psychosocial comparison effects [draft]

  • cw: brief, non-graphic discussion of childhood sexual badness/experiences, near the top of the post
  • cw: very brief allusion to suicide

I’m not a licensed professional, so my dataset will maybe be smaller and “differently biased” than other people who learn about things that have happened to people. But, in any case, I’ve seen at least three patterns when it comes to childhood sexual experiences. These are based on firsthand reports, rendered abstract, composite, and vague. Again, the bullets below aren’t graphic; they’re very brief and about the aftermath. (And they’re not the main subject of the post.) They go from not bad, to bad, in three bullets:

  • (1) The person has a “true” “whatever” reaction. The experience(s) just wasn’t/weren’t that big of a deal. The experience was weird or confusing (a more likely case) or even mixed-but-net-positive (less likely, in my limited dataset). And, in any case, it’s just a thing that happened, that didn’t really bear on other things or didn’t take a lot of work to make sense of, for whatever reason.
  • (2) For this person, the experience or experiences didn’t really register, at least at the time, as having been that bad and/or as even having really been a thing at all. The experience or experiences are or were a sort of interpretive non-event, really or seemingly. But, then, much later in life, for a few weeks, day, or just hours, whatever happened hits them really hard. But, there wasn’t really a lead-up, beforehand, and later badness was mostly contained (which maybe felt terrible), and then maybe things feel a little lighter or more sensible, afterwords. But, afterwards, things are mostly the same, in a good way.
  • (3) For this person, in often counterintuitive ways, their lives are pretty defined by what happened to them. The possible downstream effects are legion: distrust or paranoia; attentional and learning difficulties; enactment of self-fulfilling, self-destructive prophecies, and so on. If they find a way to “work through” what happened to them, things might first feel even worse for months or even a few years. They might become progressively more dysregulated, at least on some narrow dimensions and maybe broadly, with things feeling and being worse and worse right up until some sort of breakthrough is made. And then, upon “breaking through, ‘they feel even worse for hours, days, or weeks. (It’s maybe, I don’t know, three days, on average. And the “ever increasing even worse”-ness might not be a thing at all, for some people.) And then, after all of that, things get stably better and better in a way that made the journey highly worth it. (In regards to such a potentially harrowing journey, I imagine there will be a lot of factors at play, here, involving time, money, health, safety, relationships, etc. I think people will for sure make mistakes, or will at some point, or ongoingly, “have no choice but to start,” but will do their best, to sort of start the “working through” journey when they have enough resources to get through it safely. (That might make things very rough for the people around them, or not.))

Again, these are sketches, and the way I’ve rendered them could be inaccurate or misleading for all sorts of reasons.

***

“Trauma” has sort of become a fad explanation for everything. I think it actually is a pretty good explanation for lots of things, depending on how it’s defined.

I just think of it like this:

Trauma is the result of an experience or experiences. And that result is memories or interpretations that are very hard to “look at.” And the result of that is “areas of mind” that “can’t change” or are “stuck” (because they can’t be looked at). And the result of that is downstream reduced ability to further learn and problem solve, along whatever subtle dimensions that would otherwise touch the “areas of mind” that are hard to look at. And those downstream dimensions can be very counterintuitive, like being able to pay attention to very narrow patterns of color and sound, which can cause very strange and confusing learning and problem solving patterns. People will have workarounds, and/but those workaround will shape their entire lives. (Most people have at least a little bit of weird stuff like this, but it can be much more pronounced for someone who’s had/has lots of “trauma.”)

***

So, in my very limited experience, childhood sexual stuff had seemed to cause the “worst” trauma (when it did). Again, this is in my limited first- and secondhand experience, so my take could be very weird. But, when looking at how various things have negatively shaped people’s lives, the “third bullet level” effects (as per above) have always seemed to be due to something sexual.

But, now I tentatively think there might even be something that can tend to be even more intense, though is more likely a later in life thing. The example bullets below are nonviolent and nonsexual:

  • A person gets seemingly “lapped” in their life’s work.
  • A person finds that they seemingly have been doing X all wrong, e.g. methodologically and there’s no way to catch up. (This could be research, creative writing, acting.)
  • A person’s skill or ability is (seemingly or actually) heavily criticized by someone they hold in esteem.

The above bullets might seem a little bland or disparate, but they have to do with a person’s entrenched “plan” or “means to enact their plan” being called into question or seemingly being shown to be inadequate. And these tend to be sort of “social acceptance/prestige/status plans,” and/or “intimacy plans,” and/or “safety plans.” “Plan” is sort of dry, but here I mean, really, “their felt sense of everything in regards to what they were going to do and how it was all going to work and how it was all going to feel and how it feels right now…”

So, as I said above, tentatively, people experience things like the bullets just above relatively later in life, and/but they seem to have HUGE effects on people’s lives that often aren’t immediately apparent (maybe because they are ambiguous at first, take a while to sink in, and are “heavily avoided”). Part of the reason I’m tentative about some of this is because I don’t have a full understanding of ways in which my dataset might be sparse and biased, by the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve talked to, and the conversation topics that have come up, for all sorts of direct and indirect reasons.

But, I’ve seen all the bullets above, a few times, and the slow-growing impact on people seems to be quite extreme. (But, there may have been a bunch of confounds in all cases.)

I’m writing about this, now, even though I’m not confident about it (and it would take considerable methodological rigor to be really confident), just because (a) sexual stuff (when it was problematic for people) seemed to be a big jump in badness for people from anything else I’ve come across. And then (b) this life/plan/social/career thing that I’m describing here in this post seems to maybe even solidly edge out the sexual stuff. Though, if the “badness margin” between sexual stuff and everything else is like “2.0”(??), the “badness margin” between sexual stuff the life/plan/social/career thing seems like “0.3”.

It’s a (kind of funny?) cliché that graduate students get apparently scooped on their dissertations, but, upon investigation, they find that, no matter how terrifyingly similar the dissertation title makes the work seem, the actual work (and their own work) are so narrowly defined that there’s almost no overlap between them.

Maybe more apt is what’s probably a tv trope: A new person (“interloper”) arrives on the scene who’s seemingly got “the right stuff,” say, talent-wise (piloting, acting, writing, something). Usually the protagonist is the person who’s (seemingly or actually) “lapped” by the interloper or “relatively hopelessly inadequate” compared to the interloper, and narrative is sometimes a comedy and sometimes tragedy, horror, or thriller. (Perfect Blue? Black Swan? I haven’t seen these.)

I have seen one white paper that tells a story of a researcher purportedly presenting their research method, which apparently was very successful. And the researcher is implying that everyone should be and should have been doing it his way. And, so the story goes, as the audience was leaving, one researcher muttered to another, “well maybe I should just kill myself.”

***

I suppose there’s a few points, here.

First, people have early career/”career” (or mid, or late) that calls into question everything they’ve done or will do, that seems to imply unfixable doom for their plans, and those plans can be (at least initially) so deep that they’re, invisible, like water or air, and unchangeable. And sometimes people very obviously break or very non-obviously break, in a slow way, that causes all sorts of downstream problems for themselves and everyone around them.

Second, it’s worth emphasizing the “apparentness” angle. I’ve seen this happen where both people, or even maybe three people, all think they’ve been doomed by the other person’s/people’s work. (Maybe it is a competitive race to the bottom, or something. But, it’s telling that both people, or everyone, thinks that it’s definitely the other person’s work that’s better.)

Third, it’s not clear when “violence” has been done. Sometimes the interloper is just living their life, just has happened to maybe have had some experiences that make them seemingly better-suited to a particular niche. Sometimes they are absolutely oblivious to the (maybe highly contextual and contingent) effect they’re having on people around them. Maybe their only goal is collaborate and benefit everyone. Other times, their whole “vibe” is (reflectively or unreflectively) tuned to do “maximum damage.” The generality and/or impact of their results are overstated. Or, they hide or obfuscate their “origin story” as it were, so that their current or future skill is opaque. They spin all luck as skill (and they pretend it was easy and that they’ve got infinite reserves).

Regarding “violence,” maybe this is par for the course in competitive and “co-opetition” environments, though it can be doubly surprising and confusing when the culture gives lip service to collaboration and mutual support. And, I would expect, though I don’t know for sure, that this is hardly the sort of behavior that will very-long-run produce the best things for everyone.

Even when an “interloper” has the best of intentions, one might hope for more sensitivity on their part. (But this gets especially fraught when, say, the “interloper” is say young, female, and/or a relative minority. There’s the reference class of “fragile male egos,” and “white fragility,” though I’m maybe slant-using that latter term. Maybe they have the best of intentions and/or maybe they are doing quite “violent” thing—but maybe, in past situations, this was the only way to survive.)

***

The last parenthetical above maybe hints at some of the deeper factors in all of this, as well as solutions.

One might say people’s “stuff” or “plans” are can be too tangled or too fragile/non-robust. Actually, this is probably, usually, the result of trauma.

Someone who has subtly limited options (due subtle, trauma-related deficits in learning and problem-solving) will often double-down and then double-down again and again on some narrow thing that they can get very, very, very good at (all things being equal, if they’re lucky, if the environment favors that skill in some window).

And so that narrow thing (which might not be obviously narrow) sort of has to carry the weight of money, intimacy, safety, acceptance, meaning, prestige, status, etc. If they lose the narrow thing or they’re (seemingly or actually) “competed out” of the narrow thing, then everything downstream of that is threatened. And this can feel catastrophic, can put someone on red alert panic mode, sometimes in a slow-growing, slow-burning way that takes hours or months to manifest. And, this will be so out of left field that they or the people around them won’t realize what’s going on. (Because, to them, of course they’re the best. Or, to other people, the person is so skilled, how could they possibly be intimidated. Or, we’re all here to work together. Or–when the person is up-and-coming—that was a local, provisional critique and wasn’t intended to say anything about that person’s general abilities or trajectory.)

Sometimes it’s less about the particular skill, ability, something and more about something even more upstream–“being the very best at the very best thing,” or something. And, even though that’s pretty general, they’ve still hit upon a rigid, fragile solution.

***

So, I don’t mean this to be a “spot the fragile, rigid person, who can’t change and can’t collaborate.” We’re all that fragile, rigid person, in fractal ways. And, if someone undergoes a “spectacular blowout,” it may well often be the case that something else was going on, some violence being committed somewhere reflectively/unreflectively/obliviously/directly/indirectly. (The environment may have been deliberately set up as a pressure cooker and imbued with heightened significance. All sorts of things could have been going on.)

***

Perhaps, more importantly, the experience, from the inside, can be very bad: shame, embarrassment, demotivation, “collapse,” hail marys, abusive behavior towards other people, and so on. And this can be “smashed down” in a way that makes it “sticky” and “traumatic” such that there are knock-on effects that can follow them whether or not they stay in the environment and the situation resolves.

***

The “solution” is something like catching this sort of thing as early as possible, environmentally, interpersonally, individually, and working to untangle all the “external” apparent nth-order effects as well as the “internal” “plan dependencies.” Delay can sort of cause “epicycles of maladaptive solution entrenchment” and destructive behavior that can beget further destructive behavior, and so on.

Untangling can be via sociological/environmental/culture changes, therapeutic support (getting help in reviewing/error-checking evidence and implications), turf differentiation and negotiation (“oh, we’re doing different things already, oh, we can reduce our overlap and even synergize), and meditation. Usually, people are being triggered by extremely deep “resonances” that can take a very long time to surface and change, and discussion about concrete particulars won’t be enough.

So maybe there can be a series of environmental or personal hacks, patches, shims until the deep stuff can be surfaced and worked with, which can take a long time.

***

So, anyway, my interest in discussing this is that it seems to be very intense thing that some people will experience at some point in their lives. And, if a group is ostensibly trying to do a hard thing, stuff in this space can tear a group apart.

And, it might take a lot of (initially(?) very unwanted and potentially very up-front costly) work. But, the benefit to an individual, in terms of increased flexibility and resilience can be immense. Similar to the third bullet at the top of the post, the journey can be very intense, and long. There can be the local pain, as well as deeper trauma that’s making change so hard, as well as the challenge of retooling things after the deeper trauma is resolved. A person might end up changing their goals and plans a lot, and this can affect the people around them, friends, family, group members in groups they’re in.

But, hopefully writing this will help people catch some of the effects of these sorts of phenomena earlier. And, hopefully, some people reading this will preempt some of these effects if they were otherwise latent or possible. Intense stuff, but the tools are getting better and better, and, as a culture, we can become more aware of such phenomena and how to resolve them or avoid them.

***

P.S. In the post, I should have said something like, “once everybody de-rigidifies and differentiates, ‘there’s plenty of room at the top,'” enough of everything to go around and tons of “free energy,” low-cost, proactive, synergistic optionality.

ok-ness and cosmology

[Longer title: “ok-ness and wellbeing, cosmology, metaphysics, eschatology”]

[I’m indebted to a few people for some of the prior heavy-lifting and thinking in this post. Mistakes mine.]

[I apologize for the minimally edited choppiness of the prose below.]

*

If you had to pick being in one of the scenarios below, which would you pick? You can modify them as you’d like; it’s not a forced-choice:

(A) Let’s say you’re a billionaire with smart, kind, loyal friends. And, we could just keep piling it on: Say you’re part of a post-scarcity economy in an endlessly stable political climate. Say poverty has been solved; say crime and personal safety have been solved. Say friendly general artificial intelligence has been solved. Say the long-run destiny of human values and morality are well-understood and it’s humane and exciting. Say the fate of the universe is now understood, and there’s a way out. Say we can now enumerate and (re-)print out all possible humans—past, present, and never-before-existing, who would want this for themselves under the conditions they would want it.

(B) Or, let’s say you’re old, sick, alone, and homeless. Sad, scary, tragic stuff. And let’s say, somehow, tragically, something just escalated and escalated: There’s people who really hate you and want to really hurt you, or worse. Dark, ugly stuff.

(C) Or, let’s say things are pretty ok: good job and friends, interest and engagement, maybe a family and kids, and, to be sure, you’ve also got fears and regrets, about intimacy, money, meaning, health, the economy, the political climate, family members… But, overall, not bad, not bad.

***

First, I want to note that shit happens. We make mistakes, we get hurt, we run out of time, we realize we were wrong, people disappoint us, we disappoint ourselves, we disappoint and hurt other people, we have life surprises, health surprises, we hope, we fear, we dream, we get confused, we chase false idols, we get in car crashes or hit by buses. Life can be hard and painful, whether we have money and friends and health and safety, or not, world-scale projects, or not, cosmic meaning, or not, and regardless of whether many other desirable factors, all things being equal, obtain, or not.

Noting that, all things being equal, there’s still a way that things can be ok (if things are not currently ok). And this ok-ness is extremely, extremely specific and simultaneously also very general. (Cringe, cringe; this isn’t going to take the usual route; keep your hands and feet inside the blog post. To be sure, in any case, this ok-ness isn’t a thing.)

As the cliché goes, there’s indeed a sense in which you don’t need anything outside of yourself for this ok-ness, everything you need is already in you. And, also, there’s a sense in which this ok-ness takes resources—money, food, shelter, time, space, relationships, knowledge, something.

There’s a few broad failure modes that can happen when seeking this ok-ness (if you decide to do so, and it’s ok if you do or don’t, or start and stop, or take a break and pick it up again, later. In no way is it separate from “normal ok-ness.”).

  • One failure mode is seeking to achieve things that are very specific, very concrete, very hard, and very far away in time. (That’s not to say seeking to achieve such things is bad, just that it can be a failure mode of being ok.)
  • Another failure mode is avoiding here, now, and everything, deferring everything, including the experience of this very moment, until you’re definitely, completely, one-hundred-percent stably, forever ok. And then you can enjoy right now and relax around people, right now. (This is the “meditation is a valueless slog right up until the instant before enlightenment, and any benefits of meditation are incidental to attaining enlightenment and facilitating them in any way might even make enlightenment take longer or make it impossible to obtain/acquire/achieve” model. This is the “separate thing” model.)

Ok, so, sometimes though, what has to happen, in order to be ok?

Even if things are/seem very not ok, sometimes just a little bit of “grace” is enough. You find an amazing therapist, you find out you didn’t get the recessive genetic disease, a long-lost relative left you enough money to keep you on your feet. Something that you thought would be hard is just easy.

Sometimes it takes a little more than that, or a lot more. You might ask, what’s the hit-it-with-a-sledgehammer option, hit it with a planet, hit it with a galaxy, when it seems like nothing else is working?

This is sort of the meditation option, though plenty of things can feed into that, like e.g. therapy, Alexander Technique, and all sorts of things. (A good meditation system will  indicate and incorporate intersubjectivity and movement, in any case. But also a good meditation system will sort of “play nice” with all the other good stuff and people and offerings in the environment that don’t quite line up with the meditation system itself.)

Ok, so what does meditation do, anyway? Why can it sort of be a global option, even if not necessarily the most efficient one (time- and resource-wise)?

There’s a common misconception that meditation sort of makes you ok with whatever’s going on. This is concerning to people who want to be motivated by what’s going on, because they care about what’s going on (and what’s going to happen next), because they want to enjoy it or change it.

(There’s certainly a failure mode of meditation, to add to the two “being ok” failure modes above, which is causing oneself to be narrowly or broadly unresponsive to broad slices of self and world.)

Anyway, there’s a correction to this misconception that meditation makes one ok, regardless of what’s going on, that is, ok independent of conditions. Nuh-uh. More correctly, meditation makes one (long-run!) “well-fit” to conditions, regardless of what they are, and it’s the “fittedness” that yields ok-ness.

(One might ask, well, what if I’m in a crashing plane or being tortured or a loved one just got hurt or… Well, yeah, those things are bad. Things can be too intense, too fast, too uncontrollable… A meditation master will still claim, though… And you can explore the limits for yourself, too, in a “natural experiment” fashion, with hints along the way and better and better models of what’s to come.)

So, actually, the outcome of meditation is extraordinarily concrete, extraordinarily concerned with the concrete details of one’s life and future. (Though, this isn’t sort of a laborious, forced “mindfulness.” Plenty will be unreflectively automatized: If there’s details, sensory details or otherwise, that you’d prefer to not get lost in, that’s generally going to be an option.) There’s things you want to get and there’s things you want to avoid, same as it always is.

So, CONCRETENESS. That’s piece number one.

You’re always going to be living your life. That’s what lives are:

“If[!] you’re going through hell, keep going [as long as you’re applying some sort of Meta Protocol, i.e. going in the right direction]”

And, I like to combine the above with this extraordinarily deep statement/insight:

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” —John Lennon

So, anyway, you keep going and going, putting in the meditation time, and maybe your rigid, impossible future starts to unravel, and you maybe encounter piece number two: EMPTINESS.

Emptiness could also be termed, in my usages, nebulosity, indirectness, luminosity, etc.

When you started, mountains were mountains, physics equations were physics equations. Now, what the heck are mountains? What the heck are physics equations? What is anything?

But, this isn’t nihilism; emptiness isn’t arbitrariness. There’s an implicit/inexplicit lawfulness, a lawful evolution (though even this sentence and its meaning are empty.)

And, further, emptiness is only one side of a coin. The other side is form, structure, territory, actuality, noumena… (That’s depending how you slice all those concepts; there are more precise and consistent ways to render some of this.)

And, in any case, emptiness is only the beginning.

Because the next thing that starts to happen is that emptiness starts to chew up everything. And that includes things like the following:

existence, nonexistence, awareness, nothingness, somethingness, death, mortality, furniture, eternity, will, determinism, goodness, realness, necessity, contingency, duty, responsibility, obligation or lack thereof, freedom, goals, final ends, big bangs, big crunches, heat deaths, simulations, singularities, infinities, time, space, relativity, mortality, cryonics bets, the tides of history, the near future, the far future, quantum gravity, the Planck scale, harm, suffering, sanity, heaven, hell, afterlife, resurrection, eternity, outside-of-time-ness, causal history and final end of everything

***

One maybe (relatively) unobjectionable claim is that the human bodymind/brain/system/something has a low-dimensional representation of literally everything inside its “unknown unknown” boundary. We contain (represent) the entire universe. (Re “representation,” one could potentially make an argument for something like distributed cognition or question where the representations live or how they’re encoded, enacted, etc.)

For now, again, maybe you’ll grant me that we literally hold (a low-dimensional, variable-fidelity representation of) the whole (multi/uni)verse in us, including our goals, fears, contingency planning, uncertainties, problems, etc.

I’ll further claim that, whether due to properties of consciousness minds, agency, darwinian evolution or entropic dissipation under this universe’s physical constants, something, there will sort of be some finite set of necessary “pieces” that all people are tracking, within that representational unity/totality.

This tracking will be sort of a mixture of explicit or reflective musings, from imagination, religion, fantasy, and science fiction, as well as implicit/inexplicit, practical “doing models” that have built up, “organically,” bottom-up, over time. That will all sort of be mixed together, explicit, inexplicit, and entangled with the environment. And there will be adult stuff as well as childhood stuff, including very young childhood stuff and stuff picked up from other people. For example, you might have a bunch of heaven and hell stuff, which might be initially surprising, if you come across it, but less surprising in retrospect. Depending on your very-young childhood background, there could be miles and miles of heaven and hell stuff, maybe some sort of omniscient and/or omnipotent enabler of timeless intimacy or connection, as well as, say, depending on what you were reading as a teen or later, a future “Omega-point” situated in a manyworlds multiverse, and so on, all side-by-side or “scattered throughout” one’s mind.

And maybe there’s a “beginning of everything” and an “end of everything” and a “timeless/eternal ground of all of that,” and so on.

Point being, the system may not be consistent (well, there are degrees), but the system is reaching for consistency, and there’s a particular kind of envelope or closure or unity that kind of enfolds or connects all this stuff into one unified thing. Sometimes it’s very fragmentary, but there’s going to be thin threads that maintain connection, somehow. (What happens in organic brain damage or neurodegenerative disease is an interesting question, but if a person is awake and behaving even a little bit coherently then there’s a probably shocking “unity”/”totality” for any of that to be happening at all.)

One could call all of this COSMOLOGY (and metaphysics and eschatology).

So, anyway, CONCRETENESS is sort of the unignorable sensory ground, though still a heavily interpreted datastream, from the “outside world,” the thing that pokes you with sticks and surprises you, even if you stop believing in it. EMPTINESS is sort of the liquid ground that makes change possible. And COSMOLOGY is sort of the interpretive representation or encoding or explanation of the whole enchilada, as well as what you should do about all of it, how you should act, how you are acting, what the plan is.

So, in my gestural division, once again, there’s CONCRETENESS, EMPTINESS, and COSMOLOGY.

There’s sort of something sometimes terribly embarrassing, confusing, or scary about cosmology. Cosmology is just as scary, maybe even more scary, than concreteness. Yeah, you might run out of money, or get hit by a bus, and/or die. But, of course, what happens after that?And/or, what does it all mean? And, even if you live? What’s going happen, long-run? What if you get sucked into an interstellar black hole? What happens to your cares and concerns and the people you love, from your perspective?

It can be confusing and embarrassing to the degree how much cosmology matters to functioning in daily life. Plenty of people believe in god. And plenty of people believe in a future eschaton, divine or machine. And some people believe in heaven or the Tao or the multiverse. Or they believe in all of the above, all semi-implicitly mixed together, coming from various ages and sources and thinking and imagining. And, often we’d prefer to believe (“endorse” believing) in one of these over all the rest. (And often that preference is leaving out a bunch of “functionally necessary” features, and something else necessarily, constrainedly needs to pick up the slack, in sort of an explanatory-unity-or-comprehensiveness-over-explanatory-consistency, or something. And it won’t budge, it won’t effortlessly flow, otherwise.)

While money and health, concretes, can be super stressful, it’s sort of the cosmology that “tortures” us, as it were: If we’re, I don’t know, beings of light going to heaven, and we’re here to learn, then a bunch of worldly suffering isn’t as big of a deal. (Or “nonexistence” isn’t stressful, or it is.) So, as it usually goes, part of us may even believe that we’re beings of light (or in a benevolent simulation, or going to be cryonically or state-space-exhaustively resurrected, or whatever). But other parts of us do NOT. And, so money and health are stressful, and there’s also this sort of “cosmological shear” on top of that, the tension between mediately contradictory cosmological components.

***

So, the reversal, here, is that the fruits/goal meditation is not sort of being ok with whatever is happening or whatever you believe, independent of the details.

In fact, the fruits of meditation, usually mostly implicitly, are radically embodied (concreteness) and radically cognitive (cosmology). (Emptiness, which, in some sense, is the other side of the coin of concreteness+cosmology, is also in some sense a discovered cosmological component, as well as something experienced concretely.) Emptiness does facilitate equanimity, which is sort of, say, an interaction between concreteness, emptiness, and cosmology, which makes change and (transient or stable) unknowing safer and safer, as equanimity “grows.” Equanimity does sort of become a “more and more powerful container of safety,” but it’s, in some sense highly contingent/situated/specific, built out of progressively handling more and more, and more and more skillfully, in a deeply implicit and wise way. So, it’s not detachment but is instead concretely engaged wisdom under emptiness, etc., etc.

So, in any case, all of this is sort of one way of looking at why meditation takes so long—in order to sort of not be “tortured” (as it were, or whatever) by the concrete, sometimes one must refactor one’s entire cosmology, and I think this is pretty typical, because we don’t really get to choose our cosmologies, at least on the front-end. And so there’s a lot that’s very fine and also a lot to clean up, down/in there. And usually this has a combinatorial or recursive or iteratively recurrent complexity, of enacting the dependencies to make something safe to look at, and then looking, and then retracing and juxtaposing along high-dimensional path constraints… (And this is sort of inseparable from refactoring one’s phenomenology, and so usually nonduality, centerlessness, etc., pop out, too.)

***

And so, eventually, mountains are just mountains again, physics equations are just physics equations, again.

But, like, is there a right answer? Heaven and hell? God? Superdeterministic quantum gravity multiverse? Yeah, sure, up to your personal, bleeding-edge unknown unknown boundary. And, you can fallibly tack towards it.

And, in doing so, you may find that concretes get lighter, wellbeing increases, it becomes safe to not know, and also you do know, but you can say less. I’m not saying you’ll be able to write down novel physical laws or crack open the universe with the right intonation and gesture. But, you’ll be more comfortable with exactly what is, and where you are in it, in part because suffering and sort of even meaning are sort of limit cases of when things go wrong, and, because of grace, buddha nature, evolution, etc., sorting out all this stuff, under emptiness, under ockam’s razor, under unknown unknowns, is shockingly, generally doable, all things being equal, and it makes things progressively more and more ok. (Human minds have stunning epistemic abilities, if bootstrappingly used “correctly.”)

And things become more and more stable, too, while remaining sensitive and responsive to new knowledge, new neuroscience, new physics, new interpersonal surprise:

It can take a lot of work to try to remember that, say, god is infinite and you’re a being of light (or that you’re experiencing focal bias, or whatever), when, say, your bank account balance is low.

But, in meditation, you’ll sort of be tacking towards a global convexity that doesn’t need to be maintained.

More and more, self and world just are, the world is just right there, just as it is, nothing to change, no effort, and, more and more, it’s fine/good/ok.

It’s partly fine/good/ok because that fine-ness/good-ness/ok-ness hasn’t made you unmotivated, reckless, nihilistic, careless. In fact, you’re more safely effective, in part because you’re more careful, more patient, more decisive, more peaceful, more ambitious, more compassionate, more impassioned, maybe even more afraid (in some sense, because it’s fundamentally safe to be afraid) while being simultaneously more equanimous and chill and good-feeling. There’s a deeper thing: sort of less everything and more everything at same time. Sort of “normal” but more “liquid.” It’s a “this too shall pass” kind of thing, but, again, one that is harmonious with situated action, in a (relatively more sensible) cosmos. Anyway, none of this is quite right, but I’m pointing in the direction a thing. All in all, you’ll still fully proactively seek what you want and avoid what you don’t want, and what you want and don’t want will be more liquid but not arbitrary.

Refactoring your cosmology (as per your bodymind, your felt wellbeing) can be a huge, lengthy, overwhelming (implicit, liminially cognitive, felt-sensory) project. It’s an insane project, a crazy project, hard to grasp as a whole, on the front-end. (“Better not to start; if you start, better to finish.”) You maybe should only start after you’ve talked to a therapist, a doctor, made a big, experimental life change, and/or you’ve accidentally already started. One wants methods that are sort of simple enough to actually consistently engage in, while “correct enough” to sort of “work eventually no matter what,” all things being equal.

(But, in a sense, none of this is separate from what you’re already doing, which is just living your life. Some stuff is “deep” and “stuck” but, some “quite cosmological” stuff is getting sculpted all the time, when making a meal, when journaling, when spending time with friends. No separation.)

In any case, let’s say you’re systematically applying a method. And then… “impossible” problems, unexpectedly, unbelievably, are solved and dissolved, one, after another, after another (maybe with very long gaps and low-lows in between each solve), all things being equal. And after several wildly different “impossible” problems get solved or dissolved, you start looking at the remaining problems with more and more suspicion and patience (and excitement).

Anyway, probably some of this rendering is terribly misleading, so don’t take my word for any of it.

Wellbeing and enjoyment are good guides, as well as patiently, gently easing into, say, “intolerable” horror, if you happen to come across any. (There will probably be at least a little bit.) Remember, the whole point of all of this is something like wellbeing, enjoyment, self-alignment, and whatever follows from that. Maybe things are already pretty chill. Ask someone who’s pretty chill what their life philosophy is, and they might tell you about their pretty reasonable thing that works for them, even if it wouldn’t work for you.

Duty, necessity, obligation, should, responsibility, effort, sacrifice, and hardship are not red flags, but they are yellow flags, at the very least. The dashboard can/could/”should” be green, and/but you might have to refactor your whole cosmology to get there, and, while this is very doable, all things being equal (money, food, shelter, health, future money, technique, withstanding) that doable-ness shouldn’t be misinterpreted as one of those shoulds. No gods, no masters, no point (except your own), as it were.

And the “end” result is sometimes described as things like “fearless simplicity,” “carefree dignity,” effortless, costless, natural, etc. The WEIGHT OF ALL THAT COSMOLOGY, doesn’t “weigh” anything at all, isn’t a thing at all; it’s just your effortless being, the very flexible, fluid prereflective seeming of world, lighter than a feather.

***

(P.S. As for myself, I’m not “done,” by the way! Plenty still to do, but it’s been a relatively smooth and “meta-predictable” ride, for a very long while, etc., etc. At some point, you run out of “meta-surprises,” and you always, always, always know what to do next, as far as I’ve been able to tell.)

P.P.S. “Cosmology” includes stuff like how does personhood work, how do (body)minds work, what is intimacy, what is connection/”connection”, etc.

***

meditation schemas caution (extracted twitter thread)

  • 1/ If you do rigid space-time stuff with meditation, e.g. try to locate the exact “pixel” and/or 3d manifold of a sensation, as well as, say, the very instant of “its” appearance and disappearance, you may initially have the experience of rapid progress,
  • 2/ there can be value in exploring this. Frameworks are powerful, but they are leaky abstractions. I recommend minimalist, provisional, “comprehensive-yet-neutral” frameworks. And, weirdly, for most people, space and time may not be quite the right ontology to not get tangled up.
  • 3/ By “tangled up,” I mean you’ll potentially be “reifying” and entrenching contingent phenomenological and metaphysical errors in your bodymind system.
  • 4/ Space, time, identity, future–yeah!, statistically, outside view, brains tend to exploit the same structures provisioned by evolution. But the details can be ridiculously contingent, per individual. And top-down metaphysical “reifications” ramify in weird ways.
  • 5/ For metaphysics that you linguistically ingest, from a person, lecture, book, or meditation manual, the mind has a tendency to “make it real,” for better or worse, before it learns to hold to such things (“hold on to”) as provisional and “empty,” down to the bare metal.
  • 6/ And, every mental “action,” every mental “move,” every mental “choice,” will lay things on a little thicker. And, undoing–untangling–tends harder than doing.
  • 7/ There is no necessity, duty, responsibility, obligation to get it “right.” And, there’s lots of ways in which the details don’t matter. But, there are path-dependent downstream effects, in principle! (And, notably, infinite-takebacks, too, conditional on available resources.)
  • 8/ So, someone might want to be careful about really doubling down on particular frameworks (even seemingly innocuous or neutral ones like “space and time”). And it could be good to invest in low-commitment meta-frameworks with community & empirically battle-hardened ontologies.
  • 9/9 And hardcore meditators may explore the question of a global optimum or global optima and how to seek such things, from the inside, where the territory can walk you as much as you walk it. #meditation #frameworks #Metaphysics much more about these topics on my blog.

a very brief promissory note on the structure of mind

text mirror:

Mark (Person in lotus positionTest tubeMan magePile of pooRed heart)
@meditationstuff
untangle your Original Toilet Training Trauma, gain ten IQ points

epistemics are embodied

societal cringe-enforced taboo makes you dumb

scatological deep-dives make you smart. unraveling unspeakable fetishes contain ten IQ points each for the unlocking

I don’t make the rules
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happiness dependent on exquisitely and flexibly handling your shit

It’s good that morality, horizontal progress, etc., are still emphasized in contemporary, secular meditation systems. I think this is important because part of my take is that meditation is implicit, concrete problem solving. And, explicit morality can bootstrap elegant and broadly applicable solutions to life’s problems. (“Becoming intrinsically good all the way down is the ultimate life hack.”)

But, I can’t help but feel that Ingram’s morality and Shinzen’s horizontal progress are really bolted on, no matter how much they’re verbally or rhetorically emphasized. I know Ingram devotes even more time to morality in MCTB2.

My straw of the situation is something like, “Morality is really important, but also it’s really complicated. Anyway, so, meditate, on the cushion, and just kind of proactively do your best, off the cushion. And, meditation is supposed to help. And, by the way, also, meditation doesn’t help at all.”

That’s a bit of a straw/mischaracterization. But, what???

Bolted on. (Or, I’m being impatient and uncharitable with their teachings.)

In contrast, my take is something like all the meditative attainments or experiences or stateless states are incidental to the point of the whole thing.

And, gesturing vaguely, the point of the whole might be something like solving all your problems; pursuing the good; solving homeostasis for all possible futures; having lots of babies; becoming an ever-more-efficient, far-from-equilibriium entropic dissipator, pursuing interest and intimacy, having a good life, etc.

My point is that there will be something the human bodymind is (a) “trying” to do, which (b) can be modeled as agentic telos, anthropomorphized or not, which (c) presumably has to perfectly hew to mechanistic, spontaneous causality under exceptionaless physical law (unified multiversal quantum gravity or whatever we figure out in 100-500 years), which (d) will *feel* a particular way from the inside, possibly *really good* or “satisfying,” or something.

(The working assumption, here, is that what the human bodymind is “trying” to do, if fully actualized, will look god’s-eye-view rational and feel good from the inside.)

So, a human is system is bootstrap-learning the rules of the system, as well as doing a halting-problem-blind search of the goal landscape, while traveling the landscape, all at the same time.

In other words, the system doesn’t know what’s good for it, in advance, or how to get it. It will not be properly conceived/embodied. But, grace, Buddha, eros, entropic dissipation can contingently get people headed in the right direction, nonmonotonically, faster and faster (e.g., someone picks up a book about “Zen” meditation or Internal Family Systems therapy).

And that will involve rearranging the bodymind as well as rearranging the environment (up to and including the entire planet and beyond). And rearranging the environment, all things being equal, is relatively downstream of rearranging the bodymind. So, meditation.

So, this is sort of vague and poetic, but meditation isn’t some graft of state training plus following some moral rules to transcend those rules–

Meditation is solving the problem of optimal behavior (and procreation) under bounded rationality in an uncertain world. And, the better solutions you have to safety and sex (coordination, intimacy, health, biomedical engineering, space travel) the better you feel.

The ironic thing is that it’s not about happiness independent of conditions. WRONG!

It’s happiness because you’ve flexibly and exquisitely handled your shit. This is the whole of the path.

Ok, I lied, it’s sort of both, because of long-run-anti-wireheading indirect realism.

One could imagine a system having a “belief” about whether or not it will get (or whether or not it already has) “what it wants.” The experiences that system has, over time, shape the belief and the want/preference. (The system has a little bit of hardwiring, some initial conditions plus an environment, and then one just lets it run. The system doesn’t have a model of any of this when it starts.)

And so let’s say, at any given time, the system is only in four subjective states:

  • DOOM/NOT GOING TO GET WHAT I WANT (subjectively not going to get what it wants, though it objectively keeps doing its best, anyway)
  • DEFINITELY GOING TO GET WHAT I WANT (subjectively feels good, objectively actually uncertain)
  • NOT SURE IF GOING TO GET WHAT I WANT, DON’T BELIEVE I’M DOING MY BEST (“self conflict”; subjectively feels bad, objectively actually uncertain)
  • NOT SURE IF GOING TO GET WHAT I WANT BUT WHOLEHEARTEDLY AND SELF-SINCERELY AND SELF-COMPASSIONATELY AND SELF-ALIGNEDLY BELIEVE I’M DOING MY ABSOLUTE BEST (subjectively feels good, objectively actually uncertain)

Anyway, I think those four states are roughly how people work. If the bodymind believes it’s doing its best, wholeheartedly, all the way down, self-consistently, to achieve stable godhood, infinite love-sex, and healthful immportality free of heat death, or if the bodymind believes in the certain inevitability of eventual stable godhood, infinite love-sex, and healthful immortality free of heat death, or if the bodymind is presently experiencing stable godhood, infinite love-sex, and healthful immortality free of heat death–all of those feel theoretically, in principle, exactly just as good (really good), though the system can still, just fine, discriminate between which of these obtain at any particular time. Anyway, that’s the theory.

So, again, I think meditation is actually just concrete problem solving that involves picking the correct, initially unknown problem. (Explicit, lineage-transmissible formulations of the problem+solution only go so far, as we see out in the world. One has to wayfind to an ever-more-correct internal representation/embodiment to make progress.)

All the emptiness and nondual phenomenology are still a thing, all the different parts of the elephant, including why traditional systems emphasize morality, compassion, etc. (Heartfelt compassion, all things being long-run equa(!)l, is a really good way to achieve babies and godhood, or whatever.)

But morality doesn’t need to be bolted on. (Straw?)

Meditation can be concrete planning, intellectual upgrades, morality training, epistemic training, strategic upgrading that will ingest whatever college textbooks and life experiences the meditator learns to ever-more-optimally seek out. (Of course, all this will look more like watching the breath or whatever than studying for a test. We initially think it’s the latter because the normative perpetuation of culture is very wrong about how the bodymind works and most everybody is “stuck in their heads.” Still, “watching the breath,” or whatever, is also pretty wrong, even though it’s in the right direction.)

So, I think there’s just “development,” of a single thing (“bodymind”), not vertical and horizontal, where descriptive meditative phenomenology can be very useful. But, in any case, meditation is not general-purpose strength-training (for which the fruits are applied off the cushion); meditation, in fact, can be “direct” puzzle-solving and “direct” concrete upgrading (albeit weird and counterintuitive and up-front costly and risky, otherwise we’d all already be Einstein-Ghandi-Musk-meditators). I put “direct” in quotes because in one sense it’s direct and in another sense it’s nonmonotonic and oblique (the details are outside the scope of this rant).

To wrap up, to be fair, sophisticated assessors of meditative progress will pay less attention to phenomenology and more attention to (a) interpersonal sophistication (which, depending on niche, might look like impeccably kind, authentically empathetic, local-and-world-scale-win-win-win collaborative reliability) and (b) relative degree of winning at life (which will look different, depending on whether the person started out abused and poverty-stricken versus a childhood of complex and interesting experiences and wealthy, kind, empathetic, intelligent parents). And, from the inside, maybe one might ask, do I experience wellbeing, and do I have a good life, and are those the same thing?

/ rant

explicitly coming clean on my memetic campaign

> burden of proof is on the side of meditation improving epistemics

I will come clean and explicitly note that I’m waging a memetic war to redefine contemporary usage of “meditation” and its fruits.

Rather than Theravadan-/(Ingram-)style attainments, Zen/Shinzen descriptions of no-self and non-doing, turiya, “just nondual” schools, etc., I’m pointing at total self-transformation that bootstraps wayfinding towards graded conceptualizations of the end goal (which cannot be properly conceived at any particular prior step).

This could devolve into no-true-Scotsman, goalpost-moving, theoretical Übermensch handwaving. But, the claim I’m making is that a repeatable, natural-kind, reality-joint-carving *thing* pops out, that looks a bit like Ingram’s limited-X-range straw models of enlightenment, as well as something in the ballpark of Shinzen’s descriptions.

If there’s a thing like that, then it does imply that almost all (almost without exception) contemporary meditation teachers and practitioners are missing a humongous thing. And, well, that’s my memetic war.

The burden of proof is indeed on me; the priors are, “not even wrong,” but the signs are everywhere, in the old texts and in the fragmented gestures of all the contemporary meditation teachers that are touching different parts of the elephant.

I continue to work on legitimate and credible intellectual persuasion, motivating (phenomenological/intellectual) descriptions of milestones, responsible self-claims, and practical instructions for direct experience.

https://github.com/meditationstuff/protocol_1
https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/

🙂 !!

***

Edit: I should have mentioned that I’m unpayably indebted to contemporary teachers and their extraordinary achievements, without which I would not be here ranting about this stuff at all.

meditation indirectly discloses domain knowledge

grateful hat-tip to an indirect collaborator for raising this issue and offering these quotes:

https://www.mctb.org/mctb2/table-of-contents/part-v-awakening/37-models-of-the-stages-of-awakening/the-specific-knowledge-models/

On a totally different tangent, the specific knowledge models basically state or imply that awakening will somehow magically provide hidden conceptual information about all sorts of specific things in life, such as the workings of particle physics, how to bring about world peace, who our disciples should marry, and the like. Some go further and state that enlightenment progressively brings complete omniscience, meaning the ability to know everything simultaneously about every single part and particle of the entire at least eight hundred trillion mile–wide universe.

[…]

While these might seem to some people like reasonable things awakened beings should somehow know, let’s include other things it might be good to know, such as how to create safe, inexpensive lithium ion batteries for electric cars, how to consistently beat the return of an S&P 500 index fund over the long haul, how to balance the federal deficit while providing everyone with outstanding social services and not raising taxes, how to instantaneously make every blue-collar Republican realize that they are voting against their own self-interest, and how to build a fusion reactor that is safe, inexpensive, produces enough energy for everyone on the planet, and has no radioactive disposal issues. When you consider these, the concept of specific knowledge gained by merely seeing the true nature of ordinary sensations begins to seem as ridiculous as it really is.

https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Crit_Thinking.pdf

After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he _can’t_ think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize. Just as it makes no sense to try to teach factual content without giving students opportunities to practice using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.

Ok. There is nuance that many meditation teachers don’t grasp, OR they DO grasp it, to a greater or lesser degree, but they are simply offering a precise, skilled, one-sided correction to people who think meditation will confer direct mystical knowledge on how to pick stocks, heal interpersonal relationships, or cure cancer.

So, there are TWO types of knowledge.

(1)

First, there is knowledge that is true, all the time, everywhere, such as the laws of physics, laws of mind, and phenomenology, as it were (the latter two loosely speaking). For these, any individual person has an extremely OVERDETERMINED dataset, by the time they’re maybe just weeks or a few years old. (It’s not the kind of physics data that will output quantum mechanics or string theory, but still.) This dataset is sufficient to yield insight into emptiness, the true nature of (body)mind, some aspects of physical grace, and, qualifiedly, almost-unconditional wellbeing.

Furthermore, insight into knowledge of mind, all things being equal, will boost IQ and general thinking skills! IQ is not hardwired, nor is “thinking,” except for a slight limning of development and genetics. Intelligence is 99% malleable software.

The reason that “critical thinking can’t be taught,” and the reason that the world isn’t filled with meditator-Einstein’s, is that gradual, and sometimes sudden upgrades in reasoning can take thousands of hours of not-McMindfulness, to yield fruit. The brain changes slowly. It takes on the order of 10,000 hours (yeah, that popularized-for-shaky-reasons number, but really) to “turn over the whole mind, for the first time,” though plenty of stuff will contingently happen before that time interval elapses.

(2)

Now, there is also the second type of knowledge. In addition to what is always true, everywhere, as I put it, Ingram points out that pesky domain knowledge is a thing:

For a new human, aside from those universal types of data, mentioned above, that massively overdetermined implications, there all also true unknown unknowns, from that new human’s point of view.

But, setting aside, for a moment, those true unknown unknowns, there are also knowable unknowns, which are knowable through personal action (experiment) and inference (theorizing), as it were. [Edit 2020-09-06: Further, I should have made the point, here, too, that the “relative” world is massively overdetermined, highly self-correlated, and coherent, all things being equal, as well.  It’s possible to know so, so much, from sparse, thin slices, if those slices used properly and sought out, as needed, as per below.]

To make an extended analogy, science was a civilizational upgrade for the acceleration of converting knowable unknowns to the known and for pushing out the unknowable to the “true bleeding edge” of “real” unknown unknowns, as they disclose surprise, or not, according to necessity and contingency.

So, analogously to civilizational-science-as-upgrade, now, for an individual, good meditation is, over time, like personal science (ultimately effortless, partially-implicit, costless), a bare-metal epistemic upgrade that improves that meta-bootstrapping process of ever more proactive and effective knowledge-seeking [Edit 2020-09-06: and evidence-using]. An advanced meditator (using a fully comprehensive system) will eventually be experimenting more, faster, more frequently, more effectively/constructively, less dangerously, with better implicit and explicit theoretical frameworks, to acquire raw data to feed into the [Edit: 2020-09-06 proactive and spontaneous] generation of personal moral and practical domain knowledge (and ever-better epistemics).

(I think meditation teachers hate to go anywhere near any of this, because fallible meditation teachers and sociopathic gurus, with necessarily imperfect meditation methods, make harmful mistakes ALL THE TIME. And, when someone gets hurt, it’s often way better to assume ignorance, blindspots, or myopic malevolence than to assume a teacher or guru is playing long-run benevolent, n-dimensional chess. So, yeah, suggesting that meditation teachers have domain knowledge can be very fraught, without also communicating how to assess a teacher’s domain knowledge, along particular dimensions. And that’s it’s own chicken-egg problem. So, sometimes, it’s better to not talk about POTENTIAL meta-bootstrapping meditative epistemic upgrades at all, if they’ll be unreflectively read into seeming advanced meditators. But, we do value the practical wisdom and physical grace of some meditation masters–so when people deny it’s a thing it all, it seems potentially contradictory and self-defeating, for a community.)

(conclusion)

To summarize, meditation is a vehicle for disclosing both absolute and relative (domain) truths.

And, one eventually runs out of absolute truths, to discover and align with.

But, our expanding light cone retains the possibility of truly surprising us, in very mundane ways, as well as very not-mundane ways, as things disclose across the “unknown unknown boundary.” But, we can be ever-more-skillfully-poised, truly as best we know how, as best we can do, at any particular moment in our personal lifetime, or history, to facilitate and grab that possibly surprising data, the instant it appears, to wring out every last bit of de-fanged uncertainty, safety, joy, excitement, sociology, non-authoritarian governance, humane biomedical engineering, world peace, intimacy, and wellbeing it can offer. And meditation is especially suited to facilitate that poise, all things being equal.