how to do foreground/background meditation

(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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[Getting busy in current life situation; updates will be sparser. Or I’ll need to blow off steam and updates will frequent. Questions appreciated, to direct this blog where you want it to go.]

[UPDATED 12 JUNE 2015: A few things; First, I consider this post to be basically up-to-date and “core.” Second, I want to acknowledge that this post is really messy, off-putting, and confusing, especially the first few sections. I’m not ready to edit it. If you’re patient with it, the meat is in the the lettered points, which were written carefully. Second, I consider so-called Tacit Updating to currently be “canon.” Please consider reading the post linked below in conjunction with this one:

Finally, for an excellent complementary perspective, check out Culadasa’s work and, most likely, especially his upcoming book, which has hopefully been published by the time you read this. More Culadasa stuff, here: ]

[UPDATED 6 SEPTEMBER 2013: Added points N2 and O2.]

[UPDATED 5 SEPTEMBER 2014: Added point R]

[UPDATED 5 SEPTEMBER 2014: Added point S]

[UPDATED 25 NOVEMBER 2014: Added points N3 and O3]

We’ve come a long way…

  • I’ve given you a bunch of other resources to learn meditation that aren’t connected to me:

  • I’ve shown you an auxiliary meditation practice that I do:

  • I’ve shown you how I keep track of my own meditation practice:

  • I’ve given you some reasons to meditate:

  • I’ve given you some reasons not to meditate:

  • I’ve suggested stuff to do besides meditation:

So, at this point, I hope things will be a little anticlimactic. It’s time to start the meditating, thinking, reading, meditating, thinking, reading loop, if you’re down and you haven’t already. Concepts absolutely, positively guide the act of meditation. Your maps are critical. (Your capacity to forge ahead without perfect maps is critical, too.) But meditation is a transcognitive act. Meditation enfolds cognition.


As far as I know, my formulation here is novel. But the most direct inspirations are these resources, in no particular order:

Mindfulness in Plain English

Coming back to remember – Sati II: Theravada Practice Blog

Recollective Awareness

Distinguishing Phenomena and Pure Being

Upasaka Culadasa’s still unpublished book (Thanks, Jasen!)

(The bajillion other resources I’ve linked in previous blog posts have also inspired this practice.)

I wish I could say “firmly push this big red button exactly 20,010,173 times and you will experience supreme enlightenment.

But we don’t have that.

But what if you we could do dual fMRI and EEG on you, show you what your brain should look like, gamify that shit with a simple, objective scoring system and let you go to town?

Well, we don’t have that either.

But, even if we did, and even if we had nanomachines hanging out in neurons and synapses, and sweet-ass exocortices, and libraries of highly nuanced and tunable mind states designed by other people that you could load as desired…

I am recommending that even if we had that or will have that, you still need to be the final arbiter of your conscious experience. It’s a “thing” in a category by itself. You *experience* it. It *is* you, and all you’ll ever know *is* it. So, what’s there right now? How do you feel about it? What can you change and what can’t you change? What’s the cost and what’s the benefit? What might you become? How might you live and see and feel? On the other hand, are there things you care about that are more important than managing your internal state? Are there things more important than, e.g. “not suffering?” Evolution has “designed” us to really, really care about really real things. Are you going to fight that or roll with it?

I guess my point in this section is that, regardless of all the fancy, mindblowing stuff that may or may not be available in the near or far future, you can’t escape a) goal ambiguity, b) environmental isotropy, and c) enaction, with respect to your mindstream. To be less jargony, possible futures don’t come in tidy and discrete packages, paths to those future don’t come in tidy and discrete packages, and taking action changes the desirability of possible futures, the possible futures themselves, and the possible paths to those futures. All of that applies to doing, being, and having.

Even more succinctly, though perhaps this section has been totally incoherent, you need to make contact with the territory and get messy. Maps are not sufficient when you’re dealing with your mindstream. Experience has to be experienced. It’s in a class by itself.

So, here are the instructions, with some unpacking following them:

  • As you read these instructions, and as you experiment with the practice, of course your mind will furiously engage and try to figure out exactly what’s going on, what you’re supposed to be doing, what doing the practice is doing to you, how everything about this practice connects to everything else you know, etc. Great! Just don’t fixate on what you think is supposed to be happening, what you think you’re supposed to be doing, what you think you’re supposed to be experiencing, what “doing it right” means, etc. Keep an open mind and allow yourself to be surprised and confused and curious. UPDATE: What you think I mean, and what you think you’re probably supposed to do, your initial impulse, your initial carrying out of the instructions, and over and over again–let your understanding and doing evolve from there, be open to an evolving understanding…
  • Note that there is no precise algorithm. There are a series of touchstones that you can step through. There’s room for artistry, experimenting, finesse, curiosity…
  • In general, keep your critical faculties online while also openmindedly surrendering to whatever you’re experiencing instead of trying to force what you “should” be experiencing. You’re not mindlessly rowing a boat, and there’s no rush, rather, rushing misses the point. Quality not quantity, and all that. Light, minimalistic, deft touch, ever smarter over time, with lots of doing and thinking and reading and reflecting on what you’ve done and why you’re doing it.

So here we go:

A) Choose an object or process (breathing, body, site, sound, “the act of X”).

B) Gently allow awareness to rest on that object and gently stabilize awareness there. The asymptotic ideal is continuous, unbroken contact with the object. Pay attention, know that you’re paying attention, and remember you’re paying attention.

C) The boundaries of the “object” or “patch of space” or “sensation” or “collection of objects or sensations” you select are arbitrary. As your perception improves over hours or weeks, any boundaries you choose will start to get fuzzy. For example, you’ll start to see the phenomenal and temporal distinction between “what’s actually there” and “your abstracted and packaged mental impression of what’s there.” Don’t get hung up on where to draw the experiential boundary; Make some arbitrary choices or draw the line and pick something “out there” like a chair, a mark on the wall, a leaf on a tree, your breathing, the act of sitting, etc. You don’t have to get perfectly semantically clear about boundaries before starting. Ongoing ambiguity is fine and necessary.

D) Simultaneously with (B), balance awareness of the object with the entire rest of the phenomenal field, with all of experience and awareness, inside of you, outside of you, everything. Update: “That’s part of your meditation practice. And that. And that. And that… And that… Nothing is outside your meditation practice.”

E) The “goal” is to try to gently, “effortlessly” have both the foreground “object” and the background “everything else” be equally salient. Both the foreground and the background can have a lot going on, they can be dynamic. Update: Consider doing it, thinking about it, as Culadasa describes, “looking through the meditation object,” if that resonates with you a little better.

F) If you lose track of the foreground or background, or you get distracted, gently return to the protocol: stabilize on an object, become aware of everything, etc.

G) Balancing foreground and background is an active process, not a static end state. If you’re course correcting, you’re meditating. Course correcting, actively aiming, among other things, *is* the meditation.

H) To balance foreground and background, you’re continually remembering what you’re doing, adverting to the object, making choices if the boundary of the object is ambiguous, remembering to include the entire background, not getting “hooked” by objects in the background, noticing changing salience of foreground and background. Pay attention to what’s going on, what you’re experiencing, what’s going by. Use it, learn from it, think about it. Steal moments for micro-reflection or let cognition go on in the background or try micro-interventions or experiment with things you’ve noticed at a different time.

I) You can’t brute-force the balancing of foreground and background. The mind doesn’t seem to be really built that way. There’s sort of a stepping back, letting go, widening, listening feel to it. Exploring *how* to balance foreground and background is also part of the practice, is also meditating. Reflect on what you’re doing, reflect on how you’re doing it, reflect on more deft use of your mental “doing” and “not-doing” muscles, and whether you’re using too much muscle, or the wrong muscle, or what muscles need to be gently coaxed to greater strength and capacity for continuous application (or non-application) over time.

J) This balancing of foreground and background is partly just a default thing to do, something to give you something to do, something concrete to return to. Deviate from default: Experiment, explore, chase after things. Do whatever the hell you want. Know, though, that this “default mode” was chosen carefully, and it is strength training and observational-tool-refining. Over time it changes what you see and what experiments you’re capable of performing.

K) When you start a particular meditation session, begin gently. Don’t dispel what’s been going on prior to meditation, don’t banish that context, that sense of what you’ve been doing, what you need to do, what’s going on in your life. Let it be, let it continue to unfold or hang out; there’s plenty of space to let that continue on while you’re meditating.

L) You’ll go off into reverie or daydreaming. When you return from reverie or daydreaming, don’t slam back in; return gently. Don’t dispel the contents of your reverie or daydreaming, that sense of where you’ve been, what you were thinking about, or doing, or experiencing. Let it be, let it continue to unfold or hang out; there’s plenty of space to let where you were continue on while you’re meditating.

M) To elaborate further on the last point, reverie and daydreaming are not your enemy. As you gain more experience over weeks, months, and years, your mind will indeed wander less during meditation. And, over weeks, months, and years, those periods of wandering will become shorter. But they’re not something to eradicate, and you’ll have different “reverie needs” depending on what’s going on in your life at any given time.

N) The reason reverie-during-meditation is a good thing is that not all mental gears can turn while “you are there paying attention.” Lots and lots of gears *can* turn while you’re watching closely (i.e. actively meditating), and, over time, you develop a light touch so more and more gears can smoothly turn while you’re there to watch. But some gears *can’t* turn while you’re directly watching. Let your mind move forward on its own terms, if it wants to, by easing you into reverie. Honor what comes back by allowing it to continue on with you as you keep meditating.

N2) More on “gears”: There are mental gears, emotional gears, patterns-of-subtle-muscular-tension gears. You can fixate on a particular set of objects, perspectives, assertions, or viewpoints. You can “clench” around emotions and visceral states. Pushing things away is also a “clenching.” Over time you can have a lighter and lighter touch. You can’t make things go away (at least, I don’t try), but you can allow things to breath and shimmer and undulate and flow and ripple and move, and even wail and rage. You can find a steady place to rest your attention in the foreground, and without rejecting or pushing away anything that’s happening, you can let all that rage in the “background.” But remember you’re balancing “foreground” and “background” in salience. This should be the subject of an additional post, but you can use foreground background meditation as another choice for how to be with thinking and feeling. As your foreground attention is gently resting on something somewhat neutral, and you’re still attending to everything in the background with your “mental peripheral vision,” you get to experience thinking and feeling in its “natural state,” “in the wild” when it’s not “pinned to the wall” or frozen, or fixated by attention. There’s nothing wrong with applying foreground attention. But it can be moving, freeing, profound, to completely be with what you’re experiencing (because you’ve made the “background” salient) while allowing or surrendering to everything you’re experiencing (because the “freezing” aspect of direct attention is gently occupied with a neutral object).

N3) Sometimes, if I have a lot going on my life, with strong reverie and thinking needs, I’ll still want to apply myself in meditation a bit, too. In these cases, I’ll maintain the lightest of light touches on the meditation protocol and just sort of gently flicker back and forth between reverie and awareness of background, with just the barest hint of foreground, all of it kind of hanging out together on the edge of each other, lightly drifting, shifting, back and forth, letting the mental gears turn a bit, sometimes a lot, while still sticking around, hanging out, looking back, seeing, spending time with what just happened, letting it all be there at once, back and forth, keeping the process company and surrendering to it. The sounds like a lot, but it’s just a gentle shifting, flickering, back and forth, side to side, light, precise-yet-relaxed-touch, letting it all be, letting it happen, letting what wants to happen, happen, while periodically resurfacing and checking in.

O) Anxiety while meditating is a good indicator that your mind is trying to move something forward (and that “something” could be quite amorphous, initially or perpetually), and that “something” isn’t getting enough airtime or not all the gears that want to turn are able to turn. Anxiety can mean you’re being too rigid. Go off-protocol, use more mind muscles, think, poke, allow your mind to wander, etc. Maybe stop meditating and write in your journal, or make that phone call, or do that chore, etc.

O2) Sometimes anxiety can be moved forward by giving what you’re anxious about direct foreground attention (and reverie and off-the-cuff language and writing, etc.). This works great when you have concepts and language that adequately cover what you’re anxious above, or you have enough of a sense that you can eventually get the language you need by starting with not-quite-right language and eventually circling to words that more or less work. Alternatively, sometimes anxiety can be moved forward by allowing it spaciousness in the background, being with it with your “mental peripheral vision,” letting it be vague and amorphous and cognitively unboxed because you don’t have concepts that can “cover” it at this time or it’s still unfolding and evolving and it’s not a good time to be using conceptual machinery. It doesn’t have to be just anxiety, either. These foreground background choices also can work for hopes, dreams, frustrations, longings, desires, urges, doubts, ideas, drives, and subtle or not-so-subtle mental/emotional “energy” and “inner life” for which there isn’t words in your native language. There are, at times, very powerful behavioral drivers that seem to never make it into foreground attention, but they drive tremendous amounts of thinking and doing. It can be very freeing, and useful, and even fill you with relief, if you can spot this stuff at work in the background (remember, you need to use search around with your “mental peripheral vision”; looking around with foreground attention doesn’t seem to work.

O3) Of course, meditation doesn’t have a monopoly on insight. Really, there are much more direct tools for insight and understanding. Meditation is kind of a background muscle builder for the skills of insight and understanding. (Sure, meditation can make spontaneous insight more likely. And it’s great to incline towards and let that happen. But there’s much more you can add to the mix.) Check out Focusing, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Coherence Therapy, The Lefkoe Method, daydreaming, journal writing, conversation, long slow aimless walks, deep and dreamy sleep, lots of internet googling and reading, Radical Honesty concepts, tools from Dan Wile’s books… I’m still thinking about how to more directly integrate these tools with meditation. See also:

P) You can look at meditation in a few different ways: 1) As a controlled environment where you can observe and perform experiments. 2) As a stripped down training ground for daily life where you can practice inner behaviors that you want bring into daily life, and 3) Weight training–very general mental moves that have general positive *transference* to all sorts of daily stuff but aren’t meant to be actually performed or recalled in daily life. They are all useful perspectives.

Q) General heuristic: Don’t look *for* things, instead look at what’s *there*, in front of your stabilized awareness.

R) At some point, perhaps consider making the foreground object “action,” or “an action.” For example, the foreground object could be the act of sitting, or “doing sitting.” (Sit, keep sitting, keep it up, you’re doing great, onward with the sitting, sit really skillfully [seriously]…) (All the above applies with respect to the background.) And then, perhaps, more and more complex doings, more and more intense doings (or being done to you)… And an exploration of this in daily life. But, when in doubt, just live, act, do, without trying to add a layer of meditation on top of it.

S) As an alternative to (R) perhaps consider that, your foreground attention, of necessity, flits from object to object object during everyday, normal, day-to-day life. That’s how you function in normal day-to-day life. During that, throughout that, perhaps notice that the background is always, already, effortlessly there, effortless available… And, perhaps, consider what that makes available to you, always, already, effortlessly… At some point, you may start to get a sense of a foreground-background reversal, where your “foreground” attention swims within an ever-present, ever-salient background… Something to explore…


Ok, so you pick on object, stabilize on that object, open to everything, and try to roll with what happens. Piece of cake! Repeat fo-ev-a. Not.

Phase 1: no idea what you’re doing, distracted, forget what you’re supposed to be doing for minutes at a time

Phase 2: maybe anxious, breathing gets in the way, feels unnatural

Phase 3: get in the groove a bit, sort of get a sense of what you’re supposed to be doing, pretty on task

Phase 4: what you’re supposed to be doing sort of starts to get unclear again (you perception gets finer, you start to see subtle holes in the instructions where reality doesn’t seem to match up with them)

Phase 5: kind of drift back and forth between doing the practice and reverie, even in reverie there seems to be a momentum where “something” is still meditating even when you’re not all there, probably cycle back and forth between 2-30 seconds on protocol, then 2-30 seconds in reverie, with something tacit stable across both, maybe.

Phase 6: you own this shit. flexible, agile, multi-threaded, creative, relaxed, effortless effort, excitement, confusion, possibility, curiosity, jazzy riffs, ambiguity, auxiliary refinements, new moves in daily life, new ways of relating to self and world, only the beginning, lather, rinse, repeat…


fuck you money

(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:]

We are afraid that if we allow those with less the right to choose what quality of life means to them, they may make choices that lower the quality of our lives. If a slum-dweller chooses to use resources to buy a TV rather than address the squalor that intrudes on the visual and olfactory lives of the rich, there is a problem. A problem to be addressed by taking away cash and offering in-kind “aid” in the form of housing and sanitation projects that conform to the aesthetic priorities of the rich.


The free response of less privileged individuals to perceptions of relative deprivation is not always what the more privileged hope it will be. If I were poor, and had to choose between eating more protein and escaping the hopelessness of my life for a few hours a day by watching TV while stoned, I’d probably choose the stoned TV-watching. Like millions of actual poor people seem to. Along with their $75,000+ middle-class peers.


Money does not buy happiness not because it cannot, but because the freedom to spend it intelligently is locked away in institutionally advantaged scripts that make irresistible claims on marginal discretionary dollars above that amount.


Which is why fuck you money is the right term for aspiring to more. To reach for $75,0001 while rejecting the approved list of ways to spend the extra $1 is to say fuck you to somebody else’s notion of a happiness-and-well-being script.  Incentives to conform to said script be damned.

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muscles you didn’t know you had

(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 think this is the last bit of context and background before the next “how to” post]

Meditation helps you find muscles you didn’t know you had. These are “natural” muscles and natural functions, like your breathing–you’re using these muscles thousands of times per day. But, unlike breathing, where you can notice you’re breathing and then deliberately control you’re breathing, lots of people never notice or exercise deliberate control over these “mind muscles.” Or, they do it without noticing or realizing they’re doing it, so they can’t do it systematically and deliberately–and systematic and deliberate use of these “muscles” can be very valuable and meaningful.

These muscles are not just “doing” muscles, but also “not doing” muscles, “getting out of the way” muscles, “zooming in” muscles, “zooming out” muscles, “being still” muscles, “multi-awareness” muscles, “experiential replay” muscles, experiential “listening” muscles, “remembering what you’re doing” muscles, “remembering the right thing at the right time” muscles, “inner pause button” muscles, “having an open mind” muscles, patience muscles, reflective rationality muscles…

Finding these “mind muscles” is a bit like learning to raise that single eyebrow you can’t raise or curl your tongue if you can’t curl your tongue: You feel around in “muscle space” and it just seems like there’s *nothing there* to “flex.” Finding these mind muscles, exercising them so they get stronger, and learning to use them is counterintuitive, and it takes weeks, months, and years.

“Muscles” isn’t *quite* the right term or the right analogy. Sometimes it does literally feel like muscles. But, other times, doing this stuff has a vaguer, more indirect feel, and you might never get complete “fine motor control,” nor would you necessarily want it–coordination of these systems it not something you’d really want to have conscious control over all the time. It’s just like it would be hell to have to consciously breath all the time. But, paying attention to these muscles *sometimes,* and working with them a bit at a time, over time, can make things work better all the rest of the time when you’re *not* paying attention, or, you can get a more consistent wake-up call when it would be *helpful* to pay attention, and that can be a good investment.

It’s not just “mental muscles” that get exercised. You also get improved “inner eyesight.” It’s like you start out with a clumsy flashlight in a dark room, and over months and years you end up with floodlights and laser targeting that can track many targets at once across changes on the order of milliseconds. You see more. At the risk of being too poetic, you’re aware of shimmering fine-structure, nuance, subtlety, and rippling waves of change across many different timescales, from milliseconds to minutes to days. Another analogy: Your inner color vision goes from 16-bit color depth to continuous hyperspectral. But it’s not just colors, it’s qualities, feeling tones, impressions, images, intuitions… I *am* being sort of hyperbolic here, sorry. But it really is kind of like this. This particular line of inner development is one of the things I’m most grateful about. And some of the above nuance is *conceptual*. You can contemplate referentially grounded ideas that you couldn’t contemplate before.

I want to touch briefly, here, on “actual levers” versus “imagined levers.” (I will probably expand on this more in the next actual “how to” post.) There *is* a difference between *meditating* and *imagining you’re meditating*. We want to be pushing and pulling and doing resistance training with *real* phenomenal levers versus *imagined* phenomenal levers. I want to emphasize that *imagined* phenomenal levers can be extremely useful, too. Indirect visualization, nonverbal intention, and verbal expressions of intention can all be very powerful (cf. psychoneuroimmunology) and there’s a lot of that going on in the “additive meditation” which I described in the last “how to” post. It’s GREAT to be able to visualize and intend and let your body take care of exactly what you want without you having to micromanage how it’s happening. Use it! But that’s not the main thing we’re doing here. Intention and inclining towards experiences and qualities (what you want, what you might want, and what you’re curious about) does have its place in the upcoming foreground/background meditation, as a background sense of what you’re doing and why (just like with lots of activities). But, really meditating is pretty discrete, well-defined, and direct, in terms of what you’re actually doing on a moment to moment basis, even if it never *quite* gets to the discreteness and stableness of flexing your index finger and holding it there.

You never really want to be TOO precise and discrete anyway. Your inner life should be flexible, “shimmering,” and symphonic–and you should have a light touch when you interact with it and when you’re practicing interacting with it. When you get rigid and repetitive and heavy-handed is when bad stuff is more likely to happen.


So here’s how things might progress over months and years. (There’s some shorter-term patterns over the first few weeks to monthsr, which I’ll probably describe in the next “how to” post.) I think this is the general progression for most people, though that might be a side-effect of how meditation tends to be taught. A much more authoritative developmental progression can be found in Daniel Ingram’s stuff and Upasaka Culadasa’s stuff. They have different rhetorical and pedagogical goals in each of their explications, though.

The first thing (and the last thing) a lot of meditation teachers will have you focus on is sensory stuff: your sense of touch, sight, sound. Other things might be emotions, inner talk, inner imagery. There’s also taste and smell. Besides everyday complex objects (tree, person, the square root of negative one), sensory impressions are probably the easiest things to attend to. Over time, your sense of these things can become much more refined. This is especially valuable for outer emotional manifestations and corresponding inner feeling, etc.

Using Ingram’s language, I would describe the above stuff as “in phase.” (I’ll explain “out of phase” in a moment.) Slightly subtler stuff that is “in phase,” is interoception (hunger, energy levels, have to pee, emotionally motivated visceral changes, various shades of physiological feels), the finer fringes of proprioception, and much more.

(I just realized I’m using subtle in several ways ways–“faint,” “vague,” and “hard to notice.” They are correlated but not identical.)

Something that is initially hard to notice but very, very obvious once you know what to look for is “nonsymbolic cognition.” An example is complete thoughts, fully developed, where you could express it using many different choices of words, but those words would all point back to the same nonsymbolic object. Nonsymbolic cognition can range from discrete thoughts, as just described, to much fuzzier and vaguer stuff, too. I’ll talk more about nonsymbolic cognition below.

Now let’s talk about “out of phase” stuff. “In phase” stuff is stuff that you can point attention directly at and there it is. “Out of phase” stuff is stuff that sort of disappears when you look directly at it or stuff that shifts as you try to look at it so it’s never where you look. It’s kind of like you need to user “inner peripheral vision” to see out of phase phenomena, though you can get really good at it so it no longer has that awkward, indirect feel. (Analogy: faint stars in the night sky can be seen better if you don’t look directly at them–rod/cone stuff.) “Out of phase” stuff is stuff that you could go your entire life without really getting a good glimpse at, though out of phase stuff still modulates your behavior. A good example of something out of phase is your “sense of self” which has a phenomenal representation in consciousness. “Self sense” is hard to look *at*. It’s usually “behind” whatever you look at, to generate the conscious sense of “you” “looking” “at” “something.” Some aspects of thinking and feeling have this “out of phase” quality.

Arguably on the border between “in phase” and “out of phase” are mental “echoes” and “excerpts,” the phenomenal objects that let you know you just had a particular experience–e.g. a sensory impression, a thought, etc. They are “smaller” markers that you can attend to in order to “replay” the more elaborated memory. It’s kind of like icons on a desktop.

(In most of our waking life, we have an experience which then evokes conceptual maps that ostensibly describe that experience, and then we navigate via those maps with minimal additional direct reference to the actual territory that evoked the map. But, we think we’re navigating via the actual territory when instead we’re navigating via the map that may be a really poor fit for what’s actually going on. There are phenomenal components to this process that can be used to get a better handle on what maps are being deployed and whether the ones you’re using are helping. You also can get better at not slamming in the first map that may or may not fit what’s actually going on. And much more.)

Even more subtle than the “contents” of consciousness, are the *dynamics* of consciousness–passive attentional shifts, “zooms,” deliberate attentional shifts or attentional holding, stuff entering and leaving the phenomenal field, “dimming” and “brightening.” You may also start to see the consciousness “gaps” and “ontological tricks” that consciousness uses to make things appears seamless. I actually don’t have much personal experience with the former, mostly because I’m concerned about side effects of developing this kind of awareness, but consciousness apparently flickers in and out. We’re not aware of it–much like we don’t see darkness when we blink our eyes. There are also ontological tricks which I’m more familiar with, e.g. a passing emotion vs the emotion we attend to and reflect upon aren’t *quite* ontologically the same thing, ditto for passing thoughts and examined thoughts. It mostly makes sense to let this sleight of hand do its thing without paying attention to it too much–it works pretty well. But sometimes it’s worth attending to and exploiting the distinction.

Important point: How to get a feel for everything I’ve described above can be sort of counterintuitive. Often, deliberately rummaging around in your head and looking for this stuff won’t help you see it, if you haven’t already had personal experience of some of it. That’s partially because of the “out of phase” phenomenon. Some of what you’re looking for is never directly where you look. That “peripheral vision” you’ll develop is something I’ll probably explain in much more detail in the “how to” post. I just want to mention this here in case you start “looking around in your head” and you see nothing that looks anything like what I’m talking about. It’s the attentional act of searching around that seems to hide things. Sort of a key heuristic is, “to see new things, pay close attention to precisely what you see right now.” That heuristic pretty much holds true for both a beginning and highly advanced meditator, as far as I can tell. In any case, starting to see these things takes hours inside your head, though sometimes you’re already seeing it and you just haven’t matched the experience to the words I’m using. Don’t let my descriptions mislead you–you might find yourself saying “oh, *that’s* what Mark means, but *I* would use entirely different words to describe this.”


So let’s examine cognition and behavior more closely. The interplay of in-phase and out-of-phase stuff in this section resides somewhere in the latter part of my progression above. But this is all so important that I’m splitting it out, here.

The basic point underlying everything in this section is that perception and meaning are interdependent but separable. Perception conditions meaning-making, and meaning-making conditions what we orient on in the phenomenal field. But you can separate out the phenomenal components of these two aspects of experience, even if you have far less insight into the machinery that *produces* these phenomenal components.

There’s actual three main pieces to the meaning-making process:

1. the referent (territory, the “stuff out there” or “inside” you).
2. the signified (meaning, “what comes to mind, ” Gendlin’s “felt sense,” Hurlburt’s unsymbolized thinking)
3. the signifiers (words, symbols)

(1) is the territory, (2) and (3) are the map.

Semantic saturation is when signifiers become temporarily detached from their signified. Tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is when the signified becomes temporarily detached from it’s signifier. You can of course use signifiers to evoke signifieds without a coordinated referent being present, as is what’s happening while you’re reading this.

We’ll discuss below how you can deliberately separate this stuff out and get quite strategic in your use of symbols, complex nonsymbolic cognition, explication of the nonsymbolic contents of consciousness, and how much more flexibly you can slice up the territory, sometimes in different ways simultaneously, depending on what you’re trying to do.

Objects are achievements. It’s folk ontology all the way up and all the way down. All maps of the territory are wrong, but some are more useful (understatement) than others, depending what you’re trying to do. The real magic happens when you have metamaps and metamaps of metamaps that allow you to navigate by many different maps simultaneously in a coherent way.

“Dog” evokes different signifieds in a dog hater, a dog lover, and a veterinarian. An “atom” means something different to a fifth-grader, a lay-person, and a physicist. These examples are kind of simplistic and suspicious, but it’s like this for EVERYTHING, for all concepts, all meanings, all of it.

Two people, let alone a community of practice, with roughly isomorphic concepts whose concepts also map usefully to the territory is a tremendous achievement. (And potentially really anemic and boring if it’s not life or death territory.) Lived life is situated shifting shades and ad hoc scaffolding of conceptual bridges when you’re coordinating, arguing, talking in real time about real life things, issues, concerns, events, hopes, desires, dreams…

Anyway, let’s take a finer-grained look at meaning-making and meaning-use in action:

Consciousness is filled with a collection of semi-discrete cognitive objects at any particular time. These are usually nonsymbolic “threads” that can be unpacked by attending to them. (A “thread” and an “unpacking” are not ontologically identical. This is a trick consciousness plays.)

Your mind will usually bounce around between a) attending to inner talk that explicates a nonsymbolic object, b) directly referencing a nonsymbolic object, c) attending to a sensory impression or object (person, thing) in the outside world, and more.

So, usually your orienting system automatically picks what will be attended to next. Each time you orient on something, the contents of consciousness changes and what’s latent (just below the consciousness boundary) changes. Sometimes, stuff in consciousness will get crowded out, sometimes stuff will fade over time on its own, sometimes something “spontaneously” arises in consciousness (trigger or reminder), sometimes stuff arises sequentially if you’re writing or thinking deliberately. You’re usually not aware of the dynamic nature of conscious conent. You bounce from attentional object to attentional object, which triggers ever-new configurations of objects in consciousness, possibly elaborations of what you’re attending to or, often, reactionary or “opposing” objects.

Part of not realizing how the contents of consciousness changes is that, typically, your attention system “dims” what you’re not directly attending to, so you’re only aware of precisely what you’re focused on, or maybe a small set of 2-3 different things. So you might bounce back and forth or in a loop around a few different opposing or irreconcilable positions, over and over again.

(You’ll eventually break out of these strange attractors, but why not do it seconds, minutes, or hours earlier? Often there’s plenty of additional useful stuff available in consciousness if you remember to “undim” what else is there. Or you might not have additional useful stuff available already in consciousness, but you can have an object come up that reminds you to make space and search for more positions to bring them into consciousness. Your options for how you cooperatively manage consciousness with your automatic systems is pretty much infinite. Just remember you can deliberately manage only a tiny, tiny fraction of all the work your automatic systems are doing and providing to you. You have to interact strategically with the rest of you while you let go and let the rest of you do a huge chunk of the work.)

(And while all the above is happening, your emotions and physiology are reacting to and influencing the contents of consciousness, too)

Another thing is that lots of stuff in consciousness is only semi-discrete–the edges are vague and fuzzy *in a useful, meaningful way.* Sometimes you can realign your attentional “shroud” or “manifold” to create new objects or thoughts or remembrances that blend properties or structure of objects already in consciousness. You can also attend to nonsymbolic objects and find language that maps to or creates structure in those objects, which allows you to recall them more easily and “turn logical gears” for symbolic reasoning. You can also define a shroud (e.g., ask a question) and ask for a nonsymbolic object or field or stream-of-consciousness language to arise that has structure pertinent to or that fulfills what you asked for. (There’s more space of possibility between “know it immediately” and “don’t know it,” than is usually realized. If you hold onto a nonsymbolic query and patiently wait, or hold on and start linguistically riffing, you’ll usually start getting useful stuff that gets progressively refined.)

Usually you can’t attend to two thoughts simultaneously and also get them to blend (or “chunk”) on the spot. You’ll be holding onto both of them and they’ll be fighting each other, with the attendant emotional reactions. And you’ll need to shake free from one of them and find the other so you’re not bouncing back and forth between them. Sleep can sometimes create a new “thought” that transcends and includes the two opposing positions or at least gives you a handle so you can work with both positions simultaneously while using fewer resources and being able to bring even more on board.


(Tangential brain dump on sleep: adore, live it, love it, use it. Sleep, for me, is one of those rare, truly “magical” phenomena–you wake up with new concepts, categories, ideas, solutions. Sometimes you can get magic to happen while awake, in real time while you’re wrestling with stuff, or if you let your mind wander a bit while taking a break, or on a long walk or nap. But if you’re completely stumped, lots of hard thinking, followed by many sleep cycles in a row seems to be the most reliable and extreme way to SURPRISE yourself and get to where you couldn’t have gotten before. Talking things out with other people can also be a way to SURPRISE yourself, too.)

Similar to “cognition space” there is an interpenetrating space of semi-discrete *behavioral* options that you can feel into. We usually pick the most salient next behavior automatically and/or we think the options in front of us are all there are. But we can call up more. We can blend one or more behavioral options, even seemingly opposing ones, by making them simultaneously salient, and then threading the needle between them or through them in an infinite number of ways. This requires deconvolving *yourself* from your *possibilities,* and then attending to those possibilities and manipulating them and choosing them and enacting them with artistry. You can also more directly surf the outside world and respond “dancingly” or “surfingly” directly to what’s happening in your environment. (This also requires exercise of your “getting out of the way” muscles.) Usually our behavior is a combination of environmentally contingent and cached behavior, but we’re biased towards enacting a limited set of cached, parameterized programs. With practice, it can get easier to respond creatively, effectively, and novelly to the immediate environment. That can be scary and risky, too. Start small, etc. But you can practice acting and responding more “authentically,” and in better ways, that accurately map to what’s really happening, instead of reacting to a pattern match on something vaguely similar that’s happened before but that was different in essential ways. Everything actually happens for the first time and there’s always space for something *new* to happen or to try.


One of the most awesome things with all of this is that you can bring on board multiple perspectives, evidence, arguments for and against, concerns, doubts, desires, inner arguments, still small voices, etc., all at once together in consciousness. (You can do this online, though for huge stuff you’ll probably need paper, distributed cognition, and sleep to help.) You can learn to work simultaneously with wildly different, irreconcilable schema if they both bring value to the table, especially if you don’t have time to reconcile or reduce one to the other, or you practically *can’t* at the level of organization or abstraction that you’re working at. And you can get better and better at stacking, collecting, mediating between, choosing, resolving conflicts, etc., between wildly irreconcilable but wildly useful schema.


Meditation gives you a clearer view of what’s going on inside you. It sensitizes you to content in consciousness and levers in consciousness. Once you can grip those levers you can do “resistance training” to get stronger in ways you wouldn’t have been able to get stronger before. You also get new cognitive and behavioral options which get exercised and refined just by using them.

[Next will probably be a meditation how-to post. After that, we’ll be able to use some of that meditation machinery to do interesting stuff with emotion. And after that…]

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You can find lots of the “muscles” described above, and get better at lots of the cognitive and behavioral stuff above without ever meditating. These books help with that:

[the two books below are more for getting better at working with stuff online, as it happens]

Wile, Daniel. “After the fight.” Using Your Disagreements to Build a Stronger Relationship. The Guilford Press (1995).

Gendlin, Eugene T. Experiencing and the creation of meaning: A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. Northwestern Univ Press, 1962.

[the two books below are more for reflective, offline processing]

Earley, Jay. Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy, 2nd Edition. Pattern System Books, 2012.

Gendlin, Eugene T. Focusing. Bantam Books, 2nd (revised) edition. 1982.

[the book below is more behaviorally oriented]

Gendlin, Eugene T. Focusing-oriented psychotherapy: A manual of the experiential method. Guilford Press, 2012.

[the book and cards below have more of emotional flavor, which you can bring back into the stuff above]

Greenberg, Leslie S. Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings. American Psychological Association, 2002.

Martin, Petra. Mixed Emotions : A tool that helps you make decisions, solve problems, resolve conflicts, and more Cards. 2001.

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[in the comments, please ask me to help you navigate the references–ask me stuff like, “where can i learn more about X” or, especially, “Why is this book on here?”]

How to Think Real Good

Nanananda ((Bhikkhu;). Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought: An Essay on Papañca and Papañca-saññā-saṅkhā. Buddhist Publication Society, 1971.

Lamrimpa, Gen. How to Realize Emptiness. Snow Lion Publications, 2010.
[this was published previously under a different title, too, i think]

Tsongkhapa’s Praise for Dependent Relativity. Wisdom Publications Inc, 2011.

Demmin, Herbert. Ghosts of Consciousness: Thought and the Spiritual Path. Paragon House Publishers, 2003.

Gendlin, Eugene T. Experiencing and the creation of meaning: A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. Northwestern Univ Press, 1962.

Scott, Jim. Maitreya’s Distinguishing Phenomena and Pure Being with Commentary by Mipham. Snow Lion Publications (http://www. snowlionpub. com/), 2004.

Cantwell Smith, Brian. “On the origin of objects.” MIT Press. (1996).

Wilson, Mark. Wandering significance: An essay on conceptual behavior. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Mangan, Bruce. “Sensation’s Ghost.” Psyche 7 (2001): 18.

Hayakawa, S. Samuel Ichiye. Language in thought and action. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. Basic Books, 2008.

Johnson-Laird, Philip N. How we reason. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Williams, Joseph M. “Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace.” (2002).

Katie, Byron. Loving what is: Four questions that can change your life. Random House Digital, Inc., 2003.

Stanovich, Keith. Rationality and the reflective mind. Oxford University Press, USA, 2011.

Burns, David D. When panic attacks: The new, drug-free anxiety therapy that can change your life. Broadway, 2007.

Ihde, Don. Experimental phenomenology: An introduction. SUNY Press, 1986.
Ihde, Don. Experimental Phenomenology: Multistabilities. SUNY Press, 2012.

Carruthers, Mary Jean, and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds. The medieval craft of memory: an anthology of texts and pictures. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Carruthers, Mary. The craft of thought: Meditation, rhetoric, and the making of images, 400-1200. Vol. 34. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. “Waking up from the Boolean dream, or, subcognition as computation.” Metamagical themas: Questing for the essence of mind and pattern (1985): 631-665.

Smolensky, Paul, and Géraldine Legendre. The harmonic mind. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Churchland, Paul M. Plato’s camera. The MIT Press, 2012.

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seeking meditation groups

(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:]

If you spend time with a nondogmatic meditation group that sometimes gets into discussions of buddhist scholarship and western philosophy, please let me know or comment here, so people can find you (and the group). Please include country and city (state+city if USA, or equivalent) in the top-level comment.

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Referents and signifiers quotes

(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:]

These quotes are money and not by me:

[…Y]ou have to enter into the formalism while retaining awareness of the ontological context it supposedly represents: you have to reach the heart of the conceptual labyrinth where the reifier of abstractions is located, and then lead them out, so they can see directly again the roots in reality of their favorite constructs, and thereby also see the aspects of reality that aren’t represented in the formalism, but which are just as real as those which are.

Also keep in mind that it’s more important to make your beliefs as correct as possible then to make them as consistent as possible. Of course the ultimate truth is both correct and consistent; however, it’s perfectly possible to make your beliefs less correct by trying to make them more consistent. If you have two beliefs that do a decent job of modeling separate aspects of reality, it’s probably a good idea to keep both around, even if they seem to contradict each other. For example, both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics do a good job modeling (parts of) reality despite being inconsistent and we want to keep both of them. Now think about what happens when a similar situation arises in a field, e.g., biology, psychology, your personal life, where evidence is messier then it is in physics.

For Bayesian methods to even apply, you have to have already defined the space of possible evidence-events and possible hypotheses and (in a decision theoretic framework) possible actions. The universe doesn’t come pre-parsed with those. Choosing the vocabulary in which to formulate evidence, hypotheses, and actions is most of the work of understanding something. Bayesianism gives you no help with that. Thus, I expect it predisposes you take someone else’s wrong vocabulary as given.

All these back and forth comments superimpose into something pretty good (hat tip a lesswrong open thread):

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RANT: thought-stopping truths, e.g. weight loss

(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:]

The only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you eat.

Yup. That statement is elegant, inarguable, true…

…and really incomplete, disempowering, and not particularly useful if you’re trying to lose weight. In my not so humble opinion.

My point is that you can boil “truths” down to simple, parsimonious laws. And those laws are tremendous achievements, and tremendously scientifically useful. But when you’re operating instrumentally and strategically, “truth” is just the price of admission, and the cost is sometimes too high.

The cost is too high when you throw out useful stuff because that useful stuff seems to be ignorant of, or in violation of, the conservation of matter and energy (or the “laws” of thermodynamics, or whatever).

This is cutesy, but I have my own theory of the “epistemic hygiene hypothesis” Washing your hands is really important. But if you avoid anything and everything “unclean” (anything you can’t factor down into really simple stuff you can find in a textbook published decades ago) you’ll end up with an underdeveloped memetic immune system and you’ll develop memetic allergies. Impure/unclean information becomes existentially and emotionally dangerous and you won’t be able to extract value from it because of an overactive memetic immune system.

For example, messy, crazy communities of practice (blog networks, people connecting because they’re trying to figure shit out, because they have vested interest in getting an answer, etc.) can move faster than science. You can use communities of practice to move faster than science, especially if you apply scientific knowledge to the hypotheses being generated by that community of practice. Examples: powerlifting communities of practice, weight loss communities of practice, yoga, meditation. There is culty, scary, dangerous information out there, and there is really useful information out there.

I value being careful of other-optimizing. I value conditions of epistemic viciousness. I am very much afraid of sending people down dangerous or opportunity-costing rabbit holes. And the people who look in many different places and finally find an answer to their problem become convinced that they’ve found the one true answer for everybody. But, in general, I think people need to get their cognitive hands dirtier.

(I am a connoisseur of crack-pots. Crack-pots commit two sins, one much greater than other. The first sin is being wrong. The second sin, the far worse one, is being right but failing to link up their knowledge in a comprehensible way with the grand web of science. Crack-pots, rather, people constructing vast, weird edifices on the internet, can be very useful. Or they can be obsessed with lizard people or cherry pick to their confirmation-biased heart’s content. I have no regrets about reading the entire internet, rather, spending literally hundreds of hours carefully crafting search queries. Yes, opportunity cost.)

Alright, so here’s my take on weight loss. (Disclaimer: I’ve always been thin, until I very slightly wasn’t, and then I learned all this, and now I’m thin again. Regression to the mean? YMMV.) This is just an example of going “faster than science.” I’ve pulled this together from dozens of sources, peer-reviewed research, blogs, etc. (This was previously posted on a mailing list.) Maybe I’m wrong about bits and pieces. Maybe I’m not even right. But I’ve generated hypotheses that can be personally tested.


Weight loss:


1. Chew your food until it is tasteless mush before swallowing, and savor it while you’re chewing.*

2. Aerobic exercise (within your target heart rate zone) sufficient to induce transient, post-exercise anorexia.**

3. Mix high intensity intervals into aerobic exercise (go hard for 30s to 2 min and go back to aerobic intensity. Don’t do this until after a few weeks of (2).

4. Differentiate different kinds of hunger: “Hungry” but can’t think of anything in particular that would taste good, and your energy level and mental acuity are fine, and you don’t keep getting distracted by the hunger, then it’s probably ok to ignore.

5. Keep you window of eating as small as possible (say all 3-6 meals within eight hours) so that your body has to build up and then dip into its storage system.

6. Don’t eat closer than four hours until bedtime (help body switch over into night-time fat burning). You need to make sure you eat enough during the day.

7. Exercise in the morning on an empty stomach to preferentially burn fat. (You need to fuel appropriately the day before.)

8. Don’t eat food that has been carefully designed. But, if you do all the above, you can eat a decent amount of food that has been designed.

(9. Not related to weight loss, but safely lifting heavy things using your whole body is good for you.)

10. Count calories only for a couple days every few months so you can calibrate your intuition. Generally, do NOT restrict or count calories. Your body will fight back. Do not worry about protein and carbs and fat ratios. Just make sure you’re eating enough fat. (See 11.)

11. If you are not eating milk or eggs, you are probably not eating enough animal saturated fat. You are probably not eating enough animal saturated fat anyway. If you’re not getting enough fat, you desperately try to get all your energy from carbs, and you desperately try to convert carbs to sat fat, but your metabolism can’t keep up with either, so you start offloading carbs into fatty tissue. Use all your metabolic pathways. Eat more animal saturated fat. I purchase non-hydrogenated lard and tallow. You can also give your carb pathway a break by eating more coconut oil. Don’t restrict carbs, though.

12. Long, slow walks >40 minutes use up all the fuel in your blood and teach your body to dip into your storage system for efficiently. Mix these in as desired.

Summary: Cycle your parasympathetic nervous system (and fuel tank system) so it doesn’t forget how to burn fat.

*This does something to your dopamine levels, I think. And it gives your mouth/stomach/brain better information as to what you’re eating for effective metabolic regulation. Palatability-taste-intensity-calorie-availability inference in the brain. This can be dehydrating initially because you’re using a lot more saliva. Be careful. After a week or month, it seems like you can go back to normal eating, or at least something somewhere in you has adapted to a healthier baseline. You can always do it again. Also, this sucks at first, like you’ll never enjoy your food ever again. It’s a weird trip. Be gentle and experimental.

**I.e. you dont feel hungry. You’re preferentially burning from storage. But if you’re hungry, eat. If your fuel tank is low enough, you’ll be hungry even if you’re preferentially burning fat. For me this is about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a session, 2-5 times per week. Start out with 1-2 times per week until your tendons and ligaments adapt.



1. If you ingest *more* than your body expects you to burn, in the *short term,* your metabolism either temporarily speeds up, you become predisposed towards more activity, or you store it. Usually it’s a careful balance of all of these.

2. If you ingest *less* than your body expects you to burn, in the *short term,* your metabolism either temporarily slows down, you become predisposed towards less activity, or you burn fuel from storage. Usually it’s a careful balance of all of these.

3. In the *long term,* if you keep ingesting *more* than your body wants you to burn, your body becomes inefficient at mobilizing fuel from storage, because there’s rarely a prolonged need for the stored fuel. When circulating fuel starts to run out, instead of mobilizing from storage, you get hungry much sooner than you would otherwise, and you feel that hunger very strongly because there’s a very slow, sluggish release of stored fuel. Overall, the body gets much better at putting fat into the storage system than getting it out. And you put on weight. (Eating too much highly palatable, carefully engineered food kicks you more quickly into this regime.)

4. In the *long term,* if you keep ingesting *less* than your body wants you to burn… you once again become inefficient at mobilizing fuel from storage (because at some point the body thinks there’s not enough food in the environment, and, instead of burning fuel to make up the difference, your metabolic rate and predisposition toward activity go down in order to conserve your fuel storage). Now the body preferentially puts fat into storage whenever it possibly can because it thinks there’s less food in the environment, and maybe there’s an approaching famine. So, if you do start eating more, you put on weight very quickly.

Restricting calories to lose weight is systematically undershooting what your body wants to burn. If you only undershoot by a very small amount, to lose weight very gradually, then you won’t be so hungry that you can’t sleep, you won’t be cold all the time, and you won’t feel sluggish and exhausted. But you’re still teaching your body that the environment is lacking and that your body should put on fat and keep it on if given the opportunity. You start to preferentially burn more muscle and tissue biomass for energy than you would if calories were abundant. Your body repairs itself more slowly. Plus, maybe it’s personal preference, but wouldn’t you rather your body handled hunger, desire for physical activity, and fat storage for you? It’s a delicately tuned system, and it’s hard for me to believe that getting within say a 25-200 calorie deficit every single day, with varying levels of activity and eating is easy (I don’t have any intuition for when it starts to suck). If your body is happily releasing fat at a steady burn, it can take a little getting used to as all the different systems rebalance, but you just feel steady and fine… YMMV.

The cycling and calorie-non-restriction I described upthread teaches your body that it’s safe to release fuel into the bloodstream whenever there’s the slightest hint of a need. You don’t feel transient intense hunger because your body efficiently cuts over to fuel release when circulating fuel runs low. It takes much longer to feel hungry and you naturally eat less if you’re overweight and burning off excess storage. For whatever reason (mimicking the ancestral environment?), the gazillions of carefully tuned interacting systems in your body are gently nudged into behaving properly. And you lose excess weight, and you don’t put on weight easily, and your weight control system is fast-acting and robust. And your energy is steadier because you have an endogenous fat burn buffer and your muscles aren’t desperately sucking sugar out of your blood after you eat.

Anyway, those are my wild claims and genuine expectations. They’re more like ideas for gently-ramped-up-over-a-several-weeks personal experiments than claims. Depending on what regime all the different systems one’s body is in, different things will help or hurt. (Systems: global parasympathetic activity, adrenal sensitivity, leptin sensitivity, insulin sensitivity, ratio of adipose tissue, cardiovascular adaptation, metabolic rate, history and genetics of macronutrient ratio consumption, history and genetic limit for gluconeogenesis…) Temporary calorie restriction might be a skillfully wielded tool in all of this. See some of the late-in-the-book references in Good Calories, Bad Calories for input/output/activity-level stuff (I don’t think the book’s main thesis is correct). See Mastering Leptin for some of the storage-release intuition and lots of references (again, I don’t buy into the whole book). Maybe other people can dig up some research on other pieces of this, and/or I’m wrong somewhere. This is all testable if it hasn’t been already.
1.) One friend did the calorie restriction route, did the restless nights, irritability, brain fog, and hunger, lost twenty pounds, is now eating normally and has kept it off, so, for some people this appears to work fine…

2.) The same friend, prior to the above, switched to whole fat yogurt, changed nothing else, and lost ten pounds. So there’s that, too.

3.) As for myself, the body of text above is consistent with my own N=1 retrospective experience and informal experiments with weight gain and loss.


In conclusion, truths can be thought-stopping. They can be true… and still be disempowering and counterproductive in their naive application. And, because of their “vast explanatory power” and inarguable simplicity, they can preclude people from finding more useful information, because they think there’s no more information to find. I am perhaps willing to concede that the truth is always true, but we don’t have truth, we have maps, and we will only ever have maps. And maps are more or less useful, depending on what you’re trying to do. Maps are contextually useful.

And, interventions have effect sizes. Some interventions are many orders of magnitude more useful than others, even if they’re all “statistically significant.”

And I bet most complex systems of instrumental levers don’t have a “what’s really going on.”

In other words, “what’s really going on” is of high Kolmogorov complexity, and anyone talking about simple laws and principles is using really lossy compression. Sometimes.

Sometimes you can find an initially (or perpetually) counterintuitive, highly personal, set of really indirect levers that, when used in the right sequence, gently nudge, say, a bazillion metabolic and hormonal pathways into balance. Having gotten your hands dirty on previous occasions helps you to be able to tell the difference.

If you agree with me, maybe we can raise the level of discourse:

1. Here are the laws (with vast explanatory power, yet counterintuitively sparse, anemic, slowly accumulated, and possibly not even true, anyway, whether contextually or just plain spuriously)

2. The naive application of these laws can be counterproductive. Here’s why.

3. Here’s some possibly counterintuitive things you might try, and here’s some scant evidence that they might work for you.

4. Here’s some communities of practice that you might want to explore, but be careful.

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Inner life: suck or awesome?

(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:]

This post is intended to influence the relationship you have with your inner life, in order to make it easier for you to meditate effectively. The next post in this series is more background, “analytical phenomenology,” though it might have some practical tips. The post after that should be a “how to” post. So, without further ado…

Heard any of these before? [1,2,3,4,5]

  • Consciousness is, at best, a heavily edited and extremely selective representation of a representation of a representation, and your brain tries to hide that from you. At worst, consciousness is an outright fabrication which is presented to you as reality.
  • Your most heartfelt intuitions are “designed” to get you to make babies or navigate an ancestral environment, not to give you accurate picture of present reality
  • Conscious processes are the result of unconscious processes; Volition, for example, is a just a feeling that can be turned on and off by the brain
  • You can have strong, pervasive emotional reactions to unconscious goals you fail to achieve and not realize why you’re having those emotional reactions
  • Your brain makes you twitchy and awkward when it thinks you’re getting too uppity in the presence of your betters
  • Your brain can execute on autopilot almost everything you do consciously; You falsely believe you are the deliberate architect of your goals and your choices
  • Your seemingly genuinely felt tastes, preferences, and hobbies are covertly influenced by your status seeking systems
  • You can labor for years or an entire lifetime under mistaken impressions about your desires and intentions or what will make you happy
  • The stories that you tell yourself about yourself and your life can be wildly divergent from what you seem to be actually trying to accomplish
  • And then there’s the false memories, the cognitive biases…
  • And much more…

Ugh, right? Some of the above is accurate, some of it’s hyperbolic, and some of it will be corrected over time, as science advances.

Let’s step away from the content for a moment and consider what it’s doing to us as we read it. You’ve parsed all that text, and now you’ve got a nonsymbolic gestalt for everything you’ve read.

How does it make you feel? Do you think having a vague sense of all that affects your relationship with yourself, how you trust yourself, how you live your life? Do you have an uneasy distrust of everything you want, think, and feel? Do you shy away from paying too close attention to your inner life? Is that healthy? Is it even based on an accurate perception of the territory?

There’s a whole other side to all this “ways we suck” stuff [6,7,8,9,10,11]. For certain classes of phenomena we can know precisely and accurately about what’s going on inside us. We can precisely delimit the phenomenology of various inner experiences in ways that are useful to other people and to science. We can know the emotions and actual thought content of complete strangers, in real time, way above chance. We are arguably far more accurate than we are biased as we navigate our lives.

So which of these viewpoints is true? Are people hopelessly lost, adrift, illusory, and epiphenomenal? Or, are we capable of usefully unpacking our inner lives and navigating towards good, real things, in partnership with other people?

Yes. Both. All of it.

There’s no shortcut, no simple heuristic, that I’m aware of, that will allow you to safely lock down a single, parsimonious, highly explanatory mental model which you can use to navigate your life. What matters for getting what you want is highly contextual and different stuff dominates in different risk/benefit regimes, different time horizons, and as different values and priorities become opportunistically engage-able at a given time. Indexing what’s out there is important. I think explicit analysis is only sporadically the answer. Knowing when to get the hell out of the way of yourself is important, too.

Knowing how to integrate and act from many simultaneous schemas is probably the meta-skill, here. How much can you hold at once and still go deeply into a smaller collection of problem-framings when you need to? Can you offload all this when you need almost your entire working memory for something else and then reload your goals and navigational system afterwards? Flexible depth and breadth.

In any case, my main point of all this is that the only place you’ll ever be aware of all these issues is in consciousness. It’s tautological–you’ll only ever be conscious of what you’re conscious of. Your brain is where all these warnings and caveats and doubts are coming from. You installed them, intentionally or unintentionally. You have the power to use them effectively and with contextual appropriateness, to play nice with them.

All of this is happening in consciousness, the only workspace you’ve got. All your implicit or explicit observations, all your hypothesis generation, all your hypothesis testing, all your distributed cognition, all your inferences, all your behavior, anything you’ll ever know about your unconscious processes, whether phenomenally, inferentially, or through an fMRI machine, the only place you’ll be able to read off any of that is in consciousness. It really, really makes sense to get really, really familiar with the properties of the phenomenal field, to know when to step in and to know when to get out of the way.

You can have confidence that you’re experiencing confidence, have confidence that you’re experiencing doubt, you can be confident you’re doubting your confidence, and you can find ways to allow confidence and doubt to exist side by side for integrated action instead of ping-ponging between them over and over again, without realizing that’s what’s going on.

Any hope you have of dealing with yourself and reality effectively, any hope you have of counteracting your cognitive biases, any awareness of that is going to happen in consciousness. Don’t let vague impressions or other people’s agendas dictate your relationship with your inner life. It makes sense to get really familiar with the content and dynamics of consciousness. You can own it, engage it, live it, surf it, use it.

Next up, probably: More background in the form of analytical phenomenology. What does consciousness look like when you train your attention and really pay attention? After that will be a meditation “how to”…

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[1] Demmin, Herbert. Ghosts of Consciousness: Thought and the Spiritual Path. Paragon House Publishers, 2003.

[2] Burton, Robert. On being certain: Believing you are right even when you’re not. Macmillan, 2009.

[3] Hirstein, W. “Brain fiction: Self-deception and confabulation.” The MIT Press (2005).

[4] Wegner, Daniel M. The illusion of conscious will. MIT press, 2002.

[5] Wilson, Timothy D., and Timothy D. Wilson. Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Harvard University Press, 2009.

[6] Ickes, William. Everyday mind reading: Understanding what other people think and feel. Prometheus Books, 2003.

[7] Jussim, Lee. Social perception and social reality: Why accuracy dominates bias and self-fulfilling prophecy. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[8] Ericsson, Karl Anders, and Herbert Alexander Simon. Protocol analysis. MIT press, 1985.

[9] Hurlburt, Russell T. Investigating pristine inner experience. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[10] Barrell, James J. Inner Experience and Neuroscience: Merging Both Perspectives. The MIT Press, 2012.

[11] Goal Elicitation Workshop

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Developmental thinking shout-out to CFAR

(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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Here’s another perspective on where I’m generally coming from:

[…] Developmental thinking is a different approach than, e.g., cataloguing biases, promoting real-time awareness of them, and having a toolbox of de-biasing strategies and algorithms. Developmental literature gives clues to the precise cognitive operations that are painstakingly acquired over an entire lifetime, in a more fine-grained way than is possible when studying, say, already-expert performers or cognitive bias literature. I think developmental thinking goes deeper than “toolbox thinking” (straw!) and is an angle of approach for teaching the unteachable.

Below is an annotated bibliography of some of my personal touchstones in the development literature, books that are foundational or books that synthesize decades of research about the developmental aspects of entrepreneurial, executive, educational, and scientific thinking, as well as the developmental aspects of emotion and cognition. Note that this is personal, idiosyncratic, non-exhaustive list […].

I wrote that before I’d read Keith Stanovich’s Reality and Reflective Mind, which is an essential and complementary perspective (hat tip: CFAR recommended reading).

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