Rough Draft: Communication, Cross-training, Intimacy, Desire

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You are creating a second tier in the relationship, an observation post, a metalevel, a joint platform, an observing couple ego. You are solving the immediate problem in the relationship by moving up and reassembling the relationship on the next higher level.” —Daniel Wile

I’m working on slicing and dicing the domains of mastery and value on this blog. By value, I mean pointing out things that might be worth wanting, for both proximal and terminal reasons. By mastery, I mean, of course, the practices which directly enact those values or approach realization of those values.

While I haven’t emphasized empathy and perspective-taking too much, they have appeared in prior posts [1, 2]. To me, these words refer to our capacity to automatically utilize, or deliberately attend to, our pre-symbolic “felt sense” of another person’s mind.

Empathy is core skill that can be trained, perhaps via “Other Mind Meditation,” which I’ve been experimenting with in meetups. In the last post, I referred to meditation and Focusing-type practices as practices that cross-train, and empathy is another skill that can be added to that cross-training collection. (Because, the machinery that flexes and contorts to model other minds can be applied to understanding your own mind as well, but you wouldn’t have stumbled on that particular, personally useful flexing and contorting had you not been trying to model another mind.)

The Focusing-type skills described in the last post are actually two processes in one, the first being “attending to nonsymbolic meaning” and the second being “symbolizing and expressing that nonsymbolic meaning” (to self or others).

Further, empathy and Focusing-type skills can be thought of as sub-skills to the super-skill of online and offline pragmatic communication with other people. I say “pragmatic” because I’m emphasizing communication with a purpose: love, sex, intimacy, fun, support, coordinated action, etc. I say “online,” referring to real-time communication such as face-to-face, voice-only, or text chat. I say “offline,” referring to snail-mail, emailings, blogging, and even book-writing.

This is “using your words” (and sometimes nonverbal communication) to “get what you want” (which often encompasses you being assured that other involved parties getting what they want, too).

Now, symbolic pragmatics is such an incredible skill–using combinations of these lifeless, little, countably finite, discrete patterns of matter and energy (naturalized symbols!) to move lovers, mountains, armies, planets…

(I acknowledge that successful use of symbols is conditional on vast coordinate preconditions.)

But, here is this next opportunity to aspire to thousand-year-old-vampire levels of skill: leveraging your use of words, whatever situation you find yourself in. They are so cheap relative to what they can do, to what they can unlock.

Just like meditation, use of words has no payoff ceiling. The better you get, the more benefits you get.

Just like meditation, increase in empathy has no payoff ceiling. The better you get, the more benefits you get.

And better empathy lets you use your words better. They are another example of cross-training.

And, using words in the moment is hard, have you noticed? Pre-caching words is one strategy for using words in the moment. But you have to have a pretty good idea of which ways the situation could go.

Fresh, spontaneous, exploratory (depending on the risks) use of language is another way to go.

And emotions really complicate things, of course you’ve noticed. If you or the person you’re speaking with (suddenly?) might not get what they really want, things get intense. Use of words gets harder (because other parts of the brain and body start vying for input).

And that’s where the mind muscles built from meditation comes in, the ability to surf your emotion and not get tongue-tied, the ability to simultaneously pursue many different models of situational outcome and advancement, to simultaneously remain responsive to the person right there in front of you, to be open to eir [sic] influence.

So anyway, this post has been enacting two goals. The first is to help me start assembling scattered thoughts on empathy and pragmatic communication more directly into my blogging project (that project being, as losslessly as possible, to offer my toolbox, worldview, and values).

The second is to offer up some concrete resources while I’m sorting that out:

Daniel Wile is a brilliant, ethical phenomenologist. I say ethical because his ethics are deeply baked into his philosophy and approach. I don’t want to give it away, except that attacking and not-attacking are explicit in his thinking. (This post is more of a “go read this guy until I write about this stuff”; see below)

Do you know John Gottman, the guy who can predict relation breakups with eighty or ninety percent accuracy from a tiny sample of behavior? Here’s what Gottman has to say about Wile:

I love Wile’s writing and thinking. They are entirely consistent with many of my research findings. I think that Wile is a genius and the greatest living marital therapist. I am blessed to have been able to exchange ideas with him.

Wile’s After the Fight is a long, dense (but clear) read that blends experiential phenomenology with emotional dynamics, semantic dynamics, interpersonal dynamics, interpersonal ethics, concrete tools, and psychoactive insight. It’s the relationship book for cerebral meditators. (As a contrast, the book Radical Honesty is powerfully psychoactive, but it’s like handling a live, poisonous snake. And the book Nonviolent Communication is beautiful and elegant, yet clunky and incomplete.) This book is in another league. It is not the last word, it’s nontrivial to translate this stuff to non-intimate relationships, and I have much more to say, but I’ll possibly never surpass the decades of in-the-trenches experience that went into his writing.

After the Honeymoon is an earlier book by Wile. It stands on its own, but it has enough overlap with After the Fight that you don’t need to read both. I mention it because it’s a much breezier, easier read than After the Fight.

Here is an even shorter, 40-page summary of his approach (from where the epigraph above came from):

And here are additional shorter articles:

There is also great stuff from Wile’s mentor, Bernard Apfelbaum, here:


So, I just want to end this blog post by reemphasizing the point of all this. For example:

  • Profound sense of intimacy or camaraderie,
  • Emotional support on your valued projects,
  • Weathering relationship turmoil,
  • Stable, drama-does-not-even-exist-in-this-universe relationships,
  • Reliable access to enactment and reenactment of hilariously specific, elaborate, and idiosyncratic sexual fantasies,
  • Understanding and delight and acceptance in your uniqueness,
  • Profound acknowledgment and service to another person,
  • Safety and comfort in light of finiteness, unpredictability, and mortality…

These are abstract ideals, of course. Reality is messy, and you might use different words or want completely different, highly personally specific things. What I’m referring to, here, is whatever you want that might include more people than just you.

Most of us don’t yearn to, say, fly or wield psychokinesis, even though that would be awesome, because those things are much closer to impossible than not. Our brains, at a deep, preconscious level, don’t allocate a lot of time desiring concrete realizations of things that the brain expects to be impossible.

Part of our brain not spending that time is because truly desiring things you believe to be impossible can be extraordinarily, soul-cuttingly painful. And that’s even if your longings are technically physically realizable.

So part of what I want for this blog as whole, by suggesting use of possibly novel tools, is to expand your sense of what’s possible, to get your mind going about the things you could have, to make you hungrier.

The other thing I want is to ease you into contemplating desires that would have been too painful to contemplate before. This is an ethically tricky thing. Why do I want this for you? Possibly because some of my desires hurt, and if I want people to work on them with me then they might have to be willing to have painful desires, too.

I must warn you that having abstract or even just extremely challenging desires is associated with increased risk of clinical depression, and working on said desires is associated with increased risk of the same. (Let me know if Google fails on tracking some of these down.)

But perhaps some things are worth being depressed about. (Seriously, fuck me if that previous sentence takes someone in a direction they ultimately regret.) And, perhaps skillful communication and vulnerability is the solution on many simultaneous levels.

Rick Hanson, PhD gets it, too; A Unified Meditation Practice?; And is it time to buy or steal some fMRI time? (2000 words)

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Rick Hanson, PhD gets it. Hundreds of other people get it too. But Hanson may just barely win the prize for being the most explicit about using neuroscience to enhance meditation:

“To ‘naturalize’ something is to place it in the frame of the natural world, to operationalize it in natural terms. […]

“What could be a [neurobiological] operationalization of dukkha, tanha, sila, samadhi, panna, bhavana, or nirodha?”

So far so good, and he’d be willing to throw out the traditional concepts for better ones and add new ones, hinted at by objective investigation, that Buddhism missed. And Hanson will happily talk about the insula, the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, gamma waves, and functional connectivity. And he offers strategies for people to reliably light up brain regions (which albeit needs some careful unpacking re brain versus mind), and he responsibly qualifies all the brain enthusiasm by noting that “[m]ost big changes in the psyche involve tiny changes in soma; mental plasticity holds more promise than neural plasticity.”

This is great. He’s trying to ground this stuff. He’s carving up the territory in objective ways to try to teach accessibly and palatably. And he’s got a profitable media empire going. I’m jealous.

But, here’s what I think isn’t good enough, yet:

Hanson is still offering an unintegrated grab bag of techniques, and there’s only so much time during the day. Ditto Shinzen Young who is still awesome. Ditto classical Buddhism. Not quite ditto the Mahasi noting crowd (Ingram, Folk), which offers one to three techniques at a time, but I think the payoff of those techniques might be too narrow.

I think there must be better ways to cut across the intervention phase space. The brain is homeostatic. Retrospectively reflecting, here’s the pattern I usually see when I do something new:

  1. Nothing happens because I’m still learning how to do it in a precise, sustained way. (Five minutes to one week)
  2. “Big” or at least obvious changes happen as I quickly “use up the neural slack” and push my brain to the edge of its accessible operating mode (couple days)
  3. Start either losing ground or stop seeing big changes, as the brain adapts, or short-term maxes out, to whatever pressure I’m applying (4 days)
  4. Slowly layering bedrock of lasting change (weeks, months, years)

The last one (step 4) is kind of interesting because that step is what seems to reshape (2) over time, the neural phase space you have to roam around in. The work you do in (4), you seem to lose it much more slowly if you stop, or, even if it seems to fade, you can often seemingly get it back to where you left off within a few days.

I think the little spot interventions (“inner smile,” “inner pause,” “pay attention”) do add up, in that they can kind of become habit, but the brain is “fighting back,” evening you out, stealing your gains. Bad brain. Or bad Hawthorne Effect.

But do those little spot interventions anyway: be an inner ninja in your daily life. I’m not knocking them.

But I want to do better. I want to develop new practices that efficiently cut across many inner lines of development at once. You can only do those steps (1)-(4) on so many practices at a time. Money and sex and love and friends and fun and impact and the reasons you’re doing steps (1)-(4) in the first place should be high priority.

How big can your practice become?

I feel like the ideal is folding absolutely everything one possibly can into a single process, a single meditation protocol. That might be phenomenologically complex, but there’d be a subjective simplicity on the far side of that complexity. I’ve used the analogy of a symphony before: you might think of yourself as simultaneously being both the conductor and the entire symphony at the same time while you’re meditating.

In that “single” ideal meditation protocol, there’s room for experimenting; there’s room for surrender; there’s room for not attacking yourself with exacting standards; there’s room for warmth, intimacy, safety folded into the practice itself, yet there’s room for precision, for striving; you can radiate and gamify at the same time.

Subjectively, how big can your practice become? How much can your practice embrace?

Objectively, crudely, somewhat literally, how much of the brain can we light up with a single practice?


Classical meditation is a feedback loop:

You can’t control your reactions, they already happened, but you can perform volitional acts in response to your reactions, and those volitional acts shape future reactions and the volitional actor itself.

And, so, I ask, can we do better than classical meditation?

Meditation leaves out profound aspects of mental life. Or, meditation can touch all aspects of mental life, but meditation doesn’t necessarily operate on all aspects of mental life in its core feedback loop.

Let me try to explain.

Part of it is that some mental gears don’t seem to easily turn while you’re meditating.

1. Here’s one example: Call it daydreaming, call it reverie, call it getting lost in thought, call it the default mode network: Some vital mental activity only happens when “you” are not calling the shots or are not even on the scene at all.


Now, reverie isn’t so much of a “problem.” You just incorporate entering and leaving this state into your model of meditation, which I do in foreground background meditation:

2. But, here’s another one that’s a bit more of a “problem.” Recall Focusing, Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, Emotion-Focused Therapy, Coherence Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, the Lefkoe Methods, and more. These practices don’t easily fit into the meditation feedback loop framework:

You activate or find particular referents in consciousness with nonsymbolic internal structure. You engage in subtle, profound acceptance of the truth and inner logic of those referents and accompanying behaviors. You patiently, tenaciously, obliquely, humbly work to explicitly model and put words to those referents. You humbly let those referents and juxtapositions of other referents evolve in relationship to you and accordingly change the words. Sometimes it takes seconds, sometimes it takes months. And then abruptly, BAMresonance, involuntary sigh, catharsis, one-shot learning, neural protein synthesis, radical synaptic change: Starting right then and ending within twenty-four hours, you are different, better forever, effortlessly from that point on. Sometimes it’s more subtle, and sometimes it happens in steps.

The fuck? :-) Not that I’m not bordering on religiously grateful that this capacity somehow ended up in our DNA.

Now, first of all, again, this framework does not easily fit in with the meditation feedback loop framework. Meditation cross-trains with this class of practices, in that meditation can make you better at them and vice versa, but they seem to exercising very different (albeit interpenetrating) functional brain networks.

To qualitatively summarize the differences, it seems like meditation changes your relationship with everything, but coherence-therapy-related stuff changes everything.

Unpacked, very loosely speaking: Meditation intervenes on your deep participation and relationship with self and world as they unfold around and within you; Coherence Therapy intervenes on your absolutely true ;-) personal global causal models that govern life, love, opportunity, and safety.

(Sidebar: And, by the way, I’m ignoring for now how all this relates to the big, hairy abstractions of System 1, System 2, Keith Stanovich’s reflective rationality, the five-second level, and the rationality checklist (except that I can suggestively lump all that under “muscles you didn’t know you had”):


Second of all, the Coherence Therapy class of practices have diminishing returns: You might pick off low-hanging fruit yourself. And then you pick off higher-hanging fruit with a good therapist. And you get profound and permanent changes initially proportionate to the time and energy you put in, and they are worth it. And it’s worth putting in time intermittently, forever, for spot reasons or gut intuition.

But, the long-game of deliberate memory reconsolidation (the target of this class of practices) is a really laborious process. I’m working on a couple ways to make it easier, but you still have play brilliant scientist and poet of your past, present, and future. It’s hard.

In contrast, meditation seems to have at least linear returns in the long game.

Granted, meditation is always going to be hard in that you’re noticing something just out of reach, and what is that, and oh wow I didn’t realize I could do that, and crap I lost it and I want it back, and how do I stabilize this, and how do I surrender to that, and how do I relate to all of that. Meditation is infinite meta: Qualia phase space is constrained by the hardware and how fast the hardware can change, but it’s qualia phase space; It’s ouroboric manifold combinatorial interpenetrating evolving vastness beyond all reason and comprehension.

That said, my point is that, in contrast to the diminishing returns of memory reconsolidation practices, meditation does tend to acquire a radical simplicity over time that embraces that ouroboric manifold combinatorial vastness.

So, I’ve been wondering for a while if there’s a way to unify the meditation feedback loop with the memory reconsolidation processes. Sure, you can kind of switch back and forth and weave them together, and I do sometimes, but it’s not an entirely smooth process.

Meditation has this amazing harmony of symbolic and nonsymbolic process, and it feels like there should be some way to incorporate the analogous symbolic / nonsymbolic processes of Coherence-Therapy-related stuff, so that they can also participate in the radical simplicity of meditation, too.

I want one, unified practice with at least linear returns, where it doesn’t feel like different stuff is bolted together.

I don’t know. I’m working on it. Based on the classical meditation maps, I may have some changes ahead that will make this clearer to me: Foreground background becomes foreground background reversal, and objects in the phenomenal field become objects as the phenomenal field. So maybe seeing how to do this integration is just a matter of time, though I’d like to speed it up for myself and for others.


So, where to go from here? Is it time yet for formal science? Or is it better to let science-informed communities of practice keep doing their thing for a while, while science and technology catch up?

The science is clear: Meditation causally influences structural changes in both gray matter and white matter in many different brain regions. Causation not correlation. It’s not subtle. That’s even a little surprising if we have Hanson’s intuition that “[m]ost big changes in the psyche involve tiny changes in soma.”

So can we use any of that (yet?) to figure out how to choose better meditation practices and to teach meditation better?

Real-time fMRI is something else to think about. People can learn to modulate their BOLD responses given real-time feedback, and this can have subjective and behavioral consequences.

Sulzer, James, et al. “Real-time fMRI neurofeedback: progress and challenges.”Neuroimage 76 (2013): 386-399.

People are already using rtfMRI to do meditation stuff:

Garrison, Kathleen A., et al. “Effortless awareness: using real time neurofeedback to investigate correlates of posterior cingulate cortex activity in meditators’ self-report.” Frontiers in human neuroscience 7 (2013).

So can we use any of that (yet?) to figure out how to choose better meditation practices and to teach meditation better?

I don’t know. Let me know if you have ideas. It seems like trying to design and carry out a longitudinal study is not the correct little bet to be making at this stage.

[Personally speaking, it’d be gratifying to leverage this PhD in bioengineering and all this industry and academia programming experience. I might collaborate on brainy grants if it seems like there would be a win-win-win payoff.]

So where does scientifically-noncontradictory, non-metaphysical, evidence-based transformative practice go next?

Cutesy diagrams and mindfucking adventures

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I’m working on a book about all of the stuff on this blog, and I feel like I’m starting to see one of the ways that metaphysics gets started. I have this rich, implicit sense of how all this stuff fits together. And, at the same time, I’m trying to distill things down into simple, intuitive models which can be introduced sequentially. And, then, the idea is to compose these simple models into more complicated models with moving parts that people can line up with reality in useful ways.

But, what I’m finding, to keep things “simple,” and I guess this isn’t a surprise, is that I’m lumping functionally related stuff together into single concepts where I’d ideally like to keep them completely separate. And, I guess that’s not distilling, but what it is is creating these huge unwieldy abstractions that have less and less to do with experiential reality. Like, yes, I can point to all these different facets in reality and say, ok, lump these all under category X. But what that does is it still makes X seem like it’s REAL. I mean, neither are the concepts and “feels” that I natively use to think and reason about this stuff, but my native concepts are more real than this X that I’ve invented for dubious pedagogical purposes.

I don’t want people to have to read dozens of books, they’re not going to anyway, but I still want people to get it. I don’t want people hunting around in their heads for this bloated referent that doesn’t actually exist.

Why bother with mental models, anyway? Why not put together a meditation protocol and let people naturally find those referents, those experiences? I’m worried that people aren’t going to do that, either. Who’s going to meditate for years? The benefits start on day one but only some of them are obvious and only sometimes.

From a motivational perspective, I think having a starter mental model of the territory will make meditation more initially rewarding (as well as less of a hard sell).

It eventually becomes very obvious that meditation leads to living more experientially deeply, richly, brightly, excruciatingly painfully and electrically joyfully. Reality becomes more vivid, choices become more decisive and more painful, regret hits you harder, ambivalence stretches you thinner… It becomes safer to feel more and more intensely.

It becomes safe for every shameful, dirty, ugly, self-involved, masturbatory, altruistic painful aspect of your life to become a seamless glorious, vicious, joyful, fuck-yeah, fuck-up of a grand adventure.

Holy shit this is real life. It’s happening right now.

Now, does everyone want that? I don’t know. Separate issue, maybe. Reality is scary. It bites back, it will destroy your hopes, leave you in chains, rub your face in it, and then kills you in horrible ways. Poverty or cubicles for decades and then you die slowly, disgustingly, and painfully with beautiful people laughing in your face or just ignoring you as the light goes dim and you know you’ll never, ever fulfill those life longings and everything’s over forever and ever. Or you get hit by a meteor and die instantly. It could really happen. You don’t always get what you want. The hungrier you become the more you open yourself to devastation and disappointment.

And the type of meditation that I sell makes you hungrier. More alive.

Act wisely. Act skillfully. The stakes are your life, the stakes are your realization of your intimate, ultimate concerns, your heart’s desires. And the relative control you have over it all is a feather against concrete.

How shall you proceed?

How do I give people a taste of that, so they can see if maybe they want to go there? How does that not devolve into fucking bullshit feel-good guided imagery or something?

How do I convey the possible tremendous sacrifice, opportunity cost, possible impedance mismatch with the culture you grew up in, how it might simultaneously ruin you or free you or neither, depending not just on your individual luck and smarts and effort, but also life situations, savings, support of family and friends, social safety net…

“I just want to, like, be more relaxed, man. And, like, not have things suck so much in my head.”

We have to be clear whether we’re offering gentle healing, self-medication, mindfucking adventure, or all of it, and how to tell them apart. And what’s maybe contraindicated depending on your mental state.

For my part, I want people to see that the texture of their experience in every moment is vivid and electric and skillful navigation and surrender thereof can yield counterintuitive and valuable freedoms of mind and movement in the world. Or at least you’re slightly better able to laugh and cry and fight and comfort and love and not be a complete asshole to everyone who cares about you when your life goes to shit around you.

All this might seem insane or just really woo, but I reject the metaphysics of it. It’s brains doing brainy things. The right drugs or the right nanotech hanging out in my synapses could probably do the same thing. But we don’t have that yet. And, even if we did, consciousness will still be consciousness, then and now, either knowing itself or not, manifold configurations of matter and energy either dancing human values with the lights on, or not, not to mention it’s the only way you’ll ever know anything, from quarks to the concept of cognitive biases.

So, crap. How the hell do I ethically sell and teach this stuff, un-neutered, from a cold start? Where was I with my cutesy diagrams?

Freewriting Rough Draft: Ethics, Questionable Instruction, Tangential Sex Scandals, And What Makes Good Meditation Instruction

UPDATE: Finland and facebookers, can you please comment and link me to where you are coming from? Thank you.

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[This is freewriting. It jumps between topics, drops threads without picking them up again, etc. It’s much more scattered than even my usually hasty, compressed, cryptic stuff. But there’s some good stuff in here. I’ll pick out pieces of this and clean them up over time, in future posts.]

There’s something really bugging about some recent Buddhist teachings that I’ve encountered. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to put my finger on it and do it justice, but I’m going to give it a shot.

I recently finished skimming E-Mailing the Lamas from Afar.

David Chapman suggested it on his blog in the distant past:

David notes that “[i]t is far from a systematic introduction […].”

Indeed. I understand that it’s not meant to be systematic. I understand that it’s presumably intended for students that have decent familiarity with the Aro teachings already. It’s mostly composed of student emails and replies to those emails by the Aro lamas.

I understand that once the basics are out of the way, these sorts of spot teachings, addressing edge cases, addressing practical problems, can be very helpful, even essential to tie up important issues that are difficult to systematize and methodically teach.

One of the things that’s really bugging me is the mocking tone of the lamas’ replies to students (“apprentices”) who are obviously experiencing real distress. I noticed a similar stance (and I could be misremembering this) in a video recording of Kenneth Folk (not affiliated with Aro at all) working with a student. That student was in distress.

Now, this is an obvious possible case of “tough love.” Sometimes, if the teacher knows better, and the student is not a child and can walk away, and this student consents to be “toughly loved,” then the teacher can incidentally (as a by-product of the teacher’s intention) or specifically (the distress is the point) cause distress to hopefully provide a net benefit to the recipient. Tough love: “I know this sucks, but it’s for your own good.”

But, I feel a lot of distress-by-proxy, just writing this. Something doesn’t seem right with these sorts of situations.

Let’s talk about what might be going on in these situations.

First, I realize that, after a certain amount of understanding and training, you can sometimes just flip a switch in your brain. Here is a somewhat-related example of switch-flipping:

Meditation and related teachings start making available switches that weren’t available before or were previously available but very difficult to randomly or deliberately stumble upon:

Especially with Mahamudra and Dzogchen, it seems that there’s this very particular switch that teachers are trying to get students to flip and possibly keep flipped. And, I do believe it’s possible to sort of goad people into flipping that switch, to push, mock, hint, and analogize people into flipping that switch (not that that’s necessarily a common teaching technique).

And, sometimes, it’s possibly in a consenting student’s best interests to be repeatedly goaded, mocked, trivialized, etc., into flailingly, desperately, gropingly flipping that switch.

But… but… how often is that actually necessary, and how much of that is laziness by the teachers, and how much of that is conscious or subconscious withholding of information by the teachers to extract resources from the students? (Again, not Folk.)

I’m definitely not saying that Kenneth Folk is doing that. I am maybe saying that the Aro teachers are doing that, intentionally or unintentionally.

I agree, with a lot of this meditation stuff, you can’t just say it. That becomes a finger pointing at the moon and people get distracted by finger and miss the moon what’s being pointed at. (You have to go meta in a big way, like I just did.) Metaphorically, they don’t realize they can “look up,” that there’s a direction “up.”

(Part of that mocking or trivializing is to help(?) the student understand what’s relevant and irrelevant to moving towards the teacher’s (and hopefully student’s) desired goal. But, I see better ways of doing that all the time, including in the Pali cannon.)

Meditation teaching is a lot of Quinian bootstrapping, where you provide conceptual structure without (being able to) immediately provide the referents that map to that conceptual structure. And the hope is that the conceptual structure primes people to be more likely to notice and slot in the referents when they stumble on (or towards) those referents that map to that conceptual structure. (And hopefully that conceptual structure is intricate enough that it helps to weed out referents that seem like they might fit but are actually not what the teacher had in mind.)

And, when teaching, one tries to set up situations and trained skills (“Enlightenment is an accident, meditation makes you accident prone.”) that make students more likely to stumble on those referents and also more likely to be able to stabilize those referents if stumbled upon.

Ok, so teaching meditation and teaching the point of meditation and ethically selling meditation and ethically selling the point of meditation (being transparent about costs and benefits to each unique individual) is HARD.

But why don’t teachers explain it like I’m trying to do, here?:

“Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we’re doing it. Here are the risks. Here’s what’s going to suck, and here’s why you may or may not want to do it anyway.”

(Yes, sometimes, if you explain something in advance then it can’t have its desired effect…)

But, regarding the ethics all of this, directly from that Lama ebook above:

“Those who absorb too much in terms of ‘Dharma sophistry’ become blind to the precision, directness, straightforwardness, and fundamental wholesomeness of essential Buddhism.”

Well, for fuck’s sake: I agree, but I’m not seeing much of it in that book. But, bafflingly, there is signal there: I found stray stuff in that book to be extremely immediately personally helpful to my own path. I’ve referred back a few times to some highlighted passages, and I will probably do so again.

And that’s what makes stuff like that book all the more confusing to me. Why don’t they just come out and say it, then? Is it the moon/finger thing?

(And, again, is mocking or trivializing or whatever necessary? Not all teachers do that. I would never do that.)


I’m reminding of an experience I had over and over again in college. The engineering textbook would be shit. Totally opaque. And I’d have to figure it all out from a mishmash of sources, without touching the textbook for weeks. And then right before the test I would skim the textbook again, and it would all be right there in the text. So was the textbook good or bad? Bad, I guess? Already having the knowledge, I was able to see the signal in the text, and even derive some benefit from it…

Why does oblique, cryptic teaching persist?

And then there’s needing(?) to create some rhythm over time, setting up culture and organizational structure to keep certain teachings alive… Maybe sometimes in some circumstances you do need to tantalizingly dribble it out over time so people keep coming back, not to mention donating, and actually get the full transmission. And it sets up a rhythm and a community and then teachers who wouldn’t otherwise have time or money to teach can get income to do so, and students support each other. Bleh, compromises?

So I don’t know. I guess this rant is partially my affirmation that I am trying to get points across, I’m trying to just come out and say it, as clearly and succinctly as I can. And I also want to make myself irrelevant in that people can get the full benefit of everything I know, at any point now or in the future, without having to interact with me directly.

I note some unintentional (haha!) hypocrisy in all of this. As clear as I’m trying to be, my own writing is hasty, dense, cryptic and ungrammatical. I’m doing the best that I can under time and energy constraints, writing like I do versus not writing at all. Maybe most meditation teachers are doing the best they can, under resource constraints.


I guess what’s getting a little bit scary for me is that, as my blog traffic sloooooooowly grows, there becomes more of a possibility of deriving needed resources from my material and teaching. And, while unnecessary obfuscation is deeply against my values, I am noticing an subtle allure to be “mysterious,” to be “wise.” Yikes!

In fairness to the teachers above and myself below, I think because meditation has such slippery referents, it’s harder to draw bright lines between “clear” and “not clear,” as opposed to like electrical engineering.

And therefore it’s easier for all sorts of other intentions to slip in with transmitting knowledge, though all knowledge transmission can be used pretty easily to attain and wield power and status in ugly ways. Maybe slippery referents make it harder for corrective feedback to take place; it’s harder for people to say “that’s not true,” or, “you don’t have to say it that way,” or, “it would be easier and better for us, even if less better for you, if you said it this way.”

Genpo Merzel Roshi says, “Don’t ask if I’m abusing my power. Ask how.” Because, it is a fundamental fact of life that almost all human interaction is deeply, inseparably tied into resource acquisition, status seeking, etc. I don’t think I’m being cynical, here. Altruism is folded into this, too. It’s what we are, in addition to other things. This could be clearer; anyway.

[I just googled him, and holy shit! More sex scandals! And this guy has done some really brilliant stuff that has been personally helpful. I should write about sex scandals and meditation teachers, eventually. ]

My point is that I want to guard against unintentionally making bad tradeoffs between my stuff being transparently accessible and me profiting from my stuff. I want people to like me and want to hang out with me, and I want money, and I want people to have unimpeded access to everything I know.

And, it’s getting harder for me, as I’m hoping to start cleaning up my writing and making it more accessible (“Is this making things clearer or is this dribbling it out?”).

[And I can write with precision and power: ]

Hopefully, I’ll stumble on conceptual bright lines where it’d be just obviously criminal, to me and to everyone else, if I didn’t just stick within those lines. Or, my (non)secret identity will remove almost all pressure to be anything but someone who viciously, brilliantly, systematically makes everything they know transparently accessible.

In other words, one way or another, I’ll have so much abundance in my life that impeccable generosity will be the optimal strategy to make my life even more abundant—a virtuous circle/feedback loop…

…That’s possible, but not likely in all aspects. More likely is that I’ll need to actively guard and compensate around these issues for the rest of my life. Or I’ll come to reframe all of this differently.

Ask how, not if, speak up, call me out, and know that I care about doing the right thing by my values and everyone else’s, amidst these pressures.

And, remember, that ethical navigation is always ongoing: When one writes about these dynamics and even refers back to them, they are still happening. Those dynamics can even appropriate and metabolize and wield explications of themselves in the service of their aims. Shadow is shadow by definition, and it’s an intelligent, active, reactive process. See, I’m getting cryptic (and I hope you’re curious for more…), but it’s time to hit publish until the next one…

odds and ends: real muscles you didn’t know you had, buteyko breathing, language awareness

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1. Muscle activation patterns

I don’t recommend any of his other stuff, but this book by Feldenkrais is a timeless favorite of mine:

Feldenkrais, Moshe. “Awareness through Movement: Easy-to-do Health Exercises to Improve Your Posture, Vision, Imagination and Personal Awareness.” (1972).

The book is so tedious that I haven’t even made it through the whole thing, and I’ve had it for years. But, it’s the closest analogy of “meditation” for the body. (It doesn’t replace safe strength training; it doesn’t replace safe stretching.) While I haven’t spent any time discussing it on this blog, I’ve spent just as much time exploring “body stuff” as I’ve spent exploring meditation. (A decade of martial arts, hundreds of hours exploring the body (tactile, intentional, phenomenological) with anatomy books open in front of me.)

When I say “meditation” for the body, I mean it in the “muscles you didn’t know you had” sense, but actually, the book is more about activation patterns than it is about individual muscles. The book shows you that:

1) There is huge redundancy, or, better, flexibility in “muscle activation space.” A boring example is that there’s an infinite number of ways to reach for a glass of water. More interesting is walking, sitting up, running, twisting, jumping, etc. This book helps you realize how inefficient or even damaging your current postural configurations and movement patterns sometimes are, as well as all the subtly different and ripply ways you can move.

2) It shows you how to change your habitual motion patterns. With most “techniques,” as soon as you stop paying attention, you go back to your old posture or old movement. This book show you how to reach in and change stuff so that it persists when you’re not paying attention. And, you learn how to easily tune stuff amidst daily life (because what you do does wear off if you don’t change your macro patterns, which is fine, if you’re willing to do tuneups once per week).

This book helped me mitigate back issues (caused by unsafe martial arts stuff when I didn’t know any better) to the point where I’m able to sprint at top speed again when I hadn’t been able to for many years and meditate for longer without pain. All the stuff I tried that was adapted from peer-reviewed research either didn’t help or just made things worse. YMMV.

(Weight training and flexibility (and nutrition and high intensity interval training) are entirely separate topics, are additional topics that I’ve spent a ridiculous number of hours on that I might write about someday. This book does not replace any of that. Physicality is a huge topic.)


2. Buteyko breathing

So, breathing. Blood gas concentrations have a complex relationship with respiratory rate, respiratory volume, respiratory muscle activation patterns, muscle tone throughout the entire body, hormone levels, kidney function, immune system, sympathetic and parasympathetic tone, arousal level, sleep stability, and probably tons more stuff.

Meditation can kind of mess with your breathing, for some people. This is supposed to go away pretty quickly, but I’ve never really had that great of a relationship between meditation and breathing. I typically never choose my breath as an object of awareness, even though it’s a classic object.

If meditation seems to be interacting weirdly with your breathing, you might play with something called Butekyo breathing. I really like this ebook:—in-english/buteyko-breathing-manual-download

Butekyo breathing changes your carbon dioxide tolerance, which for a lot of people is too low, because we spend all of our time a) sitting, b) being anxious, c) mouth breathing because of increased allergy prevalence.

I think Butekyo breathing should be done very, very conservatively or you will become glassy-eyed, headachy, miserable, and start waking up at night. Go SLOW if you’re curious. You should stop before you notice anything, in any particular session, even though I know you’ll ignore that advice. This is powerful stuff.

I think you should only do it if you’re also doing high intensity interval training (e.g. periodic “sprinting” be it on a track, treadmill, or elliptical) which adds hormonal and nervous system accompaniment. I only used Buteyko breathing for a few months, and now weekly high intensity interval training seems sufficient to maintain the changes I wanted.

You may think Buteyko breathing seems crack-potty and the people who promote it make crazy claims, but I experienced negative short-term effects and highly positive long-term effects (around sleep, peeing, and breathing in cold weather), among other things). There has been some peer-reviewed research done on some of the claimed benefits, and I find there to be highly plausible mechanisms for a bunch of the claims made. YMMV. Be careful.


3. Accelerating language awareness

Skimming this book will help you realize the vast dimensionality of semantic space and the vast dimensionality of how language can map to that semantic space:

Payne, Thomas Edward. Describing morphosyntax: A guide for field linguists. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

(Compare with, say, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning by Eugene Gendlin.)

(Compare with, say,,%20ComprehensiveLanguageAwareness,1995.pdf )

Language is constrained and non-arbitrary (physics, evolution, brain, culture) but it also amazingly incidental. Getting a concrete sense of this may helpfully uncouple meaning and language more than you have them uncoupled now.

Accepting donations/subscriptions on gratipay

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I am accepting weekly donations on gratipay. I am warmly grateful for support from each of you. My profile text is below:

I am making the world better by making transformative practices (like meditation) more accessible and effective.

I want to increase individual wellbeing and to facilitate collaboration among large groups of people. There is tremendous human potential left untapped, for making things better for everyone on the planet and beyond, if we can only figure out how to get at that potential in a way that’s good for everybody.

(Science and technology are critical, integral to all of this.)

I feel I am in a unique position to advance this tiny puzzle piece in making the world a better place. I have a disciplined meditation practice; vast, interpenetrating, panoramic, non-metaphysical interests; and a PhD in bioengineering.

My blog is here:

I hope to derive exponentially increasing utility and power from each additional dollar I receive per week. Every single additional cent, every single new donor, is hugely motivating.

Initially, increased funds will mean increased frequency, length, coherence, and accessibility of my writing. I am currently working on a concise, precise, attractive, effective, accessible meditation book.

Further funds will facilitate delegation of editing, graphic design, and marketing, to make my writing attractive and accessible to a popular audience.

Further funds will be directed towards not-for-profit machinery and administration in order to more effectively coordinate income and efforts.

Further funds will facilitate spot and longitudinal research to explore effectiveness and underlying mechanism of meditation protocols. I am willing and excited to be totally wrong about just about anything, as soon as possible.

Further funds will be used for replicating effective organizational structure, such as meditation centers for disseminating meditation protocols and collecting donations.

Further funds will be directed towards meditation’s effect on interpersonal behavior and collaboration as well as questions of facilitating more visionary, flexible, and effective behavior.

Further funds will be directed towards influencing the ongoing scholarship and peer-reviewed research on meditation and neurophenomenology that is already happening and accelerating.

Throughout, funding will be rechanneled towards other people and projects if they are on-mission as below:

I’m willing to modify or trash all of this if it starts to lose its purpose. The point is safe, warm, humane, leveraged, sustainable, innovative, evidence-based impact on the world, with individual autonomy and self-determination as bedrock (which will include hella community because we’re humans). Feedback gratefully accepted.

I am Effective Altruism-aware.

(Incidentally, all my content is always stored in at least three places at once.)

I am grateful for your individual and collective support. Let’s do this. Thank you.

Concise, polarizing manifestos and meetups

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Something that’s been bugging me for a long time is that it’s very difficult to talk about meditation in way that attracts people that I do want to be around and repels people that I don’t want to be around. (I mean, I don’t mind being around, or I even enjoy the company of, people I want to repel. I just don’t want them around, sometimes, because they make it harder to keep around the people that I want around.)

Typically, when I start a meditation meetup, it brings in a lot of new agey people who aren’t particularly inclined towards panoramic, internally consistent, reality-grounded mental models. Or, too few people show up. And those latter people often do turn into friends, which was part of the point, but that’s not the same thing as a robust, like-minded group that regularly meets.

It’s possible that doesn’t have much of the right demographic, but I’m still having trouble doing reliable (read “any”) marketing outside of super-easy stuff like creating meetups. (Suggestions appreciated.)

I also assume that the people I’m interested in attracting don’t have a high expectation of a high-quality meditation group appearing on

So, I’m continually looking for concise, polarizing wording that will get people to join or not join with high sensitivity and specificity. Below is a chunk of a recent draft I’m playing with. Comments greatly appreciated. (Of course, of course, I actually have much more nuanced, loosely-held beliefs, lalala, but I’m writing words to do a job, and they’re truthful enough that I don’t feel super-disingenuous.)


  1. No living human brain, no human consciousness.
  2. After we die there’s just oblivion forever.
  3. Humans are a result of evolution and natural selection.
  4. Evolutionary psychology can be a framework for understanding human values and human behavior.
  5. Deep, heartfelt intuitions as well as values, goals, concerns and practices are shaped by evolution.
  6. Spiritual values, goals, concerns, and practices were and are invented by humans for human purposes.
  7. Spiritual teachings and instructions drift over time and are subject to idiosyncratic interpretations by the people providing them and the people consuming them.
  8. Spiritual claims, values, goals, and practices are a mixture of superstition, metaphysics, exaggeration and dogma.
  9. Spiritual claims, values, goals, and practices are also influenced by painstaking, albeit informal experimenting over thousands of years.
  10. Claims about spirituality can be wrong.
  11. All maps are wrong, but some are extremely more useful than others, depending on what you’re trying to do. Map selection is an ongoing process.
  12. Science is on ongoing human endeavor, but it provides the best map we currently have for navigating reality. There is also room for science-aware speculation and experiment in informal communities of practice in which common values, goals, practices, and concerns are shared.
  13. Some spiritual claims, values, goals, and practices are compelling and meaningful for some people, some of the time.
  14. Scientific methods, as well as tenaciousness, playfulness, and creativity can be useful for testing, modifying, refining, discarding, and reappropriating spiritual claims, values, goals, and practices, as well as inventing new ones. We could call all of this “transformative practice,” more generally. Peer-reviewed research is already showing possible benefits (and dangers) of transformative practices, but this research is in its infancy, and communities of practice are just as important.
  15. Switching gears, everyone living their lives on their own terms, individually and collectively, to the greatest extent possible, is a good thing to strive towards.
  16. And, in conclusion, transformative practices (like meditation), carried out by individuals and communities, over many years, can be a tiny puzzle piece in the above striving, and can be a very important, meaningful, useful, and gratifying puzzle piece, for some people, some of the time.