[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.