Fucking Meditation, How Does it Work?: Or, what are you doing and why are you doing it?

(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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At the weekly web meetup today, someone brought up what I call the “what am I doing and why am I doing it question.” Once you realize that meditation is a human invention, a human game played by humans, it’s natural to ask, well, now what? No gods, no masters, or something.

Or, rather, there’s this thing that’s been around for thousands of years. And lots of people alive today say it’s really valuable to do it. And/but, everyone recommends a different version. And how is meditation or Buddhism or whatever different from Christianity or prayer or whatever? Lots of stuff has been around for thousands of years. That doesn’t necessarily make it good idea. (I’m not dissing Christianity, at least not tonight. It’s just late and I can’t think of something in the class of like bloodletting that’s been around for thousands of years and is still around.)

Ok, so science. Meditation is being studied, but not (yet?) at the granularity of this is what you should do for minutes or hours a day.

So, like, what should you do and why should you do it? And should you even do it? We were talking today about what’s the proper control for meditation? Aging? Like what if a lot of the seeming benefits of a decade of meditation are just, like, getting older and wiser and having a brain that’s mentally and emotionally connected somewhat differently on some sort of DNA-encoded plan. If all you really had to do was just get older, then meditation is this big huge massive waste of time.

But, of course, you can do all sorts of crazy shit with meditation. And here I go making claims myself. But let’s take them for a given for a second.

But that doesn’t actually solve anything. How do you pick? How do you actually know if you want any of that? How do you know if any of that is worth the time and risk? Let’s say you’re pretty sure you want something; then, how do you get it in like an hour of meditation a week, for a couple years, versus three hours of meditation a day for a decade?

Well, yeah, read books, talk to teachers, test teachers’ claims for smaller, easier-to-test stuff before even remotely putting trust in more costly claims. See if the teacher is even remotely functional in the real world. Ask lots of questions about what their inner experiences are like. Engage in lots of mini-experiments on your own time–try to have “peak” and “peek” experiences, to catch glimpses of stuff that you might want to become stable, enduring traits, someday.

Another way I look at it is, follow what feels good right now. Tease apart your inner experience for stuff that you like, and then explore amplifying those things. And look for ever-subtler stuff, fine-grained aspects of experience that limn and color and shade consciousness, that make it three-dimensional, or whatever.

There is always talk of not getting trapped by beautiful or blissful or, in the past, psychic stuff [vid] on the way to enlightenment. And that talk is ubiquitous now–it seems like everyone knows not to get trapped by that stuff. All the meditation maps are available on the internet; I think there’s much less of a chance of getting “trapped” or “lost.” I mean, I’m still afraid of getting trapped in local maxima.

Or, as one of my acquaintances put it, you don’t want to end up in a state that “globally omniscient you” wouldn’t want to be in that, nevertheless, “local you” has no incentive to escape.

I’m still afraid. But I’m way less afraid than if I was living 1500 years ago and I had access to one teacher and no printing presses and no internet forums.

It just… seems so grim to like grimly hammer away at your meditation to practice to maybe be “enlightened” someday. Maybe. Daniel Ingram, if I remember correctly, makes that point that it should often feel good. Often. And he uses video game analogies.

I think faster progress can probably be made if you take total control of your practice. No gods, no masters. You feel into what you think is possible and then you reach for it and see what happens and how you like it and whether you want to do it more and whether you get a sense of whether you like where it’s taking you.

I know that’s maybe super intimidating. I’ve mentioned that it took me like eight years to even feel like I had any sense of what what I was doing was doing to me. I was stumbling around in the dark without a flashlight. So I sort of hope it goes a lot faster for everyone else. That’s one of the reasons I write on this blog.

There were a couple books that I found helpful, even within the past couple of years:

These books are rather… fluffy and poorly edited. They aren’t necessarily a good use of your time. I’m almost, almost recommending them purely for their titles. But, holy crap, are their theses important and necessary.

Why meditate?

Because you want to.

How do you meditate?

With great fucking difficulty.

It’s really fucking hard to let go of other people’s instructions and protocols and habits. And eventually you have to, or at least be willing to let go of the side of the boat often. And at first you flail and space out (and think that’s a bad thing) and flail some more, searching, searching (fold that into the practice…). I wrote my own damn protocol. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, one of the longest projects I’ve ever undertaken, and I didn’t even know I was undertaking it, sort of, blah blah. You don’t have to be that anal, or it’ll write itself when you’re ready. Or something.

When instructions stop making sense, or you thought you knew how to follow them and then you don’t, or you thought you were doing it right and now you’re not sure–

That’s a good thing. That’s a good problem to have. You’re starting to own the practice. You have enough experience and space that you can even begin to consider those questions.

Sometimes your selection of meditation practices goes in a spiral or an orbit. I would drop practices because I just got completely lost in them; I no longer had any idea what I was doing. Or I would blunder ahead until they made sense again. Or I would read my brains out until they made sense again. Or I would eventually come back to them with a new perspective that helped me revalue or reinterpret them. Sometimes I just needed a refresher.

I mean, maybe you’ll be less anal than me. But I found this time consuming as well as a cognitive and emotional energy drain. There is opportunity cost. This is mental and emotional energy that could be spent on other things.

And, like, yeah, I don’t just meditate “for the love of it.” It is fascinating. But also sometimes I’m lost and afraid and I want things to make sense or I’m in pain or I feel like I have nothing to hold onto. And I meditate because of that, too (as well as do a vast pantheon of other varied, constructive, and healthy things).

So I guess I’m making the point that a lot is at stake.

But fascination and curiosity and skeptical-hairy-eyeball discernment and fucking-brains-how-do-they-work are not terrible compasses…

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Akrasia is failure of the imagination, not failure of the will: goals and planning with paper, timesheets, and tally marks

(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/]

[An update in the comments below. This template makes the comments too unobtrusive, I think…]

I’ve noticed that System One seems to want to do things all in one motion. It wants the accomplishment of every goal to be as simple as extending your arm and hand to grasp a cup. Also, desire and “how,” ends and means, are intertwined: System One often does not make a distinction between X and “how to get X.” There’s just “Y,” which mixes those two things together.

If you’re bumping up against the seeming limitations of reality, I’ve found it tremendously helpful to explicitly split out “goal” and “planning.” I actually don’t even think about a single explicit GOAL. I simply have “goal time” and “planning time.” During goal time I only explore what I really want. During planning time I only explore how to get it. I can switch back and forth as many times as I want, but I have to spend at least six minutes before each switch. (I use six minutes because 6*5*2 = 60 minutes and then two sets of tally marks is one hour.)

For a single, broad, “goal-ish context,” like, I don’t know, fun+money+relationships (it should be bottom-up organic), I keep separate timesheets for goal time and planning time, as well as scratch paper per section, and some card stock for dividers and stiffness, all stapled together into a single packet.

I have a third section for “doing,” but I haven’t used it that much. If you spend time on “goals” and “planning” you may have some strong, unpleasant emotions for five minutes to 48 hours, depending on difficulty level. But then you might find yourself spontaneously and effortlessly springing into action.

Akrasia is failure of the imagination, not failure of the will. If I feel like I need to force myself to do anything, beyond some simple, painless behaviorism and bookkeeping, that sets off a blaring klaxon and flashing red lights that something’s gone horribly, horribly, horribly wrong. And I don’t stop messing around until the need for will goes way, way down to acceptably minimal levels. I try to use nearly 100% of my will to obviate the need for will. That scales.

See also:

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Informal experimenting rapidly builds intuition and synergizes unreasonably well with endless reading

(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/]

Some terse, cryptic thoughts below from after the weekly web hangout.


So, I’m *totally* paraphrasing, but one topic this past week was about gaining intuition about what’s possible by a) “pushing from the inside” and b) “looking from the outside.”

Regarding “psychic powers,” this is the book that I mentioned:
There’s some mental models presented for “how to do it,” involving interplay between symbolic and nonsymbolic awareness. Of course, I found that to be highly resonant with my expectations of how ESP *should* work if it’s actually real.
…And, I really painstakingly pushed at it, in a fine-grained way, using every last bit phenomenological precision I’ve built up. And that’s how I developed my inside-view sense that there doesn’t seem to be anything there, at least anything there that’s non-local.
From an outside view, the book is mildly convincing with its cherry-picked studies of “the best evidence available for ESP.” I would be pretty convinced in general if it weren’t for my meta-perspectives of evolutionary psychology and selection bias:
So, inside view plus outside view, sort of abusing those terms.
Regarding strategic use of time and energy, being careful of opportunity cost, and choosing practices that a) have no developmental ceiling and b) confer as many side-benefits as possible, for free, a lot of that exploring has been within this framework:
I also discuss my philosophy on choosing and creating practices, at the link below:
“How big can your practice become?”
“How much of the brain can we light up with a single practice?”
But I am actually slowly accumulating a few different “additive meditation”-style practices, which I want to detail soon/eventually.

fun ongoing graar around “energy” work buried in a LessWrong comment thread

(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/]


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legibility of interpersonal microdynamics and macrodynamics – currently reading (5/x)

(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/]

Driver, Janice L., and John M. Gottman. “Turning toward versus turning away: A coding system of daily interactions.” Couple Observational Coding Systems. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2004).

Coan, James A., and John M. Gottman. “The specific affect coding system (SPAFF).” Handbook of emotion elicitation and assessment (2007): 267-285.

Gottman, John M., and Janice L. Driver. “Dysfunctional marital conflict and everyday marital interaction.” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 43, no. 3-4 (2005): 63-77.

Shallcross, Sandra L., and Jeffry A. Simpson. “Trust and responsiveness in strain-test situations: a dyadic perspective.” Journal of personality and social psychology 102, no. 5 (2012): 1031.

Wile, D. Collaborative Couple Therapy. Gurman, Alan S., and Neil S. Jacobson. Clinical handbook of couple therapy . Guilford Press, 2002. [doc]

See also: countersignaling

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Cold-Open Polyamory without Emotional Scarring for Either of You

(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/]

[A commenter asks about bringing up polyamory out in the world, when this random, attractive person in front of you hasn’t like read your OkCupid profile, and it goes without saying that we all think it would be super lame to give them a link or something. (Haha, actually I think I’ve done this before; It can be fine.) How do you bring up polyamory if you’re polyamorous? What if you’re not Polyamorous (TM), but it’s just like important to you to mutually, communicatively, up-front-ed-ly leave the option open for some sort of nonmonogamy, maybe, as part of a mutually fulfilling relationship?]

So, I’ve had a lot of experience negotiating unique, idiosyncratic mutuality in short-term and long-term relating. But, I haven’t had thaaaaaat much experience with negotiating unique, idiosyncratic, situated, mutually fulfilling nonmonogamy. (Certainly some, to be sure. And I’ve done it on a first date! It can be rough.) So there might be much, much better advice out there. (Also, I cycle over months and years in my relationship needs and aspirations: currently I’m pursuing a monogamous or monogamish life-partnership, just fyi.)


These are just my opinions:

If you’re already in a polyamorous relationship, or if you’re single but some kind of nonmonogamy is a requirement, this should probably be disclosed, after signs of interest, before a second encounter:

“Hey, so, I’m interested in you—and I want to invite you to coffee. But, there’s a big huge possible ‘but.’ Uhh, can I run this ‘but’ by you? It’s not THAT bad; it’s not bad at all. But it’s important to me to mention this up front.”

[Audio mp3 for prosody and intonation: https://s3.amazonaws.com/meditationstuff-misc-static/but.mp3 ]

[Go to “Elaboration”]

If you’re single, and nonmonogamy is just sort of in the air for you, you’re feeling it out; it might be what you want; it depends on the person (people) and the relationship(s), and you kinda sorta want to leave that option kinda sorta open—then it can wait until the second date. After hand-holding would be getting iffy, and it should definitely, in my opinion, be disclosed before kissing:

“Hey, so we’ve been talking about relationship stuff in general? I wanted to mention… This is a little bit intense, but, have you heard of, like, polyamory or nonmonogamy, in general?

[Could go to “Elaboration”]

“I’m most definitely single right now. I’m interested in you, just you. But, I am curious in that direction. It sort of depends on the relationship and lots of different factors…”


“Yeah, like on that reality show.”

[If they haven’t heard of the concept, brace yourself. And be gentle.]

“Ok, so monogamy, right? Love and sex. So, like, one version of nonmonogamy is that two people are still one-hundred percent committed and emotionally intimate, right? Like, they can one-hundred percent depend on each other. And, as a team, they’ve relaxed some relationship assumptions around maybe sex or love, in a personal, mutual way. In careful, patient bits and pieces, because they’ve talked about it, because something in there works for both of them. Like… [Yup, you gotta eventually just say it after all the qualifying: it’s unique and personal between any two people, and, for some people it’s penis-in-vagina sex and/or passionate romance with other people. Sometimes they’ll be horrified, sometimes they’ll think it’s hot. Or both. Or an infinite number of something else’s.] ”

Pulling it off:

By “pulling it off,” I don’t mean manipulation or somehow changing their mind. That seems really unlikely. What I do mean is minimizing the chance for emotional trauma and scarring, for you and them. That’s a huge topic.

Film Crit Hulk says, “DISPLAY YOUR SANITY,” when trying to break into the film industry.

In this context, I might adapt that to, “Via every possible medium and channel, attempt to communicate that you’re aware they are a unique human being, with unique, situated, idiosyncratic values, preferences, and desires that are completely independent from whatever you hope or predict they might be. And further, they, as a unique other person, are evolving and dynamic on a millisecond timescale and you are trying to be maximally sensitive and respectful when interacting with them as an actual, real, human being, responsive to their cares, concerns, understanding, communication, and behavior, rather than any template or preconceived notion that you have in your head, that keeps trying to insert itself in front of what’s actually happening right then and there.”

More of my mindset is something like, “This is an amazing person who I’m attracted to, who I maybe want to participate in something with, and she seems interested in me, so I’m going to respect her enough as a fellow adult to put all my cards on the table and tell her exactly what I want, after we’ve definitely enjoyed each other’s company and I’ve established that I’m a gentle, patient, nonthreatening (extremely awesome and attractive) human being. And I understand that she might experience a range of aversive emotions, because she’s surprised, or disappointed, or her values are threatened, or she’s embarrassed, or she’s angry, or still scared of my response, or any number of other things. But, I can reduce the chance or at least degree of that by working to be sensitive, succinct, preemptively non-misleading, clear, respectful, friendly, kind, funny, and attractive.”

There’s a good chance you’ve read this Scott Alexander post, but, for those that haven’t, it’s about risk minimization in interpersonal signaling:


[To be extra-confusing, someone pasted it into a comment on Scott Aaronson’s blog, because the original was apparently taken down.]

I also strongly recommend Venkatesh Rao’s meditation on “daemon/mask integration,” that is, channeling raw, untamed, authentic impulses in socially functional ways, without killing those impulses (my paraphrase).


Knowing what you want

I sort of go through these phases for all sorts of idiosyncratic stuff:

1. I don’t know what I want.

2. I know what I want but I don’t know how to say it.

3. I know how to say it to myself. But I don’t know how to find other other people who I want it with or how to say it to them.

4. I wish I could say exactly this to them but I can’t.

5a. How can I proactively and preemptively arrange self and world in such a way, and be opportunistically prepared in such a way, so that I can say this to them?

5b. How can I say this to them so I can say this to them so I can say this to them? [sic]


Knowing what you want is attractive, and people respond favorably to clear and direct specificity (or they respond favorably to your friendly, kind, unapologetic patience, after they initially laugh at you for being so clear, direct, and specific). Being clear and direct makes it more likely you’ll get what you want.

But what if you’re freaking not sure what you want? Because you haven’t had enough experience with the real thing in all its nuance and complexity and contingency?

You can be clear and direct about that:

“This is something I’ve been thinking about. I don’t know if it’s right for me. I don’t know if I want this. But I want to leave the option open, and I want there to be space for me to explore this. (And I want you to feel safe and secure, and for you to get absolutely everything you want…)”

Via every possible medium and channel (nonverbal):

There’s this really important thing that I’ll call “nonverbal responsiveness.” There are two components:

1. I don’t know what to call this first component: nonverbal allowing? The opposite of this is “white-knuckling” or “teeth-gritting.”

2. The second component is paying attention to the other person, both their nonverbal communication (eyes, face, body) and verbal communication (highly specific content and implicature).

When you put these two things together, you start generating so-called honest signals at them which are highly relevant to the other person. Those signals get integrated mostly unconsciously and they allow the other person to be decisive about you.

(And you want the other person to be decisive.)

Modulating honest signals:

“Modulating honest signals” sounds like an oxymoron, but I can unpack it. You can do “offline modulation” via meditation and (vivid, fragmentary) inner simulation when you’re not actually in front of someone. Repeated simulations, and experimenting and practicing during those simulations, will shape your in-the-moment behavior. And you can do additional work with what you learn from those simulations, e.g. with Coherence Therapy.

And, you can do “in-the-moment modulation,” by gently doing things to honest signals as they’re happening, without destroying the honest component. Meditation (and in-the-moment practice) helps you to acquire the skill of gently modulating, augmenting, or layering honest (and deliberate) signals without destroying or reflexively (and always incompletely/creepily) clamping down on the honest component.

This is where you start getting into interesting and powerful meta-signaling territory, like turning awkwardness and vulnerability into disarming, charismatic attractiveness, like remaining funny, present, and unapologetic through your awkwardness, without futilely trying to crush or hide your awkwardness.

Or, say, being very visibly being freaked out, yet at the same time being visibly calm and patient about being very visibly freaked out, and gently taking their hand, and waiting for eye contact, and deliberately leaning in for a kiss.


In the distant past I’ve gotten, “You’re like an actor.” (But she made out with me anyway.)

More recently: “You’re so deliberate.” ( 😀 )

I suppose that’s progress.


By the way, I acknowledge that if you’re not rich or attractive (etc., depending on local arbitrage opportunities, if you don’t have something going for you), you don’t get as high a frequency of opportunities to practice being progressively more wonderful with progressively more wonderful people (for each other). And that’s not fair.

How can you know ahead of time?!:

How can you guess whether someone’s open to nonmonogamy? Or at least that bringing it up will be less likely to be traumatic for you or them?

I myself only have experience with women in this sort of situation:

extroversion, confidence, open body language, and conversational fluency seem to correlate, in my limited experience, with being more receptive to nonmonogamy, if not enthusiastic. Some connection to math or science correlates, too. Short hair, shades of genderqueer, or less female-presenting correlates, too.

It’s a spectrum with plenty of idiosyncratic exceptions, e.g. long hair, internally solidly female, and very “female-presenting.”

High confidence and apparent extroversion (or at least strong interpersonal intelligence and skill) does seem to to be a very important piece.

Again, this is based on my limited, biased experience. If they’re interpersonally savvy, they’ll be working hooks and opportunities into the conversation (to get a sense of you for what’s important to them, which will likely include relationships past, near-past, present, and future) just as quickly as you.

So this is very important, though: If you have already clearly communicated romantic or sexual interest/curiosity/possibility and then you communicate interest/curiosity/possibility about nonmonogamy with her, and she immediately says, “Oh, I could never do that,” but her body language stays open and friendly, and she keeps talking to you, then she’s doing online processing while continuing to talk to you, and she’s going to be doing some offline processing, in the meantime, if she talks to you again.

(Again, her openness and friendliness just means she’s friendly and/or that she enjoys talking with you, about crazy stuff like polyamory, unless you’ve clearly, unambiguously communicated romantic or sexual interest. Then her continued openness and friendliness means she continues to be potentially romantically or sexually interested, as you iteratively disclose, all sorts of insane relationship requirements to her.) Also, if given all of the above, she starts asking a long series of hairsplitting questions, that’s of course a good sign, too.

It’s important to keep all the above in mind, because, consciously or unconsciously, she’ll be watching your body language very closely, retrospectively and prospectively, and factoring that into her desire and decision-making. So if you ride out a seeming cursory rejection with grace, friendliness, respect, and sensitivity, that communicates a lot of useful, unambiguous information to her.

More than once I’ve been propositioned for sex days later, and, in one case, an explicitly casual relationship, which she initially declined and then accepted weeks later, eventually evolved into a long-term, pivotal relationship in my life. We did have some continued sticking points around monogamy versus nonmonogamy, but I don’t think either of us regret the relationship.


I just want to say, I’m sitting on a mountain of privilege, so take this however—but, I just want to mention that I go on a lot of dates when I’m single, like, runs of once per week for weeks at a time without a break. Dating is colossally easier and less fraught when monogamous, but I strongly recommend exploring nonmonogamy if it calls out to you.

I was initially attracted to nonmonogamy, besides all the sex stuff, because I figured that explicitly nonmonogamous people were more likely to be interesting, more likely to have superlative interpersonal intelligence, and that I would have a better chance of fulfilling more of my relationship needs.

In my limited experience, I’ve found monogamous and nonmonogamous people to be distributed pretty statistically similarly, aside from the whole relationship-style thing. And, some of my highest values, on average, seem to be a bit better realized in the context of a monogamous relationship.

So I tend to click with people who are basically amused and value-neutral on the topic of monogamy versus nonmonogamy and tend to have a low-key, nonjudgmental preference towards the monogamy side, for personal, logistical-emotional reasons.

If you can get some dates with nonmonogamous people, you learn so much about yourself so fast, with very little risk (because everyone all around is being super honest and super awesome). I have good memories of interacting with patient, intelligent, articulate, kind, crazy-sexy people (and memories of lots of stress!), and I have a dramatically clarified experience and understanding of my senses of attraction and romantic attachment.


The more dating and relationshipping you do, the higher and higher your standards get, and you might even feel lonelier and lonelier, even amidst all the fun and generally gratifying dating that you do—because you’re just never going to meet this one-in-a-billion incredible person where you complement each other, in the ways that really matter, to you, and to them, because your standards are so high and precise, and you just can’t help it.

But you just might.

So, I hope this is a little bit helpful in creating mutually amazing, wonderful interactions with amazing, wonderful people.

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