"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Book Review: Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha

I.

I always wanted to meditate more, but never really got around to it. And (I thought) I had an unimpeachable excuse. The demands of a medical career are incompatible with such a time-consuming practice.

Enter Daniel Ingram MD, an emergency physician who claims to have achieved enlightenment just after graduating medical school. His book is called Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha, but he could also have called it Buddhism For ER Docs. ER docs are famous for being practical, working fast, and thinking everyone else is an idiot. MCTB delivers on all three counts. And if you’ve ever had an attending quiz you on the difference between type 1 and type 2 second-degree heart block, you’ll love Ingram’s taxonomy of the stages of enlightenment.

The result is a sort of perfect antidote to the vague hippie-ism you get from a lot of spirituality. For example, from page 324:

I feel the need to address, which is to say shoot down with every bit of rhetorical force I have, the notion promoted by some teachers and even traditions that there is nothing to do, nothing to accomplish, no goal to obtain, no enlightenment other than the ordinary state of being…which, if it were true, would have been very nice of them, except that it is complete bullshit. The Nothing To Do School and the You Are Already There School are both basically vile extremes on the same basic notion that all effort to attain to mastery is already missing the point, an error of craving and grasping. They both contradict the fundamental premise of this book, namely that there is something amazing to attain and understand and that there are specific, reproducible methods that can help you do that. Here is a detailed analysis of what is wrong with these and related perspectives…

…followed by a detailed analysis of what’s wrong with this position, which he compared to “let[ting] a blind and partially paralyzed untrained stroke victim perform open-heart surgery on your child based on the notion that they are already an accomplished surgeon but just have to realize it”.

This isn’t to say that MCTB isn’t a spiritual book, or that it shies away from mysticism or the transcendent. MCTB is very happy to discuss mysticism and the transcendent. It just quarantines the mystery within a carefully explained structure of rationally-arranged progress, so that it looks something like “and at square 41B in our perfectly rectangular grid you’ll encounter a mind-state which is impossible to explain even in principle, here are a few woefully inadequate metaphors for this mind-state so you’ll know when you’ve found it and should move on to square 41C.”

This is a little jarring. But – Ingram argues – it’s also very Buddhist. If you read the sutras with an open mind, the Buddha sounds a lot more like an ER doctor than a hippie. MCTB has a very Protestant fundamentalist feeling of digging through the exterior trappings of a religion to try to return to the purity of its origins. As far as I can tell, it succeeds – and in succeeding helped me understand Buddhism a whole lot better than anything else I’ve read.

II.

Ingram follows the Buddha in dividing the essence of Buddhism into three teachings: morality, concentration, and wisdom.

Morality seems like the odd one out here. Some Buddhists like to insist that Buddhism isn’t really a “religion”. It’s less like Christianity or Islam than it is like (for example) high intensity training at the gym – a highly regimented form of practice that improves certain faculties if pursued correctly. Talking about “morality” makes this sound kind of hollow; nobody says you have to be a good person to get bigger muscles from lifting weights.

MCTB gives the traditional answer: you should be moral because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it helps meditation. The same things that make you able to sleep at night with a clear mind make you able to meditate with a clear mind:

One more great thing about the first training [morality] is that it really helps with the next training: concentration. So here’s a tip: if you are finding it hard to concentrate because your mind is filled with guilt, judgment, envy or some other hard and difficult thought pattern, also work on the first training, kindness. It will be time well spent.

That leaves concentration (samatha) and wisdom (vipassana). You do samatha to get a powerful mind; you get a powerful mind in order do to vipassana.

Samatha meditation is the “mindfulness” stuff you’re always hearing about: concentrate on the breath, don’t let yourself get distracted, see if you can just attend to the breath and nothing else for minutes or hours. I read whole books about this before without understanding why it was supposed to be good, aside from vague things like “makes you feel more serene”. MCTB gives two reasons: first, it gets you into jhanas. Second, it prepares you for vipassana.

Jhanas are unusual mental states you can get into with enough concentration. Some of them are super blissful. Others are super tranquil. They’re not particularly meaningful in and of themselves, but they can give you heroin-level euphoria without having to worry about sticking needles in your veins. MCTB says, understatedly, that they can be a good encouragement to continue your meditation practice. It gives a taxonomy of eight jhanas, and suggests that a few months of training in samatha meditation can get you to the point where you can reach at least the first.

But the main point of samatha meditation is to improve your concentration ability so you can direct it to ordinary experience. Become so good at concentrating that you can attain various jhanas – but then, instead of focusing on infinite bliss or whatever other cool things you can do with your new talent, look at a wall or listen to the breeze or just try to understand the experience of existing in time.

This is vipassana (“insight”, “wisdom”) meditation. It’s a deep focus on the tiniest details of your mental experience, details so fleeting and subtle that without a samatha-trained mind you’ll miss them entirely. One such detail is the infamous “vibrations”, so beloved of hippies. Ingram notes that every sensation vibrates in and out of consciousness at a rate of between five and forty vibrations per second, sometimes speeding up or slowing down depending on your mental state. I’m a pathetic meditator and about as far from enlightenment as anybody in this world, but with enough focus even I have been able to confirm this to be true. And this is pretty close to the frequency of brain waves, which seems like a pretty interesting coincidence.

But this is just an example. The point is that if you really, really examine your phenomenological experience, you realize all sorts of surprising things. Ingram says that one early insight is a perception of your mental awareness of a phenomenon as separate from your perception of that phenomenon:

This mental impression of a previous sensation is like an echo, a resonance. The mind takes a crude impression of the object, and that is what we can think about, remember, and process. Then there may be a thought or an image that arises and passes, and then, if the mind is stable, another physical pulse. Each one of these arises and vanishes completely before the other begins, so it is extremely possible to sort out which is which with a stable mind dedicated to consistent precision and not being lost in stories. This means the instant you have experienced something, you know that it isn’t there any more, and whatever is there is a new sensation that will be gone in an instant. There are typically many other impermanent sensations and impressions interspersed with these, but, for the sake of practice, this is close enough to what is happening to be a good working model.

Engage with the preceding paragraphs. They are the stuff upon which great insight practice is based. Given that you know sensations are vibrating, pulsing in and out of reality, and that, for the sake of practice, every sensation is followed directly by a mental impression, you now know exactly what you are looking for. You have a clear standard. If you are not experiencing it, then stabilize the mind further, and be clearer about exactly when and where there are physical sensations.

With enough of this work, you gain direct insight into what Buddhists call “the three characteristics”. The first is impermanence, and is related to all the stuff above about how sensations flicker and disappear. The second is called “unsatisfactoriness”, and involves the inability of any sensation to be fulfilling in some fundamental way. And the last is “no-self”, an awareness that these sensations don’t really cohere into the classic image of a single unified person thinking and perceiving them.

The Buddha famously said that “life is suffering”, and placed the idea of suffering – dukkha – as the center of his system. This dukkha is the same as the “unsatisfactoriness” above.

I always figured the Buddha was talking about life being suffering in the sense that sometimes you’re poor, or you’re sick, or you have a bad day. And I always figured that making money or exercising or working to make your day better sounded like a more promising route to dealing with this kind of suffering than any kind of meditative practice. Ingram doesn’t disagree that things like bad days are examples of dukkha. But he explains that this is something way more fundamental. Even if you were having the best day of your life and everything was going perfectly, if you slowed your mind down and concentrated perfectly on any specific atomic sensation, that sensation would include dukkha. Dukkha is part of the mental machinery.

MCTB acknowledges that all of this sounds really weird. And there are more depths of insight meditation, all sorts of weird things you notice when you look deep enough, that are even weirder. It tries to be very clear that nothing it’s writing about is going to make much sense in words, and that reading the words doesn’t really tell you very much. The only way to really make sense of it is to practice meditation.

When you understand all of this on a really fundamental level – when you’re able to tease apart every sensation and subsensation and subsubsensation and see its individual components laid out before you – then at some point your normal model of the world starts running into contradictions and losing its explanatory power. This is very unpleasant, and eventually your mind does some sort of awkward Moebius twist on itself, adopts a better model of the world, and becomes enlightened.

III.

The rest of the book is dedicated to laying out, in detail, all the steps that you have to go through before this happens. In Ingram’s model – based on but not identical to the various models in various Buddhist traditions – there are fifteen steps you have to go through before “stream entry” – the first level of enlightenment. You start off at the first step, after meditating some number of weeks or months or years you pass to the second step, and so on.

A lot of these are pretty boring, but Ingram focuses on the fourth step, Arising And Passing Away. Meditators in this step enter what sounds like a hypomanic episode:

In the early part of this stage, the meditator’s mind speeds up more and more quickly, and reality begins to be perceived as particles or fine vibrations of mind and matter, each arising and vanishing utterly at tremendous speed…As this stage deepens and matures, meditators let go of even the high levels of clarity and the other strong factors of meditation, perceive even these to arise and pass as just vibrations, not satisfy, and not be self. They may plunge down into the very depths of the mind as though plunging deep underwater to where they can perceive individual frames of reality arise and pass with breathtaking clarity as though in slow motion […]

Strong sensual or sexual feelings and dreams are common at this stage, and these may have a non-discriminating quality that those attached to their notion of themselves as being something other than partially bisexual may find disturbing. Further, if you have unresolved issues around sexuality, which we basically all have, you may encounter aspects of them during this stage. This stage, its afterglow, and the almost withdrawal-like crash that can follow seem to increase the temptation to indulge in all manner of hedonistic delights, particularly substances and sex. As the bliss wears off, we may find ourselves feeling very hungry or lustful, craving chocolate, wanting to go out and party, or something like that. If we have addictions that we have been fighting, some extra vigilance near the end of this stage might be helpful.

This stage also tends to give people more of an extroverted, zealous or visionary quality, and they may have all sorts of energy to pour into somewhat idealistic or grand projects and schemes. At the far extreme of what can happen, this stage can imbue one with the powerful charisma of the radical religious leader.

Finally, at nearly the peak of the possible resolution of the mind, they cross something called “The Arising and Passing Event” (A&P Event) or “Deep Insight into the Arising and Passing Away”…Those who have crossed the A&P Event have stood on the ragged edge of reality and the mind for just an instant, and they know that awakening is possible. They will have great faith, may want to tell everyone to practice, and are generally evangelical for a while. They will have an increased ability to understand the teachings due to their direct and non-conceptual experience of the Three Characteristics. Philosophy that deals with the fundamental paradoxes of duality will be less problematic for them in some way, and they may find this fascinating for a time. Those with a strong philosophical bent will find that they can now philosophize rings around those who have not attained to this stage of insight. They may also incorrectly think that they are enlightened, as what they have seen was completely spectacular and profound. In fact, this is strangely common for some period of time, and thus may stop practicing when they have actually only really begun.

This is a common time for people to write inspired dharma books, poetry, spiritual songs, and that sort of thing. This is also the stage when people are more likely to join monasteries or go on great spiritual quests. It is also worth noting that this stage can look an awful lot like a manic episode as defined in the DSM-IV (the current diagnostic manual of psychiatry). The rapture and intensity of this stage can be basically off the scale, the absolute peak on the path of insight, but it doesn’t last. Soon the meditator will learn what is meant by the phrase, “Better not to begin. Once begun, better to finish!”

If this last part sounds ominous, it probably should. If the fourth stage looks like a manic episode, the next five or six stages all look like some flavor of deep clinical depression. Ingram discusses several spiritual traditions and finds that they all warn of an uncanny valley halfway along the spiritual path; he himself adopts St. John’s phrase “Dark Night Of The Soul”. Once you have meditated enough to reach the A&P Event, you’re stuck in the (very unpleasant) Dark Night Of The Soul until you can meditate your way out of it, which could take months or years.

Ingram’s theory is that many people have had spiritual experiences without deliberately pursuing a spiritual practice – whether this be from everyday life, or prayer, or drugs, or even things you do in dreams. Some of these people accidentally cross the A&P Event, reach the Dark Night Of The Soul, and – not even knowing that the way out is through meditation – get stuck there for years, having nothing but a vague spiritual yearning and sense that something’s not right. He says that this is his own origin story – he got stuck in the Dark Night after having an A&P Event in a dream at age 15, was low-grade depressed for most of his life, and only recovered once he studied enough Buddhism to realize what had happened to him and how he could meditate his way out:

When I was about 15 years old I accidentally ran into some of the classic early meditation experiences described in the ancient texts and my reluctant spiritual quest began. I did not realize what had happened, nor did I realize that I had crossed something like a point of no return, something I would later call the Arising and Passing Away. I knew that I had had a very strange dream with bright lights, that my entire body and world had seemed to explode like fireworks, and that afterwards I somehow had to find something, but I had no idea what that was. I philosophized frantically for years until I finally began to realize that no amount of thinking was going to solve my deeper spiritual issues and complete the cycle of practice that had already started.

I had a very good friend that was in the band that employed me as a sound tech and roadie. He was in a similar place, caught like me in something we would later call the Dark Night and other names. He also realized that logic and cognitive restructuring were not going to help us in the end. We looked carefully at what other philosophers had done when they came to the same point, and noted that some of our favorites had turned to mystical practices. We reasoned that some sort of nondual wisdom that came from direct experience was the only way to go, but acquiring that sort of wisdom seemed a daunting task if not impossible […]

I [finally] came to the profound realization that they have actually worked all of this stuff out. Those darn Buddhists have come up with very simple techniques that lead directly to remarkable results if you follow instructions and get the dose high enough. While some people don’t like this sort of cookbook approach to meditation, I am so grateful for their recipes that words fail to express my profound gratitude for the successes they have afforded me. Their simple and ancient practices revealed more and more of what I sought. I found my experiences filling in the gaps in the texts and teachings, debunking the myths that pervade the standard Buddhist dogma and revealing the secrets meditation teachers routinely keep to themselves. Finally, I came to a place where I felt comfortable writing the book that I had been looking for, the book you now hold in your hands.

Once you meditate your way out of the Dark Night, you go through some more harrowing experiences, until you finally reach the fifteenth stage, Fruition, and achieve “stream entry” – the first level of enlightenment. Then you do it all again on a higher level, kind of like those video games where when you beat the game you get access to New Game+ . Traditionally it takes four repetitions of the spiritual path before you attain complete perfect enlightenment, but Ingram suggests this is metaphorical and says it took him approximately twenty-seven repetitions over seven years.

He also says – and here his usual lucidity deserted him and I ended up kind of confused – that once you’ve achieved stream entry, you’re going to be going down paths whether you like it or not – the “stream” metaphor is apt insofar as it suggests being borne along by a current. The rest of your life – even after you achieve complete perfect enlightenment – will be spent cycling through the fifteen stages, with each stage lasting a few days to months.

This seems pretty bad, since the stages look a lot like depression, mania, and other more arcane psychiatric and psychological problems. Even if you don’t mind the emotional roller coaster, a lot of them sound just plain exhausting, with your modes of cognition and perception shifting and coming into question at various points. MCTB offers some tips for dealing with this – you can always slow your progress down the path by gorging on food, refusing to meditate, and doing various other unspiritual things, but the whole thing lampshades a question that MCTB profoundly fails at giving anything remotely like an answer to:

IV.

Why would you want to do any of this?

The Buddha is supposed to have said: “I gained nothing whatsoever from Supreme Enlightenment, and for that reason it is called Supreme Enlightenment”. And sure, that’s the enigmatic Zen-sounding sort of statement we expect from our spiritual leaders. But if Buddhist practice is really difficult, and makes you perceive every single sensation as profoundly unsatisfactory in some hard-to-define way, and can plunge you into a neverending depression which you might get out of if you meditate hard enough, and then gives you a sort of permanent annoying low-grade bipolar disorder even if you succeed, then we’re going to need something better than pithy quotes.

Ingram dedicates himself hard to debunking a lot of the things people would use to fill the gap. Pages 261-328 discuss the various claims Buddhist schools have made about enlightenment, mostly to deny them all. He has nothing but contempt for the obviously silly ones, like how enlightened people can fly around and zap you with their third eyes. But he’s equally dismissive of things that sort of seem like the basics. He denies claims about how enlightened people can’t get angry, or effortlessly resist temptation, or feel universal unconditional love, or things like that. Some of this he supports with stories of enlightened leaders behaving badly; other times he cites himself as an enlightened person who frequently experiences anger, pain, and the like. Once he’s stripped everything else away, he says the only thing one can say about enlightenment is that it grants a powerful true experience of the non-dual nature of the world.

But still, why would we want to get that? I am super in favor of knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake, but I’ve also read enough Lovecraft to have strong opinions about poking around Ultimate Reality in ways that tend to destroy your mental health.

The best Ingram can do is this:

I realize that I am not doing a good job of advertising enlightenment here, particularly following my descriptions of the Dark Night. Good point. My thesis is that those who must find it will, regardless of how it is advertised. As to the rest, well, what can be said? Am I doing a disservice by not selling it like nearly everyone else does? I don’t think so. If you want grand advertisements for enlightenment, there is a great stinking mountain of it there for you partake of, so I hardly think that my bringing it down to earth is going to cause some harmful deficiency of glitz in the great spiritual marketplace.

[Meditation teacher] Bill Hamilton had a lot of great one-liners, but my favorite concerned insight practices and their fruits, of which he said, “Highly recommended, can’t tell you why.” That is probably the safest and most accurate advertisement for enlightenment that I have ever heard.

V.

I was reading MCTB at the same time I read Surfing Uncertainty, and it was hard not to compare them. Both claim to be guides to the mysteries of the mind – one from an external scientific perspective, the other from an internal phenomenological perspective. Is there any way to link them up?

Remember this quote from Surfing Uncertainty?:

Plausibly, it is only because the world we encounter must be parsed for action and intervention that we encounter, in experience, a relatively unambiguous determinate world at all. Subtract the need for action and the broadly Bayesian framework can seem quite at odds with the phenomenal facts about conscious perceptual experience: our world, it might be said, does not look as if it is encoded in an intertwined set of probability density distributions. Instead, it looks unitary and, on a clear day, unambiguous…biological systems, as mentioned earlier, may be informed by a variety of learned or innate “hyperpriors” concerning the general nature of the world. One such hyperprior might be that the world is usually in one determinate state or another.

Taken seriously, it suggests that some of the most fundamental factors of our experience are not real features of the sensory world, but very strong assumptions to which we fit sense-data in order to make sense of them. And Ingram’s theory of vipassana meditation looks a lot like concentrating really hard on our actual sense-data to try to disentangle them from the assumptions that make them cohere.

In the same way that our priors “snap” phrases like “PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME” to a more coherent picture with only one “the”, or “snap” our saccade-jolted and blind-spot-filled visual world into a reasonable image, maybe they snap all of this vibrating and arising and passing away into something that looks like a permanent stable image of the world.

And in the same way that concentrating on “PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME” really hard without any preconceptions lets you sniff out the extra “the”, so maybe enough samatha meditation lets you concentrate on the permanent stable image of the world until it dissolves into whatever the brain is actually doing. Maybe with enough dedication to observing reality as it really is rather than as you predict it to be, you can expose even the subjective experience of an observer as just a really strong hyperprior on all of the thought-and-emotion-related sense-data you’re getting.

That leaves dukkha, this weird unsatisfactoriness that supposedly inheres in every sensation individually as well as life in general. If the goal of the brain is minimizing prediction error, if all of our normal forms of suffering like hunger and thirst and pain are just special cases of predictive error in certain inherent drives, then – well, this is a very fundamental form of badness which is inherent in all sensation and perception, and which a sufficiently-concentrated phenomenologist might be able to notice directly. Relevant? I’m not sure.

Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha is a lucid guide to issues surrounding meditation practice and a good rational introduction to the Buddhist system. Parts of it are ultimately unsatisfactory, but apparently this is true of everything, so whatever.


Also available for free download here

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

334 Responses to Book Review: Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha

  1. Daniel Frank says:

    For those interested in Meditation and/or meditation retreats; I recently went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat and wrote about my experiences here: http://danfrank.ca/reflections-on-a-10-day-silent-meditation-retreat/

    (the retreat taught Vipassana meditation as interpreted by S.N. Goenka, and was completely free. The organization offers free retreats all over the world)

    I’m happy to answer any questions on my retreat experience, or beginning to meditate.

    • mdv1959 says:

      Nice account of your 10 day adventure, definitely worth reading.

    • dotctor says:

      Great account! Many thanks for taking the time to share your experiences 🙂

      Also, based on your account, notably the i) high at the end (Day 8), ii) your ability to keep your mind in check when it comes up with some excuse and serotonin to distract you, and iii) the internalisation of the insight “that nobody cares” about what you do – those seem like three big wins to me. Plus, it appears that your general meditation practice would have improved substantially. Yet you seem only mildly convinced that it was all worth it. Was it that difficult/uncomfortable?

      • Daniel Frank says:

        It’s very hard to analyze because I don’t know how much weight I should give to my memory of the experience vs my memory of my stated feeling during the experience.

        Looking back, it doesn’t feel like it was THAT uncomfortable. However, I distinctly remember the memory of feeling miserable for a time – and making a mental note to not forget that.

        I’m excited to evaluate the impact of the retreat over the coming months/years, as I’m sure it will evolve over time.

  2. esraymond says:

    Why would you want to do this?

    The main reason, I think, is is that it gives you better bullshit filters.

    Once you know from profound mystical experience how contingent and vibrating your phenomenal experience is, it’s more difficult for you to get fooled about what things are real and what things matter. Language – and other sorts of abstracting representation – lose some of their power over your thoughts. Epistemic skepticism becomes more natural, less something you have to will yourself into by constant effort.

    The bursts of energy and creativity evoked at various transitions are useful, too. Once you’ve been there it is hard not to notice that some poetry is genuinely mystical, a hard exteriorization of jhana and vipassana states.

    (I too, have noticed the suspicious coincidence between the rate at which sensations seem to vibrate in deep meditation and the frequency range of brain waves. Actually you don’t have to go very deep to spot this – just relax and watch the lights on the insides of your eyelids for a while. Most easily achieved in a hypnogogic state – when you’re just falling asleep or just waking up from it)

    Every once in a while I read something or hear something presented as novel and mentally miss a step as I realize that no, most other people do not know these things. Reading this article was like that. Ingram’s terminology is a bit odd to me; I put that down to his Buddhism probably being Theravada-based rather than centered in Zen, which I am more familiar with. Allowing for that…dude is the real deal, people. Unless of course I’m full of shit.

    • Stille says:

      How do you deal with/how dealable with is the whole cycling mental states part? The bullshit filters part sounds like it’d be worth a lot of trouble, but ….history of depression here, and I’m kinda scared of getting stuck again in Dark Night Of The Soul mode, and also of the failure rate of this process, which, from what I can see, is substantial.

      • esraymond says:

        I have not experienced the fast cycling he describes. It is possible that means that I did a pass or two through it and got stuck. or that Ingram’s account is not descriptive for everybody, or there’s some possibility I haven’t thought of.

        I will note that Zen sources do not describe the cycling phenomenon. so it’s possible Zen induction methods don’t produce it.

        Sorry I sound so vague. I am wary of trying to make predictive statements here, rather than just reporting my experience. I’m an entirely self-taught meditator whose grasp of the theory comes from long practice (since the early 1970s), a mix of reading primary sources like Mumon’s Gateless Gate, and thinking about the neurobiology a lot. It is quite possible that I have wandered down a dead-end path.

        On the other hand, if I’m stuck it seems to be at a good place. The “powerful charisma like a religious leader” thing Ingram talks about, yeah, I got that 30 years ago. Came in pretty handy during the years I was reforming the open-source movement.

        • tumteetum says:

          I will note that Zen sources do not describe the cycling phenomenon.

          yes, i was wondering about that too, i have read a bunch of primary zen sources but never come across it.

          maybe its just that zen is distinct from buddhism, there’s a crossover (or perhaps common core) there sure but to me it seems that buddhism just muddies the waters with its religious aspects. maybe this is an example of that.

        • moozilla says:

          On dharma overground (web forum associated with MCTB) the consensus seems to be that cycling is unique to vipassana. You can sort of correlate different “stages” (like the A&P event) that tend to be fairly common amongst traditions, but broadly speaking the ñanas are only experienced from vipassana practice. So if cycling seems like it isn’t worth it, maybe zen or one of the non-dual traditions is worth looking into. I think the advantage of vipassana is in its explanatory power for weird states you might experience. My understanding of zen is that things like energy flowing up the spine in the A&P is read as an illusion that should be ignored. For me, it’s a lot more useful to know that the energy I’m feeling has a technical term associated with it (piti) and that it’s one of the factors that can help me obtain jhana.

          Personally, I tried mindfulness style meditation on and off for years and never really got much out of it, but the first time I tried vipassana I had such a strong A&P experience (felt energy flow up my spine into my head and explode out my third eye area) that I really started to take the whole thing more seriously. I always thought things like chakras were complete bullshit until then, it was a complete eye opener for me.

      • iamnoah says:

        Also history of depression and reading this sounds very familiar. I suspect depressed people might often go through the Dark Night of the Soul without really trying. So we’re on the path/in the cycles whether we intend to or not. That motivates me to at least read the map so I know where I am and where I’m going…

        • Mary says:

          Or possibly a Dark Night of Sense. . . .

          St. John of the Cross said that one was common and came to many, whereas the true Dark Night of the Soul was rare.

        • Sea says:

          From the article:

          You start off at the first step, after meditating some number of weeks or months or years you pass to the second step, and so on.

          A lot of these are pretty boring, but Ingram focuses on the fourth step, Arising And Passing Away.

          From your comment:

          I suspect depressed people might often go through the Dark Night of the Soul without really trying.

          Doesn’t it seem odd that on the one hand you need to meditate a lot to reach the first, second, …, fifth level, and on the other hand some people end up at the Dark Night of the Soul (which, if I understood correctly, starts at the fifth level) completely by accident, never having meditated before in their lives?

          Or are we supposed to understand this as if you have a predisposition for depression, then you will start at the fifth level?

          I don’t know. To me the idea that there are well-defined levels seems odd and hard to defend, given the information in Scott’s article.

          • AnthonyC says:

            Just a guess, but it seems to me there may be a substantial difference between reaching a state by accident, and reaching as part of an intentional process, in that you may be prepared to gain something from it in the latter case.

            I’m not sure any of the unusual mental states described are unachievable by the untrained. Spontaneous mystical experiences happen. But the ability to intentionally achieve them seems very different.

  3. ignobleignition says:

    Did reading that make you, personally, interested in pursuing the path of insight?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It’s made me interested in trying samatha, which seems interesting enough to be worth it (bliss states? sign me up!) without being as dangerous as the vipassana.

      Except I recently met someone who I think screwed himself up pretty bad doing just samatha – or rather, he did so much samatha that when he accidentally did something slightly vipassana-like, he accidentally A&Ped himself in about three seconds. At least that’s our best guess at what happened.

      • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

        Erm. Bliss states would be actually something I would be afraid of. As in, I currently think that I have been able for multiple years to learn to reach a kind of internal bliss state in a month or so — and I am utterly terrified of trying and succeeding. I mean, I have enough «start-doing-this» problems as it is…

        (The way of reaching such a state would be more goal-oriented than most meditation descriptions seem; but then, no description of meditation outcomes sounds safe-and-appealing to me, and most descriptions fail the «appealing» part, so I may not understand that some subtype of meditation is close to what I would do if I tried)

      • andenyalaa says:

        For samatha and “bliss states” (I assume you mean the Jhanas), I recommend Leight Brasington’s book “Right Concentration” (http://rc.leighb.com/index.html) which provides a very lucid explanation of the Jhanas and practical advice for attaining them.

        I had read a lot of stuff before it which I found cryptic, opaque and unhelpful; Brasington has a very pragmatic style and is not at all mystical about it and is also very well regarded in the community. Where Ingram’s style is more “angry punk” Brasington is like farmer giving friendly advice on how to troubleshoot and fix your tractor.

        He’s also got some talks at IMS (you can find them with a google search) on the same topic, pretty much the same content, and he sounds just like he writes.

        I read the book recently and have some limited success in getting to the first Jhana, and maybe a weak case of second Jhana. Basically I’m time limited now if I could put in the necessary time I feel I would make more progress.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Except I recently met someone who I think screwed himself up pretty bad doing just samatha – or rather, he did so much samatha that when he accidentally did something slightly vipassana-like, he accidentally A&Ped himself in about three seconds. At least that’s our best guess at what happened.

        Boring alternative explanation: serious meditation (or serious praying, or other high-effort spiritual activities) is only pursued by people with some underlying mental dysfunction, who are attracted to such practices to seek solace from their mental discomfort (“dukkha”, “sin”, melancholy, depression, akrasia, whatever you want to call it). A large fraction of these people are bipolar, at least to some extent, which causes them to cycle through different mental states. They may incorrectly attribute this cycling to meditation or whatever else they are doing, but it fact it may be just their usual brain chemistry doing what it always does, they are just paying more attention to it and interpreting it in the framework of some spiritual system.

        • gattsuru says:

          Perhaps, although this eventually requires such a broad definition as to become useless for predictive efforts. I’ve seen similar descriptions in different terms from some of the more meditative sorts of shamanism and therianthropy groups, even though they attract people for very nearly the opposite reasons that more conventional religions do.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Buddhism is not a conventional religion in the West, and most Buddhists, even most Western Buddhists, don’t usually spend many hours per day doing meditation trying to achieve the Enlightment.

            Similarly, Christian mystics, hermits or monks who spend a large amount of their time praying and doing other spiritual activities are a very small set of the Christian population. I’m pretty sure that similar niches exist within all major religions.

            People who are part of these niche religious groups often report extreme and ambivalent spiritual experiences. I’m inclined to think that these groups attract people with a unusual psyche and their spiritual experiences are more of a manifestation of their pre-existing mental peculiarity, declined according to their cultural context, rather than the effect of the specific spiritual practices they do.

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        Huh. Interesting. Did you find the book useful to gain a different perspective on the problems that some of your patients may have – i.e., will you be tempted to tell some of your depressed patients, “you’re experiencing what we refer to as ‘the Dark Night of the Soul’. Here’s a referral to a local Buddist master, he’ll sort you out!”?

      • Deiseach says:

        Bliss states, though, are not meant to be an end-point; you accept them as they happen but you don’t go seeking them or trying to recreate them when they’re finished.

        “Come for the bliss states, end up crossing the abyss” is all too likely.

      • ignobleignition says:

        If you’re interested in samatha, I’d like to join the chorus of people recommending The Mind Illuminated. It teaches you to do a samatha/vipassana combo practice, but with heavy emphasis on the samatha. Culadasa’s viewpoint seems to be that with well-developed samatha, the Dark Night is negligible. After all, it’s hard to be depressed when you can just sit and experience jhana whenever you want.

        Whereas MCTB is a theoretical treatise, TMI is a technical manual, with step-by-step instructions for meditation and its path.

  4. Rogelio Dalton says:

    I read this book several years ago. It was actually the book that caused me to begin meditating, which I did almost exactly daily for a couple years.

    If you measure what’s happened to me based on Ingraham’s map, it would seem that even after years of practice I haven’t gone too far down the path. In part I chalk that up to not going on retreat. Going on long retreats is probably super important, but I have work to do, so I never get a chance. I have had an A&P event (the memory is very clear), but nothing that feels particularly like the way he describes anything after that stage (and I’m not particularly depressed, so doesn’t seem like I’ve been in years of dark night).

    Anyway, despite the lack of progress, meditating has had a huge beneficial impact on my life. Even before enlightenment it gives you space between emotion and action and leaves you less beholden to the whims of your biology.

    If you want to begin meditating with a clear path all the way to enlightenment, I would actually recommend The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa. First, its practical descriptions of the process of meditation and how to make progress are clearer and more accessible than Ingraham’s. Second, it is reputed that it is safer than Ingraham’s method. Specifically, in the “pragmatic dharma” community, which is basically everyone that talks openly about achievements and stuff, people think that developing a lot of concentration (samatha) before starting to do a lot of insight (vipassana) leads to a less problematic dark night. Using his technique I’ve made much clearer and continuing progress, and Culadasa provides a sort of step-by-step set of strategies for each level.

    As an aside, I recently actually tried the Metta (Lovingkindness) meditation that people are always raving about and it actually works in defiance of everything I know about myself. It has left me feeling happy for hours, and the only reason I hadn’t tried it is because it seemed so dumb to pretend like your wishing people happiness actually makes them happier.

    If you are interested in this kind of stuff or want to learn more, the reddit communities /r/streamentry and /r/themindilluminated are invaluable resources.

    • andenyalaa says:

      The effectiveness of Metta (and all the Bhramaviharas) was surpring to me as well. I’ve come to the belief that Metta it is a skilfull manipulation of oxytocin systems. You stoke the oxytocin by imagining people you like (ingroup), oxytocin has a half life of about 5m in the brain (no citation for that, would have to dig around), then you start pulling in progressively more unfamiliar people and entities (outgroup) as the initial glow fades. Outgroup members get associated with the ingroup oxytocin glow and they become less threatening. Also why it’s progressive; you don’t want jump from someone you love and are close to directly to EVIL MONSTER YOU HATE.

      Hand wavy, but supported by the fact that traditionally metta is supposed to be balanced if you generate metta for all men then you should do so for all women, and so on. You’re not considered to have mastered it until they feel balanced.

    • George Vockroth says:

      Second R. Dalton’s recommendation of “The Mind Illuminated”

    • thenoblepie says:

      This Metta thing sounds really interesting. Is there a guide for the spiritually-challenged cynical bastards somewhere? I’d love to give it a try. This Ingram fellow sounds like my kind of guy, something in his style perhaps?

  5. tanagrabeast says:

    He says that this is his own origin story – he got stuck in the Dark Night after having an A&P Event in a dream at age 15…

    Oh dear. I worry that this happened to me several years ago. I woke up one morning to a sensation that immediately reminded me of the end of that one Star Trek: TNG episode where Picard is zapped by a probe that forces him to experience an entire subjective lifetime as an alien on another — comparatively primitive — world. (At the end, he has been restored to his Starfleet reality, beginning a psychological struggle to reintegrate his two lives.)

    Except my experience was the reverse of the captain’s. I woke up feeling as though I had just been tragically released from a probe that had granted me a subjective lifetime as a much cooler person dealing with much more interesting stuff in a future that was long past the gritty nonsense that we in the early 21st century must endure merely to exist.

    It felt as though it took several long minutes to load my actual life back into my brain as I silently screamed in horror at my tragic loss. I was badly shaken up by it all day, and on-and-off again for weeks after. It still affects me, and I feel like it heightened my already strong sensation that everything is fleeting and that nothing is truly satisfying.

    Screw meditation, though. Give me my Matrix steak.

    • outis says:

      When I was a child, I would often lie awake in bed, pondering the universe. I remember a sensation of losing myself into infinity, with a sense of exhilaration but also of dread, in some way.
      I think early on I sought this state, but later I started trying to avoid it, and it became less and less frequent, until it stopped.
      I still ended up with depression in my later years, though.

      • Maznak says:

        Funny thing, as a child I used to have very similar experience: losing myself into infinity sums it up pretty well. Time and space sort of stopped to matter, it was exactly as you say part exhilaration part dread – the dread being that I have entered some kind of different reality and that in itself maybe is not right – or maybe fear of getting lost there and never finding my way back or whatever. I have named this state of mind for myself “here and now” – that is what I used to repeat to myself, “I am here and now”, when I wanted to bootstrap myself back to reality. After a while, I usually wanted to go back. But that state of mind always had some kind of appeal. In me, too, it became less and less frequent until it stopped.
        I never had depression though.

  6. onyomi says:

    I’ve been meditating 20ish minutes 2ish times a day for 10ish years. I would not claim to be “enlightened,” but I’ve definitely had what you might call “insights” or subtle “shifts” in awareness over time. So, on that score, I agree with the rejection of the “you don’t need to do anything” school of thought.

    However, I also have a theory of why they exist: every time I’ve become, for lack of a better word, a little more “enlightened,” it’s always felt like things were becoming simpler and more mundane, not more exotic and magical. But simple and mundane in a good way that makes the mundane seem more magical? That may be the hard part of advertising it: “hey, do this and you’ll have amazing experiences!” is readily intelligible; “do this and you’ll realize that your regular life was already amazing!” is a little less so. So some spiritual teachers, because of the “everything seems easy once you’ve achieved it” effect and/or in an effort to get you to stop chasing exotic, drug-type experiences, say “you don’t need to do anything! Just relax and realize you are already enlightened!” Which may be the right advice for someone chasing too hard after exotic experiences but may be the wrong advice for someone lacking motivation to meditate in the first place.

    The best way I can describe it myself is “you can hear yourself” think. You know how people say “quiet down, I can’t hear myself think!”? Well, the more you meditate the more you realize how much background “noise” is going on in your head all the time; the more aware you become of it, the quieter it becomes. This lets you feel like you can think more “clearly,” but only because there’s less noise. Another comparison might be if you spend a long time in a really noisy city such that you lose all awareness of the car honks, etc. Then you go for a hike in the mountains and suddenly the quiet feels tangible. Not only that, it’s only then you realize how much noise you had grown accustomed to. Yet it’s also not as if you had no concept of “silence” while you were living in the city; you just didn’t realize how removed from the “natural” state of silence your daily life was until you experienced it. It’s only magical or exotic in the same way hearing a gentle bird chirp against a background of silence is magical when you’ve grown accustomed to the constant din of city noise.

    I mostly disagree with the idea of trying to “stage” enlightenment. In almost all cases I don’t find it accurate or helpful. Experiences vary way too much and unless this person has personally, closely guided hundreds+ of meditators through decades of regular practice, I don’t put much stock in his opinion, which is probably just the result of comparing his own experience to various spiritual texts and/or the reported experiences of a few famous meditators. All you can really say is that any meditation practice, like any life, will have a lot of ups and downs. Gradually gets smoother and better as you go along, but not at all in a linear way. Ideas like “the dark night of the soul” might be helpful to someone currently going through a low period, but ultimately they are just another story you can tell which may or may not be applicable or helpful depending on the individual.

    • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

      Hm. I remember that at some point I tried to suppress the noise-in-the-thoughts by getting aware of it and discarding what I got aware of. This state was probably a bit more efficient for doing non-creative mental work; but it also felt quite bad. Is there any reason to believe that meditation concept of mental silence would not be in the same direction?

      • onyomi says:

        It is extremely hard for me to compare my subjective experiences to yours or anyone else’s; all I can say is that the “inner silence” I am talking about is pleasant for me and does not feel at all like “suppressing” thoughts. It feels more like realizing you have been tapping your foot furiously for the past several minutes and couldn’t figure out why your leg was so tired. Once you’re aware of what you’ve been doing, there’s no effort involved in stopping.

        Generally, the idea of suppressing thoughts or “trying not to think” plays no part in my meditation practice. Rather, it’s more like you gradually start to feel “separate” from your thoughts. Thoughts “happen,” but they are not “you.” You can’t really control whether or not they come up, and I’m not even sure you’d want to, since most thoughts, I think, are ultimately about processing experiences and wrestling with ideas; however, I think the feeling of being “separate” from the thoughts makes it easier to actively decide whether or not you want to “feed” a particular train of thought by focusing on it.

        • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

          Thanks for the explanation.

          Actually, realizing I have been tapping my foot for a few minutes does not always per se lead me to stop. That works even less for thoughts, of course.

          Discarding some thoughts together with the experience they are trying to process is how I learned (maybe even had to learn — nothing too bad, just a couple of vivid unpleasant mental images from news became annoying for my middle-school self and tried to become recurring) to suppress thoughts in the first place.

          Thanks for the part about separating «self» from thoughts — some of the unpleasantness of the high-focus manual-resource-allocation state was partially linked to the fact that in that state I continue to identify myself (as usual) with some parts of my concious thinking process, and over-focusing felt like it had to go too far and change parts of «self» to get anywhere in terms of efficiency. (And if it doesn’t go that far, then it basically does nothing)

          Now I can proceed to just failing to understand why trying to get a notion of self separate from the threads of conciousness that are my self is something to desire — probably here lies a difference in subjective experiences; oh well, there have to be people who do not feel the ground is on fire…

          • Vamair says:

            Thing is, while I’m quite ignorant when it comes to philosophy, there was that idea that sentience has something to do with perceiving your own mental state and impulses instead of just following them reflexively. And at least some basic meditation techniques seem to be training that part of the mind. I’m not sure that’s good, but if we value sentience, it may be worth looking into.

          • onyomi says:

            I support the gom jabbar as a prerequisite for voting, at least.

          • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

            Hm, speaking of impulses, some of the core parts of self in my model are «control system», keeping track of impulses and reactions and whether something has to be done, and «stability control system» that evaluates trends in «control system» operations (and evaluates whether a forcible readjustment is needed). But these are long-lived threads of thoughts.

      • Yosarian2 says:

        When you meditate you’re not really trying to suppress anything consciously, but instead you’re shifting your focus to something else, like your breathing or a relaxation technique, and in the process other thoughts in your brain quiet down. Eventually you can reach that calm centered state even without meditating.

        Edit: this probably goes without saying, but this is just my subjective experience.

        • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

          Well, I initially used the word «discard» instead of «suppress». It is not as far from what you describe as could seem, but a bit more brute-force.

          You actually confirm my impression about meditation. When I try to translate the subjective feelings other people describe and match to the closest equivalent of my subjective feelings, the result is that I don’t want to go that way.

          The method I use for discarding thoughts is that I have a set of things I wish to think about, and things I do not want to think about. Every time I notice I am thinking about things in the blacklist I try to focus on something in the whitelist. The thought I am discarding gets starved of attention and disappears, if only temporarily. If there is a persistent blacklist, this soon becomes a mind-reflex, and then the blacklisted thoughts stop getting any reinforcement and resurface only rarely.

          I did it both for suppressing emotional-mental feedback loops and for tabooing clingy vocabluaries (to prevent a freshly-read book to overwrite too much of my mental model at once). It is cheap and it works. Deciding to untaboo some words after they stop being a universal explanation also works fine.

          Once I tried to define the temporary blacklist as «everything not in the very short whitelist», i.e. to use the discarding-annoyance technique for focus. It definitely works in some sense; I easily reached the state of focus, and when I did some mindless manual task, the state was quite quiet, with all substantial thoughts dying down. Both this state and the slightly-modified focus-on-mental task state were efficient but uncomfortable.

          I think they were uncomfortable both in «want» and «like» senses, although my memory may be playing some tricks here. So now I expect that if I try meditation, I will end up in a state similar enough to that, and be miserable. There is a quote in one comment «Being in a highly concentrated state is intrinsically pleasant» — well, the mileage varies.

          The only thing people report from meditation that I both lack and want is the ability to deconstruct physical pain and tune the level of its perception. That would be nice; I have very limited range of doing that and I hope I won’t have an opportunity to practice it in the near future, but maybe some meditation texts contain techniques about tuning pain that can be extracted and used without the rest.

          • Yosarian2 says:

            Hmm. I still think that’s very different from mediation. You’re not really blacklisting any thoughts, or trying to stop yourself from thinking about anything; it’s more a pleasant side-effect of something else.

            It’s more like, have you ever been so engrossed in a game or a book or an interesting task that you just stop thinking about anything else, what they call a “flow” state? Not because you’re trying to focus or trying to suppress other thoughts, but just because you are so focused on one really interesting thing that it just happens? It’s usually a very pleasant experience, at least for most people.

          • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

            Well, a lot of descriptions I see is «you try to concentrate on your [breathing/sensations] until you concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else»; what I do is different because it starts from the pragmatic side, but I am not sure I can easily learn a different enough way of doing the same «concentrate to the exclusion of everything else».

            Flow… flow needs a high enough throughput.

            I am not sure I remember being in flow because of a game. With the book I generally reach the state where I divide attention between locally processing the text, optimising the eye movements over the less dense parts (usually there are a lot) and some background processing, in the best case it is mostly about the global structure of text. With the task… to drown out _most_ of the background thoughts it should be simultaneously complex and interesting. And that level of «interesting» generally clusters in areas around math for me.

            None of the tasks I was concentrating on when I tried to experiment with over-focussing was enough for flow (if they were, I wouldn’t need to do anything to concentrate on them on top of just starting doing them); and I expect that extracting enough interesting information from breathing will not be too succesful in my case.

  7. m.alex.matt says:

    It might not be an awful idea to pick up the Gita or a collection of the Upanishads (providing you can find a sufficiently well done translation, perhaps one with knowledgable commentary). The disagreements between the Hindu traditions and Buddhism can feel…esoteric if you’re not actually a practicing theological Buddhist or Hindu. The broader practices of meditation are similar enough and the overall, non-theological goals are close enough, that sticking inside the Buddhist box is going to cut you off from a huge section of that entire tradition of Indian meditative practice.

    I don’t meditate often anymore, but I used to and that was when I was reading my copies of Eknath Easwaran’s translations of the Gita, an Upanishads collection, and the Dhammapada constantly. It’s made a lasting difference in my life, despite not really doing it anymore. I’m a better, more focused, more analytic person for it.

  8. Bugmaster says:

    Ok, this all sounds really amazing. However, were I to meet the author, I’d ask him the same question I ask any other proponents of altered states of consciousness: “is any of this stuff actually real, or is it all in your head ?” I know, I know, Buddhists might answer that there’s no distinction between the two, and that realizing this is the path to true enlightenment, etc. But what I mean to ask is, do people who have achieved a higher state of consciousness using this technique perform consistently better at any measurable real-world tasks than the unenlightened ones ? Or do they merely feel like their performance has improved ?

    Once again, you could say, “your feeling about your performance and your actual performance are one”, or something, but “meditation will make you feel really good” is a vastly different statement from “meditation gives you super-powers” (even if they are reasonably mild super-powers, nothing as good as flying around and zapping people with your third eye).

    The article is pretty light as far as actionable predictions are concerned, except maybe for this one:

    But the main point of samatha meditation is to improve your concentration ability so you can direct it to ordinary experience. Become so good at concentrating that you can attain various jhanas – but then, instead of focusing on infinite bliss or whatever other cool things you can do with your new talent, look at a wall or listen to the breeze or just try to understand the experience of existing in time.

    So, once a person has achieved enlightenment, does he get measurably better at pattern recognition, and perception in general ? For example, can he solve a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle 2x faster than before ? Can he do it 1.5x faster than a regular unenlightened person who spends a month or so training on Where’s Waldo puzzles ?

    • semanticlattice says:

      Off the top of my head, I’d propose a few measurable meditative sub-skills are: sensory clarity, ability to concentrate, ability to let go of an object of fixation, reactiveness. These are factors that may be indirectly measured by the lack of various neuroses. Or perhaps reflex tests? I think it’s possible to design more direct tests for all of these – ask a person to call up an emotionally potent memory, spend time ruminating on it, and then ask them to shift to a performance task.

      • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

        Hm, and then there could be a direct brute-force direct training for unloading fixations. I mean, I think I have stumbled upon it just by guessing a technique; seems useful from time to time.

    • rsaarelm says:

      From the old LW thread about meditation:

      anecdote: David Ingram (who claims to be enlightened) came to a cogsci lab at my school, and was able to perceive some normally-imperceptible “subliminal” visual stimuli (i.e. X milliseconds long flash or whatever). I heard it from a friend who administered the test, I don’t have the raw data or an article, grains of salt and all that.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Awesome, so is there any evidence to suggest that this correlation (between self-reported enlightenment and minimum perceptible flash duration) exists for anyone besides (allegedly) David Ingram ? Of course, we’d have to do “before and after” tests in order to prove causation, but even correlation would be a good start…

    • zorbathut says:

      Even if it turns out an enlightened person can beat a Where’s Waldo puzzle at only the same speed as someone who’s spent a month training on Where’s Waldo puzzles, this sounds incredibly valuable. If it’s basically a free month’s training at everything, that’s incredible; if you can then layer actual training on top of that, it may effectively increase your skill floor for every human skill imaginable.

      (Obviously we’re inventing these numbers out of nowhere, I’m just saying to be respectful of across-the-board skill improvements.)

      • Bugmaster says:

        I agree that this would indeed be incredible. In both senses of the word.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        What I’d like to see are longitudinal cortisol-sampling studies.
        This e-book linked from r/streamentry talks about how “all stress comes to an end”, and something like that should be chemically observable.

      • millericksamuel says:

        The obvious problem with this is if it was true you would expect Buddhist individuals and even countries to surpass others. This does not seem to be the case in any easy to confirm area.

        • Nornagest says:

          Buddhism as practiced in the West is much less “theistic”, for lack of a better term, and places much more emphasis on esoteric practice than what most lay Buddhists in historically Buddhist countries would be familiar with. Folk Buddhism is like folk religion everywhere.

          And there are some fairly obvious selection-bias issues when you’re looking at individual Western Buddhists, although you could probably work around that with the right data.

        • aNeopuritan says:

          If the Buddhists practiced any of that.

          https://vividness.live/2011/06/24/protestant-buddhism/

          Non-monks meditating, or seeking enlightenment, wasn’t even in the list of initial objectives; a bunch of things that *were* got dropped along the way from the Pali Canon to shortly-before-now.

          • Do we know the initial objectives? A practice that has been going on for a thousand years is over a thousand years after the initial teachings.

          • aNeopuritan says:

            The Pali Canon exists. And the aim there is *for monks* to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, as recommended by the Fourth Noble Truth, to put an end to bummers. The lay community … supports the monks.

      • Gerry Quinn says:

        He realises the unimportance of “Where’s Waldo” puzzles.

    • poignardazur says:

      “is any of this stuff actually real, or is it all in your head ?”

      [Insert Harry Potter reference here]

      Yeah, that’s usually the question. Actually, you nailed exactly what I wanted to ask. Sometimes when I’m presented with meditation and associated stuff, I feel the same way as when I’m coding and someone talks about their favorite design pattern; “Does this actually make you more effective, does it make you notice your effectiveness better?”

      It’s not a trivial question; when you’ve spent 10 years of your life studying the Necronomicon, sunk cost reasoning might have you rationalize how you got “sharper thinking” out of it, when all you got is “things taste like crap now” and “you can hear fish talk into your mind”.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I would argue that there’s even a third option: “It makes you think you’re being more effective than you actually are”. Meditation is not unique in this regard; there’s a wide variety of chemical substances — such as alcohol — that can accomplish something similar.

        Of course, meditation does not create a chemical dependency, and thus it might be superior to many drugs if even if it is used purely for recreational purposes.

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      When I meditate regularly I become more able to notice when I’m being an ass and then stop that. I am not sure whether this would generalize to non-borderlines.

      • poignardazur says:

        Is it actual evidence, though? I mean, I guess you know what you’re talking about, but maybe you just notice the fact that you notice that you’re an ass?

        Did you have people who didn’t know you were meditating independently notice that you’d become less irritating after you started?

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          I’m borderline so “being an ass” is a euphemism for “smashing my possessions and threatening to kill myself.” It’s generally fairly obvious.

          • poignardazur says:

            Ah. Yeah, I was thinking more “Being super passive-aggressive and snapping at people all the time”, where there’s more room for doubt.

      • eggsyntax says:

        I have no reason to believe I’m borderline (and don’t seem to fit the criteria), but this has definitely been true for me as well. And translates into specific behavior improvements — it’s easier to process anger or annoyance in my head, and then choose the appropriate reaction, rather than immediately reacting to it and saying or doing something I later regret.

        Charlotte “Joko” Beck talks about this in her excellent book Everyday Zen. It’s not that you don’t have negative emotional reactions, you’re just less prone to act on them without thinking.

    • yli says:

      If the author is right, getting advanced enough in concentration meditation gives you literal psychic powers.

      On the other hand, it does seem to be possible through powerful intent, strong concentration ability, appreciation of interdependence and careful experimentation to manipulate what we might call “this world”, as well as those in it, in very unusual and profound ways. Yes, I am referring to such things as telekinesis, mind control, reading other peoples thoughts, pyromancy, and all of that. The more you get your concentration and insight trips together and the more you look into the magical aspect of things, the more you will learn about what I will call the magical laws of the universe and how to use your will to manipulate it.

      However, if you don’t have your morality trip really together, and perhaps even if you do, I would be quite cautious about formally and consciously tapping into that sort of power. It is absolutely vital to remember that you will reap what you sow and that like leads to like when considering the formal use of such power. Kind intention is absolutely essential, but even this is often not enough to keep us from screwing up when we give into the temptation to formally manipulate the world in unusual ways. Power corrupts, as the old adage goes.

      (From chapter 21, section 5)

      Big if true. I wish Scott had pushed harder on this point in the review. Do we actually live in a world where psychic powers are real? If so, is it because we’re living in a weird simulation or something? If not, what makes intelligent people like Ingram go crazy enough to believe that this stuff is real? (In an earlier book review, Scott noted that taking psychedelics is another thing that can make intelligent people believe seemingly crazy and false things.)

      Also, if psychic powers are real, I want to know why someone hasn’t gone and won Randi’s million dollar prize and posted unexplainable videos of real psychic powers on youtube. Sure, maybe this would be considered an unwise or “unskillful” use of the powers or something, but the book itself warns that the powers can be misused by unscrupulous practitioners. So why hasn’t some experienced meditator that wants huge fame and glory gone and proven to the whole world that psychic powers are real? (I’d guess that some have tried, but then they find that they can somehow never quite control their powers consistently enough to get repeatable results that would convince skeptical observers.)

      • eggsyntax says:

        I want to know why someone hasn’t gone and won Randi’s million dollar prize

        This exact question made me abandon, painfully and reluctantly, my believe in psychic abilities. I’ve heard people argue that in general, people who have those abilities are too wise or unworldly to care about fame or money, but: really, no one with psychic abilities wants a million dollars to give to charity? It’s just not very plausible.

      • yli says:

        Also: “Why would you want to do any of this?” – The promise is that by following some specific instructions, you will reliably end up in a state where either 1) you have actual psychic powers, or 2) you have severe hallucinations and delusions about having them even though you dont, and your thinking abilities have become sufficiently distorted that you can’t notice this, even though you’ll still be generally very smart and able to write books and stuff. Some people would sign up for that.

      • Dedicating Ruckus says:

        > Also, if psychic powers are real, I want to know why someone hasn’t gone and won Randi’s million dollar prize and posted unexplainable videos of real psychic powers on youtube.

        Brace for absolute crackpottery ahead, but…

        I’ve for some time believed in a background sense that these kinds of supernatural phenomena exist, but the universe is in some sense ordered against our coming to (widely) believe or understand them. The reason this sounds preposterous is because it violates our general metaphysical understanding of the universe’s nature, but if we’re postulating supernatural phenomena anyway, we’ve already done that.

        One data point here is in Fourmilab’s retropsychokinesis experiments. (Short version: experimenters try to influence the output of a hardware RNG by thinking at it. This works, to the degree that it works, equally whether the RNG is running in real-time, or whether the experimental apparatus is reading bits that were generated and saved earlier.) He has the consistent result that, for a given experimenter, at first they show highly significant results, adding bias to a notionally balanced RNG to the five or six sigma level; then, for that experimenter only, the ability fades, and further test runs show expected results again. (This was precisely my experience, several years ago. I tried it again recently and didn’t get anything; apparently I’ve played out my hypothetical psychokinetic power over atmospheric radio noise.)

        For extra crackpottery, you could tie it into Christian theology, and note that notionally the Devil has power over such things (when not explicitly derived from prayer), and for the moment it better suits his purposes that we be materialists than magicians.

        • James Banks says:

          I’ve thought similar things. Maybe God and Satan negotiate over how things work in the world, and God gets concessions out of Satan for putting up with materialism (on top of the potential benefit of, no open magicians). Or, like in Job, there’s some kind of contest, in this case to see how humans will behave under materialism, with the payoff for God and Satan being the demoralizing of the other. I think both parties would be involved in any hiding of supernatural phenomena, since intercessory prayer is also unproved scientifically.

          • toastengineer says:

            Maybe it’s just Uriel from Unsong saying “Oʜ ᴄʀᴀᴘ” and deleting the experimenter’s soul before he figures out that reality really doesn’t run on math. 😛

        • FeepingCreature says:

          Isn’t that just called “regression to the mean”?

          • Dedicating Ruckus says:

            Five sigmas out the first three times you try it, followed by staying within two sigmas thereafter, certainly isn’t a normal regression to the mean. (Five sigmas out in the direction that I chose, nonetheless, whereas after it would be one or the other at random.)

            As I said, crackpottery, and I don’t particularly expect anyone else to be convinced by it. But…

        • acrimonymous says:

          Actually, if all true, that is rather interesting. I study aikido, and it often happens that after a technique is demonstrated, the first time you attempt it, it works, but after that, further attempts don’t work until you put a lot of training behind it. Forcing something sometimes impedes what actually needs to be done. The first time, you just do something natural, it works (“wow!”), then you try to re-create what you think you did to be successful by using this or that muscle/angle/direction, and it fails. After that, you have to train a lot to figure out what you actually did naturally the first time.

          Of course, the big difference between aikido and psychic powers is that there are aikido instructors who can reliably do the techniques, so we know it’s not BS.

      • Bugmaster says:

        This is an extraordinary claim, and, as such, it has greatly diminished my confidence in all of the other claims that Ingram makes. Even the ordinary ones. Naturally, I will revise my estimates upwards when I see Ingram flying around and zapping people with his third eye.

        • poignardazur says:

          Same here.

          I mean, I could have sort of believed him if he’d just said “you might get superpowers after some time”, but then he goes on to say that those superpowers might corrupt you, and that this has he fact happened before… I’m sorry, shouldn’t there be high-profile corrupted warlords / dictators / coke-addicted stage magicians running around using their superpowers for evil then?

          IF THIS IS ALL TRUE THEN WHY AREN’T WE LIVING IN AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER ALREADY?

          Although he then goes on to describe in more details what form this “corruption” can take place, and it seems less like “going evil” and more like “actually acting like you believe you have superpowers”.

          Honestly, I got a strong “Having an invisible dragon in your garage is neat, but don’t go around touching it, throwing flour at it, or trying things that wouldn’t work without an actual dragon, or might otherwise disprove its existence in any way”.

          Which all makes me give more weight to the “Actually this is all sampling bias and reverse causation and you imagining things” theory.

      • jplewicke says:

        I’ve been meditating a ton ever since reading MCTB in February, and think I hit stream entry about a month ago. I haven’t hit any of the “powers” territory yet myself, but I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction between objective skepticism / scientific materialism and a highly skilled meditator having a subjective phenomenological experience of having psychic powers. When you have enough concentration to actually break down everything you experience into transient sensations, is it surprising that you can also radically change your perception of stuff? This could also be related to Scott’s earlier posts on Surfing Uncertainty — maybe advanced meditators can learn to consciously shift the top-level priors in the same way that dreams do, so that they can consciously choose to experience themselves levitating and the bottom-level sensory layers will confabulate all the details to support it.

        I think this is also an area where aliefs and beliefs can differ. I currently neither believe nor alieve in psychic powers, but I expect at some point that if I meditate enoug I will start to alieve in them due to starting to experience them as viscerally real, even though I expect I’ll continue to believe that they’re all in my head. Some of the crazier anecdotes about the powers are from communities which were filled with advanced meditators who all had a somewhat malleable relationship to reality.

      • If you require that supernatural powers are

        1) self initiated..

        1) reliably , mechanically repeatable

        2 ) easily learnt and transmitted

        3) independent of values , intentions, etc

        …you won’t see much evidence of them….but what you would be looking for is pretty much an alternative set of natural laws. Negating some or all of 1 to 4 would give you something much more radical , and harder to test conventionally.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Taking the points in order:

          “1). self initiated” — I’m not sure what this means.

          “2). reliably, mechanically repeatable” — Not necessarily; anything statistically significant would work. On the other hand, if your powers are totally indistinguishable from chance, what’s the point ? To use an example, imagine that I claim to have powers that allow me to predict the roll of a 6-sided die. If my powers work about 1 out of 6 times (on average), then I am no different from any unenlightened person who’s just guessing. Naturally, 6/6 would be amazing; however, 4/6 would be almost as good; good enough to cause a scientific revolution.

          “3). easily learnt and transmitted” — Not at all necessary. It took me years to learn even a relatively mundane skill such as computer programming; why should psychic powers be easier ?

          “4). independent of values , intentions, etc.” — Not sure what this means. Are you saying something like “the psychic powers can only be used for good” ? I’ve got no problem with that; if you can e.g. heal people by will alone, by all means go ahead and do it. If you can outperform conventional doctors every time, everyone wins !

          • I am not saying that anything definitely exists, I am saying rationalists are thinking in a box.

            A world where supernatural powers can only be used for good would look like a world where people get lucky breaks, make unexpected recoveries from illness and so on. In other words , like the world. That fact doesn’t prove anything, but that works both ways, it doesnt disprove anything either.

          • Bugmaster says:

            In our current world, good people do get lucky breaks sometimes. So do bad people. A perfectly good person can get randomly hit by a bus, and so can a bad person. It sucks, but there’s not much you can do about that, other than design safer buses.

            You say that “rationalists are thinking in a box”, and maybe that’s true; I don’t consider myself a Rationalist ™, so it’s hard for me to say. However, I find it really difficult to care about a special power or supernatural entity whose actions are literally indistinguishable from chance. Sure, I admit, it could totally exist — but what would be the point ? If I keep flipping that fair coin, and my psychic powers allow me to guess the result about 50% of the time… what difference have they made ?

    • moridinamael says:

      The boring, obvious answer is that a high-level meditator can and will spend several hours with their attention fixed on a super-boring stimulus like the breath. And actually enjoy it. This is something that I would say a non-meditator cannot do. I mean, just try it – you’ll go nuts. It may not be psychic powers, but it’s an observable accomplishment.

    • formid0 says:

      A Buddhist monk lit himself on fire and died without moving a muscle. That’s pretty strong evidence you can get something from meditating. That’s essentially a super power. And I don’t think “well, you can take a drug and get that too” dismisses the fact. Some drugs give you super powers. MDMA gives me the super power of extraversion and fearlessness, true super powers for me.

      Moreover, I’m not really sure there’s a drug that you can take that allows you to have your full normal cognitive faculties and sensations but also allows you to burn yourself to death. That’s pretty darn impressive.

    • sconn says:

      There are some well-supported benefits to meditation — humdrum stuff like “less stress.” http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx I’ve heard it increases gray matter in the brain. All the studies tend to be done on ordinary people who take up meditating for 10 minutes a day, not gurus spending hours on it, so it’s unsurprising that none of the freakier stuff has been verified.

      Anyway, I have taken it up in a half-assed sort of way, a few minutes a day, and it did seem to have some benefits. Namely, it lightened my depression, made it easier for me to control my temper, and (when I did it during childbirth) seemed to reduce my pain — well, maybe not the pain, but the upset feelings that go with pain. Instead of thinking ‘oh no, this really hurts, it’s going to get worse, it’s going to go on forever” I was able to only experience the actual pain of that exact moment. Not too shabby, compared to my previous experiences (I’ve given birth four times).

      A bit of meditation here and there helps you be more aware of your thought processes as they’re happening, notice time passing so you remember to enjoy experiences you’re having, and turn off stressful thoughts. I don’t find it enjoyable; it’s like crunches or brushing your teeth, but I do think it has some benefits. That said, I have zero interest in going through all these stages and attaining enlightenment. I can’t figure out what is so desirable about it. Even if it made me blissful all the time … would that make me a more, or less, ethical person? I think a bit of discontent drives us to achieve things and make the world a better place.

  9. Thecommexokid says:

    I think your old chestnut “Generalizing from One Example” is probably relevant here.

    • John Nerst says:

      I was thinking exactly that. This process seems incredibly(literally) specific: “first this happens, then this happens, then this other thing happens in exactly this way before the next thing happens, which is just like the first thing but different in exactly this way”.

      While I’m super interested in this stuff, I can’t get past the feeling that the author might be turning his own individual noisy process into some general pattern without much justification. I mean, these mental experiences are highly particular and can’t be described in words, and you have to work hard at doing some very specific things over long periods to achieve them – but at the same time lots of it can just happen to you without trying, in a dream or drug-induced haze? Seems odd.

      There’s always the risk of selection bias. If this, (like other things like exercise programs, diets or reading long difficult books) is different easy/hard and rewarding/unrewarding for different people, the idea that it works for everyone and and you just have to stick with it to get the same effect might be totally false.

      Is there any site where you can compare meditation practices and maybe pick one that’s likely to be beneficial for you, considering what kind of person you are? That’d be good.

      • poignardazur says:

        I think any kind of self-help advice, training program, enlightenment advice, etc, should come with a flashy, animated disclaimer about selection bias and typical mind fallacy.

      • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

        There obviously is a selection bias, because apparently some people consider reaching a quiet concentrated state without noisy thoughts (let’s also assume lack of physical discomfort) as something obviously comfortable. At least for me, this description fits some states that are definitely not pleasant or desirable (I haven’t come to them by meditation — but the process seems similar enough that I expect that I will fail at any kind of meditation by falling into such a state).

  10. alexei says:

    He also says – and here his usual lucidity deserted him and I ended up kind of confused – that once you’ve achieved stream entry, you’re going to be going down paths whether you like it or not – the “stream” metaphor is apt insofar as it suggests being borne along by a current. The rest of your life – even after you achieve complete perfect enlightenment – will be spent cycling through the fifteen stages, with each stage lasting a few days to months.

    One way I’ve heard that described is: “before stream entry you do dharma, and after stream entry dharma does you.” Before stream entry, if you stop you’ll slide back into the dark night. After stream entry, there is a permanent shift in your mind that will prevent you from sliding back. In fact, you will very slowly start sliding forward even without any practice.

    As a beginner, when you pay close attention to the three characteristics, you first get good at noticing one of them at a time. Just the suffering. Just the impermanence. Just the no-self. Then you need to get good at noticing pairs. Then you do all three. And when you master that, even just for one moment, you get A&P.

    I think what happens after stream entry is similar. You’ve mastered each stage individually. Now you need to master them in pairs. In triplets. Etc… That’s why the path system kind of breaks down at that point and Ingram uses an analogy to fractals. E.g. you can be on your third path in the Mind & Body stage, but within that stage you are on a different path in the Equanimity stage, etc…

    Also, dark night is not that bad after the stream entry. Not worse than just having a bad day (or may be a period) and sometimes not even noticeable.

  11. The second is called “unsatisfactoriness”, and involves the inability of any sensation to be fulfilling in some fundamental way.

    This is a significant component of my anhedonia. Do not recommend.

    Ingram’s theory is that many people have had spiritual experiences without deliberately pursuing a spiritual practice – whether this be from everyday life, or prayer, or drugs, or even things you do in dreams. Some of these people accidentally cross the A&P Event, reach the Dark Night Of The Soul, and – not even knowing that the way out is through meditation – get stuck there for years, having nothing but a vague spiritual yearning and sense that something’s not right. He says that this is his own origin story – he got stuck in the Dark Night after having an A&P Event in a dream at age 15, was low-grade depressed for most of his life, and only recovered once he studied enough Buddhism to realize what had happened to him and how he could meditate his way out

    Man, why the hell did I have to just skip right to the Dark Night Of The Soul without an A&P event, this is bullshit.

  12. Doug says:

    I mean this process is all well and good. But Vipassana doesn’t really sound that different than 150 mg of ketamine. And the latter doesn’t require a 1000+ hour commitment.

    Moreover, I think you’re kind of taking it for granted that these sensations indicate that we’re getting closer to the underlying machinery of the brain. Maybe, it’s just the opposite. Like pointing a camera at it’s own video output. Intuitively it seems like the feedback loop is penetrating something deep. But it’s actually just amplified noise, and has nothing to do with the inner working of the camera or the screen.

    Maybe “vibrations” really are the direct manifestation of individual of brain waves. Or maybe they’re the inner-though equivalent of optical illusions. It’s unlikely that brains are really meant to think about a very narrow subject so intently for so long. Look at X, decide quickly, act if needed, move on to Y, and so on.

    Thoughts probably get “wonky” because you’re pushing the system beyond the boundaries of what it’s designed to do. An example is semantic saturation, where just repeating the same word over and over again eventually makes it sound like nonsense. You’re not “going deeper”, you’re just forcing your brain to parse increasingly noisy input. The Buddhist equivalent of huffing paint.

    I support mindful meditation because it’s actually proven useful to strengthen concentration, focus and temperament. But beyond that, it’s unsubstantiated that other types of exotic meditation have any ancillary benefits beyond this. It’s certainly highly speculative that meditation can in any way allow for consciousness to get “closer to the metal” of the brain.

    • Eli says:

      An example is semantic saturation, where just repeating the same word over and over again eventually makes it sound like nonsense.

      Well the whole point is that it sounds like nonsense because it is nonsense. “House” doesn’t mean a house by virtue of innately meaning anything, but instead by virtue of statistically correlating with other people’s thinking about their own intuitive predictive models of houses and wanting you to pay attention to that house over there.

      If you just repeat the damned word over and over and over, that predictive value (that the word is being said by someone who wants you to think of a house) drops. The sound ceases to be a speech-act and becomes a mere sound like all other sounds, with no particular semantics.

    • moridinamael says:

      But it’s actually just amplified noise, and has nothing to do with the inner working of the camera or the screen.

      But it does, doesn’t it? If I show you a camera, and I show you a screen, and you move the camera around while looking at the screen, you get a sense of what’s going on. But if I then tell you to point the camera at the screen, you can infer things about the system that you didn’t know before.

      Likewise, the fact that an old TV shows “white noise” and plays an audio hiss when deprived of a meaningful signal is actually revelatory of how the TV works. A screen showing all black, or all white, or all blue would similarly reveal information you didn’t necessarily know just by watching the TV in normal operation.

      Flickering of phenomena in the mind my not be literally the perception of brainwaves, but it’s gonna indicate something about the brain.

  13. onyomi says:

    Regarding the seemingly perplexing “morality” side of the equation, I think it’s more than just “being a good person means you won’t be distracted when you’re meditating.”

    Rather, imagine there is this ideal end state called “optimally healthy mind-body with no lingering problems, neuroses, hangups, traumas, addictions etc. in a constant state of relaxed awareness and radiating a feeling of benevolence toward all creation.” That is just an ideal which no one may perfectly achieve in reality of course, but it’s kind of the end state toward which all spiritual practices are pulling you.

    Some spiritual practices, like fasting, are working more on the “gross” level of clearing out your body, others, like meditation, working more on the subtler level of the mind. But the mind and body are connected, of course, and if you get your body “cleaner” you will find your meditation going better, and if you meditate more you will find your ability and desire to get your body cleared out will increase. Doesn’t mean you can’t be a fat, out-of-shape enlightened guru eating a heavy diet and smoking all the time, just that as you progress in the other areas, that becomes increasingly unlikely. Similarly, being a nice person is something you’ll feel increasingly inclined to do the more practice you have meditating, etc. and, presumably, some people get more “enlightened” just by doing good works–“karma yoga.” You can come at it from many different directions and chose to focus on e.g. asanas over meditation or meditation over diet or charity work over breathing exercises, but they all kind of pull each other along for the ride to one degree or another.

    • Aapje says:

      Do people minimize their moral dissonance that causes distraction when they are maximally nice or when they are minimize the gap between their moral intuitions/beliefs and their behavior? Because the latter doesn’t necessarily result in maximally nice behavior, when a person’s moral intuitions/beliefs are not maximally nice.

      • onyomi says:

        Like I said, I don’t think it’s about minimizing distraction; I think it’s more about “acting as if.” If you meditate enough that you feel benevolent toward everyone all the time you will probably find yourself naturally wanting to do a lot of charity work, etc.

        Possibly, however, on the same theory where smiling even when you don’t feel happy makes you a little happier, or breathing as you would when relaxed even you don’t feel relaxed can help you relax, acting more as you would if you did feel omnibenevolent might get you closer to actually feeling that way even if you don’t.

        As for whether your beliefs about how such a person might act matter, I’m no karma yoga expert, but I would tend to guess not. Reason being the same as why one’s ideas about what constitutes a healthy diet do not affect whether or not a given diet is actually good for you.

  14. Toggle says:

    It’s a bit irregular, but I do meditate often enough that I trigger jhanas every now and then. Didn’t even know there was a name for them until now, but that’s definitely what they are. Not unlike being drugged, I suppose. Also not unlike that moment when your ear pops and suddenly sounds get a lot clearer, if it could happen to your whole brain.

    My first one was actually triggered by John Cage. It was a video in which he was delivering a monologue about sound and noise, overlain with loud crashing sounds- I think it was small-scale building demolitions, or collapsing construction equipment? (I couldn’t find this on YouTube, if anyone knows what I’m talking about and can help me find it again, that would be neighborly.) Thinking about noise vs. music vs. speech vs. meaning, all that stuff. But the video is long enough that I fell in to a meditation-adjacent space, and thwacked my way in to a jhana by accident. Spent the next two hours wandering around the engineering building just experiencing the sounds. Since then, none of them have been that sense-specific, usually it’s just broad-spectrum hyperawareness and omnibenevolence and a tendency to go for long walks.

  15. tentor says:

    The German translation linked from Ingram’s website is incomplete. A more complete (still not full) German translation of the book can be found on this page (along with other books on related topics): http://www.zeh-verlag.de/Download-400.html

  16. SuiJuris says:

    “Some Buddhists like to insist that Buddhism isn’t really a “religion”. It’s less like Christianity or Islam than it is like (for example) high intensity training at the gym – a highly regimented form of practice that improves certain faculties if pursued correctly.”

    Viewed from the inside, Christianity is also much more like this than outsiders probably realise. Very possibly Islam is more like that than it seems, too.

    Two caveats:

    1. I obviously don’t mean that it’s entirely like that, or that the content doesn’t matter, but it seems that the same is true of Buddhism.
    2. Western Protestantism is probably the variety of Christianity least like this. But Western Protestantism is much less typical of Christianity than modern western people (including me) would unexaminedly assume.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      Certainly the sufis would make that claim about Islam. About Western Christianity, Anglicanism and others have had their own meditation traditions:

      http://www.ecosophia.net/blogs-and-essays/the-well-of-galabes/foundations-of-magical-practice-meditation/ .

      Also, *cough*:

      https://vividness.live/2011/06/24/protestant-buddhism/ .

      • Mary says:

        On the other hand, mediation traditions in Christianity are a matter of vocation, not a fundamental requirement. Not everyone is called to the contemplative life.

        • aNeopuritan says:

          Which is *exactly the same* as with Islam, and Hinduism-and-Buddhism-until-Westerners-started-inventing-Protestantism-based-stuff.

          • Mary says:

            Not for Buddhism. The “Greater Vehicle” where you do yourself good by helping those who mediated instead of doing it yourself was a later development.

          • Seppo says:

            Mary, no, aNeopuritan is right. That’s not what the Greater Vehicle is. Unfortunately I can’t think of a good short summary of Buddhist history to link to, and I realize that my own word has all the authority of a random stranger on the Internet, but:

            The earlier “Lesser Vehicle” writings already describe a monastic order of full-time professional meditators, fed by a larger community of laypeople who receive spiritual “merit” as a result. Of those laypeople, some meditate but most don’t. The Buddha’s standard first instruction for interested non-monks is just “give to the poor”. It is expected that nearly every living thing will eventually attain enlightenment, but for most it will be in some future lifetime. This is still mostly how things work in Theravadin countries, though there are some modern movements that are enthusiastic about getting more people to meditate (Dan Ingram comes from one of them).

            The ancient Greater Vehicle movement called itself “Greater” not because it allowed for a greater number of people to get enlightened, but because (1) it introduced a slew of novel scriptures and ideas, many of which boil down to “we have an even more enlightened kind of enlightenment than you”, and (2) it changed the individual practitioner’s official goal from getting enlightened themselves to getting everyone in the universe enlightened.

    • SamChevre says:

      Yes. Not Protestantism, but the older forms of Christianity have a lot of traditions of meditation. (The most common is praying a Rosary– “repeat this short prayer over and over while contemplating something else” is a classic meditative technique.)

      Just within Catholicism, you have a Franciscan meditative practice in Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind to God, a Jesuit one in Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, and a Carmelite one in Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection.

      And aNeopuritan got there before me–I second the recommendation of the Well of Galabes article on meditation.

      • aNeopuritan says:

        Given that you read my comment, did you just call Anglicanism non-Protestant – “Anglo-Catholicism”, perhaps?

        • lambdaphagy says:

          Not sure how tongue in cheek that was, but for those keeping score at home, Anglicanism is easily the least Protestant branch of Protestantism. Or rather, due to the political hysteresis of the English Reformation, Anglicanism is really two religions: the high-church Anglo-Catholic branch which is practically medieval in its attitude towards ritual, and the low-church Evangelical branch which is hyper-Protestant. As such, Anglo-Catholicism retains a lot of ritual technology destroyed elsewhere in the Reformation: the confessional; the rosary; and even monasticism, which is a big Protestant no-no.

          Anyway, the low-church branch won out and is slowly driving the high-church types back to Rome, so the situation will become less confusing with time.

          • Deiseach says:

            Since I am practicing the habit of Extending Charity To Anglicans, I will not make any comments on this, not even to snicker up my sleeve at the Branch Theory.

            It is unfortunate, though, that the High Church strains in both Anglicanism and Episcopalianism can go a bit loopy and treat the history as an excuse for dressing up and collecting nice art while cherry-picking from within and outside Christianity to create bijoux liturgies. (We have our own scourges of this sort also within Catholicism, alas!)

        • SamChevre says:

          Yes. So far as I know, the Anglican meditative tradition is a subset of the Catholic meditative tradition.

          *Note that I attended a Reformed (PCA) church for several years, and an Episcopal church for several years, before converting to Catholicism: I think of Episcopal as more related to the Catholics than to the Reformed.

      • hlynkacg says:

        See also the Orthodox/Catholic conception of Vigil.

  17. Kaj Sotala says:

    Scott, is there a way that I can get you to review The Mind Illuminated? I can have a copy sent to you if you like and give me an address.

    I read MCTB at one time and liked it, but found it kinda unsatisfactory as well. TMI, however, offers both the best combination of practical meditation instructions and the best drawing-upon-cognitive-psychology theoretical framework for what’s actually supposed to happen in meditation and why you’d want to do it, that I’ve ever seen. (I haven’t gotten around writing a full review, but I gave a brief taste of some the stuff in the book in this post.)

    (Ingram also thinks that TMI is great; there’s this blurb from him there: “Essential reading for anyone interested in meditative development from any tradition. At once comprehensive and also very easy to read and follow in practice, this is the most thorough, straightforward, clear, and practical guide to training the mind that I have ever found. A remarkable achievement.”)

    • bzium says:

      It might be worth adding that TMI presents a more balanced samatha-vipassana approach to meditation rather than Ingram’s “hardcore” vipassana approach. I think the author of TMI says that the dark night is mostly avoidable.

    • fion says:

      I would also be very interested in reading a Scott-review of TMI.

    • moridinamael says:

      Another fan of TMI chiming in.

      Culadasa strikes me as a bit of a rationalist in terms of how he approaches things. The first “stage” of the practice, for example, is “you have to actually figure out concretely when you’re going to meditate, how you’re going to make yourself actually meditate, and be clear on why you’re doing it”.

  18. Jugemu says:

    Your mention of Surfing Uncertainty in this context makes me think of the concept of Nirvana. This is typically described as something like the absence of crude desire, or even oblivion, but perhaps it could be thought of as the absence of prediction error.

    (Disclaimer: not very well-informed on these topics.)

  19. siduri says:

    This was a great book review and I thank you for writing it. I don’t practice meditation, but I’ve done some study on kabbalistic tarot, and I definitely recognize parallels in the “spiritual path” as described here.

    As I am absolutely sure you know, at least in the Victorian-occultist-and-totally-appropriative version of kabbalah (which is all I know), there are multiple pathways one can take to climb the path to God/enlightenment/kether–but, they are pathways within a very narrow and constrained system, and NONE of them get to skip the Abyss. And then once you actually do get to kether, guess what, the whole Tree repeats itself on multiple planes, have fun starting over on Yetzirah.

    Anyway, if you (or anyone reading this) ever wants to hear about the athbash code and how it solves Crowley’s “Tzaddi is not the Star” thing, hit me up. I have this incredibly esoteric piece of deep Tarot nerd knowledge that was passed to me through a genuine goddamn chain of initiation and I’ve kind of been waiting to pass it on, but it basically requires someone who would A) recognize both “athbash” and “Tzaddi is not the Star” as *things*, and B) actually care, or else the whole story is boring and pointless as fuck from beginning to end.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      Appropriative from whom, the Gnostic Greeks? As for people that know enough to appreciate “athbash”, try taking a look at ecosophia.net , and possibly post about it in the next open thread.

    • Seppo says:

      OK, I have finally bothered to register here just so I can hear about your atbash/tzaddi theory. Go for it! 🙂

  20. AC Harper says:

    Does Epicureanism, the philosophy of happiness/contentment and the physics of vibrating ‘atoms’ (resulting in feelings and thoughts), share any historical link to Buddhist/Hindu thought? Did Epicurus meditate or did he experience ‘Arising and Passing Away’ spontaneously? Was he promoting the value of Equanimity rather than ‘happiness’?

    At least one enquiring mind would like to know.

  21. J Milne says:

    Can you expand on this:

    Ingram notes that every sensation vibrates in and out of consciousness at a rate of between five and forty vibrations per second, sometimes speeding up or slowing down depending on your mental state. I’m a pathetic meditator and about as far from enlightenment as anybody in this world, but with enough focus even I have been able to confirm this to be true.

    • dotctor says:

      Yes, I’d really appreciate that as well!

      I’m a pathetic meditator and about as far from enlightenment as anybody in this world, but with enough focus even I have been able to confirm this to be true.

      I have been meditating on and off for about 18 months now – making me a pathetic meditator as well 🙂 – but I’m not sure I’ve been anywhere close to feeling “between five and forty vibrations per second“…

      I’d be very curious to know what you meant by that.

      Also, this is my very first comment here, so I’ll take the opportunity to thank you Scott for your amazing essays as well as everyone else here for the equally amazing comment section. Until my second time!

    • batmanaod says:

      This part greatly confused me as well. How would you even begin to measure something like this to “confirm” it?

      • gardenofaleph says:

        Once you’re somewhat decent at meditating: how many sensations can you note per second?

        That’s basically the question: the answer, depending on how fast you can ‘note’, is around 5-40× a second.

        It’s not something you can precisely time but you can get a feel for it.

        • Richard Kennaway says:

          Once you’re somewhat decent at meditating: how many sensations can you note per second?

          Why is this any more interesting a thing to do than seeing how many paperclips you can count in a second?

          • gph says:

            I don’t think it’s meant to be interesting, it’s more like a fact. If you concentrate on a single task/stream like counting paperclips within a second you’ll get roughly the amount of sensations/vibrations in a second.

            But the purpose of meditation isn’t to keep a count per second of these vibrations. It’s to observe and realize they exist and to get closer in touch with their creation and impermanence and realizing all the fun stuff the various traditions attempt to illuminate for you.

        • sconn says:

          You can’t meditate while watching a clock, can you? Isn’t it possible that your time-sense is altered?

        • batmanaod says:

          I don’t understand how you’d measure discrete “sensations”, or even how such “sensations” would be defined. Are they sense-experiences from the outside world, a la the “counting paperclips” example? In that case, they’d depend on what’s going on in your environment. Or are they “sensations” arising from internal cognitive processes? If the latter, doesn’t “counting” itself involve rather complicated “sensations”?

          In addition, I agree with sconn’s comment: I don’t really understand how you could objectively time the “per second” aspect. Even if you could reliably time it, I don’t think I can even count to 40 in a single second.

  22. enye-word says:

    Unfortunately, “the stages look a lot like depression, mania, and other more arcane psychiatric and psychological problems” strongly suggests to me the hypothesis that “the teacher has depression, mania, and other more arcane psychiatric and psychological problems” and not much more.

    If it turns out that you can break down or build up your mental machinery using your mental machinery (via introspection), then that would be an interesting fact, but given that the author apparently just stumbled into this state before he ever latched on to Buddhism, I’m not really inclined to update away from “some people’s mental machinery is fucked and sometimes they latch on to concepts”.

    • onyomi says:

      My personal view is that meditation can “dig up” any sort of emotion or mental state that was already “lurking beneath the surface” so to speak, but cannot, on its own, create or induce anything that wasn’t already there in some way or another. Which is not to say it can make your existing mental problems worse (though I’m sure there are probably some bizarre-o meditation practices out there which might; I’m talking about the usual breathing, mantra, mindfulness, etc. stuff), though it might feel like that sometimes at first.

      If you have a tendency toward mania (as I do), it could also temporarily induce that, which you might take as a sign that the meditation is making you feel awesome and you are now entering enlightenment level 3.4, but really that’s just a “high” it’s dug up and should not be confused with the subtler, more gradual, but lasting benefits of meditation. It can “dig up” lows from time to time as well, most likely especially in those already prone to depression (as I am), but the fact a “low” came up also doesn’t mean you’re entering “meditation level 5.5: the dark night of the soul”; it means you dug up some bad feelings and they will eventually go away if you keep working through them.

    • poignardazur says:

      Man, causation-free correlation is no fun 🙁

    • aNeopuritan says:

      What I read from that is that he got fucked up by accident, but fucked himself *down* on purpose. Also, if it matters, DBT is based on CBT (which draws from Stoicism) and draws from Buddhism, and is said to be better than CBT for [problems more seen in women than in men].

  23. Peter says:

    The Buddha sounding a bit like an ER doc:

    It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.

    This was in response to a monk who was demanding answers on various metaphysical questions. Presumably this passage is much beloved of those who like to take the pragmatic ER doc “unenlightenment is the poisoned arrow, get rid of it stat” approach.

    • FeepingCreature says:

      Okay but you can make a predictable, statistic case that people with arrows in die sooner than people without arrows; else why remove it? That’s the question.

      If somebody comes to you and says “You have an invisible arrow stuck in you, if you remove it using my technique that requires years-long commitments, you’ll get more calm, more able to concentrate and also unlock your latent psychic powers” it’s sort of the least you can do to ask some follow-up questions.

  24. Erfeyah says:

    Well maybe it is worth pointing out that serious modern expositions of the wisdom tradition like the ones found in the books of Idries Shah are warning again and again that if you randomly follow exercises intended for different time, place and people, based on personal whim and without the preliminary preparatory stages, you will get a kind of self inflational delusion that you might call ‘enlightenment’.

    Here is one of the multitude of passages explaining one aspect of this situation:

    Nowadays, as always, people are anxious to obtain secrets and gain higher consciousness by short-cut methods. They hear of exercises and want to use them to get something done. This is so widespread, especially in the West, that anyone will try Yoga, people think that they can gain spiritual insights through meditation alone, and so on. So this joke, understood as a parable of such people’s foolishness, is not untimely:

    Lucky
    An oil-drilling millionaire went to a dentist, who said:
    “Which tooth do you want me to deal with?”
    “Oh”, said the tycoon, “drill away anywhere: I feel lucky today!”

    from Idries Shah’s “Special Illumination: The Sufi Use of Humour”

  25. enye-word says:

    Thanks to this blog, I now accidentally read “PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME” as “PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME”.

    I guess this is what enlightenment feels like.

  26. Krisztian says:

    Let me do some advertising for meditation (including vipassana).

    Just as background, I have been meditating for ~5 years and have been to three 7-10 day retreats. I’m by no means at stream entry, had never had the dark night, but definitely had the “mania” described above.

    While that “A&P Event” (your body & mind disintegrating into a whole bunch of sensations) may sound crazy for outsiders, it is actually a really positive experience. It’s like switching from grandma’s low-res 40 year old TV to a magnificent HD experience.

    So, here is my list of the benefits:

    1. Increased concentration. Being in a highly concentrated state is intrinsically pleasant. I would also conjecture that I can get more stuff done, although I don’t know if that has been tested beyond mere anecdote yet.

    2. Greater insight into experience. You’ll know what mediators are talking about. Without these experiences, you have no clue what for instance mystical poetry is referring to. esr’s comment above elaborated on this aspect.

    3. Greater sensory pleasures. Imagine sex where you only feel a kind of undifferentiated sense of wanting to fuck. Now imagine sex where you, moment by moment, experience each different kind of pleasure arising and passing away; feel the spread of the tingling up your spine, feel the changing contours of heat in your abdomen; feel your heart pulsing and blood pumping through your veins; etc. Which option would you choose?

    4. Diminished suffering. Paradoxically, while greater sensory clarity seems to enhance pleasures, it diminishes suffering. Yes, you will “see” the pain more clearly, in more detail. But this detail is actually taking the “bite” out if it. Imagine you hit your head, but instead of just feeling some sudden but undifferentiated pain, you feel: the first contact, then the sensation spreading, then the contour of the sensation changing, etc. You will see each part more clearly, but the “suffering” is gone.

    This aspect is even more true of emotional suffering. Instead of “we broke up with my girlfriend, I feel like shit”, it is “A couple of mental images of her just entered my mind, and passed away. I sense a contracting sensation in my stomach. My attention moves on from that to a heaviness in my head, and then I hear a mental voice in my head recasting our last conversation”. To a non-meditator the second may sound horrible, but it involves orders of magnitude less suffering than an undifferentiated “it sucks”.

    Number 4. can really make you feel invincible. Every experience is a chance to practice your attention-skills. Waiting at the post office — just focus on your senses. Emotional challenges — a great chance to get better! Physical pain — no problem, let’s break it up and turn it into a massage of tiny vibrations. Can’t fall asleep — another awesome possibility!

    And these benefits by no means require enlightenment, whatever that is. Haven’t been there yet, but the ROI is already quite high.

    • moridinamael says:

      I would just like to signal-boost this comment. There are probably ten comments downstream of this one that contain some form of “but what possible advantages could this have lol” and this comment here succinctly and convincingly addresses that specific skepticism.

    • rahien.din says:

      4. Diminished suffering. Paradoxically, while greater sensory clarity seems to enhance pleasures, it diminishes suffering. Yes, you will “see” the pain more clearly, in more detail. But this detail is actually taking the “bite” out if it.

      I can feel my genuine suffering much more acutely and recognize its source much more easily when I meditate.

      After a few months of meditating, I was working in my office one day and all of the sudden felt very, very sad. After some reflection, I realized that I was spending my time on things that weren’t making me happy or fulfilled, and were keeping me from people I loved. Mindfulness cut through the fog of distraction which had previously shielded me from painful experience. I actually suffered more, but it was correct suffering.

  27. rahien.din says:

    Wait just a second there.

    A guy comes along with following grandiose claim:

    Forget everything you’ve heard from those millions of Buddhists! I’m the one guy who knows how to get to enlightenment and here is the series of buttons on the dashboard you have to press to get out of the car and it turns out enlightenment looks exactly like undiagnosed bipolar disorder!

    Suuurrre, buddy. Let me see that book it only took you 36 hours to write.

    A competing conclusion is : mindfulness-based practices may be a useful adjunct in the treatment of mild bipolar disorder.

    • yogibeaty says:

      Certainly that has been my experience.

    • jplewicke says:

      For what it’s worth, these stages are absolutely not Daniel Ingram’s invention — they’re from the “Progress of Insight”, and are in Theravadin Buddhist meditation texts from the 5th century: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vipassan%C4%81-%C3%B1%C4%81%E1%B9%87a

      I know it seems a little crazy to claim that there’s a specific sequence of stuff that you’ll go through in a certain order, but it really does happen if you meditate enough ina certain manner. I’ve had weeks where I was ticking through the stages in sequence, including the parts Daniel Ingram mentions about changes in attentions capacity and some of the physical changes. I had no bipolar history prior to meditation.

      Daniel Ingram also has a very good discussion of the similarities between the stages and bipolar at https://www.dharmaoverground.org/es/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/105357?_19_threadView=flat .

      • rahien.din says:

        Thanks!

        This is my bookmark so that I can go back and read that discussion.

      • Johnny says:

        No, actually the stages are 100% Ingram’s invention. Having read the Progress of Insight, the so-called “stages” are described with one sentence each in a dramatically simpler version not in any way related to the complex and laborous descriptions Ingram has used. E.g. the arising and passing stage is simply the stage at which the meditator is aware of each sensation (e.g. sound) appearing and disappearing from their consciousness.

        Everything else is made up by Ingram and not supported by any other buddhist texts, either traditional or contemporary.

        Traditional buddhist texts also do not say anything about any sort of vibrations.

  28. andenyalaa says:

    In terms of relationships between MCTB and Surfing Uncertainty predictive processing models, I wonder if “nimitta” visual effects of concentration practice may of of relevance and provide a mechanism for testing hypotheses about this.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3879457/

    They seem ubiquitous to meditation practice appear to be mediated by expectations to some extent. I get a general visual field brightening, like a light shining on my eyelids which is a reasonably reliable symptom of deeper concentration states.

    • Fractalotl says:

      Interesting link! I haven’t had a very consistent meditation practice, but when I do meditate, I generally get a kind of closed-eye screensaver of diffuse blue crescent-ish shapes. Each takes a couple seconds to move from the edge of my visual field in towards the center and gets smaller as it goes further in, then another one comes from the other side.

      • andenyalaa says:

        It would be interesting to determine the degree to which these are mediated by expectations and meditative training.

        I’m not very visually oriented, so I don’t generally pay much attention, but there is generally a lot pulsing, sweeping images. Those calm down as I do andI get visual field brightening after that I think.

        I should pay more attention these…

  29. John Schilling says:

    It seems like the wise move would be to buy a copy of this book and lock it in a case labeled, “In the event of accidental Dark Night, break glass”.

  30. Worley says:

    The two books you mention could intersect in that becoming enlightened might mess up reflexively acting based on Bayesian analysis of the sense-stream … and that would be maladaptive.

    All of this is great, but I must object that “of” and “the” in titles are not capitalized except when they are initial or final.

  31. coyotespike says:

    MTCTB is a great book, but I don’t really recommend people start there. Ingram is so technical, he doesn’t really explain why any of this stuff might help. Instead, I recommend starting with two other books.

    1. Culadasa’s “The Mind Illluminated,” despite the somewhat hokey title, is a wonderfully lucid and practical step-by-step manual, relying on neuroscience throughout. That is, it doesn’t go into neuroanatomy, but develops an increasingly sophisticated model of the brain and mind and what you do during meditation.

    2. For the more technically inclined, Shinzen Young’s “The Science of Enlightenment” is a uniquely systematic approach. Read it for his own categorization of the various meditative traditions – he adopts from all of them, was ordained in the Japanese tantric tradition and has done a lot of zen but now mainly teaches in the insight tradition. His life ambition is to come up with a neuroscience-meditation hybrid that can bring meditation to the masses, and he uses many mathematical metaphors (no, no “quantum” bunkum!).

    Both agree with Ingram and the Buddha that you can get enlightened in 7-10 years. Another fascinating person I follow on Twitter, Vinay Gupta, compares the amount of work to a Ph.D.

    Culadasa does not believe the Dark Night of the Soul is inevitable. Here is, as well as I can put it, what happens.

    In Culadasa’s model, your mind is a collection of submodules. Consciousness – your sense of self – is like the conference table around which all these submodules sit and speak. Different modules speak, and all along we go “I feel this, I think that.”

    As you get better at meditation, you discern all these submodules more and more clearly. You see that thoughts come and go on their own. This has a lot of benefits, because you can get more skilled at handling yourself and at updating in new situations and at experiencing emotions and life deeply and clearly (which has other benefits besides the obvious).

    Your sense of ego also shrinks, because you start to see that the “I” is made up of more-or-less unconscious modules.
    If this happens quite suddenly, you can get depressed and enter a Dark Night of the Soul.

    But, it doesn’t need to be traumatic and usually is not. Most students progress to enlightenment gradually and without any weird phenomena. To lessen the chances of a traumatic encounter, you can practice the kindness meditations.

    Finally, neither Shinzen nor Culadasa say that you’re going to go around for the rest of your life in some sort of manic-depressive alternating state. Instead, you’ll get to the point where this great state of clarity, supercharged awareness, deep experience almost maintains itself.

    • poignardazur says:

      Do either of them make any kind of objective predictions, on otherwise observable claims? Because if not, I’m a bit ticked off by their use of the word “Science”. Using scientific literature to make your personal world-view more appealing to other people is the oldest trick in the book.

      • coyotespike says:

        Yeah, I was concerned my use of that word would come across kind of hand-wavy.

        I think they’re doing legit science-y stuff in two ways.

        One, they’re really making an effort to explain what’s happening in meditation in terms of useful models. Their descriptions are pretty detailed, and jive with stuff I’ve read elsewhere. That doesn’t count as a prediction, except in the broad sense of “if you do these practices, after about this amount of time, you’ll observe more or less these effects.” If we’re going for a falsificationist standard, then ahdunno, if the neuroscience models didn’t play well with the meditation practices, maybe we’d have a better chance of seeing those contradictions.

        Second, Shinzen at least consults with neuroscientists at Harvard, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, etc. I really don’t know what sorts of research are going on at the intersection of meditation and neuroscience, though he talks about it pretty frequently.

        • AtaraxJim says:

          I understand the frustration with hijacking the word “science” to describe what they’re doing. I read shinzen’s “science of enlightenment” recently and, while I found it interesting and the program he’s aiming at completely worth engaging in, there is, if we are being honest, precious little in the book that could be described as ‘science’ in the best sense.

          But I do wonder what sort of “observable” would count? I have done my share of meditation and I can say from my own experience that there are observable changes that occur as a result of practise, in so far as I have observed them personally, but which are quite unsuitable for external verification. A couple examples:

          – Thoughts really can be related-to differently. In my case, and I presume those of others approximately similar to me in psychology and mental architecture, thoughts in ‘baseline/ordinary’ are related to as coming from oneself and being very importantly part of oneself. But after enough time (and presumably luck) I have literally observed thoughts emerging from the recesses of the mind, quite unbidden, and then move along on their merry way, all without my Having anything to do with them. This is completely tangible in a very difficult to describe way – the best metaphor I can come up with is that this is like watching a movie, being completely engrossed in the plot line and losing even a sense of ones own body and then, suddenly, realizing that I’m not in Casablanca and there is no Humphrey bogart there, just some different qualities of light on a screen.

          – I also take it that most of us implicitly divide the world into physical type sensations (the five regular ones) and then there is thought which is half perceived and half directly known (since I am the one ‘thinking’ it). But after a while the mechanism broke and everything (including thought) was perceived. Moreover, mental stuff (thoughts, memories, etc) and physical stuff (tastes, smells, etc) were seen to be absolutely the same sort of thing: just percepts. To be clear, this is also hard to describe, but all sensory modalities were perceived as essentially the same underneath. An example: if you look at red, then green, then blue, each is a different experience, but there’s the underlying similarity of their modality, which is sight. Well, this was like that, but sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and all mental activity was perceived as subsets of some further modality that there is no word for in English, so far as I’m aware. But I think it might be the “one taste” one hears about.

          And these may sound like “duh” and maybe they are for some, but it was revelatory and categorically interesting and new for me. But these aren’t observables in any third-person way, even in principle. As for whether they have changed me, the best I can say is yes and no? I feel that I’m less reactive and more open than I was before those experiences, but could I just have grown up some? I don’t know, but I do know that I wouldn’t trade the time or the experiences for anything, for what it’s worth.

    • danielmingram says:

      I agree that, for beginners, The Mind Illuminated and the numerous works of Shinzen Young, as well as Mindfulness in Plain English and A Path with Heart, are better places to start. These contain great information that will be of value to practitioners at many levels, actually, so they are all worth reading.

  32. Scott says:

    Based on this post, Enlightenment (in the Buddhist sense) sounds like a country that takes decades to reach—and if you try, you might never reach it, but just get stuck in some horrible airport terminal forever—and if and when you do finally get there, it’s not clear that you’ll be changed or improved as a person any more than if you simply smoked some pot, or learned a new part of math, or visited Spain or the Amazon Basin or the South Island of New Zealand. Epistemically, you might have learned secrets of the universe that can’t be articulated in words, but you might have just rewired your brain in a strange and not especially helpful way, where the consciousness is directly linked to the sensory input or something. Morally, you might become a better person, but you might also become Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, or one of the spiritual gurus who seduces students and takes their money.

    So while I don’t begrudge anyone else this path, I think I’ll stick to learning more math, visiting new places, occasionally getting high, and Enlightenment in the scientific sense. Thanks for the tip, other Scott A!

    • aNeopuritan says:

      “I’ll keep doing exactly what I was doing” is a vastly less bad course of action when taken by someone whose life is already fairly successful. (Assuming you’re Aaronson.) Also, there doesn’t seem to be a damn thing practicing-Buddhist about Aung Kyi.

  33. acrimonymous says:

    As an outsider to both this blog and Buddhism but also a person who has accidentally come across discussion of this book other places online, I find it interesting there is no criticism of Ingram among the commenters here. I’m not trolling. I’m wondering why that is.

    • willachandler says:

      Perhaps it is an SSC tradition of kindness.

      Dr. Ingram’s narrative distinctly presents Buddhism-adapted elements of (e.g.) “Stendahl Syndrome“, “Paris Syndrome“, and “Jerusalem Syndrome” … all of which psychological syndromes are relatively benign (even pleasurable).

      Similarly among mathematicians, obsessive / ecstatic self-immersion in the life-history and core writings of Alexander Grothendieck is by no means uncommon; seemingly this syndrome has no harmful long-term effects.

      Hmmmm … it seems that Ingram-type books like Mastering the Core Works of Stendahl … Mastering the Core Experience of Paris and Jerusalem … and Mastering the Core Teachings of Alexander Grothendieck all are waiting to be written … the target audience being high-IQ persons suffering from anhedonia and / or depression and / or loneliness and / or simple boredom! 🙂

    • Bugmaster says:

      FWIW, I criticized him in my comment above. Or rather not him personally, but his entire discipline in general.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      Wanna make username check out? 😛 But were you expecting criticism as “woo”, or some other form?

      • acrimonymous says:

        Wanna make username check out?

        I don’t understand this comment.

        were you expecting criticism as “woo”, or some other form?

        The criticism I’ve read of him before is from other Buddhist practitioners. Nornagest‘s anti-magic and Bugmaster‘s anti-meditation comments aside, there isn’t anyone saying, eg, “I practice XYZ meditation, and from our perspective, Ingram is a phony.” I think that’s surprising.

        For something that is theoretically based on a reproducible process (not a theology) and has not entirely subjective goals, Buddhism has more internal conflict than I would expect. Then, when I see a blog like this where everyone seems to agree, it makes me wonder if ability to recognize the “real deal” is found in a group of people that intersects this blog’s readership or what? And if there are people who can recognize the real deal, how do you objectively identify them?

        EDIT:

        See Richard Kennaway‘s and wagster‘s comments below.

        wagster‘s is the kind of criticism I have seen of Ingram before.

        • Nornagest says:

          I trust this blog’s readership more than most, but we are probably not very well placed to evaluate a particular author’s chops w.r.t. meditative practice. I do know a number of SSC readers who’ve done this stuff seriously, been to retreats, etc., but they’re a minority, I only recognize one of them in these comments, and he was critical of Ingram. And this is pretty esoteric stuff, so priors only go so far.

          In the aftermath of this post I spent some time browsing the Reddit meditation communities and found some criticism of Ingram from other practitioners. I remain skeptical of Ingram for other reasons, but most of it came off to me as drama rather than anything substantive. I really don’t know what I’m talking about here, though; my own meditative practice is very minimal and comes almost exclusively out of a martial arts context.

          • cuke says:

            I haven’t read Ingram’s book and will go take a look at it. I am skeptical of some the claims as they’ve been summarized in the review here.

            I’ve been practicing mainly in the Vipassana tradition since 1985.

            A few things I would want to understand better about his claims:

            1. Different traditions in Buddhism consider “stream entry” to mark different moments in the process. Does he know this? Does he talk about it that way, as something that’s contested and varies among traditions?

            2. Different traditions view this “road map” to enlightenment differently, in terms of how consistent the steps/stages are and when one is considered “enlightened.” Does he represent it that way or is he writing as if “this is how it is”?

            3. My personal experience and that of long-time meditators I know does not conform to this dark night of the soul stuff. It’s not that no one says this; it’s just that there’s no consensus about this and many many people would say this has not been their experience. My experience has been a gradual process of ever reduced suffering and dark periods in life come and go as they do for all of us.

            4. I would like to understand more how he writes about the moral precepts and how they relate to meditation practice. The impression I get from the review is that the path to enlightenment is a kind of championship race in the meditation vehicle. This is quite inconsistent with all the teaching I’ve received across the years.

            I just finished reading Why Buddhism is True and liked it as an introduction to “why bother with Buddhism” for Westerners.

        • aNeopuritan says:

          I asked whether you were missing some acrimony here. The other question was serious, and thanks for answering.

    • Nornagest says:

      I don’t know enough about the guy to feel comfortable criticizing him personally, but the superpowers claim here makes me retroactively very skeptical of everything he says, even though the excerpts in OP made a fair amount of sense to me. Even the likes of Jack Parsons, the rocket scientist-cum-mystic who claimed to have literally put a curse on the founder of Scientology, generally stopped short of talking about e.g. telekinesis.

  34. Irenist says:

    Sounds something like this:
    1. Crack lens of telescope.
    2. Announce your discovery that there are giant jagged lines in the heavens.

    • toastengineer says:

      I suspect he’d retort by saying no, it’s more like opening up your telescope and sliding the lenses and mirrors around in it until the moon stops looking like a fuzzy grey ball.

  35. I have no first hand experience of meditation or the rest of what is being described.

    My reaction to parts of what you describe, along with the previous book review, is that the mind has very sophisticated pattern recognition software designed to produce an accurate picture of your environment by processing very imperfect sensory data, and what this is training you to do is ignore the output of that software in favor of the raw data. While I can see that doing that might be interesting, it does not sound very useful.

    • C_B says:

      It does sound like it might be useful if your pattern recognition software is malfunctioning in a maladaptive way (hence meditation’s excellent track-record for demonstrable benefits in psychopathology, and mediocre track-record for demonstrable anything else).

    • esraymond says:

      On the other hand, there is my experience that meditation gave me better bullshit filters, left my mind less constrained by language representations, and made epistemic skepticism easier for me to sustain. The things I’ve been unusually effective at doing suggest that this was a real change happening.

      Optical illusions are direct evidence that our pattern recognition software does not necessarily converge on the best possible representation of what’s out there. Once we know that, why is surprising that the ability to twiddle some previously inaccessible controls on that software is sometimes useful?

      This is not new, of course; it’s Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” argument. It gets a bad rap nowadays because of the excesses that followed in the 1960s and 1970s, but I think it retains a lot of force nevertheless.

      It’s a shame that people drawn to the exploration of altered states are so often sloppy or outright anti-rational thinkers. I think we could know more about this territory if the approaches weren’t guarded by vast mountain-ranges of bullshit.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      Humans weren’t made by someone with quality standards; processed sense data doesn’t give you accurate information, it gives you the thoughts that were helpful for your very distant (possibly pre-human) ancestors to survive (*not* live anything you’d understand as “a good life”). There’s no reason why being able to look at rawer data (as long as you don’t lose the ability to process) should be useful even “only to people with disabilities” (as per C_B); “normally able” people aren’t all that able. Did you even read the Sequences, bro?

      • There’s no reason why being able to look at rawer data (as long as you don’t lose the ability to process)

        The current processing isn’t something that I deliberately do or can control, it’s software initially hardwired and then presumably improved in background over my lifetime. I don’t think I have the option of deliberately processing the raw data in order to improve on it.

        For my distant ancestors to survive, they had to be able to deduce their environment from sense data and get it right. No doubt the resulting software could be improved by, say, another ten million years in an environment more like the one we are now in, but that isn’t an option available to me. The closest I can come is to use rational thought for further processing of the software output–realize, for example, that what I am seeing through the magnifying class isn’t really as big as it appears or that the virtual image I’m seeing isn’t something really there. I don’t see how I can go back to the raw data and produce an improved model of my environment from it.

        • esraymond says:

          You say “I don’t see how I can go back to the raw data and produce an improved model of my environment from it.”

          That’s easy. By changing the settings on your filters – especially moving in the direction of less filtering – you can become aware of premises built into your filters that are not always helpful to you.

    • Gerry Quinn says:

      Our understanding of the world is based on biologically-driven instincts. They have served us well for millions of years, but maybe in the current environment we can re-assess the incoming data in new ways.

      Newton built his laws of nature from intensively filtered observations. I mean, sure you can say that everyone sees apples fall. But he went back to basics and cut the knowledge out of his system that apples simply fall. He invented a whole new scheme of forces and accelerations to explain everything.

      Cats and dogs know perfectly well that apples fall. What they don’t realise is that that is not the last word about gravity.

  36. Deiseach says:

    This is extremely fascinating in that some of these points resonate very much with Christian mysticism.

    Jhanas are unusual mental states you can get into with enough concentration. Some of them are super blissful. Others are super tranquil. They’re not particularly meaningful in and of themselves, but they can give you heroin-level euphoria without having to worry about sticking needles in your veins.

    In the Catholic tradition these are called consolations and you may get them when you start making a serious effort and they do act as encouragements. But it’s generally agreed you shouldn’t chase them or try to replicate them or worse still, turn your spiritual journey into a course of these experiences. They’re the equivalent of baby steps and sweeties along the way, and they will fade eventually, and you should let them go. (The Dark Night may – or may not – come a lot further along the way, but generally you should expect some period of dryness and difficulty. This is couched in the terms of “Now you’re walking on your own, where the sweetnesses of the earlier period were God holding your hand like a parent holds a child’s hand to help them to walk. God has now let go and you’re taking steps on your own”).

    For example, you (general “you, putative spiritual seeker”) can be ascetic and cut yourself free from the desires of the flesh. But at the end of the path, or the attainment of the way, or the stage of union with God and abandonment to the will of God, then you can leave all that behind – you can go back to smoking and drinking and whatever, it doesn’t matter now, you have passed beyond attachments.

    The first of the three Ways is the Purgative Way (ascetic).

    And yeah, when you start digging down into the deep layers of the mind, you stir up a lot of mud, so be careful: that’s why it’s recommended you don’t DIY it but have a spiritual advisor/director.

    And yes, it’s easy to get stuck on the “hey, this is what they mean!” parts of “surely now I am enlightened, having experienced the Cosmic All”. But that is only a stage and again, don’t get stuck there. This is the second or Illuminative Way, and you should not stop here.

    The final and third way is the Unitive Way, where all is silence and union. Here the things you discarded in the Purgative Way may be used again, because they no longer have that claim on you and you can use them in freedom.

    It’s the last verse of the poem of St John of the Cross about the Obscure Night/the Ascent of Mount Carmel:

    I abandoned and forgot myself,
    laying my face on my Beloved;
    all things ceased; I went out from myself,
    leaving my cares
    forgotten among the lilies

    And yes, this is what the cactus person and the green bat were talking about 🙂 What good is it? No good at all. Don’t think of good or anything you can gain from it. If you go in determined to use this book (or any other) as a step-by-step guide to Guaranteed Enlightened Bliss, if you are sure you are going to be the most enlightened enlightened one that ever achieved enlightenment, if you are going to enlighten the heck out of this system – that is not it. That is not it at all.

    It’s very deep and complicated, which is why most of us ordinary believers just stick to the moral part and keep the rules and leave the mysticism for those inclined to it 🙂 The big popular guide for ordinary people is from the 17th century (hey that’s as up to date as we get, though I don’t doubt you go-getting Americans have similar guides written in the 20th century, you crazy kids you!), the Introduction to the Devout Life by St Francis de Sales.

    The popular mystical versions – something along the lines of this work – would be The Interior Castle by St Teresa of Avila and The Ascent of Mount Carmel by St John of the Cross:

    To reach satisfaction in all
    desire satisfaction in nothing.
    To come to possess all
    desire the possession of nothing.
    To arrive at being all
    desire to be nothing.
    To come to the knowledge of all
    desire the knowledge of nothing.

    To come to enjoy what you have not
    you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
    To come to the knowledge you have not
    you must go by a way in which you know not.
    To come to the possession you have not
    you must go by a way in which you possess not.
    To come to be what you are not
    you must go by a way in which you are not.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      From Essential Sufism:

      ‘There was a poor fisherman who was a Sufi teacher. He went fishing every day, and each day he would distribute his catch to the poor of his village, except for a fish head or two that he used to make soup for himself His students dearly loved and admired their ‘fish-head sheikh.”

      One of the students was a merchant. Before traveling to Cordoba, the teacher asked him to convey his greetings to his own teacher, the great sage Ibn ‘Arabi, and to ask the sage for some advice to help him in his own spiritual work, which he felt was going very slowly.

      When the merchant arrived at Ibn ‘Arabi’s house, he found, much to his surprise, a veritable palace surrounded by elaborate gardens. He saw many servants going back and forth and was served a sumptuous meal on gold plates by beautiful young women and handsome young men. Finally he was brought to Ibn ‘Arabi, who was wearing clothing fit for a sultan. He conveyed his teacher’s greetings and repeated his teacher’s request for spiritual guidance. Ibn ‘Arabi said simply, “Tell my student that he is too worldly!” The merchant was shocked and offended by this advice coming from someone
      living in such worldly opulence.

      When he returned, his teacher immediately asked about his meeting with Ibn ‘Arabi. The merchant repeated Ibn ‘Arabi’s words and added that this sounded totally absurd coming from such a wealthy, worldly man.

      His teacher replied, “You should know that each of us can have as much material wealth as his soul can handle without losing sight of God. What you saw in him was not merely material wealth but great spiritual attainment.” Then the teacher added, with tears in his eye, “Besides, he is right. Often at night as I make my simple fish-head soup, I wish it were an entire fish!” ‘

      Plausible, but one might think “pretty convenient for those with temporal power, especially holders of hereditary positions, as a lot of Sufi leadership is”.

      • Gerry Quinn says:

        Truly, The Donald is the greatest Sufi master.

      • poignardazur says:

        Yyyyeah… that sounds a lot like the kind of abuse that gets used as an example when they warn you about joining a cult.

        • aNeopuritan says:

          However, most of Essential Sufism is a lot more straightforwardly good than that. For example:

          ‘Spurred with the desire to gain publicity for himself, one day Hasan, seeing Rabia in a general congregation of saints, came to her and said, “Rabia, let us leave this congregation and sitting on the waters of the lake, hold our spiritual discussion there.” He said this to display his miraculous power before others, for he had gained mastery over water as Christ had walked over water. Rabia remonstrated, “Hasan, put your vanity aside. If you are so determined to separate yourself from the general assembly of saints, why should we not both fly and hold our meeting there in the air?” Rabia said this as if she had that power. Hasan knew he could not do this and said as much, shamed by her words. Rabia said, “Know that what you can do fishes can also do– easily. What I suggested was no more than what a fly does. Reality transcends this miracle-mongering. Seek humility.”‘

          Also in the book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabia_of_Basra#Anecdotes .

    • esraymond says:

      Deiseach, don’t forget The Cloud of Unknowing from the 14th century – a strong influence on both St. John of the Cross and later pietists up to and including the Quakers. The earlier Meister Eckhardt rates a mention here as well,.

      I loathe Christianity (and other monotheisms) pretty intensely, but this is the one part of their tradition in which I see something healthy and worthy of study. “The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me” – damn straight, and it is fascinating to observe the parallel invention of mystical techniques identical to Asian ones in a completely different cultural context.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Very illuminating post, thank you. I’ve also heard the pre and post DNOTS periods as “first you wrestle with the Devil, and then you wrestle with God.”

    • willachandler says:

      As further reading relating to the many excellent suggestions in comments above, Laura Rediehs’ historical survey “Candlestick Mysteries” (2014) summarizes early writings at the intersection of (what became) Spinozist Rationalism with (what became) Christian Mysticism:

      The Light upon the Candlestick (1662) was written by a Dutch Collegiant, but was taken by the Quakers to be a good account of their own theory of knowledge. Yet a contemporary scholar of Dutch Collegiant thought interprets this same essay as showing the beginning of the Collegiants’ moving away from a spiritualist interpretation of the Light Within and towards a rationalist interpretation, influenced by the philosopher Spinoza. While the title page of this essay indicates the influence of a Quaker, it seems that, until now, no one has examined this connection in detail. A recent translation of William Ames’ Mysteries of the Kingdom of God</i (1661) has now made this comparison possible.

      Rediehs’ focus is upon the pamphlet “The Light upon the Candlestick” (latin: Lucerna super Candelabrum):

      We direct thee then to look within thyself, that is, that thou oughtest to turn into, to mind and have regard unto that which is within thee, to wit, the Light of Truth, the true Light which enlighten every man that cometh into the world. Here ’tis that thou must be, and not without thee. Here thou shalt find a Principle certain and infallible, and whereby increasing  at length arrive unto a happy condition.

      —–
      In a lighter vein, the events in-and-around the writing/publishing of “Candlestick” provide ample material here for myth-making and/or cult-founding and/or thriller-writing. Michael Deacon’s critical deconstruction “Don’t make fun of renowned Dan Brown” (The Telegraph, 2016) is hilariously recommended:

      Renowned author Dan Brown hated the critics. Ever since he had become one of the world’s top renowned authors they had made fun of him. … The critics said his writing was clumsy, ungrammatical, repetitive and repetitive. They said it was full of unnecessary tautology. They said his prose was mired in a sea of mixed metaphors. For some reason they found something funny in sentences such as “His eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.” They even say my books are packed with banal and superfluous description, thought the 5ft 9in man. He particularly hated it when they said his imagery was nonsensical. It made his insect eyes flash like a rocket.

      In summary, no shortage of bad writers, self-deluded rationalizers, and colorful con-artists have attended the search for Enlightenment! 🙂

  37. Tom Crispin says:

    Honest curiosity (I think). By what measure is meditation considered a higher rather than lower form of consciousness? I concede different.

    I was led to this question many years ago when thinking about the famous split-sprain experiments of Sperry and Gazzaniga, where in at least some subjects there was a marked improvement to multi-task. I thought that pretty cool, but wondered whether in an evolutionary sense it might be worse. Less quick in running away from that tiger in the bushes. Less quick = more wrong?

    For that matter, are there studies comparing brain states of meditation versus, say, a chess grandmaster playing a tournament game?

  38. Deiseach says:

    That leaves dukkha, this weird unsatisfactoriness that supposedly inheres in every sensation individually as well as life in general.

    What is suffering? Suffering is unsatisfied desire. And dukkha is the Buddhist version of what is also in Christianity; nothing fully satisifes us permanently. Eat, and you will be hungry again. Have as much astounding sex as is physically possible without dying from apoplexy, and (a) you’ll get tired and can’t possibly have one more orgasm you need to recuperate (b) you’ll eventually get bored with techniques A, B, C and D and decide to try E, F and G to spice things up.

    We yearn, and nothing here permanently satisfies these yearnings for long (why do very, very rich and successful people still want to work or start new businesses or set up foundations rather than loll around on beds of bundles of cash being fanned with peacock feather fans by nubile and available pretty young things of all genders hand-feeding them peeled grapes and the latest chemical highs?)

    C.S. Lewis discusses this using the German term Sehnsucht in “Surprised by Joy” and “The Pilgrim’s Regress”, amongst other works.

    • baconbacon says:

      We yearn, and nothing here permanently satisfies these yearnings for long (why do very, very rich and successful people still want to work or start new businesses or set up foundations rather than loll around on beds of bundles of cash being fanned with peacock feather fans by nubile and available pretty young things of all genders hand-feeding them peeled grapes and the latest chemical highs?)

      Some try to

    • We yearn, and nothing here permanently satisfies these yearnings for long (why do very, very rich and successful people still want to work or start new businesses or set up foundations rather than loll around on beds of bundles of cash being fanned with peacock feather fans by nubile and available pretty young things of all genders hand-feeding them peeled grapes and the latest chemical highs?)

      Because it would be boring.

      At this point in my life I could afford to spend all my time arguing with people online, reading entertaining fiction, playing computer games, … . I’m a little old to get the full benefit of nubile young things and my wife might not approve. And I can peel my own grapes.

      But in fact I have assigned myself two hours a day seven days a week work on my various writing projects and I’ve spent a fair amount of the past four or five days working out the puzzle of a medieval Islamic recipe which, so far as I know, nobody else has yet solved–because after a while eating lotus palls.

  39. Deiseach says:

    That leaves concentration (samatha) and wisdom (vipassana). You do samatha to get a powerful mind; you get a powerful mind in order do to vipassana.

    Or in the Christian tradition, meditation (meditatio, not the ‘pop-culture’ meaning of meditation) and contemplation (contemplatio). Mediatation is an act of the reason, contemplation of the will (as it were).

    As a side note, if jaded Westerners prefer Esoteric Eastern Mystic Traditions to get their enlightenment instead of the “I grew up on this Christian crap, it’s dull and boring”, I wonder if a movement in the other direction could work? Jaded Buddhists who grew up on this dull boring crap might get a thrill from Esoteric Western Mystic Traditions like Benedictine Lectio Divina instead, and we could get different approaches going based on the Seven Schools of Spirituality , same way as Westerners like the Zen school of Buddhism over other schools 🙂

    • aNeopuritan says:

      https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CNlYMz7UwAEOAbh.png

      Though some of those philosophers were themselves influenced by Buddhism, and “Orientals” taking up Western philosophy is an event that can be found in the *past*:

      https://vividness.live/2011/06/16/the-making-of-buddhist-modernism/ .

    • spkaca says:

      jaded Westerners prefer Esoteric Eastern Mystic Traditions to get their enlightenment instead of the “I grew up on this Christian crap, it’s dull and boring”
      So very much this. I grew up in a nominally Christian household in a nominally Christian country, imbibed many of the popular prejudices in favour of supposedly spiritually superior Eastern ways, then discovered the Christian mystic traditions as a young adult and realised I knew nothing. (Which was a good start.)

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        The joke version (sorry, source not remembered) is that a lot of westerners were interested in eastern religions until they found out how much work they were.

    • Nornagest says:

      If the Japanese media’s treatment of the trappings of Christianity is anything to go by, it’s not implausible.

  40. rahien.din says:

    I kept thinking :

    I feel the need to address, which is to say shoot down with every bit of rhetorical force I have, the notion promoted by some teachers and even traditions that there is nothing to do, nothing to accomplish, no goal to obtain, no enlightenment other than the ordinary state of being…which, if it were true, would have been very nice of them, except that it is complete bullshit.

    My experience with meditation has been exactly the opposite.

    When I meditate, I am always noticing that my mind has wandered down some mental path, and noting the distractions so to return to the breath. I know when I have really settled in when I can ask my mind what it wants to do and it does nothing. This is not simply to say “my mind doesn’t do anything.” My mind is doing, and the best name for that doing is “nothing.”

    I think he’s confused about what is “no thing” and what is “nothing.” Sure, it’s ludicrous to claim that one doesn’t need to do anything to attain enlightenment, and there is good truth to a methodical practice by which one strives toward enlightenment. But the whole point of one’s efforts and discipline is to reach the point when the doing becomes the doing-of-nothing. You have to operate the car such that it comes to a stop in a safe place and you can get out.

    This nothing is like falling asleep or falling in love. You have to do certain things to attain that authentic experience, such as laying down in bed and turning out the lights, or going on dates. But while these things can be striven toward, the moment of falling asleep or falling in love happens on its own, and can’t be striven into.

    Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha is … a good rational introduction to the Buddhist system.

    But it’s counter to Buddhism.

    What he calls enlightenment is basically “magicky samsara.” He’s just enhanced his experience of the recurrent cycle, within which he remains trapped and by which he remains oppressed. That’s a well-known effect of these practices, but it’s merely an exploration of mental machinery, rather than enlightenment, and so it is usually warned against. It’s the old camel-through-eye-of-a-needle chestnut at work.

    More basically, the “problem of grasping” he so fervently disavows is one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. How is this guy to claim he has mastered the core teachings of the Buddha if he discards the most fundamental teachings? That’s like if I called myself a Christian, but discarded the idea of loving my neighbor as myself.

    How is he even claiming to be a Buddhist? To each their own, but damn. He doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to a Buddhist at all.

    Granted, this is all second-hand to your description, and I may be doing him some disservice.

    Meditation is not time-consuming. 10-15 minutes on most days is a good start. I’m a doctor, too. You have no excuses.

    • Trollumination says:

      I agree. This book really sort of upset me. First of all, if he’s right about accidental A&P, then that’s got to be the best argument against drugs (especially for young people with incompletely developed minds) I’ve ever heard. Why didn’t I get that, instead of Duke Toma’s insanity and a bunch of threats and DARE-cop nark-your-neighbour crap? And shoot, it explains some depressive episodes in my life.

      But it also kinda takes a dump on Buddhism, if this is all it does. Now he’s tied to the wheel, but he’s ever so much more aware of the wheel he’s tied to. That doesn’t sound so great, really, it sounds awful. Buddha was trying to free people, not give them a better look at their chains.

      It makes me less likely to try to meditate ever again, not more. The downside is huge and the upside: I have to admit snooping my mind’s raw input queue and being able to identify my ‘self’ as different interacting thought processes would be cool. But I’m not really all that interested in internal reality. I’m interested in external reality too much. So the upside is sort of lame and pointless. I already know my senses are limited: I am nearsighted, astigmatic, partially color-blind, and my sense of smell isn’t so hot. I don’t think there’s anything universal or profound about that.

      His idea of ‘enlightenment’ reminds of one time when I was listening to some awful music service: Yahoo Music, perhaps? Very low bitrate Real codec or something. I was tired and when I lost focus on the music, it broke up into individual tone-beeps. When I focused on it again, it came back together. Backed off, and it broke up again. Because of course the music was represented, badly, by individual wavelets, and not nearly enough of them due to the codec – yes, it was an illusion. But all that made me want to do was never try to listen to that low-bitrate crap ever again. I was enlightened as to why it made me tired to try to listen to that source of music, and it didn’t make me seek out the experience again: instead I resolved to not subject my ears/brain to that again.

      Just doesn’t sound that pleasant, and it seems to have no real help for living beings. If this is what Buddha meant, well, then he failed.

      • aNeopuritan says:

        The anonymouses get ever better names. Unless you intend to stick with this one, in which case I apologize for calling you “anonymous”.

        • Trollumination says:

          I don’t know what that has to do with anything. Of course I’ve done a lot more lurking here than posting – I think this is my second post. And I’m not ready to use a nick that can be tied to my real life with some research because SSC posters are probably more clever than the average bear when it comes to that sort of thing, and I kind of feel intimidated by the illustrious sorts who post here.

          But none of that matters, does it? Either I’m right about the essential pointlessness of Ingram’s vipassana meditation or I’m not. I could be a moose typing with a hoof for all that matters.

  41. ilkarnal says:

    I heard someone ask a good question – if dreams contain useful information, why do we forget them so damn easily? Why should we expect to profit from undermining this modality? There are examples of people not forgetting their dreams with bad consequences, prototypically girlfriends dreaming about their boyfriend doing something bad and staying mad at him upon waking up (whereupon he complains to the internet.) In my own case, as a seven year old a moderate phobia of ants created by lots of painful stings was strengthened with a nightmare, where I dreamed of ants coming out of the cute little donut patterns on my pillowcase. Had to get rid of that pillowcase! The utility of this sort of thing is doubtless negative.

    If the way we normally experience sensation isn’t functional, why do we experience life this way? Why do we need to push our grubby monkey fingers into it? I would think that if there were benefits, they would be noticeable. I’m adjacent to a some enlightenment-types, and the main effect seems to be making them feel better about laying around stretching.

  42. Sniffnoy says:

    The thing is, even if we accept all of this as stated, then at best all this can enlighten you about is yourself and your phenomenological experience. As Eliezer says, you can’t learn physics by studying psychology. Admittedly, this sounds like it may be a good way to unlearn certain things — because if you’re starting with bad metaphysical assumptions that, say, require people to exist as clearly delineated, individual, unitary beings, then this could help you unlearn that. But what it can teach you sounds decidedly limited.

    I mean, we know that the brain imposes a lot of structure on the world that isn’t actually there, that the way the universe works actually sharply clashes with our intuitions. (But it all adds up to normality — it may not work that way on a fundamental level, but it adds up to something that ends up working roughly that way most of the time in the situations we usually encounter.) But the way we’ve gotten at what things are actually like at a fundamental level isn’t by introspection how our senses screw things up and then attempting to correct for this — that sort of “correction” isn’t actually possible! And so like I said you can only really learn about the mind this way, not the external world. The way we’ve learned about that has largely been just by trying to mathematically model what sort of underlying mechanism would produce what we see without worrying about correcting for the limits of our perception; that sort of thing has mostly just posed a problem, it would seem, for psychology and related fields, not physics.

    Not that anyone was seriously claiming you could learn physics by meditating or what have you, but I thought this was worth stating explicitly.

  43. Forge the Sky says:

    To the question of why on earth we might pursue enlightenment:

    A lot of people are very disoriented, distressed, or denying upon learning how little our perceptions have to do with ‘reality as such.’

    I find that prospect to be very exciting. Not only is the perceivable world so vast, huge and complicated – there is actually good reason to think that ACTUAL reality is stranger and vaster still! We can approximate this in dim analogy by speaking about gods, myths, magic, to imply a broader reality out there beyond our ken. We can only currently grasp at it vaguely – see it through a glass darkly, if you will.

    I wonder if people with unusually high intelligence and/or openness are able to use the sense-data we DO get about reality-as-such to a degree that we can find small amounts of additional information in it that just doesn’t correspond with ‘intuitive’ understandings, which likely are mostly hardwired algorithms to create useful behavior. ‘Enlightenment’ is just a re-calibration of your thinking and intuitions, so far as such a thing is possible, to accommodate that greater amount of uncertainty about reality and experience. As such, it will always be uncomfortable to a degree, as that sort of thinking ‘disagrees’ with your fundamental intuitions – but for a smart/open person, NOT doing this would be uncomfortable in different ways, as their actual experiences disagree with their base intuitions in disconcerting ways.

    It’s a catch-22, born of developing a cognitive capacity greater than necessary for simple survival due to selection pressures.

    But, it may give us the beginnings of an understanding of reality that would be otherwise unperceived and unimagined.

    But hell, maybe I’m just being hypermanic 😉

  44. Forge the Sky says:

    An analogy – NMR spectroscopy output is basically a squiggly line. But if you know how to interpret the line wrt the location and sizes of the spikes on that line, you can get a good understanding of the compound you put in the machine.

    Enlightenment may give you some access to the ways actual reality disagrees with our instinctive intuitions, in the same way that the spikes deviate from the flat line in an NMR. Developing a theoretical frame within which to interpret these findings is another thing entirely.

  45. Mario says:

    I didn’t read all other comments, so, maybe, mine will be redundant. If so, I apologize.

    That said: if you approach Budhism as you would approach learning to play the guitar – you are doing it wrong. If what you want to do with Budhism is Achieve And Master, you are being driven by greed and you will suffer. The more, the worse. I’ve not invented this: it’s written there plainly in the teachings.

    I’ve read the intro to that book and what it is is a very american ‘follow the recipe to succeed’ kind of thing. Maybe I’m doing it an injustice, but greed is very strong and, it seems to me, very visible along that intro.

    People are often desperate to conquer a label like ‘Budhist’ without understanding that the thing is 1) for free but 2) not suitable to being conquered in a meaningful way. In the same way that you don’t “conquer” the ability to enjoy sunrises.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      That makes a lot of sense, yes. But my doubt is: if you want to be Less Wrong, should you drop that desire, or should you do something about it?

  46. Wander says:

    Does anyone else feel like they’re too strongly rooted in the physical world for meditation? I’ve been attempting it for years, approaching it from every direction from hermeticism to Buddhism, but ultimately every form of meditation I’ve tried just feels a lot like sitting around. I’ve never managed to achieve even the smallest effect that I’ve seen mentioned and I don’t understand what it is that I’m missing to make it work.

    • Paul says:

      You aren’t alone, but at this point I wonder why I even bothered to try. The way people talk about how meditation makes them feel is either pointlessly vague, or something I already feel/experience without simply sitting around. It doesn’t appear I’m missing out on anything but wasted time.

    • Sam Reuben says:

      I think it’s because you’re not, in fact, rooted in the physical world at all, but instead rooted in yourself. Not as a goal, in the way in which we typically understand selfishness, but as a default condition of experience. The response, here, might be: “But my self is the default condition of experience!” This would underline how difficult it is for you to escape yourself. I believe a function of meditation, not explicitly mentioned here, is to break away from some of that self-orientation. (Not oriented to the self, but from the self.) In some situations, we would call this “gaining perspective” or “broadening one’s horizons.” Quite possibly, the reason you’ve had for meditation is “for the sake of my own enlightenment.” It’s easy to see why this couldn’t possibly break out of your own perspective. Instead, you might want “for the sake of…?” I don’t know how you’ll fill in the gap, but if you don’t, I doubt meditation will do anything for you. (Notable: the people who devote the most woo towards meditation are always self-oriented in the most preposterous ways, and we see through it easily. What does that mean about them and their meditation?)

      • Paul says:

        That doesn’t appear to be meaningful. One doesn’t escape the self by broadening one’s horizons or considering a new perspective, one simply integrates new information and new lines of logic and empathy into what already existed.

        • Sam Reuben says:

          As I stated, this is probably why meditation doesn’t work well for you: you refuse to consider going outside of the self. If you want another term for this, you might try “paradigm shift.” It might better help you grasp the concept by imagining it as a style of factory reset, except instead of returning to a default, what one is doing is breaking up much (if not all) of one’s associations and biases in order to reform and reformulate. This is distinctly not integrating new information; this is destroying old meta-information. (Proper, foundational meditation would work towards destroying that explanation as well, which is why this is not the concept, but a means of grasping the concept.)

          Meditation is not the end-all and be-all. There’s no reason to force yourself to do it if you don’t want to. However, it would be wise to observe that you are incapable of meditation because your style of thought denies its possibility.

          • publiusvarinius says:

            However, it would be wise to observe that you are incapable of meditation because your style of thought denies its possibility.

            “Oh, I don’t believe in it. But I am told it works even if you don’t believe in it.” – Niels Bohr’s reply to a visitor to his home who asked him if he really believed a horseshoe above his door brought him luck.

        • JShots says:

          @Paul I don’t really agree with Sam Reuben’s explanation, but I do think it’s very possible that some people will never be able to benefit much from meditation, whether that’s due to strictly to the biology and chemistry of a person’s brain (that can be somewhat unique given our different DNA/life experiences), or a more metaphysical explanation like Sam’s. If you think of conditions like depression/anxiety or other conditions that (for lack of a better scientific explanation or terminology) seem to contribute some amount of maladaptive noise to the signal we use to interpret, process, and in-turn take actions in the world, we can surmise that there will be some people who’s signal is already sufficiently well calibrated and will not receive benefit from further re-calibration. I also like to think of it like the speed vs. the bandwidth of an internet connection (or when you hold your finger at the end of a hose – the water that is coming through is coming out faster, but not as much water is passing through overall). Some people don’t have full access to their brain’s processing power to focus on a given task because there are a whole lot of other (again, for lack of a better word) conscious or unconscious processes/distractions that are hijacking the bandwidth. Something is holding its finger over their mental hose (that’s some weird mental imagery…) If you can use meditation to slowly identify and weed out these hijackers, you can free up bandwidth required to better pick up the signal and focus on a singular task.

    • wagster says:

      This is why Ingram (and writers like him) are so harmful. Special effects aren’t the point. Whatever you find when you sit on the cushion is what matters: if that’s boredom, bliss, anxiety, calm, then that’s what you find. Being with whatever is there is sometimes difficult – and maybe not for everybody.

  47. TomA says:

    Meditation is a luxury afforded us by the modern environment in which we now live, which is relatively recent in evolutionary terms. Turn back the clock a few tens of thousands of years and this this type of stationary stasis with detuned sensory input would have made you easy prey. The jury is still out on whether this new type of mental conditioning represents a net improvement in robustness for the current environment. Do meditators have higher than average fecundity?

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      That doesn’t seem to be true– before artificial light, people spent an average of 12 hours/day (maybe a little less, allowing for dusk and dawn) not doing much. That seems to have meant two periods of sleep, and a chunk of time that was somewhat meditative.

      • TomA says:

        REM sleep may be thought of as a mild and unfocused form of meditation, but that is only a small fraction of the sleep cycle (deep sleep is much longer and largely restorative). If REM sleep conferred a significant evolutionary advantage for our species, it would likely dominate our hereditary sleep cycle. Most forms of current meditation practice occur during leisure time, and in an environment in which existential danger is non-existent. My point was that navel-gazing was not likely to be a survival success strategy in the early evolutionary environment of our species.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          As I understand it, the non-sleep part of the night was partially spent in a conscious but undirected state.

          The thing is, being in a group of apex predators some of whom are awake (and which has fire for part of human history) isn’t dangerous enough to require constant alertness.

  48. Sam Reuben says:

    Ctrl+F “Plato”… no results. I’m sorry? Isn’t the allegory of the cave, and the path to understanding the Forms, deeply related to this?

    To try and underline the importance, consider the Form of the Good. Without making any commitment to particular details of the Form of the Good, even that of temporal stasis, ask yourself: why would someone ever want to understand the Form of the Good? It is not the Form of the Happy, or even the Form of the Satisfying Existence. It certainly isn’t the Form of the Reproductive Optimization. If we assume that Socrates was, in Plato’s mind, much closer than most people to understanding the Form of the Good, then it certainly isn’t the Form of Political Power in any respect. So why would someone ever want to come to know it? Taking the general Platonic assumption that true knowledge provides true understanding of the subject material, what would the Form of the Good grant to whoever knew it?

    I mean, it’s not a complicated answer: they would gain true understanding of goodness. Why would they want this? Can you think of another answer besides that they wished to be good?

    This is what’s missing from these analyses: none of these methods matter at all if you’re not concerned with being good. Not the personal results, but the actual desire for goodness, which practically by definition isn’t about yourself. If you don’t want to be good, then the result of meditation probably won’t make much sense, and the rest of it might come off as being a little wonky.

    That’s just my guess, though.

    • Protagoras says:

      Socrates is happy (Crito 43b). I’m not sure how you missed that aspect of Plato’s writings.

      • Sam Reuben says:

        Eudaimonia is not particularly close to the contemporary American conception of happiness, despite being a common translation. In fact, if you look it up, what it’s closest to is… goodness. Hence, Aristotle’s work on ethics wasn’t termed happiness ethics, but rather virtue ethics.

        • Protagoras says:

          I think that if you pay attention to the context, you will see that your criticism of Grube’s translation at this point is misguided.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      I don’t have a sense of “GOOD” (then, I’m not much of a philosopher). I do (think I) have a sense of “good”, it being similar or equal to “that which, if done by everyone, makes it easy for everyone to be happy”. Also, I can’t recall where, but I read an assertion that Socrates’ followers were close to taking power – and also that the decapitation of that group preserved his teachings better than they would have been if power changed hands.

  49. G Gordon Worley III says:

    Interesting. This guy seems to have come to Buddhism backwards from the way I did. I was something of a wild fox and came to intentional practice from theoretical understanding. He seems to have been something of a Zen devil (can’t find a good link) in that he learned practice first with no theoretical grounding and then learned the concepts (I hope).

    For those worried about the “always suffering” bit, I actually just did some work to try to understand this solely within the context of existential phenomenology and came to a better theoretical understanding of how one can always have desire without necessarily suffering. The thing that lets you be content while still feeling desire (and avoiding the contradiction Scott seems to suspect exists), is learning to experience the experience of desire rather than experiencing desire itself.

  50. analytic_wheelbarrow says:

    “I’ve never managed to achieve even the smallest effect that I’ve seen mentioned and I don’t understand what it is that I’m missing to make it work.” –> This is what I’m afraid of. I was thinking of buying TMI and then I imagined myself after 6 months of meditating and wondering why nothing ever “happened” and then realizing that this was just like learning to speed read. I’d never make any progress, I’d end up wondering if *anyone* ever did or if it was just a fiction propagated by vague claims, and anyone I asked about it would say, “You expected *what* to happen?” And then I’d feel dumb for even trying.

    I really can’t figure if this is worth a shot and you’re comment pushes me towards the “no” camp!

  51. Richard Kennaway says:

    I came across the book, and his web site, a few years ago, but lost interest when he started talking about these “vibrations”. Neither that, nor any of the other experiences he describes, bear any resemblance to my own experiences of meditation. No vibrations, nor any of the rest: universal unsatisfactoriness, no self, dark night of the soul, jhanas, flashes of this or that. That goes for other writers as well, ancient and modern. So I always have the question, “Is there anything here?” Not just in the sense Bugmaster asked, of “What concrete improvement in people’s lives does this observably make?”, but more fundamentally, “Will these practices lead to the internal states being described? Are different people talking about them in the same words talking about the same thing? Are they talking about anything? Is there a there, there?” Anyone can see anyone else’s muscles improve from the gym, but no-one can see anyone else’s jhanas.

    I have a speculative notion that in these matters everyone is an outlier, that our mental interiors bear far less resemblance to each other than our physical exteriors, and this more-or-less connected bundle of related narratives of what meditation is and does has spontaneously and collectively developed. The model is fitting to the noise, and people fit themselves to the model. Even when someone like Ingram writes a lot of “no, that’s all wrong, this is how it is”, they’re just adding a few more lines to the collective picture.

  52. wagster says:

    I have studied Zen Buddhism under Roshi Enkyo O’Hara for 9 years now. I would classify myself as a serious student, but of no particular distinction.

    I certainly don’t think there is nothing to do. Practice is nothing if it does not lead to action. But I do have a simple question: if reality has a non-dual nature, how can there be enlightenment and non-enlightenment?

    I’m not here to deny anyone’s experience. I am sure Ingram and others felt the things they describe. But every time I’ve read a book like this (Goleman’s The Meditative Mind, for instance) I’ve wanted to take a shower after. For me, practice is not a gym to hone up your concentration. It’s about encountering the raw experience of every second, minus the constructs and narratives we put over it, in order to recognize my true self. It is a lot simpler and humbler than what Ingram describes. If I went to the cushion with an idea of the phenomenological fireworks that would happen there, the various intricate steps to the hankered-for nirvana, I would just be putting a cloak over that experience. I ask you, does that mindset seem like the right one for being in the moment? It’s mythologizing and a distraction. As Suzuki Roshi put it, sitting is “nothing special.”

    If anyone here is considering following the path, I beg you to not try doing it as a book Buddhist/solo practitioner. Find a teacher. I can recommend my tradition, but really, any is better than none. Practice has changed my life, and I’ve seen it forge some really spectacular human beings. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I delayed joining a sangha – a Buddhist community – for as long as I did, doing Buddhism from reading and sitting alone. Because if you don’t have a teacher – who is going to call you on your bullshit?

    • acrimonymous says:

      Who was calling the Buddha on his bullshit?

      • wagster says:

        The Buddha could have really used some bullshit-calling. There was a time before he found his way when he was trying to starve himself to enlightenment. It is said that a man could have wrapped his hands around his waist. It could have been easier!

        Having said that, the Buddha was also an exception. Buddhist lore tells us that there were only two people that achieved enlightenment without a teacher: the Gautama Buddha and Bodhidharma, the teacher that brought Buddhism to China.

    • cuke says:

      Yes to this: “For me, practice is not a gym to hone up your concentration.”

      And yes to not starting meditation only through a book as a solo practitioner…I end up doing a lot of informal meditation instruction as a therapist and am amazed how many people have decided they can’t meditate because they read a book about how to meditate and it didn’t work for them or because they couldn’t “empty their minds.” There’s a lot of misunderstanding that seems to lead people astray so that they quit before really starting.

      I’m inclined to call the way Ingram is talking about meditation something other than Buddhism. But I will go read more of it. Buddhism is a path out of suffering. Meditation is one part of a wider set of practices on that path. It wasn’t intended to be done in isolation of the other teachings and practices. It’s obviously fine if people want to do it that way, just like people do yoga to lose weight or whatever. But let’s don’t confuse meditation to experience specific mind states on the cushion for Buddhism.

      • wagster says:

        It is sad that people abandon meditation because they can’t “empty their minds.” There is no failing in meditation! (On the other hand, there’s no succeeding at it either.)

        And yes, that’s where a teacher is most helpful. It makes an impression when somebody that has been practicing for thirty years and has received the transmission tells you that they too get distracted. It is the nature of mind!

    • aNeopuritan says:

      But what is the point of seeing your “true” self? *Shouldn’t* “navel-gazing” be pejorative?

    • bzium says:

      That reality is fundamentally non-dual or that there’s a true self to be found are not universally accepted claims.

  53. Michael Arc says:

    Sounds like someone read the source material, learned that at stage 4 its easy to get confused and think your enlightened, and went ahead and got confused in just that manner anyway. The continued existence of suffering associated with pain REALLY should have been a hint though.

    • moridinamael says:

      Even the Buddha complained about back pain, though.

      • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

        Well, the comment you are replying to stresses suffering — some people say that Buddha had pain, and felt pain, but didn’t suffer from it. But resting when the back hurts is still a good idea. Replacing suffering with mere awareness doesn’t change that.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I’ve read some memoirs by western meditators, and it seemed as though meditation took the sting out of ordinary pain, but either didn’t help with grief, or actually made grief sharper.

      I’ve brought this up on facebook, but unfortunately all I remember about that is a bunch of people telling me I was wrong, and I’m not sure they were talking from experience.

      So, here we have what is mostly a different bunch of people. What do you know about how meditation interacts with grief?

      • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

        I wonder if it interacts with «ignoring pain when necessary» being a perceived as a good capacity, and «ignoring grief» sometimes being perceived as something shameful.

  54. Baeraad says:

    There was a SSC post at some point where Scott asked for examples of realising that something about your life experience wasn’t normal. This isn’t quite one of those, because I was aware that most people didn’t feel the way I do, but I think I was actually a bit shocked to realise that even very smart and introspective people don’t.

    That is to say – do even smart, introspective people not realise that their every experience is fundamentally painful and unsatisfying? That even when you’re at your most comfortable, your nerves are still tingling with something that isn’t quite pain but the pain-shaped space that’s ready to be filled at any moment? That even when you’re at your happiest, there’s a part of you thinking, “that’s it?”

    That’s really strictly a me thing?

    I mean, I figured that since the Buddha worked that out literally thousands of years ago, it was at least a pretty common piece of knowledge. And it just seems so obvious.

    Seriously, doesn’t anyone else realise that they’re never happy but just varying degrees of miserable? Just me? Everyone else is enjoying the blissful delusion that they’re happy?

    Well, that’s pretty fucking unfair, I can’t help it feel. 🙁

    • Nornagest says:

      Yeah, it’s you.

    • roystgnr says:

      Ouch.

      Yeah, I’m all for neurological diversity, but what’s going on with you probably isn’t normal and you might want to see if there’s any way to fix it.

      • Baeraad says:

        Well, I am diagnosed as autistic and have a long history of clinical depression, so it’s not that I wasn’t aware that my brain is weird. And yes, I’ve had therapy/medication/social assistance for it… but some things about me don’t seem to be fixable.

    • willachandler says:

      Baeraad wonders whether  “Everyone else is enjoying the blissful delusion that they’re happy?”

      This “blissful delusion” can be acquired by a simple practice … ride the barrel and get pitted!

      This practice has no known adverse long-term effects, and is inherently compatible with “love” and “work”.

      Bonus … it’s a quintessentially San Francisco practice! 🙂

      Observation: a core lesson that ER-practice, surf-practice, and parent-practice all teach is simply this: bliss-reaped is in proportion to the commitment-given. To paraphrase the Pythogoreans: there is no royal road to bliss.

      • Baeraad says:

        Heh!

        I appreciate the suggestion, but I don’t think it’d work for me – my radicalness levels are just not high enough. 😉

        • willachandler says:

          Baeraad, I sincerely hope that your “heh” reflected at least the beginnings of a positive experience … 🙂 … that particular wave is named “P-Pass” … individual waves being as idiosyncratically recognizable (and gender-neutral) as individual stages of surf-stoked Enlightenment. 🙂

          As for deconstructing the surfing experience — without flinching from its dark-night-of-the-soul” elements — Kem Nunn’s “surf noir” novels provide a darkly hilarious start:

          Near the end of Kem Nunn’s crafty new novel, the title character, a 49-year-old San Francisco psychiatrist named Eldon Chance, confesses to feeling a persistent sense of “vertigo, attributable no doubt to the sudden, simultaneous rush of so many large ideas.”

          That diagnosis, like so many of Dr. Chance’s, is both entirely plausible and hilariously wrong.

          Gnarly, brah! 🙂

    • Wander says:

      I would suggest that for most people, thinking that you’re happy and actually being happy are indistinguishable. A blissful delusion of happiness is pretty much the same as real happiness.

    • Hyzenthlay says:

      That is to say – do even smart, introspective people not realise that their every experience is fundamentally painful and unsatisfying?

      Yes and no. I mean, I do have experiences where the enjoyment outweighs the discomfort, and it’s not like I’m in agony, it’s just a vague feeling of off-ness. But I’ve often had the sense that existence itself is an itchy sweater that doesn’t quite fit me right. I assumed it was an autistic/autistic-adjacent thing.

      • Baeraad says:

        I’ve got an autism diagnosis too, so I guess it must be.

        But, I mean… was the Buddha autistic too? And something about the whole life-is-pain thing must have struck a chord with regular people, surely, or why didn’t they just tell him to go away and stop being so emo?

    • Scott says:

      If I’m lying contently in bed it’s always possible for me to be more comfortable and content. But it’s a good to more good feeling for me, not a little-bad to less bad feeling.

      You can certainly frame the same signals from your body any way, but no I don’t experience a base state as painful whatsoever.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      It seems to me that most people believe happiness, at least in the short term, is possible, or at least that’s how they behave.

      This seems like a reasonable place to drop in Core Transformation, an NLP approach based on the premise that a lot of dysfunction behavior is based on the implicit premise that if only I can have enough of X, I can feel good.

      Core Transformation has the idea that people can let themselves feel their preferred sort of good anyway, and then they stop being compulsive about seeking something that doesn’t work. For example, someone might believe that they can only feel loved if everyone likes them, but actually they can just let themselves feel loved. Or only feel safe if they control the people around them.

      Has anyone here tried Core Transformation, and if so, how did it work out for them? It’s seemed reasonable to me, but I can’t seem to elicit a core value that I’m seeking.

    • Leonhart says:

      Regarding the immanance of suffering in every mind-moment? No, it’s not just you; or it’s at least you, me, the Buddha, and a bunch of authors and poets. I suspect some of the EA suffering-focused thinkers are the same way.

      If people are claiming it’s not universal, I’m going to need a new explanation for the universality of alcohol, marijuana, and similar deadening agents in human culture.
      Actually, I’m going to need another explanation for the popularity of Buddhism. I assumed that the obvious truth of that teaching was one attractor to it.

      • Baeraad says:

        That was my reasoning also. And I’ve explicitly made the argument about intoxicants before – “if you’re really not in pain, what’s with all the self-medicating?”

      • Aharon says:

        Well, at least for me, the appeal of buddhism is more of a “reduce stuff that feels really negative” and not a “make stuff that’s already nice nicer”.
        Getting very angry, sad, etc. sucks. Badly. I act in ways I feel remorse over later. Meditation, for me, takes a little bit of the bite out of it, and sometimes allows me to act in a more sensible manner.

        Perhaps it’s a lack of clarity on my side, but I don’t feel unhappy in happy situations. Kristzyan mentioned earlier up that for him, meditation leads to greater sensory pleasures. For me, sensory pleasures are already pretty much overload. I get my ears scratched, and it’s so pleasurable I have trouble staying focused on thinking. I have great sex, I’m literally unable to talk sometimes.
        (or to be more concrete, I would have to take some of the focus away from the pleasure to be able to think clearly/to talk – and I’m not really in the kind of dangerous/unpleasant situation that would warrant that)

        I use intoxicants mostly to socialize, not because of their effects. The hangover usually isn’t worth it and something I try to avoid.

    • Aapje says:

      @Baeraad

      I think that humans are diverse both their needs and what causes them suffering & that people are often mistaken about what their actual needs are (which is not so much a rational thing, but more part of the lizard brain). Furthermore, people don’t all perceive the same, so one person may suffer easily from cold, lack of predictable stimuli, lack of frequent companionship, etc.

      Where I think you are wrong is that you seem to consider these subjective traits as objective and think that other people perceive the world the same as you. I don’t feel that every experience is fundamentally painful and unsatisfying. I am often mostly comfortable and don’t perceive reality as shades of discomfort with no redeeming upside. In fact, some discomfort actually gives me enjoyment together with the dissatisfaction (like muscle pain, which is both irritating and enjoyable to me).

      Furthermore, my introspection allows me to contextualize discomfort to reduce or even enjoy it (common strategies I use is to realize that an unpleasant experience is just temporary, rationalize small discomfort as bodily overreactions, recognize that they are a cost for a greater benefit, etc).

      Also, I fundamentally don’t see live as worth living only if it is without discomfort or totally satisfying. I perceive ultimate happiness as unattainable and have accepted a fairly low risk state of reasonable contentness. Many do not and perhaps cannot.

    • Richard Kennaway says:

      Single data point: your experience does not resemble mine in any way. While there are of course specific unsatisfactory things from time to time, as there are in anyone’s life, I have no pervasive sense of an essential dukkha, angst, despair, or whatever at the heart of everything.

      I have done a fair bit of meditation, on and off over the years, and read something of various Buddhist scriptures and modern writers, and some other traditions, but I mostly come out the same door wherein I went.

    • Larry says:

      It’s absolutely not just you.

      On an anecdotal level, my best friend has been describing something very similar to me for years, along with the frustration that almost no one else seems to understand it. “Oh yeah, I get it; I feel sad and anxious sometimes too. Sometimes, like for a whole hour.” “No, you don’t get it; it never goes away for me.”

      So maybe it’s not universal, but still really uncommon?

      But then I look around, and I see people everywhere behaving as if they’re deeply unsatisfied with their lives – seeking enlightenment, thrills, power, fame; altering their brain chemistry, their bodies, their diets; traveling the world, searching for exotic experiences; distracting themselves with entertainment, social media, current events, work; even burying themselves in other people’s problems because it’s easier then dealing with their own. No matter what they say or try to project about themselves, these are not the actions of people blissfully content.

      So, maybe it’s more common than you think, even if not everyone can really articulate the feeling as a conscious daily experience.

      For what it’s worth, I’m sorry that you can’t help but feel it all the time. I have seen that flavor of misery up close, and it’s no joke. If I can steer this rambling comment back on topic for a second, I think Scott is right to be skeptical about the value of “enlightenment” that only brings that sense of dissatisfaction into sharp relief. That kind of “dark night” would only be worthwhile if it actually led you out into something better. I sincerely hope that turns out to be true in your life.

  55. jonathan stein says:

    Peterson has a great response to this here:

    https://soundcloud.com/jordanpetersonpodcast/episode-1-reality-and-the-sacred

    tl:dl is that being in a flow state liberates the self from dukkha. Reminiscent of the koan: One day, The spirits wanted to see the Zen master (I forget who), so they sprinkled rice on the floor. The Zen Master appeared and said “I wonder who did this?” Then he went to grab a broom and disappeared again (presumably into No-mind).

  56. ottomanflush says:

    Mindfulness seems to be recommended a lot along with things like CBT as being a somewhat evidence-based way to improve your mental health. Also I have trouble controlling my emotions and my therapist keeps recommending mindfulness meditation to me as a way to help. But I have no interest in experiencing anything remotely mystical and this review is freaking me out a little and discouraging me from pursuing meditation. Does anyone with experience in these things have any insight? Will 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day eventually lead me to a Dark Night of the Soul?

    • cuke says:

      See now I’m glad you wrote this because I’d say your reaction to Ingram’s perspective is precisely why his perspective may not be so helpful.

      Meditation and a whole range of other short mindfulness practices can be very helpful for reducing emotional reactivity.

      I don’t personally know anyone who has experienced a prolonged dark night of the soul as a response to mindfulness meditation. I teach it, I run groups, I work one-on-one with people and this is not something I’ve observed. People who lead long meditation retreats can speak more specifically to the kinds of situations in which long retreats may not be recommended for someone. But 15 minutes a day of meditation while having a therapist to check in with about it strikes me as a great thing.

      People who have depression are vulnerable to relapsing into depression under all kinds of circumstances (illness, sleep loss, other losses, stress, etc). Right in the midst of a major depressive episode may not be the best time to start up a meditation practice. But otherwise, I don’t think people need to go around worrying that meditation practice will plunge them into the black hole.

      Sometimes people with a great deal of trauma or anxiety have trouble feeling safe with their own minds when they first sit still. Thoughts may speed up at first and agitation may increase for some in the short-term. But that’s the case with trying many new things for people with anxiety or trauma. And learning to sit still with one’s mind in small doses and in a safe environment is a pretty reliable way of coming to feel more safe with one’s mind and coming to experience it as a more reliable refuge.

      • Hyzenthlay says:

        But 15 minutes a day of meditation while having a therapist to check in with about it strikes me as a great thing.

        Yeah, I think Ingram’s darker and weirder experiences apply more to people who practice unusually long and intensive periods of meditation over the course of years. Or at least that was the impression I got. 20 minutes a day is going to be neutral-to-beneficial for the vast majority of people. It’s not that easy to unravel your own mind. Otherwise anecdotes about people accidentally plunging themselves into Dark Nights would be a lot more common.

  57. jayarava says:

    Ingram is a rather refreshing addition to the Buddhist landscape which is mostly bogged down in Romanticism and, as that first quote suggests, lacking pragmatism.

    I’m not sure you got to the nub of dukkha however. I’ve changed the way I understand dukkha as a result of engaging with pragmatism. I read Pāḷi and Sanskrit, and I now translate dukkha or duḥkha as “disappointment”.

    I relate Dukkha to approaching life as an exercise in pleasure seeking. David J Linden’s book “Pleasure” is a very good introduction to the neuroscience of pleasure and why we get addicted to seeking it. He also explains why pleasure seeking is ultimately unsatisfactory: repeated pleasurable stimulation gives diminishing returns. If that pleasure defines our happiness, then we seek more of it, or more intense versions of it. Or we opt for novelty so that we can continue at the same level of stimulation. And we still get diminishing returns. Seeking pleasure only leads to disappointment, no matter how much pleasure we experience along the way. We get pleasure from one chocolate, but the whole box will make us sick.

    Ironically, with pleasure, it is better to slow down, to space out pleasurable activities, indulge them less often. This way they become more satisfying. But most of us understand happiness to be the pursuit of pleasure, so we don’t slow down. Most modern people are hyper-stimulated as a result. And hence we become mentally ill more often.

    As Dr Sue Hamilton has said (Early Buddhism: A New Approach), it’s not that we have some experience that we categorise as dukkha. Dukkha is not a label we hang on experience. Dukkha *is* experience, at least it is unenlightened experience. Because of this, more experience can only make our situation worse. More experience *is* more dukkha. It is dukkha because of the dynamics of pleasure seeking. No amount of pleasure satisfies out desire for pleasure. No amount of experience satisfies out desire for experience.

    Buddhism turns the usual idea on its head. We stop seeking out sensory experiences and start purposefully attenuating and temporarily eliminating all sensory experience in meditation. We voluntarily deprive ourselves of sensory stimulation. We can watch experience stop and watch it start up again – it is like staying aware of what is happening as we fall into a deep sleep, and discovering that it is a very satisfying state to be in. Quiet, calm, beautiful, blissful, etc. It allows us to gain meta-knowledge about how experience works – how it arises and passes away. We start to intuitively understand that experience is far less compelling than it seems. It can change our whole orientation with respect to experience. With respect to experience, the only way to be content is to allow experience to stop.

    That experience *can* stop ought to be no surprise to anyone who has ever fallen asleep or had an anaesthetic. The trick is staying aware as it happens.

    • George Vockroth says:

      We can watch experience stop and watch it start up again – it is like staying aware of what is happening as we fall into a deep sleep… The trick is staying aware as it happens.

      Who is staying aware?

      • jayarava says:

        George,

        I would say that the question is not “who”, but what is staying aware.

        J

        • George Vockroth says:

          I’m good with “what?” as well. Or perhaps, what-not as the case may be. In the thick of, e.g. that which Shinzen Young labels simply, “gone”, there is no giving of a flying rainbow body about any who or what is “staying aware.” Such distinctions emerge only with re-engagement in the subject/object mode. Subsequently then, if all goes well, any sense of the necessity of making such distinctions is seen through and released. This is not to say distinctions aren’t made, or even made use of, but rather that they pop like a bubbles in the act of being blown, without clinging. Admittedly such “experience” remains above my pay grade the vast majority of the time.

    • Hyzenthlay says:

      That experience *can* stop ought to be no surprise to anyone who has ever fallen asleep or had an anaesthetic. The trick is staying aware as it happens.

      If you’re aware, then by definition you are still having experiences, otherwise there would be nothing to be aware of. Even if the only thing you’re aware of is your own awareness, that’s still a type of experience. It’s just a different type of experience than you’re used to.

      • George Vockroth says:

        That “there would be nothing to be aware of,” is precisely the point of awareness turning back upon itself in meditation, i.e. “the only thing you’re aware of is your own awareness.” But that awareness is not of anything and does not belong to anybody. There is no one who is actually, in Jayarava’s words, “staying aware.” Thus experience-of, but not conscious awareness, stops momentarily (stillness) until one pops back into the next moment of experience (movement) of sensory or cognitive content and instaneously recognizes (remembers) that previously there was a moment(s) in which there was nothing and no one. If you want to call this, “a different type of experience than you’re used to,” that’s fine. However the key point is that this alternation – sometimes more and sometimes less rapid – of movement and stillness (“arising and passing away”) is actually happening all the time. Meditation is simply the practice(s) in which one learns to see this is the case. And pursued diligently this seeing leaks out into everyday experience. As to the value of all of this…?

      • jayarava says:

        Hyzenthlay,

        I totally agree with you. It is still a type of experience. I think the fact that Buddhists are vague about this causes much confusion. And I should know better 🙂

        It is a *very* different type of experience however.

        And as I think the other replies show, there is a problem with confusing the experience of not having a first person perspective on experience with the ontology of personhood – the confused result is the claim that we have no self.

        A first person perspective on experience is also an experience, not a thing. Not experiencing selfhood – whether in sleep, anaesthesia, or meditation – is not the same as the self not existing. Early Buddhists tried to explain that ontology as they understood it (terms like existent and non-existent) don’t apply to experience.

        I’m not sure that we have made much progress in philosophy when it comes to ontology of experience. Experience arises and passes away, but nothing tangible or visible comes into being or ceases as a result. This is true only of experience, not of objective things.

        One cannot draw ontological conclusions from subjective experience in the way that Buddhists usually do. Nothing good has ever come of it.

  58. gardenofaleph says:

    I too was left wondering whether to pursue meditation at all after reading MCTB.

    Before reading it I had obtained what seem in retrospect to have been the first Jhana, after meditating 30 minutes a day for a couple months. I don’t meditate for long sessions precisely because I’m not 100% committed or interested in any overwhelmingly intense experiences at the moment.

    It was very pleasant but if I had to ‘sell’ meditation to other people I’d focus on this:

    1. Meditation made me more acutely aware of the reasons/emotions behind my actions. It’s harder to lie to myself when I’m meditating regularly. This was helpful for fixing my previous mild social anxiety/shyness: instead of being complacent with myself and thinking “I’m tired, I don’t need to talk to people.” Or “I don’t know anyone here, I should go.” I could recognize those thoughts as mostly cover for shyness and choose to act in spite of those impulses. Other self-lies are more useful so I purposely don’t delve into them too much.

    2. I can semi-consciously enter a state of what a psychologist would probably call hypomania and others would probably call excited when in social situations. A pickup artist would probably call it “getting into state.” This used to happen to me only when I felt very comfortable in social situations with people i knew, required lots of friendly conversation before stuff started to flow naturally, but the vast reduction in my social anxiety makes this emotional state pretty easy for me to obtain nowadays. Very helpful for socializing in groups but I do have to tone it down for small intimate conversation or people think I’m insincere.

    3. Whenever I’m regularly meditating, sleep deprivation is less subjectively miserable. I still feel drowsy, kind of dumb, etc. while sleep deprived, but its not as acutely miserable as usual.

    4. I think it helps with my brain fog. Or maybe just deep breathing is a nice break to long studying/reading and it has nothing to do with meditation.

  59. Kendric says:

    So I’ve lurked around here for a while, but never posted (hi! Y’all are fantastic.) I have a bit of an unusual biographical anecdote to add here, though.

    I’m an oil painter by trade; my training, which was very 19th century, focused on veridical perception, or what we sometimes called retinal perception. In essence, the first year was explicitly centered on learning to access our actual visual experiences (and transfer them to paper). I spent around 70-80 hours a week doing this, in a mostly silent, unchanging environment that I’ve frequently described as monastic.

    I found that first year, the one concerned mostly with trying to access the patterns of light & dark my eye was sending to my brain, unlike anything else in my life. I was calm, but elated, and felt a strange electrical power; I felt like I moved smoothly from cooking breakfast, to drawing, to cleaning the bathroom with a sort of joy, and everything felt unified in a mystical way that’s hard to describe, and it was all centered on this attempt to live through my eyes, and perceive without automatically interpreting.

    This was a while ago, and I haven’t been back to that peculiar state of being since, but I found myself permanently altered by the process of learning to see. I don’t want to tl;dr though it all in excruciating detail, but this entire post seemed uncanny to me, seeing a deep personal experience of mine described from an unfamiliar direction.

    • George Vockroth says:

      Kendric, Thank you for your “anecdote” – most illuminating. Not sure what you mean by having found yourself “permanently altered by the process of learning to see,” but I wonder if having, “lurked around here for awhile,” you are thinking of trying to find your way, “back to that peculiar state of being,” perhaps by other means.

      • Kendric says:

        Altered partly in terms of the constant awareness of the slapdash and ambiguous nature of what’s actually coming in the eyes, and the way that’s acted upon by the brain, an awareness that I found does bleed over into other senses as well. But also as re: the process Scott describes Ingram describing following the A&P event!

        • George Vockroth says:

          And as to finding your way back to that “peculiar state of being”?

          • Kendric says:

            Well, I certainly wouldn’t mind, though it’s unclear to me it’s a plausible option. If we accept that my experience was meditative in a manner like Ingram’s concept, certainly, as a self-directed painter no longer working in a purely sensate way, it would have to be through other means.

          • George Vockroth says:

            Recommend, Richard Shankman and his book, “The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation”. Also, do you have an artist website?

          • Kendric says:

            Interesting. I may amazon that here shortly, and thank you! And yes, my portfolio should be linked in my username

  60. prayforenemies says:

    I haven’t read the book so I don’t know what it actually says, but I’m confused how something that claims to offer the core teachings of the Buddha leave someone with the impression that the end of suffering is unappealing. Why would anyone want to continue suffering? The core teaching of the Buddha is the end of suffering! Thats the only thing actually worth doing.

  61. P. George Stewart says:

    Great topic. I had non-dual experiences as a kid (from maybe 5 to about 10 or so), as a result of wondering intensely “Who am I?”, repeating my name to myself, and sort of gathering a sense of myself, my biography up to that point, into a little bundle and sort of turning it about and looking at it from all angles. God knows how I came up with this “practice” but I just fell into it at some point, out of curiosity. I would play with it lightly every now and then, and maybe on half a dozen or so occasions got really deeply into it, and out of those half-dozen or so occasions, I think maybe three or four times, something very strange and wonderful happened, that’s actually indescribable except in a poetic way, or perhaps in terms of the kind of metaphysics you find in Plotinus, non-dual texts from Asian religions, etc.

    Basically, there would be this “stepping back” phenomenon, where the sense of what I am suddenly stood out and could be seen clearly, in totality, and then a phase of intense fear combined with a sense of inner vertigo, and at that point I would usually stop the practice. But on those few occasions where I kept going, then subsequent to that moment of terror, there would be a moment akin to when you’re in an aeroplane and it bursts out from under the dun overcast into the brilliant, fluffy sunshine above the clouds.

    Essentially, it felt like I was sicking up a false sense of self, and coming into a true sense of self, or a sense of what I really, really am, or better, of what “this” really, really is, what the “this” that is existence really, really is.

    The false sense of self is the sense of being something inside the head peeping out at the world, separate from it. The true sense of self, or the true sense of being-a-thing, is completely free of that, and instead it’s … well, it’s indescribable, but honestly, basically, it’s a sense of being the universe, or being “God” (or at the very least, a chip off the old block). At that point, there are no more questions, everything is felt to be answered, one is totally at home, at peace, a most profound peace (“the peace that passeth understanding”)

    I can grok the idea your author talks about, that getting to this point is actually hard work, because at some point, roundabout maybe 12 or so, I just couldn’t get “there” any more. Somehow, being me, the ordinary me, became such an absorbing project, that I gradually forgot about that “thing”, and on any occasion I tried to sit down and return to it, I just found my mind too scattered and distracted to muster the necessary laser-like concentration, and the sense of what I am became too unwieldy, too full of memories, to gather into a bundle and look at objectively.

    Still, the idea that there’s “nothing to do” is also correct – because THAT, in that state, has an understanding that this is its true state, the state one is in all the time, just like (as the traditions often say) the sun is always shining above the clouds – that state, that true knowledge of what the hell is really going on with this existence thing, is normally occluded by the “clouds” of thoughts, or not so much thoughts, but this fixed, ever-present sense of being this thing inside the skull peeping out from the eyes looking at the world.

    So I’m in this odd position of being a rationalist by temperament, but having had these intense, sort of “final” mystical experiences, and not being particularly bothered by wanting to get back there, so no feeling of “my hair being on fire,” to drive an intense period of practice.

    But I have no doubt that given, say, three months of daily meditation, ramping up to several hours a day, it could be done by anyone. You just need to gather a kind of momentum that gradually focuses your concentration, lifts you, and carries you over the threshold.

    As to the cognitive content of the experience, I don’t have any problem seeing it as true – in a sense it’s really just the perception of a tautology, existence is, and that existence, the totality of it, is what one really, really is. It’s really just immediate perception of the scientific fact that the universe is a Great Big Thing, and the distinction between self and other is kind of an arbitrary artifact of the happenstance trajectory by which awareness arises in one species in one tiny corner of the totality. Consciousness “pertains to,” or “belongs to,” the body certainly – it arises with it, and will fall with it – but at the same time, consciousness also “pertains to” or “belongs to” the universe at large, it is a cosmic phenomenon – one’s thought about what one is going to have for dinner today is fundamentally impersonal, like birds passing through the sky.

    • jplewicke says:

      In case you’d like a second opinion, this is is a very good description of the transition to the stage of High Equanimity that is described in MCTB, and which is the last stage prior to stream entry. In short, as a kid you crossed the A&P and made it all the way through the dark night(this was the terror etc. that you mentioned).

      • P. George Stewart says:

        Cool, thanks! I’ve downloaded the book and am looking forward to reading it. Who knows, I might get my act together and go for it again in my sunset years 🙂

        There are lots of books on these topics that are interesting in one way or another, or insightful, but very few that have a down-to-earth practical approach. Another book that sort of “spills the beans” is a book written by a Japanese Zen guy called Katsuki Sekida (a layman practitioner, a medical man too, I believe), called Zen Training. That book is also interesting in that, as well as giving very practical instructions, it also goes into the crossover between enlightenment and various philosophies of the East and West (e.g. Heidegger, Nishitani, etc.)

        Another interesting, maverick (pratyekabuddha?) person in this area who I really like, is the French author, Stephen Jourdain, who, amusingly enough, got it by contemplating Descartes’ Cogito in a meditative way like this. He’s written a few books in French, and some extracts have been translated and collected in a book in English, and there’s also a wonderful interview with him in English floating around on Youtube.

    • Bronstein says:

      This nearly exactly describes my experiences i had as a kid. In my case i did not feel any fear just the intense vertigo after which i stopped and never went farther. I have been searching the net for a description of this for a long time and this is the best account so far. Never been able to describe it like you have, thanks!
      Strangely enough, the first time i encountered a potrayal of something similar was in the infamous novel by James Blish , “Spock must die”.

      • P. George Stewart says:

        I think a lot more people get into the penumbra of this experience than we realize.

        You know when a party conversation drifts to topics of philosophy, the Big Questions, etc., and someone says, “I don’t like thinking of that sort of stuff, it makes me dizzy/uncomfortable/etc.”? I wonder if sometimes people who express that sort of opinion have been hovering around this experience.

        Some kinds of depersonalization might also be related – e.g. perhaps some sort of glitch produces the experience of no-self, but because it’s not something the person is prepared for, it comes as a total shock and is felt as uncomfortable and unwanted.

    • Betty Cook says:

      Quote from Kipling’s Kim, which sounds like what you describe:

      “A very few white people, but many Asiatics, can throw themselves into amazement as it were by repeating their own names over and over to themselves, letting the mind go free upon speculation as to what is called personal identity. When one grows older, the power, usually, departs, but while it lasts it may descend upon a man at any moment.

      “Who is Kim–Kim–Kim?”

      He squatted in a corner of the clanging waiting room, rapt from all other thoughts, hands folded in lap and pupils contracted to pin-points. In a minute–in another half-second–he felt he would arrive at the solution of the tremendous puzzle; but here, as always happens, his mind dropped away from those heights with the rush of a wounded bird, and passing his hand before his eyes, he shook his head.

      A long-haired Hindu bairagi (holy man), who had just bought a ticket, halted before him at that moment and stared intently.

      “I have also lost it,” he said sadly. “It is one of the Gates to the Way, but for me it has been shut many years.”

      • P. George Stewart says:

        Yeah I always thought that Kipling quote was really spot on. It makes it clear that he must have known some genuine mystics in India.

        There’s also a description of it in Tennyson (quoted in James’ Varieties of Religious Experience).

        It’s also a specific technique in Tibetan Buddhism, and can be used as a Hua’tou practice in Zen.

      • esraymond says:

        Kipling was amazing that way. It was reading Kim as a child that first gave me a clue that there might be something really interesting going on within Buddhism.

        Years later, when I had studied enough and meditated enough to at least begin to plug into that something, I reread Kim and it really struck me how much Kipling’s descriptions still…worked. I knew what doctrine Teshoo Lama expounded in the last hours before his death, and what diagrams he drew to illustrate it, because I had found Kipling’s Tibetan Buddhist sources. I knew what Kim was trying to attain, and why his mind fell away from it, because I had that experience myself, and eventually did not fall away before reaching at least a moment of satori.

        I’m a mystic, but not a believing Buddhist. That too may be partly Kipling’s doing; note the subtle point he makes in the identity of the bairagi not as another Buddhist but a Hindu. The message is clear; this thing, this Way and its Gates, is in all religions if you have the discernment to see it. So when I learned that Meister Eckhardt had said “The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me”, I saw another Gate of the Way despite my strong loathing of Christianity.

        Today it is fashionable to denounce Kipling as an imperialist, a racist, a colonialist. This is profound idiocy. Kipling was a universalist of the best kind; he saw the deep community of human experience, including mystical experience, and write of it so movingly that it changed my life. Fifty years later I am still amazed.

        Perhaps it is not coincidence that, in an important technical way, Kim was the genesis event of modern science fiction. In it, Kipling invented the technique of indirect exposition via counterfactual that Robert Helnlein would take up 37 years later and astablish as the central rhetorical mode of Campbellian SF.

        • P. George Stewart says:

          Yeah agree very much about Kipling, he was a great man.

          I’m also very much in favour of the ecumenical view of religions. I mean, one can take religions as being various sets of propositions about deep reality, only one set of which can be true; or one can take religions as poetic descriptions by the famous blind men, of parts of one elephant. (A stronger version of it would be the “Perennial Wisdom” idea, but that’s probably a bit too strong, and leads to trying to force all manner of stuff into a single interpretative straightjacket – we must allow for mistakes and nonsense to creep in.)

          I favour the latter because it’s actually congruent with science – we’re talking about something that’s common across races and cultures, something that’s to do with the way the brain works to model the world around it, and itself (and its body) in the world.

  62. danielmingram says:

    Replies by the author (DMI) to Scott Alexander (SA) inline…

    I.
    SA: I always wanted to meditate more, but never really got around to it. And (I thought) I had an unimpeachable excuse. The demands of a medical career are incompatible with such a time-consuming practice.

    Enter Daniel Ingram MD, an emergency physician who claims to have achieved enlightenment just after graduating medical school.

    DMI: I achieved stream entry, the first stage of awakening, in early 1996 and started medical school in 1999.

    SA: His book is called Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha, but he could also have called it Buddhism For ER Docs.

    DMI: I wrote most of the first edition of the book before medical school began in the years 1997-1999, so perhaps you could call this book, Buddhism for Epidemiology PhD Students, as that was what I was when I wrote most of it. I did gain additional insights in my retreat in 2003 after medical school.

    SA: ER docs are famous for being practical, working fast, and thinking everyone else is an idiot.

    DMI: Fast and practical are true. As to thinking everyone is an idiot, actually the whole premise of the book is that ordinary people can wake up with good technique and some reasonable effort, which is pretty much the opposite of thinking everyone is an idiot. Still, it is true that some reasonable numbers of the behaviors that we see causing illness and injury in an emergency department could possibly increase the likelihood that one might view the level of common sense of some people in a less than glowing light, just as reasonable number of watered-down spiritual teachings might not encourage and empower meditation practitioners to reach their full potential.

    SA: MCTB delivers on all three counts. And if you’ve ever had an attending quiz you on the difference between type 1 and type 2 second-degree heart block, you’ll love Ingram’s taxonomy of the stages of enlightenment.

    DMI: Thanks!

    SA: The result is a sort of perfect antidote to the vague hippie-ism you get from a lot of spirituality. For example, from page 324:

    I feel the need to address, which is to say shoot down with every bit of rhetorical force I have, the notion promoted by some teachers and even traditions that there is nothing to do, nothing to accomplish, no goal to obtain, no enlightenment other than the ordinary state of being…which, if it were true, would have been very nice of them, except that it is complete bullshit. The Nothing To Do School and the You Are Already There School are both basically vile extremes on the same basic notion that all effort to attain to mastery is already missing the point, an error of craving and grasping. They both contradict the fundamental premise of this book, namely that there is something amazing to attain and understand and that there are specific, reproducible methods that can help you do that. Here is a detailed analysis of what is wrong with these and related perspectives…

    DMI: Thanks again.

    SA: …followed by a detailed analysis of what’s wrong with this position, which he compared to “let[ting] a blind and partially paralyzed untrained stroke victim perform open-heart surgery on your child based on the notion that they are already an accomplished surgeon but just have to realize it”.

    DMI: A point that stands on its own nicely, I feel.

    SA: This isn’t to say that MCTB isn’t a spiritual book, or that it shies away from mysticism or the transcendent. MCTB is very happy to discuss mysticism and the transcendent. It just quarantines the mystery within a carefully explained structure of rationally-arranged progress, so that it looks something like “and at square 41B in our perfectly rectangular grid you’ll encounter a mind-state which is impossible to explain even in principle, here are a few woefully inadequate metaphors for this mind-state so you’ll know when you’ve found it and should move on to square 41C.”

    This is a little jarring. But – Ingram argues – it’s also very Buddhist. If you read the sutras with an open mind, the Buddha sounds a lot more like an ER doctor than a hippie. MCTB has a very Protestant fundamentalist feeling of digging through the exterior trappings of a religion to try to return to the purity of its origins. As far as I can tell, it succeeds – and in succeeding helped me understand Buddhism a whole lot better than anything else I’ve read.

    DMI: Glad it helped in some way. That is always good go hear.

  63. danielmingram says:

    II.

    SA: Ingram follows the Buddha in dividing the essence of Buddhism into three teachings: morality, concentration, and wisdom.

    Morality seems like the odd one out here. Some Buddhists like to insist that Buddhism isn’t really a “religion”. It’s less like Christianity or Islam than it is like (for example) high intensity training at the gym – a highly regimented form of practice that improves certain faculties if pursued correctly. Talking about “morality” makes this sound kind of hollow; nobody says you have to be a good person to get bigger muscles from lifting weights.

    MCTB gives the traditional answer: you should be moral because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it helps meditation. The same things that make you able to sleep at night with a clear mind make you able to meditate with a clear mind:

    One more great thing about the first training [morality] is that it really helps with the next training: concentration. So here’s a tip: if you are finding it hard to concentrate because your mind is filled with guilt, judgment, envy or some other hard and difficult thought pattern, also work on the first training, kindness. It will be time well spent.

    That leaves concentration (samatha) and wisdom (vipassana). You do samatha to get a powerful mind; you get a powerful mind in order do to vipassana.

    Samatha meditation is the “mindfulness” stuff you’re always hearing about: concentrate on the breath, don’t let yourself get distracted, see if you can just attend to the breath and nothing else for minutes or hours. I read whole books about this before without understanding why it was supposed to be good, aside from vague things like “makes you feel more serene”. MCTB gives two reasons: first, it gets you into jhanas. Second, it prepares you for vipassana.

    Jhanas are unusual mental states you can get into with enough concentration. Some of them are super blissful. Others are super tranquil. They’re not particularly meaningful in and of themselves, but they can give you heroin-level euphoria without having to worry about sticking needles in your veins. MCTB says, understatedly, that they can be a good encouragement to continue your meditation practice. It gives a taxonomy of eight jhanas, and suggests that a few months of training in samatha meditation can get you to the point where you can reach at least the first.

    But the main point of samatha meditation is to improve your concentration ability so you can direct it to ordinary experience. Become so good at concentrating that you can attain various jhanas – but then, instead of focusing on infinite bliss or whatever other cool things you can do with your new talent, look at a wall or listen to the breeze or just try to understand the experience of existing in time.

    This is vipassana (“insight”, “wisdom”) meditation. It’s a deep focus on the tiniest details of your mental experience, details so fleeting and subtle that without a samatha-trained mind you’ll miss them entirely. One such detail is the infamous “vibrations”, so beloved of hippies. Ingram notes that every sensation vibrates in and out of consciousness at a rate of between five and forty vibrations per second, sometimes speeding up or slowing down depending on your mental state. I’m a pathetic meditator and about as far from enlightenment as anybody in this world, but with enough focus even I have been able to confirm this to be true. And this is pretty close to the frequency of brain waves, which seems like a pretty interesting coincidence.

    But this is just an example. The point is that if you really, really examine your phenomenological experience, you realize all sorts of surprising things. Ingram says that one early insight is a perception of your mental awareness of a phenomenon as separate from your perception of that phenomenon:

    This mental impression of a previous sensation is like an echo, a resonance. The mind takes a crude impression of the object, and that is what we can think about, remember, and process. Then there may be a thought or an image that arises and passes, and then, if the mind is stable, another physical pulse. Each one of these arises and vanishes completely before the other begins, so it is extremely possible to sort out which is which with a stable mind dedicated to consistent precision and not being lost in stories. This means the instant you have experienced something, you know that it isn’t there any more, and whatever is there is a new sensation that will be gone in an instant. There are typically many other impermanent sensations and impressions interspersed with these, but, for the sake of practice, this is close enough to what is happening to be a good working model.

    Engage with the preceding paragraphs. They are the stuff upon which great insight practice is based. Given that you know sensations are vibrating, pulsing in and out of reality, and that, for the sake of practice, every sensation is followed directly by a mental impression, you now know exactly what you are looking for. You have a clear standard. If you are not experiencing it, then stabilize the mind further, and be clearer about exactly when and where there are physical sensations.

    With enough of this work, you gain direct insight into what Buddhists call “the three characteristics”. The first is impermanence, and is related to all the stuff above about how sensations flicker and disappear. The second is called “unsatisfactoriness”, and involves the inability of any sensation to be fulfilling in some fundamental way. And the last is “no-self”, an awareness that these sensations don’t really cohere into the classic image of a single unified person thinking and perceiving them.

    The Buddha famously said that “life is suffering”, and placed the idea of suffering – dukkha – as the center of his system. This dukkha is the same as the “unsatisfactoriness” above.

    I always figured the Buddha was talking about life being suffering in the sense that sometimes you’re poor, or you’re sick, or you have a bad day. And I always figured that making money or exercising or working to make your day better sounded like a more promising route to dealing with this kind of suffering than any kind of meditative practice. Ingram doesn’t disagree that things like bad days are examples of dukkha. But he explains that this is something way more fundamental. Even if you were having the best day of your life and everything was going perfectly, if you slowed your mind down and concentrated perfectly on any specific atomic sensation, that sensation would include dukkha. Dukkha is part of the mental machinery.

    MCTB acknowledges that all of this sounds really weird. And there are more depths of insight meditation, all sorts of weird things you notice when you look deep enough, that are even weirder. It tries to be very clear that nothing it’s writing about is going to make much sense in words, and that reading the words doesn’t really tell you very much. The only way to really make sense of it is to practice meditation.

    When you understand all of this on a really fundamental level – when you’re able to tease apart every sensation and subsensation and subsubsensation and see its individual components laid out before you – then at some point your normal model of the world starts running into contradictions and losing its explanatory power. This is very unpleasant, and eventually your mind does some sort of awkward Moebius twist on itself, adopts a better model of the world, and becomes enlightened.

    DMI: Thanks for that nice summary. May it benefit practitioners who wish to understand their own experience further.

  64. danielmingram says:

    III.

    SA: The rest of the book is dedicated to laying out, in detail, all the steps that you have to go through before this happens. In Ingram’s model – based on but not identical to the various models in various Buddhist traditions – there are fifteen steps you have to go through before “stream entry” – the first level of enlightenment. You start off at the first step, after meditating some number of weeks or months or years you pass to the second step, and so on.

    A lot of these are pretty boring, but Ingram focuses on the fourth step, Arising And Passing Away. Meditators in this step enter what sounds like a hypomanic episode:

    In the early part of this stage, the meditator’s mind speeds up more and more quickly, and reality begins to be perceived as particles or fine vibrations of mind and matter, each arising and vanishing utterly at tremendous speed…As this stage deepens and matures, meditators let go of even the high levels of clarity and the other strong factors of meditation, perceive even these to arise and pass as just vibrations, not satisfy, and not be self. They may plunge down into the very depths of the mind as though plunging deep underwater to where they can perceive individual frames of reality arise and pass with breathtaking clarity as though in slow motion […]

    Strong sensual or sexual feelings and dreams are common at this stage, and these may have a non-discriminating quality that those attached to their notion of themselves as being something other than partially bisexual may find disturbing. Further, if you have unresolved issues around sexuality, which we basically all have, you may encounter aspects of them during this stage. This stage, its afterglow, and the almost withdrawal-like crash that can follow seem to increase the temptation to indulge in all manner of hedonistic delights, particularly substances and sex. As the bliss wears off, we may find ourselves feeling very hungry or lustful, craving chocolate, wanting to go out and party, or something like that. If we have addictions that we have been fighting, some extra vigilance near the end of this stage might be helpful.

    This stage also tends to give people more of an extroverted, zealous or visionary quality, and they may have all sorts of energy to pour into somewhat idealistic or grand projects and schemes. At the far extreme of what can happen, this stage can imbue one with the powerful charisma of the radical religious leader.

    Finally, at nearly the peak of the possible resolution of the mind, they cross something called “The Arising and Passing Event” (A&P Event) or “Deep Insight into the Arising and Passing Away”…Those who have crossed the A&P Event have stood on the ragged edge of reality and the mind for just an instant, and they know that awakening is possible. They will have great faith, may want to tell everyone to practice, and are generally evangelical for a while. They will have an increased ability to understand the teachings due to their direct and non-conceptual experience of the Three Characteristics. Philosophy that deals with the fundamental paradoxes of duality will be less problematic for them in some way, and they may find this fascinating for a time. Those with a strong philosophical bent will find that they can now philosophize rings around those who have not attained to this stage of insight. They may also incorrectly think that they are enlightened, as what they have seen was completely spectacular and profound. In fact, this is strangely common for some period of time, and thus may stop practicing when they have actually only really begun.

    This is a common time for people to write inspired dharma books, poetry, spiritual songs, and that sort of thing. This is also the stage when people are more likely to join monasteries or go on great spiritual quests. It is also worth noting that this stage can look an awful lot like a manic episode as defined in the DSM-IV (the current diagnostic manual of psychiatry). The rapture and intensity of this stage can be basically off the scale, the absolute peak on the path of insight, but it doesn’t last. Soon the meditator will learn what is meant by the phrase, “Better not to begin. Once begun, better to finish!”

    If this last part sounds ominous, it probably should. If the fourth stage looks like a manic episode, the next five or six stages all look like some flavor of deep clinical depression. Ingram discusses several spiritual traditions and finds that they all warn of an uncanny valley halfway along the spiritual path; he himself adopts St. John’s phrase “Dark Night Of The Soul”. Once you have meditated enough to reach the A&P Event, you’re stuck in the (very unpleasant) Dark Night Of The Soul until you can meditate your way out of it, which could take months or years.

    DMI: The unpleasantness of the Dark Night or Knowledges of Suffering to use the traditional Buddhist term is highly variable, as it the timing, from mild to excruciating, from minutes to years.

    SA: Ingram’s theory is that many people have had spiritual experiences without deliberately pursuing a spiritual practice – whether this be from everyday life, or prayer, or drugs, or even things you do in dreams. Some of these people accidentally cross the A&P Event, reach the Dark Night Of The Soul, and – not even knowing that the way out is through meditation – get stuck there for years, having nothing but a vague spiritual yearning and sense that something’s not right.

    DMI: The stories that support this claim regarding people entering these stages in daily life with sometimes minimal to no formal meditative training which you can find a http://www.dharmaoverground.org number at least in the hundreds if not thousands.

    SA: He says that this is his own origin story – he got stuck in the Dark Night after having an A&P Event in a dream at age 15, was low-grade depressed for most of his life, and only recovered once he studied enough Buddhism to realize what had happened to him and how he could meditate his way out:

    When I was about 15 years old I accidentally ran into some of the classic early meditation experiences described in the ancient texts and my reluctant spiritual quest began. I did not realize what had happened, nor did I realize that I had crossed something like a point of no return, something I would later call the Arising and Passing Away. I knew that I had had a very strange dream with bright lights, that my entire body and world had seemed to explode like fireworks, and that afterwards I somehow had to find something, but I had no idea what that was. I philosophized frantically for years until I finally began to realize that no amount of thinking was going to solve my deeper spiritual issues and complete the cycle of practice that had already started.

    I had a very good friend that was in the band that employed me as a sound tech and roadie. He was in a similar place, caught like me in something we would later call the Dark Night and other names. He also realized that logic and cognitive restructuring were not going to help us in the end. We looked carefully at what other philosophers had done when they came to the same point, and noted that some of our favorites had turned to mystical practices. We reasoned that some sort of nondual wisdom that came from direct experience was the only way to go, but acquiring that sort of wisdom seemed a daunting task if not
    impossible […]

    I [finally] came to the profound realization that they have actually worked all of this stuff out. Those darn Buddhists have come up with very simple techniques that lead directly to remarkable results if you follow instructions and get the dose high enough. While some people don’t like this sort of cookbook approach to meditation, I am so grateful for their recipes that words fail to express my profound gratitude for the successes they have afforded me. Their simple and ancient practices revealed more and more of what I sought. I found my experiences filling in the gaps in the texts and teachings, debunking the myths that pervade the standard Buddhist dogma and revealing the secrets meditation teachers routinely keep to themselves. Finally, I came to a place where I felt comfortable writing the book that I had been looking for, the book you now hold in your hands.

    Once you meditate your way out of the Dark Night, you go through some more harrowing experiences, until you finally reach the fifteenth stage, Fruiition, and achieve “stream entry” – the first level of enlightenment. Then you do it all again on a higher level, kind of like those video games where when you beat the game you get access to New Game+ . Traditionally it takes four repetitions of the spiritual path before you attain complete perfect enlightenment, but Ingram suggests this is metaphorical and says it took him approximately twenty-seven repetitions over seven years.

    He also says – and here his usual lucidity deserted him and I ended up kind of confused – that once you’ve achieved stream entry, you’re going to be going down paths whether you like it or not – the “stream” metaphor is apt insofar as it suggests being borne along by a current. The rest of your life – even after you achieve complete perfect enlightenment – will be spent cycling through the fifteen stages, with each stage lasting a few days to months.

    DMI: Numerous other reports from real-world practitioners demonstrate this basic and seemingly physiological fact, though the relationship to those cycles changes, and the degree to which they cause trouble trends towards improvement, in general, and attaining to the complete dissolution of the illusion of a center-point makes a gigantic difference. I give more details about this in the upcoming second edition of the book, which hopefully will shed more light on these points.

    SA: This seems pretty bad, since the stages look a lot like depression, mania, and other more arcane psychiatric and psychological problems. Even if you don’t mind the emotional roller coaster, a lot of them sound just plain exhausting, with your modes of cognition and perception shifting and coming into question at various points.

    DMI: It does, in general, get better as one gets better at turning that territory from problems into insights. I am not sure exhausting is the right word, and the cycles do help prevent spiritual bypassing, as layer upon layer of mind shows itself, providing opportunities to integrate those into the clear light of insight.

    SA: MCTB offers some tips for dealing with this – you can always slow your progress down the path by gorging on food, refusing to meditate, and doing various other unspiritual things, but the whole thing lampshades a question that MCTB profoundly fails at giving anything remotely like an answer to:

  65. danielmingram says:

    IV.

    Why would you want to do any of this?

    DMI: it is a valid criticism of that first edition, though some of that limitation remains in the second edition, yet to be released, and part of that is just my style and limitations as a salesman of this path.

    SA: The Buddha is supposed to have said: “I gained nothing whatsoever from Supreme Enlightenment, and for that reason it is called Supreme Enlightenment”. And sure, that’s the enigmatic Zen-sounding sort of statement we expect from our spiritual leaders. But if Buddhist practice is really difficult, and makes you perceive every single sensation as profoundly unsatisfactory in some hard-to-define way, and can plunge you into a neverending depression which you might get out of if you meditate hard enough, and then gives you a sort of permanent annoying low-grade bipolar disorder even if you succeed, then we’re going to need something better than pithy quotes.

    DMI: Ah, I see that I was unclear here, and my apologies. Again, insights and integration of layers of mind into insight make things better, not worse, in general terms, but I can see how you got that idea from the book. Hopefully, the second edition, which hopefully will be released sometime this winter, will help clarify those points.

    SA: Ingram dedicates himself hard to debunking a lot of the things people would use to fill the gap. Pages 261-328 discuss the various claims Buddhist schools have made about enlightenment, mostly to deny them all. He has nothing but contempt for the obviously silly ones, like how enlightened people can fly around and zap you with their third eyes. But he’s equally dismissive of things that sort of seem like the basics. He denies claims about how enlightened people can’t get angry, or effortlessly resist temptation, or feel universal unconditional love, or things like that. Some of this he supports with stories of enlightened leaders behaving badly; other times he cites himself as an enlightened person who frequently experiences anger, pain, and the like. Once he’s stripped everything else away, he says the only thing one can say about enlightenment is that it grants a powerful true experience of the non-dual nature of the world.

    DMI: While you may not like the point, at least you clearly understood what I was saying, and so, at least on that point, I feel the book was successful. Still, the elimination of the core dualistic suffering at the core of perception is nothing to be sneered at, as it transforms every sensate experience from then on into something that is vastly better. I explain more about this in the second edition, as I realized that I had fallen short of the mark somewhat in the first edition.

    SA: But still, why would we want to get that? I am super in favor of knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake, but I’ve also read enough Lovecraft to have strong opinions about poking around Ultimate Reality in ways that tend to destroy your mental health.

    The best Ingram can do is this:

    I realize that I am not doing a good job of advertising enlightenment here, particularly following my descriptions of the Dark Night. Good point. My thesis is that those who must find it will, regardless of how it is advertised. As to the rest, well, what can be said? Am I doing a disservice by not selling it like nearly everyone else does? I don’t think so. If you want grand advertisements for enlightenment, there is a great stinking mountain of it there for you partake of, so I hardly think that my bringing it down to earth is going to cause some harmful deficiency of glitz in the great spiritual marketplace.

    [Meditation teacher] Bill Hamilton had a lot of great one-liners, but my favorite concerned insight practices and their fruits, of which he said, “Highly recommended, can’t tell you why.” That is probably the safest and most accurate advertisement for enlightenment that I have ever heard.

    DMI: Actually, Part I, which many people miss, as they don’t really even know it is happening yet, give more than Part III does in this regard. Might consider reading some of the early parts of the book that discuss fundamental suffering.

  66. danielmingram says:

    V.

    SA: I was reading MCTB at the same time I read Surfing Uncertainty, and it was hard not to compare them. Both claim to be guides to the mysteries of the mind – one from an external scientific perspective, the other from an internal phenomenological perspective. Is there any way to link them up?

    Remember this quote from Surfing Uncertainty?:

    Plausibly, it is only because the world we encounter must be parsed for action and intervention that we encounter, in experience, a relatively unambiguous determinate world at all. Subtract the need for action and the broadly Bayesian framework can seem quite at odds with the phenomenal facts about conscious perceptual experience: our world, it might be said, does not look as if it is encoded in an intertwined set of probability density distributions. Instead, it looks unitary and, on a clear day, unambiguous…biological systems, as mentioned earlier, may be informed by a variety of learned or innate “hyperpriors” concerning the general nature of the world. One such hyperprior might be that the world is usually in one determinate state or another.

    Taken seriously, it suggests that some of the most fundamental factors of our experience are not real features of the sensory world, but very strong assumptions to which we fit sense-data in order to make sense of them. And Ingram’s theory of vipassana meditation looks a lot like concentrating really hard on our actual sense-data to try to disentangle them from the assumptions that make them cohere.

    DMI: Yes. Thanks for restating that so clearly.

    SA: In the same way that our priors “snap” phrases like “PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME” to a more coherent picture with only one “the”, or “snap” our saccade-jolted and blind-spot-filled visual world into a reasonable image, maybe they snap all of this vibrating and arising and passing away into something that looks like a permanent stable image of the world.

    And in the same way that concentrating on “PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME” really hard without any preconceptions lets you sniff out the extra “the”, so maybe enough samatha meditation lets you concentrate on the permanent stable image of the world until it dissolves into whatever the brain is actually doing. Maybe with enough dedication to observing reality as it really is rather than as you predict it to be, you can expose even the subjective experience of an observer as just a really strong hyperprior on all of the thought-and-emotion-related sense-data you’re getting.

    DMI: Nice.

    SA: That leaves dukkha, this weird unsatisfactoriness that supposedly inheres in every sensation individually as well as life in general. If the goal of the brain is minimizing prediction error, if all of our normal forms of suffering like hunger and thirst and pain are just special cases of predictive error in certain inherent drives, then – well, this is a very fundamental form of badness which is inherent in all sensation and perception, and which a sufficiently-concentrated phenomenologist might be able to notice directly. Relevant? I’m not sure.

    DMI: Noticing that fundamental form of badness or dukkha clearly enough causes it to end, so yes, it is relevant, as it is only inherent in moments when there is dualistic misperception, and the clear perception of sensations ends that dualistic misperception and thus that fundamental form of suffering.

    Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha is a lucid guide to issues surrounding meditation practice and a good rational introduction to the Buddhist system. Parts of it are ultimately unsatisfactory, but apparently this is true of everything, so whatever.

    DMI: Thanks for your review. I agree with the points you make about where that edition is not as clear as it could be, and so have tried to address those in the second edition, now in the final stages of editing. Best wishes and practice well,

    Daniel

  67. migo says:

    Big question for me (appreciated if the author cares to reply, as he is around):
    – How does Ingram know that he’s reached the final stage in his mental journey (“enlightenment”)? Isn’t it possible that he reaches some other different level in the future and then realizes he wasn’t “enlightened” before after all?

    Has anybody tried ayahuasca? My experience was of obtaining an incredible mental clarity, a deep joy and serenity, a sense of purpose and union with the universe (sounding cliché, but hard to put these things into words), maybe not too dissimilar to popular characterisations of being “enlightened”. I remember a feeling of “having all the answers” (not to scientific questions, but to things regarding myself and life – relationships, family, work, habits, who I was and how my past shaped me), thinking in a very ordered, logical way – organising my thoughts into clear items and sub items (something that may be natural to some, for definitely not to me). (I felt this at the third and final session of a week long retreat in Peru, the first two sessions were mostly nausea-inducing. I have some experience with other psychedelics, but I found ayahuasca unique in the aspects described above.)

    • jayarava says:

      Does he say anywhere that he’s reached the final stage of his mental journey? I can’t find it.

      • migo says:

        Sure, but I was thinking about the enlightenment thing.

      • danielmingram says:

        I have definitely not reached a final stage of the journey, just one small, albeit important, part of it, one single axis of development among many. When all the sense impressions are automatically just what they are, where they are, happening naturally, knowing themselves, simply that, completely that, it doesn’t get any more natural or causal or immediate or whatever than that. This co-arising of wisdom and phenomena, this realization of the intrinsic nature of phenomena, this “In the seeing, just the seen. In the hearing, just the heard. In the thinking, just the thought,” etc. can become hardwired to become one’s baseline through practice. That said, growth, maturation, deepening, learning, aging, and all of that still continue. I am still exploring, playing, co-adventuring on the path, still integrating the implications of what simple vipassana techniques, done well and in sufficient quantity, revealed. Vipassana is interesting, in that it is the only one of the Three Trainings that you can take to the end, and that endpoint is not only logical but extremely straightforward in experience. The rest, Morality and Concentration, are limitless. Best wishes for your own practice.

    • Leroy Glinchy says:

      Because there are lists which you can compare your level of attainment with. This was explained in the parent such as “Stream Enterer”.

    • Seppo says:

      He does mention in MCTB that the progress of insight has a sort of fractally structure, and speculates (if I understood him right) that his “arahatship” might be just the first stage in a larger cycle.

      And in fact, it turns out he has reached some other attainment since becoming what he calls an arahat; you can read more about that, and about why he continues to use “arahat” the way he does, in his essay My Experiment in Actualism-Influenced Practice.

  68. Leroy Glinchy says:

    A lot of the confusion comes from the fact that rather being a unified religion with a unified book like the Christian Bible, Buddhism has many, many books which are canonical in different sects.

    The book in discussion talks about the original sutras which are as close to what Buddha said as we thought. They are available, in English, in part on accesstoinsight.org.

    The original sutras are very logical and don’t have koan, paradoxes, nor anything else that sounds like a fortune cookie.

    A lot of people learned about Buddhism by reading either Zen texts or an American’s interpretation of Zen. Zen Buddhism is far removed from original Buddhism. Zen has its own canon which was written by people who were not Buddha though there are many stories which claim to quote Buddha. This is impossible as everything that could have been said in Buddhism is all ready in the sutras.

    Thus, when we hear that “meditation has no goal”, this is very much a Zen saying, and not what the Buddha said. The Buddha claimed to be enlightened, and he claimed that he had a practice which could lead anyone who cared to practice to enlightenment.

    The original Buddha also explicitly said that he hid nothing. Therefore, anyone claiming to have a “hidden” practice is likely to be mistaken. Everything should be in the sutras.

    I’m not saying that Zen is wrong or not useful. I think that each lineage in Buddhism has something to offer us, and I read texts from all the traditions.

    I’m just trying to clear up some confusion which I see in the comments.

    It’s really sad that such a clear practice has so much mysticism and confusion around it.

    Now terms such as vipassana are also confused. vipassana means insight and is a result of meditation. But now it’s used as if it were: 1. a type of meditation distinct from samatha, 2. a brand name for a specific company, 3. a lineage of Buddhism.

    In reality, vipassana is found in the sutras. You don’t have to go to a particular teacher to learn vipsassana.

    I do agree that the whole concept of us “all ready being enlightened” is confusing, and I think it does more harm than good especially when people claim that Buddha said this. Not only did Buddha say that he was enlightened and other were not, he named specific students and explained which ones were better or worse than other in the practice.

  69. Jesse says:

    Can’t believe nobody here has mentioned the Finder’s Course. A research team led by Dr. Jeffery Martin conducted the largest international study on enlightened states (n=50 enlightened beings), and made a classification system based on the results they found (for example: “Location 1: Location 1 participants experienced a dramatic reduction in or seeming loss of an
    individualized sense of self. Their minds seemed much quieter because of a reduction in the
    quantity and/or emotional strength of self-related thoughts, but there were still some emotionally
    charged thoughts that could pull them back into more active thought streams. They experienced a
    range of positive and negative emotions, but these emotions were much more transient and did
    not have the power over them that they once did. Conditioning could still trigger thought streams
    and stronger emotions, but even these passed in a matter of seconds. “)

    It gets cooler / weirder. Dr. Martin has a background in internet marketing, so he created an online course based on the research to teach people how to achieve these altered states. They iterated on it for a while, and currently I believe the course has a 75% success rate for achieving Ongoing Nonsymbolic Experience. AKA enlightenment. It takes about 3 months.

    Weird shit, right? It’s quite personal for me – a close friend has undertaken the Finder’s Course (FC7 I think, finished in 2016) and we’ve talked extensively about his experience. He achieved a oneness experience, nonsymbolic consciousness, enlightenment, about a year ago and it sounds like it was extremely jarring. He basically stopped caring about the same things in the same way that he used to, because his habit patterns that composed his ego all got disrupted. Including the habit pattern that said, “I am in a committed relationship with another human and that means that I care about them in XYZ ways” which eventually resulted in them breaking up (which, to be fair, sounds like it was heading that way anyway).

    Anyway, his ego came back at some point, but he still has the ability to “level-shift” between layers of consciousness. Sometimes it’s at will, but more often it’s somewhat randomly, often in mid-conversation. It gets confusing and potentially painful for folks who expect him to maintain a consistent identity and values across layers, but he’s quite brilliant and loving, and I love him and it’s really fun and interesting to hang out with him, regardless of if we’re talking about this shit or not. He is a highly functional human with a unique perspective.

    Tl;dr: AFAIK the fastest route to enlightenment is the Finder’s Course by Dr. Jeffery Martin. It works for 75% of people who finish it, and takes about 3 months and $3k. Enlightenment is weird.

    • Seppo says:

      Very interesting, I hadn’t heard about this one. Thanks!

    • Magnus says:

      There’s a lot of controversy around the Finders Course from poor scientific rigor, overblown results and Jeffery (a Reiki healing master) trumping up his credentials with Harvard. The program is a marketing machine, just watch the videos to get a sense of the ‘ick’ factor.

      There’s a list of most of the Finder’s Course techniques here with commentary.

      That’s not to discount your friends experience at all. The course is essentially a collection of techniques from various places that people have used. If they worked elsewhere, there’s no reason they shouldn’t work within the context of the course. But there’s nothing unique to the course itself, it doesn’t have a ‘special sauce’.

      • Jesse says:

        Can you link to some evidence of this controversy? I wasn’t aware that existed. Curious to take a look.

        Yes, the course is very marketing heavy. I don’t actually see that as a bad thing – it’s kind of hilarious to me, the juxtaposition between subject matter and delivery method. But on a more practical level, if you were trying to make these altered states accessible to more of humanity, why wouldn’t you take an online marketing / video course route? It does sound like you have some different values around marketing, which I’d be curious to hear about.

        I think the special sauce is 1) the collection of proven techniques in one place and 2) the framework the course offers. The focus is on finding the techniques that work for you, since that seems somewhat different for everyone. The cross-traditional approach should allow for more rapid experimentation and success. In theory! I haven’t taken the course, just read a lot about it and watched the free videos.

  70. puertoricorolf says:

    Talking about meditation as well as Bayesian brains, there was an essay a few years ago:
    https://www.mindandlife.org/remembrance-things-come-predictive-nature-mind-contemplative-practices/

    In the predictive brain framework you fundamentally have two options to minimize prediction errors, that is, to minimize the discrepancy between your model of the world and the world itself:

    A) You can update your model, i.e., learn.
    B) You can act on the world to make it more congruent with your expectations, i.e., more similar to your current model including all the evolutionary priors it may have, like avoiding pain.

    Now, if I remember correctly, the main idea was like this. When you sit down for formal meditation practice you eliminate most of option B. There is no moving, no scratching, no avoiding pain, no directing your attention to more convenient things, no convincing other people of your ideas, etc… Since the brain is fundamentally and from the lowest level on assumed to be a machine with the goal of minimizing prediction errors, taking away half of the habitual error minimizations may become pretty unpleasant. So there is a strong incentive to at least bring the whole machinery into mode A – updating your model of the world. And from this perspective it sounds nicely in line with the aspiration of vipassana that meditation helps you to see things as they really are.

  71. Seppo says:

    A general note of caution for people trying to compare systems:

    In general it’s very difficult to line up various models of the stages of enlightenment. For whatever reasons, Westerners have tended to focus on the ideas of “non-duality” and “ineffability” as the defining features of something called “enlightenment”; but MCTB describes a number of distinct things that could all plausibly be described as “ineffable, non-dual experiences”. (I counted eight: the Arising and Passing Event, the entrance into Equanimity, Fruition, the four formless spheres, and the opening or reopening of the Wisdom Eye.) Even within the Mahasi Sayadaw lineage that Dan Ingram follows, there is sometimes disagreement about which of those terms apply in individual cases.

    Sorting out whether other traditions are talking about one or more of those things, or about something entirely different, is even more non-trivial. I think a useful null hypothesis is that everyone who uses the word “enlightenment” is talking about an entirely different thing. (To be clear, I doubt it’s true that they’re all talking about different things, but the question needs to be looked at in more detail than I’ve seen.)

    See also:
    – David Chapman’s “Epistemology and Enlightenment”
    – Daniel Brown’s “The Stages of Meditation in Crosscultural Perspective” in Wilber et al.’s Transformations of Consciousness, a good example of the kind of comparative work I’d like to find more of. (h/t Greg)

  72. Korgi Korgiwill says:

    Shinzen young gives a better explanation of the benefits of meditation and of enlightenment in this video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XCWP4pODbs

    This article by him on the difference between pain and suffering and how meditation reduces suffering (ultimately removes it entirely) is also useful:

    https://www.shinzen.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/art_painprocessingalg.pdf

    Another source into the benefits of enlightenment is Jeffrey Martins research. He interviewed over 1000 people who are seen as or themselves claim some level of enlightenment. Note that even though his local four leads to the complete loss of emotion emotions return (although in a different from) in stages 5 and above. He only discusses the first 4 stages in this paper:

    http://nonsymbolic.org/PNSE-Article.pdf

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSrquiuqurY

  73. esraymond says:

    Many responses later, I find there’s something to be added to “Why would you want to do this?”

    I have a habit of meditation and mysticism going back to the 1970s. The most basic skill for any meditator is to notice when your mind is wandering away from the sensation or thought you are trying to focus on and make it stop – pull your mind back to focus. Also you have to learn to shut up the drunken monkey – suppress (or at least not attend to) the ceaseless babble of random associations and imagery your mind constantly generates when you quiet down your normal conscious thoughts enough to notice it.

    I believe, though it’s not something I can measure exactly, that relative to most people my mind is exceptionally disciplined. That is, I can concentrate for longer periods of time, am less easily distracted, can exert more cognitive effort without needing a break from it. This has very practical consequences; given a topic and a tight deadline, I can reliably belt out a couple Kwords of clean copy at continuous high speed until it’s done. Or, in a time crunch on a software project, I can often sit down and write good code until that’s done. (That is less reliable; software is harder.)

    I believe I achieved that discipline through meditative practice. It strengthens the concentration muscle – if you do it long enough, even your normal mentation becomes quieter, more single-pointed.

    That’s a pretty good “Why do this?”, I think. Of course it’s possible, almost inevitable, that there’s feedback in the other direction; the more single-pointed your normal consciousness is, the easier achieving meditative states is. It’s probably a virtuous circle.

    Considering how rare they are in the general population, I know a surprising number of people as bright as I am or brighter. But most seem to get less done than I do. I don’t entirely understand why. At least part of it is that I’m very low in what Big Five psychometry calls neuroticism. But more of it, I think, is the concentration. I sink my teeth into cognitive tasks hard and I don’t let go.

    I don’t think that’s accident or genetic lottery. I think it can be learned, and that quieting your drunken monkey is at least one way to learn it. I think I remember getting some vague sense of this in my early teens and exploring mysticism harder because of it. But that was a long time ago; I’m not sure, I could be back-projecting what I learned later.

  74. Korgi Korgiwill says:

    Two subreddits to check out for those interested in pursuing meditation, or just looking further into potential benefits, is this dedicated to Culadasas method:

    https://www.reddit.com/r/TheMindIlluminated/

    And this dedicated to reaching stream entry:

    https://www.reddit.com/r/streamentry/

    There are some interesting posts and discussion on meditation on this blog too:

    http://www.personalpowermeditation.com

    For those interested in looking more into qigong and qigong styles of meditation this is a good forum:

    https://www.thedaobums.com

  75. levand says:

    Thanks for this post. Based on your review I read Ingram’s book, and found it an interesting take on Buddhism and Buddhist practice that I have not encountered before.

    However, there were some aspects of it which I found troubling, even sinister, especially assuming the Predictive Processing approach to cognition.

    In the book Ingram has a chapter on “psychic powers” and “magick” as genuine phenomena. He doesn’t focus on them as central to Buddhism in any way, but he does apparently give them some credence, to the extent of offering advice on how to use them in ways that are congruent with Buddhism and that will not be disruptive to society.

    Like (I presume) most the readers of this site, I do not personally adhere to a mental model of the universe that permits physical phenomena without physical causality. Usually my approach is to shrug about people who think otherwise because hey, it’s a big universe, it’s always possible I’m wrong, and anyway arguing about it never gets anywhere. But I am always interested in hearing accounts of these phenomena, and attempting to cast them into one of the several working models that I’m most interested in.

    And in this case, with PP, it’s a bit scary. Because given the dual premises of (a) Predictive Processing, and (b) that deep concentration states allow some kind of direct access to both sensory inputs and mental priors, the most obvious rationalization for accounts of perceived “magick” is not that any thing extra-physical is actually happening, but that a deep meditator is capable of convincing themselves so completely that they can alter reality that their own sensory inputs cannot overcome the “top down” conviction that they have done something miraculous.

    If so, then this is quite literally self-inflected schizophrenia, capable of destroying an individuals capacity to interact intelligibly with the physical world.

    Worse than that, though I fear it calls into question belief in the core teachings of Buddhism itself. Because if one has reached a mental state where one is capable of making oneself believe literally anything, then how is apprehension of the Three Universal Truths or the Four Noble Truths any different? In this framework, are all the advanced meditation states as well as “enlightenment” itself literally just a self-inflicted psychiatric delusion, “forcing” one to believe a certain thing?

    Of course, perhaps given the Buddhist tenets that all sensations are impermanent and cause suffering anyway, maybe this isn’t even a bad thing. Assuming that these tenets are philosophically “true”, maybe lobotomizing the part of our brain that keeps insisting otherwise is still a beneficial practice.

    It’s just interesting that if so, this implies that the key turning point in the Buddhist path the relatively early point where one intellectually embraces the concepts of impermanence and no-self and embarks upon the path. Actually achieving it, to any degree, is less “apprehending the direct truth of things” than it is finally succeeding in silencing the part of the brain that thinks otherwise. To use an extremely negative metaphor, the decision to put out one’s eyes because “seeing is bad” is more intellectually interesting than actually becoming blind.

    Any Buddhists care to weigh in, here? Have I missed something important here?

    • Seppo says:

      As an ex-Buddhist and sometimes magician:

      tl;dr that’s a plausible mechanism; but you seem to have missed that enlightenment (allegedly) makes you more functional by ordinary standards.

      I’m 100% on board with the top-down-PP explanation of many weirder aspects of magic, though I’d prefer to call it “a very specific and redirectable schizophrenia.” 🙂

      As far as “destroying an individuals capacity to interact intelligibly with the physical world”: while actual magicians can get into way weirder territory, it’s worth mentioning that Dan Ingram’s own most dramatic miracle was the time he got a candle flame to move slightly to the left, which he himself points out could also have been a coincidence and/or trance-induced hallucination.

      On enlightenment as a priors hack: I Am Not An Enlightened Being, but this seems somewhat plausible to me. Daniel P. Brown, who I think is supposedly an Enlightened Being, has a theory not too far from it.

      A strong argument against it is reports from enlightened chaos magicians. Chaos magic is all about manipulating priors at will, and the theory behind it is arguably “how predictive processing would feel from the inside”; but experienced chaos magicians who’ve also got themselves enlightened don’t seem to think enlightenment is the same kind of thing.

      Even if it is a priors hack, though, comparisons to lobotomizing or blinding oneself seem obviously wrong: of the living supposedly-enlightened people I know about, all but one say it’s been either neutral or beneficial in their dealings with the ordinary world. (The exception being Jeffery Martin, one of whose “locations” produces debilitating memory loss???) Then again, maybe those people who’ve satisfied their inexplicable urges to cut off their legs would say the same thing. Hmm…

    • Standing in the Shadows says:

      If so, then this is quite literally self-inflected schizophrenia, capable of destroying an individuals capacity to interact intelligibly with the physical world.

      maybe lobotomizing the part of our brain that keeps insisting otherwise is still a beneficial practice.

      While we’re referencing SF stories, once again I reach for Greg Egan. In his breakout novel “Diaspora”, one of the early main supporting characters destroyed virself this way.

      By “destroyed”, ve didn’t commit suicide. Ve instead voluntarily loaded up a non-sentient mind graft that enforced “enlightenment” on virs mindstate. Once installed, it was self re-enforcing, and could never be voluntarily removed. And so there that character stayed, spinning and unchanged, blissfully happy but completely useless, completely pointless, completely incurious, completely unmotivated, and effectively dead, while virs former friends headed off on the trillion year adventure that was the rest of the book.

    • danielmingram says:

      Get your concentration very strong on any good kasina, like a fire kasina, and intend to have experiences with the powers arise. Check here for good instructions: http://www.firekasina.org. Reasonable dose for a talented practitioner: 14 hours per day for 10-20 days in good practice conditions with full, unbridled, undistracted effort. See what happens. See how you feel about the powers once those things have happened. Try to explain those occurrences using a scientific materialist model and see how that goes. Report back on what you have experienced and what you think of it. That is science, meaning there is a hypothesis, an experiment to test the hypothesis, you do the experiment, and you report your findings as best you are able. The rest is all, well, something else. Nothing like seeing for yourself to cut through all the speculation. If you are not interested in doing the experiment, retain an open mind to the best degree you are able. My best advice.

      • levand says:

        Thank you for your book, and thank you for engaging here. I have found it extremely interesting, and it has indeed inspired to me to start meditating at an entry level.

        By the way, are there any resources on effective meditation that you would recommend for true beginners (before the first jhana?) Or just stick with the basics and work on concentration until something clicks?

        Regarding your experiment proposal: I have absolutely no doubt at all that such intense practice could lead me to strongly believe that I have experienced something non-materialistic. Unfortunately the materialist hypothesis also has an account for such experiences: namely, that just because my brain tells me something doesn’t make it so.

        Still, I do not discount these experience, and I am not even dogmatic about physical reality. I am intrigued by meditation as a way of at least gaining a different perspective on such matters. I only meant to observe that there is a materialistic way to account for these types of experiences (which, if true, makes them somewhat less desirable.)

        One other question, since you are here and (apparently) willing to talk about the nature of reality:

        In your book, you don’t really talk about reincarnation at all. But from my layman’s academic understanding of traditional Buddhism, it’s kind of a big deal, even a core component of dukkha. The whole point of enlightenment (in many of the texts) seems to be to escape samsara.

        Is your lack of focus on this because it is not actually that important to Buddhism? Or because it’s important but not a good entry point for western audiences? Unlike most philosophies of Buddhism (aside from some esoterica about the powers), this is a claim about reality that is incompatible with a western materialist mindset.

        Would you care to comment on this?

    • poignardazur says:

      the most obvious rationalization for accounts of perceived “magick” is not that any thing extra-physical is actually happening, but that a deep meditator is capable of convincing themselves so completely that they can alter reality that their own sensory inputs cannot overcome the “top down” conviction that they have done something miraculous

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s all self-delusion.

      The magick chapter explain about how you should be careful not take you magick power too seriously, not to brag about them to friends, on in general not to do anything that would need actual magic powers to work.

      One last warning on the powers: doing these things in the private is one thing, doing magickal things in public that involve other people is something else entirely. If you do overt public magick or discrete public magick, you are bound to run in to someone else’s paradigms, values, and sets of beliefs about how the world is and what is possible that are not in alignment with your own.

      Whether or not these are “real” is a question that I am happy to avoid, though these experiences can be so extremely vivid that they can seem more “real” than the “real world.”

      People with real Dragon Ball Z powers don’t need to tell you “Firt, we have to redefine concepts, such as this ‘reality’ and this ‘evidence’ which you are so fond of” before they show you they can throw fireballs.

      This whole “only those who believe in magick can see the magick at work” crap makes me cast serious doubt on anything this book says. “Reality is what keeps working when you don’t believe in it”.

  76. arikrak says:

    > MCTB gives the traditional answer: you should be moral because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it helps meditation.

    This reminds me of how Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed is so focused on the individual achieving knowledge of God, but to do that one needs to achieve moral perfection as well.

    > Both claim to be guides to the mysteries of the mind – one from an external scientific perspective, the other from an internal phenomenological perspective. Is there any way to link them up?

    “Consciousness: a very short introduction” (particularly the end of chapter 7) also wondered a bit about the connection between neuroscience and meditation. Though not sure how anyone can can tell if meditators are really seeing things without illusions or if they’re just experiencing another kind of illusion…

  77. AC Harper says:

    This is not science since the proposed outcome is not objectively testable. Nor is the ‘experiment’ designed to eliminate bias and preconceptions or determine a satisfactory sample size. The null hypothesis is that, if you practice a mental exercise diligently enough and you experience an altered brain state, you are just kidding yourself if you think the subjective experience is objectively true.

    The subjective experience may, or may not, be beneficial, but that is a different issue.

    • danielmingram says:

      When we do science on human experience, which is done all the time, most of it is not objectively testable. When evaluating a new medications and people report headaches, nausea, dysphoria, depression, anxiety, and a range of other experiences, those are not objectively testable, yet we will consider them relevant clinically and they are reported and taken seriously.

      As to the question of whether or not subjective experience is relevant, well, I hardly know what to say to that, and feel that, if the point of subjective experience being relevant to the human condition and suffering is one that needs debating, perhaps we should just let this discussion go, as those pesky Buddhist who do care about their subjective experience might say.

      • AC Harper says:

        “if the point of subjective experience being relevant to the human condition and suffering is one that needs debating” – perhaps meditation is beneficial to an individual and well worth the effort, but what if there was a more efficient and effective way of producing those benefits (or avoiding any downsides)?

        “reported and taken seriously” is just data. It is only a part of a much larger set of scientific endeavour. If you reflect on how much scientific effort goes into understanding how drugs work you wouldn’t be quite so swift to add a scientific gloss to meditation. It undermines your case.

      • Richard Kennaway says:

        When evaluating a new medications and people report headaches, nausea, dysphoria, depression, anxiety, and a range of other experiences, those are not objectively testable

        You ask the people to describe their experience. Seems objective enough for getting on with. Yes, there are all sorts of ways in which this is less objective than objectively measuring the length of a piece of string, ranging from sterile speculations about “maybe my experience of red is the same as your experience of blue!” to differences across culture and personality in the ways one conceptualises and lexicalises one’s experience, to fundamental questions about the validity of Likert scales, but if a doctor asks me “does this hurt?” I have no reason not to say as best I can just how much. And whatever the obstacles to communicating experience, my own experience is pretty objective to me. “Yes, leg still hurts like hell.”

  78. Johnny says:

    This whole post is the most unscientific thing I have seen on this blog, ever. Everybody is taking seriously the ramblings of one self-appointed mystic and his self-published e-book, with no scientific or empirical support for the stuff.

    And no source-checking. His stages are completely different from the ones described in any traditional Theravada Buddhist stages and the traditional texts do not mention any vibrations anywhere.

    His version of buddhism is basically all made up by himself and contradicts totally anything you see in any other either traditional or contemporary sources.

    On a meta level, can anybody tell me what on earth is going on? I’m used to reading about meta-analyses and critical thinking on this blog and now everybody’s crazy about justifying the years they’ve spent on meditation based on (probably a hoax/troll) book by some mystic?

  79. Carlos Serrano says:

    As you were describing the stages of gradually shedding away your misconceptions, I had this weird feeling that I hard just recently heard something similar, and it took me a while to realize it sounds like the plot of the novel Neuropath, wherein the villain surgically deconstructs people’s sense of selfhood. I highly recommend reading it.