speculation regarding nonstandard meditations (guest post)

[This is a guest post. Mark isn’t responsible for anything in this post. New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

I originally intended to write a much different post, but while writing it I was intermittently reading Mark’s backlog and came to realize that he says many of the things I was trying to say, except he says them much better.

Since I am really a total novice at meditation qua meditation, with an extremely sparse smattering of meditation practice in a weird array of protocols spread out over a decade of haphazard exploration, with nothing like Mark’s level of erudition on the topic, I will start by confining myself to what is an admittedly ignorant line of speculation.  And that is, we (humans) are doing lots and lots of directed reflexive mind-altering-thinking-activities all the time without being sufficiently reflective about it, and I think maybe it could pay big dividends if we were a bit more reflective about it.

The Gutenberg press was invented in the mid-1400s, and after this point there was an exponential ramping up in literacy.  This meant there was an exponential ramping up in the amount of time people spent sitting still for prolonged periods of time focusing on printed text.  In the present day we think it absolutely critical that tiny little children be read to, so that their brains and properly prepared for the demands of reading.  It’s well understood that illiterate adults have a much more difficult learning to read than children, and sometimes never quite get the hang of it.  It’s very convenient to hand-wavingly call this a “neuroplasticity” issue but that really sweeps the whole issue of what’s actually happening under the rug.  If you think about it, it’s actually really weird from the point of view of Nature that a person can just sit still and stare practically unmoving at a square block of paper for like three hours, but this has become so normal to us, like so many things.

The following is my armchair speculation:  The adult who learned to read as a child has built complex mental machinery and multiple subskills for maintaining prolonged attention to written text.  This attention-focusing machinery shares much in common with that which is developed in some meditative practices.  In myself, I recognize a handful of finely honed subskills such as “my attention has drifted, return to the start of this paragraph,” “I notice that I am thinking about what I am reading rather than actually reading it, pause for a moment before continuing,” “adapt to odd writing style, mispellings, or spacing to avoid being distracted,” “attenuate attention between imagining physical description of setting and keeping track of characters’ actions,” etc.  An illiterate adult trying to learn to read is simply trying to read one word after another, and will get totally derailed whenever they (e.g.) lose their concentration while reading, or start thinking about what they’re reading rather than actually reading, or have to read something written in a distracting writing style.

In case it is not obvious, my point with the preceding paragraph is that each of those reading subskills is nearly isomorphic to or, perhaps, may actually be a meditation skill.  They are all very much in the flavor of gently directing attention and controlling the operation of the mind.

Rather than spending an even greater number of words discussing how writing, and computer programming, and a million other things are intellectual pursuits which also engage the human mind in similar but distinct ways, I will leave those as exercises for the reader.  Perhaps one can generalize, though, to the observation that you are probably only a good a reader/writer/programmer/chess player/whatever in proportion to how good you are at the splinter-skills of gently managing your attention and keeping your mind on task when you hit unexpected wrinkles.  And nobody that I’m aware of actually teaches or discusses this aspect of these crafts.  You’re just supposed to naturally optimize your performance through practice.  Which is another way of saying that you arrive at the it randomly, through costly, wasteful trial and error.

This gets me to maybe the core of what I want to say, that it seems like we, humans, have stumbled upon what we call “meditation” by randomly poking around inside our heads and seeing what happens.  We arbitrarily label the results of some of the stuff that happens due to poking “meditation” and some of the stuff “introspection” or “metacognition” based on how rigorous it feels and based on the results and consequences of the poking.  “Oh, I focusing on my breathing for a thousand hours and was overcome by a profound sense of well-being.  There must be something ontologically special about focusing on my breathing.  Let’s carve up the this space of well-being-ness into lots of distinct levels and give the levels different names.”  But there is an INFINITE SPACE of mental contortions that nobody has ever tried, much less tried and held for a thousand hours to see what effects it had on the brain.

Recently I read something about how the act of ruminating may actually be a causal factor in depression.  Which is one of those things that seems kind of obvious when you say it in a certain tone of voice.  Like, of course obsessing over your problems is going to lead you to become depressed about them.  Just like, of course spending hours every day focusing really hard on slicing apart your perceptions from your sense of self is going to lead to some weird alienating experiences and maybe not turn out perfectly as you imagined.  Or, for that matter, how Feynman always insisted that he wasn’t that much smarter than anybody else, he was just obsessively thinking about the hardest physics problems literally all the time, for his whole life.

Mark developed his foreground/background meditation and talks a bit about the importance of not being rigid, of exploring in one’s meditative practice.  This very much speaks to my inclinations.  It sounds absolutely necessary in one’s personal practice, indispensable.  But here’s the thing.  Exploring and experimenting seems limited to exploring the local possibility space.  What if the Answer to Everything, the trick that leads to immediate total permanent perfect internal transparent control and harmony, is to just count backwards from 76,543,210 while firmly imagining a specific shade of indigo, or to chant “I am a goose” while rhythmically bobbing one’s head in a consistent manner for a set duration of time?

I can already hear Mark saying, “That’s not how it works,” and I’m sure he’s right.  But things like reading and writing, and programming, and mathematics, and chess, and martial arts, and conversation, and hunting, and baseball come along and give us new external frameworks in which to develop whole new mental faculties we never could have imagined without them, mental faculties which then generalize outside of those contexts and affect the whole individual.  When one reads some of the meditation literature, one can’t escape the sense that these experienced meditators really believe that they possess Insight into the True Reality.  But if there’s a test of acuity and perceptiveness and attention to detail, I’ll bet on an 8th dan kendo master over an Enlighted meditator.  And if there’s a test of abstract reasoning, I’ll go with a PhD mathematician over an Enlightened meditator.  Frankly I’m having a hard time thinking of when I would go all in on an Enlightened meditator, and that makes me skeptical regarding any claims to their holding Insight into the True Reality.

So, to wind down, Mark says, to paraphrase, Enlightenment is an accident, meditation makes you accident prone.  We do all kinds of things in daily life that permanently warp our minds in various ways and we don’t even acknowledge this fact.  What are types of mental activities could be fruitfully pursued that might lead to useful, valuable, positive, etc. modifications to the individual, that we aren’t already trying, i.e. that aren’t already enshrined as standard meditative practices because they don’t descend from or resemble anything that exists?  Let’s get weird.  Integer meditation.  Programming meditation.  David Allen’s GTD meditation.  Imagine You Are An A.I. Running Yudkowsky’s Timeless Decision Theory Meditation.

Maybe I am waaaaaay more ignorant than I even realize and all of this stuff is already being pursued.

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3 thoughts on “speculation regarding nonstandard meditations (guest post)

  1. I forget where, but Shinzen Young speaks/writes about how ancient/indigenous cultures likely spent much more time in meditative states. If you had lots of free time and no TV or books, you might naturally find yourself slipping into meditative/contemplative states. I don’t know if he’s right, but I thought that was interesting.

    >> There must be something ontologically special about focusing on my breathing.

    Or these “shimmery” feelings (ki/chi/qi/prana/ruach/energy).

    >> Let’s carve up the this space of well-being-ness into lots of distinct levels and give the levels different names.

    The jhanas are non-arbitrary. 🙂 I personally believe they relate to attentional systems and the stages of sleep.

    >> Exploring and experimenting seems limited to exploring the local possibility space.  

    Yeah, and you even reference that “accident-prone” quote. (I read it in Ken Wilber’s stuff, and I think he may have gotten it from Bill Hamilton.)

    This is *part* of why meditation teachers and texts are so fucking obtuse. Some of the meditation “muscles” are pretty hard to isolate, and it’s difficult to point out mind movements because they have no visible referent. So you have to use analogies, poetic language, etc., to try to make people more likely to stumble on those correct mental moves. Much of meditation is watching your mind for a very, very long time, getting so familiar with what’s going on that you start to notice subtle stuff on the edges of you normally, habitually pay attention to. I.e., learning to see with that “mental peripheral vision” I talk about, or Daniel Ingram’s “out of phase” phenomena.

    >> We do all kinds of things in daily life that permanently warp our minds in various ways and we don’t even acknowledge this fact.

    It’s true, the “muscles” used in meditation are ones we use many times per moment, just like we use the same muscles for walking or deadlifts.

    Sort of relatedly, while at my shitty-intense job, I deliberately break my chain of thought several times per day, check back in with my values, remember why I’m doing what I’m doing and what I’m going to do with it. My mindstream belongs to me.

    • Thanks for the response.

      >> The jhanas are non-arbitrary. 🙂 I personally believe they relate to attentional systems and the stages of sleep.

      I have honestly just started reading about the Buddhist meditation practices as a result of finding your blog. All my prior experience has been with Taoist practices or basic noting. Based on my reading so far, I find the idea of the jhanas kind of frightening.

      >> Much of meditation is watching your mind for a very, very long time, getting so familiar with what’s going on that you start to notice subtle stuff on the edges of you normally, habitually pay attention to.

      Since you seem to have thought several hundred miles further down the road along certain lines than me, I’ll perhaps save myself some time by asking: It seems like a huge component of meditation is, simply, relying on neuroplasticity and more specifically the brain’s gradual adaptation to whatever is “going on” to eventually cause the apparently chaotic inner environment to calm down and for things to incrementally reveal themselves. It’s a bit like how the area of a violinist’s brain responsible for control and tactile sensation of their left hand becomes extremely convoluted. It’s responding to demand and forming a more and more detailed map of the territory, and also forming more hierarchically complex maps of possible actions and action-chains. In the case of meditation (and “thinking” and stuff) the territory is the inner space, and it can take a really long time to form the maps because, instead of a physical violin that you can touch, generating music that can be heard to verify correct performance, you just have gooey mental phenomena going in and gooey mental phenomena coming out. So in order for the map to be veridical, you basically have to wait a really long time, have really good instructions, and be kind of lucky. Does this … make any sense?

  2. I think that’s along the right lines.The way I think about it is that we have an attentional system that attends to objects in the environment, one after another. (Those objects can be inner referents, too, like thoughts and feelings.) Those objects don’t “exist” per se, rather, reality is real, but the objects we carve out of reality aren’t the only ones we can choose. And, we act as if the maps, the objects, are the “really real” things, not actual reality behind them. Anyway, this is a good thing, the way that we pick things out and kind of “dim” or ignore everything else. We navigate by patterns because there’s too much information coming in, otherwise. But those patterns can become too habitual and too rigid.

    One of the things that meditation does is helps us to realize just how much reality is going on outside our narrow, moment-by-moment focus. Attention becomes less “sticky,” and less “polarizing” into foreground and ignored background, and we get more choice about the objects that we attend to and more flexibility around how we carve up the world. I think it’s fair to say that attention can be more consciously and deliberately deployed (and you can more consciously and deliberately decide to go with the flow) rather than being jerked around by the inner and outer environment. (Or, at least you’re aware that you’re being jerked around.)

    P.S. By the way, there is evidence out there that meditators have less cortical thinning as they age.

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