibbana is generally thought of as an exalted state of being that is free of all suffering, all desire, etc. etc. It, along with confusions arising from the previously mentioned mindlessness schools, leads to people assuming that Buddhism is wireheading. The best translation of Nibbana (for the purposes of practice) IMO is ‘cooling down.’ If we think of the above strategies as a sort of tensing, a sort of effortful exercise, a sort of heating up if you will, then we can contrast it with untensing, non-efforting, cooling down and relaxing. The simplest way to think of this is that Nibanna is the opposite of Tanha. Often translated as the mind ‘inclining towards relinquishment’ (of that which was grasped). The nature of this experience is relief. And here it means not only relief from the particular stimulus that was stressing us out, but the (normally experienced temporarily) relief from compulsive grasping, the relief from wanting things to be other than they are, relief from the belief seemingly pressing down on us that we need to act just for things to be okay. A kind of happiness that comes from a halting of believing that we need to get happiness by arranging things to match up with mental projections. And I want to emphasize here that often with all of these various Buddhist distinctions, we often miss them because our mind is focused on the horizon, looking for special spiritual sensations or understandings and not noticing the mundane ways these things are already showing up in experience right now. The comfortable silence with a good friend. The satisfaction of a good meal when you ate neither too much, nor too little. The feeling of post-orgasm. The concept of Nibanna points the mind to the idea that maybe these aren’t specially fabricated states that are unsustainable so much as the natural quality that arises when you aren’t grasping after stability, control, and satisfaction. And again, this is a mental event and not a life philosophy.

When one experiences a lessening of Tanha, the objection “but what if by stressing out just a bit more some great non-linear results would have been realized in your life that were totally worth it!” starts to sound like “but what if being tense at all times just happened to be exactly what kept you from getting hit by that random bus?” I’m not totally positive but I think this mostly hinges on the following dynamic. You currently experience obstacles in the course of pursuing some goal as stressful. In order to generate the necessary energy to overcome the stressor you generate a mental construct that causes you to suffer even more if you don’t overcome the stressor. So when people imagine a decrease in mind created stress, they imagine only the secondary motivation-hack stress going away after which they will become useless in the face of any mild obstacles in life (just go with the flow, man!). Instead what happens is that both kinds of stress decrease at the same time. We do have informal interviews with people in very high functioning roles such as doctors and engineers, who experienced major meditative milestones and had some concerns along these lines, only to go into work on Monday and be surprised that their performance was perfectly fine. I do sympathize with the objection given the popularity of mindlessness training, which definitely can make people spacy, as well as spiritual materialism, which provides people with virtuous sounding excuses to avoid difficult things.
People might wonder about this conception of process vs the 'unnameable' nibbana 'state' or whatever it is that is popular. That bit is about an event that happens as a final result of insight practice into progressive stages of meditative absorption. I'm talking more about the verb like connotation while the final result is using the more noun like connotation of the word. In general the conflation of process with final result of a process rears its head all over the discourses. I think there's something going on with Pali grammar and intonation that was deeply lost on this front.


Upadana is literally translated as ‘fuel’ but also is used in gardening metaphors to mean seeds as well as having connotations around ‘pulling towards oneself.’ I already alluded to why this is an important concept with the idea of maladaptive strategies that generate their own fuel. Upadana is a mental event that immediately follows Tanha. It can be thought of as the opposite of Equanimity. We instinctively pull or push away aspects of mental objects/representations that we do or don’t like. We try to ascertain the aspects of objects that are stable, controllable, satisfying so that we can own, or associate with those aspects. We ignore or try to push away aspects of the objects that make us feel hopeless, helpless, worthless, empty. This carving up of objects has little to do with how they are in the world, so the mental stories we build out of these carved up objects are also incoherent. One way I’ve found helpful for spotting this is to notice that what is really happening in moment by moment experience is that I’m very rapidly doing a bunch of inferences on the object, and then throwing out the original data and only keeping the results of these inferences.


Sankhara. Just like elsewhere, Sankhara can be translated as either 'that which has been put together' or 'that which puts together.' Another noun/verb duality. If Upadana is a seed, then Sankharas are the warped houses we build out of the twisted lumber that grows. Living in these poorly made houses we don’t understand why we are miserable. To speak less metaphorically, a Sankhara can be thought of as a collection of mental events put into a story about how the world is. An example would be thinking of things in terms of victims and oppressors. Thinking like this tends to make people angry, it tends to make them feel helpless, and it doesn’t tend to point them to causal levers they can pull to improve their situation. Observing that they don’t seem to be able to help themselves, turning any resources offered into louder amplified shouts of how miserable everything is rather than improving things, other people tend to turn away from helping them. This further fuels the world view. In Buddhist psychology, the victim-oppressor mindset is called the Hell Realm because it is considered a particularly nasty maladaptive strategy. Not only because it is miserable for people caught in it, but because it reinterprets signs explaining how to get out as tricks, attacks, etc. (See: my frustration with wireheading objections ;) It is said that the most tragic aspect of the hell realm is that none of the gates are barred.

The important thing about these more high level psychological tendencies is that they demonstrate what I’ve been calling functional fixedness. Let’s say a person has 10 different mental constructs (beliefs) that they use to make sense of their situation and employ strategies for getting their needs met. That these beliefs strongly resist updating in light of new evidence makes perfect sense in the context in which any one of the beliefs changing makes the whole structure worse than before. The idea that there is a much better way of being somewhere far away in mind architecture space requires quite a bit of faith. Or, as weird sun twitter put it: “‘That way lies madness’ He said, pointing in all possible directions from the center of the attractor.” So the beliefs resist change by virtue of being load bearing, by having had lots of important structures built on top of them. To change them would feel like invalidating the suffering that one (or others) underwent to attain meaningful outcomes within that framework. 


Let’s take a crack at the entire sentence again. By default, the mind becomes stuck to mental representations that have more to do with our desires than how things really are. This leads to aversive experiences of emptiness, hopelessness, worthlessness, helplessness when we bump into evidence about how confused we are. We come up with plans for avoiding these experiences, but these plans don’t really work, leading us to repeatedly encounter flashes of the undesired experiences. Our response is to try to push on the plans even harder, which doesn’t work. But once we get wise to this process we can incline in the opposite direction, pushing less hard on experience. The relief from doing this wakes us up to the idea that we’ve been fueling the above vicious cycle and live in a house built from these sorts of knots of confusion. Instead of trying to hold the house together with constant maintenance while simultaneously trying to find the exact right decorations, we start tearing down the house. We discover that the very idea that we needed an unchanging, beautiful house that definitely belongs to us was just another of the confused knots. House building, maintenance, and dwelling becomes just another human activity that can be engaged with or not as is convenient. As these activities were previously taking up huge amounts of our attention and resources, we find ourselves much more relaxed and able to enjoy things. Because others still live within the paradigm of seeing everything as related to houses, they are inclined to perceive you as living in a shiny spiritual house, and try to figure out which sets of maintenance activities and decorations will grant them these ‘spiritual’ advantages.

(There’s a joke in here somewhere about house-holders)

So when we engage with Anicca, we might think that in the long run of course things can’t stay stable. No, not in the long run! Right now in your direct experience images of words and mental sensations of meaning are flickering by. This is the Anicca to investigate! When we engage with Dukkha, we might think that there’s a certain sense in which of course things aren’t satisfying. No, not in a certain sense! Right now in your direct experience there are sensations related to aversive feeling tones that are being papered over. This is the Dukkha to investigate! When we engage with Anatta, we might think that of course our sense of what we control isn’t always aligned with what we can actually control. No, not better calibrated models! Right now in your direct experience there is a sense of some sensations controlling other sensations. This is the Anatta to investigate!

These build on themselves. You notice that anything you are aware of is in the process of changing as you notice it. Which means that the sensations of just a moment ago are not the sensations right now. You incline more and more towards noticing this gone-ness rather than the normal arising and sustaining quality that you’re in the habit of paying attention to. With this as a lens you notice that the sensations are unpleasant in various ways. But that’s okay because the moment you notice them they’re already disappearing. With this as a lens you notice the mental motion of trying to control those unpleasant emotions by grasping their essential nature. It seems like it was there all along, and now it too is sensed to be unpleasant, but already passing away even as you notice it. And now you are just in the stream.

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream


"The three characteristics of impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and no-self are so central to the Buddha’s teachings that it is almost inconceivable how little attention the majority of “insight” meditators give them. I cannot possibly overstate the usefulness of trying again and again to really discern these three qualities of all experience. They are the stuff from which ultimate insight at all stages comes, pure and simple. Every single time I say, “Understand the true nature of things,” what I mean is, “Directly perceive the three characteristics.” To perceive them thoroughly and directly is to be awakened.

Somehow this exceedingly important message doesn’t typically seem to get through to insight meditators, so they spend much time doing anything but looking precisely, moment to moment, into the three characteristics. They may be thinking about something, lost in the stories and tape loops of the mind, trying to work out their stuff, philosophizing, trying to quiet the mind, or who knows what, and this can go on retreat after retreat, year after year, decade after decade, and of course they wonder why they don’t have any insight yet. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions, but you do not have to be part of it! You can be one of those insight meditators who knows what to do, does it, and finally gets it in the truest sense.

The big message here is: drop the stories. Find a physical object like the breath, the body, pain, or pleasure, some feeling of resistance you may be experiencing, etc., and train yourself to perceive the three characteristics precisely and consistently. Drop to the level of bare sensations. This is vipassana, insight meditation, the way of the Buddhas." - Daniel Ingram

Monday, December 9, 2019

Dukkha: created vs discovered

In life there is suffering
Suffering is a mental event
Mental events have discernable causes (with training for detecting subtle mental events)
Discerning a cause allows effective intervention

So far, so good. There is a question of whether the suffering of life has a unitive character or not. If it doesn't, then we need different strategies for different kinds of suffering, and we can always encounter new types we haven't before. If there is a unitive character, then we can do something about all of it at once (at least potentially). Buddhists assert that this is the case, as a matter of empirical investigation/discovery.

From the perspective of modern philosophy of science there is an additional question, which is whether or not the buddhist strategy (assuming for the moment that it is accurate and it works) is created or discovered. Most contemplative material assumes discovered, that the patterns described by practitioners of contemplative techniques exist in all minds. But we can imagine a world in which these patterns are rather created through mental rewiring. That by default suffering doesn't have a unitive character but that we can give it one by rewiring ourselves in a certain way, after which a single intervention type becomes a possible solution.

This possibility actually makes more sense in some ways. It would be one possible explanation for why people generally need years of work before the, relatively straight forward on their face, insights seem to 'land' and do their work. It may also be a mixed case whereby some people start out much closer to this attractor in the space of possible ways to configure a mind and thus find that spiritual practices 'just work' while others start off farther away and don't get as much out of them without a lot more effort. This is doubly confusing because it seems overwhelmingly likely (based on personal experience) that at least *some* of the mental patterns described actually are universal.

I think this sort of stance is helpful because a lot of people seem to take a paint by numbers approach to these practices that then don't really work for them. The investigation you do into your own experience has to be a real investigation, and not one in which you are highly confident about what there is to find. i.e. people feel like they're meditating wrong if their experience doesn't seem to match whichever map they are using. Different people seem to resonate with different maps. This could be a case of merely differing understandings of the same territory or it could be that there are actually a few different cognitive architectures at play.

We have a lot of parts that are pretty skeptical of our cognitive story-telling, and for good reason. A lot of the insights that pertain to very low level perceptual operations aren't going to update without a direct perception of a decrease in suffering due to some shift in mental contents. A lot of the confusing stuff in buddhism is trying to talk about these direct insights. e.g. 'grasping' isn't talking about a cognitive understanding but rather a direct perception of an automatic mental move that happens in the pre-conscious perceptual stack (at least pre-conscious prior to a bunch of work). Buddhists do this because sometimes, if a person is ready, you can speed things up by just pointing the thing out rather than waiting for them to figure it out all on their own. (An example that seems to work for a pretty decent number of people is The Headless Way).

I do think that this has resulted in ambient memetic immunity of the same type hypothesized by Scott Alexander and others about why new psychotherapy methods work for a while and then seem to stop working. People get some sort of idea of what all these experiences are supposed to be and as a result ignore actual moment to moment sensation. This happened to me with piti (a jhana factor). I realized I had been keeping my eyes to the horizon looking for some sort of special spiritual sensation instead of noticing what was actually happening in my body. Fortunately a retreat period of intensive practice broke this conceptual blockage and I realized the mistake after 9 days of straight practice, at which point I felt a little silly (and a lot euphoria).

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 defusing 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' etc. 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 both 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.