Friday, December 7, 2018

Orientation on the Contemplative Path

I 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.

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