What Rationality Actually Looks Like From the Inside (4500 words)

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

[New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

Back in 2012 Luke Muehlhauser wrote:

You have desires. You also have desires about your desires: perhaps you desire cake but you also desire that you didn’t desire cake. You also have desires about the processes which produce your desires: perhaps you desire X and Y but only because of a weird evolutionary turn and you wish the processes which created your desires weren’t so far beyond your own control.

But what should you do, when these different kinds of desires are in conflict with each other? If you could reflect upon and then rewrite your own desires, how should you choose to resolve those conflicts?


Luke continues, “Nozick (1993) proposes 23 constraints on rational preferences, which one could also interpret as 23 constraints on the process of resolving conflicts among one’s preferences.

Luke reproduces part of the text, and I’m going to re-reproduce a bit too, for flavor:

“IX. For no x and y does the person always prefer x to y when y is the case and y to x when x is the case. (His conditional preferences are not such that for some x and y he prefers x to y/given that y is the case, and prefers y to x/given that x is the case.)”

“XIV. A person’s desires are not such that acting upon them guarantees that she will end up with irrational beliefs or probabilities.”

“XX. One component of the homeostatic preference and desire-forming process P is the person’s consciously aiming at rationally coherent preferences and desires.”


I’ve had Luke’s Less Wrong post in mind for a while, as one of my big interests is stable goals across long spans of time. Really, what I want is to make things possible that wouldn’t have been possible before, that if you hadn’t started it way back then, it never would have been able to happen, but you did and it did.

On the one hand, it’s fine to read stories backwards into your life, to selectively edit and mould your past, to give it a coherent narrative. The literature shows that humans do this. And that’s probably healthy and necessary, if those stories don’t get used for future mis-predictions.

What I’m interested in here, though, is us living stories as they’re happening. I want to live *in* a story, that I’m writing as I go, and I want to live it right through the triumphant climax. The longer and bigger the story, the more satisfying.

Yes, reality is indifferent. Yes, reality is incidental chaos. Yes, the story is the property of my map not a property of the territory. But heroically shaping reality is fun, and painful, and gratifying. When you care you can get hurt, but you’re only alive if you care.


So, our lives are jostled by a million different factors. We get sick. New technology becomes available. We meet new people. We grow up. We encounter new ideas. We get bombarded with blog posts and advertisements. We learn from experience.

Some terms in the literature are “goal shielding” and “goal disengagement.” There are some predictable factors that will make us hunker down and try to resist disruption to our goals. And there are some predictable factors that will make us let go of a goal.

For a proximal goal, if we see a much better way of achieving something, sunk cost fallacy not withstanding, switching cost not withstanding, etc., we’ll drop what we were doing and take that new route instead.

Alternatively, if we suspect a better way of doing something is coming down the pipeline, we might hold off on even starting, possibly for too long.

Subject to cognitive biases and bounded rationality, human beings pick up, drop, and forget about goals for legitimate reasons and strategic reasons, but also for tragic reasons.


So, there is some appeal for having consistent, coherent, stable, rational preferences. There is appeal for working towards the goal of having consistent, coherent, stable, rational preferences.

But, human beings are only innately rational to the degree that served ancestral reproduction, to the degree that evolution stumbled upon various strategies that we have retroactively mapped to rational frameworks.

We are aware of our flightiness, capriciousness, fickleness, inconsistency, craziness, etc. It’s in our stories since the beginning of time, and we can easily identify examples in our own life.

Interestingly to me, spiritual practice has long been a proposed solution to human inconsistency. Buddhism has its answer. Taoism has its answer. Catholicism has its answer. Yoga has its answer. One shapes desire, one perfects the self, etc., etc. It might not be a rational framework, but the idea has been there for millennia.

“You’ll be happier, better. You’ll live in greater accordance to your ideals and values. Your ideals and values themselves will be shaped for good and for the greater good of everyone around you.”

Now, whether this works and how well is an open question. High profile sex scandals in every religion is testimony to… something. But, nevertheless, millions engage in spiritual practices.


So do the scientific method and rational frameworks add something to transformative practice? Sure, of course. So says this blog.

But one project on this blog is avoiding the valley of bad rationality.

I don’t even think rationality is a sufficiently general and powerful framework for transformative practice, but that’s a whole separate story.

What I want to focus on, here, is stuff like “planning,” “goal factoring,” or even just writing down your goals.

We write stuff down so we can reflect on it. We write stuff down to stabilize it. We draw pictures to ease cognitive burden, so we can think about more things and more complex things.

But when we write stuff down we leave stuff out. Of course, of course, of course, “all models are wrong but some are useful.” “Abstractions are leaky,” and so forth.

I read this paper [1] a long time ago; I really just like the abstract (emphasis mine):

This study tested the prediction that introspecting about the reasons for one’s preferences would reduce satisfaction with a consumer choice. Subjects evaluated two types of posters and then chose one to take home. Those instructed to think about their reasons chose a different type of poster than control subjects and, when contacted 3 weeks later, were less satisfied with their choice. When people think about reasons, they appear to focus on attributes of the stimulus that are easy to verbalize and seem like plausible reasons but may not be important causes of their initial evaluations. When these attributes imply a new evaluation of the stimulus, people change their attitudes and base their choices on these new attitudes. Over time, however, people’s initial evaluation of the stimulus seems to return, and they come to regret choices based on the new attitudes.

Tim Wilson has a bunch of these papers, and presumably other researchers do too.

Modeling is tricky. Verbalizing is tricky.

Reality doesn’t come prepackaged, carved up to correspond perfectly to simple sentences.

When you write things down you can distort the underlying sense of what you meant.

When you write things down you can kill the underlying sense of what you meant.

Writing things down can be counterproductive. Being “rational” can be counterproductive.


So what does healthy rationality look like? What does it look like past the valley of bad rationality?

I think it can be completely unrecognizable to what a beginner would expect. I think that’s partly because rationality has such unfortunate, frustrating connotations. Yay TvTropes and Julia Galef, and CFAR.

But even if you get the straw vulcan thing, I think it can take a very, very, very, very long time to develop a strong model of what instrumental rationality looks like.

I think CFAR is great. I like the rationality checklist. I like Salamon’s ancient take on this, though I think naive application of some of this leads to the failure mode above.

I think something fundamental is still not clicking for learners, because everyone is still furiously pointing at the moon:

In the distant past, Yudkowsky quotes Miyamoto Musashi:

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.

Very recently, Strohl put this awesomely:

What makes them great is not how many moves they know. That might be correlated, but the central principles that allow them to employ those techniques reliably, and to create entirely new techniques as circumstances require, lie elsewhere. Finding them is surely more valuable than any specific technique.

I hear that the CFAR instructors themselves explicitly note that they don’t necessarily use the techniques that they’re teaching, and they go on to explain why. Nice.


To repeat: I think [healthy rationality] can be completely unrecognizable to what a beginner would expect.

So what’s my version of what healthy rationality, good rationality looks like from the inside?

At this point, I can only report what I think I do. Your mileage may vary.

Referring back to the beginning of this post, how do I carry stable goals across time, and how do I make that a heroic, non-quixotic, satisfying, gratifying, funny, ironic, non-clueless, tragicomic saga? Filled with real-life stakes and real-life pain? And real-life fates worse than death?

There’s a book out there called the Psychology of Written Composition. Writing is interesting to me because it’s a tremendously complicated internal act with no skill ceiling, and this book acknowledges the vast gap between novice and expert writers.

One of their main points is that writing is carrying out a conversation with no external input. All cues must come from within. And part of teaching writing is training students to have the correct cues at the correct times. They note that often the students have, say, plenty of additional material to write down, it just needs to be triggered. Ditto for revision, etc., etc.

It’s somewhat the same thing with instrumental rationality or any sort of OODA-loop, you want to be running on an internal cadence, faster than reality, not driven by reality.

Stanovich notes this in a different way; if you don’t have the subroutine installed then it’s not going to trigger.

In Strohl’s link above, and in CFAR’s strategy, one keeps pointing at that moon in different ways, and constructing all sorts of experiences that knock students into a different part of their inner phase space, until finally the student maybe sees the moon out of the corner of their eye, and stops looking at the finger(s) and looks up.

And everyone is thinking hard about better ways to do this and testing out their ideas.


My strategy here is to try and give a taste of what’s going on in my own head. (For whatever it’s worth.)

Lately, I’ve been using a personal wiki* to map out my internal dynamics and landscape. Ask me if I’m still using it in a year. Right now it’s awesome. I’m bringing this up now because it seems to be greatly magnifying the effectiveness of any personal writing that I do, of the planning and goal factoring variety.

So, I’m not going to stop there with “use a wiki,” don’t worry. I’m using it in probably very particular ways which I can’t completely unpack in this post. I’m just going to unpack one piece of it.

So, my mind bounces around, as does everyone’s, through fears, doubts, desires, opportunities, examples, counterexamples, self-attacking, longing, etc.

I’ve been using the wiki to nonlinearly write this stuff down and capture it.

Note that “goal factoring,” “connection theory,” etc. is encompassed by this. I’m just mapping what comes up, and meta-thoughts get written down, too, and cross-linked to the thought that they were meta about. You can bring to bear absolutely any tool and subroutine you’ve got, everything you’ve got, all at once: Because it’s a wiki, you won’t get lost in endless walls of linear, free-written text.

Now, part of the “magic” is probably in what I don’t write down, so I don’t get bogged down by too much detail, or stuff that obsoletes, or stuff that would be too fast-changing to maintain. I’m managing the wiki strategically like a code base. (But it doesn’t look like one; it’s not a DAG; it’s a hypergraph.) And more of the magic is in what a meditation-trained mind notices, and how I examine a felt sense, sometimes for seconds, sometimes for hours, to start spitting out the right words that won’t distort or kill that felt sense. And I keep a bunch of wiki pages in my working memory at once, and I cross-link like mad as I write.


But the actual point of this post was not to talk about using the wiki per se. I actually want to describe a little bit of the content, the meta-content to be precise. These are touchstones that are cross-linked in many, many, many different places.

They came up organically, and I wrote them down, and as I refer back to them, and sleep on them, they’ll sink deeper and deeper into my psyche.

To emphasize, these pages are being built up organically from my concrete, lived experiences. I’m not going through a cognitive bias textbook or something. Certainly, reading psychology helps me chunk stuff, but I’m letting my lived reality drive this process. So it’s not boring; it’s highly personally relevant and meaningful and useful.

So, I’ve got this page called MetaDesire. And on this page, I’ve got about twenty links so far, and some of them I’ll share. The purpose of this page is to remind myself all the observations I’ve made about the dynamics of my desire over time, as well as concerns, suspicions, and questions that I might have.

Going down the page,


This page notes that “sex” and “attachment” [and redacted] seem to be [N] separate drives for me, and it describes what happens to me if I’m being unfulfilled in one of those domains for different timescales, and how that affects choices in those domains and choices outside those domains. Some of these descriptions are about timescales on days to months. And other pages are on a timescale from days to hours to minutes.

I’ve noticed, over many years of dating and relationshipping, how sex and relationships cause all sorts of highly state-dependent cognition that affect all areas of my life, and I want to make better global choices that take into this into account, across relationships and relationship gaps, with respect to relationship goals and non-relationship goals that span multiple relationships.

ForgetUntil; NonObviousProactiveAnticipation

These pages are about the experience of forgetting you want something, not taking it into account until you bump into it again, and it messing up your shorter-range plans once you do bump into it. Shorter range can still be on the order of months, so this can be extremely disruptive. It’s a reminder to capture these things when they come up and to account for them, and it provides a bunch of specific personal examples that I’ve noticed over time.

Further, I speculate about why this happens and the possibility that in the ancestral environment, one wouldn’t go very long without seeing some of these things, so one would be primed all the time. Or one would never be at risk of going without, so we’re not biased in the modern environment to factor these things in. The hope is that by setting up this larger category I’ll notice these things more and account for more of them.

Further, I speculate about ways to structure my life so that I’ll never be without such things and it’ll become a non-issue.


On this page, I list problems and lacks that don’t seem to come with a built-in reminder of what actually fixes the problem. So these are the things where I notice, after the fact that Y fixes X, and for some reason this is hard for me to learn. And I wonder why it’s so easy to automatically go after some Y’s, but some X’s seem to not reliably trigger the hunt for Y, and the relief only comes after eventually stumbling onto Y.

Here I also speculate about how these might be lacks that don’t usually show up in the ancestral environment so there’s less biased wiring to make the connection to what fixes it. And so I should try to be on the lookout for these things.

Aimless malaise sucks, and lots of tiny little aimlessnesses can add up into one big malaise. And, sometimes I need to let parts of my life slip to ratchet in other gains, and this is a checklist to remind myself of non-obvious fixes that need to happen when I have more time again.

SortOfDoKnow; ActuallyDoKnow

These are pages that detail times in the past where I’ve experienced an “I knew it all along effect,” regarding what I really wanted. Some of this could be hindsight bias, but, I’m collecting examples, and it seems that there are certain authoritarian situations where it becomes more difficult to articulate to myself what I want. This could be nature or nurture where parts of my brain are interfering with other parts because I learned to do this to protect myself as a baby or because it’s hardwired into group dynamics. Either way, I want to get better at noticing when this is happening because it’s typically sucky for me when this is going on and better once I finally figure out what my actual preferences are. And I want to get to the bottom of this particular sense that my preferences were available if only I could have let myself get a grip on their slipperiness.


Here I list amoral, antisocial, etc., desires that I’d be leery to even write down if this file wasn’t encrypted. It’s a long exploration, cross-linked to a bunch of other pages of why I might want such things, how to manage wanting such things, how to allocate and not allocate attention to such things, the dangers of allocating or not allocating such attention, the ethics of trying to fulfill some aspects of said desires at least in part, informed consent, people in my life to rally to the cause, how to interact with them around said topics, etc.

I feel like it’s especially important to explore these sorts of things, because “outrageous” to who? I can’t take responsibility for my morality and my allocation of attention unless I explore it, and there’s tremendous energy available in these sorts of “suppressed” “shadow” things, if they can be harnessed, either directly or sublimated.

Some of this is sex, power, status, prestige, freedom, but again, not abstractly but concretely: Actual desires, fantasies, past situations, relevant memories, etc.

DenyingWhatYouWant, AttackingSelf, ProspectiveForecasting, FocusingIllusion

These are explorations of the ways that my mind reacts to desires that I have, questioning their morality, utility, legitimacy, whether I’ll really want it if I get it, what I’m leaving out, all the bad stuff that could come along with going after X or getting X. So, here, I’m second-guessing myself, sometimes quite critically. And these pages are an exploration of when to press on anyway, how to address concerns from other parts of self. And once again, there are concrete examples of where this has and hasn’t happened, as well as suggestions for mitigating risk, making sure possible losses are affordable, weighing worst case scenarios, etc.

CrashingDownToEarth; PeopleMoveOn; WorldDoesntStandStill

This page has personal and fictional examples of more state-dependent cognition, specifically in perspective-taking, where if I’m in a particular state then I think someone else is in a particular complementary state and when they haven’t actually been and when they have, and what the differences are, and how can I get better at predicting this in the future. Furthermore, I remind myself which people in my life are fast moving targets who I can’t reliable model but whose opinions, capabilities and life situations I care about. Additionally, and I need much more of this, I have started spelling out all the ways my life might undergo big changes, that could disrupt or obviate plans in progress. If a part me senses that a goal could become irrelevant, then it’s that much harder to get motivated. But if I take that into account from the very beginning…


This page has speculation on what sorts of desires can be changed, what sorts of desires can’t, under what conditions does it not work and it breeds resentment, etc.

Additionally a subpage is building up and reminding me all the times that Focusing, IFS, Coherence Therapy dramatically evaporated, reordered, and shifted preferences. I’m starting to get a feel where more “symptoms” are located, how they’re influencing my behavior, how I’m protecting myself from myself, how they might change as I continue to work with myself. This is crosslinked in a bunch of places, because I viscerally don’t want to get started on things where I think the preference might not be deep, fundamental, and stable. But, I also don’t want to delay if said preference actually really is a fundamental part of my being. I’ve been surprised before at stuff that I started and stopped caring about, and I’d rather take some of this into account in my thirties (sadly if not twenties) than my forties or fifties.


Here I write about when using checklists is productive and counterproductive, e.g. having a checklist for relationships, and how that can both get in the way of actual having relationships and how it’s sometimes seemingly prevented me from making choices that I would have regretted. And I’ve noticed how some people with checklists end up in impoverished life situations because they’re missing unstructured opportunities all around them. And so I list concrete, personal “dealbreakers” and wonder when they should be soft deal-breakers and I remind myself about false-choices and false-dichotomies and a bunch of other stuff.

[…] And lots more […]


Moving up a level, another umbrella page has goals with links to more concrete stuff, another page on GoalAmbiguity. Another pages on Values.

What I’m finding is that my goals are becoming bottom up, strategic paths are sifting upwards, building themselves from complex, nuanced, shifting, shaded meaning of cares and concerns and cautions and longings across many different timescales, across many domains of life, in rich vivid, episodic, motivating, believable language.

Strategic equifinality and strategic multifinality build up organically, from novel-length, textbook-length richness, not from top-down brainstorming that only takes into account your working memory and all the priming you got in the last hour.

Possibly, plausibly, time-will-tell, parts of this hierarchy are very, very, very stable, having taken sooooooooo much detail tacitly and explicitly into account. Cumulative reviewing, updating, and sleeping on it, eventually hundreds of hours of sleep, integrating away on the finely differentiated gist of thousands of words of continuously reworked, compressed, re-chunked, highly personal nuance about self, life, planet, and future.

You’ll understand your life carved up at its joints, not in terms of ill-fitting concepts and categories that have been forced on you by culture and media and blogs and other people.


Importantly, another page has links to date-stamped freewriting which is the unstructured, dense, cryptic, flowing writing that generates more structured pages, and the freewriting gets kept around, with tons of crosslinks back and forth. The freewriting points deep into much more tacit stuff and felt sense that hasn’t yet been explicated, and the writing calls that all back to mind, so the crosslinks keep taking me back in and out of it, which can generate more freewriting. The initial hard days of getting the wiki off the ground were seeded by freewriting.


So I’ve got on the order of hundreds of pages in my wiki, and it’s growing rapidly, and each page has on the order of hundreds of words. Some pages have thousands. And it’s insanely cross-linked.

I want to note again that sometimes it can be agonizing if I’m trying to grasp something that I don’t yet have the words for, and the first few days were hard, but now it’s pretty easy and painless to dip in to add or change something. No large context needs to get loaded in my head, and surfing around while I’m pondering a life problem is pretty painless and stimulating. The new life problem might go into a freewrite, and more crosslinks and concrete examples get added to various existing pages, and all of it gets integrated into my mental models as I carry my entire life forward, with time spent consciously deliberating, and with eight hours of sleep at a time.

And, again, any patterns and abstractions, while highly informed by tons of reading and thinking, grew out of the concrete examples and experiences and desires and fantasies of my life. The contents of the wiki are the supporting thoughts and concerns and questions and doubts that come up when I’m planning and scheming.

And writing this stuff down and cross-linking means less bouncing around while I’m thinking and less insistent interrupting from my mind. My mind knows I’m systematically taking this stuff into account. My mind knows that I can find it again. So my mind leaves me alone unless it has additional input.

And, when I go to sleep, my mind is using this explicit structure to compile better and better System 1 models. So the next morning, my mental models are bigger, better, more complete, more nuanced. And there’s less bouncing around, less triggering of System 2 and reflective rationality, because it’s all tacitly available within a single model. And System 2 has more bandwidth to load in additional chunks, new, novel reads on the situation.

And because it’s all still fully unpacked and explicit in the wiki, I can incrementally add and update pages, and then my sleeping mind will take the new details and changes and recompile them once again into my mental models.


Really, what I want is to make things possible that wouldn’t have been possible before, that if you hadn’t started it way back then, it never would have been able to happen, but you did and it did.

I think rationality can be completely unrecognizable to what a beginner would expect.

What is the Kolmogorov complexity of your System 1? What is the Kolmogorov complexity of your System 2?


What does rationality mean to you?


[1] Wilson, Timothy D., Douglas J. Lisle, Jonathan W. Schooler, Sara D. Hodges, Kristen J. Klaaren, and Suzanne J. LaFleur. “Introspecting about reasons can reduce post-choice satisfaction.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 19 (1993): 331-331.

*I settled on VoodooPad. I’ve used Tinderbox in the past and I use Scrivener a lot for writing. I considered using a wiki that’s a vim plugin but I decided I didn’t want to deal with it. VoodooPad doesn’t have as many keyboard shortcuts as I’d like but it has a decent amount and they become pretty intuitive. I’m flying up and down through new and old pages pretty fast and effortlessly, now, without really thinking about it. I encrypt the whole document so there’s no inhibition, and my backups are journaled in dropbox in case the file gets corrupted.

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deeply valuable experiences, meditation zombies, and planning preview (2700 words)

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

[New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

[Status: sort of poorly organized and poorly line-edited and ranty and TMI, but some good stuff in here]


A long-time reader and guest blogger here reports:

Jeffery Martin, the Persistent Non Symbolic Experience guy, has put together a 15 week online course that summarises his 8 years of research into enlightened people, and claims to have developed methods to reach the state faster. In the first round 4/6 participants reached the state, with 2 others following shortly. Now it’s scaled up to 70 people.

Also, he believes he has methods to avoid the Dark Night.


My reply:

So I had forgotten about this guy; I haven’t touched on him in a few years. I’m really impressed by his persistence, ability to scale his research program, and his handling of an initially small and biased sample size. I skimmed an executive summary and the accompanying paper (not peer-reviewed, I presume. I only gave it a quick look for some numbers):

Click to access PNSE-Summary-2013.pdf

Click to access PNSE-Article.pdf

I really, really enjoyed the summary. It’s worth a skim, very thorough.

The experience I had while reading it was being pretty creeped out. A lot of the interviewees seem be very rigid and dogmatic, likely coming out of traditional religious systems. I’m reminded of my theme of “fetishization of weird experiences,” and coveting those experiences and and intensifying them. Granted, a lot of these people probably stumbled on these experiences accidentally.

So, I have no reason to doubt the results, the clustering and the continuum, and, for sure, what’s being reported by the interviewees is a lot of the classical enlightenment stuff, the real deal.

(I take their self-reports with a grain of salt, considering them colored by dogma, rigidity, expectations, etc. But, based on a variety of factors, I have no reason to disbelieve some of the basic contours of their experience.)


Now, utility:

On the one hand, interviewees describe a profoundly positive experience (understatement of the millenia) that they wouldn’t want to give up.

From the outside, this reads to me like a lot of different pieces of the brain are no longer injecting/binding information into the phenomenal field. Yeah, the brain is not *doing* certain things anymore (specifically the consciousness piece, leaving the precursors aside for the moment).

Eventually we may find that the clusters of experience reported by Martin’s research correspond to relatively discrete brain systems quieting down and “shutting off,” one by one.

So, on the one hand, this increases my belief in one sort of quasi-epiphenomenalism. I mean, I already knew that the brain can pretty much do everything on autopilot that we can do consciously and deliberately.  And the interviewees here have pretty normal objective behavior but radically altered phenomenology.

But, on the other hand, I have strong prior that consciousness is *not* epiphenomenal. I of course don’t mean I think there’s a metaphysical soul making decisions. And of course I know that the “sense of volition” is a self-tag that the brain can switch on and off. And of course I know that the “sense of self,” the “sense of being a self,” is a neural subroutine, a neural abstraction. What I *do* mean is that a fully functioning global workspace (i.e. consciousness) confers certain properties to a brain/mind that one without a fully functioning global workspace won’t have:


Now, I could be wrong about all this. I’m holding it very loosely. But, somewhere in the Buddhist texts it’s described that Nirvana (or whatever) is when self is extinguished and what follows is like death or something. I only have a faint gist in my head, here. But the interesting part is that an enlightened beings behavior is described as, I think, residual. Like, they’re off the wheel, no new karma (technical term) is being generated, they’re just winding down.

I am arguing that maybe these people are on a zombie continuum. […] That sounds insanely harsh and pejorative, but I just mean they’re running on a *certain kind* of non-reflexive autopilot.  A complex, human-level autopilot, to be sure–loving, responsive, learning, growing–but potentially lacking certain human qualities that I personally deeply value. As described, at the far end of the continuum, possibly very small sample size, these people seemed to have no planning skills and barely any short-term memory. Um, no thanks.

I am totally open to some of these people convincingly arguing to me that I’m an offensive moron and I’m totally misinterpreting their experience and I don’t know what it’s like, and so forth.

From a distance, I don’t get this zombie impression at all from say Daniel Ingram or Kenneth Folk. I get it a little bit from Shinzen Young. Interestingly, Dan Ingram didn’t access the non-emotion axis of development until after he claimed full classical enlightenment. (It does seem like their are multiple classical axes that correlate but can separate: no-self, non-dual, no-emotion, etc.) In fact, he firmly denied that no-emotion was a thing in his book. And, when he was first exposed to some no-emotion people, they creeped him out.


So, Ingram did eventually deliberately acquire some aspects of what the no-emotion people were claiming. (I’m already maybe contradicting my impaired self-mod hypothesis. I still somehow stand by it for now.) And, later at least, some of these no-emotion people renounced at least some of their claims, which is another complicated issue.

My point here is that these elements can be incorporated by degree and piecemeal: you can have more or less of X, and, you don’t have to take the entire package, you can take bits and pieces.

In other words, while a lot of this stuff can be correlated, it’s the myth and dogma that’s creating experiential attractors, where people try to get all of X in a very extreme way because they think that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. (Yes, there does seem to be a semi-natural developmental arc, but one thing at a time.)

One of my values on this blog is people being the artists and architects of their own experience and agency, subject to the constraints imposed by reality. You can experiment, incorporate certain things in a nuanced, symphonic way. You can dial things up and down.

There absolutely is a danger of “going too far,” messing up, falling into something you don’t want. But, I think the brain can be pretty forgiving, especially for acute, punctate stuff. You can willfully incline towards or away from certain experiences, and, all things being equal, your brain will intelligently try to accommodate you at a subconscious level, and it will affect the likelihood of it happening. (Ingram agrees with this.)

I say forgiving because, the summary notes that life experiences can temporarily kick people out of these states, and even more interestingly, a category of interviewees firmly rejected these states.

That’s what happened to me. First, I know that people can have an experience that superficially seems to fit a description of X. And they firmly believe that they experienced X even when it wasn’t even close. Further, there is a big difference between a taste of an experience and stable access to an experience. I am claiming that I did experience X, the real X for a few different X’s, and I am not claiming stable access, I’m just claiming a taste.

As I described in this post,


I’ve experienced flavors of no-self and profound internal quieting / veil lifting. I haven’t experienced the no-emotion thing.

Anyway, especially for the no-self, it was AWFUL. So creepy. “I” figured it would fade. “I,” what was left of me, intended for it to fade, and it did after about 20 minutes. You can get used to anything, but I shudder to think of it taking, say, 24 hours to fade or whatever.


Now, quite recently, within the past couple months I have been getting tastes of nondual experience, pervasive well-being, etc. It seems relatively safe, so far, no impact on preferences, values, and motivation, but it doesn’t seem like very practical state to operate in. Maybe I need to tease further apart all the different threads that are going on to see what I want to keep, and what’s usable in the thick of life, and what’s in accordance with my values and so forth.

I will put in a plug for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT (pronounced as one word) has a wonderful model that they call, generically, “psychological flexibility,” and it emphasizes flexibly transitioning in and *out* of various meditation-inspired modes of being, based on the needs of the moment. This blog and my own practice have really been influenced by ACT.

Furthermore, ACT emphasizes focusing more on values and less on internal state. If you want the world, your life, your family, whatever to be a certain way, then make it happen, “act” (get it?), *regardless* of internal state, *in spite* of internal state. Like, do you want to be “happy,” “not sad,” or do you want to enact certain values and let your internal state be a by-product of that expression. Smart philosophy, very inspiring, excellent balance and counterpoint and integration and correction to at least one misinterpretation or failure mode of meditative practice.

I am big on cultivating a healthy relationship with all states and experience as they arise, whatever they are, and carrying on regardless, in accordance with my values (which include self-comfort and self-care).


If someone is extremely depressed, in seemingly hopeless life situation (never true, just as an example, if you’re a “white male with hair”; varying levels of true for other demographics), or in terrible chronic pain, and for whatever reason they won’t or can’t kill themselves, should they “really go for it,” damn the risks, and kind of try to nuke themselves this way? Maybe? Maybe they can find a happy, nuanced medium? I may regret writing this paragraph in the future.


Buddhism, at the core, is about “happiness not dependent on conditions.” Now, that’s ambiguous and possibly they didn’t even know what they meant: pick your one of like fifty definitions of happiness. Maybe they meant like five of them. So probably pop contemporary interpretation of that ideal has been totally warped and messed up.

I’ve been meditating for a decade, and my happiness is TOTALLY dependent on conditions. Again, pick your definition and maybe I’m just a shitty meditator. I’ll try to unpack what I mean.

If I lose my cognitive freedom, or it I think certain goals might get closed off forever, or if I narrowly miss certain opportunities, I can become a nonfunctional, scary asshole to everyone around me, including loved ones. Total chance I’ll eventually push everyone around me away and end up a bitter, cranky old person. Depending on what’s happening in my life, I can experience mild, unalarming (to me) suicidal ideation a couple times a day.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, there is an intelligent, active process within me at all times buoying me up and supporting me in hundreds of little ways, from all directions. People around me love me and trust me (and I them) and they rarely seem to walk on eggshells around me or “manage” me. (I do not want to be an abusive, manipulative asshole who has to be “managed.” Ew, how lonely.)

I have an excitement and lust for life and I’m hungry and fascinated and never bored even when I’m bored and people wonder how I can be so generally functional even when I report a splitting headache, or a pain of 12 on a scale of one to ten, or feeling deathly ill. [This paragraph was sort of boring and cringy to re-read, but it’s true.]

And maybe this is all unreliable self-report.

And everyone around me is going to age, sicken, and die, and I could get a stroke tomorrow or develop cancer in a decade (regardless of my careful, evidence-based diet and exercise).

And all my plans could fall apart. Or all my plans could be based on false beliefs. (Or all my plans might be obviated by better stuff coming along.)

A few weeks ago, nothing was working, and I was experiencing excruciating emotional pain, hopelessness, loneliness, night after night, like really, really, really intense. And, at the same time, it didn’t cut to the bone, I surrendered to it, was gently amused by it, soldiered on, day after day.

I knew that focusing illusion was making things seem bad right now and that things could turn around in an instant for a gazillion different reasons.

And I just surrendered to the fact that most of my being predicted DOOM, like that’s what a part of me really, truly, believed. *I* really truly believed it. And, paradoxically, that was just fine, I globally took that into account, totally paradoxically surrendered to it and accounted for it. It was fine.


Right now, things seem to be on track, I’m joyful, excited, hungry, and it’s wonderful but also very contextual and silly. At some point I’m going to redact and upload my personal wiki. I’m accounting for hundreds of external and internal variables as I move forward, in a flexible framework that accounts for work-in-progress constraints and the changing territory beneath me as the world continues to evolve even as I plan and act.

Anyway, I meant for these final few sections to be hasty, scattered, somewhat alarming; I don’t know if I succeeded. There is so much paradox and contradiction and complexity and contextuality going on, here. Unreliable self-reports and self-fooling and compartmentalized thinking.

But, at the same time, I don’t think I’m doing justice to the comprehensibility and stability and coherence of my thinking and feeling.

Scott Alexander on Slate Star Codex mentions this common “rationalist” failure mode where you have this “perfect beautiful plan” but you just can’t make yourself do it.

“If only I could act.”

Yeah, nope. That experience is not in my universe.

My thinking and scheming and planning follows the actual contours and textures of my life.  Not clunky, dead, “logical,” “reasonable,” “should.” My plans are on fire. I am taken into account in my plans, my plans are the actual felt experience of my life, reflected back at me, a resonator artifact. My plans and actions account for future selves, the rhythms of my desire across time, my uncertainty about the territory, goal ambiguity, everything I know about everything.

(By the way, no, I’m not hypomanic or manic. 🙂 )

My systems are not tidy at all, but they’re flexible and comprehensible and contained and easy to navigate update and easy to update, because I experimented until I figured out how to do that.

And meditation was one tool in my toolbox that helped me get this way.

Above: I don’t think I’m doing justice to the comprehensibility and stability and coherence of my thinking and feeling.

I should figure out if I can convincingly argue that, to give people stronger motivation for trying this stuff out. I’ll need to address epistemic viciousness and secret identities. I’m not claiming I’m like running a shadow government or something. More like holy shit movie love, movie intimacy, movie sex, movie meaning, movie goals, movie future, movie fun, as well as quiet simplicity, as you personally envision or experience it. And the potential for movie drama and real-life consequences, so fair warning. And full-disclosure, at this very moment I’m like doing the equivalent of living in my parents’ basement, so there’s that. But I think it’s hilarious, and all the holy shit stuff is like literally going on, too. So there’s that. 🙂 And a lot of simultaneous negative stuff. (This is actually not exhausting; rhythms of striving and also low-key and calm.)

Oh yeah, as objective counterpoint to basement equivalents, I earned a STEM PhD from an ivy league and have pulled in six figures as a software developer. (For reference, I’m turning 34 in a few days, by the way.) I would brag about relationship and sex stuff, but I have not asked permission to do so. (These are for whatever they’re worth, to get more of a sense of me, born on third basehuge confounders, and all of that.)

I’m working on figuring out how to share more actionable claims in a concise, accessible way, so people can decide for themselves, take what they want, and discard the rest.

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Why I am not a rationalist; Or, Integral Post-Metaphysics; And Naturalism; And the Myth of the Given; And Phenomenology; And Worldspaces; And Consent

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

[New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

OMG inferential distance.

The quote below is taken from David Chapman. I’m not implying he endorses Integral Post-Metaphysics. I just like the quote:

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.



The quote above still stands, even taking into account the ideas in Einstein’s Arrogance, which is one of my most favorite posts on Less Wrong:


(Yes, machine learning, yes, self-organizing maps, yes, automated feature extraction. Yes AIXI and Godel machines. Yes, Building Phenomenological Bridges. Still.)

(Something something computability theory and consciousness and naturalism.)

A favorite Less Wrong comment:

[…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.


The remainder of the quotes below are from one of the appendices in Ken Wilber’s Integral Spirituality (IS). IS was supposedly written in about two weeks, so the appendix could have been written in hours. It’s rushed and filled with jargon and some of the “equations” and figures are missing. The inferential distance between it and most readers on this blog will be large. I hope you’ll wade through it, anyway. If you understand it, you understand a big chunk of my personal inner operating system. I have additional comments after the quotes.

Before entering the Wilber quotes, I would summarize my position thusly: “If you think, say, ‘Santa Claus’ is meaningless, then you still have work to do on your signifiers, signifieds, and referents!”



(Some of the quotes below are a little bit out of order to increase pick-and-choose coherence.)

(There is a lot of outdated jargon going on down there, and the pdf assumes you read the entire book, so a lot of what you need isn’t there in the actual document. It’s still worth a shot.)


[…] If we claim that our epistemologies are basically representational maps (or mirrors of nature), then just as we of today will invalidate what was taken as knowledge 1,000 years ago, so tomorrow will invalidate our knowledge of today. So nobody ever has any truth, just various degrees of falsehood.

[…] Let’s take four referents, indicated by the signifiers dog, Santa Claus, the square root of a negative one, and Emptiness.

Where do the referents of those signifiers exist? Or, if they exist, where can they be found? Does Santa Claus exist; if so, where? Does the square root of a negative one exist; if so, where can it be found? And so on….


The point is that by doing a type of “mega-phenomenology” of all the phenomena known to be arising in the major levels and worldspaces (of which our short list above is a very crude example), we create a type of super dictionary (or GigaGlossary) of the location of the referents of most of the major signifiers capable of being uttered by humans (up to this time in evolution) and capable of being understood by humans who possess the adequate corresponding consciousness to bring forth the corresponding signified.

Thus, using our simple list as an example GigaGloss, we can answer some otherwise outlandishly impossible questions very easily. Here are a few examples:

The square root of a negative one is a signifier whose referent exists in the orange worldspace and can be accurately cognized or seen by trained mathematicians who call to mind the correct signifieds via various mathematical injunctions at that altitude and in 3rd-person perspective.

A global eco-system is a signifier whose referent is a very complex multidimensional holarchy existing in a turquoise worldspace; this actual referent can be directly cognized and seen by subjects at a turquoise altitude, in 3rd-person perspective, who study ecological sciences.

Santa Claus is a signifier whose referent exists in a magenta worldspace and can be seen or cognized by subjects at magenta altitude (provided, of course, that their LL-quadrant loads their intersubjective background with the necessary surface structures; this is true for all of these examples, so I will only occasionally mention it).

As for “pure physical objects” (or “sensorimotor objects”), they don’t  exist. The “physical world” is not a perception but an interpretation (or, we might say, the physical world is not a perception but a conceptual perception or “conperception,” which of course also involves perspectives). There is no pregiven world, but simply a series of worlds that come into being (or co-emerge, or are tetra-enacted) with different orders of consciousness. Thus:

A dog as a vital animal spirit exists in a magenta worldspace. A dog as a biological organism exists in an amber worldspace. A dog as a biological organism that is the product of evolution exists in an orange worldspace. A dog as a molecular biological system that is an expression of DNA/RNA sequencing operating through evolving planetary eco-systems exists in a turquoise worldspace.

There simply is no such thing as “the dog” that is the one, true, pregiven dog to which our conceptions give varying representations, but rather different dogs that come into being or are enacted with our evolving concepts and consciousness.


We saw that if we cannot specify the Kosmic address of the perceiver and perceived, we have assertions without evidence, or metaphysics. And we can now see that this also means that we must be able to specify the injunctions necessary for the subject to be able to enact the Kosmic address of the object. The meaning of any assertion is therefore, among other things, the injunctions or means or exemplars for enacting the worldspace in which the referent exists or is said to exist (and where its existence can, in fact, be confirmed or refuted by a community of the adequate).


In particular, the idea that there are levels of being and knowing beyond the physical (i.e., literally meta-physical) is badly in need of reconstruction. This is not to say that there are no trans-physical realities whatsoever; only that most of the items taken to be trans- or meta-physical by the ancients (e.g., feelings, thoughts, ideas) actually have, at the very least, physical correlates. When modernity discovered this fact, it rejected the great wisdom traditions almost in their entirety. Of course, modernity has its own hidden metaphysics (as does postmodernity), but when the great, amber, mythic-metaphysical systems came down, spirituality received a hit from which it has never recovered. What is required is to reconstruct the enduring truths of the great wisdom traditions but without their metaphysics.


Given what an AQAL post-metaphysics discloses, it becomes apparent how well-meaning but still meaningless virtually everything being written about spirituality is. Spiritual treatises are mostly an endless series of ontic assertions about spiritual realities—and assertions with no injunctions, no enactions, no altitude, no perspectives, no Kosmic address of either the perceiver or the perceived. They are, in every sense, meaningless metaphysics, not only plagued with extensively elaborate myths of the given, but riddled with staggering numbers of ontic and assertic claims devoid of justification.



I’m poking fun at straw Less Wrongers and I’m poking fun at straw Ken Wilber, but I’m also deadly serious. I really, really care about this stuff, and I want other people to care about it, too.

I’m not saying the average Less Wronger doesn’t get this.

Of course, say, not-average-Less-Wronger Yudkowsky does get this and then some.

I’m not saying Yudkowsky would agree with stuff here.

I’m not saying I would agree with everything, here (universal love, Kosmic habits…).

(And, dated Ken Wilber is dated, a la General Semantics. He’d write a different book, now.)





Arguably I’m just poking at straw valley of bad rationality, straw vulcanism.



“Rationality,” narrowly defined, is about having reasons. Post-metaphysics is about having referents and instructions on how to access those referents. If someone wants to use logic on me, if someone is having a conversation with me, I pay attention to both the signifieds enacted in my head and my guess as to the signifieds enacted in the other person’s head.

Anyway, I want to go more into this eventually, but one of the reasons I care about all this so much is understanding and consent.

In actual-human-value-land, not pragmatic-operationalized-land, under what conditions can we be said to understand each other? Under what conditions can meaningful consent occur? Under what conditions is ethical coordination happening? Under what conditions will I feel like we’re actually hanging out in the same worldspace together, whether we’re both in the same world? Really seeing each other?

Really interacting with each other as adults doing adult things? This, I long for.




OMG inferential distance.

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quick draft notes from secular meditation meetup: neurofeedback, dichotomies, ambiguity, uncertainty, grit

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

[New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

I had the first meetup yesterday for long-term meditators with a naturalist worldview. People had the opportunity to bring up questions, curiosities, and issues in their practice and also to go off on wild and interesting conversational tangents.

I created this meetup because I want to spend time with other long-term meditators, but I also wanted to continue collecting as much cheap data as I possibly can on what meditators are going through, what they care about, and so forth.

Some hasty, minimally-edited notes:

At the meetup, there were a few minor themes and two major themes.

state-chasing vs all states

One minor theme was “state-chasing” or “event-chasing” vs cultivating a healthy relationship with all states and events as they arise. Surely this is a false-dichotomy and a straw, but it can still be a useful distinction. I should probably unpack this more later, but for now it’s worth noting that both intervention and willingness/surrender have their places, and it’s not easy to optimally weave these two strategies together without one strategy kind of clobbering the other. But I think you need both for dramatically synergistic results. Anyway, I was able to recognize this distinction from Ken Wilber’s writing as well as some Tibetan texts.

away or towards

Another minor theme was another dichotomy: On the one hand was “running away,” “protecting,” “medicating,” “fixing,” “healing.” On the other hand was, “growth,” “curiosity,” “striving,” “mystery,” etc. It seemed to be that people were drawn to meditation for the former and that their practice evolved more towards the latter, into something with a more ambiguous and exploratory goal.

starting and stopping and restarting

Another minor theme was that we all had the experience of starting and stopping a regular meditation practice with gaps on the order of days, weeks, and months. And, upon resumption, wondering, “This is great; why wasn’t I doing this the whole time?” It’s not clear what drives this (though one can easily guess a bunch of stuff, perhaps more on this later), whether it’s optimal, etc.

The two major themes were a) guided meditation vs self-directed meditation and b) objective feedback vs subjective feedback.

Guided meditation vs self-directed meditation

So, first, guided meditation versus self-directed meditation. Guided meditation refers to being walked through a series of experiential suggestions via audio recording. And each meditation session usually uses that same recording. In contrast, I’ll define “self-directed” meditation as meditating without any temporally structured external inputs. This latter thing is what I typically think of as just “meditation.”

I’ll note that even “self-directed” meditation is usually done with a tacit or explicit protocol. Even if you don’t have a protocol somewhere in the back of your head, you still have a tacit sense of “what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.” I personally find it difficult to meditate without some explicitness. I go to great lengths to have a book or a document that I use as a touchstone for my practice, which I annotate or laboriously rethink and rewrite from time to time.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using guided meditation. I do think though that there’s tremendous value in slowly, slowly, slowly cultivating endogenous structure and stability over time. Meditation can teach you (or, say, your pre-conscious neural activity) to self-settle, to self-recombobulate, to maintain inner coherence in the face of confusing, ill-structured, ill-understood, unexpected, intense external (and internal) input. I think it’s possible to gain tremendous resilience, which may or may not be externally evident as a sort of unflappable, eventually non-smug, understated self-assurance even amidst a complete clusterfuck. This happens prior to conscious deliberateness. If not simply never breaking, you might feel like you’re helping to put yourself back together, and you are. But, you’re sort of teaching yourself, your brain is teaching itself, to self-assemble, to self-put-itself-back-together, to re-stabilize after surprise, insult, inner conclusions, etc. A mind that is its own center, its own source of stability, is a pretty awesome thing to have. Or so I claim.

As a final note to this topic, the usual caveat applies: with great power comes great responsibility, and in this case the power is self-stabilization and the responsibility is remaining open to external input, to being moved, whether in beliefs about the world or in emotional intimacy. It doesn’t have to be a dichotomy—actively, flexibly metabolizing the world while remaining coherent, as something coherent, is a skill to cultivate. Part of this is learning to allow change to occur not-entirely-within the domain of comprehensibility and understanding, how to let go of old truths whether or not you have new ones yet, as well as how to bend instead of breaking, and so forth.

Objective feedback

Another topic came up is the value and pitfalls of objective feedback, for example relative power in your beta band, alpha band, theta, etc. I understand the strong desire to have concrete feedback. And I know how demoralizing and exhausting it can be to have no idea what you’re doing, whether it’s working, or why you’re doing it. I suspect this is one of the reasons why people don’t start meditating and why people stop.

Ultimate and Intermediate Feedback

If you go the “traditional” route, it is indeed a looooooong road to anything resembling ease and flow and reduced second-guessing, though of course there are traditional strategies to “stay the course.” They don’t work very well if you don’t buy into the dogma, though: For example, reviewing the benefits of enlightenment, the drawbacks of not getting enlightened, the rarity of having the opportunity to get enlightened… Yeah, not too helpful for the skeptical meditator.

Of course, as a skeptical meditator, you can look for intermediate claims and descriptions and navigate with those, but that doesn’t help with the long-term why. Ingram offers a summary of the traditional maps, and Ingram offers strategies for gamification, too. (Find the pdf link on the link page.) One redeeming feature of new agey stuff is that it does do a better job of emphasizing immediate benefits than the traditional stuff, albeit at the steep expense of intermediate and long-term benefits.

But let’s get back to “doing it right,” “don’t know if it’s working.” Changes and effects of meditation do become more subtle over time as your brain gets used to meditating. One strategy to get a better feel for what’s going on is to stop meditating for a week, start meditating again, and it’s often very apparent when you start again about what direction the meditation practice is pushing you in.

Quantitative Feedback

One impulse at the meetup was to get a quantitative EEG recording done and to see if it’s changing over time. Another possibility is to get a noisy home EEG system. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Now, of course, depending on the brain area and what you’re measuring, I acknowledge that using neurofeedback to teach someone to change brain activity (whether with EEG or real-time fMRI) can have direct subjective and behavioral consequences. You can find interesting examples in the literature.

But, I would make a distinction between “brain” vs “mind.” Yeah, they’re the same thing, but you can have big changes in brain activity with minimal changes in subjective experience. And you can have big changes in subjective experience with minimal (obvious) changes in brain activity. So, if you want objective feedback, you’ll need to be linking that objective feedback to subjective experience anyway, if you’re looking for any impact on your life at all. So, I wonder if it’s maybe better to stick with subjective feedback in the first place and cut out the middle person so to speak.

And, it seems like objective measures can lack finesse: I want people to get to the point of being artists of their experience and artists of their meditation practice, making fine-grained corrections and changes in accordance with their individual values across time. I do believe there’s no limit to how rich, intricate, deep, complex, and practical it can get, and I want to nudge people towards that. Boiling things down to a few charts may be anathema to that goal.  So that’s a value judgment on my part. Of course picking your objective measures or having someone else pick them is a value judgment too.

I do acknowledge that neurofeedback and EEG could be used as “training wheels” or to get someone in the ballpark so that they can go from the objective feedback and find and isolate the subjective correlate and train that. So if people are interested in playing with that sort of stuff, they should go for it.

Further, I know communities have sprung up around binaural beats and probably home EEG systems too, experimenting with how to get various subjective effects. I’ll call this “augmented meditation” or something. I personally prefer the endogenous stuff, but this is totally a valid path, too, and if I see useful tools and faster progress in that world, I’ll steal it.


And, finally, I do realize it’s easy to fool oneself. I do understand people want to raise their confidence that they’re getting a return on investment.

And on the other hand, part of the benefit of meditation is learning how to navigate under conditions of uncertainty, under conditions of subtle, ambiguous feedback. So I don’t want to short-circuit that, either.

So, I think at minimum, I want to make beginners aware of all these issues, so that they can make less agonized choices about whether to stick with meditation or not. And, at maximum, I want to find ways to give meditators better feedback so they can be more confident of their progress, while not denying those meditators the advantages of learning to persist under ambiguity and uncertainty.

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data mining the dharma overground and kenneth folk dharma forums; calling software developers, natural language processing, and statistics people

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

[New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

I can’t find the post now, but, a few months ago, a post on Insane Brain Train reminded me of the meditation practice journals on the Dharma Overground and Kenneth Folk Dharma sites:

There are threads on those forums where people journal their meditation progress over hundreds of posts. All issues aside, it’s probably the largest repository of  “hardcore” meditation practice data available. (If you disagree, let me know!)

Since the inception of this blog, I’ve of course been thinking about how to be as empirical and falsifiable-model-driven as possible, and this dataset represents one possible means to that end.

I expect almost all of the meditators on the forums are doing Mahasi-style noting, so there would be a bit of a challenge to generalize beyond that. But, I do agree with Daniel Ingram that there is a huge (though not complete) overlap of the stages that meditators go through, between different mediation styles and traditions. So there is possibly, probably, some signal to be gleaned, here.

Now, I can and may do some or all of this eventually (I did a bunch of these puzzle pieces, over and over again, during my PhD), but I could use your help, and it would be my pleasure if you beat me to it:

  • Scrape these forums into XML or a DB, weed out non-practice-journal threads, and non-practitioner posts from those threads. Or, just even download the forums into an archive that we can back up. Or, recommend to me/us a scraper library. Or, hack together some example code that will speed me/us up.
  • Clean stuff up (e.g. bag of words, among other things) using something like NLTK, possibly as part of the above bullet.
  • Grab some models from Natural Language Processing-land or make up some really simple stuff, pick an appropriate statistical test, correct for multiple statistical tests, and demonstrate statistically significant… stuff. (Suggestions welcome!)
  • For example, as a first pass, I have some expectation that meditators will use some words with greater or lesser frequency the farther along they are. It might be very noisy.
  • It may be necessary to iterate on higher-level observational codes to find signal, and that would be very labor-intensive.
  • If this moves along, I would put a lot more time into building up some more elaborate falsifiable hypotheses about what I think is going on and what we think we can actually get out of this dataset.
  • I also have my eye on the buzz-phrase “Intensive Longitudinal Methods,” but, again, I’m totally open to ideas for the best way to frame this investigation.
  • Donate money to fund me, or a developer, or a stats guy to do some of these pieces.
  • Affiliate me as a postdoc with your lab so I would be eligible for more grants. You wouldn’t even have to pay me if you basically just left me alone. 🙂 I might even be willing to do stuff on your critical path if you paid me. 🙂
  • Hunt down grants that I or someone else could apply for. For example, nothing at the Mind and Life Institute fits my current situation: http://www.mindandlife.org/grants/
  • Help me write a grant or write me into a grant or let me write myself into your grant.
  • In any case, the overarching goals are to describe normative progress and to look for clues on how to safely accelerate that progress.

Anyway, this is only just one of the things I’m toying with. But this data is there, and there might be usable signal. I don’t think I’m at the point where I’m ready to start collecting or collaborating on (a) designer dataset(s).

If you need a project, say, for school, please see if there’s something you could bite off in there. Depending on where I’m at with other stuff, I would, at minimum, be your cheerleader, if not a lot more.

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diminishing returns, and why keep pushing at the Focusing-type stuff

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

[New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

In a previous post, I summarized the Focusing-type protocols:

[…] Recall Focusing, Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, Emotion-Focused Therapy, Coherence Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, the Lefkoe Methods, and more. These practices don’t easily fit into the meditation feedback loop framework:

You activate or find particular referents in consciousness with nonsymbolic internal structure. You engage in subtle, profound acceptance of the truth and inner logic of those referents and accompanying behaviors. You patiently, tenaciously, obliquely, humbly work to explicitly model and put words to those referents. You humbly let those referents and juxtapositions of other referents evolve in relationship to you and accordingly change the words. Sometimes it takes seconds, sometimes it takes months. And then abruptly, BAMresonance, involuntary sigh, catharsis, one-shot learning, neural protein synthesis, radical synaptic change: Starting right then and ending within twenty-four hours, you are different, better forever, effortlessly from that point on. Sometimes it’s more subtle, and sometimes it happens in steps.

In that post, I also discussed how, while they’re totally worth the learning investment, these protocols seem to have diminishing returns. You eventually need to put in more time and cognitive effort for less and less change.

I don’t fully understand why the returns are diminishing. I get that our pasts are finite, and past a certain point, it can get harder to mine our past for novel patterns and relevant juxtapositions of episodes and semantics. You process the low-hanging fruit (which maybe you found by thinking, daydreaming, journaling, and talking with friends and family). And I mentioned that a therapist can sometimes be helpful for finding medium-height-hanging fruit.

But, I feel like these limitations must be artificial.

Three years ago I’d maybe spend a half-hour doing Focusing a few times a week. Then it became an hour a couple times a week, and eventually I tapered off doing it. Then I found a Focusing-Oriented psychotherapist, and I worked with him for once a week for a couple months.

Now throughout all of this, and after, I was directly referencing nonsymbolic felt sense for all sorts of stuff, and having little microepiphanies, and all of that. And while I continue to use deliberate nonsymbolic thinking all the time, even those microepiphanies start to taper.

So, somewhere around two years ago, I discovered Internal Family Systems Therapy, and I felt like that was a structured super-charger for Focusing. IFS can be laborious, but I found that I was getting at stuff that I wasn’t able to with Focusing alone.

But, again, the time-in-use grew. At peak, for a couple weeks, I was doing three hours of IFS in a row, maybe nine-twelve hours per week. It took three hours at a time to break new ground. Now, I was on a mission. I had a sense of what could be different, and of course I was surprised by where I ended up; that’s how it works. It was profoundly worth it, and I’m grateful I had that kind of time to spare. But, after that, I used it less and less again, until I mostly wasn’t.

Finally, I discovered Coherence Therapy about a year ago. Again, I gained new insights, picked off low-hanging fruit, and worked with a non-CT therapist to come up with more fodder for the CT process. And, once again, I’m profoundly grateful and more different still, and, I used CT less and less over the past year.

So, three things. First, separate issue, psychological growth or healing does not necessarily make you happier–growth means different existential problems. I’m not even going to go into that, here. 🙂

Second, more to the point, while Focusing, IFS, and CT seem to be pretty much doing the “same thing,” I was able to get differential mileage out of each of them. Now, part of that could be just that the time and distance between each use gave me more fodder to process, or something about the order in which I found these techniques allowed me to somehow scaffold my skill, which is probably true.

But I’d like to narrow in on an explanation that seems to apply elsewhere: If you ask your brain seemingly slightly different questions, you sometimes you get very different answers. You see this in debiasing attempts, where, say, you ask yourself to meta-estimate your probability of being right, or you ask the same question phrased in different ways, or you ask “able” vs “willing.” There’s all sorts of possibilities, many of which haven’t been explored, and they change your answer.

I think something similar is going on, here, in Focusing-land, where you can get a lot of mileage out of seemingly slight variations on the technique, which makes me think we don’t really have a good model of the underlying reality.

Of course, I’ve tried to abstract out the fundamental “mental moves” that underly Focusing, IFS, and CT. I’ve tried to suss out “what’s really going on,” what the minimal necessary and sufficient steps are. And I’ve thought about how to minimize the cognitive burden of doing it to make it easier to do (or to help people attack more complicated issues than they would have otherwise been able to), and I’ve thought about how to make it take less time so people can more easily fit it into their busy schedule.

What these techniques are, no more, no less–backed by neural structure–are mostly just deliberate, sequenced, stylized versions of native “mental moves” that our minds are naturally doing hundreds of times per day…

I don’t yet really have a satisfying explanation that won’t just sound like a rephrasing of, say, Coherence Therapy’s explanation of why it works (activation, understanding, juxtaposition, memory reconsolidation…). I don’t think I can add much yet, except maybe some hair-splitting nuance to the technique that would be unhelpful to beginners.

But, I do have a novel variation of these techniques that I’ve gotten additional mileage out of, which I’ll go into in a subsequent post.

See, I keep pushing at this, because it feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of the endogenous, positive malleability of mind

I still feel like I’m limited in all sorts of ways, I still experience all sorts of little and medium-sized coulds, shoulds, ambivalences, maybes, possibilities, etc. And that’s fine. Part of it is just containing multitudes, even if they’re mostly cooperating, ego-enfolded multitudes. Got a lot going on all at once.

But I want more, I sense that more is possible. I’m just so interested in all the little ways that I limit myself and probably don’t even realize it. I see other people, in some ways, appearing to move through the world more effortlessly, more brightly. And, sure, maybe they’re fighting terrible, hidden battles. And, sure, maybe they were born on third base. And, sure, maybe their priorities and time spent are just different.

But this is about me. What am I capable of? What possibilities are as yet untapped that are within my power to influence? What ease and joy and competence and intimacy am I leaving on the table?

Sometimes you realize that, yes, you can do psycho-intense-high-pressure thing X. Sometimes you realize that, no, you should do this more sane and balanced thing Y. Sometimes you learn how to navigate between X and Y, with Z’s thrown in, or how to re-understand it all in terms of much more gratifying A, B, and C…

I still act in uncomfortable, cramped, awkward, pinched ways all the time. And what if my seven is really a three? (Yup, I just did it, I linked Steve Pavlina.)

What are the levels above my own?

And, so, in a future post, possibly the next one, I will talk about yet another technique I’ve sussed out that relates to the Focusing-type techniques. And maybe that will simultaneously unpack more about how and why these techniques do what they do.

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Mental Models, Fuzzy-trace Theory, Rationality, and Debiasing

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

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In addition to Kahneman and Stanovich, I wish Johnson-Laird and Brainerd/Reyna got more play in the rationality community.

Johnson-Laird’s career has been spend on what he calls “mental models.” He has been an author on tens of research papers on topics such as negation, causality, etc.

Brainerd and Reyna have spent a portion of their career on what they call “Fuzzy-trace theory,” which is a theory about semantic memory.

I like mental models and fuzzy-trace theory because they are both phenomenologically provocative. That is, I can access referents in consciousness that seemingly correspond to moving parts in their theoretical machinery.

Further, I think these theories are a nice bridge between me and the rationality community, because both theories have dual-processing components and both theories empirically weigh in on cognitive biases.

According to Johnson-Laird, System 1 can manipulate and deploy mental models which are as explicit and iconic as possible, and System 2 is needed to mediate between models, search for counterexamples, and more. I’m not doing it justice, here, but he has a whole set of claims and falsifiable predictions. It’s amazing work, and he’s itching to prove himself wrong so he can come up with something even better.

My own spin is that these models can be “fully loaded” in consciousness (“are reality,” while they’re there), or not, and referents that correspond to alternative models are available as felt senses on the “periphery” of consciousness, if you know where to look. Emotion can make models “sticky,” and mind muscles can be strengthened to be able to deliberately call up, sort through, recurse through, and juxtapose mental models in an explicit and deliberate way. You can also learn to deliberately hang out in “no model” and “between model” territory which can sometimes afford unpredictable insights.

What I’ve found is that models can be simple or tremendously complex, but they don’t easily combine–it’s fascinating. They can be contradictory, and people ping-pong back and forth between them over seconds and minutes, based on priming, inner noise, and working memory limitations, and they don’t even realize they’re doing it.

I’m currently exploring automatic and deliberate fusing of mental models, the phenomenology of mental model inclusion and transcendence, ironing out inconsistencies, and getting a single, more intricate “chunk” instead of taking up two chunks of working memory. Of course, consciousness is the tip of the iceberg, so what are the attentional, intentional, and emotional levers that prioritize what’s happening while you’re daydreaming and sleeping?

Now, fuzzy-trace theory asserts that certain types of memory are composed of two components: verbal and gist. These components are stored separately and decay and evolve at different rates during different developmental periods of a person’s life. This non-coupling, in the literature, can experimentally account for all sorts of cognitive biases.

Fuzzy-trace theory’s “gist,” I assert, has its phenomenological component in Gendlin’s felt sense, Hurlburt’s nonsymbolic cognition, and so on.

Anyway, both mental model theory and fuzzy-trace theory have been used to predict and explain a wealth of cognitive biases. Furthermore, because these theories have phenomenological grounding, they may suggest discrete and deliberate “levers,” “moves in mental space,” that would be effective for debiasing. And, these debiasing strategies could be tested using pieces of the experimental protocols laid out in these two threads of literature.



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Rough Draft: Communication, Cross-training, Intimacy, Desire

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

[New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

You are creating a second tier in the relationship, an observation post, a metalevel, a joint platform, an observing couple ego. You are solving the immediate problem in the relationship by moving up and reassembling the relationship on the next higher level.” —Daniel Wile

I’m working on slicing and dicing the domains of mastery and value on this blog. By value, I mean pointing out things that might be worth wanting, for both proximal and terminal reasons. By mastery, I mean, of course, the practices which directly enact those values or approach realization of those values.

While I haven’t emphasized empathy and perspective-taking too much, they have appeared in prior posts [1, 2]. To me, these words refer to our capacity to automatically utilize, or deliberately attend to, our pre-symbolic “felt sense” of another person’s mind.

Empathy is core skill that can be trained, perhaps via “Other Mind Meditation,” which I’ve been experimenting with in meetups. In the last post, I referred to meditation and Focusing-type practices as practices that cross-train, and empathy is another skill that can be added to that cross-training collection. (Because, the machinery that flexes and contorts to model other minds can be applied to understanding your own mind as well, but you wouldn’t have stumbled on that particular, personally useful flexing and contorting had you not been trying to model another mind.)

The Focusing-type skills described in the last post are actually two processes in one, the first being “attending to nonsymbolic meaning” and the second being “symbolizing and expressing that nonsymbolic meaning” (to self or others).

Further, empathy and Focusing-type skills can be thought of as sub-skills to the super-skill of online and offline pragmatic communication with other people. I say “pragmatic” because I’m emphasizing communication with a purpose: love, sex, intimacy, fun, support, coordinated action, etc. I say “online,” referring to real-time communication such as face-to-face, voice-only, or text chat. I say “offline,” referring to snail-mail, emailings, blogging, and even book-writing.

This is “using your words” (and sometimes nonverbal communication) to “get what you want” (which often encompasses you being assured that other involved parties getting what they want, too).

Now, symbolic pragmatics is such an incredible skill–using combinations of these lifeless, little, countably finite, discrete patterns of matter and energy (naturalized symbols!) to move lovers, mountains, armies, planets…

(I acknowledge that successful use of symbols is conditional on vast coordinate preconditions.)

But, here is this next opportunity to aspire to thousand-year-old-vampire levels of skill: leveraging your use of words, whatever situation you find yourself in. They are so cheap relative to what they can do, to what they can unlock.

Just like meditation, use of words has no payoff ceiling. The better you get, the more benefits you get.

Just like meditation, increase in empathy has no payoff ceiling. The better you get, the more benefits you get.

And better empathy lets you use your words better. They are another example of cross-training.

And, using words in the moment is hard, have you noticed? Pre-caching words is one strategy for using words in the moment. But you have to have a pretty good idea of which ways the situation could go.

Fresh, spontaneous, exploratory (depending on the risks) use of language is another way to go.

And emotions really complicate things, of course you’ve noticed. If you or the person you’re speaking with (suddenly?) might not get what they really want, things get intense. Use of words gets harder (because other parts of the brain and body start vying for input).

And that’s where the mind muscles built from meditation comes in, the ability to surf your emotion and not get tongue-tied, the ability to simultaneously pursue many different models of situational outcome and advancement, to simultaneously remain responsive to the person right there in front of you, to be open to eir [sic] influence.

So anyway, this post has been enacting two goals. The first is to help me start assembling scattered thoughts on empathy and pragmatic communication more directly into my blogging project (that project being, as losslessly as possible, to offer my toolbox, worldview, and values).

The second is to offer up some concrete resources while I’m sorting that out:

Daniel Wile is a brilliant, ethical phenomenologist. I say ethical because his ethics are deeply baked into his philosophy and approach. I don’t want to give it away, except that attacking and not-attacking are explicit in his thinking. (This post is more of a “go read this guy until I write about this stuff”; see below)

Do you know John Gottman, the guy who can predict relation breakups with eighty or ninety percent accuracy from a tiny sample of behavior? Here’s what Gottman has to say about Wile:

I love Wile’s writing and thinking. They are entirely consistent with many of my research findings. I think that Wile is a genius and the greatest living marital therapist. I am blessed to have been able to exchange ideas with him.

Wile’s After the Fight is a long, dense (but clear) read that blends experiential phenomenology with emotional dynamics, semantic dynamics, interpersonal dynamics, interpersonal ethics, concrete tools, and psychoactive insight. It’s the relationship book for cerebral meditators. (As a contrast, the book Radical Honesty is powerfully psychoactive, but it’s like handling a live, poisonous snake. And the book Nonviolent Communication is beautiful and elegant, yet clunky and incomplete.) This book is in another league. It is not the last word, it’s nontrivial to translate this stuff to non-intimate relationships, and I have much more to say, but I’ll possibly never surpass the decades of in-the-trenches experience that went into his writing.

After the Honeymoon is an earlier book by Wile. It stands on its own, but it has enough overlap with After the Fight that you don’t need to read both. I mention it because it’s a much breezier, easier read than After the Fight.

Here is an even shorter, 40-page summary of his approach (from where the epigraph above came from):


And here are additional shorter articles:


There is also great stuff from Wile’s mentor, Bernard Apfelbaum, here:



So, I just want to end this blog post by reemphasizing the point of all this. For example:

  • Profound sense of intimacy or camaraderie,
  • Emotional support on your valued projects,
  • Weathering relationship turmoil,
  • Stable, drama-does-not-even-exist-in-this-universe relationships,
  • Reliable access to enactment and reenactment of hilariously specific, elaborate, and idiosyncratic sexual fantasies,
  • Understanding and delight and acceptance in your uniqueness,
  • Profound acknowledgment and service to another person,
  • Safety and comfort in light of finiteness, unpredictability, and mortality…

These are abstract ideals, of course. Reality is messy, and you might use different words or want completely different, highly personally specific things. What I’m referring to, here, is whatever you want that might include more people than just you.

Most of us don’t yearn to, say, fly or wield psychokinesis, even though that would be awesome, because those things are much closer to impossible than not. Our brains, at a deep, preconscious level, don’t allocate a lot of time desiring concrete realizations of things that the brain expects to be impossible.

Part of our brain not spending that time is because truly desiring things you believe to be impossible can be extraordinarily, soul-cuttingly painful. And that’s even if your longings are technically physically realizable.

So part of what I want for this blog as whole, by suggesting use of possibly novel tools, is to expand your sense of what’s possible, to get your mind going about the things you could have, to make you hungrier.

The other thing I want is to ease you into contemplating desires that would have been too painful to contemplate before. This is an ethically tricky thing. Why do I want this for you? Possibly because some of my desires hurt, and if I want people to work on them with me then they might have to be willing to have painful desires, too.

I must warn you that having abstract or even just extremely challenging desires is associated with increased risk of clinical depression, and working on said desires is associated with increased risk of the same. (Let me know if Google fails on tracking some of these down.)

But perhaps some things are worth being depressed about. (Seriously, fuck me if that previous sentence takes someone in a direction they ultimately regret.) And, perhaps skillful communication and vulnerability is the solution on many simultaneous levels.

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Rick Hanson, PhD gets it, too; A Unified Meditation Practice?; And is it time to buy or steal some fMRI time? (2000 words)

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

[New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

Rick Hanson, PhD gets it. Hundreds of other people get it too. But Hanson may just barely win the prize for being the most explicit about using neuroscience to enhance meditation:

“To ‘naturalize’ something is to place it in the frame of the natural world, to operationalize it in natural terms. […]

“What could be a [neurobiological] operationalization of dukkha, tanha, sila, samadhi, panna, bhavana, or nirodha?”

So far so good, and he’d be willing to throw out the traditional concepts for better ones and add new ones, hinted at by objective investigation, that Buddhism missed. And Hanson will happily talk about the insula, the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, gamma waves, and functional connectivity. And he offers strategies for people to reliably light up brain regions (which albeit needs some careful unpacking re brain versus mind), and he responsibly qualifies all the brain enthusiasm by noting that “[m]ost big changes in the psyche involve tiny changes in soma; mental plasticity holds more promise than neural plasticity.”




This is great. He’s trying to ground this stuff. He’s carving up the territory in objective ways to try to teach accessibly and palatably. And he’s got a profitable media empire going. I’m jealous.

But, here’s what I think isn’t good enough, yet:

Hanson is still offering an unintegrated grab bag of techniques, and there’s only so much time during the day. Ditto Shinzen Young who is still awesome. Ditto classical Buddhism. Not quite ditto the Mahasi noting crowd (Ingram, Folk), which offers one to three techniques at a time, but I think the payoff of those techniques might be too narrow.

I think there must be better ways to cut across the intervention phase space. The brain is homeostatic. Retrospectively reflecting, here’s the pattern I usually see when I do something new:

  1. Nothing happens because I’m still learning how to do it in a precise, sustained way. (Five minutes to one week)
  2. “Big” or at least obvious changes happen as I quickly “use up the neural slack” and push my brain to the edge of its accessible operating mode (couple days)
  3. Start either losing ground or stop seeing big changes, as the brain adapts, or short-term maxes out, to whatever pressure I’m applying (4 days)
  4. Slowly layering bedrock of lasting change (weeks, months, years)

The last one (step 4) is kind of interesting because that step is what seems to reshape (2) over time, the neural phase space you have to roam around in. The work you do in (4), you seem to lose it much more slowly if you stop, or, even if it seems to fade, you can often seemingly get it back to where you left off within a few days.

I think the little spot interventions (“inner smile,” “inner pause,” “pay attention”) do add up, in that they can kind of become habit, but the brain is “fighting back,” evening you out, stealing your gains. Bad brain. Or bad Hawthorne Effect.


But do those little spot interventions anyway: be an inner ninja in your daily life. I’m not knocking them.

But I want to do better. I want to develop new practices that efficiently cut across many inner lines of development at once. You can only do those steps (1)-(4) on so many practices at a time. Money and sex and love and friends and fun and impact and the reasons you’re doing steps (1)-(4) in the first place should be high priority.

How big can your practice become?

I feel like the ideal is folding absolutely everything one possibly can into a single process, a single meditation protocol. That might be phenomenologically complex, but there’d be a subjective simplicity on the far side of that complexity. I’ve used the analogy of a symphony before: you might think of yourself as simultaneously being both the conductor and the entire symphony at the same time while you’re meditating.

In that “single” ideal meditation protocol, there’s room for experimenting; there’s room for surrender; there’s room for not attacking yourself with exacting standards; there’s room for warmth, intimacy, safety folded into the practice itself, yet there’s room for precision, for striving; you can radiate and gamify at the same time.

Subjectively, how big can your practice become? How much can your practice embrace?

Objectively, crudely, somewhat literally, how much of the brain can we light up with a single practice?


Classical meditation is a feedback loop:

You can’t control your reactions, they already happened, but you can perform volitional acts in response to your reactions, and those volitional acts shape future reactions and the volitional actor itself.

And, so, I ask, can we do better than classical meditation?

Meditation leaves out profound aspects of mental life. Or, meditation can touch all aspects of mental life, but meditation doesn’t necessarily operate on all aspects of mental life in its core feedback loop.

Let me try to explain.

Part of it is that some mental gears don’t seem to easily turn while you’re meditating.

1. Here’s one example: Call it daydreaming, call it reverie, call it getting lost in thought, call it the default mode network: Some vital mental activity only happens when “you” are not calling the shots or are not even on the scene at all.

(Example: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8170326)

Now, reverie isn’t so much of a “problem.” You just incorporate entering and leaving this state into your model of meditation, which I do in foreground background meditation:


2. But, here’s another one that’s a bit more of a “problem.” Recall Focusing, Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, Emotion-Focused Therapy, Coherence Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, the Lefkoe Methods, and more. These practices don’t easily fit into the meditation feedback loop framework:

You activate or find particular referents in consciousness with nonsymbolic internal structure. You engage in subtle, profound acceptance of the truth and inner logic of those referents and accompanying behaviors. You patiently, tenaciously, obliquely, humbly work to explicitly model and put words to those referents. You humbly let those referents and juxtapositions of other referents evolve in relationship to you and accordingly change the words. Sometimes it takes seconds, sometimes it takes months. And then abruptly, BAMresonance, involuntary sigh, catharsis, one-shot learning, neural protein synthesis, radical synaptic change: Starting right then and ending within twenty-four hours, you are different, better forever, effortlessly from that point on. Sometimes it’s more subtle, and sometimes it happens in steps.

The fuck? 🙂 Not that I’m not bordering on religiously grateful that this capacity somehow ended up in our DNA.

Now, first of all, again, this framework does not easily fit in with the meditation feedback loop framework. Meditation cross-trains with this class of practices, in that meditation can make you better at them and vice versa, but they seem to exercising very different (albeit interpenetrating) functional brain networks.

To qualitatively summarize the differences, it seems like meditation changes your relationship with everything, but coherence-therapy-related stuff changes everything.

Unpacked, very loosely speaking: Meditation intervenes on your deep participation and relationship with self and world as they unfold around and within you; Coherence Therapy intervenes on your absolutely true 😉 personal global causal models that govern life, love, opportunity, and safety.

(Sidebar: And, by the way, I’m ignoring for now how all this relates to the big, hairy abstractions of System 1, System 2, Keith Stanovich’s reflective rationality, the five-second level, and the rationality checklist (except that I can suggestively lump all that under “muscles you didn’t know you had”):







Second of all, the Coherence Therapy class of practices have diminishing returns: You might pick off low-hanging fruit yourself. And then you pick off higher-hanging fruit with a good therapist. And you get profound and permanent changes initially proportionate to the time and energy you put in, and they are worth it. And it’s worth putting in time intermittently, forever, for spot reasons or gut intuition.

But, the long-game of deliberate memory reconsolidation (the target of this class of practices) is a really laborious process. I’m working on a couple ways to make it easier, but you still have play brilliant scientist and poet of your past, present, and future. It’s hard.

In contrast, meditation seems to have at least linear returns in the long game.

Granted, meditation is always going to be hard in that you’re noticing something just out of reach, and what is that, and oh wow I didn’t realize I could do that, and crap I lost it and I want it back, and how do I stabilize this, and how do I surrender to that, and how do I relate to all of that. Meditation is infinite meta: Qualia phase space is constrained by the hardware and how fast the hardware can change, but it’s qualia phase space; It’s ouroboric manifold combinatorial interpenetrating evolving vastness beyond all reason and comprehension.

That said, my point is that, in contrast to the diminishing returns of memory reconsolidation practices, meditation does tend to acquire a radical simplicity over time that embraces that ouroboric manifold combinatorial vastness.

So, I’ve been wondering for a while if there’s a way to unify the meditation feedback loop with the memory reconsolidation processes. Sure, you can kind of switch back and forth and weave them together, and I do sometimes, but it’s not an entirely smooth process.

Meditation has this amazing harmony of symbolic and nonsymbolic process, and it feels like there should be some way to incorporate the analogous symbolic / nonsymbolic processes of Coherence-Therapy-related stuff, so that they can also participate in the radical simplicity of meditation, too.

I want one, unified practice with at least linear returns, where it doesn’t feel like different stuff is bolted together.

I don’t know. I’m working on it. Based on the classical meditation maps, I may have some changes ahead that will make this clearer to me: Foreground background becomes foreground background reversal, and objects in the phenomenal field become objects as the phenomenal field. So maybe seeing how to do this integration is just a matter of time, though I’d like to speed it up for myself and for others.


So, where to go from here? Is it time yet for formal science? Or is it better to let science-informed communities of practice keep doing their thing for a while, while science and technology catch up?

The science is clear: Meditation causally influences structural changes in both gray matter and white matter in many different brain regions. Causation not correlation. It’s not subtle. That’s even a little surprising if we have Hanson’s intuition that “[m]ost big changes in the psyche involve tiny changes in soma.”

So can we use any of that (yet?) to figure out how to choose better meditation practices and to teach meditation better?

Real-time fMRI is something else to think about. People can learn to modulate their BOLD responses given real-time feedback, and this can have subjective and behavioral consequences.

Sulzer, James, et al. “Real-time fMRI neurofeedback: progress and challenges.”Neuroimage 76 (2013): 386-399.

People are already using rtfMRI to do meditation stuff:

Garrison, Kathleen A., et al. “Effortless awareness: using real time neurofeedback to investigate correlates of posterior cingulate cortex activity in meditators’ self-report.” Frontiers in human neuroscience 7 (2013).

So can we use any of that (yet?) to figure out how to choose better meditation practices and to teach meditation better?

I don’t know. Let me know if you have ideas. It seems like trying to design and carry out a longitudinal study is not the correct little bet to be making at this stage.

[Personally speaking, it’d be gratifying to leverage this PhD in bioengineering and all this industry and academia programming experience. I might collaborate on brainy grants if it seems like there would be a win-win-win payoff.]

So where does scientifically-noncontradictory, non-metaphysical, evidence-based transformative practice go next?

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Cutesy diagrams and mindfucking adventures

(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’m working on a book about all of the stuff on this blog, and I feel like I’m starting to see one of the ways that metaphysics gets started. I have this rich, implicit sense of how all this stuff fits together. And, at the same time, I’m trying to distill things down into simple, intuitive models which can be introduced sequentially. And, then, the idea is to compose these simple models into more complicated models with moving parts that people can line up with reality in useful ways.

But, what I’m finding, to keep things “simple,” and I guess this isn’t a surprise, is that I’m lumping functionally related stuff together into single concepts where I’d ideally like to keep them completely separate. And, I guess that’s not distilling, but what it is is creating these huge unwieldy abstractions that have less and less to do with experiential reality. Like, yes, I can point to all these different facets in reality and say, ok, lump these all under category X. But what that does is it still makes X seem like it’s REAL. I mean, neither are the concepts and “feels” that I natively use to think and reason about this stuff, but my native concepts are more real than this X that I’ve invented for dubious pedagogical purposes.

I don’t want people to have to read dozens of books, they’re not going to anyway, but I still want people to get it. I don’t want people hunting around in their heads for this bloated referent that doesn’t actually exist.

Why bother with mental models, anyway? Why not put together a meditation protocol and let people naturally find those referents, those experiences? I’m worried that people aren’t going to do that, either. Who’s going to meditate for years? The benefits start on day one but only some of them are obvious and only sometimes.

From a motivational perspective, I think having a starter mental model of the territory will make meditation more initially rewarding (as well as less of a hard sell).

It eventually becomes very obvious that meditation leads to living more experientially deeply, richly, brightly, excruciatingly painfully and electrically joyfully. Reality becomes more vivid, choices become more decisive and more painful, regret hits you harder, ambivalence stretches you thinner… It becomes safer to feel more and more intensely.

It becomes safe for every shameful, dirty, ugly, self-involved, masturbatory, altruistic painful aspect of your life to become a seamless glorious, vicious, joyful, fuck-yeah, fuck-up of a grand adventure.

Holy shit this is real life. It’s happening right now.

Now, does everyone want that? I don’t know. Separate issue, maybe. Reality is scary. It bites back, it will destroy your hopes, leave you in chains, rub your face in it, and then kills you in horrible ways. Poverty or cubicles for decades and then you die slowly, disgustingly, and painfully with beautiful people laughing in your face or just ignoring you as the light goes dim and you know you’ll never, ever fulfill those life longings and everything’s over forever and ever. Or you get hit by a meteor and die instantly. It could really happen. You don’t always get what you want. The hungrier you become the more you open yourself to devastation and disappointment.

And the type of meditation that I sell makes you hungrier. More alive.

Act wisely. Act skillfully. The stakes are your life, the stakes are your realization of your intimate, ultimate concerns, your heart’s desires. And the relative control you have over it all is a feather against concrete.

How shall you proceed?

How do I give people a taste of that, so they can see if maybe they want to go there? How does that not devolve into fucking bullshit feel-good guided imagery or something?

How do I convey the possible tremendous sacrifice, opportunity cost, possible impedance mismatch with the culture you grew up in, how it might simultaneously ruin you or free you or neither, depending not just on your individual luck and smarts and effort, but also life situations, savings, support of family and friends, social safety net…

“I just want to, like, be more relaxed, man. And, like, not have things suck so much in my head.”

We have to be clear whether we’re offering gentle healing, self-medication, mindfucking adventure, or all of it, and how to tell them apart. And what’s maybe contraindicated depending on your mental state.

For my part, I want people to see that the texture of their experience in every moment is vivid and electric and skillful navigation and surrender thereof can yield counterintuitive and valuable freedoms of mind and movement in the world. Or at least you’re slightly better able to laugh and cry and fight and comfort and love and not be a complete asshole to everyone who cares about you when your life goes to shit around you.

All this might seem insane or just really woo, but I reject the metaphysics of it. It’s brains doing brainy things. The right drugs or the right nanotech hanging out in my synapses could probably do the same thing. But we don’t have that yet. And, even if we did, consciousness will still be consciousness, then and now, either knowing itself or not, manifold configurations of matter and energy either dancing human values with the lights on, or not, not to mention it’s the only way you’ll ever know anything, from quarks to the concept of cognitive biases.

So, crap. How the hell do I ethically sell and teach this stuff, un-neutered, from a cold start? Where was I with my cutesy diagrams?

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