(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: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]
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…