Thursday, August 31, 2023

There are only a few suttas where the Buddha directly discusses technique, the Saṅkhitta Dhamma Sutta is one of them

Daniel Ingram cites MN 111 as his favorite sutta and it's pretty easy to see why this may be. It gives a clear and concise account of the techniques someone follows to take them all the way to arahant, namely emerging from each of the jhanas in turn and investigating their causes and conditions. The Sankhitta sutta is similar, but ties together jhana, brahamaviharas, the foundations of mindfulness, and dhamma factors (eg the 7 factors of enlightenment) explicitly. I think the contents of this less than 10 paragraph sutta are invaluable, but there's a problem. These suttas are great if you already know what they're talking about, but they're so laconic that they're often inscrutable.

A debt is owed to translator Piya Tan and the translation I am working from can be found here. Also note that I'm sure my explanation would be considered idiosyncratic by many standards, please take with the standard grain of salt and as fuel for your own curiosity. 

First, briefly, an outline/map of the proposed practice:

Someone comes to the Buddha and asks for a simple description of his system. The Buddha says okay, but to please take seriously what he's about to say.

The meditator is instructed to cultivate the jhana factors and set aside the hindrances to jhana.

Taking these qualities as the basis, the meditator then applies them to the brahmaviharas, loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative-joy, and equanimity.

Taking equanimity as the basis, the meditator applies this clear state of seeing to the four foundations of mindfulness in turn: 

The Body

Feeling Tones

Mental Formations

Dhamma Factors

The last one might sound a bit more ambiguous, since it potentially gives us a vast array of mental phenomena to investigate, but we have help from another sutta[1] where Brahmanviharas as a practice are discussed. In that sutta, petitioners come to the Buddha Sariputta and ask him about his spiritual system. They say other teachers teach the Brahmaviharas and ask the Buddha Sariputta what his opinion is on these as a practice, and if such a practice will take one 'all the way.' The Buddha Sariputta says Brahmaviharas are great, but won't take you all the way. But if you cultivate the Brahmaviharas and then cultivate seeing the three marks in the five skandhas (dhamma factors) this will take you all the way.

I very much appreciate us having direct sutta evidence for practice outcomes as the concatenation of skills that can be developed in our formal practice. It is also nice to see direct instructions to take Brahmaviharas as concentration objects, since elsewhere they are not discussed as formal practice directions.

What follows is some thoughts on each of the outlined steps.

Five hindrances to jhana:

Hindrances (desire, aversion, ill-will, torpor, doubt) are usually discussed in the context of suppression. This suppression is temporary, but people still have a lot of difficulty with it. I find it helpful to investigate the hindrances as the side effects of parts not really having any confidence in meditation practice, or alternative priorities. They are trying to get you to pay attention to other good things. So using Core Transformation (book link) to spend some quality time with hindering thought patterns is a more long term solution IME, for dealing with the hindrance acutely in the moment, for building up internal trust, and for learning moves that wind up being helpful elsewhere in practice as well. This also helps when you deploy the various antidotes to hindrances that other practices recommend, as this can then be done more gently, with an eye towards solving the underlying problem rather than more internal violence. This generally leads to a substantial amount of insight.

Jhanic factors:

The jhanic factors are directing attention, sustaining attention, physical and emotional tranquility/contentment, physical sensations (generally pleasant though not uniformly so), and one-pointedness of mind. I'm a big fan of deliberate practice via getting as specific as possible with the mental moves that cultivate each factor. So for instance rather than waiting to forget about initial directing of attention, you can just intentionally direct your attention over and over again to the meditation object, followed by intentionally letting your attention relax to other objects. A practice given to me was to set a timer to ding every thirty seconds so you can get 20 reps in in a 10 minute practice. Similarly with sustained attention, the practice given was to actively think about the meditation object (including internal verbal reasoning about it, often derided or taken as evidence of doing the practice wrong) for about a minute at a time before relaxing for a bit then doing it again. Trying this sort of exercise, you may start to notice that many practice regimes are trying to start out well beyond your present abilities. Tranquilizing the bodily sensations and cultivating positive emotions are likewise something that can be started as a micro-practice of up to a minute at a time for a few rounds before relaxing and only building on this as skill is picked up and momentum develops on its own. One-pointedness of mind naturally begins arising on its own as the other four factors are developed.

For both the hindrances and factors it is considered useful to review at the end of your sit your guesses as to whether each of them was present. The point of this is not to be 100% accurate but to develop a habit that spins up a little sub process that pays just a bit more attention on the margin and will passively upgrade some related mindfulness skills as a bonus.

It might be more obvious, given this, why a simpler meditation object is often helpful. A candle flame, sensations of the breath, or even a colored disk, reduces the number of things you're attending to in your practice while trying to track all these factors and hindrances.

How and why to take the brahmaviharas as meditation object:

Doing this the way it is instructed with mantras or calling up the physical sensation raw never worked for me. What did work was doing Core Transformation until a core state was reached, and then calling in jhanic factor skills that had been previously cultivated to use that core state as the meditation object. A bonus is that since I had literally just done the work to address any objections or hindrances to feeling that core state in the CT session, it was drastically easier. As for why the brahmaviharas/core states make great meditation objects, the choice of object seems related to how fundamental the related physiological building blocks of the object are. There are an uncountable number of objects you could choose to experiment with, but most of them are compound mental objects, and will fall apart quickly as you traverse layers of the perceptual stack. Even the breath disappears at a certain point in altered states (which often causes people to break out of the state until they get used to it). We're taking it on the word of people who have been farther than us that the brahmaviharas don't break down. In fact, they are named as the qualities that remain even for a fully awakened Buddha. So that's pretty nice. In the same way that the jhanas when cultivated tend naturally towards the fourth jhana, Equanimity, so too the brahamaviharas naturally tend to evolve towards Equanimity, which can then be used for the next step.

Emerging from equanimous states and turning attention to the foundations of mindfulness:


What is it about equanimity that is so helpful for investigation? One way to think about it is that being non-judgemental about what you're seeing is exactly the attitude you'd want from an investigator. An investigator who was already sure about what he was seeing and what it meant would be an inquisitor. Secondly, when equanimous, mental events happen, and then, importantly, stop. They don't keep daisy chaining to the next thought with your knee jerk reaction to the previous one. This is helpful when trying to figure out what's happening moment to moment. 
Investigating the body is pretty straightforward, most people have heard of a body scan, and you can look up guided body scans. Investigating feeling tones is investigating the way things show up in consciousness as positive, negative, or neutral, and our involuntary reactions to those. Investigating the mental formations is a bit trickier, so it's great if we've built up some skill by this time. Mental formations tend to chain into one another very easily, and we want some clarity around exactly how that cause and effect goes. What are the textures of the mental images and mental talk? Observing how they are associative in nature and how the body reacts to them (which then is fuel for new mental formations etc).

Often, the practices leading up to this point will already be causing lots of insights and shifts, which is great, and now the practice can turn towards what Rob Burbea would term 'insight ways of looking' directly, with dhamma factors. This is much easier now that the sub skills have been built up. Many books have been written on this topic but an easy trailhead is anicca, or impermanence. With clarity it is now easy to see that there's a weird tension built in to attention. Attention wants to attend to stable qualities yet attention's very nature is this fast flickering thing that can't really stabilize except through great effort, and even then very temporarily. When you do manage to stabilize it on something, that something tends to disappear or otherwise deconstruct. What's going on? 😉

From here we're back to the regular insight meditation story, but with enough resolution to really get somewhere in a reasonable amount of time. Cultivate dhamma factor ways of looking, then turn it back on all the structures we've just learned to cultivate attention for, mental formations, feeling tones, body, jhanic factors, hindrances, attention itself. At some point interesting things start occurring. If these interesting things are emotionally disruptive, you have some facility with an integration practice like Core Transformation that should help out quite a bit, and any access you have to pleasant jhana states will also ameliorate stress/nervous system disruption. If/when unpleasant states arise, the strategy is the same, observing them with equanimity and any dhamma factors one has access to.



This turned into a bit of a beginner orientation post in some ways. But my main motivation is that I think it's a really big deal that we have a sutta tying together brahmaviharas (often interpreted as Sila, moral training), samadhi (concentration), and insight/mindfulness practices (investigating dhamma factors leading to advancement on the path model) in a mechanistic/technique focused way. Many people have independently reinvented some or all of this style of approach in relatively modern times (since late 19th century) but I have never seen the Sankhitta sutta brought up as supporting evidence. I hope that by alerting people to this, AN 8.63, some people will find benefit.

May you realize freedom.

[1]: noble friend Andrey pointed out that this is a commentarial conflation of the Metta Sutta and the Silvant Sutta. In Buddhadharma, Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto points out that the three marks often co-occur when the five aggregates are mentioned, making this a reasonable practice inference.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Threefold Training


I've been getting a lot of diagnosis questions (where on the path am I and what practice should I be doing?) and my suggestions are consistent enough that I feel I should try to write them down.
I view the classic Threefold Training as a basic guide to the different areas of practice. Most of the problems people describe to me boil down to them only doing two (or, more usually, one) style of practice and being confused why this isn't working. When they encounter problems that are specifically the domain of a different kind of practice, they instead believe that they aren't doing their one practice correctly or hard enough.

Disclaimer: My take on the threefold training is idiosyncratic by majority Buddhist standards. So take with a grain of salt. Also, I'm just some guy.

There are practices oriented towards unifying experiences. These are the traditional concentration/breath/jhana/samadhi/shamatha/brahmavihara (metta, etc.) meditations that some people know as the 'main' sort of meditation. I'll call these broadly 'concentration practices', though that word has connotations of a certain kind of efforting that is often a hindrance. But a concentrated mind state is their goal.

There are practices oriented towards picking apart experiences into their constituents to see how they work. These are things like noting/vipassana/pointing out/satipatthana/contemplation of dhamma factors (such as the three marks of existence, five hindrances, skandhas, etc.) I'll call these broadly 'insight practices' as having more insights is their goal.
There are practices oriented towards engaging with the contents of our experience such that we lead a more harmonious life. These look more like psychotherapy, good conduct, habit change, goal-practice coherence, relational/communication practices, somatic work etc. In other words, all the machinery that translates between on-cushion insights and day-to-day life. I'll call these broadly 'integration practices' as their goal is to integrate the nice sounding/feeling spiritual things into the concrete stuff of daily life such that less suffering actually occurs, both for yourself and others.

These three practice types lead into one another in a cycle. Concentrated mind states make the mind quiet and calm while at the same time much more capable of precision than normal. This is the perfect state in which to do insight practices. Insight practices stir up mundane 'stuff', the various things that are causing suffering in the first place. Integrating this psychological material cleans up the obstacles encountered in concentration practice, as it's built from the same mental movements. Concentration then becomes dramatically easier, and the cycle accelerates. This is more obvious on retreat.

Concentration-only typically leads to either getting nowhere and feeling stuck, and/or peak state chasing. Insight-only typically leads to stirring up trauma and not dealing with it, which eventually becomes pretty destabilizing. Integration-only typically leads to endless analysis and working on oneself but never really getting to big shifts. The problems with each of these is exactly antidoted by processes that occur in the other two.

This doesn't mean all of these are happening every sit. One might very well be focusing much more on one of them at any given time. But if things are not humming along, it is a solid chance that it means one of the others needs to be brought up to speed.


Thursday, August 20, 2020

Four Pillars of Practice Progress


I wind up giving this answer in quite a few contexts so I thought I'd do a brief write-up.

This framework for making progress in your meditation practice comes from Shinzen Young, and is motivated by his claim that in his decades of teaching experience he has never seen someone get these four things in line and not make dramatic progress in fairly short order. However, Shinzen has mostly talked about these in talks and podcasts, so there's no easy way to refer people to them. I'll just name them and speak briefly about each one. Additional questions about any of them are also welcome. Note that the elaborations on each of them is based on my personal experience and thoughts.

The four pillars are:
1. Community: teachers, texts, noble friends
2. Formal daily practice time
3. Micro practices spread throughout the day
4. Retreat time


Sitting there, Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One, "This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie."
"Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path." -
Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2)

Entirely self directed scholarship and practice is difficult in any field. We are social mammals and much of our brain space is devoted to tracking what is going on in relationship with others. We can give ourselves a significant boost by choosing to engage (and not just lurk) with friends or in communities, local or online, that discuss and encourage practice. A significant part of this is teachers and texts since you need some outside source of navigation to compare to your own intuition and ideas, but just as significant are friends who are around the same level as you whom you can regularly discuss things with. And I can't emphasize enough how big a difference this can make, even when you've already been established in practice for a long time. I hadn't been taking advantage of this for a period of time at the beginning of the pandemic when a friend (hi, Andrey!) asked to be accountability buddies for daily practice. He pointed out that in a group it's easy to tell yourself that the others will still carry on without you, whereas with one on one if you don't show up the things doesn't happen. It's easy to underestimate the difference between having abstract notions of progress that you personally track, and the feeling that someone actively cares about how your practice is going. In Pali, such people are referred to as kalyāṇa-mitta, or noble-friends. Such people can also be a tailwind for engagement with teachers and texts since having someone to discuss a dharma talk or dharma book with is also motivating. The full impact of this likely can't really be grasped until you've gone significant periods with and without them for direct comparison.

Formal Daily Practice

This is the most straightforward one, though often there is ambiguity about creating and maintaining the container here. People often feel like they are doing something wrong when their attempt at formal practice winds up feeling quite chaotic. I think one of the big misconceptions here by newer people is not knowing that even quite advanced practitioners have significant periods where monkey mind is bouncing off the walls, and may still face significant ambiguity about when it is skillful to stick with vs switch practices. This is an ongoing tuning process. Culadasa separates establishing a practice as a whole phase of practice in itself, and I think it's helpful when in this phase to treat any time you spend making formal practice more likely as counting as a legitimate part of practice. Often there is a sense that what we are encountering are obstacles to our practice rather than those obstacles being the very material of our practice. Is the practice of setting intentions, creating containers, and reviewing our results in this domain really going to serve us nowhere else? Also, on the object level I will just reiterate a couple things here 1. much practice is momentum based, so a daily crappy practice is better than a sporadic but highly structured practice. 2. push your edge a bit, see if you can practice a bit more than is comfortable and sit with that discomfort. If you never over-effort then you aren't really exploring your bounds. 3. try things on the time resolution of about two weeks. That is to say, if you follow the instructions as well as you can for two weeks and nothing seems to be happening, give something else a try.

Micro practice

The phenomenon of the benefits of formal practice not actually accruing to or integrating with day to day life is such an issue that Jack Kornfield wrote an entire book about it called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. While the topic of such integration is wide ranging, the simplest approach is intentionally bringing some aspect of practices off the cushion. At first, people generally think of this as of fairly minor import. The difference between having a few such moments during the day and not just doesn't seem very big. But in much the same way that the suffering reduction from formal practice isn't very obvious until one gets quite sick, the benefits here become obvious the first time you have people yelling at you or some other more extreme scenario and notice that you automatically deployed a technique from habit and that it really did make a big difference. Choice of micro practice here will shift with your formal practice. If your formal practice is currently anapana, then your micropractice will probably be a few mindful breaths whenever you remember. Noting, and the micro practice would be noting for a few moments. Mini body scan, stack tracing, noticing emotions in the body and making a few moments to process them etc. Whatever your formal practice there is likely some minimal version you can do. Over time these tend to increase in frequency and eventually there are qualitative shifts.

Retreat time

If you have a daily practice and are frustrated by the lack of big-feeling shifts and have never been on retreat, then you should know that for many (probably most) practitioners retreats tend to be where the big breakthroughs happen. Making space for retreat time is a significant cost, both absolute and in terms of the emotional activation energy to plan. A weekend retreat can be a great way to get started, and right now there are a lot of teachers running online retreats of varying lengths of time. My advice would be to not get caught up in decision paralysis and just sign up for the first one that you can make work. I went on multiple vipassana retreats despite having significant differences of opinion with their construal of Buddhism and it was perfectly fine. More broadly, every retreat I've been on has been an awesome experience, and they seemingly keep getting better. Another great piece of advice I've heard is to sign up for your next retreat while you're still in the pleasant afterglow of the retreat you just left, since otherwise you might let forgetting and apathy take over again.


Getting these four areas going takes time and effort but have been extremely worthwhile compared to alternative uses of my time. I've made rapid progress as far as I can tell compared to most practitioners and I lay a very substantial fraction of that at the feet of this framework keeping me on track. And that's despite the fact that my efforts have by no means been a perfect or even especially disciplined implementation. But this framework has always been there to catch me and give me traction on rebuilding progress when I get lost.

Monday, July 27, 2020

A Brief Note on Trauma Work

People doing trauma work in themselves or others often talk about digesting shadow sides to things. I think I have a better understanding of what this means than I did before. I'll explain by way of referencing what I'll call positive and negative trauma. I don't mean positive trauma in the sense of being harmed by what seem on the surface to be pleasant experiences (like seeing tens of thousands of images of hyper-attractive photoshopped people during your formative years), that's a different phenomena for another discussion. I mean positive negative in the logical/legal sense, positive being the presence of something and negative being the absence of something.

It's easier to react and work with what is there. If you had an alcoholic abusive parent, say. There are memories that are charged with unpleasant emotions, and much trauma work revolves around discharging these emotions. But this isn't the shadow. The shadow is about what wasn't present. Because there was abuse in the home, you never felt safe. There was an emotional experience you *didn't* have that also affected you. This can be much harder to see.

These individual experiences cast little shadows, and we run into bigger problems when we get just the right combination of little shadows to add up into a much more stable Big Shadow. Big Shadows are larger scale constructs that inform our basic stances towards self, other, and world. Things like whether other people are basically good intentioned or not. Whether certain activities are harmless fun or loaded with shame. Which aspects of behavior need to be tightly controlled.

There are two things that are so striking to me about this. The first is how it creates the common experience of what is mundane for one person being revelatory to another. "It's safe to feel happy" is a shrug for some people and an hour of sobbing for others (and I'm tearing up a bit writing this because I've sat with such people for the hour). There can be whole categories of experience and needs being met that are just invisible to the people who were burned and thus learned to flinch away from that part of experience. Second is the way that this creates the need for others in the process of healing. While the mind can sometimes infer to a place it has never been, there aren't any guarantees. Much more reliable is seeing the thing happen. So if you didn't see healthy ways of relating growing up, you do have an invisible need that those around you may not have. You need a type of data that you've never seen before and thus aren't oriented towards looking for. You can't see the knife in your back, and if feeling tired all the time from blood loss is your 'normal' you won't think to hold up multiple mirrors to find it. And of course you flinch if someone touches it.

Fortunately there are hints. We all have what we call personality traits. Though we share the same values we have different prioritization over those values, and those priorities are reactions to life. This can be obvious with unpleasant experiences. The person who lived through famine seems preoccupied with their food. Likewise, those big, bright, positive values have shadows. The person who presents to you as caring a lot about honesty may have been burned by liars. The person who always shows up on time may have had an unreliable parent. The person campaigning for justice for someone else may have had no one stand up for them. The way that people express their love is also, quietly, the way they are showing you: "This is how I was not loved."

Saturday, January 25, 2020

(mis)Translating the Buddha


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).