Your Own Failure of Imagination

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[This post is part of a series of posts: OtherAuthors. (Click the link to see all the posts in this series, so far.) In this series, I highlight non-meditation-related writing that I really like (in part) and try (honestly and genuinely) to clumsily appropriate it and shoehorn it into a plug for meditation.]

Scott Alexander wrote, You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you here today. You should totally click that link and read that post. Scott notes there is a “natural human tendency to dismiss anything you disagree with as so stupid it doesn’t even deserve consideration.” Scott notes there is an “ability to override that response.” This might have a flavor of muscles you didn’t know you had, right?

Scott goes on, “[to] assume that if you don’t understand how someone could possibly believe something as stupid as they do, that this is more likely a failure of understanding on your part than a failure of reason on theirs.”

I think Scott, and myself as well, might ask you to explore that failure of understanding on your part, to notice when that failure of understanding, that failure of imagination, is occurring. This ties into cognitive and emotional empathy, into empathic accuracy, into being aware of what has been triggered within you, and why. I hope you’ll have a look at this post and his blog.

You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you here today

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added more points to foreground/background meditation

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I’ve added two more points, N3 and O3 to the post How to do Foreground/Background Meditation:

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

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


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

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four hours of YouTube videos

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I’ve added a new page for videos, up in the header. New videos are up on my channel, and there’s now over four hours worth.

Start here with a playlist of forty-five minutes of questions and answers around meditation:

Meditation Instructions Market for Lemons

There’s also a three hour private conversation (shared with permission) around business, search engine optimization, values, goals, behind the scenes blog statistics and all sorts of weird stuff:

YouTube videos

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welcome pragmatic dharma and how I meditate

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Welcome, Pragmatic Dharma folks!

(e.g. )

Given a bit of influx from a new audience, I thought this would be a good time to go over some of my general thoughts on meditation.

First and foremost, I have no doubt that noting practice (e.g. is ridiculously effective for some people. I also think that noting practice is risky and dangerous for some people.

I have a personal preference against noting practice. One thing I’ve noticed is that it leads to “attentional thrashing.” Whipping attention around really fast is “noisy;” it drowns out and obscures all sorts of interesting and important phenomena. To me, it just doesn’t feel particularly healthy, when doing it quickly and precisely for an extended period of time.

In order to see what Daniel Ingram calls “out of phase” phenomena, I believe the attentional allocation needed is very different than when you first start out (e.g. when you’re sticking solely to sensory phenomena). I suspect that not everyone realizes how to make the switch, which leaves some people in the dark night and also grinding away at a practice which I don’t think is that great for your brain.

I refer to “out of phase” phenomena as stuff which you need to look at with “inner peripheral vision.” If you look directly at these phenomena, they “disappear” or “always move out of the spotlight of attention.” You get inner peripheral vision by stabilizing foreground attention and then using your non-foreground attention to look around, without letting your foreground attention take a new object.

(If this resonates with you and you think there’s a step after what I’m describing, I’d love to hear about it. I’ve gotten tremendous mileage out of this mental move, and I want to know if I’m missing a move that comes after it.)

I describe the meditation protocol I recommend and still use in this post:

Not much has changed since I wrote that post, which was a summary of what I’ve learned from a decade of meditation (which isn’t that much).

An important point is that, for most of our mental lives, we are not there. We go from thought to thought, as if in a dream, and those thoughts are lost forever because they are never attended to. This is fine. I talk about mental gears turning in that post above. Daydreaming and reverie is healthy and normal. The brain does lots of important work while we aren’t there.

Certainly that reverie can be a source of suffering, a living nightmare in which you don’t realize you’re dreaming. And that’s a good reason to meditate. But that reverie, when you’re not there, is also a source of problem-solving, growth, insight, exhilaration, relaxation, motivation, etc. My protocol above explicitly acknowledges reverie, which I think is not treated in a balanced and healthy way by most meditation protocols.

I want to give a shout out to Jason Siff’s Recollective Awareness Meditation, which helped me understand the importance of reverie:

Herbert Demmin’s book, Ghosts of Consciousness also discusses the phenomenology of reverie in great detail.

Next I want to talk about my skepticism of classical Buddhist enlightenment. No doubt, classical enlightenment is a real phenomenon. You can get it; you can have and live that experience. People who are living it say it’s worth it.

I guess my “skepticism” centers more around getting enlightened as well as whether it has to be all or nothing. (I know there seem to be 1-3 big attainments that have all been labeled “it”. I’m talking even smaller helpings and pieces and aspects and shades of gray.)  I’m skeptical that one *needs* to have a fruition experience to get those insights and that sharp drop in suffering. I’m skeptical that one *has* to possibly brave some of the negative side-effects of meditation to get the benefits.

This isn’t too controversial anymore, but the benefits of meditation can start on day one. You don’t have to wait for something big to happen at some uncertain date. And I, and probably everyone, would argue that the best way to move forward is by paying attention to what’s happening right now, to what the practice is doing to you right now.

In this vein, I discuss how meditation is a “human invention for human purposes” in this post:

I discuss how meditation might turn you into a zombie in this post:

My take on meditation practice is that, within the constraints imposed by reality, in accordance with one’s values, that one should become the artist and architect of one’s own mindstream and life. (Reality bites back–and yeah you’re gonna die–but you can bite right back in the meantime, even if that looks like effortless, graceful surrender, for example.) I discuss “how big your practice can 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?

So, it’s late. I think that’s everything for now. There’s so much more on this blog. There are so many more points that I think are important to make. Please have a look around. A final thought:

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.

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twitter, language games, teaching meditation

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I’m currently kicking back and forth some thoughts about the ethics and effectiveness of meditation instruction on twitter.

Below are a few posts where I touch on these issues:

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“free in ways you are not”

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If you like my blog you need to read this new ribbonfarm post:

“Awakening from a finite game is not a skill, let alone one you can perfect.” <– I disagree with this point. Awakening from a finite game is precisely the project of this blog.

And he nails the associated existential fear and risks.

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