good now good later wellbeing suffering paradox (1300 words)

All things being equal, human beings are ridiculously ANTI-wireheading.

“I can’t feel ok, now. My life is shit, or falling apart, and/or my life has no meaning or purpose.”

We balk at seeming tradeoffs between something like “feeling good, now” and “good later.” The latter is something like the OPPOSITE of, “a tiger is behind that tree; and/or I’m going to get fired from my job and end up homeless; and/or the physical laws and the universal constants of this universe mean that human activity is a zero-sum game, and I’ll never be safe unless I destroy myself trying to be safe and not even then.”

So, we’ll sacrifice “feeling good, now” for “good later,” if we feel like we have to, to the point of sort coming to seemingly believe that “feeling good, now” is useless, pointless, or a dangerous distraction.

But there’s the weird thing where our physical body and mind, right here and now, is what enables the pursuit of the “good later.” Bodily homeostasis is sort of the attractor from which straying too far is disastrous.

Some people intuitively or intellectually recognize the importance of homeostasis or bodily health, while also feeling that tension of “feeling good, now” versus “good later.” And, they push homeostasis as far as they can, sacrificing sleep, using stimulants, eating problematic convenience foods, or even explicitly banking on future advances in healthcare to repair damage done now.

Some people aren’t thinking about health or homeostasis at all, and they come at it from “the other side” (granting that interoceptive wellbeing informs on the status of homeostasis). They’ve generalized to the point that “feeling good is bad,” and they strategically avoid feeling good as such: “I’m going to AVOID feeling good, because feeling good, in spirit or actuality, is the same as twenty hours straight of videogames and total loss of momentum and no progress on this work project.”

Some people go so far as to confusedly think that “good later” is the only “actual good,” some distant, improper reification which demands great sacrifices.


I want to invent a new word, “teleohomeostasis.” We don’t really need a new word, because people know that homeostasis can involve future-oriented and goal-oriented cognition and behavior. (And “telos” can be naturalized in various ways in a mechanistic universe.) See Derek Denton, Terrence Deacon, Karl Friston, Robert Rosen, Anatol Feldman, Alicia Juarrero, etc.

But, I want a new word because “diachronic is synchronic” (as the above authors say or allude to in various ways):

Any system’s “representation” of the future is somehow encoded or latent in its present structure.

Depending on how that “representation” interacts with “felt wellbeing,” there ideally shouldn’t be a felt paradox between “good now” and “good later;” there shouldn’t be a paradoxical dissonance or a paradoxical suffering.

Maybe this paradoxical suffering is just our evolved, hardwired human nature, until we start messing with it, with nth-generation CRISPR and Neuralink.

But there are these weird hints that maybe it’s not hardwired at all. We “doth protest too much,” maybe, in that ANTI-wireheading of, “I don’t want JUST/MERELY FEEL GOOD (unless maybe I’m transiently utterly dysregulated and desperate and despairing); I want things to ACTUALLY BE GOOD.”

And when things tick towards being ACTUALLY GOOD, our FEELING GOOD is often only a few hundred milliseconds behind. (Sometimes it’s a slow dawning.) And note again that interoceptive feeling/wellbeing is intimately tied to (teleo)homeostasis. Hmm.

(Note that that “tick towards actually being good” can be because you realized a problem wasn’t actually a problem, and so was DISSOLVED (from inference on prior data or new incoming information) or you figured out a clean solution (or were handed one), and so was SOLVED (from chewing on available solution pieces/capacities, or friend/family/ally/deus ex machina). Both SOLVE and DISSOLVE will work, importantly.)

So, anyway, there’s both this seeming paradox between feeling good and having things be good. And, also, there are these strange links between things being actually good (or getting better) and feeling good.

I’m going to state some principles, now, mostly without justification, which resolve this paradox. I’m partly not giving justification because I’m still working out some palatable/credible/true/”true” reasoning. And I’m partly not giving justification because these principles are self-discovered in meditation. Stay tuned for perhaps more details in future blog posts.

  • (1) Suffering is not a hardwired, fundamental motivator. It’s actually a stopgap, emergent motivator. There’s no (intrinsic) suffering “at the bottom.”
  • (2) Peak wellbeing is not only compatible with peak performance, peak vigilance, and peak contingency planning, but peak wellbeing is coreferential(?), coextensive(?), perfectly-co-something with peak performance, peak vigilance, and peak contingency planning.
    • wellbeing/well-being ~= the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy. (google)
  • (3) The Human Handledness is Already Success Principle (Human HAS Princple or just “HAS” Principle):
    • (handled ~= stably controlled, managed, dealt with)
    • In terms of felt wellbeing, the bodymind doesn’t differentiate between:
      • (a) “already/currently have stably got it”
      • (b) “going to definitely stably get it”
      • (c) “utterly self-believed utterly already perfectly DOING MY BEST to get it, given truly all that is known, that accounts for literally the whole universe, everything, up to true-event-horizon-bleeding-edge-of-disclosure of previously-genuine-unknown-unknowns”
    • Put another way, if the bodymind believes it’s acting on the best plan to get something (everything), where “best” includes fully error-checked and fully meta-error-checked, this already feels like total success (with no wire-heading-flavored guilt/dissonance).
    • One elaboration is that the hardest most bleak situations can potentially feel like a (seemingly paradoxical, if one hasn’t experienced it) “real-stakes-vacation-adventure.”

Something like the HAS principle can maybe be used to explain some things (though plenty of objections could be raised, and additional pieces would be needed to make it airtight):

(a) People put themselves in danger, like free-climbing, to incline towards artificially actualizing the HAS principle. (One would need to be much more precise and elaborated about my anti-wire-heading statements above, to nail something, in here, with respect to  potentially outside-view-pathological environmental simplifications and stakes-raising.) And/or, “best plan” can be clarified to explicitly include self-ignorance and mental contingencies under personal “unknown unknowns.”)

(b) Valued stories maybe exemplify the actualized HAS principle. A protagonist-environment fit that, nearing the climax, narrows down to an utterly clear best plan and glory, whether success or failure (though success is preferred).


So self-discovering and self-aligning with the principles above, and I’ve said things like this a bunch of times, is like a circa 10,000-hour Tower-of-Hanoi, constrained-evolving-state-space problem, involving arranging and rearranging millions of Tetris tetraminoes and LEGO bricks the size of quarks, or whatever.

(I’m not done with all this, and “done” probably fluctuates because one keeps acquiring new capacities (which raise the bar for what the “best plan” is), identifying new challenges/unhandledness via those new capacities (which also raises the bar), and also previously-truly-unknown-unknowns [relative to one’s local knowledge and all meta-meta-proactiveness] keep disclosing from the other side of the “event horizon.” But, take this blog post for what it’s worth!)

So like the only shitty things, as I’ve said before, are that meditation is a privilege and luxury that requires some minimum amount of resources (some combination of time, money, food, shelter, relationships). And, the journey can be pretty terrible and seem like it’s taken everything from you, to the point of hopelessness, despair, and confusedly impulsive and risky/destrucive behavior. And there are physical health risks, too. And things feel sometimes/often hard and sad in the meantime; life is hard and sometimes/often sad. And, it’s worth acknowledging, as always, as an aside, that not everyone wants to or “should want” to meditate–life is pretty good for a lot of people, and/or they’re doing the right thing for them that might not look like meditation.

Anyway, we humans have a low-dimensional projection/representation of literally the entire universe, the entire Kosmos, inside of us. And meditators go over that with a fine-toothed comb, anyway. So let’s make meditation more accessible as part of that error-checked and meta-error-checked WORLD-WIDE-HUMAN-COLLECTIVE best plan, not to mention world peace; post-scarcity technological and health/longevity miracles; humane, millenia-long moon-shots, light-cone shots; and like VR Netflix or something.

intuition-based nutrition

[A friend asked about what to do if they’ve been doing rule-following nutrition for most of their life and they want to do a more intuitive thing. I wrote this out really fast, and I might be missing things! Please comment! I was going to make it a twitter thread but it got unwieldy. So this is sort of twitter thread level of quality/info/grammar not main post level of quality.]

[I am not a licensed healthcare/dietary/nutrition professional and this is not health/nutrition/dietary advice!]



For intuition-based nutrition, the principle is sort of to intellectually get yourself in the ballpark, make sure feedback loops aren’t being interfered with, and then go by thought experiment, imaginative desire and taste. Also maybe get blood tests every six to eighteen months, to see what’s going on.

As we’ll see, maybe ironically, intuition-based nutrition works best when one has really good mental models of nutritional fundamentals.

By the way, I have a rule:

First I go through something like the numbered sections below. If I make it all the way through the checklist, and I can’t figure out what I’m missing, for which I could eat something healthy, in a way my body agrees with, then I just eat what I want.

So, if I’m craving chocolate cookies, maybe I want some saturated fat, iron, or magnesium or something. But if nothing that’s high in any of those seems desirable, and I have good-faith gone through some kind of list, then something weird is going on, and I just eat the cookies. Said a different way, if I can’t imaginatively substitute something that I already have at home, or I thought I could, but then it doesn’t taste good or the craving remains after eating it, then that means my intellectual models are wrong or my body is confused. But my body gets priority.


If you feel like something’s missing, you should try to guess the nutrient! And then eat something that’s high in that nutrient but not too high in things you’re already getting more than enough of! It’s sort of a puzzle game because different foods will have different nutrients in varying amounts. Go by taste/desire, but try to help out your taste by making educated guesses.

Here’s what the body is made out of, with emphasis on molecules that the body can’t make from smaller building blocks. Note that the first link is in descending order by mass (relative amount): is excellent for looking at what the primary nutrients are in particular foods. If I’m trying to figure out what the heck I’m craving, and why, I go here. Or, if I have a guess about what I’m missing, I go here to try to imagine if I want particular things that are high in that, or I use it to generate experiments. You can search by food or nutrient, and it’ll tell you what nutrients are high in a particular food or what foods are high in a particular nutrient.

If you have a craving, or you’re still hungry after a meal, or you’re not hungry but you’re still kind of restless and wondering about food, then you might be either eating too much of something or too little of a particular nutrient.

Many things come in pairs. Usually, one won’t get too much of something unless one is taking supplements. So, one’s first guess is that one is getting too little of something.

This is a very, very incomplete list, but some pairs that I’ve bumped into are:


vitamins k1/k2

muscle protein (white meat, red meat) / collagen protein (skin, organ meat, etc.)



There are a bunch more!


It’s helpful to think in terms of whole/slow carbs versus fast carbs. Whole/slow carbs are things like non-instant/non-quick-cook oats, brown rice, beans, sweet potato, white potato*. A medium carb is white rice. Fast carbs are breads. Really fast carbs are crackers and chips. And the fastest carbs have sugar or only white flour in them.

Slow carbs tend to have more nutrients and also have a lower insulin response. This causes less hunger between meals, going longer between meals, higher energy after eating, more stable energy after eating, more weight loss, faster healing, and better nutrient absorption.

It can be good to be a meat, dairy, or egg eater, if one is also eating oats and brown rice, to balance their phytic acid antinutrient. I don’t recommend white potatoes because even fresh, peeled potatoes have significant amounts of an anticholinergic that many people are quite sensitive to.


It’s helpful to think of short fatty acids and long fatty acids. Short and medium fatty acids are good for thinking (So, butyric acid from butter and vegetables, and MCT oil from coconuts). Longer fatty acids (saturated fat) can sometimes make one a little sluggish but can provide stable physical energy for hours and hours, especially when paired with a slow carb.


Muscle meat should be balanced with eggs and dairy, and, even better skin, organ meats, or high quality collagen supplements. Apparently, indigenous cultures ate much less muscle protein and much more of other types of protein.


It can be helpful to get a multivitamin that is *not* “one per day,” because then one day’s worth might be two to even eight pills, and then one can take a fractional dose. Every three to five days, I get the urge to take a little bit of a multivitamin, and I do so.


It can be helpful to think about electrolytes:

Electrolytes are magnesium, potassium, sodium, calcium, and chloride. Table salt is sodium and chloride. Depending on diet, many people don’t get enough magnesium, calcium, and potassium.

If someone is eating healthily, they usually need more salt than they would expect. Salt to taste.

One can also get bulk potassium citrate as well as supplemental magnesium and calcium—one can tap out some powder or open up capsules, don’t accidentally inhale any airborn powder, and see if they taste good on any particular day. You can touch your tongue to some powder, little by little, until you don’t want anymore. Discard what you don’t use.

If someone is eating a ton of oats, green vegetables, etc., then potassium and magnesium are less of a concern. Cramps in the calves, or weird cravings, or tiredness or fogginess can indicate a deficiency.

Orange juice is good for potassium in a pinch and doesn’t really behave exactly like a fast carb. (I drink a lot of orange juice, even though it’s kind of a weird, processed food, unless fresh squeezed.)


It can be helpful to think about polyunsaturated acids (including essential fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3). If someone is eating unhealthy foods, they’re probably getting too much omega-6. If someone is eating healthy foods, they might not be getting enough polyunsaturated fatty acids, in general. Fish has omega-3. Flax seed has a good omega-3/omega-6 ratio.

There has been a concern that most people don’t get enough omega-3 and it was believed only fish has enough (or supplements). It was originally thought that people can’t convert enough ALA into omega-3. But, it seems that this pathway can ramp up over time. I used to eat more fish and I also took some fish oil, as per what I felt like my body wanted. Now, I mostly rely on fresh or frozen flax seed meal.


It can be helpful to think about vitamin D3. Most people don’t get enough vitamin D. If you’re getting plenty of sunlight, you don’t need it. Otherwise, it can be good to take a supplement.


It can be helpful to think about cortisol dynamics. Cortisol makes one feel energetic, bright, and clear. Too much cortisol can make it hard to sleep. Too much cortisol can also tire out the kidneys.

More red meat raises cortisol. More carbs dampen cortisol.

There’s a “cortisol set point lag,” so dietary changes should be given about three days to see if it was a good change. If you feel crappy after a meal, it can be good to wait three days to see if you get used to the dietary change. If you feel excellent after a meal, maybe it was a one-off for topping up a nutrient, but you shouldn’t eat that way every day.

Generally one should feel “even” before and after a meal. Ideally, it’s “eh, I could eat sometimes in the next three hours” and then you feel good and calm after eating and you can go right back to whatever you were doing.


Overall, if one follows general principles then the body is mostly doing the right thing and one can just pay attention to what tastes good. Fast carbs and sugar mess up feedback loops. Not enough exercise messes up feedback loops. (Good exercise includes all four of walking, jogging, sprinting, and weightlifting.)

If energy is low or there’s a craving that’s hard to place, then one can go down the list of essential stuff, find foods that are high in the thing, and then see if you imagine them tasting good and you can eat them for real to see if they taste good. And then you can figure out your patterns of deficiencies and start swapping in different combinations to see what stably works. It’s a bit like playing Tetris.

There can also be learning lags for new foods or new combinations of foods. The bodymind is constantly doing inference on what foods contain what nutrients, which eventually cashes out in continuously modulated desire and tastiness. (The body is also doing continuous tweaking of immune system sensitivities, based on deltas of what’s passing across our mucous membranes plus compared with what ends up in our intestines, versus foreign stuff that didn’t take that route, and this can be facilitated by meditation.)

If I meal tastes heavenly, you were probably a little low on something. If a meal that usually tastes delicious tastes slightly less good, then you might be getting everything you need via some recent dietary change.

Eventually one will sort of stabilize on fueling/depletion curves, and you’ll look forward to meals but will have stable energy and won’t have urgent hunger.

sketching alternatives to straw realism (international and group relations) [draft!][2500 words]

[This is a really compressed draft. Some stuff is introduced or “marked” really abruptly and isn’t given time to breath.]

I’m just pulling a bunch of this stuff off of wikipedia, quick first-pass, and indiscriminately mixing in… other stuff. If you’re a Great Power, don’t take advice from me about international relations. (<– Yes, this is a joke. –>) Just saying.

So let’s consider (my hasty conception of) a straw realist. Jumping right in, you may have to re-read this or click some links, and I’m mixing wikipedia-grade international relations with crackpot psychology, the straw realist seeks to be the stably uncontested leader of a hegemon, because being the leader of a hegemon is the greatest personal/familial/tribal protection against (totalizing?) subjugation or annihilation.

It’s probably a good idea to highlight the distinction between (a) the straw realist and (b) the straw hegemon. A hegemon can change leaders while remaining a hegemon. And, there’s at least two perspectives one could take when abstractly conceiving a straw hegemon. First, one could simplify things by conceiving of a (perfect/ideal/abstract/straw) hegemon as having a unified will/intention. But one could also profitably conceive of a hegemon as “fractal power relations all the way down to the level of straw realists.” That is, one could conceive of a hegemon as being composed of straw realists vying for total power. In this latter case, in some sense, this “hegemon” is maybe technically no longer a (perfect/ideal/abstract/straw) hegemon. The left hand might not know what the right hand is doing. The “entity conceived as such” may act against itself at times or just kind of blob out, in a lot of wasted time/money/energy/trust/something, because everybody is sort of fearfully, myopically striving for total power. (Again, this is a straw conception.)

So, now let’s unpack and critique the “straw realist.”

Again, the straw realist single mindedly seeks total power because they believe it’s the best plan for being safe. Note that the straw realist is a fearful pessimist and doesn’t believe they’ll ever actually be safe. They are resigned to deep-down, terrified paranoia, forever. But, even given that resignation, seeking total power is still the best plan under a tiniest sliver of hope for safety. The fear of a straw realist is perhaps a fear of psychological, social, and/or bodily annihilation, with no hope of salvation.

But! What if!

  • Sender criteria:
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently competently enact nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently credibly, sincerely signal ability, willingness, and desire to sufficiently competently enact nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions
  • Receiver criteria:
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently recognize signs and signals of ability, willingness, and desire to sufficiently competently enact nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently accurately, confidently evaluate whether sufficient sincerity and competence underlie apparent signs and signals of ability, willingness, and desire to enact nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions (including accounting for coincidental or disendorsed apparent countersigns and countersignals)
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently metabolize or recover from imperfect or partially harmful nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions

Let’s call a person (or group) that has all of both the sender criteria and the receiver criteria a “straw enlightened person” (or group).

So! What if!

What if all people and thus all groups were straw enlightened? Then there would be nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative synergy! We could then solve suffering, health, coercion, energy, mortality, and existential risk! (Oops, circularities abound!)

“Ah ha!” says the straw realist! “But there is no button to push to have that! One way or another, we ended up with warlords and tribes, and then we ended up with global competition and great powers! Anarchy yields global competition and great powers! And I, the straw realist, will even admit that no one necessarily wants this! I might even admit that our very actions cause it! But, there is no other way, because people are not naturally altruistic beyond family or tribe. Even ‘self-interested altruism,’ strategic generosity, grace, magnanimousness, isn’t really ‘intrinsic,’ isn’t really ‘sincere,’ and is unstable. And so we have the world today. At the bottom of everything is threat of violence and fear of suffering and death. That is what power is, threat or actualization of violent coercion, and it’s the only thing that matters.”

There’s a lot of circularity and confirmation bias in the straw realist position directly above, but it’s good enough, for our purposes. (Heh.)

International relations theory has of course thought about all this stuff (and more thoroughly and completely than I have, that could go without saying). This blog post isn’t even a survey; there’s a gazillion concepts and buzzwords (and shibboleths) that I haven’t mentioned. Somewhat relevantly, here, there’s ideas like “decentralization” and “nonpolarity.” These terms can be used very precisely within a particular paradigm, but decentralization might be something like spreading out power inside of group. And nonpolarity might be something like power spread out between groups, to the point that no single group has particularly dominating power, along maybe a single dimension or net across all relevant dimensions. Decentralization and nonpolarity are critiqued in a straw realist paradigm, maybe using straw liberalism as the containing foil.

Anyway, so, as we look at the world, at the time of this writing, we arguably don’t see hot wars (arguably, because proxy battles/wars are a thing, if you know where/how to look). And, arguably, we do see, maybe, cold wars, depending on how the term “cold war” is defined. But… like… maybe things are chilling out, overall? Proxy stuff aside (and that’s a big aside), I think it’s at least (contentiously) argued that democracies don’t go to war with each other? And, roughly speaking, with some dips, poverty is being alleviated to a greater degree with each passing year?

So maybe things are “fine,” modulo continued human suffering, and getting reliably “more fine,” with each passing year?

The straw realist might say that all the “fine” and “getting more fine” is a veneer or at least very fragile: “At the bottom is fear, threat, and selfishness or tribalism, and everything is held together, barely, by bluff or commitment to credible violence, nuclear weapons, domestic police or peace officers, or otherwise: USA/Russia/China/whoever, these visions of the world are different–goodness and especially safety LOOK DIFFERENT to different powers, and irreconcilably so. Heck, deep-down, some people think the best way to ‘save’ the world is to ‘destroy’ it, first! So trust is naive. Nuclear weapons, space weapons, and unstoppable, undetectable micro-drone assassinations, that look like naturally caused death are all there is. [non-straw-realist/editor’s note: As far as I know, the latter micro-drones don’t currently exist and maybe can’t practically exist or be worthwhile.] And global warming, pandemics, fast global travel, and globe-spanning weaponry are only making things more fragile.”


If one would like to gaze into the abyss, one can even dive into a deep well of fear and paranoia. One might even think they have only two choices, between (1) a “normal,” intimate, safe life. (A powerless life???????? An ignorant life?????????) And then (2) some sort of abyss-gazing thing that, extreme worst case, accidentally gets themselves “disappeared,” through maybe some impulse to act in the face of seeming-otherwise meaninglessness or feared-inconsequentiality.

And, so…

  • What is the world?
  • Is the world safe or unsafe?
  • Is the world good or bad?
  • What is a life?
  • Are you, personally, safe or unsafe?
  • Is your life good or bad?

How do these questions get answered?

On the one hand, we are products of our environment: tv, influential peers and elders, google filter bubbles, one’s personal propensity to google…

We practically don’t even ever know there’s ever even a there, there, unless, sort of, someone points it out, hopefully in a gentle or uncoercive way.

[Side note: And, it’s good to ask, how does the person who does that pointing-out benefit from doing that pointing out, and from doing the pointing-out in that way, with that framing, in that context? And, it’s also good to go another layer up–who else, besides ostensibly you and the person doing the pointing-out, benefits from that person doing that pointing-out… As in, what led to that person being someone who does that pointing out? Causal history, years, decades, centuries, millenia back, grounded in relatively accurate conceptions of synchronic human nature.]

On the other hand, through the grace of serendipity, imperfect friends and mentors, that crazy google search, the spontaneous, inherent nature of our mind and will, there’s this other sense in which we are not products of our environment; we are something discontinuously more than the products of our environment, ever always striving towards transcendence of contingency and limitation, towards safety and wellbeing, perhaps in some causally consistent sense.


The way it can kind of go, is that some people are living an actually, truly, really good (enough) life. The whole world, at the moment, breaks down without machinists, truck drivers, automators, programmers, lawyers, doctors, stockers, politicians, diplomats, soldiers, something. It’s not perfect, but, right here, right now, there are so many roles that are keeping the thing going. Sometimes it’s actually not that fragile, and sometimes it is. But all these roles are, at least in part, positively impacting other people, at least locally and partially. (And sometimes these roles are part of an actually, truly, really good (enough) life, and sometimes these roles are a part of life “led in quiet desperation.” When life is hard, it’s hard; And, it often is. It just depends.) And/but, with these roles being enacted, the world keeps going, with a chance of getting to a better thing.

And then, for some other people, lots of people, it’s not an actually, truly, really good (enough) life: something is bad, somewhere. Maybe they determine that badness is in themselves, the world, or both.

And, as a solution to that badness, maybe they seek to escape or alleviate that badness, through, say, or spiritual enlightenment, or worldly power, or all sorts of less extreme things.

And some people find peace or intimacy or security along the way.

And some people might fall into an abyss, trying to figure out how they work, or people work, or the world works: One might get stuck, at least for a time, thinking that the world can’t work or the truth is too terrible. And, they might inadvertently, circularly be confirming to themselves the very seeming badness they wish to solve.

Sometimes, maybe often, people mistake childhood hurt or misinterpretation as the way the entire world works, the way the entire world must work, without remainder or alternative. And this straw trauma survivor is the straw realist.

But, through therapy, journaling, meditation, long walks in nature, friendship, intimacy–bottleneck can become process-in-context. Therapy, meditation, etc.–these are privileges, to be sure. They require just enough health, just enough money, just enough space, just enough time, if not an abundance, of all of these, and these things are unevenly distributed, and hard choices might be needed to determinedly acquire them.


Whatever the world is, what ever a life is, safe or unsafe, good or bad, desperate or secure–the heart beats, the lungs breath, gravity and oxygen and warmth and atmosphere persist and nourish, in this moment, and the next, and the next. In some sense, we will only ever know this.

So how do we live, in this world good/bad/safe/unsafe world, that, in any case, carries us in each moment of our lives?

We do so, perhaps, by just living, and, perhaps, also, self-transforming as we have time and as makes sense.

Only we can decide whether dark terribleness, is in us or in the world, and only we can determine how it got there in the first place. The is epistemic agency and also well-being agency.

Is the world good or bad? Now or later? Is your life good or bad? Now or later? And do the answers ultimately depend on self or world?

In SOME nontrivial sense, maybe the only sense that ultimately matters, it’s up to you.

And what of international relations? Or inter-group relations? Escalations and security dilemmas? And impulsive, fear-driven violence that has already happened, tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye, over and over again, personal and generational histories of trauma?

Can we all be straw enlightened people or groups? Is it too late?

There’s maybe a piece left out of the criteria above. I know they’re phrased awkwardly, but I chose the words pretty carefully, single pass, if you’ll look at them again. I’ve copied them again, here, exactly:

  • Sender criteria:
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently competently enact nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently credibly, sincerely signal ability, willingness, and desire to sufficiently competently enact nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions
  • Receiver criteria:
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently recognize signs and signals of ability, willingness, and desire to sufficiently competently enact nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently accurately, confidently evaluate whether sufficient sincerity and competence underlie apparent signs and signals of ability, willingness, and desire to enact nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions (including accounting for coincidental or disendorsed apparent countersigns and countersignals)
    • a person (or group) could sufficiently metabolize or recover from imperfect or partially harmful nonviolent/peaceful/collaborative intentions

Ok, but then, one more time, the straw realist says, “Well, I hate people, and/or I think your culture is disgusting, and/or the world must be burned to the ground to save it. Or, if I don’t think that, someone else will. So what of your ideals or beautiful aspirations? Violent power is what matters; violent power is security. And then the whole thing is just waiting to blow up.”

So there’s maybe one more point to make, with the sender/receive criteria. (And, again, this is draft. There could be so many issues.)

The better one embodies the sender/receiver criteria, the safer it is to become recognizably and actually strong. You will be less likely triggered into doing impulsive, destructive things that are hard to take back, even if you have some capability to do so. You’ll be less likely to trigger other people into doing impulsive, destructive things that are hard to take back, even if they have some capability to do so. And actors with the propensity to lead with violence will think twice, because of credible capability or at least a carefully measured, adequate response. And, all the while, the sender/receiver criteria maximize the possibility for diplomacy, communication, synchronous de-escalation, collaboration.

The details matter, to be sure. Getting erroneously triggered doesn’t always feel like getting erroneously triggered. Seeing threat where there is or isn’t threat is deeply contingent and has to be meta managed by personal transformative practice or norms or formality, etc. Signs and signals are deeply contingent. Something that feels nonviolent to one party may initially feel very violent to another party (and actually be contingently violent). Something, somewhere, needs to be sensitive and responsive. Someone, somewhere will need to grow and change, and there can be strong initial disagreements about who/how/when/where. And the world is weird. There are dragons and surprises.

But there is always a way forward. You can have 200% responsibility, including making up for regrettable mistakes.

And, sometimes, the option space is very large and good, given enough time…

Some might find, through service or practice, the sense, compatible with materialism, physicalism, naturalism, in which humans are, deep-down, at the very bottom, spontaneously compassionate, kind, loving, while simultaneously being discerning and strong, in a way that allows them to interact closely and intensely with others, despite differences, in the service of valued mutual goals and live-and-let-live.

One might keep asking, what does the best safely reachable world look like? And, it might look very different from this one. And the way to get there might look very strange, while maybe necessarily being a path that is humane, non-authoritarian, and non-coercive, nonviolent while still self-recognizably requiring challenging growth and change for many. All the details matter; if you’ll permit me: we’re all paranoid, indignant humans, myself included. And there are real predators among us and within all of us, though they deserve compassion and a recognition of the sense in which this is not our true nature. And/but, while the stakes are real, in any case, so much is so good, now; and, in this exact very moment you are safe; and nothing is required of you; you have no duty, there is no judge; and that best safely reachable world might look very good, indeed…

karma, losslessness, developmental stage models, violence, world; including Ken Wilber and Robert Kegan (draft; 6000 words)

[These ideas are not all my own. They draw from so many people, not all of whom are explicitly named below.]

[If you lose the thread a lot, it’s me, not you. This is a draft.]

To get things going, we’re going to mix a bunch of metaphors, here. First I’ll sketch two quick starter metaphors, then I’ll mix them, and then I’m going to mix in more metaphorical stuff as we go.

Metaphor part 1:

One can imagine the operation of the bodymind to be something like a huge, three-dimensional tetris game. Normal two-dimensional tetris has tetraminoes, and, in this three-dimensional case, we have tetracubes. (There is an actual videogame called Tetrisphere, although it works a bit differently than with descending blocks, as in two-dimensional tetris.)

Remember, in tetris, the goal is to free up space, for more incoming tetraminoes, by arranging currently descending tetraminoes, so that they, and already placed tetraminoes, disappear.

Metaphor part 2:

As we take actions in the world and have experiences, one could imagine that we (our bodyminds) are each something like a gas giant planet, like Jupiter or Saturn. There’s space. There’s a gravity well. There’s a three-dimensional center. Maybe there’s a small, rocky core, floating in the center of the gas giant, utterly dwarfed in scale by the size of the gas giant surrounding it.

Metaphors mixed:

Ok, so we’re taking actions in the world, and we’re having experiences, and one could imagine that every experience we have is a new tetramino/tetracube: There’s these shapes continually appearing in the atmosphere of that gas giant. And while we’re moving around in the world and thinking, shapes are slowly descending, and more shapes are appearing.

Another piece:

And now consider that every single tetramino is connected to every single other tetramino by strings. It’s a complete graph, where the tetraminoes are the vertices and the strings are the edges. As new tetraminoes get added in the far atmosphere, near the edge of space, those strings magically appear.

Another piece:

And now consider that all of this is happening inside of a cardboard box–the gas giant, the tetraminoes, the strings–that box is getting filled with tetraminoes, over time, as you move about in the world and think.

Ok, so just like in tetris, say as tetraminoes descend and touch down, far below, and more tetraminoes continue to descend, particular columns (or, in three-dimensions, regions) can start to stack up towards the sky.

So, in particular places, that cardboard box surrounding everything can start to bulge, in different three-dimensional directions. It’s not game over, but it can mean muscle tension, rigid behavior, increased blood pressure, stress, difficulty sleeping, irritability, and so on, because somehow this is all also the bodymind.

Another piece:

In this game, tetraminoes don’t disappear, they never disappear, but let’s say each tetramino, really, tetracube, can nest perfectly inside tetracubes of the same type, without taking up any additional volume. Let’s say there’s alway at least one “side” of a tetracube that is permeable. So, if one can move things around enough, to get enough strings out of the way, and one can line up two similarly-shaped tetracubes, then one can “shrink the number of tetracubes in play” and “create additional space” inside the box, by fitting one tetracube inside another. One could do this for thousands, millions of tetracubes, billions, over and over again across a lifetime.

This isn’t a perfect metaphor, because this is sort of potentially topologically impossible, given a “reified” complete graph, depending on the length or stretchiness of the strings. to do this “space creating” move an astronomically vast number of times, without getting things ever move tangled.

But pretend this can be done “perfectly” or “cleanly,” indeed an astronomically vast number of times, and it is like a puzzle–you might be carefully rotating and nudging shapes for hours, weeks, months, finding little wins, even locally making more of a mess to find some of those little wins. And then maybe every once in a while, you get things lined up right, and vast three-dimensional spaces collapse into themselves, huge whooshes, perfectly, without messy remainder. But, very often, amidst those small, medium, and huge wins, there’s a tremendous amount of compensation and re-compensation going on: all the little tuggings you’re doing are tugging, fractionally, on every single other piece in the entire box. Locally wins might be causing columns to rise and bulging to happen on some distant region of the box, even faster than tetraminoes are falling in that part of the space.

So this is a vast, global, combinatorial optimization problem.

But the wins are highly nonlinear. somehow this metaphor relates to brain synapses, protein synthesis, axon potentials, and the physical movement of the body. But I want to give handwavey, metaphorical sense of scale. Say like the cardboard box is the size of earth, even though we were talking about gas giants. And let’s say that things can go from that box just bulging with tetraminoes, to huge wins shrinking the number of tetraminoes in play–from filling a space the size of the earth to filling a space the size of a basketball/football/soccer ball. Planet earth versus a sport ball. I’m just handwaving here, and maybe this is starting to get particularly misleading, phenomenologically speaking, but I want to give a sense of how much “compression” is possible. And, remember, the shapes fit perfectly. So it’s NOT like there’s a lot of “potential energy,” like that basketball is straining to explode. It’s an effortless, stable, forget-about-it perfect fit.

One could say that this space-saving corresponds to elegance, simplicity, parsimony provisional “occam’s razor-ness” in, I’m just handwaving, here, say, (a) elegant “beliefs” (or how the world seems or appears) and/or (b) how the world appears, and/or (c) multifinal goals, and/or (d) elegant solutions to life’s problems, and/or (e) social grace, and/or (f) physical grace, and so on.

Furthermore, the process of “making space,” “making room,” this “puzzle-solving,” can correspond to something like resolving inconsistencies, contradictions, contention. Theoretical elegance, informally (and maybe idiosyncratically) speaking, is something like “the greatest explanatory power, with the fewest number of theoretical elements, with the smallest number of anomalies (of which can perhaps generate those contradictions, depending on what’s “signal”/explained and what’s “noise”/anomaly.)” Anyway, theory-building can get very formal, and let’s say we’re still being metaphorical here. I’m talking about the version of this at “the bare metal,” theory building, action planning, and so forth, as the spontaneous activity of mind, including with “raw phenomenological correletes.”

(Another thing to keep in mind is that there cannot be arbitrary states changes. To get to a particular state, this system has to move through intermediate states, necessarily. No discontinuities. There might be an optimal path and maybe a series of necessary bottlenecks, but a bunch of other states could be explored or backtracked on the way from point A to point B (which will generally not be known or accurately conceived of in advance.))

Losslessness part 1:

Now, I want to emphasize something in particular about this metaphor–and that is its losslessness. All the strings are still there, somehow, all the nested shapes are still there.

And, in fact, while puzzle-solving, to make more room, sometimes we will need to unnest already nested tetraminoes to find new configurations that save even more space. Sometimes we’ll need to unnest vast numbers of them, over and over again, to figure out a different, more elegant global solution, as tetraminoes keep coming in.

Developmental stage models:

Ok, now let’s talk about developmental stage models. Ken Wilber has collated a bunch of these, and I think he personally refers to fulcrums and vertical development, among other things. There’s Jane Loevinger’s ego development, with Susan Cook-Greuter’s extensions. There’s Piaget, Carol Gilligan, Lawrence Kohlberg, Spiral Dynamics, Kegan, James Fowler, and so on. These tend to be psychologically flavored, edging into the so-called spiritual.

And then there’s stuff like Aurobindo’s work, that has maybe an epistemological-moral-spiritual focus. And this maybe edges into “cultural” stage models. And ditto Hegel. I’m just sketching; I’m going to get a lot of details wrong.

Meditation, spirituality, and developmental stage models:

The relationship between meditation and developmental stage models is somewhat contentious.

A lot of meditation teachers downplay or deny the relationship between meditation and adult development, perhaps in part because spiritual/meditation gurus can use claims about their own development for coercion of authoritarian purposes. And adult development, as a set of ideas, can greatly muddy meditation pedagogy, theory, and practice. It’s very helpful to keep meditation instructions, even meditation progress maps, as spartan and minimal as can be.

But meditation does seem to go through stages, so it seems natural to try to line up meditative stages, somehow, with developmental stages. Meditation stages might be something like, I don’t know:

  • “figuring out what to provisionally be doing, at least to start,”
  • getting intimations of “emptiness”
  • entering the stream (deep though partial insight into emptiness)
  • refactoring experiential-conceptual containment relations
  • integration of body and mind
  • diminishment of self-referential phenomena
  • sensory stream refactoring and semi-parallelization
  • standing as awareness (and beyond)

(The above lines up a tiny bit, in places, with the classical stages/progress of insight, but that’s a tighter/shorter loop, as it were.)

Ok, anyway:

So there’s the elegance stuff from farther above (elegant believing/seeming, social grace, physical grace, multifinal goals and plans). That can sort of be arranged in “stages” or along a gradient.

And there’s the meditation stages immediately above.

And then there’s the adult developmental stages research constructs above.

I do think they’re kind of all the same thing, but I’m not just handwaving it all together. I want to connect it all to the metaphor above.

So the bodymind is vast, right? That tetramino gas giant thing. And there’s that highly nonlinear “elegancing,” problem solving, something.

Ken Wilber talks about a person’s psychograph, being able to plot where a person is on along different, semi-separable lines of development: cognitive, moral, etc.

He notes that the cognitive line kind of bounds progress along the other lines (think something vaguely like IQ, maybe). I would call that line maybe “spatiotemporal phenomenological-conceptual grain” line. These are models, theories, metaphors. (Note that “IQ” and phenomenological grain are highly malleable, within-person. Remember that nonlinearity: planet earth to soccer ball sizes.)

I want to generalize “semi-separable” beyond just the “cognitive” line. Remember the complete graph of the tetraminoes. I want to add something like the concept of “slack” or “give” or “slop.” The mind is anything but noisy or sloppy, once you really start paying attention. But, one can rearrange things a lot, as it were, before the cardboard box starts bulging. There’s enough slack for a person to be heavily developed on some lines and less developed on others. And there’s enough slack for a person to be pretty far on the meditation line but still be underdeveloped in other ways.

People like to say that there is no “general skill acquisition,” that skill acquisition is concrete and situational, always. But, that’s clearly not true. People can learn how to learn, unlearn learned helplessness, and so on, all things being equal. There’s a sense in which this is just as contingent as any other “skill,” but there’s clearly something more general or special about it too.

This is too quick and jumpy of a segue, but I would claim something in the space of “meditation” as being the “most special” of skills. It doesn’t have to be formal meditation:  people who are flexible, proactive, and resilient might be uneven/fragile/lumpy in various ways and in various unfortunate contexts, but they’re probably doing something meditation-y, as I define it, somewhere in their minds and life.

the meditation paradox:

Ok, but do we even think of meditators as flexible, proactive, or resilient?!

Meditation teachers, sometimes, are held in esteem for their wisdom, compassion, social grace, or spiritual grace. Sometimes that list includes philosophical skill or administrative skill (e.g. running monasteries or entire religions).

But the meditation students?

There’s the cliche of broken monks. And don’t meditators often seem to be, maybe a bit more relaxed in some ways but maybe more anxious in others, sometimes?

So meditation is good(?) but meditators aren’t generally that impressive? A paradox.

I would point to at least three things:

  • the intrinsic nonmonotonicity of meditation
  • the state of meditation pedagogy
  • cultural disprivilege of meditating
  • contingent life tradeoff imbalances

To take all of these, briefly:


As we saw above in the tetris model, sometimes things have to be greatly unpacked before they can be properly repacked with incoming tetraminoes. There can’t be instantaneous and arbitrary new packings. There has to be intermediate states, and some of them can be problematic, some of the time, all things being equal. And all this happens in real time–weeks, months, years.

the state of meditation pedagogy:

Generally speaking, meditation instruction is just not good at efficiently moving people along on the general path towards more elegance, noncontradiction, noncontention. This is for many reasons beyond the scope of this post.

cultural disprivilege of meditating:

This somewhat connects with the bullet above. Efficient meditation is time consuming and money or relationship consuming–and risky–in terms of health and life counterfactuals. And there isn’t a lot of cultural support, depending on the culture. One could say something, here, about institutions, knowledge transfer, and so on.

contingent life tradeoff imbalance:

(This will be discussed below.)

meditation and stages redux and problems and solutions and power and the world:

Ok, paradox aside for the moment, grant me that some ideal form of meditation, in the limit, all things being equal, gets you things like better beliefs, plans, goals, behavior, and so forth.

What should or could this limit look like, ideally, a bit more concretely?

Tantra does talk about personal power, which might involve charisma. And, hopefully it’s the nonviolent kind. We’ll get to that.

Let’s talk about a “normal life” and then talk about some edge cases.

Say a person born into a normal life, whatever that is, contingently ends up being pretty good at the tetris game, relatively speaking. They had a childhood that didn’t tangle things up too much, and they had time and space to play, run around, stare at the ceiling, just enough, again, to be relatively pretty good at that tetris game. And so life happens, they’re exposed to opportunities, they contingently develop interests and skills, and have pretty engaging plans, friends, intimacy, family, etc. Problems come up, and they do ok puzzle-solving them.

Ok, next example, now let’s say someone does something which I’ll call “acquiring a linear ratchet.” In this case, based on activity within and experience without, they can *really* good at the puzzle game *in a particular region.* This translates to some kind of skill in the world, albeit potentially fragile or brittle or highly contextually bounded. They might find this skill or region because something *did* go wrong/bad in childhood, so they’re desperately casting about, and they get relatively lucky. (Or maybe they got really lucky by just having a great mentor, without something really bad happening to them, to make them desperate.)

One could consider an ideal style of meditation to be a “most general or fundamental linear ratchet.”

(Anyway, it may be that it’s more likely for (a) bad things to happen in childhood than there are to be (b) ok childhood’s with a decent supply of excellent mentors. So it may be the case that most people are casting about for a “linear ratchet” to compensate for their life situation or puzzle solving to be suboptimal in other ways, with problems compounding on top of problems.)

Let’s consider a few cases, one of having a bunch of problems and *not* encountering a linear ratchet. And then a few general cases of *acquiring* a linear ratchet.

So let’s say a person is traumatized, and their puzzle-solving system gets tangled up. They might have problems on top of problems–health problems, interpersonal problems, attention/learning/something problems, meaning/purpose problems, and so on. I mean, they might not be traumatized–this is also just life! Life is hard! Anyway, usually a person in this situation will be making hard tradeoffs. They might have great friends but their money situation is not what they want it to be. Or vice versa. Or money is going well but health is suffering. Or they have friends and money but they don’t have the time to figure out intimacy. And the cultural milieu will contingently make some things harder than other things, in general, or contingently, for that particular person.

Ok, now let’s consider a person, who got *really* tangled up, and so they’re desperately casting around, and they do find some kind of linear ratchet. Let’s make two straw categories, one focused on the world within and one focused on the world without.

So, taking the world within, let’s say this person latched on to philosophy, mathematics, programming, something, early on as a life solution, so it was intrinsically fascinating. They might traverse this line just enough to not make too hard of tradeoffs in their life: enough money, enough intimacy, and so forth. But let’s say that something is still just not quite working. So, because this is their main ratchet, they might double down, deeper and more abstract philosophy, more powerful mathematics, more esoteric programming languages. Let’s say this really starts to shear against friendships, or tenure, or the programming languages that are good for getting jobs. But, there’s just something so compelling there, for them. Sometimes this leads to a hobby on nights and weekends, sometimes madness, sometimes repeated breakthroughs that can be traded for money or other goods (sometimes this feels amazing and sometimes it feels like selling out or a terrible distraction).

And, if we take the other case, the world without, I haven’t studied the psychology of highly successful professionals, world leaders, and so on: Some of these people are quite “balanced,” and we’ll discuss this more below. But, some of these people are trying to fill some void within themselves or to escape some pain, and so they ratchet, double down on acquiring influence, resources, and so on. This can be quite healthy, but it can also be very lopsided. Many influential people of course have shaped the world in mixed ways, enabling coordination and discoveries that have improved so many lives but at arguable cost, which we’ll talk about below.

A sketch of the meditation ratchet

Ok, so let’s say someone picks up an ideal form of meditation.

(I’m not saying my current stuff is in any way ideal, by the way. Maybe wait for me to be either really happy or really successful, or wait for version 500 instead of version 84 (the current version at the time of this writing). But, if you’ve read all the warnings and qualifiers, join us now!)

Anyway, let’s sketch a thing:

According to Ken Wilber, the impetus of stage development is encountering problems that cannot be solved at the current stage. “Mo money mo problems”/”Mo stages mo problems.”

[I forgot to put this above, but I think there’s a few not terrible research papers that give support for people moving through some stage models faster if they’re meditators (or if they cross-train, e.g. they’re weight-lifters in addition to X.]

Ok, so if someone is going up in stages, they’re going to become more discerning, and they’re going to realize new and creative (and horrifying) ways in which their problems are not in fact yet solved.

And, if someone has accelerated this process through a quality meditation system, this is going to be even more pronounced. Recall the nonmonotonicity described above.

Recall that often a person is casting about for a ratchet because something kind of went wrong with their puzzle-solving system. Meditation is a pretty extreme ratchet, and it’s pretty hard to find quality meditation instructions. So, one might imagine that a person reaching for meditation, and then doubling down and seeking better and better meditation instruction might have a lot of trauma/something/X. (Again, it could also be the case that they lucked out in stumbling on quality instructions or mentors that they were able to trust and follow.)

Ok, so here’s a person who maybe had some bad stuff happen to them, and maybe reacted really impulsively to that bad stuff (because they didn’t know any better) and then those impulsive solutions begat even more difficult problems. Maybe they fucked up their life even more. And meanwhile their stumbling towards more and more effective meditation. And, if it kind of works, things are getting better. …… BUT suddenly things are also getting worse! Because, correctly or incorrectly, they’ve ascertained that the world is even harder than they thought it was! More dangerous! More scary! At least seemingly!

(And so people can get stuck in sort of this valley of bad meditation, where they’ve gotten just far enough to make things seem even harder than they were before, and it’s overwhelming to figure out what to do next, because maybe they’re running out of money or relationship capital, and they’re thinking and acting suboptimally. This is really hard stuff.)

(By the way, I can definitely map my life to aspects of this, but I’m not just straight-up describing myself!)

So this gets into things like the horrors of the self, or the horrors of one’s goals, or the horrors of the world. Regarding the self, one might find themselves judging themselves, transiently, seemingly, as terribly, irredeemably bad/useful/evil/hateful/something. Regarding the horrors of one’s goals, one might find, transiently, seemingly, that one’s goals are too hard, too fantastical, too self-serving, too immoral, and so on. Regarding the horrors of the world, one might be struck, seemingly, transiently at how tooth-and-claw everything is: it seems like we did get pretty close to nuclear war, maybe. Assassinations do happen. People do get “disappeared.” Individual people are more harmful than you previously thought possible, again at least transiently or seemingly. There is existential tail risk, for self and world. Also, there’s the problems of suffering, mortality, intimacy, eschatology, cosmology. Holy shit. Before, maybe you just didn’t have the resources to think about some of these things, or you were able to find solace in both healthy and unhealthy ways.

If you’re lucky this’ll be sort of punctuated, things will get hard/depressing/scary/horrifying maybe just a little, maybe a lot, maybe you’ll experience fear, paranoia, dysregulation, but it’ll be relatively brief, or it’ll come in waves but they’ll be relatively brief swells. An unlucky version is kind of racing along and then smashing into all this headfirst at very high velocity and then one can be less functional for a very long time, including physical sequelae. Sometimes, there’s a period where something is wrong, but you don’t know what, or you’re just experiencing physical symptoms like muscle tension, and you don’t know why, and maybe they’re getting worse and worse, and then finally you kind of figure out what’s going on. And then weeks or months later there’s a big whoosh and you know, not just what it was all about, but also things are much better. Sometimes it’s not that clean and there’s a whoosh but lots more to do. And sometimes there’s a big whoosh but you need like five more big whooshes, and you don’t know what they’ll be or how far out they are, and it’s really unpleasant and scary.

(And this sort of circles back to the “contingent life tradeoff imbalance” thing above. Perhaps, because someone is meditating in the first place, in some ways, maybe, they might be “much deeper in a hole” than the average person, on at least one major dimension, maybe. So, not just “mo stages mo problems” but “really big old problem,” or several. Of course, this is probably better than many, many other life situations, in the relative sense. Maybe better to have a ton of money or no childhood trauma, *maybe*, *sometimes,* but to have, say, a huge, crippling, truly experientially horrifying life problem [maybe buried somewhere deep-down] and also having enough resources to meditate and to seek quality meditation instructions–that’s maybe a really good life on net, depending on how everything shakes out.)

There’s kind of a tragic thing, here. What I call the “last gasp.”

One is sort of making it safe to re-experience things, as part of how meditation works. So often a person will re-experience at least a shadow of old bad things, things that they thought were long resolved, in the course of a great deal of meditation. (One trap is thinking that they’re not making progress because this thing has come up more than one time. It’s progress! That’s just how the mind works.)

But there’s another thing that’s more problematic: If a person was crushing down a bunch of stuff. And they stop crushing. But say they haven’t fully worked through the thing under the crushing. If something happens in the world to trigger them, like they see their old girlfriend or whatever, they might have a more extreme, more impulsive, more destructive reaction, in that particular case, than if they hadn’t ever meditated. Behavior, belief or the very seeming of the world, and its attendant justification, will become live again, seem like the right thing to think/see/do. And then you’ll be in old destructive patterns, as bad or even worse than when those initial patterns were getting laid down. And then it’s maybe doubly regretful because this “last gasp” can go by fast. It can be embarrassing, especially if one is a self-styled advanced meditator. And if only you’d gotten to that old stuff, metabolized it, before being triggered. One just has to be as careful and meta-careful and meta-meta-careful and responsible with and around other people as they can be, and to make amends and reparations, if warranted, in a way that actually delivers.

The world part 1:

Ok, but somehow this meditation thing just keeps going, you keep going. Naturally, inevitably, you don’t have to force it, you start being able to grasp more and more of the entire world. Previously, the world was this big, incomprehensible thing. Or like you could gesture at aspects of it. Or you hated learning about history or something. But remember the elegance from above, that “compression.” And, in your life, “smaller” (though no less important) problems are getting solved. Intimacy is sort of making more sense. Social situations have a cognitive ease they didn’t have before. There’s more space, more time, your mind is clearer. (This is on the order of 4000 to 10000 hours of meditation in, or even more.) The gazillions of little details you had to sort of keep track of by reminding yourself, over and over again, are kind of filed away, things are just more handled, out into the future, or not, but you kind of know *how* you’re going to handle them, so you can kind of just do cumulatively constructive things in the moment. And so your scope and time horizon expands.

To be sure, your life still might be kind of a mess, and you might be making risky tradeoffs, paying for past suboptimalities. Karma–we’ll get to that in a little bit. But there’s more wellbeing, more strategy, longer time horizons, more of the world taken into account, all things being equal, on average, on net.

More and more you might be thinking, how the hell can this all (the world) possibly work better? Especially in times of crisis, it can be clear that there’s no one running this damn thing (the entire world). To be sure, there are powerful interests. But, bad world-scale stuff happens all the time, that is, things happen that are at least seemingly against at least one powerful interest. So wouldn’t they have stopped the bad thing if they could have? The whole damn thing just isn’t working as well as it could be. People are still suffering and dying. And that doesn’t just hurt in some distant way. Maybe it’s directly relevant to you, in many additional intrinsic ways than was the case before. You don’t just want people to not be hurting (or you’ve worked through a bunch of very normal ways in which you didn’t care about people, and now you do) but you can also see logistics and supply lines and entangled economies. Again, you’re not jamming this stuff into your head, though you might seek it out, out of interest. But because you really did solve that crushing intimacy/sex/friendship/love tangle, and, separately, you now *are* the living aesthetic expression you wanted to be, and, separately, you’ve sorted the crippling shame stuff or gender stuff, and, separately, you don’t think you’re stupid anymore, your mind just works better in ways you thought were impossible, for you–so thinking a bit about the economy, paying a little more attention to the world, doesn’t feel like this horrible detour from everything you care about. It’s just a natural, costless, intrinsically kind of interesting thing to do. (For some people the economy might have been part of one of their ratchets, of course.)

To be sure, whether it’s the economy or clean energy or politics or whatever, you’ll be wrong about so much (as most people are, “experts” included). But your mind is just working differently, now. You’re more of sponge than you ever were and you’re metabolizing things, integrating things more than you ever were.

the world part 2:

Ok, so how does this damn thing actually work? There are deep fundamentals, at least at the moment(!), the spatial extent of the planet, human neurology and general biology, the speed of light, the shape of the continents.

Things of course have changed, though:

  • monotheism
  • agriculture
  • bronze, steel
  • global fast travel (ship, air) [enabling rise of the great powers and global competition, according to at least one sociologist]
  • global fast communication (telegraph)
  • global information (internet)
  • global search (google, amazon books, google books, google scholar, scopus, web of science)
  • computation, biotech, etc.
  • intercontinental missiles, drones, satellite weapons

Any random person on the planet can craft a tweet with a nonzero chance that the most powerful people in the world will read it, seconds later. This is happening. The world is changing, more opportunities, more dangers (bioweapons, accidental pandemics, nuclear weapons are still a thing, mass authoritarian surveillance.).

Losslessness part 2:

One thing a meditator starts to realize is that the mind, is shockingly lossless, as per the metaphor way above. Again, the mind is shockingly lossless.

We can forgive, call truces, compensate, forbear, but we don’t deep-down actually forget. And that’s ok! People do fight and still have intimate relationships. And plenty of interpersonal problems do deep-down get solved. Everyone is striving for good things in community.

But the unprocessed or tangled stuff that’s still around, down there, if one is reaching for better and better things–it usually becomes apparent that generally there is more processing to do.

What I mean to say is that two people who have kind of made peace with each other, if one or both of them start meditating, lots of stuff is going to come up again.

There’s even another thing. This losslessness goes between familial generations and cultural generations.

Familial generational trauma and cultural generational trauma gets passed along, with shockingly high fidelity. For some people this is already intensely apparent. And, for meditators, this becomes even more apparent.

This is part of seeing into personal, familial, and cultural karma. And this perhaps matters more than it ever did before. Again, your viral tweet or tiktok might get seen by the most powerful people in the world, within seconds, minutes, or hours.

We are all affecting each other, all over the planet, more than we ever have before.

And, as if that weren’t enough, so the cliche goes, the past isn’t even past! Generation to generation to generation, parent to child, mind to mind to mind to mind to mind…

In no particular order:

Descartes mind-body dualism and epistemology of doubt and certainty–so much good and so much bad.

Alexander the Great.

Genghis Khan.

The machinery of the Roman Empire.

The Old and New Testament.


Genocides all over the planet.

So many historical events.

All of this lives in us, with shocking fidelity, again, down to the neurons, if you will. If there are no survivors, it lives in the murderers. As a meditator one can investigate this fidelity. The past isn’t past. Our minds are made out of it.

Astonishing cruelty and violence, couched in righteousness or necessity or plain old callousness. Sure, cruelty was maybe “different” back then. But the past isn’t past.

Astonishing goods have been produced. We live like kings (highly unevenly distributed); we reach for the stars (yay, but if only fewer people were in poverty, on earth, though it’s my understanding that there’s on average less and less each year. Probably not this year, though.)

And in any case, all that violence is still there. It’s still here. We’re all reaping that karma, as we are born, grow old, and die.

It seems that all violence breeds global-scale karma. It lives in the survivors, and, again, it lives in the murderers, even if there are no survivors.

  • There is direct physical violence (physical abuse, sexual abuse, deprivation, war).
  • There is direct psychological violence (coercion, authoritarianism).
  • And there is indirect “violence” desperation, poverty, etc.

This violence doesn’t go away, and it breeds individual and global karma.

Some of this violence is “solved” with more violence, violence layered on top of violence layered on top of violence. Hot wars on top of hot wars, cold wars on top of cold wars, proxy battles on top of proxy battles.

Technological solutions create astonishing wealth and slack, freeing up people to do good things for themselves and for other people. Technology allows people to be nicer to each other. Technology makes it easier for people to find nonviolent solutions and to heal past violence. And/but technology also breeds new types of violence, of course.

Anyway, not really a cliche, when we work on ourselves, when we ourselves are less reactive, wiser, more forgiving, gentler, it really does ripple through the internet, and across the entire planet, at a sizable fraction of the speed of light.

There’s naive ways to think about this. Sometimes recycling bin does just get dumped in the trash, you know? Sometimes little private behaviors are not cumulative in the wider world. But more are, hugely more, because of internet publication and internet virality than they have ever been before, at any time in history.

Ok, so there are those “little” behaviors, more and more of which are more significant than they ever have been before.

Now what of the big stuff?

Tentatively, taking the longest of long views, and hopefully every time horizon in between, the only workable future may involve something like deep understanding of noncoercion and nonviolence.

If it weren’t the case that minds *remember,* generation across generation across generation, maybe some sort of terrible hard tradeoff would be justified? Another modern Alexander the Great or something? Some great unifier. I’m not a historian or sociologist (yet?), but imagine some great unifying force that produced tremendous collateral damage, deaths, something. (Maybe this just can’t happen because of how global supply lines work.) But, say, when it was over, somehow that violent authoritarianism relaxed, but coordination remained, and was enhanced, and so poverty (for those remaining…) was eliminated, and stably so. And science, and healthcare, and so on flourished.

But, I think the above won’t work? Because violence is remembered, whether it’s physical or psychological domination. Even if there’s no survivors, that violence is carried in the murderers, across generations, and it comes out again.

Tentatively, tentatively, tentatively, again I’m not a historian or a sociologist, I think solutions are going to look more like Martin Luther King, jr and Mahatma Gandhi than, say, the conquerors of old, or “impartial” big data. Maybe the next Gandhi will utilize big data, though, to get the words just right, though they’ll still be speaking from their very soul. (I don’t know the ways in which, e.g., Gandhi was controversial. I’m sure there are a lot.)

It’s scary stuff; they were both assassinated.

Eh, but there’s also a particular deep sense in which nothing is required of you, except that which you can do and that which you wholeheartedly and heartfelt want to do. And, heh, global surveillance might end up going both ways, centralized and personalized/federated. It might become practically or politically impossible for anyone to be assassinated or “disappeared” ever again. I don’t know.

In any case, re nothing is required of you, you literally wouldn’t have to worry about it until you were actually really worried about it, as it were: People exemplifying extraordinary ease and wellbeing (and the low-key winning at life that comes with) are in short supply and desperately needed. Be the change you wish to see in the world, and all that.

Under the present realities of suffering, old age, sickness, and death, perhaps learn diplomacy, forbearance, second chances, nontriggeredness, non-coercion, non-violence, self-care, compassion, the best most skillful, most intelligent, ever-improving, self-forgiving versions of these, until that’s what you effortlessly, costlessly, spontaneously, just are.

One step at a time, one mind moment at a time.

crowley, chads, rationality, and the unification of will (3000 words)

[New readers, all my posts are drafts! If you lose track of a thread (if it was there in the first place) or a sentence is hard to parse, it’s me not you.]

I’ve had the mixed fortune of various collaborators and other influences being into Crowley, Aristotle, Kant, etc. There are of course interesting connections because of historical causal links and also they’re all gesturing at reality and various aspects of it.

Crowley talks about the true will. Aristotle talks about the relationship between goods and the highest good. Kant talks about the good will and the highest good.

The felt reality of all this can be cooler and more direct–preconceptual, aconceptual, maybe “transconceptual” is better.

But “will” and “goodness,” etc., are extremely useful concepts.

We need to finally add the concept of wu wei: “‘inexertion’, ‘inaction’, […] ‘effortless action’, ‘no action'”. (I would add “no will,” etc.)

concepts and contradictions

The above concepts are sort of involved in “agency.” I want to bring in “mechanism” as a foil, in the next section or two, and then we’re mostly not going to talk about mechanism explicitly, farther below.

There’s neat duals between mechanism and agency. Check out the table below.

When you poke too hard at “cause,” things get weird. Was there a first cause? (Yes, yes, physics and big bangs and singularities. But.)

When you poke too hard at “agency,” things get weird. What is a flesh and blood anthropomorphic or teleological agent *really* doing it all for? (Yes, yes, homeostasis and entropic dissipators and evolution. But.)

So, yeah, if you go “full reason” and you have causes, you maybe need a first cause.

If you go, full means/ends or purposes, you maybe need a final end or a highest good.

mechanism agency
cause/effect means/end
Y is by X; Y is because of X; Y is from X; X causes Y; X causes Y, conditional on Z X is for Y; X is for the purpose of Y; X is good for Y; X is good, for me, for Y; X is good, for me, right now, for Y; X is good because Y
first cause (sempiternally or eternally) final end; highest good

Kant writes in his most famous stuff about contradictions or antimonies that reason can’t resolve. In his unfinished last writings, he gets stuck on the relationship between mechanism/cause and life/agency.

Rhetorically, maybe we just need better concepts (not to presuppose there’s any agreement or tidy basis for what a “concept” is). Physics, dynamical systems theory, neurophysiology, and Karl Friston will continue to plug away at this, hopefully with input from philosophy (not to presuppose there’s any agreement or tidy basis for what “philosophy” is).

One might think these weird reasoning edge cases are just for philosophers.

But, for people who are, say, working on becoming reasonable, consistent, good, happy, something, one actually implicitly or explicitly starts running into genuine philosophical issues pretty quickly. [Not to implicitly presuppose that “working on” these things is a good way to think about all of this.]

Maybe we want to live an examined life, or a consistent life, or a meaningful life.

And some people maybe sort of glide on through, aren’t tortured or are at least merely vaguely, implicitly stuck on this stuff. But, some people are tortured or at least super blah, like if they’re really getting snarled in their life and plans. And so they really try to sit down and work it out. But, again, reason itself can seemingly run into all sorts of weird issues.

So, what to do?

We’d sort of really, truly like our beliefs/plans/behavior to stand up to any rational analysis (modulo “rationality” in quotes, selective truthing and isolated demands for rigor, being wielded as “power over”). We want to be able to say (intertemporally) consistent things to friends, lovers, collaborators–maybe a few sentences, maybe tens of thousands of words over many years, as one (of many) mechanism(s) for coordinating with other people, intimately or group-scale or large-scale.

Anyway, but, so back to the will! People are pretty fragmented, for better and worse! We’re different things in different contexts, different things for different people. Even when we’re alone we’re pulled between A and B and C and D, and, in the next moment, between W and Q and R and S.

How do we be or become self-reliable? How can we count on our future selves? How can we count on our past(!) selves!?! How do we be reliable for other people? How do we stably or responsively or aspirationally have life traction, cumulativity, build and build?

Are we stuck with this the usual thing? Are we stuck with our brains using hyperbolic discounting, or some kind of scheduling algorithm, or circadian clocks, or behavioral conditioning, or reinforcement learning kludge hieararchies, or whatever? That we can’t escape? Once executive and attentional dysfunction, always executive and attentional dysfunction (normal, subclinical, clinical)?

Maybe some people get lucky, their weirdness or brokenness or obsession or contingent life tradeoffs perfectly fit some environmental situation, and then you get people, who are super distracted or super rigid, nevertheless becoming captains of industry or scientific geniuses or great leaders, sometimes beautiful through and through, usually with terrible character flaws or with terrible trade offs or skeletons in the closet. And most people are mediocre or “promising but fail to launch” (not to mention trapped in poverty) as it were.

So are we stuck with this? (I don’t think so, though it might be project of thousands of hours, and sometimes a risky one, yadda yadda, for long-time readers of this blog.)

I want to note some equivocation here, too. Sometimes we experience what might be called a conflict of the ego, like the “I” wants two different things or wants to want or wants to not want something. Sometimes the conflict may seem to be within the “me,” conflicts between impulses or urges. And sometimes the conflict may be between the “I” and the “me,” or even I and not-I, me and not-me. In any case, there’s theoretical and and phenomenological and neurological richness, that I don’t want to gloss over, but is beyond the scope of this post.


There are straw “natural” ways or straw “rational” way to sort of explore (and maybe influence) the will system or the goal system or the action system, and so on. (And/but, remember those apparent deep contradictions in the use of reason, above.)

One will likely have encountered variants of goal hierarchies or goal (re)factoring, because hierarchies are super useful and/or you’ve seen them from self-improvement fad cycles.

Anyway, it’s possible to write down “goals,” to explore how some goals partially depend on other goals. And one can play with wording until it maybe feels resonant, and stable enough, and maybe one can find strategic wins, where proximal goals can be “multifinal,” can achieve multiple more distal goals all at once. (One can have “containment hierarchies” where a goal can be “instantaneously decomposed,” its attributes rendered more and more analytically clear, while preserving a shorter, higher level description that still refers to the goal. And one can have “temporal flows” that articulate the ordering of milestones or temporal dependencies or specify elements of a “temporally structured goal as such.”)

Goals have sort of a temporal or temporally ordered flavor. One can also do something similar with “goods,” can make a “goodness hierarchy,” which can have both imminent [sic] and transcendent flavors.

One could imagine that if they keep refactoring, they might go from something with tangles and inelegance, even hidden cycles, to a tidy, directed, acyclic graph, and one that’s easy to refactor as you learn, experiment, get surprised, and grow:


And then one can harmonize these with a plan, with action sequences or context/action lists, a la David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and so on.

I wrote a really long post that explores additional considerations and sort of pushes all this to the limit. It’s worth reading, even if I’m going to attack all of this in the next section:

One might even try to do a similar refactoring of their “beliefs,” a tidy, directed acyclic graph from evidence to conclusions, at least for “parts” of their mind.

There’s a lot of value, in all this, there is, though it might be more oblique than one might expect. Playing around with it can be very, very instructive. But it’s sort of cart before horse, in a lot of ways. Explicit reasonableness is downstream of finer-grain “implicit reasonableness” or “embodied reasonableness,” as we’ll see. (Some people will be like, “duh,” and some people will be encountering this for the first time.)

In any case, pretending we’re really going hard at the explicit thing, it can get really tangly. One can get bogged down in sort of subverbal tangles, ontological stickiness, limitations of local decomposition. Refactoring becomes a combinatorial explosion, a complex combinatorial optimization problem. And, it can often stay really intellectual, not touch something “deep,” something “real(?).”? Really digging into an exercise like this can sometimes be worse than doing nothing at all.

People might be lured to goal-refactoring and belief-refactoring, and so on, because it may seem to promise clarity, consistency, power, agency, something. Maybe it will give one an edge over people who don’t do things like this.

Of course, of course there’s something very good about focusing, introspection, felt senses, and so on. Go play with those things! They’re just adjacent to meditation, they can complement meditation. And the precision (and play) of words and symbols and diagrams do change people–journaling and therapy and talking to friends and story writing. And articulation and explicitness, either spoken or writing things down, is extremely useful for intimate and large-scale synergy and coordination. Use everything.

And/but, thought experiment, really grinding away, for hours and hours, trying to fit the mind and behavior into tidy boxes, with clear concepts and well-defined semantics for the arrows, and… Again, it’s instructive to explore doing this. And todo lists and simple goal touchstones can be a lifeline, to be sure, and more (and more) structure can be essential for teams or operations at scale, of course.

But, again in the small, almost everyone has “conceptual errors” in the relationship between words, formalism, etc., and feelings, behavior, meaning, future, phenomenology, etc.

And, so, when people “self-improve,” they do so under contingent misconceptualizations, and so most self-improvement also has a degree of error-propagation. And any technique that is not both globally comprehensive and error-correcting (and meta-error-correcting) will start to have errors start to crowd out gains, if pushed too far. And that looks like “akrasia,” muscle tension, etc.

The mind is vast (though finite) and it operates at a behavioral and inferential grain that is far finer (and faster) than words and boxes (of course). The mind uses powerful abstractions, too, to be sure, for acting, planning, and communicating. But, one might say that explicit abstractions are “leaky” and one might say that the “real” abstractions, that the mind is using under the hood, that are a lot harder to correlate with words, are sort of not leaky, in some sense.

Very, very, very loosely, what people are looking for, stated concisely, when they’re self improving, with “rational” boxes and arrows (or dance or breathwork), could be (and has been) abstractly described as something like, say,

  • global intertemporal self-consistency and/or
  • contention-free sensorimotor planning.
mind body
akrasia muscle tension
intertemporal self-consistency (contradiction-free) contention-free sensorimotor planning

We’ve sort of been talking abstractly about goals, plans, todos or actions, beliefs…

the chads

But, both jokingly and bitterly (and problematically), there are the Chads. (Orders of magnitude more problematically, there are the Stacys(?), I think?)

What of effortless confidence, naturalness, smooth action, decisiveness, spontaneity, physical grace, felt time abundance, eloquence, stability, character, virtue, sexiness, reliability, trustworthiness, joy…

We see flashes of something extraordinary. Sometimes these things are so achingly beautiful, so achingly desirable we have to run screaming, because the desiring and not-having might destroy us. Sometimes that desirable thing is an illusion or a misunderstanding, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want it, until we resolve the confusion or find something even really, truly better.

For all their partiality, we see flashes of things we want in actors and other celebrities, in the football players, cheerleaders, and CEOs.

More examples:

Mr. Rogers was just the same guy whether talking to kids or addressing governmental apparatus. Maybe that’s a little weird, but that’s an envious simplicity on the far side of complexity. I don’t know, Elon Musk is very problematic, but new, concrete physical things keep getting created in proximity to him (and in earth orbit) all the time.

There are people who step up in an acute or chronic crises, and relatively costlessly, because they are not burdened by life; they have flexibility and slack.

This one is problematic, but “people who should be ugly but instead it makes them even more attractive.” (Good skin care or makeup but also something else…)

There are people who competently keep their word (or good-faith, proactively renegotiate, etc., etc.), and you can ask for that promise, collaboratively negotiate that two-sided promise, because you know it won’t hurt them to keep it.

Orators and dancers.

On the fictional side, I don’t know, Captain/Admiral Picard’s idealism, clarity, eloquence, and compassion, even if embedded in plot armor. The DC-cinematic-universe Wonder Woman’s unhesitating, spontaneous, naturalized, radiant compassion. Astonishing, tiny moments in a host of indie movies and limited tv series. Any character who says or does just the right thing, is unhesitatingly already in motion, of and out of a natural response to circumstances, instantaneously already beginning to unfold, because that’s what they anticipatorily already are, deep-down to the very bottom.

See also:

What I’ve sort of been doing, above, is sketching out a “high modernist” straw self-transformation method, then maybe specifying the limitations of that in terms of how it fails to produce a “finer grain” thing. And then I’m listing all these examples that allude to that finer grain thing.

Do they seem to maybe not all be of the same type?

Is there a relationship between, for example, physical grace and being a captain of industry?

One might initially think there are tradeoffs, between chad-ness and certain kinds of success (even though there are probably [slightly more rare] “financially successful chad” memes). And maybe there might initially seem like a tradeoff between defensible analytical rigor and chad-ness. But, maybe upon further reflection, there’s no reason why this can’t be all in the same person, no?

(More examples of seeming tradeoffs: The brilliant scientist or artist is destroying their body and their relationships in order to create or discover. That person who can build empires, but it’s on top of skeletons. I can be respected but I can’t be beautiful. I can be desired for my body but not for my mind. I can have grand long-term plans but I can’t put time into physical grace.)

And, again, we can find people seemingly exemplifying these tradeoffs, everywhere we look. It’s really hard to find people who are excelling on all the dimensions we imagine (or it hurts too much to look). Or the only examples are fictional and misleading.


Ok, this is a rather shaky jump, but I want to make the point that, phenomenologically, world, future, and body are happening contiguously. Even the past, in some sense, as it were, is happening contiguously. It’s all happening, or being experienced, or being represented in the same experiential field, without boundary, as a whole, as a unity.

I’ll just say that this is suggestive of untapped synergy, untapped elegance. For someone who has grand plans (or intimate plans, or both) that are actually working, actually coming to fruition, that’s not just a property of the mind (of “beliefs” and “plans”); it’s concretely instantiated in their physical activity, while moving through the world, in speech, nonverbal behavior, and action (and even while asleep, if their sleep is particularly harmonious, restful, and restorative).

Diachronic is synchronic. The effects of the past and the potentiality of the future live in the present. And, one can make peace with their past and future, can be gentle and receptive with their past-that’s-not-even-past, can be responsive and aspirational with their future, in the present.

Anyway, so how to realize that possible synergy, that possible elegance?

Well, transformative practices that engage the body and mind as the unity they actually are, etc., etc.


So, let’s get back to “the will,” which can be more and more unified, say, in a chad-flavored, non-straw-rationality way (and the difference between 100 hours in and a few thousand hours in can be astonishing).

And/but, “the will,” is still sort of temporally linear, even if contextually multi-threading.

And the body has this vast parallelism.

The will keeps us safe, as best it can, sort of mediating between conflicts in that vast parallelism of the body, which one might find is the basis of conflicts in belief and plans, the basis of intertemporal inconsistency.

Perhaps low-level sensorimotor planning contention is (in some mediate or even immediate sense of “is”) intertemporal inconsistency. The sensorimotor loop, even with sometimes “delay” between stimulus and response, is intertemporal inconsistency, or lack thereof. The body is always acting. The body is always perceiving. In some sense there is never a gap between stimulus and response. There might be anticipation, though.

Anyway, as those conflicts become less and less, the will sort of relaxes over time. Vast parallelism of body, of considerations, of possible futures, becomes beautiful speech, beautiful movement, physical grace on the outside, time abundance on the inside.

The body or the mind is sort of this massively parallel fountain or jet of water or air. And you know how you can get a ball to sort of stick in that? Like a ping-pong ball in the jet of a hairdryer? [1, 2] When the will is coalesced or apparent it sort of dances on or coheres or or rides on or facilitates that parallelism, that expressed action, as a unity or a whole.

It’s kind of crazy that one can be wanting sex, beauty, world peace, salt, protein, consciously or unconsciously, as it were, at the same time, and in any case delicately boop a friend on the nose with a single finger, advocate for something in a telegram chat an hour later, and then maybe sprint across a field an hour after that.

Behavior is both consistently multifinal and coherently linearized, when everything is working right.

And this can feel (time) abundant, spontaneous, effortless, natural, from the inside.

But we must engage the right methods that, somewhat literally and somewhat metaphorically, operate at the proper grain and depth.

And then, with nonmonotonicities, periods of jumbliness, confusion, inarticulateness, demotivation

…we might find our physical grace, the stability of our plans, the eloquence of our speech, the stability of our plans, the defensibility or our reasoning, the attentiveness of our intimacy, the strength and reliability of our promises…

…all inching up, improving, little by little, again nonmonotonically along all sorts of dimensions, but nevertheless inexorably and all at once.



P.S. Forgot to add this, should probably expand on at some point: (One doesn’t get to exactly choose what one’s “future unified will” will look like but you do get to be absolutely 100% ok with every infinitesimal thing that happens along the way.)


P.P.S. Update: I sort of tossed in wu wei at the very beginning, for oblique completeness, even though there’s a good distinction between “will” and “action,” and wu wei falls more in the action bucket. (Action would be another post entirely.) A reader notes that “De” would have been a better thing to toss in from Daoism, correlating the various conceptions of “will” in different systems. I don’t have enough experience with Daoism to feel comfortable making an edit above, but I wanted to note this somewhere!

a diagram with poor semantics, about epistemic agency and “grace”

click on image to make it a bit more readable:



A diagram with poor semantics, about epistemic agency and “grace”

stuff that’s immediately obvious

stuff that you can infer from what you already know

stuff you can infer if you upgrade your inference abilities

stuff you can infer if you proactively seek out more information

stuff you can infer if you proactively upgrade your ability to proactively seek out more information

stuff you couldn’t possibly have known; “non-inferrable surprises in any world” (true unknown unknowns vs counterfactually, conditionally could-have-knowns

surprise that ultimately empowers you and predisposes you to upgrade your inference abilities

surprise that ultimately empowers you and predisposes you to proactively seek out more information

surprise that ultimately empowers you and predisposes you to go full meta-meta-bootstrapping

computability, emptiness, rationality, intensionality (3816 words)

Alternative link:

(I provisionally disagree with several things in’s tweets and blog post, but they’re excellent, and there’s a *bunch* of it that I wish I’d written. Read them!)

Yesterday, on Twitter, there was a brief flurry of activity about the relationship between computability theory, buddhism, emptiness, etc. A few people were like wtf. So, I looked for a good intuitive introduction to computability theory, and I couldn’t find anything I liked. So I’m going to try to bang something out in X minutes. [And ok, stuff is going to be out of deductive or conceptual order and I’m going to introduce things without defining them and quote stuff or transparently use ideas without citing them and the pedagogist in me is screaming, as per usual, but let’s get this thing done. The bibliography in the protocol document is intended to gesture at everything in this post and more. And I’m carefully adding resources to that bibliography with each update to the doc. I want to make sure nothing gets left out.]

I’m not a computer scientist or a mathematician, so this will be informal and nonrigorous, and I’ll possibly be “missing the point” of something, somewhere. But this is a sketch of the introduction that I would have wanted, the things/angle that I think are important or maybe useful for a meditator.

So what is computability, anyway? One, I think, could equivalently say “recursively enumerable.” A related term is “describable.” Also “countable.”

The key things are, in no particular order:

  1. blind mechanism
  2. a sort of “contiguous pointing”-ness
  3. ontological pre-given-ness

I think the concepts in (1-3) could be teased apart a bit more. There’s overlap. But good enough to point at the things I want to point at, I think. Ok, so let’s look at all of these.


Contrast “blind mechanism” with “telos” or “agency” or “just directly do the thing.”

So like a computer or another causal process needs (a) starting conditions or a state of the world and (b) causal laws, or a state transition function, or how to generally-enough get from A to B to C, etc.

An agent or a person or something that’s goal-directed can take an instruction or come up with a goal like “find all the red apples.”

But a causal mechanism can only “do what it was going to do anyway,” like water going over a waterfall or something. Things have to be set up right by god, nature, or a person, and then whatever was going to happen just happens. (But, outside of the scope of this blog post, see counterfactuals and possible worlds. Very important.)


Regarding ‘a sort of “contiguous pointing”-ness,’ imagine a person in the dark, in vast, vast, vast space. It’s so big that if that agent is looking for any one particular thing then they’ll never find it. The space is just too big, too many degrees of freedom, infinite. Never, not even by chance. (The previous few sentences sort of set up the analogy, and I may stretch the analogy below, but they don’t have anything directly to do with computability, maybe.) But somewhere in that space is a rope. And at regular intervals on the rope are attached little packages. And in each of those packages is an object that the person can identify by feel in the dark.

And, so, if you gave the person the beginning of the rope, they could then traverse or enumerate or list all the items attached to the rope, to do something with some or ignore others, or count all the apples versus the bananas, etc. But, there needs to be a rope connecting all of them. And something has to hand the person the beginning of rope.

So sort of replace “person” here in (2) with “causal mechanism” from (1), and that’s kind of computability! You need conditions like this for something (e.g. counting bananas versus apples) to be computable.


Ok, now, some more important things. The world or the playing field or game board has to be arranged in a very special way for computability to work.

THE ONTOLOGY HAS TO BE PRE-GIVEN. There aren’t maybe-apples or maybe-bananas or maybe this is a rope, maybe this is one of those packages attached to the rope. There is only platonic apples, platonic bananas, either package or not-a-package but nothing in between.

So, everything has to be discrete, unambiguous, mutually exclusive, individuated, named, addressable, ordered. If there is “pointing directly at” then it’s actually secretly indirect: behind the scenes the mechanism “walks the rope” until it finds the thing that was secretly named or addressed. Pointing is equivalent to naming something already named or searching for something where you already know the location of every box you’re going to check.


People do use computers for fuzzy, vague things–there’s things like machine learning, and curve fitting, and supervised learning and unsupervised learning and natural language processing and GPT-2 and so on. And people use the word “maybe” like when programming in Haskell. So how does all that vague, fuzzy stuff harmonize with the things I said above? Well, the things I said above sort of underlay all the vague, fuzzy stuff. Or, things like machine learning and tweeting only work when there’s a human involved. The apples and the bananas are just one’s and zero’s. Or like words on the screen or on paper. And then a human reads them and does interesting, fuzzy things with them. Similarly, a human can take interesting, fuzzy things and figure out how to kinda sorta capture those things using words or other symbols [which then get mapped to one’s and zero’s] and then mechanistic things happen, albeit cobbled messily together by tons of humans, and then one’s and zero’s get spit out on the other side, and then humans interpret those, and so on.

So, there’s something incredibly powerful going on, here. Computers help us do things like blogging and twitter and putting people on the moon and finding cures for cancer and being therapist chatbots and so on.

So it’s like, here in this interlude section, we can briefly mention the creation of a friendly general artificial intelligence or something to fulfill all human desires or accidentally turn us all into paperclips. That’s outside the scope of this blog post, but I wanted to bridge (1-3) to human fuzziness and vagueness and usefulness and meaning in one way. And now in the next section I want to do it in a different way.


Ok, so I said computers need to work with “stuff,” really “objects,” that are ontologically pre-given. So like “apple” is a platonic apple. Every apple that comes up is exactly the same as every other apple that has ever come up.

Another way of looking at that is that the apple, or any apple, in computer land, “has nothing inside of it.” One could say that it’s “simple” or “non-composite” or non-complex.” Even if something computable *is* complex, like a “data structure” or a representation of like a chess game or something, it’s built out of “simple” pieces. The whole is exactly the sum of the mutually exclusive, non-overlapping parts.

We could go even beyond this and say that computable (or mathematical) objects don’t have qualities or don’t contain anything or don’t have anything inside them or something. In some sense they are “pure symbol” or like there’s no “representative content.”

Another way of saying it, maybe, is that the symbol-as-a-representation is simple as is the referent or object or extension of that symbol. Or the symbol is equivalent to (a token of) its extension.

I’m sloppily gesturing at a whole mix of related ideas, here.


  • concept, intension, extension
  • map, territory
  • sign, (felt) sense, referent
  • sign, meaning, referent

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is something like, computable objects are only ever (very powerful) toys or fabrications or machines in the sense that they themselves don’t bear intensionality or meaning.

They themselves don’t “represent,” don’t “refer.”

So like a person can be like: “sign, meaning, referent.”

But a computer (and math), deep-down can only be like: “sign, referent.”

This is super, super sloppy but better than nothing. [See also the concept of compositionality and a bunch of other stuff.]


Ok, so I’ve taken some time to sort of make a distinction between what computers can do and what humans can do.

It’s very out of style to say that humans are doing anything like computers. That *was* in style but not anymore. If someone says that now that humans are like computers, that can mean twenty different things and like eighteen of those things will get classed as naive or new-agey or something.

There’s a particular one or two that I want to point out that I think aren’t naive at all.

First, both computers and people are in some sense deterministic. From the inside, we as people feel like we have free will and goals, and in critically important senses we do. And in other critically important senses we are blind, causal, deterministic, predestined mechanisms. This whole paragraph is both true and not true and partially true and incomplete and philosophically impoverished and I don’t have all the answers and enlightenment doesn’t grant all the answers. But, in any case, part of becoming enlightened is doing something in the space of harmonizing free-will-ness with determinism in a way that becomes cool and chill and fine and good.

And so not only do we share determinism (in some sense!) with computers but we also share limitations in the use of symbols. Even though computers are sort of symbol-only or (a)symbol+(b)referent. And humans are sort of (a)symbol(/words/concepts)+(b)meaning/concepts+(c)referent. The determinism thing plus the fact that humans use symbols at all means there’s a sort of trapped-ness in how humans tend to use symbols, in a very analogous or even isomorphic way to how computers do.

Computers are sort of stuck in their symbols, they need their ontology handed to them. (Even when it looks like a computer is creatively generating ontology, and this is incredibly powerful and not fully tapped by humans, it’s in some sense NOT creatively generating ontology, at the very bottom, in a theoretical sense. And that’s an important theoretical distinction.)

And/but humans tend to be pretty stuck in their symbols/concepts, too! It took a lot of philosophy and a lot of meditation and luck before people were able explicitly talk about how people treat the world as if it’s pre-chopped up into objects, pre-given. But, that chopping up is heavily a property of the person doing the perceiving, and everybody is has sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious differences in how that chopping up happens. And for some people, for some parts of their ontologies, things do shift and change in helpful ways, over time.

Anyway, people tend to be at least partially trapped in their concepts and ontology. And also people tend to give too much power to words, concepts, and ontology. Like, “if only I could get the words right, if only I could program the computer right, the words would have magic causal power or the computer would grant wishes.”

Now, words are incredibly, incredibly powerful and useful for getting valued things. And computers are incredibly, incredibly powerful and useful for getting valued things.

But, words/humans and computers are limited in a very similar, even isomorphic way. For computers, there’s this famous thing called the halting problem. Remember that rope from earlier? The halting problem is sort of that, because the room is dark or whatever, the computer can never know whether the rope has an end or if it goes on forever. So like computers are “blind,” they can get stuck, forever, like following the wrong rope into the distance forever. Or like go in circles forever. There’s all sorts of tricks one can do to mitigate this fundamental issue, like interrupts, preemption, timeouts, cycle detection and so on. But there’s this deep and fundamental limitation, there.

Now, it might seem like humans don’t have this fundamental limitation. Especially if the room isn’t dark, and the rope isn’t too long, as it were. Like, a human can just look and see if the rope has an end! Ah ha! We’re so much better than computers! Humans aren’t like computers; that’s silly and fatalistic and nihilistic.

But, actually, a collaborator brilliantly pointed out to me, long ago, that human beings are precisely subject to the halting problem.

The way they formulated it to me, if I recall correctly, maybe with slightly different words, is that “Humans can’t perfectly predict the outcome of self-modification.”

So, like, this is partially why people get sucked into cults or end up in meditation dark night experiences or gaze into the abyss or play with occult tools and go insane. Or they have “the superpower of knowing they’re making a terrible mistake as they’re making it,” to quote a recent tv show.

So this feature of humans, that we’re sort of “trapped in determinism,” “fated to sort of do what we’re gonna do,” and we can’t exactly know what that is, and we can’t change it with sort of any perfect confidence or we might mess things up even worse if we try, BUT WE CAN KIND OF TELL and the forecast often looks like a lot of suffering and likely death.

Well, this is sort of the gruesome, macabre, horrifying side of being human, watching ourselves and others sort of half-knowingly feel terrible while making things worse when the stakes are, you know, only life and death and one’s hopes and dreams for freedom, intimacy, or etc.

But, humans have a lot of tricks, too. humans do a ton of imperfect prediction and pre-computation and meta-prediction and meta-meta-prediction and so on. One doesn’t have to try to do this; it’s just happening. Despite not being able to perfectly predict the outcome of self-modification (or other actions in the world), we can get better and better and better and better at predicting the results of our actions.

There’s sort of a right way and a wrong way to do this. One can keep heaping on rules and tools, explicit decision rules, decision rubrics, helpful concepts like opportunity cost and expected value and so on. These are all extremely helpful concepts!! Very powerful!! They’re especially useful for programming computers and for communicating with other people. One can sort of integrate or naturalize them, and this is where there’s sort of a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way is to sort of “build virtual machines in the mind” to sort of almost reify little computers or bits of computers, epicycles on epicycles, computers inside of computers, and to try to sort of run computations or decision making or life planning or day planning inside these computers inside of computers inside of computers.

Now, even when we’re not doing the computers inside of computers thing *explicitly,* the mind does do some of this naturally and implicitly. This is the accumulation of “technical debt” in the mind. Sometimes it makes sense to build little problem solvers, especially when things are happening too fast and too suddenly. No time for integration or a “global decisioning” when being attacked or accused or being chased by a tiger. This is sort of “bounded bounded rationality” [sic].

So, like, we’re already sort of building computers inside of computers. And then a person can sort of start doing that *deliberately*, too. Ahh! They can accelerate that process of building up, layering up these fragmented, spiky, problem solving silos that aren’t talking to each other enough. One can bring in software engineering metaphors, here–ontological shear, impedance mismatch (this was borrowed yet further from electrical engineering)–all the little silos don’t know how to talk to each other, to work towards global solutions.

The extreme of this is trying to find perfect language, a way to perfectly describe reality with words, to sort of try to solve everything in one’s life with logic/argumentation/implication/entailment/words/symbols. But this only ever ends up happening in side of a box, leaving out cares and concerns, sort of fundamentally because of the way symbols or computation or math or logic work! (See also Gödel.) Not only is it blind, but because of how people usually instantiate this, it’s, again, usually leaving out so much of a person and cannot perfectly and completely capture the entirely of a person, even with the concept of carving reality at the joints and trying to do that. (One can also add in strange-loops or flavors or set theory or concepts from dynamical systems and reflection and self-inspection and so on, but one of the big fundamental pieces has to do with the limitations of symbolizing and the halting problem.)

Another way to look at this is that the person is trying to design and program the perfect general artificial intelligence to run in their head and solve all their problems. Again, concepts from AI theory are extremely clarifying and illuminating! But trying to build an AI in one’s head to solve all of one’s problems is probably not going to work, at least in part because of a host of fundamental physical and mathematical limitations, as far as we currently know.

Ok, so there was a right way and a wrong way. What’s the right way?


Instead of building things in virtual machines, one can learn to program assembly, to program on the bare metal. Rather, one can learn how to rewrite the BIOS and operating system, as needed, to change the tradeoffs and limitations running at higher levels of abstraction.

The advantages here are of flexibility and grain. So, like, if one’s previous operating system was building things out of large stones, granite, wooden blocks, or DUPLOs. One, over time, can learn to manipulate sand, atoms, LEGOs. The molecular manufacturing of mind work.

If one was previously used to working with tidy wooden blocks, but then tries to work with sand, well that’s scary as hell. How can you build anything lasting out of sand????

Well, you sort of can’t build anything lasting. But you can sort of embrace the whirlwind, become the wind instead of the sand, blah, blah. Or water. Water, or how about a non-newtonian fluid, can do things that solids can’t.

These analogies are sort of crap. Because yes there is flowing, flexibility, grain at sort of the bare metal. And/but there’s also a unity, stability, clarity.

Emptiness is a really important concept in esoteric lineages. I sometimes say that a local  experience of emptiness is the recognition that seeming-territory is in fact map. One sees that seeming territory is in fact map. One can understand emptiness intellectually, before having the experience of it, and sometimes that intellectual understanding changes after having the experience of it. And one can have a local experience of emptiness and more global ones. And one can intellectual understand that “everything” (in a narrow sense) is empty.

Another way of putting it is “no essence” or “nonarbitrary but malleable essence” or “can’t know the things (in) themselves” or “indirect realism” or “noumena+phenomena.”

Self-programming at the bare metal is sort of making contact with emptiness which is a sort of local root access down to the level of one’s and zero’s, i.e. sense impressions and phenomenological flow.

(What is a person or causality or, etc.? Let’s rewrite that preflective representation and cognitive flowchart, that reactive flow function.)

But, notably, that access is still highly constrained in that the operations available even as a super user with root access are still highly path dependent. There’s still a local tower of hanoi problem situation. And, that local tower of hanoi problem is contingent on a whole-mind tower of hanoi problem.

Another way of saying this is meditation or mind-change or whole-bodymind change or self-modification is an NP-complete problem. This is another important idea in theoretical computer science. I’m going to mangle this, but it sort of means, that, worst case, one has to try every possible solution to a problem to finally find the right one, and that there’s no general shortcuts.

Anyway, part of what happens in all this is that concepts get deeply “naturalized” or “integrated” or “embodied” or “spread throughout the system” or “into one’s bones,” or “into the very seeming of the world.” That’s partly why all this stuff gets harder to talk about. One gets “beneath” concepts or at least not (as) trapped in them. And language becomes language games, in a positive sense. But because the connection between language and cognition becomes detached, and cognition becomes more integrated than language can ever succeed at, there’s an extra translation step between “the thing really going on” and the language used to describe it, for intimacy, pedagogy, or general communication. So language becomes tremendously flexible and one can become very newly articulate and fluent, but it’s less like the thing a person was previously doing.


ok, so people are deterministic, NP-complete, can blindly, clockwork trap themselves in thought loops or meditation dark nights or suicidal abysses? the wielding of language (logic, epistemics, decision rules, trigger action plans) and computation (wetware artificial intelligence tulpas), at least as individual and personal acts of power, won’t solve our problems?

well there is grace.

planet earth did produce buddhas and jesus’ esoteric teachings and desert fathers and motherly love and intimate love and platonic love and compassion and…

so like what if far from equilibrium entropic dissipation great-filter-fermi-problem-produces little whirlpools of life and little whirlpools of buddhas and spontaneous enlightenments and partial wisdom? grace.

and so just like, even though everything is subject to the halting problem, one process and monitor another process and poke it if it seems like it’s looping or erroring out. one person can keep another person company and maybe say just the right thing at the right time. grace.

people can write words, make use of convention and computation, run symbols and computation on physical causality to transfer ideas for different ways of being, contingent and counterfactual and imminent and possible adjacent better worlds.

the bodymind is only ever trying to do one thing, and it is reaching out, the very dust and stones reaching out to god, creatively, playfully. maybe mechanism but that is empty. these words are empty. no words anywhere, in the emancipatory sense. free will, living choice from the inside, you choose, you write the story.

so even under epistemic uncertainty, seeming determinism, suffering, ill will, corruption, confusion, desperation, at least seeming mortality, are available to at least some humans, some of the time, time, money, relationships, health, information, creative problem solving permitting

and so stability and clarity and peace and certainty and play and fun are available to some humans, some of the time, even under all these constraints. and communities of resource and practice can sometimes be big positive-sum wins for everyone.


P.S. Ramble: I should have finished this with something about how because of some naturalized equivalent of buddha nature, all things being equal, with proper method, a mind can creatively generate all the puzzle pieces it needs to go full enlightenment, or whatever. This works because minds are practically finite and the data needed to make the right leaps/computations (ha) are overdetermined by what any human is swimming in, plus what a brain is actually doing, blah blah. So like, plenty of learning is contingent, but sensory-causal-laws and a bunch of other stuff are deep-evident in all experiencing. So people probably have enough fodder for touching the absolute by the time they’re like five years old or something. And then of course plenty of other important knowledge is contingent, so then acquiring all the rest of the data is a life-long meta-bootstrapping journey. But there’s a key sense in which the deck is stacked towards enlightenment much, much, much more than one might think. Buddha nature, mind is only ever trying to do one thing (like predict what’s going to happen next or something), plus a lot of things that are truly true are true everywhere and evidently so in each moment. Just gotta run the inferencing engine on it. Fifty to 10,000 hours, depending on where one draws the goalposts and a bunch of other contingent factors.