Monday, December 31, 2018

Why do contemplative practitioners make so many metaphysical claims?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

Orientation on the Contemplative Path

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

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

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

2. Will this turn me into a monk?

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

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

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

4. Will meditation solve my problem with X?

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

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

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

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

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

7. What about the dark night?

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

8. I'm back to being scared?

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

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