Sunday, June 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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