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?