scientifically noncontradictory spirituality

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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I don’t mean to get “wise,” here. Someone start making fun of me.

I just want to emphasize, I do believe that the whole meditation memeplex interrelates with the following list and much more:

wonder, joy, awe, rest, longing, searching, ease, ecstasy, incompleteness, loss, suffering, transcendence, profundity, meaning, authenticity, purpose, self-expression, grace, surrender, sacredness, annihilation, expansion, communion, sacrifice, being, safety, artistry, release, indifference, love, intimacy, compassion, meaninglessness, immanence, embodiment, beauty, dignity…

It would be surprising if meditation didn’t. Part of meditation is exploring your meaning-making system and your relationship with the entire phenomenal world. (I’ll be more precise about this in a future post.)

Perhaps you can still be a technically proficient meditator and not really ever have to unpack all the “spiritual” stuff. I don’t think anything up in that list *has* to conflict with naturalism or joy in the merely real, and all that.

Personally, without some of the positive stuff up there, I don’t really think life would be worth living. And I think meditation is a particularly powerful tool to explore those realms. But it’s just one tool. Reading your biochem textbook or reading about the sociology of abuses of power by religious figures are other tools. Everything about everything. You can’t leave anything out.

I do utilize spirituality as a concept, and I desire my “spirituality” to really, really deliver, in the deepest, truest, most personally meaningful way on a big chunk of what traditional religion promises. Spirituality for me also involves gazing into the abyss and standing naked before an indifferent universe. Exploring all that may or may not be part of my project, here.

On this blog, I want to keep things precise and useful and generally accessible–I presume most people cringe when they hear something like “grace,” a) because it’s not part of their personal value system, or b) it’s an extremely vague concept (until you pin down what you’re actually talking about). I dig that.

Some people might like to read Paul Tillich’s work, in which he defines faith as “ultimate concern.” (And for others it won’t resonate and will provoke much eye-rolling.)

I’m stealing this from the wikipedia page above:

“[…] It transcends both the drives of the nonrational unconsciousness and the structures of the rational conscious…the ecstatic character of faith does not exclude its rational character although it is not identical with it, and it includes nonrational strivings without being identical with them. ‘Ecstasy’ means ‘standing outside of oneself’ – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center.” — Tillich , Dynamics of Faith, p.8-9

For me, part of my ultimate concern is having the right ultimate concern(s).

And that means I’m concerned with everything.

I’m concerned with phenomenology, epistemology, ontology, ethics, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, folk wisdom, social psychology, math, logic, computability theory, much more, and, yes, some metaphysics and traditional religion, for every last bit of value I can squeeze from them.

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discontinuous neural changes and transcendence

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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I’ve been thinking of your comments in light of Jill Bolte Taylor’s comments about her stroke. Her description of what it was like to have her left-brain functions blocked reminds me of descriptions I’ve heard about what it’s like to experience transcendance. How do you think her stroke experience relates to meditation?

I’ve read Taylor’s book. It seemed to contradict itself in places, but that could be for a number of reasons. She is great.

Generally the brain seems to tune itself through complex networks of recurrent excitation and inhibition of many, many submodules. Locally and globally, opponent processes are firing all the time, which allows for finely tuned and fast adaptive control.

Both a stroke and “classical buddhist enlightenment” seem to temporarily or permanently knock out one or both sides of the excitation/inhibition innervating  particular submodules.

So, a stroke and “enlightenment” are similar in terms of the large, discontinuous changes that they can cause, which might put particular submodules permanently into “overdrive” or “underdrive.” And that could greatly change the content and dynamics of conscious experience and behavior.

In terms of the specific submodules being targeted by both Taylor’s stroke and by meditation or “enlightenment,” I could make a reasoned argument, but it would only be speculation. (One could match up Taylor’s medical records with functional neuroanatomy and meditation/fMRI/EEG literature, too…)

For whatever it’s worth, Taylor’s experience doesn’t seem to match most of the end-game descriptions that I’ve read. Her experience reads more like transient states that meditators sometimes go through (minus the most debilitating aspects of her experience). In the traditional texts and from modern teachers you get a continual litany of “Ok, yeah, that must of been really intense, but that’s not ‘enlightenment.’ … Nope, not that either. Nope. … Nope. … Nope. … Nope. …”

Personally, I’m most interested in how meditation alters “finely tuned and fast adaptive control,” in very specific ways; getting insight into all the slippery ways I fool myself; and deliberately using the contents of consciousness more effectively. I am wary of “the big stuff,” of poorly controlled, discontinuous changes in neural activity or anything that would interfere with my ability to carefully track self and world.

I think there can be value in “peak experiences,” though, as long as they’re properly interpreted, because they can make you aware of how vast the space of possible ways you can relate to the world is, and possibly give you more choice and flexibility in how you relate to the world in the future.

I am a fan of legitimate (oh, the arrogance!) profundity, meaning, grace, transcendence, being humbled and “broken open,” communion, and so much more, too.

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Goal elicitation workshop

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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I gave this presentation a few months ago, and there’s stuff in there that will come up in future blog posts.

In this video:
“goal types that predict happiness,”
“evidence for nonsymbolic cognition,”
“evidence that nonsymbolic cognition is useful,”
“evidence that you can get better at nonsymbolic cognition,”
“demonstrating that you’re (of course) already doing nonsymbolic cognition and you can do it deliberately,”
“focusing, freewriting, and goal elicitation prompts,”
“some final tips and thoughts and questions and comments and additional perspectives”

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The levels above your own

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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[My plan was to immediately hack out another “how to” post, this time for the kind of meditation that I actually do. But I realized I needed a few more background posts to try to avoid people practicing “cargo cult meditation.” This post takes an empirical look at meditation and tries to sell it from that perspective. The next post, I think, will be analytical phenomenology (“meditation theory”). And then I’ll have a “how to” post.]

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” –Marcel Proust

There is a musician, we’ll call him “Bob,” whose parents are Southern Baptists [1]. He blogged once about how sad and surreal it is that his parents will live their entire lives, and die, as Southern Baptists. Bob loves his parents, and his parents love him. Bob’s dad gave him his first guitar. But Bob’s parents are living in a different world.

We all share a basic humanity. We are all running the same hardware. If someone is sad, we know how they feel, even if we don’t know why. But, I am not a Southern Baptist. I fight, live, care, fuck, strive, suffer, and think differently than a Southern Baptist. The world that exists for me is different than a Southern Baptists’. It’s built out of different things and subject to different laws. What I care about is different. What I’m capable of conceiving is different. The worlds that could be, for me, are different. It’s not necessarily happier, but it’s better over here. It’s freer, more beautiful, more heartfelt, more scary, more dangerous, more complicated, and more alive. More is at stake, and my ultimate concerns are different.

But, actually, I am a Southern Baptist. And so are you. There are many levels above your own. What level makes yours look like a Southern Baptist’s looks to you?

So here’s why meditation is important: For some people, under some conditions, for some collections of meditation protocols, meditation makes you go through levels faster, and meditation makes you hit higher levels that you wouldn’t have otherwise hit at all [2].

I would go so far as saying that meditation can be a moral imperative if you value making the world a better place. Other moral imperatives of mine are respecting the dignity and autonomy of a) Southern Baptists, b) people who choose not to meditate, and c) people who think I’m an idiot. Remember meditation can fuck you up if you’re not really careful and even if you are. This is powerful stuff, and it’s not for everyone. And this world belongs to Southern Baptists and everyone else on the planet, too.

So, I repeat: “For some people, under some conditions, for some collections of meditation protocols, meditation makes you go through levels faster, and meditation makes you hit higher levels that you wouldn’t have otherwise hit at all.”


Check out the references, below. A heads up–you’re going to see “spiritual” language in peer-reviewed research papers. (wat.) The way to read this stuff is to implicitly operate like this:

“Based on the everything I know about everything, what does the content of this human artifact, and the fact that I’m reading it, tell me about the structure and state of reality, if anything? And, given all that, what do I do next?”

In other words, you look at the methods, you look at statistical power, you look at p-values, you look at effect sizes, and you decide whether or not some of this stuff has maybe nailed down a little patch of reality, a little isolated map that can make some accurate predictions of the territory. You have to do the extra work of finding the signal in the noise, and you have to do the extra work of translating the map into language and concepts that might or might not hook up with the rest of science. But empiricism is empiricism, if you take responsibility for interpreting it, and if you choose to make use of the thousands of hours that well-intentioned people have put in.

See below…

[1] I can’t find the really old blog post that corroborates this story, so maybe I’m confabulating it, so we’ll leave him as “Bob.”

[2] Some of those conditions for making meditation effective are trying new things; reading your brains out; meeting new people; facing your fears; paying attention to your still, small voices; treating meditation memeplexes with caution and skepticism, having certain kinds of goals [3], and generally being a complete human being. It wouldn’t hurt to find an open-minded meditation teacher who’s been doing it and teaching it for decades, too (but good luck. Maybe scroll through the Buddhist Geek podcasts).

[3] Bauer, Jack J., and Dan P. McAdams. “Eudaimonic growth: Narrative growth goals predict increases in ego development and subjective well-being 3 years later.” Developmental Psychology 46.4 (2010): 761.


[Depending on how you look, there are broad patterns (“stages”) of how people move through their understanding of self and world. Loevinger captured some of that structure with the WUSCT. Cook-Greuter extended Loevinger’s work. For a fun, woo, overview of all this, read “Nine levels of increasing embrace” which is free online. (Lots of the peer-reviewed papers below are, too.) Read through all the stages in “9 levels.” You are allowed to get extra skeptical towards the end.]

Cook-Greuter, Susanne. “Ego development: Nine levels of increasing embrace.” Unpublished manuscript (2005).

Gilmore, John Manners, and Kevin Durkin. “A critical review of the validity of ego development theory and its measurement.” Journal of Personality Assessment 77.3 (2001): 541-567.

Cook-Greuter, Susanne R. Postautonomous ego development: A study of its nature and measurement. Diss. Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1999.

Hy, Le Xuan, and Jane Loevinger. Measuring ego development . Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1996.

Loevinger, Jane, and Ruth Wessler. “Measuring ego development.” (1970).

Pfaffenberger, Angela H., Paul W. Marko, and Allan Combs. The postconventional personality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Loevinger, Jane, ed. Technical foundations for measuring ego development: The Washington University sentence completion test. Psychology Press, 1998.


[One of my old professors told me a story about how one of his colleagues was so excited that they’d found that schizophrenics’ brains were significantly different in some way. And, my professor was like, well, duh? They’re schizophrenic. Back to meditation: It’s very mildly encouraging that meditation does noticeable stuff in the brain and body. Great, it’s, distinguishable from the normal waking state. And maybe we can use those differences to elucidate mechanisms and learn more about the brain, directed attention, executive control, and so forth. And maybe we can design better meditation protocols. But it shouldn’t be all *that* surprising that, like, objective stuff changes when you’re meditating…]


[Meditation changes how quickly you go through “stages” of development.]

[Note, I don’t do TM.]

[Update: Note: Be really careful with the TM movement: ]

Alexander, Charles N., Kenneth G. Walton, and Rachel S. Goodman. “Walpole study of the Transcendental Meditation program in maximum security prisoners I: cross-sectional differences in development and psychopathology.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 36.1-4 (2003): 97-125.

Alexander, Charles N., and David W. Orme-Johnson. “Walpole study of the Transcendental Meditation program in maximum security prisoners II: longitudinal study of development and psychopathology.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 36.1-4 (2003): 127-160.

Alexander, Charles N., et al. “Walpole study of the Transcendental Meditation program in maximum security prisoners III: reduced recidivism.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 36.1-4 (2003): 161-180.

Chandler, Howard M., and Charles N. Alexander. “The transcendental meditation program and postconventional self-development: A 10-year longitudinal study.” Consciousness-Based Education (2005): 381.


[More reminders to be careful. The percentage of people that experience bad stuff is staggering.]

Otis, Leon S. “Adverse effects of transcendental meditation.” Meditation: Classic and contemporary perspectives (1984): 201-07.

Shapiro, Deane H. “Adverse effects of meditation: A preliminary investigation of long-term meditators.” International Journal of Psychosomatics (1992).


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Additive meditation (how to)

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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In this post I want to talk about “additive meditation.” This is not my main meditation practice, “foreground/background meditation,” which I gave a preview of in a previous post. Additive meditation is, however, something that I do sporadically and I’m trying to find the time to do more and more of. Analogues of additive meditation are Shinzen Young’s “Focus on positive” [1], Buddhist cultivation of the Brahmaviharas (metta, mudita, karuna, upekkha; lovingkindess, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity) [2], Paul Gilbert’s work on compassion [3], and Tibetan buddhism’s tonglen meditation [4]. Also see Alba Emoting [5].

Ok, so what is additive meditation? There are many legitimate perspectives you could be taking in a given moment. There are many legitimate things you could be feeling in a given moment. This protocol is about adding perspectives and feelings that help to flesh out a given occasion. The focus is on feeling because feeling alters physiology (or *is* physiology, depending on your definitions), and physiological state affects cognition and memory.

You might use it like this: When I have a problem, I typically blend a) a combination of warmth and safety (to overcome focusing bias) as well as b) some gentle sense of lack and a sense of “what could go wrong,” to get myself in a finely tuned state of mind. Another example: If I want to creatively think about or reach for something I care about, and I’m already being sufficiently careful and protective, I bring warmth and safety into my state, to balance anxiety- and fear-driven repertoire narrowing.

In terms of “what to add,” you can get a feel for what works best for you in any given situation. Sometimes whatever you’re feeling then and there is totally appropriate, but, other times, you want to bring more nuance on board, depending on what you’re up to.

Notice that there is no corresponding “subtractive meditation” in the paragraphs above. More on why that is, below.

I want to expand on focusing bias a little bit more: We tend to focus on things that have happened recently or are going to happen soon. We tend to blow things out of proportion. We make decisions based on how we feel now, not how we might feel in three minutes. And, sure you *could* end up as a homeless person on the street: it’s worth deploying a certain amount of cortisol and adrenaline to amp up your focus, energy, and attention to avoid such an outcome. But now it’s 8pm on a Tuesday night, or it’s the weekend, or you need a break–there isn’t a saber-toothed tiger chasing you this very moment. You’ve put in your time for the day or week, you’ve laid your plans out for next steps. It’s worth being able to change your sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, so you’re not pointlessly hanging onto fat, chewing up lean tissue and dampening your immune system function. Let’s have your digestive system working smoothly and powerfully. Let’s be able to attend to the short, medium, and long-term things we do want to happen, not just the short-term things we don’t want to happen as well as worst-case disaster scenarios. Let’s feel cozy, safe, warm, loved, and relaxed. Your body will thank you. Your significant other will thank you. Flexibly moving through states, and realizing how much “reality” is influenced by those states, is important.

So, as I said, we’re going to be working mainly with feeling and emotion. But, before we do that, it’s worth emphasizing that there’s lots of stuff that can influence how we feel inside:

1. Time marching on, the world changing around us, and the world doing things to us, can change how we feel inside.
2. When you do things in the world, carry out actions, projects, plans, doing that, and the result of doing that, can change how you feel inside.
3. Simply planning, cognizing, taking different perspectives, basically doing things internally, with respect to the world, can change you you feel inside.

My point is that, having a particular state inside is a legitimate thing to want. It feels good to feel good, warm, safe, loved, happy, interested, etc. But chasing states is probably not the best use of your time. Feelings and qualities are “designed” to be a summary of the state of self and world (rather, a summary of our interpretations or beliefs of the state of self and world) evaluated with respect to how all that’s good or bad for the self. So, if you want to powerfully affect how you feel inside… then do things in the world. Consider that working directly with your internal state should be a strategic, proximal goal in service of what you really care about in the world. But, also consider that you don’t *have* to change your state before you can do something in the world. You can just fucking do it, regardless of what’s going on inside you. Acceptance and commitment therapy has a lot to say about feelings vs valued action [6].

Now, all that being said, sometimes you’re already having hot sex, hanging out with friends, having intimate conversations, going to the movies, cooking delicious meals, writing searchingly in your journal, etc., and something is still not right. Sometimes then it’s just fine to explore giving yourself exactly what you need, be it feeling loved, cared for, etc., nuanced precisely just for you from you (or an imagined other). And you can do it as much as you want or need. Maybe that will prime the pump so you can bring it into your life for real. And/or maybe getting those things from yourself is precisely all you needed.


The goal of additive meditation is to bring into physiology and consciousness a feeling-state that wasn’t already online before you started. Doing this is internal, nonverbal behavior, so I can’t swing the baseball bat while you watch, after which you try it, and then I correct your form. There’s going to need to be gentle, continuous experimenting on your part, to see what works for you. It can be better to not give precise instructions, anyway, as this can induce you to be more flexible, creative, and adaptive in your approach (says research that I don’t have on hand, at the moment).

You might need to be patient. You get much, much better over time at this, more flexible and powerful. There may be no discernible limit as you practice over a lifetime. (Unlike other meditation practices, I’m less afraid of overdoing something dangerous and permanent with this type of meditation, though I don’t have much basis for that non-fear. Even if you’re temporarily feeling extreme endogenously generated emotion, it seems that the body/mind is very heavily biased towards taking emotional cues from the outside world, which makes sense.)

Anyway, there’s no one single way to do this. When I do it, I feel like I’m doing a bunch of different things, sequentially or simultaneously, at any given time. The ideas is, doing whatever works, to legitimately, truly, begin to feel, and to gently or firmly maintain the feeling of, whatever you’d like to feel in that moment.

As I said above, this is a nonverbal “action” or “allowing” within yourself. You might feel like you’re directly doing it, or maybe it has more of an indirect feel to it. Or, you can speak inside or out loud to yourself, “May I feel…”, or intuitively have a running dialogue/monologue of whatever makes sense. Or, you can imagine scenery, people, scenarios, or other things that make you feel what you would like to feel. Or you can notice or call attention to aspects of your immediate environment or overall life situation that evoke what you want to feel (e.g. for feeling yummy stuff, you might call attention to you being currently warm and comfortable, that people love you and care about you, that you have savings in the bank, or maybe you’re just physically safe at that moment. There are many, many, many pleasant possibilities, even for really, really shitty immediate environments or current life situation.)

Whatever you need, whatever you want, the idea is to give it to yourself. Maybe it’ll feel like you’re /allowing/ it. Maybe it’ll feel like you’re /surrendering/ to it. Maybe it’ll feel like you’re /opening/ to it. Maybe it’ll feel like you’ve chosen to be /willing/ to feel it. Maybe you feel like you’re /evoking/ or /generating/ or /invoking/ it. Maybe you’ll feel like you’re /savoring/ it. Whatever works. There are many paths and stances and ways to go, within. Whatever works.

Examples of things you might want to go for: love, joy, safety, warmth, peace, comfort, ease, rest, opening, allowing, surrendering, safe and sleepy, curled up, comforted, accepted, loved, held, free.

Layer stuff, combine stuff, blend stuff, intertwine stuff, keeping playing and intuiting feelings and qualities that feel good and right for you. Be an emotional artist, conduct an emotional symphony.

You can do this intermittently as you go through your day, for fifteen focused minutes 2-7 times per week, for longer a couple times a week, there’s no one right way. I do the first two.


So, while you’re engaged in doing all that above. Stuff might come up, or already be present, in reaction to what you’re doing. That stuff might be aversive or “negative” or feel like it’s in opposition to what you’re engaged in doing.

An example is, you’re exploring feeling warm, safe, and loved, but you’re sick, scared, and you are living paycheck to paycheck. And that’s what surges up whenever you try to feel warm, safe, and loved.

Here are some things to consider if and when that happens (which, for lots of people, is all the time):

1. While doing additive meditation, you’re not fighting a war. You’re not trying to indirectly drown out emotions, beliefs, and qualities that you don’t want to feel or don’t want to feel about yourself or other people. Nor are you trying to directly counteract emotions, beliefs, and qualities, pitting one set against another. What you are doing is *adding* emotions, beliefs, perspectives, and qualities to what’s already there or what’s arriving.

2. See how there’s plenty of space. There can be a sense of gently shaking free of the “grippyness” of the “negative” stuff clamoring for your attention, the stuff that might be reacting or lashing out to what you’re bringing to the table. You’re gently shaking free of that stuff, but you’re not rejecting it. There’s a delicate touch, and it takes practice, where you don’t let that “negative” stuff run the show, but you let it be, you let it hang around, let it be as loud as it wants, let it have a voice at the table. You’re sidestepping it without disrespecting it or pushing it away, a delicate touch that honors what’s already going on or what’s coming along for the ride. You let it be, in addition to what you’re deliberately adding. There’s plenty of space.

3. Also, generally, to feel these new things that you’re deliberately bringing to the table, you have to be willing to feel a) what’s already at the table and b) anything that’s also coming up. You can’t selectively feel, at least not easily or consistently. In the long run (I think), it’s easier to feel everything. So, if there’s “negative” stuff going on, consider being willing to experience that negative stuff, for the entire time you’re also bringing positive stuff the table, and beyond.

4. To summarize, a) you have your job, b) the “bad stuff” or “realistic stuff” coming up is doing its job, and c) there’s plenty of space at the table.


You can make things more complicated, with four core aspects and one optional aspect, for five aspects, total. If you’re doing at least one of the core aspects, then you’re doing additive meditation as I’ve defined it (but, remember, you can do whatever the hell you want). You can do two through all five aspects simultaneously, if you desire. I do this, sometimes.

So, to break this down:
1. You can explore feeling/thinking things that you want/need to feel/think. (This is what we talked about above.
2. You can explore feeling/thinking things that you want/need to feel/think specifically towards/at/about yourself.
3. You can explore feeling/thinking things that you want/need to feel/think towards/at/about one or more other people, as if they were right here, right now, aware of you being aware of them, and vice versa.
4. You can explore how you want/need one or more other people to feel/think towards/at/about you and how you want to feel/think about that, as if they were right here, right now, aware of you being aware of them, and vice versa.
5. You can open to explore everything happening within and without, in addition to exploring one or more of 1-4. (In this way, you can incorporate foreground/background meditation into additive meditation. A complete post on forground/background meditation is forthcoming.

Please refer to the diagram, which is meant to summarize (1-5) above:

a. The emanating arrows inside the “I” correspond to (1) above.
b. The reflexive arrow from/towards the “I” correspond to (2) above.
c. The arrow from “I” to “You” corresponds to (3) above.
d. The arrow from “You” to “I” corresponds to (4) above.
e. The boundary (really no boundary) around everything corresponds to (5) above.
f. The jagged line inside “I,” a lightning bolt, is any thinking and feeling in reaction to any of (1-5) above.



So I hope you’ll take a few hours to explore additive meditation, spread out over a few months. Over time, It can even out your emotional reactions, possibly after an initial transient response, so you feel a more complete and balanced emotional milieu towards whatever’s happening around you and within you. You’re less swept away by what you’re feeling, and it can feel more safe to feel intensely strong and intensely negative emotions because you can bring whatever you want to also have a seat at the table. This can be awesome.

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[2] Lovingkindess by Sharon Salzberg

[3] Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive Features by Paul Gilbert

(Much of the structure of the core practice was inspired from Gilbert’s organization of these topics.)


[5] There are about four peer-reviewed journal articles that describe key aspects of alba emoting and two fairly fluffy books written in Spanish (the first of which cites those key articles). You can find Susana Bloch on Scopus or possibly Google Scholar.

[6] Acceptance and commitment therapy

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Legibility, Registration, Reality, Experience

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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If you like the concept of legibility, found in James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State [1]. You may also like the concept of registration, found in Brian Cantwell Smith’s On the Origin of Objects [2]. I feel like OOO is what Ken Wilber would have written if he were a computer scientist.

Eugene Gendlin’s Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning [3] explores the interaction between reality, experience, and nonsymbolic representation, on the one hand, and legible objects and symbols, on the other.

Also related: Data and Reality [4] by William Kent; Notes on the Synthesis of Form [5] by Christopher Alexander.

Anything else?

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Meditation is not a panacea

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

[New? Start here:]

Meditation is not a panacea

Dan Ingram says, ‘Caught up in “ultimate wisdom” and their “spiritual quest,” they can sometimes abandon conventional wisdom and other aspects of their “former life” to a degree that may not be very wise. They falsely imagine that by training in insight they are also mastering or transcending the first training, that of living in the ordinary world. We awaken to the actual truth of our life in all of its conventional aspects by definition, so make sure that yours is a life you will want to wake up to.”

This should be shouted from the rooftops to the true believers: meditation is not a panacea. It’s not sufficient; it’s not even necessary, if you’re trying to live a rich, fulfilling, unwasted life. Besides all the weird neurological stuff, maybe the dark night is because people are (understandably) naive and they expect meditation to solve all their problems. Meditation becomes a mind-stopper.

There’s a whole universe of self-improvement and world-improvement out there, to reflect upon, from un-poisonous PUA, to reading your brains out on smart, feminist blogs, to learning how to be vulnerable and intimate, to learning how to constructively argue, to powerlifting, to sprinting, to hot sex, to writing, to healthy eating, to job negotiating, to empire building, to critical thinking, to safely channeling your inner sociopath, to strategically saving the planet, to tiling inanimate swaths of the multiverse with human values. What might you care about? How can you find out?

Personally, I put a lot of time into a recursively bootstrapping self-optimization.

In LessWrong jargon, that might mean, among lots of other stuff, you gotta explore your ugh fields, you gotta explore and update your beliefs about self and world.

In popular language, that means lots of journaling, lots of soul-searching, lots of therapy, lots of intimate conversations, lots of life experiments, lots of pushing your limits.

Ken Wilber (and lots of wonderful-but-dated psychology writing) talk about “the shadow.” LessWrong and lots of scholarship are wary of naive introspection. Herbert Fingarette talks about self-deception. Tim Wilson talks about the adaptive unconscious. Robin Hanson talks about evolutionary signaling pressures that underly said self-deception.

I’ll just call it, “You need better mental models of yourself, better maps of your own territory. Form hypotheses about your intentions; test them. Form hypotheses about your goals and desires; test them. Become less wrong about yourself. It takes a lifetime; never stop.”

Another helpful distinction made by David Deida is “yoga” vs “tantra”. In his jargon, yoga is about healing, doing remedial work, building a strong foundation. Tantra, on the other hand, is about pushing limits, taking risks, going after something. The same protocol can be used for yoga or tantra. And the boundaries blur, and you can be working in both domains simultaneously or alternating rapidly. But know which one you’re doing or which one you’re erring on the side of, at any given time. Are you pushing your limits with a chance of getting fucked up, or are you working on becoming less fucked up and less fuck-up-able?

Besides knowing yourself and knowing what kind of projects you’re engaged in, you have to make friends with yourself, all of yourself. Self-compassion and all that. That takes a lifetime, too.

Remember, one of the classical enlightenment goodies from before, attentional control?

I want to give attentional control a special mention because it leads into a larger theme: The more you’re able to reach into yourself and tweak things, the more responsibility you have to not screw yourself up. I don’t like trying to shut stuff out so I can concentrate; I deeply value the input of my myriad neural subroutines (voices, parts, protectors, perspectives, cares, concerns, rages, urges, impulses, longings, hopes, desires, fears, reminders). If they’re unhappy and won’t let me concentrate, I’ve found there’s almost always a very good reason (to one of *them,* anyway). Will you check in and take their concerns seriously?

Granted, learning to skillfully respond to large swaths of subsystems at once, via a manageable number of strategic, proximal actions-in-the world, can be extremely frustrating. But the possible dividends are huge. “You” are also your subsystems, if you let them. You contain multitudes, and they can be the richness and texture and nuance of your life. And if you ignore too many of them, they can rise up and destroy you. (Quarter life crisis, mid-life crisis, burnout, angst, ennui, suicide, etc.)

Here are some resources I like for “yoga” and “tantra,” for knowing yourself and surprising yourself, for healing, strengthening, and stretching yourself, metaphorically speaking:

[see book ideas below]

Ultimately, you need to ask yourself, am I running away from something because I’m afraid? Or am I striving towards something because it’s beautiful and I care? We all do both; protection and promotion together are necessary and sane. But which one is running your life?

Meditation can too easily be used to run away, turn away from the world and hide in the dark. But meditation can also be used to run towards: feel more, hurt more, care more, love more, desire more, fight harder, live larger, play harder, think more carefully, act more gracefully, act more sanely…

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (1st or 2nd ed.) reads like a manual for how to not use meditation incorrectly.

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Focusing by Eugene Gendlin

Self-Therapy by Jay Earley

Getting Things Done by David Allen
(This book is a double-edged sword. It can potentially take you farther from yourself instead of closer.)

Emotion-Focused Therapy by Leslie Greenberg

Mixed Emotions by Petra Martin

The Lover Within by Julie Henderson

Male Multiple Orgasm by Jack Johnston—Step/dp/1882899067/

Felt Sense: Writing with the Body by Sondra Perl

Arousal by Michael Bader

Compassion Focused Therapy by Paul Gilbert

Resolving Inner Conflict by Jay Earley

After the Honeymoon by Dan Wile

After the Fight by Dan Wile

When Panic Attacks by David Burns

Exposure Therapy for Anxiety by Jonathon Abramowitz, et al.

Core Catharsis by Lloyd Gregg

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Steven Hayes et al.

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what i think about ken wilber

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

[New? Start here:]

>> mark, what do you make out of kw’s video? what do you mean when you say that you vouch for the authenticity? <<

tl;dr: He’s not full of shit in this video. 1) I believe that most if not all of his assertions in that video will lead back to peer-reviewed publications of moderate average quality, 2) in each segment he is experiencing the states he says he is experiencing, 3) those moving lights are an accurate reflection of the power in various frequency bands of the superposition of electromagnetic fields generated by his neural activity.

What to say about Wilber… He’s not on the critical path of my blogging project, here, so I don’t want to give him too much airtime. But I understand that what I say about him can help people assess the quality of my thinking.

First, he’s been writing for decades, and I think there’s five major “Wilbers” at last count. At present, he’s old and quite sick, and his online presence is becoming increasingly incoherent.

He just finished a book, though, which will hopefully be published within the next year or two. I’m eagerly awaiting it, and I hope it’ll be as good as it could be.

Now, how the heck do I make a concise, comprehensive, true statement about Wilber, given his vast oeuvre?

Let’s touch on some ontology and epistemology:

a. So, duh, I believe in reality. There’s a there out there. It surprises us; it bites back. And there’s nothing metaphysical or supernatural; it’s all just “natural.”

b. Loosely speaking, we can’t “know” reality, directly. We can only make maps. If we’re in the business of representing reality, it’s folk theories, scientific theories, or AI thalience [1], all the way down.

c. All maps are wrong, but some are more useful than others (understatement), depending on what you’re trying to do. (I acknowledge the wrinkle that your maps impact your choices of what you’re trying to do.)

Now, how can maps be wrong?

Here are a few ways I can think of:

1. F=ma wrong
2. Phlogiston wrong
3. Folk psychology wrong
4. Evangelical christian wrong
5. Structured analytic techniques [2] wrong
6. Armchair philosophy wrong
7. Not even wrong

I would say Wilber is primarily in the businesses of being “F=ma wrong” (across a large number of domains), “folk psychology wrong”/”folk theory wrong”, and “structured analytic techniques wrong.” He has maps and metamaps that are so fucking useful, depending on what you’re trying to do… and so do a gazillion other fantastic authors [3]. Wilber has so much relevant stuff that his work will probably come up again, but that’s about as far as I want to deal with him right now.

Last thought is that, from the outside, the LessWrong community looks just as creepy and culty as the Integral Theory/Integral Spirituality crowd, no? 🙂

[2] Structured Analytic Techniques by Richards J. Heuer and Randolph H. Pherson

(btw, naive use of structured analytic techniques can produce worse outcomes than “just doing it”. There is at least one paper that shows this about SWOT analysis, for example. SWOT analysis always seemed silly to me, though.)

[3] Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning by Eugene Gendlin; Incomplete Nature by Terrence Deacon, Origin of Objects by Brian Cantwell Smith, Wandering Significance by Mark Wilson, Effectuation by Saras Sarasvathy, Clinical Judgment by Alvan Feinstein, Vital Lies Simple Truths by Daniel Goleman, Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt, Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall, Rationality and Power by Bent Flyvberg, Seeing Like a State by James Scott, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford… The list is endless…

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dark night and what enlightenment is like

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

[New? Start here:]

>> I would like it if you shared some more thoughts on negative experiences or “the dark night”. <<

There is apparently a Zen saying: “Better not to start. If you start, better to finish.” Meditating is associated with accelerated development of an increasingly sophisticated worldview [2], but this cognitive development is nearly orthogonal to changes in life satisfaction [1].

Meditators following particular protocols, and sometimes even without following those particular protocols, pass through a predictable series of pervasive experiential stages [3]. Sometimes these stages pass quickly and harmlessly, but sometimes a meditator oscillates backwards and forwards into painful and disruptive states. Daniel Ingram claims that many people drawn to meditation are already oscillating through those unpleasant states.

But, what in the actual fuck? Do miserable people seek meditation? Or does meditation make people miserable? Another saying: “suffer less, notice it more.”

Daniel Ingram experienced the “dark night.” It’s one of the reasons he wrote his book. Shinzen Young notes that “the dark night of the soul” was appropriated by meditators from the Christian tradition [4]. As far as I’m aware, he thinks the risks of meditation are overblown. But, hearsay: Two meditators independently committed suicide while meditating and corresponding with him. Shinzen Young hallucinated huge insects for a period of time, deep into his practice [5]. Both Daniel Ingram and Shinzen Young experience periodic “harmless” and possibly “refreshing” discontinuities in their awareness [3,6]. Willoughby Britton, iirc, reports a 1-2 year period of difficulty focusing her attention [7]. Robert Forman describes a fairly humdrum enlightenment process, but he references another memoir which describes a prolonged, horrific experience [8].

This is no laughing matter, but I’m laughing at myself, giving these examples. There are too few poorly sourced, anecdotal data points, and a lot is potentially at risk, as in entire lives. I think that there is enough potential benefit that more longitudinal studies of meditation are needed, to follow individuals and cohorts across time. This is something I’m sort of interested in doing, at some point.

But why did these really freaking smart, caring people do these things to themselves? Do they think it’s worth it? They would probably say, “Hell yes.” But can we trust them? Do meditation systems facilitate affective death spirals [10]? After all, meditation systems often come with theories of everything. (Rather, meditation systems are embedded in theories of everything.)

Last but not least, is meditation wireheading?

I’m going to talk about supposed end-game benefits of meditation, but a caveat:

I am not classically enlightened. And I’m really, really cool with that. I’ll discuss this more, below. (I do believe Daniel Ingram, Shinzen Young, Kenneth Folk, Vincent Horn, Robert Forman, and plenty of random people all over the planet have stumbled upon or achieved at least one of the four stages of classical buddhist enlightenment, if not all of them.)

So let’s talk about the phenomenology of classical enlightenment. Below is my understanding, based on hardcore reading and limited glimpses. If you are enlightened, some of these might be in effect, and some of these overlap or even contradict (I have not experienced all of them!):

1. The background and foreground of experience reverse. Usually we’re stuck in our heads and we actually attend to the outside world sporadically. The inner world is more salient. All this can reverse, where inner life is dramatically reduced. It still comes and goes, but it doesn’t grip attention. It’s like a veil has been removed between you and the outer world. Reality slaps you in the face, everywhere you look.

2. You’re not jerked around by your thoughts. Thoughts don’t cause chain reactions of thoughts and emotion. A thought comes, you’re aware of it like you’re aware of a chair; you can act on it or not. Paraphrasing: “Mind unmovable, free to move in any direction.”

3. Self becomes just another object in awareness. “You are not in the world; the world is in you.” Sense of identity shifts to something or nothing below/beyond the self system, which may still operate fairly normally.

4. When you don’t need words (to reflect upon or to communicate with others), you mind doesn’t generate words. No mental chatter.

5. Your proprioceptive skin boundary turns off, and you can’t tell where you stop and the world begins. (But you can eat and have sex and walk around just fine.)

6. An attenuation of the conscious self-system. You seem to think and behave and react normally. But any self-referential cognition “stalls out” once it turns towards where the self is/was and goes into a neural, non-reactive black hole.

7. The entire field of consciousness becomes phenomenally “self-tagged,” as if it were your physical body. Walls are you. Tables are you. Other people are you.

8. Possibly no more suffering, though suffering might be defined pretty narrowly [8].

9. Cognition is no longer automatically believed. Normally our first reaction to our thoughts is as if they perfectly reflect the territory, with strong emotional reactions, positive and negative, coming along for the ride. For neurotypical people, thoughts *are* reality, unless you catch yourself and/or remember to reflect. Somewhere post-enlightenment, thoughts become automatically seen as thoughts, without the need to deliberately reflect on that fact. That is, from the moment they appear, you fundamentally know, deep in your bones, in real time, that those thoughts may or may not accurately reflect the actual territory, and you emote and act accordingly (perhaps after a transient reaction).

9. There is no more reactive “shoulding,” no more arguing with reality. You can still have preferences, you can still want to change the world. But in the actual moment you’re not explicitly or deeply denying or resisting what’s actually happening in that very moment. (“Surrender, willingness, …”)

10. You might have the ability to focus on whatever you want, whenever you want, for as long as you want (e.g. programming, studying).

11. Potential huge increases in empathy and compassion, though not necessarily strategic tough love. (Edit: Also, you might become or remain a sociopath, or you won’t change at all, or something else, so, yeah.)

12. Emotions are less “stuck,” they arise quickly and attentuate more quickly, or they at least have a less heavy, less smothering, less consuming feel to them. The felt intensity of emotion may or may not go up.

13. The above are pretty Buddhist. There seems to be at least one other semi-repeatable, non-fake “end game” that involves a complete attenuation of a large class of emotional phenomena. (Google “Actual Freedom”. Be careful.)

14. Lots more stuff.

So, personally, a handful of these sound good, but I’m rather wary of a discontinuous, permanent changes in neural activity. I don’t really want to risk fucking up my brain. I don’t really want to risk fucking up my driving motivations. I don’t really want to risk fucking up my value system: I’m comfortable with my values shifting over time as I learn and mature, but I’m not going to use my attention like an ice pick and give myself a lobotomy. (Of note, though, all the people mentioned above seem to function just fine. Survivorship bias?)

Maybe it’s fair to say that I’m patiently, obliquely, skeptically, cautiously easing towards some of the classical goodies. But I’m enjoying and exploring all the good side effects that can happen in the meantime, instead of ignoring them (and my life) for some future promise. One thing I’ve learned is that reading descriptions of the above stuff in no ways prepares you for what it’s actually like. And enlightenment chasing can clearly be very dangerous and counterproductive.

Whatever the utility of the above list, I still think there’s plenty of fetishizing and attaching deep significance to weird experiences, and then dogmatically training the fuck out of them until something bad happens. I call it “internal superstition”: That weird experience you keep repeating, or this careful inner protocol that you’re following, is that really what made that genuinely good thing happen? Maybe there was a more direct way to get that good thing? Or a more accurate way to think about what’s happening inside you? And maybe those awful side effects you thought were necessary actually aren’t at all? Do you really want to fetishize and glorify this particular mind hack?

So if I’m not gunning for classical enlightenment experiences, and I don’t think you should, either (contrary to tons of people), then why the heck do I meditate?

A little bit creepy, but meditation does call out to me. It is doing something big for me, as far as I can tell. As a tool in my toolbelt, it indirectly (sometimes directly) helps me find myself, hear myself, remember myself, listen to myself, honor myself, refine myself, comfort myself, create myself, strengthen myself…

YMMV. I’m enacting various protocols and paying close attention to what they’re doing to me and for me (And my assessments could be wrong!), and I’m doing it pretty conservatively. Even so, I’ve had some scares.

I will expand more on all this in a subsequent post. Probably time to get a blog, but these emails are working really well for now. Question prompts greatly appreciated.

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[1] Baur, J. & McAdams, D. Eudaimonic Growth: Narrative Growth Goals Predict Increases in Ego Development and Subjective Well-Being 3 Years Later. Developmental Psychology. 2010, Vol. 46, No. 4, 761-772

[2] I haven’t read these papers carefully, but I’ve heard good things about one of these researchers and *some* of the TM research. There is nonsense and actively bad stuff going on with the TM movement, ok stuff going on with them, and a sprinkling of good stuff. The “ego development” scale has a long history and is awesome.

Chandler, H., C. Alexander and D. Heaton (2005). Transcendental Meditation and Post-Conventional Self-Development: A 10-Year Longitudinal Study. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 17(1): 93-122.

Alexander, Charles N. and Orme-Johnson, David W. Walpole Study of the Transcendental Meditation Program in Maximum Security Prisoners II (2003). Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. 36(1-4): 127-160.

[3] Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha



[6] Hat-tip, Nina!

How Understanding the Process of Enlightenment Could Change Science by Jeff Warren

[7] I think this was in here somewhere:

[8] Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be: A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul by Robert Forman



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“spiritual” stuff

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

[New? Start here:]

Some perspective. I’m not an anthropologist or an ethnomethodologist or a psychologist, but here’s my take on “spiritual” stuff. Hundreds or thousands of years ago, people sit around and explore their inner space, and they experiment, and they make discoveries: “If I watch my breath long enough, everything disappears, and I feel like I’m floating,” or, “I see inner light,” etc. It’s not so different than thinking sleep paralysis is demonic possession, except that the inner phenomena are elicited relatively more deliberately and systematically. And people compared notes, and argued with each other, made new discoveries, etc.

So what is this stuff that people find, these weird, profound-seeming experiences? I think it’s two things. One is, I think, leftover evolutionary potentialities or debris, like the mammalian diving reflex. The other is straight up body hacks.

Here is a concrete example besides meditation: Take “inner energy” phenomena (qi, ki, chi, prana, etc.), the experience of flowing energy, the sensation of localized shimmering/radiating energy centers, the experience of directing energy with attention, and so forth. Phenomenologically speaking, this is all very real. I did the work, and I can experience all these things at will. But I interpret these phenomena through the lenses of the neuroendocrine system, the autonomic nervous system, neuroplasticity, and how the attentional system interacts with various neural body maps. When I think about these things, I also have in mind the tendency of human beings to systematize phenomena using metaphysical categories, to employ gamification to attract followers and create a local status system, and to attribute deep religious meaning to weird experiences.

Note that all of the above can happen orthogonally to the *intrinsic utility* of those weird experiences. Gamification, religious systems, all of that would probably build around weird experiences even if some of those weird experiences weren’t useful at all. Fortuitiously(?), though, meditation, “energy work,” etc., are a mixture of useful phenomena and “useless” phenomena. The trouble is sorting out whether weird experience X is going to confer some benefit over time, do nothing useful for you, or even do you harm, even if just through opportunity cost.

So, there’s all sorts of ways to hack your mind and body to have weird experiences. And sometimes those experiences feel intrinsically profound. And I personally feel there’s legitimate profundity and legitimate utility to be found in a subset of these experiences and training systems. And other training systems are useless at best and genuinely dangerous at worst. Sorting though all of that is costly. Sometimes you can take shortcuts by talking with sane people who’ve taken the time to explore; and sometimes you can use scholarship and reasoning to ignore whole classes of phenomena (and sometimes you’ll be wrong to do so, or you’ll throw out the baby with the bathwater). And sometimes it’s worth it, and sometimes it’s not. Intuition, longing, and sense of something missing can be decent guides, as long as you don’t join a cult or fuck up your life.

Bottom line, some of the woo can be explained away by neuroscience and anthropology, and some of the woo is awesome (though almost always not in the way you initially expect), and sometimes it’s worth it to strategically and intelligently experiment with the woo to find stuff that’s helpful to you. But if someone hands you something pre-packaged and tries to get you to turn off your mind and unreflectively consume it, well, that’s bad, not that this group needs reminding. Use your whole mind and everything you know, all the time…

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