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.)

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>> 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




[4] http://shinzenyoung.blogspot.com/2011/11/dark-night.html

[5] http://www.amazon.com/The-Science-Enlightenment-Shinzen-Young/dp/1591792320/

[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


[9] http://lesswrong.com/lw/dxr/epiphany_addiction/

[10] http://lesswrong.com/lw/ln/resist_the_happy_death_spiral/

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One thought on “dark night and what enlightenment is like

  1. Pingback: how to do foreground/background meditation | Meditation Stuff

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