meditation is not strength-training

I think the repetition/strength-training/functional-reserve model of meditation is pretty misleading. The mind isn’t a muscle. It’s better to think of it as a digital state machine that can self-modify its state transition function, even though this borrows from the dubious computing metaphor. The mind is not analog and not mushy. It is shockingly digital and lossless. Seeming muscle-ness is an abstraction on more fine-grain dynamics. To succeed, one must eventually engage with those dynamics as they are (of course, but models matter). “Strength training” causes people to accumulate a great deal of momentum and cruft that they then have to reverse and undo. I’ve heard stories of people who wish they’d had a better sense of “right effort,” earlier on.* I personally think it’s better to think in terms of puzzle-solving, test-check, and wayfinding right from the start.

An analogy I use is that the mind is made of a tangle of perfectly flexible, perfectly fluid steel cables that are also perfectly incompressible and inelastic. Maybe like cooked spaghetti or heavy rope, but “indestructible” or “unforgiving.” And you can reweave the cables but nothing can be created or destroyed. (This isn’t entirely true because experience tangles in new cable(s) and correct reweavings cause cables to losslessly become one [“elegance collapse”].] No escape but ultimately clear directionality in the space of play.

I think Donald Knuth has an essay somewhere about programming. And he makes an analogy that, when people first start learning programming, they think it’s like drawing, where, if you push harder with the pencil you get a darker line. I *think* the more recent idea of “programming by coincidence” is downstream of this essay. I don’t agree with everything in the essay, if I remember it correctly, but some of the metaphorical/analogical distinctions are great.

Yes, experimenting, yes playing, yes *learning*. But not guessing and hoping, or doubling-down, over and over again!

To back off a little bit, there is something to the “train the microscope then use the microscope.” There is “gathering” of content and method, over and over again. Behavior is, if not digital, then coherent–walking and talking and eating. Some behaviors are digital-ish, like speaking or writing, though they are waves in a preconceptual/postconceptual ocean. And/but/then/anyway it’s like the insights, the microscope(s), get perpetually rewoven through the entire system, while the system retains something of their character. This isn’t quite right, but I think it’s better than the strength-training analogy.

To back off a little bit more, I can imagine the strength-training analogy can be empowering and is a better model than “hapless, hopeless prisoner/captive of one’s own uncontrollable mind”!

But mind as collaborative puzzle-solving coconspirator (albeit with potentially miles and miles of terrible, torturous, self-reflexive, strange-loop confusion) might be better.

*Of the people in the wild who have succeeded or seem to be making inexorable progress, it does seem that “overshooting and correcting” does work. And the more likely failure mode is “not reaching escape velocity.” But, I think explicit wayfinding might be best thing. Not enough theory/data, yet. And, I don’t know how much selection bias is in my (contemporary) “historical” data.


6 thoughts on “meditation is not strength-training

  1. Hi Mark:

    I agree, about 90%. The thing is, sometimes poor metaphors work for certain people.

    I know a police lieutenant who was dealing with a struggling, traumatized small town police department in Oregon. He decided to introduce mindfulness. Initially of course there was massive resistance, but it ended up making a very powerful difference.

    One of the key “metaphors” he used was strength training (hey, tough guys, you know?) And each time you got distracted and went back to the breath, that was “one rep.”

    I thought it was kind of clever, actually. Not great if you’re moving toward non dual realization, but for these guys, it worked!

    • Don, you’re very right! I think it’s good to make a distinction between “palliative meditation,” “supportive meditation,” and like “hardcore-go-all-the-way” meditation.

      The former two carry a bit of risk because a small number of people might accidentally end up in “better not to start; if you start, better to finish” territory. But, many people can find tremendous relief and growth in skillfully supplied and maybe carefully bounded practices.

  2. Yeah, I kind of mindlessly (!) threw that out there. I tend to rather intensely (reactively) dislike them. Looking forward to the post. My own tradition is that of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, which non dualists tend to find hopelessly full of “doing” and “dualism.” My favorite at the moment is James Swartz’ “I have been tortured by Aurobindo” – and that was in the midst of what was supposedly a favorable comment. Then there’s Peter Kingsley, telling me in person that Sri Aurobindo was a terrible poet, terrible person and not at all enlightened, and then being outraged that I mentioned this in a review of one of his books, and insisting he never said such a thing.

    I take it as a sign of Mother and Sri Aurobindo’s refreshing aliveness that they seem to provoke such ire in so many non dualists!

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