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).