(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/]
[The writing gets pretty uneven in the second half, but it’s all there for a reason… Sorry. I’ll presumably pick up those threads more clearly in the future.]
The pop mindfulness advice for daily life seems to be, “pay really close attention to what you’re doing,” like, “pay really close attention to your experience of eating an orange.”
This is not horrible advice for an absolute beginner. That absolute beginner may begin to get a explicit sense of what it feels like to deliberately pay attention. He or she might begin to get a sense of the difference between “paying attention” and “reverie.” That’s great!
But it’s impoverished and incomplete. It’s the barest of beginnings. And I feel like people can get stuck there, stuck paying really close attention or “feeling their body,” and, maybe, maybe, maybe fumbling towards improved interaction with a complex world.
I was hoping that Zen might have more sophisticated tips for interacting with a complex world (which is silly because Zen eschews complex models). After all, as Shinzen Young puts it, Zen has a bounciness(?) that’s missing from, say, Theravada or Western vipassana. In Zen, sitting has an *action* a *doing* to it. “Just sitting” is *active,* and it’s one of the simplest “actions” you can *do.* It’s a microcosm, a laboratory for daily life. But it’s still just a single action. There’s a big leap between “just sitting” and “living.”
I’ve looked a bit into “wu wei” from China, i.e. “effortless action.” And, of course, Tantra. I think I’m closest to Tantra, philosophically: extreme emotion, cognition, sex, disgust, horror, passion, appetite, competence-in-action, whole-hearted engagement with a complex world.
There’s truly brilliant stuff in Tantra, including its expression threaded through Tibetan Buddhism. But, as a collection of practices, it’s arcane, at least as far as I can tell. As a collection of practices, it doesn’t seem to fit me and most Westerners. (Again, remember, I’m a random dude on the internet who mostly engages with all of this stuff deliberately but haphazardly through books, blogs, and his own practice, not via lineage holders, teachers, and practitioners.)
So, back to Zen. I had hopes for it in its elegance and simplicity. Zen’s models are impoverished, but that impoverishment is deliberate, or at least a deliberate gamble. And I wanted that active nature. I wanted practices that I could *do* alone, at home, where I could really focus and practice and train my brain and mind, but that would have smooth and elegant transference to engagement with the world.
I’ve written before that I think about meditation in three ways. One way is as a controlled laboratory in which I can conduct experiments. Another way is as a microcosm for the world, the world in the small, so I can practice skills in a reduced world to then express in the real world. And finally, I look at meditation as sort of weight training for the mind–highly general movements, like the main powerlifting exercises, that provide general transfer, and raise the overall waterline, for a wide range of contexts. That’s three ways.
But, so, Zen. I’ve always wanted more. As far as I’m concerned, meditation typically breaks down on contact with the outside world. The real world is too complicated, too varied, too changing. It seems that one is just supposed to “figure it out.” Meditation was traditionally practiced by monks. And householders. But, in my understanding, life is probably more complicated now than it was then? I’m not going to bet on that, but, probably?
It seems, I think, that the Buddha told a householder to pay attention, or something, even though she didn’t have the time to meditate? And that would be enough, according to the Buddha, to achieve (in my words) classical buddhist enlightenment?
And, then back to the Zen monk thing. So, there’s this book, Opening the Hand of Thought. It’s got some nice models, though, as per usual, it has issues around pushing stuff out of consciousness (more on this below). It’s not quite in line with my goals, past, present, and future. And it doesn’t have good long-term maps. But it really helped me during a particular point in my practice. The guy who wrote that, Kosho Uchiyama, has another book, too: How to Cook Your Life. I was really hoping it’d have good Zen advice for living.
I realize these books get thrown together, translated, or edited by students. And they’re probably written in bits and pieces possibly over decades. Quality is going to vary and they’re not necessarily going to reflect whatever the teacher is thinking at any particular contemporary point in time. (But it’s still better having such books out in the world than not. They’re infinitely better than nothing, however partial and potentially misleading they are.)
In any case, I was really disappointed with How to Cook Your Life. It seemed to boil down to, once again, “pay really close attention to whatever you’re doing,” even worse, “to the exclusion of all else.” (I’m paraphrasing; I’m making up these quotes.) That’s advice for living your life? Really? Not useful at all.
“Pay really close attention to whatever you’re doing, to the exclusion of all else.”
But what if you’re engaged in a complex, ill-defined activity with an ambiguous goal? What if you’re a parent trying to figure out how to talk to your kid? What if you’re an executive operating on like six different time horizons at once?
What is a meditation system going to add, here? Isn’t it better to maybe read up, engage domain-specific models, experiment and reflect, if there’s time, and just *do* the thing, in all its messiness and complexity? That’s *not* the same thing as “pay really close attention to whatever you’re doing.”
Because, you might be doing lots of things. I don’t mean multitasking. I mean sophisticated deployment of attention, working memory, paper, electronic documents, email, conversations, notes, and on and on and on. Or laptop to meeting to laptop. Or notes to document to web to notes to document to messaging app to significant other to etc.
Meditation *can* indirectly, obliquely, greatly enhance all of that. But you have to be a little bit lucky or smart. There isn’t much *explicit* help on applying meditation tools and attainments to daily life.
Sure, the Buddha had lots to say about daily life. And there is more recent stuff out there, on the order of centuries to millenia: Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic Meditations or Lojong mind training. Or even CFAR’s rationality toolkit. These *are* heuristics for engaging with a complex world. I’m going to talk a bit about David Allen’s Getting Things Done, below.
I think the best way to use that middle-distance kind of stuff is to spend a little bit of time each day working with it, returning to it, reviewing it on breaks and trying to apply it. And eventually it automatizes with periodic review.
But I still want something more.
I want mental models for the micro-movements of consciousness. What’s the best way to use foreground and background consciousness in the midst of daily life? What are the pitfalls of the deliberate training of consciousness for daily life? What does fine-grained, millisecond deployment of attention in a complex environment look like? Between novices and experts in that domain? For expert meditators that are nevertheless novices in a particular domain? What are the limits of the deliberate use and training of consciousness?
I think it’s good to be able to select and arrange the contents of consciousness. To lay things out in order, to be able to backtrack, to almost be able to create a heads-up display, or a cockpit, or a breadcrumb trail, or a workspace, or an arrangement of control surfaces, or multiple models in mind at once, or multiple hypotheses, or any arrangement of discrete uncomputable felt senses or cognitive objects or concepts or reminders or goal hierarchies, etc., and so forth, and to let it all go in nonsymbolic flux. Yes, working memory is limited, but a full context load isn’t discrete, it’s layers and layers of potentialities.
Over time, for me, as metacognition has seemingly improved and improved, I’ve become more deliberate in how I arrange attentional and awareness manifolds. “What I’m doing and why I’m doing it” has become more deliberate, more continuous, and more salient. I like to have a strong, implicit sense of, “what I’m doing and why I’m doing it”, if at all possible. And if I don’t, I explore whether it’s time and cost-effective to engage directly with that sense to potentially add nuance, layers, and specificity to it.
So. Where does Culadasa fit into all of this? I’m struck by how *isomorphic* our understandings are, of foundational aspects and issues of meditation. Me and my haphazard experience with neuroscience in grad school (and endless reading) and my endless reading of pop and obscure meditation books from lineage holders and random crackpots, including Theravadan and Tibetan methods. And me trying everything out for months and years in a disciplined but inconsistent way. And Culadasa with his neuroscience background and Theravaden and Tibetan training. And his years of experience as a meditator and meditation teacher. It’s really good and neat that we’ve got some convergence. Interpret as you will.
I’ve always thought that exquisitely nuanced mental models and surgical application of practice is more *efficient* than endless time on cushion. Total time on cushion is critical, but reading and thinking is just as critical, in terms of total time spent. That’s how I roll. That’s wayyyyyyyyyyyyy more efficient than just doing and doing vaguely. That’s why I think I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten (in understanding and original reapplication) with hundreds of hours of meditation but far less total meditation time than lots of people holding forth. Anyway. You be the judge. I insist.
So, Culadasa. Culadasa is huge on Shamatha. I think his whole new book is going to explain, over hundreds of pages, how to keep more and more out of consciousness, how to be able to empty consciousness at will. I’m kind of iffy on the general safety of doing this and I’m kind of iffy on the utility of doing this. Culadasa sees it mostly as a means to an end. He’s very pro classical buddhist enlightenment. Fine; that’s great. Bottom line, I think Shamatha is more of a potentially good goal to have than I did before being influenced by Culadasa’s work.
What I’m going to do from this point forward is say some things that I think are right with the Culadasa’s approach, then my concerns, and what I think might be better and how my goals for a meditator might differ from Culadasa’s.
Flat-out, regardless of what I write here, read his new book when it comes out. The way I want to summarize his approach in this context is that it’s a toolkit that’s intended for overlapping but different goals than mine; but, it’s a toolkit that’s wholly compatible with my goals for a meditator. Indeed, much of his toolkit is isomorphic to the toolkit that I messily describe on this blog.
Let’s take some highly salient examples, considering my carefully bulleted but rambling mess of my post on my Foreground Background meditation practice:
*Culadasa’s technical term “attention” is almost isomorphic to my “foreground.”
*Culadasa’s technical term “awareness” is almost isomorphic to my “background.”
*Culadasa’s use of the term “ignore” is almost isomorphic to my “don’t push it away, let it hang out, there’s plenty of space.”
My intention here is to help you line up Culadasa’s toolkit with mine, so you can move freely between them, and to increase your confidence in both. So much overlap.
And Culadasa, with co-authors, I expect will go into much more detail than I do, over hundreds of carefully edited pages, presumably written and rewritten over many years and hundreds upon hundreds of hours.
Read his book when it comes out! Buy it! I think it’s going to be a classic for decades and decades. I hope it stays available until the end of time.
But again, Culadasa’s goals are different than mine, and I think his approach has dangers.
Culadasa’s focus is on systematically learning to keep more and more information out of consciousness, and then maintaining that state, in order to make classical buddhist enlightenment more likely to happen. (“Enlightenment is an accident; meditation makes you more accident prone.”)
Follow his instructions with skill and finesse, in part by stabilizing attention on one thing and not anything else, and, eventually (months to a few years), during a meditation session, consciousness is going to be mostly empty. And, intermittently, consciousness will be completely empty.
And I think Culadasa presents doing that as a pretty unequivocally good thing (TM). Of course, Culadasa I think maintains that being able to do this is not the point, that its a means to an end (the end being classical buddhist enlightenment). And, I expect, nondogmatically, Culadasa expects that you can use his toolkit with any meditation system or belief system.
And, again wonderfully, I believe Culadasa maintains that doing meditation as he teaches minimizes the chances of experiencing really horrible stuff a la the so-called “dark night,” which I’ve written about a few times before [1,2]. It seems he really believes that working in the right order will minimize the chances of bad things happening. (Such as, I’m guessing, temporary psychosis, suicidality, depression, and generally fucking up your life, finances, and relationships, in the extreme.) He could be right! I really don’t know.
Ok. But learning to empty consciousness just seems so… one-sided and extreme. The habits of mind that are being explicitly cultivated are single-minded (pun intended) and all fall on the side of keeping stuff out.
I suspect that a conscientious, patient, sensitive, mature-in-general meditator is going to naturally balance out the meditation practice with more well-rounded habits of mind (flexible, articulated, context-appropriate). Just living one’s life may be counterpoint to hours spent in meditation. And meditation plus daily life can and is intended to have a wonderful symmetry.
And presumably consciousness basically returns to normal after a meditation session, for the vast majority of the journey. But still. How many intense people, who really intend to “go for it,” are going to be “conscientious, patient, sensitive, mature-in-general?” I still think a lot of people are going to hurt themselves.
I’ve always thought it to be far safer to put the bias on putting things *into* consciousness, to turn up the volume on subtle stuff–that it’s just too dangerous to feed the capacity for keeping things out of consciousness (in that indirect, oblique way that “deliberately” keeping stuff out of consciousness seems to work).
Here’s some creepy stuff for you:
You know Jeffery Martin? (As far as I know, he has nothing to do with Culadasa. I’m just making a wider point, here.) I have mad respect for Jeffery Martin, by the way. (I’ve ranted about his stuff before, too.) Possibly he’s doing intensely irresponsible stuff. I haven’t looked systematically into him. But the way he makes observations and collects data? Mad respect. Anyway, anecdotally, with his system, people are reporting a really consistent, stable, pleasant experience in the end game.
But, if those people get into a situation where a “normal” person would experience strong negative emotions, Martin’s study subjects *give off objective indicators of experiencing those emotions even though they report not consciously experiencing them.* Like, say, if a normal person would be anxious in a particular situation, Martin’s subjects, again who report feeling fine or good, are in fact perhaps shaking, have a loss of fine-motor control, are pale, have increased heart and respiratory rate, and may in fact look really anxious, upset, and jittery. Again, I haven’t witnessed this; it’s anecdotal and second-, third-, or fourth-hand. I think Jeffery Martin himself may have been the one to observe and note this effect and has been completely up front about it.
Anyway, I interpret the above as that, for these people, the brain is registering and reacting to “bad” stuff just fine, *but then not injecting it into consciousness.* (Now, I’m not saying that this is definitely what’s going to happen if you work Culadasa’s system, by the way. I’m saying there’s a risk of this happening, in whole or in part.)
And, I say, “creepy,” because keeping stuff out of consciousness might be just fine if you have a chronic illness or you’re parasite-ridden and dying and there’s no medicine or all sorts of stuff. And I could see it being fine for anyone to have access to this state if they want it and they can figure out how to do it in a non-sticky way.
But, OH MY NON-ANTHROPOMORPHIC GOD. It seems that consciousness is one of the main ways that some parts of the brain talk to other parts of the brain, how some parts of the brain coordinate with other parts of the brain, how some parts of the brain constructively engage with other parts of the brain in ways that are in the overall best interests of the system as a whole.
Consciousness seems to be the only “place” where people have the opportunity to legitimately, responsibly, deliberately and constructively work with “problematic” emotions and beliefs. (All sorts of good, essential stuff happens during dreaming and deep sleep, too, but you–and your journal, or close friend, or therapist–aren’t there to constructively participate in those states.)
*Permanently keeping all sorts of stuff out of consciousness might essentially arrest emotional and cognitive development.*
Whatever “neuroses,” defensiveness, overreaction, “irrational” fears, incorrect beliefs, bad habits, etc., etc., etc., you’ve got, if you’re in an as extreme state as the Jeffery Martin’s study subjects or trainees, you’ve maybe basically stuck yourself with all of that *forever.*
You’ve arrested your own development. You’ll experience behavior but have reduced access to the genesis of that behavior, no matter how useful that access might have been.
(Actually it seems the state is potentially reversible. But all this stuff is tightly linked with prospective memory, which gets fucked up for them too, at least in the end game, and so possibly planning functions are messed up, and it all just seems pretty awful and horrible and hard to escape.)
Anyway, I’ve said before with great power comes great responsibility. The subjects of Jeffery Martin’s work are sort of an extreme case. But I’m making a slippery slope argument.
My point is that working Culadasa’s system likely comes with similar risks, though maybe not as extreme. I’ve talked about experiential avoidance, before. You’re giving yourself tools for keeping stuff out of consciousness.
And, major point here, even if you’re not *deliberately* using those tools to keep, say, painful or scary stuff out of consciousness, your brain has been watching closely for every hour upon hour of meditation: short-term it feels better when this stuff is out of consciousness, and your reflexive habits of mind are taking note of this. It’s all very Pavlovian and automatic. It seems pretty likely that bad stuff is automatically going to be less likely to come up over time, preventing it from being consciously, constructively engaged with. And you might be more likely to behave in unconstructive ways with no way of ever understanding why or healing yourself or engaging more deliberately with the world. This is a potential danger.
And, you might be learning to ignore and block subtlety, block still, small voices, the whispers of care and concern that aren’t currently being accounted for by your current goals, mental models, concepts, and so forth.
You might be learning to ignore subtle, valued, quiet, important information, urges, values, etc.
Perhaps a gentle, sensitive meditator will attend to such things outside of meditation time, cultivate them, enhance them, listen to them, address them, articulate them, complexify them and thus continually be transforming their lives over time. (And also, work with such things using such tools as Focusing, Coherence Therapy, IFS, etc., to thereby radically transform their emotional and cognitive lives, when indicated.)
I want to qualify a bit that any kind of meditation is probably going to build equanimity, which I’m using in the technical sense (see, say Shinzen Young), the ability to safely experience intense emotional states. You’re building skills that make it easier (safer) for the brain to inject intensely negative stuff into consciousness, too, in a good way. And, again, Culadasa’s work has increased my degree of belief that one can learn to safely, temporarily keep stuff out of consciousness. I want to be clear on that. Meditation gives you many positive tools too, and everything hopefully balances out or the positive stuff “wins.” But still. There are dangers, here, for some people.
In any case, in Culadasa’s work and most meditation books, working with “contentful” consciousness seems to be left almost entirely tacit, even though it could be an integral part of “morality” piece of buddhist training, also known as the first and last training. I get that content is kind of designated as a distraction towards the final goal. But, geez, as Ingram says, something like, “make sure you have a life that you want to wake up to.”
If you spend 1-10 years *not* attending to these still small voices or engaging with them in sophisticated ways, even if “just,” hopefully, on the meditation cushion, I’d expect it to be that much harder to *start* doing so after you’ve instilled such powerful and pervasive mind habits not to do so. You’d have to be damn patient to find even hints of a flicker of positive subtlety and nuance–you could set a strong intention, but you might not have even a hint of sense of what to set an intention for, and you’d have to wait for hints of a flicker to start popping up in awareness, though that would presumably accelerate over time.
Again, a patient, sensitive meditator might train in a very balanced way, however tacitly. They’ll naturally maintain and enhance valuable and important subtlety and nuance as they go. But not everyone will, and those people are going to get ever-more neurotic and dogmatic and messed up.
I guess my point is that the contents, and potential contents, of consciousness are complex, subtle, flexible, nuanced, and evolving. It is the stuff of your life, from reminders to pick up milk on the way home, to the faint whispers of your deepest cares and concerns as you slowly grow into them over a lifetime. To so habitually, so extremely ignore all of this, at least explicitly if not in actuality, just seems like violence to the mind in service of a fetishized end-goal, no matter the actual utility.
Keeping lots and lots of stuff out of consciousness, as a general rule, isn’t skillful. That might be fine in meditation, as a means to end, an “evocative contrast.” But, really, the general goal should be “right contents in consciousness at right time.”
And, to tie all this together (and there’s still much more, below), Culadasa’s work has increased my degree of belief that the *entire* contents of consciousness can be safely “managed.” I still think that’s fraught, but, at some point, one has enough tools and capability that it starts being irresponsible and unsafe to *not* move in this direction. With great power comes great responsibility.
I said above:
“I think it’s good to be able to select and arrange the contents of consciousness. To lay things out in order, to be able to backtrack, to almost be able to create a heads-up display, or a cockpit, or a breadcrumb trail, or a workspace, or an arrangement of control surfaces, or multiple models in mind at once, or multiple hypotheses, or any arrangement of discrete uncomputable felt senses or cognitive objects or concepts or reminders or goal hierarchies, etc., and so forth. Yes, working memory is limited, but a full context load isn’t discrete, it’s layers and layers of potentialities.
“Over time, for me, as metacognition has seemingly improved and improved, I’ve become more deliberate in how I arrange attentional and awareness manifolds. ‘What I’m doing and why I’m doing it’ has become more deliberate, more continuous, and more salient. I like to have a strong, implicit sense of, ‘what I’m doing and why I’m doing it,’ if at all possible. And if I don’t, I explore whether it’s time and cost-effective to engage directly with that sense to potentially add nuance, layers, and specificity to it.”
“Mental moves” are “hardware constrained,” and they fall into natural classes based on what parts of the brain you’re flexing at any given time. Constrained. We’re not magical souls. But. Still: There are infinite possible mental moves, in an infinite-dimensional, infinite space capable of instantiating an infinite number of conceptual infinite-dimensional manifolds infinitely interrelating, not to mention an infinite number of possible physical actions (body and speech) in any moment.
At some point, possibility and potentiality start to become more salient in real time. It becomes obvious, at times, even pressing, that your mindstream could be behaving other than it is. You could be thinking different thoughts, traveling down different paths, that the frames and maps you’re running are partially incidental. “This is what’s happening right now,” becomes a question mark, manifold, pregnant, undetermined, not inevitable. Necessity and non-necessity of the next moment become a game. “This is what’s happening right now, and this is how I must respond,” becomes, “Really? Are you sure?”
You perhaps start to see where consciousness is “sticky” where gears and mental movements are sticky. You perhaps have a taste of consciousness that’s more like a superconducting or frictionless fluid, inner stances that can arrange and rearrange contra the world, in complex, multilayered, experimental configurations. You can arrange and rearrange your inner landscape to cover self and world in novel, responsive ways. You aren’t bound by prior false dichotomies, false dilemmas, objects, categories. Symbols and language become a game instead of a cage, or something. Layers of maps and territory and really-real territory become distinct concepts if not referents. Anyway.
This is not to say that your magic genie mind just gives you whatever you need at any given point in time. Lots and lots of the time there’s a, “well, fuck, a really useful thought, concept, mental move, idea could go right there, but I don’t know what it is so here we are.” And that’s taking into account your entire repertoire of techniques, metatechniques, maps of how to go beyond technique, and so forth.
And the mind will probably never be completely transparent. You’ll never be “done.” Moving attention over the right objects in the right order, combined with having the correct collection of objects in peripheral awareness, keeping *those* salient, too, while you’re moving attention, can cause emotional healing, belief updates, etc. No matter how much meditation you do, or careful reading and thinking, you don’t always know the right questions and order ahead of time or, at the very least, you still have to go through the motions deliberately. That is, you very often still have to use your executive function to walk your mind through steps that it will never (at first, or ever) take spontaneously. And walking through those steps can profoundly change you (cf. e.g. Coherence Therapy). Bottom line, your magical meditative superconducting mind fluid, unfortunately, isn’t necessarily going to spontaneously do lots of things for you. Some things, surprisingly and wonderfully, but not everything, not ever.
I guess what I’m trying to do here, as per usual, is to responsibly hammer home that meditation will never be a panacea, even if it’s still radically, pervasively valuable, for some people, some of the time.
But learning to interact effectively with your increasing awesome magical mind fluid, you becoming a part of your magical awesome mind fluid (ahem), is part of the practice.
Anyway, so, consider:
You take responsibility for where your attention is directed. You take responsibility for sensory and non-sensory peripheral awareness, brightening it, bringing it online, allowing all parts of self to inject useful, relevant information into consciousness.
And, well, now what? You’re here, now. But you’ve just stopped a lot of gears from turning. You’re temporarily arrested your default mode network. It was doing stuff; it was driving you. And now?
Here’s one way to slice up states of being:
- doing, where “awareness of mind” gets in the way
- doing, where “awareness of mind” is helpful
Sometimes you should just “do the thing,” which might involve tons of meta and reflection and threading of behaviors. But, uh full meta, as in, generally keeping tracking of the entire state of your mind, wouldn’t be helpful. Sometimes you just have to get out of your own way, to not incur a monitoring cost, a meta cost.
There are other times when coincident global meta, simultaneous with whatever you’re actually doing, *will* be helpful. Or will be helpful for 1-10 minutes at the beginning, of whatever.
It’s good to differentiate between those cases, and to not also that as your meditation practice continues, and more and more monitoring behaviors automatize, stuff that incurred a cost in the post may not incur a cost in the future. And, when you reach that point, you’ve achieved a net win with respect to your prior local maximum. (See Culadasa’s metacognitive introspective awareness.)
I’ll poorly summarize this especially poorly written section as, sometimes you should pay attention to how you’re paying attention. But, other times you should just pay attention and do the thing.
Another thing which may or may not be salient is your tacit, nonverbal sense of, “What you’re doing and why you’re doing it.” This is an aspect of “sati,” usually unfortunately translated as “mindfulness,” literally translated as “memory.”
“What you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
This is a powerful, tricky thing, where you can get in your own way if you’re not careful.
Meditation, very, very early in your practice teaches you the difference, as you’re sitting there trying to enact a meditation protocol, between “You’ve totally forgotten what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” and “I’m at least remembering to do the thing that I intended to do.”
Outside of meditation, knowing whether you’ve got this sense, and what’s in it, and how nuanced it is, and how many layers it has (and time horizons of those layers) can be very powerful.
Let’s unpack that a little bit:
Synchronic complexity: “I’m doing this thing.” vs “I’m doing this thing with these six pieces that all alternate depending on what happens and there’s all these exceptions and there are these completely different regimes that are all relevant and if this happens I’ll fall into the regime with three pieces instead of six.” This is what driving a car is like until driving automatizes. If you’re pushing yourself, you’ll be doing new things as complex as driving a car often. Or you’ll be doing things that you periodically want to de-automatize to tune all of the pieces. “What you’re doing,” can be deeply intricate. You might get a sense that “what you’re doing” could fill a whole book (… or a whole blog).
Diachronic complexity: You might look at G. E. M. Anscombe’s definition of an intention. You might be doing X which will be done in five minutes, and, simultaneously, in that very moment, literally doing Y which will be done in a month, and, simultaneously, still in that very moment, literally be doing Z which will be done in a year. You’re doing all of those things at the same time; they are the same thing. That can all be folded into that sense of what you’re doing. And/or that “one” thing you’re doing may actually be serving many, many purposes simultaneously: You might be doing W, Q, and R at the same time, on the same time horizon. (All of these have fancy names in the goal pursuit literature, and it can be worth reading. But those are theoretical constructs. You can feel this stuff; you can live it.)
And, so, implicit versus explicit, and when? When should you just feel it, and when should you put words to it, and when should you actively try to complexify it? Or really work it out what it is you’re doing, over minutes or months? And what about the difference between what you’re actually already doing, the missions of your minds, or what you think you should be doing?
This is where you can get in your own way.
With great power comes great responsibility. Sometimes poking at, “What you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” hurts it. Sometimes it heals it. Sometimes it energizes it. Sometimes, often, “you know better than you,” and there’s a powerful intelligence at work in what you find yourself already trying to accomplish. Sometimes “goal factoring” leaves you with an anemic, unmotivating, impoverished mess. Other times it saves you. Sometimes you get stiff, inflexible “rule-governed behavior” that is net nonstrategic. Other times you can feel into and write down what you’re doing and it’s crisp enough that it hugely levels up your game. Or you can write it down and it frees up your mind for more theorizing because you can always go back and look at what you wrote later.
There is a danger of constructing “shoulds” and ending up in so-called unmotivated, akratic states. If you end up with a “should,” but you’re just sitting there, then, and I’m half joking, to be sure, something has gone horribly wrong. If I get a “should,” sometimes I’ll sit with it for hours because I metacognize that I’m working myself up to it. Other times, a deep part of me knows that I’m gravely mistaken about the best path forward, and I wait or journal or a myriad other things until I can consciously understand what the problem is.
But I would think maybe two days is usually perhaps the longest that a “should” state is productive. Maybe a couple times a year up to two weeks of “should” could be ok. Sometimes “deep knowledge” is being realized or computed, deep down, and it takes a while to surface but it starts messing stuff up on the surface long before it surfaces. “Deep drives” and “deep brain” is probably a whole other post. But, suffice it to say, there are vastly smart parts of you, ever-vigilant, continuously calculating whether certain goals are going to be achieved. And they will laugh at your confused, pathetic, puny “shoulds” and burn your life to the ground if you don’t listen to them (e.g. depression). If you figure out how to listen to those parts of you, and they will *not* be fair, and they *will* be rigid, and they perhaps do not care about you as such (plenty of other parts of you care very much about you), and they are ancient and cryptic and they barely speak english (or your native language), but they just might light your life on fire, and produce great works, great art, awe, gravity, beauty, lizard brain and neocortex united, in a good way, complex and fragile human value, with the fury of a thousand suns.
What are you doing and why are you doing it? Be patient, be methodical. You are probably going to die. How shall you live? How will you be open to that question in each moment? (Probs meditate.) And be gentle. Sometimes, “watching a movie just because,” is the right answer.
So, here’s some more. Three levels:
- Beyond protocol
- Protocol embedded in “beyond protocol.”
Protocol, instructions, step-by-step guides are very powerful. Humans think or stumble into counterintuitive parts of mindstream phase space and they show other people noisy, imperfect ways to get there. You’re not going to stumble on all that stuff by yourself. You’re just not. But, at some point, again and again, you’re going to need to go beyond protocol: maps are not the territory, patterns are not the territory. The territory is always happening for the first time and patterns are a leaky abstraction and your goals are not the goals of the map maker.
I wrote about leaving instructions behind.
Even more powerful is to be able to use other people’s instructions and protocols, squeezing every last bit of value from them, without become trapped by them, being able to see through them in real time to the actually territory you’re manipulating and playing with.
Another thing I do I’m calling “natural meditation” until I think of a better name.
“Ok, now I’m going to figure out what to do,” often comes with taking a particular habitual inner stance, with attention and awareness. But you’ve already clunkily biased your path forward and response. Notice this habitual stance taking. Can you instead come on board softly, changing nothing, not immediately reconfiguring attention and awareness and subtle muscular tension, but letting everything keep it’s original configuration and momentum? What might you learn about what’s already working, what was already happening before you came online?
Another thing I do is so-called “choiceless awareness,” but I don’t typically use it as my main meditation practice. If I’m lost, hurt, confused, whatever, I keep attention company and just go with it forever it goes. I let consciousness become a frictionless fluid, letting it rearrange continuously itself as it wills, as attention skips and scans and flits. I just keep perfect pace and let it happen, watching where we go.
Under conditions of “environmental isotropy” where I really don’t know what’s next, and there’s truly *nothing* I can do at that particular moment (e.g. exhausted, end of the day, nothing to be done until morning), I find that choiceless awareness minimizes suffering in the absence of obvious “meaningful suffering” that I could choose, and can sometimes lead to insight under environmentally isotropic conditions.
If I have more cognitive bandwidth and response capability, at that particular moment, I might perform other moves of mind. I’ve sometimes described the below as “holding the felt sense flat, so it doesn’t twist into known, extreme attractor states and waiting”:
- asking – asking for one or more relevant felt senses to enter awareness; can let attention be claimed by one of them or can hold off for a bit to see if faint, valuable new stuff keeps appearing at the edges
- allowing/waiting – something is already there in attention or awareness, neither increasing or decreasing attention or awareness on it, so as not to disturb it and to let it stabilize
- coaxing – if it’s stable enough, then gently applying attention or awareness to encourage it to grow, being careful to still allow it to move so preconceived notions don’t override it and cause it to motivationally wither (there’s a sense of energy to these, a motivation, a “this has a hint of ‘might work’,” and especially keeping everything else as gentle and still as possible so it doesn’t get drowned out be a big movement of mind)
Another thing I do is sort of “unsymbolized updating” or “tacit updating.” I attend to an “issue” and gently keep my attention there, and then I ask all of peripheral awareness to “gently pay attention” and for “all parts of my mind to listen” so that “everything can talk to everything else.” And then I just patiently wait with all that gently stabilized and maintained. Try it, see what happens. You may find things… changing, at the very least, in ways that are at least initially, if not perpetually, difficult to put your finger on. Inspired by all the usual suspects (e.g. Focusing) and Culadasa’s models of mind for meditators.
And yet more stuff I do:
Of course there’s additive meditation. Over time, additive meditation become more and more automatic, positive emotions and care and comfort coming online faster than deliberate thought, to soften blows, protect, comfort, care. You can teach yourself how to take care of yourself. This doesn’t mean you hide from reality. This means that you face reality with an inner army of active, intelligent cognitive and emotional inner resources.
More simply there’s “cognitive chaining” and backchaining. If I’m thinking about something, I leave breadcrumbs or stack felt senses in an *ordered* way, so I can move back up if I complete or exhaust a line of thought. Of course you can use external reminders, too, and I do so all the time, but sometimes you need the entire big, fresh, flexible felt senses, or external tools are more distracting then helpful.
“Cognitive placing” is similar to chaining but it’s simply done in an unordered way. It has a move spatial feel, everything arranged in peripheral awareness where you know where to reach for it if you need it.
And of course there’s deliberately adverting attention. There’s deliberately priming peripheral awareness to prefer various kinds of information if it becomes available. There’s stabilizing attention and hunting through peripheral awareness before making a selection. There’s surveying all of peripheral awareness all at once. There’s coaxing attention into new covering configurations, zooming in and out, teaching it to “grasp” new sensory and cognitive objects and highly unnatural “multiobjects” and “discontinuous objects” and seemingly higher-dimensional cognitive objects that make your eyes cross and your brain hurt.
And there’s cultivating an appetite for “yes, buts,” for nuance, for anomalies, gleefully adding complexity and exceptions to your repertoire in lieu of compression that would enfold and obviate them.
And finally there’s reverie and spot reverie and action reverie, getting out of your own way, letting your mind and body take over, letting gears turn, deliberately thinking really hard and then your mind and body take over and completely surprise you. Spot reverie is repeatedly getting out of the way, for milliseconds to seconds to minutes, so your mind can turn gears in mysterious ways and then coming back to deliberately think again, over and over again.
This post hasn’t even touched on meta-management of your mindstream–GTD-esque systems that manage and potentiate and de-potentiate objects and mindstream occurences on longer and longer timescales, and how to work effectively and safely with those… And then there’s GTD-esque systems vis-a-vis your mindstream and reality as a whole, because, of course, reality influences your mindstream (it had better) and your mindstream and reality can become this seamless thing, where everything you ever know and can know is happening now but that enfolds an infinity of time horizons all simultaneously, probabilistically balanced and managed in the present moment with bounded rationality and limited cognitive resources and probabilities and inaccuracies and errors and urges and desires and longings and hopes and fears and can you metacognize that, all at once? Can you take responsibility for all of that, all at once? How big can your practice become; how big can your mind become; how big can your hope become; how big can your life become? When it all shatters and you realize how small you really are? And yet there’s all of this and you still want it and you can barely hold onto it all and it’s all a product of your biggest as-yet-undiscovered confusions and immaturities as well as your highest and noblest aspirations at this particular time in your life and what might you eventually become and everything might depend on everything else and the clock keeps ticking and there’s no time out the clock doesn’t stop and you must eat and sleep and shit and interact and age and relate and live.
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I want some of whatever you were having when you composed this!!
What an incredible post! I’ll have to re-read it later.
I do wish you’d mentioned Culadasa’s book’s name though!
This helps me understand why Culadasa’s book left me cold. Basically it seemed like instructions for how to dissociate more stably and with less effort, and that seemed like a terrible idea. Now I have a better sense of the sympathetic case for that optimization target, and exactly how it’s different than the target my practice has focused on, which is more along the lines of learning to relax and think with my whole mind-body, so that patterns of tension can be more efficiently processed by it.
Interestingly, Culadasa has just been removed from his “post” as dharma teacher. he didn’t get involved with abuse of any students, but he had lied about being involved with 10 women, including 4 prostitutes. At least he completely faced up to the charges and has willingly stepped aside.
This brings up the interesting point: does ANY isolated technique (as seemingly 90% of meditators approach it nowadays) make any difference to personality development?
(Note: rhetorical question)
Same problem in mental health, which almost always offers two isolated “techniques” – therapy, or pills – when it’s been over 40 years that it’s been understood that psychology is a bio-psycho-social discipline, and it may be that selfless service and a strong community may be infinitely more important BOTh for “meditative awakening” as well as psychological growth.
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