THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Book Review: The Mind Illuminated

I.

The Mind Illuminated is a guide to Buddhist meditation by Culadasa, aka John Yates, a Buddhist meditation teacher who is also a neuroscience PhD. At this point I would be more impressed to meet a Buddhist meditation teacher who wasn’t a neuroscience PhD. If I ever teach Buddhist meditation, this is going to be my hook. “Come learn advanced meditation techniques with Scott Alexander, whose lack of a neuroscience PhD gives him a unique perspective that combines ancient wisdom with a lack of modern brain science.” I think the world is ready for someone to step into this role. But Culadasa is not that person, and The Mind Illuminated is not that book.

I am trying not to read too many books on spiritual practices until I’m ready to practice some spirituality. I made an exception for TMI because lots of people recommended it to me for its description of how the brain works. This seems like the sort of thing that Buddhist meditation teachers who are also neuroscientists could have insight on, so I decided to check it out.

Tradition divides meditation into two parts: concentration meditation, where you sharpen and control your focus, versus insight meditation, where you investigate the nature of perception and reality. TMI follows a long tradition of focusing on concentration meditation, with the assumption that insight meditation will become safer and easier once you’ve mastered concentration, and maybe partly take care of itself. Its course divides concentration meditation into ten stages. Early stages contain basic tasks like setting up a practice, focusing on the breath, and overcoming distractability. Later stages are more interesting; the ninth stage is learning how to calm the intensity of your meditative joy; apparently without special techniques “overly intense joy” becomes a big problem.

I usually hate meditation manuals, because they sound like word salad. “One attains joy by combining pleasure with happiness. Pleasure is a state of bliss which occurs when one concentrates focus on the understanding of awareness. Happiness is a state of joy that occurs when one focuses concentration on the awareness of understanding. By focusing awareness on bliss, you can increase the pleasure of understanding, which in turn causes concentration to be pleasant and joy to be blissful, and helps you concentrate on understanding your awareness of happiness about the bliss of focus.” At some point you start thinking “Wait, were all the nouns in that paragraph synonyms for each other?”

Culadasa avoids this better than most people. Whenever he introduces a term, he puts it in bolded italicized letters, and includes it in a glossary at the back. He tries to stick to multiple-word-phrases that help clarify the concept, like “bliss of physical pliancy” or “meditative joy”, instead of just calling one thing “joy” and the other thing “bliss” and hoping you remember which is which. He includes a section on what he means by distinguishing “awareness” from “attention”, and admits that some of these are tough choices that do not necessarily cooperate with the spirit of the English language. And his division of the material into stages helps ensure you’re not reading a term until you’re somewhere around the point of personally experiencing the quality being discussed.

This is characteristic of the level of care taken in this book, which despite its unfortunate acronym does a good job of presenting just the right amount of information. For example, when people say “meditate on the breath”, I can only do this for a little while until I notice that the breath doesn’t really exist as a specific object you can concentrate on. Really there are just a bunch of disconnected sensations changing at every moment. What do you concentrate on? I had previously dismissed this as one of several reasons why obsessive-compulsive people shouldn’t do meditation, but TMI describes exactly this issue, says that it is normal and correct to worry about it, and prescribes solutions: concentrate on the disconnected sensations of the breath in whatever way feels easiest for the first few stages, and once you’ve increased awareness to the point where you can notice each subpart of the breath individually, do that.

II.

TMI also solves a whole slew of my obsessive questions and concerns with its “attention vs. awareness” dichotomy.

I had always been confused by instructions like “concentrate on the breath until you feel joy, then notice the joy”. Usually what would happen was: I would concentrate on the breath, ask myself “am I feeling joy yet?”, spend some time trying to figure this out, realize my attention had deviated from the breath, put my attention back on the breath, then feel bad because I wasn’t checking to see if I was feeling joy or not. How could I both have 100% of my attention on the breath, but also be checking my joy? If I came up with the policy “check once per minute for joy, then go back to the breath”, how would I avoid checking arbitrarily often whether it felt like a minute had gone by? This was another issue I just dismissed as “maybe meditation is not for obsessive-compulsive people”.

But TMI distinguishes between “attention” (sometimes “focused attention”) as the one thing in the foreground of your brain, and awareness (sometimes “peripheral awareness”) as the potentially many things in the background of your brain. Think of it working the same way as central vs. peripheral vision. When given instructions like “concentrate on the breath until you feel joy, then notice the joy”, you should be focusing your entire attention on the breath, but potentially noticing joy in your peripheral awareness. These instructions are no more contradictory than “look at this dot on the wall straight ahead, but notice if a dog runs past”.

The book urges meditators to avoid a state of hyperfocus in which they are so intent on the breath that they would not notice the house falling down around them. It says this is a trap that will not build the proper habits of mind to continue to higher stages and do insight meditation later. It recommends instead a form of practice in which meditators, while keeping their attention on the breath, are constantly monitoring both for external events like barking dogs or the house falling, and for internal events like feeling hungry or having thoughts. This last one sort of makes me want to scream: how can I monitor whether or not I am having thoughts without thinking about it, in which case the answer is always ‘yes’? But this is exactly the kind of paradox that the attention/awareness dichotomy is supposed to overcome. You can keep attention on the breath, notice a thought arising in the periphery of your awareness, and gently note it and push it away, all without shifting attention.

Culadasa is very excited about this:

One great example of [a new perspective] is the distinction I make in this book between attention and awareness. Despite hundreds of thousands of meditators practicing over millennia, it has never before been clearly conceptualized that the ordinary mind has two distinct ways of “knowing”, even though these different ways of knowing have so much to do with achieving the goals of meditation. However, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have recently shown that there are two distinctly different kinds of knowing that involve completely different parts of the brain. This is a finding that deeply informs new ways of practicing meditation and interpreting our meditation experiences, from beginner to adept. This is only one example, but the point should be obvious: meditation can guide and inform neuroscience, and neuroscience can do the same for meditation.

I would usually be pretty reluctant to propose that hundreds of thousands of meditators practicing over millennia had all just missed something really important. And I have to admit that in the two or three test meditations I have done since reading this, I have had as much trouble as ever with these issues, and don’t notice an attention/awareness distinction that becomes obvious now that I have the terms I need to understand it. But realistically maybe something like this has to be true for most discussion about meditation to make sense at all.

III.

TMI gives its model of how the mind works in six interludes distributed among the chapters on meditation advice.

It begins with a startling claim that mental time is granular, and only one item can be in consciousness per granule-moment. The seven main types of items that can occupy a moment of consciousness are sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought, and a “binding moment” that combines aspects of the previous six. Each moment of consciousness is completely static. The only reason things seem to move or thoughts seem to flow is because the moments of consciousness are moving from moment to moment faster than you can detect, like a movie which flips from still frame to still frame so quickly that it gets perceived as continuous action. Culadasa also compares it to a “string of beads”, with each bead being a particular kind of moment (sight, sound, etc).

There are never two things in consciousness at the same time. If you think there are, that’s either because your consciousness is switching back and forth from thing to thing so quickly that you can’t follow it, or because your consciousness is perceiving a “binding moment” that presents a single aspect including both of those things. For example, if you see a cat, and you hear a meow, you might experience a “binding moment” in which you think you hear the cat meowing, although really what has happened is SIGHT:CAT — SOUND:MEOW — BINDING:(CAT, MEOW).

This sounds to me like it completely reverses the point made in the attention/awareness dichotomy, where you can be attentive to one thing but aware of many others at the same time. After all, if consciousness can only contain one thing at a time, what room is there for peripheral awareness? Culadasa states that each individual moment is either a moment of attention, or a moment of awareness. Moments of awareness can contain many things:

For example, say you’re sitting on a cabin deck in the mountains, gazing out at the view. Each moment of visual awareness will include a variety of objects — mountains, trees, birds, and sky—all at the same time. Auditory moments of awareness will include all the various sounds that make up the audible background — birdsong, wind in the trees, a babbling brook, and so forth—again, all at the same time. On the other hand, moments of visual attention might be restricted just to the bird you’re watching on a nearby branch. Auditory attention might include only the sounds the birds are making. Even when your attention is divided among several things at once—perhaps you’re knitting or whittling a piece of wood while you sit—moments of attention are still limited to a small number of objects. Finally, binding moments of attention and binding moments of awareness take the content from the preceding sensory moments and combine them into a whole: “Sitting on the deck, looking out at the mountain, while carving a piece of wood.”

Now, let’s consider the second difference: the degree of mental processing in moments of awareness versus moments of attention. Individual moments of awareness provide information about a lot of things at once, but the information has only been minimally processed. The result is our familiar experience of peripheral awareness of many things in the background. However, these moments of awareness do include some simple interpretations of sense data. You may be aware that the sounds you hear are from “traffic,” or that the things in the background of your visual field are “trees.” These simple concepts help evaluate and categorize all that information, contributing to our understanding of the present context. Although these preliminary interpretations don’t usually lead to any kind of action, some part of this information is frequently referred to attention for more analysis. Other times— say, when the sound of traffic suddenly includes screeching tires — the information in peripheral awareness can trigger an automatic action, thought, or emotion, any of which can then become an object of attention.

This still seems strained, but I grudgingly admit it kind of works.

TMI builds on this idea to create the “mind-system model”, its explanation for what consciousness is and why we have it. In this model, there are many “subminds”. The book is a little vague on how many there are or what level of complexity we’re supposed to be imagining here, and whether they represent only the few most salient divisions (eg “the visual system”) or are more numerous and abstract (eg “the part of your brain that likes to play computer games”), but I get the impression it’s closer to the latter. These subminds usually do their own thing, but sometimes have conflicting agendas.

Consciousness is a neutral ground shared by all subminds:

Here’s the picture presented so far: every sub-mind belongs either to the unconscious sensory or unconscious discriminating mind. Each sub-mind performs its own specialized task independently of others, and all at the same time. Each can project content into consciousness, as well as initiate actions. Obviously, there’s enormous potential for conflict and inefficiency, if not total chaos. This is where consciousness fits into the picture: the conscious mind provides an “interface” that allows these unconscious sub-minds to communicate with each other and work together cooperatively. With all these unconscious sub-minds working independently and at the same time, the potential for conflict is enormous. The conscious mind is what allows them to work together cooperatively.

The conscious mind acts as a universal recipient of information. It can receive information from each and every separate, unconscious sub-mind. In fact, all conscious experience is simply an ongoing stream of moments of consciousness whose content has been projected into the conscious mind by unconscious sub¬minds. Then, when information enters consciousness, it becomes immediately available to all the other sub-minds. Therefore, the conscious mind also serves as a universal source of information. Because the conscious mind is both a universal recipient and a universal source of information, all the unconscious sub-minds can interact with each other through the conscious mind.

As a helpful image, picture the whole mind-system as a kind of corporation. It is made up of different departments and their employees, each with distinct roles and responsibilities. These are the unconscious sub-minds. At the top of the corporate structure is the “boardroom,” or conscious mind. The diligent employees working in their separate departments produce reports, which get sent to the boardroom to be discussed further and perhaps acted on. In other words, the unconscious sub-minds send information up into the conscious mind. The conscious mind is simply a passive “space” where all the other minds can meet. In this “boardroom of the mind” metaphor, the conscious mind is where important activities of the mind-system get brought up, discussed, and decided on. One, and only one, sub-mind can present its information at a time, and that’s what creates single moments of consciousness. The object of consciousness during that moment becomes part of the current agenda, and is made simultaneously available to all the other sub-minds for further processing. In subsequent moments, they project the results of their further processing into consciousness, creating a discussion that leads to conclusions and decisions.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because as far as I can tell it’s a rebranding of Bernard Baars’ global workspace theory of consciousness. I like global workspace theory and have always considered it the most plausible solution to the easy problems of consciousness. I’m a little bit concerned that Culadasa never mentions global workspace theory in the book, and that I’ve never heard of any connection between global workspace theory and Buddhism before. Not really sure what to make of this.

TMI continues:

Just because information projected into consciousness becomes available to every sub-mind of the mind-system, that doesn’t mean they all receive it. It’s like a radio show: the show is being broadcast, but not everyone is tuning in to listen.

Meditation increases the degree to which individual subminds are tuned in to consciousness. Since the book will later say this is all a metaphor, I think a better way of framing this might be “increase the bandwidth of the connections between the individual subminds”. When someone says meditators are “more conscious” or have “higher awareness” than non-meditators, they mean that more sub-minds are tuned in to consciousness more closely at any given time.

This accomplishes what Culadasa calls “unification of mind”; with more bandwidth, the subminds are able to resolve their conflicting priorities and act more like a single unit. This can start out sort of ugly; there can be good reasons why some heavily repressed and traumatized subminds aren’t usually invited to the table, and the creation of new links between them and the global workspace feels from the inside like scary unconscious material welling up into the psyche. But this is part of the “negotiation” it takes for these subminds to unify; with enough meditation, the system will assimilate their insights and they will join the Borg like everyone else.

This isn’t enlightenment. Enlightenment is something else. TMI calls it a “cessation event”:

A cessation event is where unconscious sub-minds remain tuned in and receptive to the contents of consciousness, while at the same time, none of them project any content into consciousness. Then,consciousness ceases — completely. During that period, at the level of consciousness there is a complete cessation of mental fabrications of any kind — of the illusory, mind-generated world that otherwise dominates every conscious moment. This, of course, also entails a complete cessation of craving, intention, and suffering. The only information that tuned in sub-minds receive during this event is the fact of a total absence.

What makes this the most powerful of all Insight experiences is what happens in the last few moments of consciousness leading up to the cessation. First, an object arises in consciousness that would normally produce craving. It can be almost anything. However, what happens next is quite unusual: the mind doesn’t respond with the habitual craving and clinging. Rather, it fully understands the object from the perspective of Insight: as a mental construct, completely “empty” of any real substance, impermanent, and a cause of suffering. This profound realization leads to the next and final moment of complete equanimity, in which the shared intention of all the unified sub-minds is to not respond. Because nothing is projected into consciousness, the cessation event arises. With cessation, the tuned-in sub-minds simultaneously realize that everything appearing in consciousness is simply the product of their own activity. In other words, they realize that the input they’re accustomed to receiving is simply a result of their own fabricating activities.

I usually hate theories that explain the brain based on subminds. They seem too easy, in the way anthropomorphizing is always too easy. Want to run marathons, but spend your time drinking beer instead? Just model yourself as having a marathon-running submind and a beer-drinking submind, and they’re fighting, and the beer-drinking submind is winning. Do this enough times and you’ll never figure out anything about hyperbolic discounting or reinforcement learning or any of the very important principles that govern what the brain actually does and which do not look like little people fighting inside of you. Your solutions will always look like some weird form of therapy based on starting a dialogue with the beer-drinking submind and convincing it that beer isn’t so good after all, which never works, and you’ll never get around to taking Adderall, which for some reason will cause all the little men inside your head to change their opinions to whatever you wanted in the first place.

For whatever reason, TMI’s mind-system model doesn’t bother me as much. Maybe it’s because he’s not trying to invent yet another new age psychotherapy to help fight procrastination. Maybe because it’s in the context of global workspace theory, which I already like. Or maybe it’s because the idea of modules and processes without enough bandwidth to connect to the global workspace sounds less anthropomorphic than little people who make you drink beer because they like beer.

IV.

This is a very optimistic book.

Buddhism started out with Theravada teachers saying it would take millions of lifetimes to reach enlightenment. Then the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools started saying maybe you could reach enlightenment in one lifetime, if you did everything right and worked very hard. Recently I’ve been reading works by modern teachers like Daniel Ingram and Vinay Gupta, who compare the amount of work involved in enlightenment to the amount of work in an MD or PhD – maybe five years? But Culadasa states that “for householders who practice properly, it’s possible to master the Ten Stages within a few months or years”, adding in a footnote:

The Dalai Lama has said “If one knows the nature, order, and distinctions of the levels explained above without error and cultivates calm abiding, one can easily generate faultless meditative stabilization in about a year.” When I first began teaching, I also believed that with diligent practice most people should be able to master all Ten Stages in less than a year. I have since learned that this is not realistic in terms of most people, and making such a flat pronouncement can be discouraging for those who have been practicing much longer without attaining that mastery.

So fine, only cool people can get mastery in less than a year. Still, this is a dramatic promise. But then why are there so many cultures where monks study their entire lives in monasteries? Monks have big advantages over the sort of “householder” meditators Culadasa is talking about – they can meditate every waking hour, they have access to the best teachers. Surely they should all get enlightened within a few months? I have read some work on the idea of “multiple paths” and “endless dharma gates” which suggest that what is ordinarily called enlightenment is just the first and most obvious step on an endless process of personal exploration. But when I read about historical Buddhism culture, it still seems like a majority of monks at any given time are unenlightened, including those who have been at the monastery many years.

Maybe all of this Western rationality and efficiency really is that great, and by cutting out the chaff modern people can get enlightenment much faster than the ancients could? Is this true in any other field? I get the impression that modern schoolchildren still master subjects like geometry or Latin at about the same age that the medievals would, though I could be wrong about this. Maybe Culadasa was right when he claimed his book includes important distinctions that hundreds of thousands of meditators working for thousands of years have missed. Maybe the past was just stupid and anybody moderately competent can make order-of-magnitude improvements. I don’t know. It seems like a pretty big claim, though.

(or maybe this is overcomplicating things. It’s not necessarily contradictory to say that a talented person, practicing an hour a day, could go from “zero math” to “able to solve calculus problems” in a year, but also that the average student has been studying math for ten years and can’t solve calculus problems.)

TMI also feels optimistic in comparison to another meditation book I reviewed, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Its author, Daniel Ingram, counts himself as part of the same “pragmatic dharma” movement as Culadasa, and the two of them have occasionally cooperated on various things and taught together. But Ingram stresses that meditation and enlightenment do not provide many of the worldly gains their advocates promise, and in many cases can make things worse. He warns of what he called “the Dark Night”, a tendency for people midway along the path of meditation to shatter their psyches and fall into states of profound depression and agitation.

Culadasa has a rosier view of both points. He believes that the “unification of mind” produced by meditation will have its common-sense result of reducing internal conflict and improving “willpower”; it will also “overcome all harmful emotions and behavior”, leaving you with few things to worry about except the looming specter of excessive joy.

As for the Dark Night, he doesn’t like the term, and only gives it one sentence in the main text of the book plus two pages in an appendix. The two pages reassure us that enough practice in concentration meditation serves as a prophylactic:

One of the greatadvantages of samatha [concentration meditation] is that it makes it easier to confront the Insights into impermanence, emptiness, the pervasive nature of suffering, and the insubstantiality of the Self that produce Awakening. Without samatha, these challenging Insights have the potential to send a practitioner spiraling into a “dark night of the soul”.

Since the whole book is about samatha meditation, and treats everything else as something that happens naturally while you’re doing samatha, this makes it sound pretty minimal; just do what you would be doing anyway and you’ll be fine. This is a big difference from Ingram, who thinks that explaining the risk of the Dark Night and how to get through it is one of the most important jobs of a meditation teacher. Culadasa endorses this difference:

Have I seen in my students anything remotely resembling a “dark night” as defined above? Absolutely not. Nor can I recall ever having seen the sorts of extreme experiences of the dukkha nanas that are appearing so frequently in these online discussions.

There seems to be something of a consensus in the relevant community that Culadasa’s type of practice, which is called “wet” (ie includes concentration and jhanas) may be less likely to produce these kinds of problems than the so-called “dry insight” that Ingram discusses, and that if you’re doing everything right maybe you shouldn’t worry about it. Shinzen Young is another meditation teacher who moves in the same circles as Ingram and Culadasa. I found his perspective on this the most informative:

Historically it is not a term from the Buddhist meditative tradition but rather from the Roman Catholic meditative tradition. (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using Christian terms for Buddhist experiences but…). One must clearly define what one means by a “Dark Night” within the context of Buddhist experience.

It is certainly the case that almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, disorientation, and heightened sensitivity to internal and external arisings. It is also not uncommon that at some point, within some domain of experience, for some duration of time, things may get worse before they get better. The same thing can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. For the great majority of people, the nature, intensity, and duration of these kinds of challenges is quite manageable. I would not refer to these types of experiences as “Dark Night.”

I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. This phenomenon, within the Buddhist tradition, is sometimes referred to as “falling into the Pit of the Void.” It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. What makes it problematic is that the person interprets it as a bad trip. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling, the way Buddhist literature claims it will be, it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it’s Enlightenment’s Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive, perhaps daily, guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive. For details, see The Five Ways manual pages 97-98.

This whole Dark Night discussion reminds me of a certain Zen Koan. Although the storyline of this koan is obviously contrived, it does contain a deep message. Here’s how the koan goes: A monk is walking on a precipitous path and slips but is able to grab onto a branch by his teeth. A person standing below, recognizing the monk as an enlightened master, asks him to describe Enlightenment. What should the monk do? As a teacher, he’s duty bound to speak, but as soon as he speaks, the consequences will be dire. It sounds like a lose/lose situation. If you were the monk, what would you do? That’s the koan.

If we don’t describe the possibility of Dark Night, then we leave people without a context should it occur. On the other hand, if we do discuss it, people get scared and assume it’s going to happen to them, even if we point out (as I just did), that it’s relatively infrequent. So the take-home message is:

1. Don’t worry, it’s probably not going to happen to you.
2. Even if it does, that’s not necessarily a problem.

It may require input from a teacher and time but once it’s integrated, you’ll be a very, very happy camper.

I think it would be a good thing if people lighten up around this issue. This may help (see attached cartoon).

From this I gather that Culadasa is closer to the mainstream on this issue (also, that enlightenment does not help the mind overcome a propensity to dad jokes).

There’s a lot of drama over this issue, and if you want you can find a bunch of really enlightened and compassionate pot-shots that the different teachers are taking at each other over their respective positions. The only insight I can add to this comes from my medical experience, where I notice a very similar phenomenon in how many side effects people accord certain drugs. For example, although some people will say SSRI discontinuation syndrome is toxic and scary and omnipresent and a good reason never to use SSRIs at all, my experience in five years of taking dozens of people on and off various SSRIs is that I’ve never seen it happen beyond an occasional mild headache if the drugs are tapered properly. I know there are studies that disagree with my experience, but that is definitely my experience. Part of is is probably a difference in what kind of expectations (in yourself or your patients/students). Another part is probably a difference in what your patients/students communicate to you. A third part is probably actual differences in the way you prescribe or teach. All of these combined can be pretty powerful.

But the biggest difference I notice is that a “serious” side effect is the one you (or one of your patients) has had, a “minor” side effect is one that you haven’t. If a certain drug works great for 95% of people, but causes a month of constant vomiting for 5%, then a doctor who’s used it a few times and always gotten the great results will think of it as great (plus a rare side effect that doesn’t cause lasting damage) and a patient who has been vomiting constantly for a month will think of it as an evil poison which should never have been made legal (even though most people get lucky and don’t have any problems).

Shinzen says that meditation can definitely cause something terrible called “falling into the Pit of the Void”, but that it usually doesn’t happen, and that with daily guidance you will get better after a few months or years, and so basically it’s not a big problem. My guess is that the person who has been trapped in some kind of weird bad trip for several months thinks of it as a very big problem, and wants everybody to warn about it all the time. All of this closely matches the way I’ve seen doctors and patients talk about medication side effects. I’m not sure there’s a difference here except the hard-to-navigate first-person difference of “did it happen to me?”

But overall Culadasa’s optimism seems justified here. Maybe it’s the only approach to this topic that seems justified. Imagine if there was something you could do an hour a day for a year or two, which would win you more willpower and a release from all suffering, with less side effects than the average SSRI? Why aren’t we all doing it?

For more information, you can also check out Culadasa’s website and the The Mind Illuminated subreddit.

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139 Responses to Book Review: The Mind Illuminated

  1. Aceso Under Glass says:

    > I get the impression that modern schoolchildren still master subjects like geometry or Latin at about the same age that the medievals would, though I could be wrong about this.

    According to my dad, division was a college class in the middle ages.

    • nameless1 says:

      OTOH in 1880 you could hardly graduate high school without Latin and Ancient Greek.

    • jgr314 says:

      There are a lot of ideas that were, once, cutting edge research and are now so well understood and taught that they are accessible to the average person/student. Calculus and chemistry are two examples that went through the transition fairly recently.

      Going back to math learning: in the last 30 years, I’ve personally seen several math topics shift to younger grades by 2-3 years. Geometry is a somewhat unfair example, since it was very well explored by the ancients and they appear to have put a lot of thought into teaching it, too. Even so, tools like geogebra and desmos make it accessible now to elementary school kids.

      Latin is probably a more unfair example. Even the average modern student who is required/tries to learn Latin will probably have far lower motivation than the average medieval student of Latin. Those are very different populations as well.

      Collectively, we do seem to have figured out better methods to teach/learn a lot of things. Playing music is one well-studied area where the evidence is pretty clear. There are pieces that were either considered unplayable or so difficult that mistakes by top concert performers were tolerated, but are now part of the repertoire of an intermediate player. My belief is that a lot of this comes from (a) better staging and scaffolding, (b) making the knowledge seem mundane instead of arcane. TMI appears to attempt both (other meditation works and general cultural discussion are also part of the second part).

      • Garrett says:

        When all of the interesting stuff is written in Latin, being able to get access to all of that cool material is a strong motivator to learn Latin.

        Once all of the interesting material has shifted to a language you already speak, the major motivation for learning Latin quickly drops away.

        • Aapje says:

          Of course, Americans have the benefit of having the current lingua franca be their native language. For people such as I, there was/is strong motivation to learn English.

      • matthewravery says:

        IMO, geometry and statistics have many concepts that are perfectly accessible to middle school and some elementary school children. The problem with both is that most of these concepts are taught with a jargon-filled wrapper that makes them inaccessible.

        Every intro stats course I’ve taken or taught has had a section on producing and interpreting simple graphical displays. My experience is that most of the class is profoundly bored during this because everything seems trivially obvious. Bar charts, pie charts, dot charts, histograms, etc. can (and should!) be taught to young people. And you can do a lot of the other bits about distributions and sampling without resorting to z-score equations, as well.

        Frankly, we’d probably be better off if statistics was taught in 7th grade with a focus on visual displays and distributions. I don’t know that the concept of sample statistics gets any easier with age or knowledge of algebra/calculus.

        I haven’t taught geometry, but my experience taking it in high school is similar. A lot of it was just obvious visually, and you can get through a lot of key geometric concepts and proofs through visual representation. There’s no need to shoe-horn it in between algebra and calculus or require everyone who wants to understand equilateral triangles to understand cotangents.

        Another upside to this approach is that there are folks who struggle at algebra and calculus that do okay in geometry and/or statistics (or at least parts of them). Having material they find accessible earlier on in the process could reduce whatever effect there is from some folks getting discouraged in math at an early age.

        I’d appreciate thoughts from primary or secondary school educators on this topic, and I imagine there have been a million different think-pieces done on how to re-jigger math curricula, but if we continue to think we’re bad at teaching math, these seem like places we could consider substantial changes.

        • jgr314 says:

          Not to be snarky, but math education is a deep area where thoughtful people have made real improvements in macro curriculum and micro technique. Even an enthusiastic and above-average-informed outsider is unlikely to know the current state of play or make a useful contribution. Sorry to be blunt, but I’ve been there myself.

          Bar charts, pie charts, dot charts, histograms, etc. can (and should!) be taught to young people.

          My (still young) kids encountered these things in school in 1st grade. Common core standards have these, and more, at grades 6 and 7.

          I claim we are good at teaching math, but we perceive that we aren’t.

          Why? I think three main reasons:
          (1) Offsetting increased (absolute) achievement is that the yardsticks we use to measure performance aren’t constant, they actually are getting more ambitious over time. (2) Math is used by our society (US/UK/SE Asia in my direct experience) as a filtering subject to separate “smart” vs “not smart” people, so the definition of “good at math” is always the ability of some percentile of the population (maybe 20ish), but then we are concerned that 80% of the population isn’t “good at math.” (3) Some countries are just more collectively anxious than others, despite relative performance (cf. Singapore vs Thailand, former has higher performance and much higher anxiety).

          Amongst the commentators here, Michael Pershan, half of the adversarial collaboration on gifted ed, is probably the best guide deeper into this subject.

      • noyann says:

        Playing music is one well-studied area where the evidence is pretty clear. There are pieces that were either considered unplayable or so difficult that mistakes by top concert performers were tolerated, but are now part of the repertoire of an intermediate player. My belief is that a lot of this comes from (a) better staging and scaffolding, (b) making the knowledge seem mundane instead of arcane.

        As a music professor (I forgot who, was from Germany IIRC) stated in an interview: the average student at a conservatorium today is a better pianist than Mozart ever was at any time in his life. I can see several reasons (not for Music only):
        Mankind had grown, that means more people are on the top end of the bell curve (just like the US gets more gold medals than Belgium). There are more fields to specialize in, which gives people a better fit for their field.
        Better health and better nourishment provide better physical foundations for higher functioning for all.
        Exposure (just hearing adults talk about something; hearing musicoids even in the elevator) prepares the mind/brain for easier understanding.
        Free time to learn/practice/tinker/play and a society that provides the means for a specialized drill from early age on (think e.g. Lang Lang) allow a steeply rising competence curve early on.

      • UserNumber9 says:

        There are pieces that were either considered unplayable or so difficult that mistakes by top concert performers were tolerated, but are now part of the repertoire of an intermediate player.

        I’m curious, can you give any examples?

        • Kevin Carlson says:

          Richard Strauss wrote two concertos for horn (French horn for disambiguation) that neatly bookend a ridiculously long career: in 1883 and 1942, to be precise. Franz Strauss, his father, a famous hornist and composer, complained that his young son’s first concerto was nearly impossible to play, but the second is vastly more difficult. As a rather serious but not prodigious student hornist, I learned the first concerto in my third year of playing and the second concerto in my seventh, and this experience is pretty typical. Any professional hornist today could play the First with little trouble upon waking up with a bad hangover.

          • Lambert says:

            How much better are french horns today than they were in Strauss’s time?
            Early brass is weird.

          • Kevin Carlson says:

            Horns technically the equal of the modern single horn were developed by 1860. Most people play “double” horns now and those weren’t invented until 1900, but that’s a minor improvement in comparison to the development of valves, which occurred between 1830 and 1860. That said, a technology that was that in constant flux from the late Renaissance until almost 1900 might not be the best poster child for “a skill that moderns rapidly developed well beyond an essentially static pre-modern picture,” which I guess is the situation we’re really looking for an example of.

          • Lambert says:

            The double horn being sort of equivalent to the four valve E flat/B flat trumpets you sometimes see?

            19th c. brass instruments are weird beasts.

        • Eigengrau says:

          Adam Neely has a great video exploring this topic:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaLwrLRpZ1w

          He mentions Paganini and Mozart’s Queen of the Night as older examples, as well as Van Halen’s Eruption and Zappa’s The Black Page as more contemporary examples of once-impossible-now-routine pieces.

      • ProbablyMatt says:

        I would push back a bit on the geometry example. I think the effect is partly explained by the fact we teach kids only a fraction of what the ancients learned and taught their students about geometry. For example, looking at the list of “Classical Theorems” in the Wikipedia article for Euclidean geometry, the only one that is regularly taught in schools is the Pythagorean theorem. And even then it is usually taught without a proof as far as I know.

        Another example that came up in my college physics class is conic sections. I was taught basic facts about them for <2 weeks in pre-calc, but in my first college physics class they taught us some more about them when we covered Keppler's laws. The professor complained that this used to be standard material for high school students when he went to high school. Of course I'm pretty sure they in turn learned less about calculus in high school back then but the point is I am not convinced kids learn geometry that much faster today than in the past.

  2. caldera says:

    I don’t know if you ever actually said this or if it is a conclusion that I came to on my own, but I got the impression from one of your previous meditation posts that if someone were to practice meditation, it might make it less likely that a variety of tangential, loosely-related concepts would occur to that person while thinking about a particular topic while not meditating. This concern has discouraged me from trying meditation. Is this is a valid concern?

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      Not in my experience. I think that insights are likely to become less intrusive, but not less common.

      • Alleged Wisdom says:

        I agree. Meditation has not made my mind less creative in any way or shut down the ability to generate tangents. If anything, I can call up a blizzard of related-concept thoughts more easily because I am less afraid of the stuff that lurks in my mind.

  3. Hoopyfreud says:

    Buddhism started out with Theravada teachers saying it would take millions of lifetimes to reach enlightenment. Then the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools started saying maybe you could reach enlightenment in one lifetime, if you did everything right and worked very hard. Recently I’ve been reading works by modern teachers like Daniel Ingram and Vijay Gupta, who compare the amount of work involved in enlightenment to the amount of work in an MD or PhD – maybe five years? But Culadasa states that “for householders who practice properly, it’s possible to master the Ten Stages within a few months or years”

    Call me pessimistic, but the “endless dharma gates” conjecture seems most apt to me. I also think there is a more fundamental problem.

    There is a tendency within certain circles (this one alone among those that I frequent) to regard enlightenment as an economic attainment. To suppose that it is something that can be acquired with the proper investiture of time and energy. That enlightenment is fundamentally a skill that can be applied in one’s life, like mathematics or CBT. “Judo of the mind” type shit. That it will change what you can do more than it changes who you are.

    I cannot accept, based on personal experience, that it works like that. I know several people who I regard as enlightened, Deepak Chopra not among them. The degree of awareness and present-ness that a word like “enlightenment” implies to me is… incomparable, I think, to what’s described here.

    Can you imagine, really, complete awareness? The dissolution of the self? Using the word, “I” to mean, “the piece of the world that makes up my body and mind?” Knowing, deep inside, at the level that you know that you are sad when you’ve spent the last hour crying, that there is nothing in this world that is more or less than a fragment of universal consciousness? Can you imagine maintaining your equanimity in the face of a holocaust? In the face of the birth of your child? On the first good day that your father has had in the last year? Can you imagine never wanting anything with the kind of hunger that keeps you awake at night?

    I can, and it sounds like dying to me.

    And yet I meditate. Not because I want to attain enlightenment, but because there’s enough in meditation that is worthwhile. It’s nice, I think, to know myself. But I’m too much of an egoist to follow the other path, and I’m under no illusions that enlightenment is anything close to what I seek. And it raises my hackles to see it treated like the one thing when it really seems to me quite another.

    • Lexie says:

      If you want to understand nirvana, light a candle. Take it into a dark place. Appreciate its light. Then blow it out. Or take heroin; I gather that works about as well. Certainly it enables one to maintain perfect equanimity in the face of wonders and atrocities alike. Why anyone would seek that, I also have no idea.

      On the other hand, I see nothing fundamentally incompatible with perceiving oneself as an aspect of a universal consciousness (“the piece of the world that makes up my body and mind”), and still experiencing joy, sorrow, and all the other range of emotions which do so much to make these lives worth our while. Granted, it is rare for me so to perceive, and rarely happens except by accident. But it doesn’t make me feel any less human. On the contrary, much more so – and, moreover, these are the times when friends tell me that I seem most strongly myself. These also seem to be the times when I’m most able to access those parts of myself where I know exactly what needs to be said, in what words and fashion, to help people see things in a light they hadn’t before, and are glad they now do. Or so I have been repeatedly told, at least. It feels like participating in an uncommon extent of awareness, as if my experience of empathy had suddenly been augmented, and I say to people the same sorts of things that my understanding of myself allows me to say to myself when I need to hear them. From what they tell me, it seems worthwhile. (It’s also exhausting…)

      You need not take my word for this, although I am not lying; if you choose not to, I don’t blame you. It sounds absurd, and I wouldn’t talk so at all except that it seems germane here. Whether what I experience at those times is what anyone else would call ‘enlightenment’ I don’t know, but it seems to bear some traits which I’ve commonly heard ‘enlightenment’ described as sharing, so I don’t mind considering that, if it’s not what anyone else would call ‘enlightenment’, it’s good enough for me to be going on with anyway.

      If I do commence a practice of meditation, my purpose will be to learn how to gain access to that state of mind at will – and then to figure out the next right thing to do from there, and do that. And it sounds like that might be the same sort of thing you might be looking for in the concept of enlightenment. Not nirvana, not to become a blown-out candle, but rather to become a version of yourself who is more worthy in your own estimation. I say all this only to tell you that I see no contradiction there, nor any reason why you need see one either. And I see no reason why you should value anyone else’s estimation or analysis as highly as your own, except that you decide it merits such elevation. ‘Test everything; keep what is good.’ – perhaps the only worthwhile advice that old Roman fraud ever gave. There is no higher law.

      Two other things I’d say. First: it’s quite possible to spend an hour crying and know because of it that you’re happy – uncomplicatedly joyful in a way you haven’t known in so long you’d forgotten it was possible, or maybe never knew. If you’ve never experienced that, I hope some day you do. And second: Every thing that ever happens changes what we are – ‘what’, not ‘who’. And what we are defines the scope of that which we can do.

      And one last thing. Remember: it is your inalienable right to call bullshit on whatever you think deserves it. Use it carefully; mishandled, it can cause you enormous confusion. But do use it, nonetheless.

    • professorgerm says:

      Reading about meditation and that dissolution of self, ‘falling into the pit,’ complete awareness thing always makes me think of Lovecraft:

      “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

    • Thegnskald says:

      I can turn off my emotions pretty much at will. (It is harder to turn them back on again, granted – like fumbling for a switch in the dark)

      I don’t. Enlightenment isn’t staring at your dead child with a sense of nothing; to some extent it is the ability to do so, only insofar as you accept that grief, that pain, aren’t terrible aspects of existence to part from, but rather part of the experience of existence, and that you voluntarily and willingly accept them as a worthy part of existence. Equanimity isn’t the ability to ignore pain, it is the ability to accept it.

      And yes, this makes pain less painful, in a sense. It makes it into an experience.

      • cuke says:

        I really like this: “Equanimity isn’t the ability to ignore pain, it is the ability to accept it.”

        And I think the reason acceptance makes the experience of pain less horrible is that it means you no longer add a bunch of extra mental suffering to the pain (what Buddhists call the second arrow). Mental suffering is the struggle of non-acceptance. It’s that part where we say, “if only…” and “why me…” and “I should have…” and “why didn’t I just…?” and “how could they have…?”

        Acceptance of what is allows you to give up the delusion of control. We can influence things, we can do our part, we are capable of change, and things change all the time. But we can’t control our lives to avoid pain and loss. We can’t get the world to conform to our desires. Most of us spend huge amounts of energy living and working inside of those delusions, so that when we finally accept, yes, the world is a broken place full of suffering, we experience that acceptance as a huge relief. And then we can ask, “now what?”

  4. Lexie says:

    ‘…an endless process…’

    “…suggest that what is ordinarily called enlightenment is just the first and most obvious step on an endless process of personal exploration.”

    That would follow, I think. In no school with which I’m acquainted is reaching enlightenment considered an end in itself. And I would describe ‘an endless process of personal exploration’ as life. (Or “indefinite”, if you rather, instead of “endless” – I can’t even shrug at a proof of continuity of consciousness, but I regard its existence as axiomatic nonetheless, mainly because anything else seems intolerably wasteful.)

    Binding moments: a probably lossy metaphor

    I wonder how accurate it’d be to use a programming metaphor for the ‘binding’ moment. (I haven’t read the book – yet! – so I may be wrong about this, and in a way that’s misleading. So if you also haven’t read the book yet, but mean to, don’t take what I’m saying very seriously; it’s more worth remembering so you can tell where it’s wrong than because it’s necessarily useful.)

    In most programming languages, there exists the concept of a ‘function’, which corresponds closely with the mathematical concept of the same name: some process which relates values chosen from a given set to values present in some other set. In programming, a function is a shorthand for that relation, which may be very complex in its own right; in contexts where that complexity isn’t important, defining the relation as a function enables the programmer to make use of it many times, without needing to deal with that complexity nearly as often.

    From the way it’s described here, the binding moment seems to work the same way – as a shorthand for a relation between other perceptions, so that they can be manipulated in conjunction without needing to deal with the complexity of explicitly relating them. In the given example, BINDING:(SIGHT:CAT, SOUND:MEOW) would be a mapping from those two sense impressions to – well, something I’ll handwave as “the concept of a cat meowing”, and describe as a node in a conceptual graph (a directed cycle graph, for those playing along at home) embodying the associations one’s mind makes with a cat meowing – that the cat might be hungry, or wanting to be played with, or there’s someone at the door, or what-have-you. If you’re accustomed to observing your own process of cognition, you’ll recognize the experience of having your mind follow links between these associations, or at least that’s what it’s like for me and I’m guessing I’m not alone in that; it makes sense to me to understand BINDING:(SIGHT:CAT, SOUND:MEOW) as a pointer to a node in that graph.

    Perhaps it’s not an accident that the fashion in which it’s represented here bears significant similarity to the original form of one of the oldest programming languages in existence; a few trivialities of punctuation aside, you – and Culadasa? – represent this binding moment in the precise form of a Lisp M-expression. While M-expressions were never actually implemented in any Lisp system, because S-expression syntax (e.g. (binding '(sight cat) '(sound meow)) is equally expressive and more concise, the language’s inventor did originally intend M-expressions to be the programmer’s representation, and they bear strong resemblance besides to languages more typically used today, e.g. Javascript binding(sight.cat, sound.meow).

    Well – I think it might not be an accident, anyway. Embryos may not recapitulate their species’ process of evolution, but I don’t know that I would be at all surprised to discover that, when creating structures that exist purely in the realm of abstract thought and imagination, those who so create may tend to recapitulate some aspects of the processes by which they do so. And Lisp, after all, is an uncommonly powerful and expressive family of languages, offering programmers a degree of facility that’s very difficult, if not impossible, to find anywhere else…

  5. Jo says:

    I really find your book reviews useful, but maybe your non-neuroscience PhD book about meditation would be a good idea. Meditation is definitely one of the topics for which the term “epistemological learned helplessness” is relevant. The most useful book I have read was Dan Harris’ 10% Happier, and it is more a story than a guide.

  6. romeostevens says:

    Have you ever had the sudden realization that the strategy you’re following can’t, even in principle, get you what you want? Upon having such a moment, why were you not filled with an intense desire to know if you were doing that elsewhere? Strong enough to go hunting for them.

  7. AC Harper says:

    It would be interesting to recast the sub-minds ideas into the concept of predictive processing networks. Then the mechanism becomes awareness predictions being fed forward, the most salient reaching ‘attention’, and then ‘consciousness’ feeding back errors/confirmation to the predictive processing networks.

    Meditative calm or even enlightenment could perhaps be described as the awareness that minimal predictive error messages are being fed back – that is, the cessation of suffering (or no alerting predictions being generated).

    Not at all spiritual, just mundane brain processes working, which seems in keeping with the nature of the book being reviewed.

    • Basil Elton says:

      That’s what I was thinking about too! One of the biggest problems of predictive processing seems to be the dark room – why don’t minimize the prediction error by sitting in a quiet dark room constantly predicting zero inputs? I know that there’re some answers to this one, but the whole enlightenment thing seems to me as the brain doing exactly this, but “programmatically” so to say – the uppermost level of the brain predicts zero inputs from the lower levels, and those produce zero inputs by focusing attention on the internally generated signals (and thus minimazing the weights given to the external inputs) and then setting those internal signals to zero – no desires. Which leads to no prediction error – no suffering and emotions.

      Or something broadly along this lines, anyway, of course I’m just thinking up the details. But the general similarity between the dark room problem and the enlightenment concept does look suggesting.

  8. chaosmage says:

    > But then why are there so many cultures where monks study their entire lives in monasteries?

    Because monasteries serve many other purposes, and the practice of meditation was not chief among them when the European missionaries and scholars arrived, translated what they called the Sacred Books Of The East and informed the monks that actually, that meditation thing was what they were supposed to be doing.

    Monasteries are places where you put children you can’t feed or younger brothers that you don’t want to contest the inheritance. They’re assisted living for the mentally unstable. They’re places where you go to get blessings and funeral services. They’re pilgrim/tourist destinations. They’re schools. They’re institutions that can perpetuate themselves without any particular emphasis on meditation.

  9. Mr Mind says:

    Isn’t enlightment basically self-wireheading?

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Well it’s about becoming aware of the extent to which your brain constructs your entire reality, so in a sense it’s the opposite of wireheading: rather than becoming more deluded about the nature of reality, you become less so.

      • Murphy says:

        wireheadding has nothing to do with delusion or not, it’s just plugging wires into the pleasure centers of your brain and essentially setting them to 100%.

        any beliefs re: nature of reality are somewhat orthogonal.

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          Depends on which definition of wireheading you’re using, I’ve heard of some which formulate it in terms of self-delusion in that you overwrite any sensory information that would cause you to get less than maximal utility.

          Anyway, if it’s possible to get constant 100% pleasure via enlightenment, then at least that doesn’t seem like a particularly common outcome. Daniel Ingram, who claims enlightenment himself and spent a lot of time teaching meditation and discussing it with people, says that he has never seen this happen.

          These emotional models basically claim that awakening involves some sort of emotional perfection, either gradually or suddenly, and usually make these ideals the primary criteria for their models of awakening, while often ignoring or sidelining issues related to clear perception of the true nature of phenomena. Usually these fantasies involve elimination of the “negative” emotions, particularly fear, greed, hatred, anger, frustration, lust, jealousy, restlessness, and sadness, but some claim to eliminate all emotions, period. At a more fundamental level, they promise the elimination of all emotional forms of attraction and aversion.

          As I am sure you can already tell, I am no fan of most of these models of awakening. In fact, I consider their creation and perpetuation to be basically evil in the good old “you should burn in hell for perpetuating them” kind of way. […]

          … all living examples whom I have encountered fail to live up to the highest ideals of the standard emotional models that promise the elimination of either all negative or destructive emotions, or all emotions entirely, in some way. I know a few people who claimed to have eliminated all emotions only to realize later that they were totally wrong, sometimes with extremely unfortunate consequences. I know a few people who claim to have eliminated all emotions and yet externally seem to be totally emotional, including demonstrating what looks exactly like emotions that would often be considered bad by the standard ideals. That they claim to be unable to perceive this seems more like denial than realization to me. Is it possible, as is sometimes argued, that people will for all the world appear to have emotions externally and yet not have any internally? While there is an outside chance that this may have occurred in someone, I truly believe it is just another form of hyper-sophisticated spiritually-induced blindness and rationalization, common things being common as they are, and there is no reason this couldn’t be blended with genuine insights, as most of the people I know who claim this sort of thing have spent a lot of time practicing.

          • trevyn says:

            My model of enlightenment involves a level of neuroplastically-achieved executive control over the emotional functions of the amygdala, and I have experienced something close to “100% pleasure all the time”. For me, this ended up being quite physically exhausting, and for now, I prefer the “completely emotionally neutral” setting. Note that having the outward appearance of emotions can serve useful social communication functions, and this outward appearance may still be habitually triggered, even if the internal experience is emotion-free. Also, I don’t doubt that you could elict some actual emotions in me if you subjected me to physical torture, though I expect I could overcome that with training if I felt it necessary; see reports of monastic self-immolation, etc.

          • Kaj Sotala says:

            Okay. In that case your model is very different from mine, in that mine says that you can get enlightened without getting any particular control of your emotions, and continue to have exactly the same ones as always. That seems to be Ingram’s experience.

            I do think that meditation can also rewire your brain so as to give you more control over your emotions, but I think that’s a different axis of development than enlightenment is (though enlightenment may be useful for it).

      • helaku says:

        to which your brain constructs your entire reality

        Well, so what? I assume it without enlightenment. Yes, I do not know for sure. But do enlightened know? Aren’t they also deluded? Because it’s impossible to know “the system” from within, from this reality, doesn’t it? And as far as I can tell, no enlightened have ever escaped, be it deluded or not, this reality except presumably in death.

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          You assume it, but you don’t experience it, at least on not all levels. If you did, you could e.g. take all emotions as pure sense data – “oh, this excruciating pain is just a sensation constructed by my brain, and I can let it all pour in and experience it fully without flinching away, knowing that there’s nothing in this sensation that could harm me”.

          I don’t know what “escaping this reality” means, but at least you no longer feel confined by your own fears and pains in this reality: you can still choose to avoid painful events if you wish, but it will be of your choice, rather than because you are letting your fear of pain control your life. (At least, that’s the claim; I don’t know to what extent it’s realistic to assume that you can achieve it fully, but I’ve experienced enough of it to be convinced that I can achieve much more of it than I would have if I had not started meditating.)

    • raj says:

      In my experience no, not at all. Quite the opposite really, it’s more like a kind of metacognitive weightlifting.

  10. Aging Loser says:

    If there is an “eternal Thou” (Buber’s phrase) then it’s kind of rude to focus Inward.

    Something that bugs me: David Hume / Sam Harris say “Look Inward and you’ll see, as I did, that you’re nothing but a bundle of perceptions.” So a bundle of perceptions looks Inward? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

    • Lexie says:

      I don’t think you’re meant to only look inward, forever.

    • noyann says:

      If there is an “eternal Thou”

      If.

      It may well be that the I-Thou distinction dissolves also. Related: Wasn’t it “Eckhart’s distinction between God and Godhead (Gottheit in German, meaning Godhood or Godliness, state of being God)” (Wikipedia), the latter being beyond God that caught the Inquisition’s attention?

      • Aging Loser says:

        If there’s no eternal Thou then why give a crap about anything? Read comic books. I like comic book nerds more than enlightened people anyway.

        And it’s fun imagining that there’s an eternal Thou. I’d much rather imagine that the sky’s looking at me than imagine that I’m nothing but a bundle of perceptions.

        • Hyperfocus says:

          Because not-caring about everything is boring, and most of the time it’s either an affectation or a delusion on the part of those who claim they do it.

          Or, as I’ve heard it phrased elsewhere: when nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you do.

  11. Interesting to contrast this description of consciousness to that in Consciousness and the Brain. The later really emphasized the role of consciousness in persistence of information, if someone is conscious of something they’ll be able to remember it 10 seconds later but not otherwise, and that’s how scientists started studying consciousness scientifically. But of course nowadays they have MRIs and so forth too.

  12. Conrad Honcho says:

    Recently I’ve been reading works by modern teachers like Daniel Ingram and Vijay Gupta, who compare the amount of work involved in enlightenment to the amount of work in an MD or PhD – maybe five years? But Culadasa states that “for householders who practice properly, it’s possible to master the Ten Stages within a few months or years”

    Yeah, selling a “Six Minute Enlightenment” video sounds foolproof until some jerk comes out with “Five Minute Enlightenment.”

  13. raj says:

    Scott, have you maintained a disciplined meditation habit for a decent length of time?

    > falling into the Pit of the Void

    Anyone know if this is similar to existential dread (what sartre called nausea)? This is basically the main problem in my life and makes meditation difficult for me, as it seems to exacerbate it.

    • RegisterForThisSite says:

      Meditation wasn’t supposed to work without the rest of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path which includes deconstruction of the ideas of “I”, “myself”, “mine”. If your mind is trained to see that there’s no “you”, then nobody can fall anywhere.

      • Aging Loser says:

        The “your” seems to undermine the sentence in which it occurs.

        • Creutzer says:

          Language isn’t an adequate tool to describe a lot of mental states, and especially not a good tool to convey information about mental states to people who have not experiences said states. It can only hint at them in the hope that those who have experienced the states will recognise the referent. Apparently, not even that is working all that well most of the time. Ingram discusses that quite explicitly. If you don’t believe this is the case, just take a high dose of psilocybin or LSD.

  14. maizeq says:

    In my anecdotal experience, any goal during meditation, including focusing on the breath can become an object of neuroticism. Most modern instructions relating to meditation seem to fall in to this trap of goal-oriented thinking. If the goal of meditation is to be all-accepting of our current moment, then surely practicing to change our present moment is antithetical to it.

    I also find this apparent dichotomy between attention and awareness unconvincing. I am much more inclined to believe that our attentional spotligiht flickers across multiple sensory modes extremely quickly. And that this gives the appearance of a peripheral awareness. What he calls peripheral awareness just sounds like the collection of sensory input that has low saliency, and therefore spends less time in the attentional spotlight.

    • cuke says:

      “any goal during meditation, including focusing on the breath can become an object of neuroticism. Most modern instructions relating to meditation seem to fall in to this trap of goal-oriented thinking. If the goal of meditation is to be all-accepting of our current moment, then surely practicing to change our present moment is antithetical to it.”

      There is a seeming paradox in Buddhist practice that I think is resolved by understanding their distinction between relative and absolute reality. I’ve heard it described this way:

      Relative reality is the regular daily world we inhabit, where we more or less live as individual people trying to navigate a suffering world; it’s the arena in which we practice in order to become enlightened.

      The eight-fold path in Buddhism is the boat we build to get across the river to enlightenment. The eight-fold path is a path after all — it has direction and an end point; it’s very goal-oriented in that sense, unabashedly so, and meditation is part of pursuing that goal.

      You won’t need the boat when you get to the other side because your new view of self and other — from the vantage of absolute reality — will have so transformed that you would no more hurt another being than you would cut your own finger off. In absolute reality, there is no self, there is nothing to cling to, and the word “goal” has no meaning.

      But in the daily life we inhabit, we do need to abide by certain practices and priorities in order to get across the river. These practices and priorities — it is argued — create the most favorable conditions for getting free of suffering. So when you meditate, you bring “right effort,” and you aim for “right concentration” and “right mindfulness.” You try to sit up straight and be still, to bring a clear intention, and you try to conduct the rest of your life ethically to support mindfulness and concentration (right speech, etc).

      Being present for what is arising in each moment takes some work; acceptance isn’t passive. Buddhists are saying “in our experience these habits are more likely to enable you to learn to be present for what is arising in each moment.” Buddhism doesn’t mean abandoning all aspirations; it articulates a very clear aspiration to get free of suffering by following the eight-fold path. Acceptance doesn’t mean no effort; its an active process of acknowledging with kindness what is so in that moment — it requires seeing clearly, not being stuck on delusions, and being able to control one’s focus/attention, among other things.

      Buddhist teachers do talk a lot about the various traps one can fall into in practice and one of those is how our native inclination towards attachment can show up in all kinds of ways — attachment to meditating “perfectly,” attachment to the present moment, attachment to being seen as virtuous, attachment to transient blissful states, etc. So it’s expected that attachment will show up all along the path, but the solution from their point of view isn’t to abandon the path; it’s to be aware of the attachment and to keep working with it.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Regardless of whether or not it is illusory, it is still a meaningful distinction.

      Attention is my default. Awareness is a mental mode I have to deliberately turn on. It is the difference between looking at a chair, and looking at a room containing a chair which you are nominally focusing your eyes on.

      I can effectively only maintain one or the other at any given time; either I have mental tunnel vision focusing on one thing, or I have no focus whatsoever because my mental tunnel vision is pointed at awareness itself.

  15. b_jonas says:

    Scott, have you considered doing entry-level meditation practice but _without_ getting into spirituality? And asking questions from a qualified teacher one on one, since no matter how good the explanations are in the books, you will have some questions that they don’t answer.

    > he’s not trying to invent yet another new age psychotherapy to help fight procrastination [a page later] He believes that the “unification of mind” produced by meditation will have its common-sense result of reducing internal conflict and improving “willpower”; it will also “overcome all harmful emotions and behavior”

    There’s an obvious contradiction here.

    [Rest of the comment is all non-serious. Skip it if you want helpful comments.]

    > If I ever teach Buddhist meditation, this is going to be my hook. […] lack of a neuroscience PhD

    I’m afraid you’re already overqualified because you have a medical degree. There are two ways you could fix that. Either prove that your thesis was in large part plagiarism, or get someone to accuse you of having committed sexual misconduct back before you got that degree. Pretending to commit scientific dishonesty or sexual misconduct right now would be too late: they’d take away your license to practice as a doctor, but probably not your medical degree. (There’s a third way, but I really don’t recommend it: getting brain damage from stroke or other medical causes until your memory and personality is so damaged that you can no longer remember most of the medical knowledege you’ve learned.)

    > Early stages contain basic tasks like setting up a practice

    You have to set up your own medical practice just to start meditating properly? That’s definitely not a basic task. Is this, like, a book *for* doctors with twelve years of work experience, as opposed to just written *by* a neuroscience PhD?

    > Imagine if there was something you could do an hour a day for a year or two, which would win you infinite willpower and a release from all suffering, with less side effects than the average SSRI?

    I hear that sleeping more improves my quality of life and mental state with few side effects.

  16. Alleged Wisdom says:

    Two points from someone who has been meditating long enough to experience some of the changes that are often discussed:

    1: For me, the ‘attention vs awareness’ thing was in the category of ‘so obvious it did not need to be mentioned’. I had no problem with focusing on a thing, like I was looking at it, but still knowing other things, as though I were hearing or feeling them. I intuitively got that it was part of the process. Probably most meditators are like this.

    I think that in a lot of endeavors, including meditation, there are maybe 100 things you need to know and get right, and most people will automatically or intuitively get 90 of them right. Communication problems happen when the ten things that people get wrong are variable. If you have never run into anyone whose mind works that way, you do not even know it was possible to miss it or get it wrong.

    2: Meditation and enlightenment do have a lot of tangible benefits, but you should not expect ‘more willpower’ (as conventionally defined) to be one of them. I am just as lazy as I was before I started meditating. The only difference is that my laziness no longer bothers me. Instead of getting angry at myself for being lazy and thinking it makes me a bad person, I just accept it as an inevitable fact of life and find strategies to work around it.

    • moridinamael says:

      In contrast, it took me quite a lot of meditation according to the TMI instructions to get an intuitive feel for the distinction between attention and awareness. I admit I’m still not entirely clear on it, since when a “moment of consciousness” is sourced from awareness, doesn’t that mean that I’ve directed my attention onto it, and thus it’s actually a moment of attention?

  17. DragonMilk says:

    I wonder if the author will appear and answer questions about enlightenment….

    …Too soon?

    • Deiseach says:

      I wonder if the author will appear and answer questions about enlightenment….

      I am not going to get into a slanging match with a neuroscientist 😉

      Historically it is not a term from the Buddhist meditative tradition but rather from the Roman Catholic meditative tradition. (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using Christian terms for Buddhist experiences but…). One must clearly define what one means by a “Dark Night” within the context of Buddhist experience.

      Yup, exactly! In fact, it’s from the Roman Catholic contemplative tradition (a) already there’s a divide in terminology, the strict definition of “contemplation” is what the popular notion of “meditation” is, and “meditation” is a focused concentration on a text or a prayer, exploring it with your reason, sometimes creating images to help you focus on the scene. Meditation comes first, helps you build up to contemplation where the conscious mind/reason is silent (b) this is why some religious orders are called “contemplatives” – enclosed orders who focus on prayer and the religious life (think of the Cistercians).

      The term “the Dark Night of the Soul” comes from The Ascent of Mount Carmel by St John of the Cross:

      For the understanding of this it must be known that, for a soul to attain to the state of perfection, it has ordinarily first to pass through two principal kinds of night, which spiritual persons call purgations or purifications of the soul; and here we call them nights, for in both of them the soul journeys, as it were, by night, in darkness.

      The first night or purgation is of the sensual part of the soul …And the second is of the spiritual part…

      And this first night pertains to beginners, occurring at the time when God begins to bring them into the state of contemplation; in this night the spirit likewise has a part, as we shall say in due course. And the second night, or purification, pertains to those who are already proficient, occurring at the time when God desires to bring them to the state of union with God. And this latter night is a more obscure and dark and terrible purgation, as we shall say afterwards.

      I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. This phenomenon, within the Buddhist tradition, is sometimes referred to as “falling into the Pit of the Void.” It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. What makes it problematic is that the person interprets it as a bad trip. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling, the way Buddhist literature claims it will be, it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it’s Enlightenment’s Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive, perhaps daily, guidance under a competent teacher.

      Again, yup! This is the Second Night that St John speaks of, and once again yes, you do need the guidance of a competent spiritual director to steer you along the path.

      As for “how come this says you can Achieve Enlightenment in Ten Easy Steps when professional meditators take years?”, well –

      There are other souls who labour and weary themselves to a piteous extent, and yet go backward, seeking profit in that which is not profitable, but is rather a hindrance; and there are still others who, by remaining at rest and in quietness, continue to make great progress. There are others who are hindered and disturbed and make no progress, because of the very consolations and favours that God is granting them in order that they may make progress. And there are many other things on this road that befall those who follow it, both joys and afflictions and hopes and griefs: some proceeding from the spirit of perfection and others from imperfection. Of all these, with the Divine favour, we shall endeavour to say something, so that each soul who reads this may be able to see something of the road that he ought to follow, if he aspire to attain to the summit of this Mount.

      The “make no progress because of the consolations” sounds like the “without special techniques “overly intense joy” becomes a big problem” because yes, that’s a trap on the way: you want to stay at that stage because it’s honey and bliss, not move on to the harder, drier, purgative stage of progress.

      EDIT: And to quote the Jesuits, from the Spiritual Exercises (a retreat course of about thirty days) of St Ignatius Loyola about the risk when feeling all loved up spiritually:

      If he who is giving the Exercises sees that he who is receiving them is going on in consolation and with much fervor, he ought to warn him not to make any inconsiderate and hasty promise or vow: and the more light of character he knows him to be, the more he ought to warn and admonish him. For, though one may justly influence another to embrace the religious life, in which he is understood to make vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, and, although a good work done under vow is more meritorious than one done without it, one should carefully consider the circumstances and personal qualities of the individual and how much help or hindrance he is likely to find in fulfilling the thing he would want to promise.

      • Aging Loser says:

        “competent spiritual director” — would you want to hang out with anyone who applied this label to himself?

        • nameless1 says:

          No. Neither with someone who applied the label “Doctor” or “”Professor” or “PhD” to himself. These labels need to be earned from the people who already have earned the label, who teach and examine it. Which sounds weird if you think about it (who was the first Dr. whose approval made the second Dr. and was the first guy any good?) but the mechanism of earning a “Dr.” in front one’s name, or “Lama”, or “Reverend Father” are very similar.

  18. thehalliard says:

    Want to run marathons, but spend your time drinking beer instead? Just model yourself as having a marathon-running submind and a beer-drinking submind, and they’re fighting, and the beer-drinking submind is winning. Do this enough times and you’ll never figure out anything about hyperbolic discounting or reinforcement learning or any of the very important principles that govern what the brain actually does and which do not look like little people fighting inside of you.

    Ironically, the book linked above does describe people as something like “little people fighting inside you”! It models people as little ecosystems of goal-directed processes that bargain with each other in a way that seems compatible with TMI.

    I was happy to see this review and would love to see a review of Breakdown of Will. It’s a fascinating book.

  19. Kaj Sotala says:

    Your solutions will always look like some weird form of therapy based on starting a dialogue with the beer-drinking submind and convincing it that beer isn’t so good after all, which never works

    Interestingly, there’s actually a weird form of therapy that’s basically this, only several rationalists (myself included) have found that it seems to work surprisingly well, and whose theoretical model also happens to have interesting connections with the TMI one.

    I myself used to be super-skeptical about exactly because it’s, well, based on starting a dialogue with the beer-drinking submind and convincing it that beer isn’t so good after all. I thought, that’s just anthropomorphic bullshit, totally can’t work like that. That was until I learned Internal Double Crux from CFAR, started using it with some friends, starting running into stuff that sounded a lot like the stuff I’d been hearing about that weird talk-with-your-subminds therapy… so then I finally familiarized myself with it, tried it out, and have since then been shocked at how well it works, both for myself and a few friends. I also think that it complements TMI practice nicely.

    (That said, IME you can use it without going quite as anthropomorphic as the way that it’s usually presented.)

    • gnoppa says:

      Sounds interesting. How exactly do you do this? I’d like to try it.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        I recommend this book, though with the note that I often don’t need to follow the full process outlined there. Sometimes it’s definitely necessary, but what I’ve found even more commonly useful is something that it discusses at the beginning of the book, which it calls “getting into self”.

        Here’s the basic idea. Suppose that a part of your mind is really angry at someone, and telling a story (which might not be true) about how that person is a horrible person with no redeeming qualities. Internal Family Systems says that there are three modes in which you might react to that part:

        First, you may be entirely blended with it (for those familiar, this corresponds to what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy calls cognitive fusion). This means that you are experiencing everything in terms of the story that it is telling, and have forgotten that this is an emotional reaction. So you feel that it’s just objectively true that the other person is horrible and with no redeeming qualities.

        Or you might be partially blended with it. In this case, you realize that you are experiencing an emotional reaction, and that your thoughts and feelings might not be entirely justified, but you still feel them and might not be able to stop yourself from behaving according to them anyway.

        Finally, you might be “in Self”, meaning entirely unblended. Here you are still aware of the emotions and thoughts, but your subjective experience is that they’re not your emotions, they’re someone else’s – they’re coming from a part of your mind which is experienced as separate from “you”. In this mode, you do not feel threatened or overwhelmed by them, and you can maintain a state of open curiosity towards whether or not they are actually true.

        My experience is that usually if I have an unpleasant emotion, I will try to do one of two things: either reject it entirely and push it out of my mind, or buy into the story that it’s telling and act accordingly. Once I learned the techniques for getting into Self, I got the ability to sort of… just hang out with the emotion, neither believing it to be absolutely true nor needing to show it to be false. And then if I e.g. had feelings of social anxiety, I could keep those feelings around and go into a social situation anyway, making a kind of mental move that I might describe as “yes, it’s possible that these people all secretly hate me; I’m going to accept that as a possibility without trying to add any caveats, but also without doing anything else than accepting its possibility”.

        The consequence has been that this seems to make the parts of my mind with beliefs like “doing this perfectly innocuous thing will make other people upset” actually update their beliefs. I do the thing, the parts with this belief get to hang around and observe what happens, notice that nobody seems upset at me, and then they are somewhat less likely to bring up similar concerns in the future.

        In terms of global workspace theory, my model here is that there’s a part of the mind that’s bringing up a concern that should be taken into account in decision-making. The concern may or may not be justified, so the correct thing to do is to consider its possibility, but not necessarily give it too much weight. Going into Self and letting the message stay in consciousness this way seems to make it available for decision-making, and often the module that’s bringing it up is happy to just have its message received and evaluated; you don’t have to do anything more than that, if it’s just holding it up as a tentative consideration to be evaluated.

        The book has a few different techniques that you can use for getting into Self. One that I often use is to try to get a sense of where in my body the emotional sensations are coming from, and then let my mind create a visualization based on those. Once I have a visualization and a physical location of the part, it’s easier to experience it as “not me”. Another thing that I do is to just make that mental move that I described – “okay, this is a possibility, so I’m just going to test it out”. I find it useful to first stay blended with the part for a while, to get a sense of what exactly is the story that it’s trying to tell, before unblending and getting into Self.

        E.g. a while back I was having a sense of loneliness as I laid down for a nap. I stepped into the part’s perspective to experience it for a while, then unblended; now I felt it as a black ice hockey puck levitating around my lower back. I didn’t really do anything other than let it be there, and maintained a connection with it. Gradually it started generating a pleasant warmth, and then the visualization transformed into a happy napping cartoon fox, curled up inside a fireball that it was using as its blanket. And then I was no longer feeling lonely.

        That said, sometimes a part is not content to just raise a tentative possibility; sometimes it feels like something is an emergency, so you must act right away. Obviously, sometimes you really are in an emergency, so this is justified! But often times it’s based on the part having an unrealistic fear, which in the IFS model tends to be a result of some past trauma which it is reliving, not realizing that the circumstances of your life have changed and you’re now capable of dealing with it. In that case, you need to do the full process described in the book, where you basically get in proper contact with the part in question and address its concerns. (Actually it’s a bit more complicated than this, since the IFS model holds that there are many different kinds of parts that may have relationships with each other – so the “beer-drinking part” may be drinking beer in order to keep the traumatized part numb and safely out of consciousness, so you may actually need to deal with two different parts separately. The book goes into a lot more detail.)

        • gnoppa says:

          Thanks for the detailed description. As I have recently read The Folly of Fools by Robert Trivers in which he details that repressed trauma or identity has negative effects on the immune system, I’d like to work on that. Looking at my life I can see some events that may be critical, but I have the feeling that I learned to not even allow emotions to bubble up. Hence, I am asking if this technique works if you do not have an emotional reaction?

          • Kaj Sotala says:

            Not sure. IFS explicitly talks about the possibility of “protector” subminds (the ones which try to block traumatized subminds from coming into consciousness) sometimes acting to block any emotional reactions in the first place, so it’s possible that if you could get into contact with one doing that, you could use the IFS technique for dealing with it. But it might be challenging to get into contact with it in the first place, since you need some hint of the submind to get into touch with it first.

            So, I don’t know. I haven’t been in that situation and I’m not a trained IFS therapist, I’ve just dabbled in it myself a bit. I guess that an experienced IFS therapist would be able to tackle it, but I don’t know how feasible it would be to deal with it on your own.

  20. Sigivald says:

    It begins with a startling claim that mental time is granular, and only one item can be in consciousness per granule-moment

    I don’t find that startling, myself, for several reasons:

    1) AFAIK, the Deep Quantum Mechanics people have been suggesting that time itself might be fundamentally discrete for decades. (Even if, naturally, at a MUCH smaller level of granularity than we could ever directly observe or notice in consciousness.)

    2) It models almost exactly like computer multitasking [especially the older style non-parallel version], which we have plenty of examples of in our daily lives, and which we can see looks just like doing more than one thing at once to an observer even when it literally isn’t, assuming the time quanta is small enough.

    3) I dunno about you, but I literally can’t think of two different things at exactly the same time, but I can easily divide time like #2, and have what, as a programmer, I naturally model as “interrupts from a background process” reminding me of Other Things.

    Might just be that I’m a programmer and all, but that statement isn’t startling for me; it was more a “yeah, sure, that make perfect sense, right”.

  21. Speaking as a skeptic who doesn’t know much about meditation, are there external tests by which one could determine that it’s real and important, that enlightenment, or whatever the result of a year+ of proper meditation is supposed to be, actually exists? Is there an equivalent of asking a supposedly top level scientologist to levitate?

    • Eponymous says:

      Maybe visit some horrible destruction on a practitioner, and see if he/she handles it with equanimity and grace?

      (Partly kidding, but I guess that’s basically the plot of Job)

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      Quite a bit actually.

      There’s a lot of research out there that the brain activity of advanced meditators is different in ways we’d expect
      https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-12661646

      And when they have competitions to have the least amount of detectable brain activity, or the ‘slowest wave’, the by-a-wide-margin winner is always a long-term meditator.

      • That’s evidence that it’s real–that something is happening. But I don’t think it is evidence that it’s important.

        • stationarywaves says:

          Thinking back to the study that revealed that ethicists were no more moral than non-ethicists, it would be interesting to see what impact “enlightenment” has on human behavior. Do people who claim to be “enlightened” make better moral decisions than others? Or even more enlightened decisions?

        • adder says:

          The Bodhisattva’s Brain is a nice read by comparative philosopher Owen Flanagan. The first half of the book is dedicated to examining the question of whether science has proved that meditation or Buddhism makes people happier. His thesis is that, though there’s some interesting science out there, we don’t know jack because we can’t operationalize happiness. And it’s even more difficult because what a Buddhist calls happiness is different that what American coastal liberal calls happiness. So we really ought to get clear on what we’re talking about before we evaluate things.

          (The second half of the book interprets Buddhist ethics as a sort of Aristotelian virtue-theory… if you’re into that)

    • christopher hodge says:

      You could try sitting in the street, covering yourself in petrol, and burning yourself to death. If you get up and start flailing, screaming, running, then you aren’t there yet. I understand that this is in some sense a non-central example.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Oh, I don’t doubt that the effects are real; I am convinced that sufficiently prolonged meditation can induce alternate states of consciousness. As to whether it’s important… it’s probably about as important as all the other ways to induce alternate states of consciousness, such as alcohol, marijuana, or LSD.

    • cuke says:

      This is an interesting question I find myself wanting to try to answer, David Friedman. I’ve been a student of Buddhism for 35 years. I don’t claim to have any special insight other than that experience and this view is just my own.

      The benefits of meditation are largely subjective, though there is more research all the time about effects on the brain (insofar was we trust fMRI studies), as well as some other outward markers like blood pressure, quality of sleep and so on.

      Meditation within Buddhist traditions is part of a wider set of practices that don’t get talked about enough (I think) in popularized western renditions. The goal of meditation, if there can be said to be a goal, is abiding awareness of the four noble truths. I’m gonna give you my very informal translation:

      1. Our minds are built for chronic dissatisfaction.
      2. The cause of our chronic dissatisfaction is in our attachments, aversions, and delusions (let’s call all that craving for now).
      3. We can get free of our chronic dissatisfaction by learning to let go of our habitual craving.
      4. There is a path for this letting go process. It’s the 8-fold path (and meditation is implicated in maybe 3 of those 8 directly).

      The Buddhists love lists.

      Enlightenment in a general sense is freedom from this cycle of craving and dissatisfaction. But it also includes sustaining the elements of the 8-fold path (as well as, some would say, dedicating oneself to helping others reach enlightenment). And when you look at the 8-fold path, it becomes clear you can’t claim to be enlightened and be an asshole or relate to your emotions the way you did before or imagine that you are separate from the rest of existence (or behave as if you are). It’s a path grounded in a particular ethics.

      Now it seems lots of people do talk about enlightenment in some other way, and of course that’s fine, but we just need to clarify whether we’re talking about enlightenment in a Buddhist sense, because if that’s what we’re talking about, then it includes the 8-fold path. And in that sense, it has very little to do with things that can be externally tested or performed. It’s about a view of the self and the world that produces freedom from suffering.

      When people talk about all these other goals for meditation, I am always a bit puzzled, because from my perspective meditation is one part of a road that is all about reducing suffering, period. If some people wind up levitating or having ecstatic experiences or whatever, that’s entirely beside the point if we’re talking about enlightenment in a Buddhist sense.

    • arlie says:

      I’m kind of in the same boat.

      Producing weird psychological effects is pretty easy – but is it useful? Producing weird physiological effects is more difficult, but again, seems to be something many/most humans can potentially learn to do – but how often is that useful?

      More importantly, is it useful enough to be worth the effort? Or beyond that – is it useful in any ultimate way, or just yet another tool or hobby?

      Actually I’d go farther, and ask the same question about everything in the general area labelled “spirituality”.

  22. glorkvorn says:

    I can’t help but notice that all these guides seem to stress the importance of regular guidance by an expert teacher. Presumably that teacher is being paid, and whoever wrote the guide would be such a teacher.

    Maybe that’s fair, I don’t know. If you wrote a book about martial arts or dancing, it would be totally fair to say that you can’t learn it just from reading books, you really need someone there in person showing you what to do and pointing out what you’re doing wrong. But for a practice like meditation, which seems to be just purely internal, I don’t know if that’s true. It does seem exactly like what you’d write if you wanted to start a religious cult though, and since there’s no way to prove them wrong (“how will I know when I’m enlightened?” “Oh you’ll know, trust me. You’re not there yet. Come back tomorrow for another intensive guided meditation setting”) I’m really suspicious.

    • Aapje says:

      It does seem that you can get stuck or in local minimum, where people may fail to advance and/or will feel like quitting. So the teacher could then be useful to help people get unstuck and/or to motivate them to continue.

    • cuke says:

      Most cities have meditation classes and groups, often for free or nominal donation. Some retreats and programs do cost money, but most are not paying teachers a lot, and certainly not more than any other kind of teaching (yoga, etc). We know there are corrupt teachers as in every field, but meditation isn’t a con in and of itself, the way that say multi-level marketing scams are.

      I teach meditation as part of my psychotherapy practice, when it’s relevant to people. What I’ve observed across 35 years of practice is that many many people have decided based on a couple of attempts that “I just can’t meditate.” And when you inquire about their experience they say things like, “my head is just too busy,” or “I couldn’t stop my thoughts,” or “it made me more anxious not less.” And when you ask people how they learned, they say they read a book or article about how to do it. This says to me that a large number of people are turned away from meditation as a result of not having good instruction and have developed faulty ideas about what it is, how to do it, and what the early road looks like.

  23. Eponymous says:

    Imagine if there was something you could do an hour a day for a year or two, which would win you infinite willpower and a release from all suffering, with less side effects than the average SSRI? Why aren’t we all doing it?

    An hour a day is a *big* time commitment though. That’s like 6% of waking hours; Or, a substantial chunk of “spare” time.

    If it really gave “infinite willpower and a release from all suffering” that would still be worth it. But if it’s not quite that?

    I mean, if that’s what’s on offer here, then shouldn’t we notice? I don’t see meditators dominating most fields. I don’t see enlightened beings producing breakthroughs in science.

    Then again, maybe the optimal amount is 10 minutes per day to somewhat increase willpower and mood. That seems more plausible to me. But if it’s substituting against other daily habits like sleep, exercise, reading, or learning an instrument or language, do I really come out ahead?

    • glorkvorn says:

      On the plus side, while it is a big *time* commitment, it’s not a very big *effort* commitment. You can stop thinking and just rest your brain.

    • moridinamael says:

      My theory for why it doesn’t increase willpower is that the process severely attenuates all of the powerful subconscious drives that sum up to “motivation” for a normal person.

      If it’s some mixture of desire for status, desire for a mate, and desire for material wealth that motivates a person to become dominant in their field, and you surgically dismantle the ability of those basic drives to hijack your mind by methodically learning to observe and disregard the impulses they generate, then you’ve effectively decoupled your actions from the kinds of human drives that tend to lead to most kinds of excellence.

      The drives that lead somebody to practice guitar for several hours a day are often not healthy ones in a holistic sense. The very act of practicing guitar for several hours a day may itself be viewed as unhealthy. When the mind becomes integrated and coherent, it ceases to feel any need to practice guitar with that kind of obsessiveness, and virtually guarantees that the integrated individual never becomes a guitar legend.

      • Eponymous says:

        That sounds plausible to me, and accords with other things I’ve read.

        But now we’re in a difficult realm for applying decision theory. Because we’re talking about changing our preferences.

        Let’s say that currently I strongly want to make a great contribution to my field. I might value a practice that increases my odds of doing this. However, I wouldn’t want to undertake it if it sapped my motivation to do this.

        But “sapping my motivation” might feel more like “realizing that there are more important things in life than trying to make a great contribution to my field”. And maybe I’ll be happy I realized that before I wasted my life slaving away in the lab for a few accolades that would not really satisfy me.

        But now we have a disagreement in preferences between my current and (possible) future self. How do we evaluate this? I don’t know.

        It’s also clear why this might be useful in certain settings. Like if I’m an addict, I “want” to quit my addiction, but some part of me also “wants” to continue using. So if meditation changes my “preferences” such that one of those “wants” is attenuated (hopefully the addiction!) then I’ll come out ahead. And this is fine because I associate my “true” desires with my current self that wants to quit. (Or society recognizes that as the right one, or something like that.)

        • moridinamael says:

          I don’t have any good answers for this. The human animal has two basic ways of becoming content: either set up your life in such a way that you’re on a general path toward achieving the things you want (thereby creating a feeling of meaning), or have fewer attachments and want less things. I guess I think there’s a balancing point between the two. It’s good not to obsessively want things that you will literally never obtain, but I see it as pathological to convince yourself that you should holistically want nothing. I think individual humans are sufficiently different from each other that there’s no simple strategy that would achieve this balance.

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          If you buy into the theoretical model of subminds as presented in TMI, the claim is that all the subminds ultimately want the same things for you (exactly what they want for you is never exactly defined, but is implied to be something like “your happiness and general well-being”), but they have factual disagreements about what exactly will promote that. Unification of mind helps them better see the consequences of their different actions, so they end up disagreeing less; and if some submind notices that it was e.g. striving for social status as a substitute for social connection, then it will revise its priorities to value social connection instead.

          So under that framework, you’re not altering your preferences; your true preferences remain the same, you just get better information about what actually fulfills them. Of course, this requires accepting as truth a framework which Culadasa explicitly says isn’t necessarily literally true, and it’s questionable whether you can make a clean knowledge / preference distinction for low-level neural mechanisms in the first place. If conditioning reprograms a neural circuit, did it get a new preference or did it learn to better fulfill its existing preference?

          But then again, if you throw away that distinction, then it’s unclear whether you can ever do anything that teaches you a new habit or a skill without saying that your preferences have been altered.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      I don’t see meditators dominating most fields.

      Well, while it’s by no means a rigorous study, there’s still this:

      * For his new book “Tribe of Mentors,” bestselling author and star podcast host Tim Ferriss sent 11 questions to 140 people at the top of their fields.
      * He found that regardless of industry, the vast majority of respondents had a mindfulness or meditation practice. […]
      “Despite the fact that these are people from tennis to surfing to cryptocurrency to fill-in-the-blank, like any field you can possibly imagine — some type of morning mindfulness or meditation practice would span I’d say 90% of the respondents.”

      • Eponymous says:

        That’s interesting. Though I bet they also exercise every day. And this could just be that they are type A people who read that people should meditate every day, and (being type A people) they do it.

        But I’m willing to accept this as evidence for the “meditation makes one more effective” position.

        Does he say anything about how long they meditate each day?

        • moridinamael says:

          Having listened to pretty much all of Tim Ferriss’ interviews, most of his guests meditate on the order of 20 minutes per day. They are usually doing something like mindfulness or Transcendental (mantra) meditation. IMO you are pretty much never going to obtain any of the things Culadasa writes about if you’re only meditating 20 minutes a day.

  24. vV_Vv says:

    Buddhism started out with Theravada teachers saying it would take millions of lifetimes to reach enlightenment. Then the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools started saying maybe you could reach enlightenment in one lifetime, if you did everything right and worked very hard. Recently I’ve been reading works by modern teachers like Daniel Ingram and Vijay Gupta, who compare the amount of work involved in enlightenment to the amount of work in an MD or PhD – maybe five years? But Culadasa states that “for householders who practice properly, it’s possible to master the Ten Stages within a few months or years”

    American McBuddhism: get your enlightenment in 10 minutes with a side of fries and a diet coke.

    But Ingram stresses that meditation and enlightenment do not provide many of the worldly gains their advocates promise, and in many cases can make things worse.

    Don’t know about Ingram, but if that the other modern “teacher” you mention is the Vijay Gupta in this thread, then it seems that enlightenment does really make things worse. Though I suspect that the “enlightenment” in the circles you refer to has less to do with actual Buddhism than with drugs.

    • Creutzer says:

      Ingram explicitly says that he considers psychedelics irrelevant/a distraction, and one may think about that what one wants, but I don’t know why one would doubt his being genuine about it. Do you have any particular reason for your suspicion that drugs are involved?

  25. P. George Stewart says:

    Just a side-thought. The internal story you get from the Theravada is that they’re the oldest, but that’s not necessarily true. Both the main Theravada and the Mahayana streams derived, along different lines of development, from older parent forms of Buddhism, now long gone.

    The other thing I’d like to say is that the more a school gets institutionalized, ossified and politicized, the further into the future they postpone Enlightenment, make it a big thing that takes many lifetimes, etc., etc., yadda yadda. That’s all bs IMHO. That’s all just to keep the rubes paying for priestly and monkish sinecures. Look at the old texts about the old teachers, including Buddha himself – they all talk of people being enlightened pretty quickly, sometimes from something a teacher said, sometimes in the course of their life after meeting the teachings.

    Given the right teaching and equivalent application to doing a serious academic course, or running a business, or learning to play a musical instrument well, or competing in a sport, it’s all quite possible within a few years. In fact, the “Insight” can come quite without any stabilizing concentration meditation, it’s more like a gestalt switch. But it is fugitive, and concentration can “fix” it (the flickering candle analogy is apt).

    On the results of this stuff, basically there are two broad kinds of “results,” and this is all you need to know going in:-

    1) It’s possible to knock out the ordinary everyday sense of self, put it out of commission. This is often called “ego-death” and people can get it unbidden and without preparation, when it’s called “depersonalization.” It’s also possible on drugs. It’s an experience that’s likely to be at total right angles to anything you’ve ever experienced before (unless you’ve experienced it), it’s an experience that looms large in one’s life if one has it, and it does gives one a glimpse of one’s true nature (because of what becomes evident in the absence of that ordinary sense of self bulking forth in experience, as it normally does).

    2) That “glimpse” experience is an event in time, but the real thing, Enlightenment, isn’t about knocking out the ordinary, everyday sense of self at time t, but a deeper kind of seeing through the self. It’s connected to the kind of Insight you get in the ego-less state, but it’s more of a cognitive phenomenon, actually knowledge, plain and simple. The old analogy (and the original meaning of the oft-used rope/snake analogy) is that, ok, you might be frightened by a rope mis-seen as a snake in the dark, and then of course once you’re shown it’s just a rope, you know it’s a rope and your heartrate calms down – but you know it’s a rope not just in a dry academic sense, but even if you were to see the rope in the dark again and it LOOKED LIKE A SNAKE AGAIN, you’d remain unfazed.

    This is the key to the thing: it’s not actually necessary to kill the ego, to stop the ego, stop the mind, any of that (although doing those things is like five-finger exercises, and there’s value in doing them), all you need to do is have the knowledge that you (as you normally think of yourself, as something peeping out from behind the eyes, so to speak) don’t exist absorbed and integrated to a sufficient level of certainty, and then you know that even if your ego is cropping up, it only seems to be there, and isn’t really there. (Although of course to a great extent, following the moral control rules that you needed to background-stabilize your mind early on should mean that you really don’t get much in the way of standard egotistical thoughts, but you can still get the subtler kind.)

    • cuke says:

      I like how you said all this, thank you.

    • vV_Vv says:

      The other thing I’d like to say is that the more a school gets institutionalized, ossified and politicized, the further into the future they postpone Enlightenment, make it a big thing that takes many lifetimes, etc., etc., yadda yadda. That’s all bs IMHO. That’s all just to keep the rubes paying for priestly and monkish sinecures. Look at the old texts about the old teachers, including Buddha himself – they all talk of people being enlightened pretty quickly, sometimes from something a teacher said, sometimes in the course of their life after meeting the teachings.

      On the other hand, it could be claimed that the modern Western get-enlightened-quick teachers dumb down something which is complex and hard in order to sell it in an oversaturated spirituality market to buyers have low commitment and jump from one fad to the next.

      Compare the Buddhist notion of enlightenment with the Christian notion of sainthood: Most Christians, including most priests, are not expected to become saints, just like most Buddhists, including most monks, are not expected to become arhats or bodhisattvas, saints are supposed to be paragons of virtue although in practice various historical saints were controversial figures, just like various historical revered Buddhists, sainthood was more easily achieved in the early days of Christianity than in the present (e.g. all the Apostles of Jesus excluding Judas are saints, just like Buddha’s Principal Disciples are all arhats).

      The modern get-enlightened-quick gurus correspond to the born-again Evangelical preachers who sell salvation to whoever is ready to accept Jesus in their hearts (and follow the preacher’s teachings for a small fee).

      Buddhism, as it is practiced traditionally, was never a technology for achieving enlightenment, much like Christianity was never a technology for achieving sainthood. They are religions which grew organically in the societies they originated in and spread to, and they performed the same basic functions of providing social coherence, conformity, propagating value systems and giving people a sense of “meaning” that transcends their daily struggles.

      Given the right teaching and equivalent application to doing a serious academic course, or running a business, or learning to play a musical instrument well, or competing in a sport, it’s all quite possible within a few years.

      But even with the right teaching and application, most people never become groundbreaking scientists, billionaires, musical geniuses, or top-class athletes. Not in a few years, not in a lifetime. If you redefine enlightenment as something that anyone can get, then you are referring to something much different that the traditional Buddhists refer to.

      • P. George Stewart says:

        Anyone can get in principle, then. Obviously human beings vary. Agree very much with some of what you said here, but:-

        I think that, as I suggested, the evidence is the other way – neither Buddha himself nor most of the main figures in Buddhism seemed to think of it as some great unclimbable mountain in the vast distance. Maybe they were 6th century BCE hucksters? 🙂

        There’s a certain bleedthrough from the sociological aspects of religion here: of course to some extent, religion is a social control mechanism, and the idea of reincarnation is useful (whether true or not) for inducing a population to be inured to their hard lot in life (that’s probably the result of your own political, financial or military shenanigans).

        But the other thing is that it doesn’t matter whether you are or aren’t enlightened. It’s no big thing for God to be God, in fact it’s quite ordinary for God.

      • Hanfeizi says:

        Different forms of Buddhism, from what I understand, distinguish between various “levels” of enlightenment. Becoming a fully-awakened Buddha is a whole different nut than being an arahat.

  26. XRohFTynVpyEIr5nqCXW says:

    The global workspace theory sounds very much like Internal Family Systems which claims roots in Buddhist psychology. Am I just over-simplifying IFS and GWT so that they sound similar?

    • cuke says:

      Psychotherapy has been using the language of “parts” in various ways since Freud, and IFS is today’s fashionable incarnation. I don’t mean to dismiss its value; only to say that all of our mind-training practices — Buddhism and almost all of therapy included — are story-telling exercises that engage with our predicament of having minds with conflicting needs/impulses and different layers of awareness. These approaches are techniques held together by metaphors, not scientific theories. And because of that, I think a lot of the stories rhyme with each other in the way you are noticing. I worry that the distinction between “testable scientific theory” and “some shit I made up one day” is not always clear once it has an acronym and a paying target audience.

      My sense about IFS and Buddhism is that Richard Schwartz started getting questions from Buddhist therapist types about how his idea of the “self” in IFS overlapped or didn’t with the Buddhist idea of no-self and from there he began to integrate some Buddhist perspectives into IFS. I may have that wrong, but I was in an IFS training by him early on and it seemed like he was just starting to grapple with that question and it wasn’t clear to me that he really had engaged fully with Buddhist conceptions of no-self. At that point anyway, he was very much talking about helping clients access an essential kind of “self” that could be relied on to be more “true” than others. The person I’ve seen who has gone deepest into where Buddhist psychology (including no-self) and western psychology meet is Mark Epstein. Tons of other folks have jumped onto the “mindfulness” bandwagon because it’s trendy, and that’s led to some shallow mashups.

      Side note: the guys who I believe coined the term mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and got big research grants to investigate its efficacy for various disorders wrote at length about how they decided they finally had to try meditating themselves since they were instructing their research subjects to do it and they discovered in the process that… meditation is hard. This is the cutting edge of psychotherapy technique innovation. Reading how Francine Shapiro invented EMDR or how Marsha Linehan cobbled together DBT is sobering that way. I mean, these approaches have helped a lot of people, and that’s a good thing, but
      they are not testable theories. I think that’s not always understood by people on the receiving end of them.

      Diabetic patients are given insulin based on a consensus theory in biology about how blood sugar works in the body. IFS, mindfulness, CBT, Gestalt, EMDR, etc in the therapy world are shared stories, not consensus theories. The efficacy of the stories in helping people can be tested clinically, but the results keep telling us that it doesn’t matter which story you pick in terms of outcomes. And yet empires continue to be built on this or that person’s trademarked story. Neuroscience is now being harnessed in the effort to provide scientific validation well beyond what science actually shows. We are being pitched techniques to “rewire” our brains using “neurolinguistic programming” and so on, even though the extent of plasticity is still utterly contested. It’s similar to when psychiatrists say “we’re fixing your chemical imbalance by giving you this SSRI” instead of saying “we’re giving you this SSRI because it seems to help some people but we don’t really understand how or why it does.”

      When a therapist says “we’re going to do this and this and it will re-wire your brain and you’ll feel better,” what they’re really saying is “we’re going to tell a story together and maybe that will lead you to do some things differently in your life and then hopefully you’ll feel better.” It can be very effective; it’s just not science and I wish it didn’t masquerade as science.

      • MasteringTheClassics says:

        I probably don’t even qualify as an educated layman on this topic, but EMDR seems like it shouldn’t be on the same list as the other methodologies. The rest are talk therapies, no? While EMDR is supposed to be a physical manipulation of the mind (vaguely like psychedelics, perhaps?). It’s often used in conjunction with talk therapies, but it isn’t itself a talk therapy.

        Now I’ll be the first to grant that the explanations for how EMDR is supposed to work sound like a fever dream (they kind of remind me of the wackier explanations of chyropracty) but it should in principle be possible to do a double-blind trial on the efficacy of EMDR in a way that it wouldn’t be possible to test e.g. IFS. I wonder if that’s been done…

        • cuke says:

          EMDR involves a great deal of talking, before, sometimes during, and after being bilaterally stimulated (visually and/or aurally) while in a semi-guided visualization. The talking is part of the processing. IFS is often done within a guided visualization, so it’s not so different.

          Many other forms of psychotherapy happen via guided visualization, meditation, breathing practice, and/or using other kinds of mind/body techniques (movement, sand play, expressive arts, etc). So I tend to see all these techniques as pretty much in the same terrain. Even the use of metaphor in purely talk therapy can produce physiological effects in the same way a guided visualization might.

          I haven’t read any explanation of EMDR that claims actual physical manipulation of the mind (whatever that might mean anatomically or physiologically), maybe it exists though.

          You can google studies for EMDR and other techniques for trauma processing say — last I checked, on average EMDR was not more effective than other ways of trauma processing that were more conversational. In my experience, for some people, the bilateral stimulation seems to add something; for other people, it’s too much.

          • MasteringTheClassics says:

            I was thinking of the physicality of the fingers and eye movements producing alterations in the brain (I’ve heard it described as mimicking the effects REM sleep), not physically touching the brain itself. Your explanation makes sense, and clears up some of the intuitive confusion I had regarding EMDR (the mechanism seemed badly implausible, but people I trust, we’re reporting significant improvement after undergoing it) so thanks for that.

          • cuke says:

            About EMDR, I don’t have research to say this, but my own experience of it and based on related experience with other techniques, I suspect that part of what EMDR enables is blowing past people’s defenses in a way conventional talk therapy can’t always do.

            Conventional conversational psychotherapy can keep people “up in their heads” so that they can intellectualize endlessly about their feelings or experiences. Some of that is good but some of it allows a person’s defenses to get in the way of changing perspectives on something difficult they’ve experienced.

            I think EMDR’s bilateral stimulation may hijack the cognitive capacity to maintain one’s defenses a bit, just by partially capturing consciousness with something else that is neutral. And then on top of that, the protocol is done in a semi-guided visualization (and maybe some would say semi-trance) state which is another kind of slightly altered consciousness. I think it might not be any more complicated than that, but we really don’t know.

            There’s a lot of work that can be done in guided visualizations — which can be used as a kind of re-experiencing/exposure method for trauma. But sometimes people have trouble with guided visualizations because the self-editor or inner critic or whatever keeps stepping in and commenting or distracting from the visualization. So the bilateral stimulation may just make it harder for the editor to interfere and that allows the person to be more immersed in the visualization. Again, I’m just telling stories here because we have no science to tell us what’s “really” going on.

            I think Francine Shapiro developed this method after going for a walk in the woods one day and seeing how moving her eyes around changed how she felt about something she was thinking about. No, really.

  27. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Buddhism started out with Theravada teachers saying it would take millions of lifetimes to reach enlightenment. Then the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools started saying maybe you could reach enlightenment in one lifetime, if you did everything right and worked very hard.

    I’m skeptical that this is an accurate timeline of Buddhist doctrine.
    In pre-modern Thailand, a Theravada country, it was normal for every 20-year-old man to become a monk temporarily*, which doesn’t fit with anything less than many lifetimes being worthless. Young men weren’t expected to leave Enlightened, but surely it was considered of significant value!
    More crucially, the reason Mahayana Buddhists called Theravada Hinayana, “the little boat”, is because it taught that only a lifelong monk had any hope of achieving salvation from samsara. Unless counting Vajrayana as part of Mahayana, Mahayana has always been about householders being highly capable of spiritual progress. The reductio of this trend would probably be Pure Land Buddhism, where all one has to do is call on the name of your savior Boddhisattva to be reincarnated in a Pure Heaven, superior to the Heavens of the devas, where everyone is a monk and immorality and distractions are absent.

    *King Rama IV, of The King and I fame, went from monasticism to collecting a harem of 32 wives at 47.

  28. Paul Crowley says:

    Vinay Gupta, not Vijay. Fun fact: Vinay was a fellow student on the University of Edinburgh CS course I did, and we worked at the same startup briefly in the mid-90s. The guru with a Glaswegian accent 🙂

  29. bsrk says:

    If I ever teach Buddhist meditation, this is going to be my hook. “Come learn advanced meditation techniques with Scott Alexander, whose lack of a neuroscience PhD gives him a unique perspective that combines ancient wisdom with a lack of modern brain science.” I think the world is ready for someone to step into this role. But Culadasa is not that person, and The Mind Illuminated is not that book.

    There is already a person like this. He is indeed, a lot better than both Ingram and Culadasa. You would want to try out this site: dhammatalks.org

    If you have time only for one book, I would recommend The Wings to Awakening(pdf).

    Why should you read this?

    The Wings to Awakening constitute the Buddha’s own list of his most important teachings. Toward the end of his life he stated several times that as long as the teachings in this list were remembered and put into practice, his message would endure. Thus the Wings cover, in the Buddha’s eyes, the words and skills most worth mastering and passing along to others.

    Want to know what the teaching is? Look no further.

    Maybe all of this Western rationality and efficiency really is that great, and by cutting out the chaff modern people can get enlightenment much faster than the ancients could? Is this true in any other field? I get the impression that modern schoolchildren still master subjects like geometry or Latin at about the same age that the medievals would, though I could be wrong about this. Maybe Culadasa was right when he claimed his book includes important distinctions that hundreds of thousands of meditators working for thousands of years have missed. Maybe the past was just stupid and anybody moderately competent can make order-of-magnitude improvements. I don’t know. It seems like a pretty big claim, though.

    The “past” is a lot of things. Sincere people who fail to get awakening do not have the correct instruction, just like a math student trying to learn math from a book that is full of errors, with a math teacher who is not very good at math. And the phenomena of dharma books which are full of errors and dharma teachers who are not good at dharma is very very old. The true dhamma has disappeared

    • Mitchell Powell says:

      Although I can’t say I endorse every single thing he says (not that my endorsement would count for much on Buddhist matters), I’ve found Thanissaro Bhikku’s work very helpful. He’s frightfully articulate and, as far as I can remember, doesn’t seem to drift off into saying incoherent things.

  30. fion says:

    Typos: “unconscious sub¬minds” should be “unconscious sub-minds”

    “Part of is is probably” should be “Part of it is probably”

  31. fion says:

    I love your book reviews, and found this one especially interesting, but I always find it hard to get through big blocks of text quoted from the book you’re reviewing. I think the writers you review are rarely as engaging or entertaining as you. Maybe it’s not possible, but I think your book reviews would be even better if you quoted less and paraphrased more.

  32. tcheasdfjkl says:

    It begins with a startling claim that mental time is granular, and only one item can be in consciousness per granule-moment. The seven main types of items that can occupy a moment of consciousness are sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought, and a “binding moment” that combines aspects of the previous six. Each moment of consciousness is completely static. The only reason things seem to move or thoughts seem to flow is because the moments of consciousness are moving from moment to moment faster than you can detect, like a movie which flips from still frame to still frame so quickly that it gets perceived as continuous action. Culadasa also compares it to a “string of beads”, with each bead being a particular kind of moment (sight, sound, etc).

    There are never two things in consciousness at the same time. If you think there are, that’s either because your consciousness is switching back and forth from thing to thing so quickly that you can’t follow it, or because your consciousness is perceiving a “binding moment” that presents a single aspect including both of those things. For example, if you see a cat, and you hear a meow, you might experience a “binding moment” in which you think you hear the cat meowing, although really what has happened is SIGHT:CAT — SOUND:MEOW — BINDING:(CAT, MEOW).

    I’m really confused about what predictions this makes that differ from “you can notice and experience several things at the same time”. It seems kind of vacuous to me.

  33. aristides says:

    Buddhism started out with Theravada teachers saying it would take millions of lifetimes to reach enlightenment. Then the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools started saying maybe you could reach enlightenment in one lifetime, if you did everything right and worked very hard. Recently I’ve been reading works by modern teachers like Daniel Ingram and Vinay Gupta, who compare the amount of work involved in enlightenment to the amount of work in an MD or PhD – maybe five years? But Culadasa states that “for householders who practice properly, it’s possible to master the Ten Stages within a few months or years”, adding in a footnote

    Alternative hypothesis, people who say that they reached enlightenment within a few months or years are the reincarnation of someone who was only a few months or years from enlightenment in their past lives. Culadasa is exceptional, and for others it will take longer, even if they follow the same technique.

  34. ignamv says:

    I’m curious whether Culadasa’s techniques are part of those [invented in the last few centuries](https://vividness.live/2011/07/07/theravada-reinvents-meditation/). Maybe not, considering his Tibetan influences.

  35. Bugmaster says:

    In addition to what David Friedman said, above:

    So far, I’ve heard multiple claims about the tangible benefits of meditation, but I am not entirely sure on which of them are authoritative. Are there any peer-reviewed, replicated studies that support the following ? I’ll try to list the claims in order of increasing strength.

    1). A good fun time without using alcohol or other drugs, and thus with fewer side-effects (this may sound trivial, but I would consider it a valuable property of meditation)
    2). A general and persistent sense of increased well-being (if true, can this be used to relieve symptoms of depression ?)
    3). Increased perceptual acuity (in terms of being able to notice more things, not hearing ultrasound or seeing infrared)
    4). Increased mental acuity (e.g. faster problem-solving, better scores on IQ tests, possibly better “emotional IQ”, whatever that is)
    5). Decreased pain threshold (and possibly increased physical strength/toughness)
    6). Minor mental super-powers (e.g. occasional read-only telepathy, lightning-fast mental calculations, vision slightly outside the normal visible spectrum)
    7). Major mental super-powers (persistent read-write telepathy, 360-degree awareness, ability to factor large prime numbers in one’s head)
    8). Physical super-powers (feel no pain, smash bricks with your pinkie, fly by will alone)

    • cuke says:

      There is pretty good research now that meditation can help anxiety and depression.

      It’s widely reported, if not researched in the same way, that it contributes to an overall sense of well-being.

      I think mileage varies on “good fun time” — I’ve never found it to be fun, always found it to require motivation in the way exercise does and then feel glad that I did it; this even despite experiencing some delightful states. I’ve known a few people though who consistently find the experience to be enjoyable in and of itself, like how some people feel about taking a hot bath or reading a good book.

      I believe there is some research on mental acuity, memory, creative problem-solving, etc but not persistent IQ changes.

      There is research that for some chronic pain sufferers, meditation can reduce levels of pain significantly. Also that it can lower blood pressure, help with IBS-type symptoms, and reduce hot flashes in menopausal women.

      I’m not aware of any reputable research about the paranormal superpower type stuff.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Ok, it’s hard to tell without reading all the actual studies (which, to be fair, I probably don’t have time to do anyway); but would it be fair to sum up your points like this ?

        “Some people find meditation inherently enjoyable; there’s some evidence to indicate that it can temporarily relieve pain, improve focus, and perhaps even lower blood pressure.”

        I think this would make meditation worthwhile (assuming the absence of significant negative side effects), but the next question is: how effective is mediation compared to other remedies (such as medicine or perhaps even prayer) ? Come to think of it, how effective is meditation (especially at lowering blood pressure) compared to simply sitting still ?

        • cuke says:

          I don’t know if you read my response to David Friedman above, with respect to how we measure worthwhile when it comes to meditation — here, I was just trying to respond to your list of claims. If I were writing my own comment about what makes meditation worthwhile in my experience, it wouldn’t include any of the claims on your list, though number 2 touches on a corner of it.

          From my perspective, meditation is one practice among others on a path that’s intended to significantly reduce suffering, by the person who is on that path and the people who come into contact with the person who is on that path.

          Dan Harris’ book “10 Percent Happier” describes early experience with meditation well. I would say meditation and Buddhist psychology generally has made me more like 300% happier. It’s hard to measure, but it’s certainly way beyond 10%. This is also the case for the people I know who are long-time practitioners.

          So the point of meditation is the alleviation of suffering. It doesn’t do that best as a stand-alone thing — it was developed as one practice in a larger framework that includes ethical precepts, ongoing learning, and other practices that are, taken together, intended to change how a person experiences themselves and the world moment-to-moment. It transforms every part of a person’s life — how they see themselves, the quality of their relationships, what they choose to do in the world, how they cope with adversity, and so on. If it happens to do other things, that’s nice too, but those other things are side-effects.

          It’s hard to come up with a good analogy here, but let’s try the experience of getting over a heroin addiction. Some of the measurable benefits of getting over a heroin addiction may include fewer run-ins with the law, less constipation, and return to a more normal weight. Those all seem good. But of course the main point about getting over a heroin addiction is that your life is no longer in the grips of this incredible self-destructive monster riding on your back all the time. So while it’s nice to have more regular digestion, that’s not the main thing that makes getting over a heroin addiction worthwhile.

          Yoga might be a more neutral example. Some people do yoga just to get a workout or to prevent back problems, in the same way they might lift weights or get on the elliptical. But yoga is also this thousands’ year-old integrated system to support mental and physical well-being; it also has a spiritual underpinning. You can do yoga just for the workout, you can take on the whole integrated well-being program, and/or you can also adopt its spiritual view/practices. But when you’re assessing whether yoga is worthwhile, it’s good to realize that the “workout” part of it is a tiny part of what it is and what it was built to do.

        • cuke says:

          Here’s a short piece by a well-known Buddhist teacher giving a glimpse into this “what’s it good for” question.

        • Winslow says:

          I think you’re focusing on a few points that most people who go deep into meditation end up viewing as rather ancillary and superficial bonuses, but not really the main point of doing meditation practice. It’s like asking to what extent a psychedelic trip might be beneficial for pain or the other things you named. It very well might be beneficial for those things, but the crucial benefit is a shift in perspective that’s hard to put into a type of scientific endpoint that studies could easily be run on. Its also hard to explain the value of it to someone who hasn’t experienced it. But if you read from the great Masters and great teachers as you will see that they place a very high value on it. So whether or not you are going to hold yourself back from even taking a little bit of effort and energy to dip your toe in the water and try to get a taste of what they’re talking about until science has proven to you and some rigorous way that it’s legitimate, well that’s one way to live life but you will immediately rule out the whole category of things that are difficult to do scientific studies on.

        • Bugmaster says:

          @cuke:

          From my perspective, meditation is one practice among others on a path that’s intended to significantly reduce suffering…

          Fair enough; unlike Winslow, I’m not going to push for some sort of a Grand Unified Theory of Mediatation or anything like that.

          I think my question stands, though: is meditation better at “reducing suffering” in the way that you describe than other techniques — such as religious prayer, psychotherapy, drugs, etc. ? If so, is there any evidence of this ? I think the answer is important. If meditation provably, demonstrably reduces suffering better than all (or merely most) alternative approaches, then it should be a big deal (and perhaps even taught at schools). If not, then the impact is fairly low, but at least I personally probably wouldn’t want to spend too much time on it (though obviously I wouldn’t mind if other people did).

          • cuke says:

            Hi Bugmaster,

            To your questions: “is meditation better at “reducing suffering” in the way that you describe than other techniques — such as religious prayer, psychotherapy, drugs, etc. ? If so, is there any evidence of this ?”

            My sense is the variety of human experience will make any kind of general answer to this question not helpful for individuals.

            Everything out there that shows some evidence of being helpful to large numbers of people (I’d include all the things on your list, plus others like exercise and eating well, having some good relationships, and so on) is going to be more or less helpful to any one person.

            All of the research that’s been done so far on psychotherapy and drugs, for instance, tells us that there’s no way to say when it comes down to the individual which one treatment or approach is going to be the most helpful for what that person is dealing with, even though the research shows that psychotherapy and medication generally can be quite helpful for most people.

            Some people will hate meditation no matter how helpful it might be for them. Some people would rather die than live with the side effects of anti-depressants. Some people will not exercise even if they have their own lived experience that it helps all kinds of things. And all of these practices are aimed at somewhat different, though sometimes overlapping, issues.

            It’s helpful when a person is suffering that they have choices. Evidence would tell us that meditation is a good choice among others. There’s lots of research about the beneficial effects of meditation on a wide range of things, no further away than Google Scholar.

            A person has to find their own way as best they can and has to test out for themselves what works for them.

            I’ve noticed a tendency among the comments here in this space generally to exhibit a tendency towards black and white thinking. I see it in Scott’s writing as well. It’s a useful analytical skill to seek stark generalizations, but it’s a poor model for reality.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @cuke:

            I’ve noticed a tendency among the comments here in this space generally to exhibit a tendency towards black and white thinking.

            Guilty as charged 🙂 To wit:

            My sense is the variety of human experience will make any kind of general answer to this question not helpful for individuals.

            This is a very strange answer. Contrast meditation with pain medicine. Every person reacts to medicine in a unique way. For example, some people respond really well to Ibuprofen, whereas others do better on Acetaminophen; others still are allergic to all kinds of medications. And yet, we can still conclusively say, “Ibuprofen works better than placebo”. The answer is not merely scientifically interesting, but very important: if I am in pain, I want to use a remedy that actually works. This becomes especially critical when you consider more serious conditions; for example, it’s important to know whether prayer heals bacterial infections exactly as well as antibiotics.

            If the efficacy of meditation cannot, in principle, be tested vs. placebo (or other methods such as prayer, etc.), then why should I spend a significant amount of time on learning it ? On the other hand, if it does work significantly better, and with fewer side-effects, shouldn’t we be promoting the hell out of it ?

            You say that “there’s lots of research about the beneficial effects of meditation on a wide range of things, no further away than Google Scholar”, and that’s good; but then you follow that up with “a person has to find their own way as best they can and has to test out for themselves what works for them”, kind of implying that all that research doesn’t matter. Would you feel the same way about antibiotics vs. prayer ?

          • cuke says:

            Hi Bugmaster,

            I am a researcher as well as a clinician. I take science pretty seriously. If you spend any time with research as it pertains to medical or clinical psychological interventions, you will very quickly see that we’re talking about two different levels of evidence.

            There’s evidence of whether a protocol is effective to a statistically significant degree for a population sample as tested through the scientific method (as best we can) — comparing interventions against placebo or other interventions.

            And then there’s what a specific clinician might recommend or person might choose when it comes to their particular circumstances. Do they hate the idea of medication? Did they have an adverse event from taking an SSRI previously? Do they hate talking to a therapist? Or in other arenas, is their infection antibiotic resistant? Do they have an autoimmune or gut problem that makes taking antibiotics particularly problematic for them? Are they taking an essential medication that another medication will interfere with? Do they have trouble thinking in metaphors and images so that some modes of talk therapy will be inaccessible to them?

            So, the two levels of evidence: SSRIs work for a lot of people; they don’t work for everyone; they come with costs that individual people experience and weigh differently. And there are a lot of choices between SSRIs and related drugs.

            Psychotherapy works for a lot of people; it doesn’t work for everyone. It comes with costs that individual people experience and weigh differently. And there are a lot of choices between modalities and practitioners.

            Even with the existence of research, each person still has to find their own way for them, drawing on whatever information they value. Some people will care a lot about what the research says and other people will not care at all. If you are someone who cares what the research says, the research is amazingly at your fingertips in a way it never has been at any prior moment in history. Once you’ve assessed that research, though, you will still need to see what works for you as an individual, because of your individual variation and preferences.

            Meditation has absolutely been tested and continues to be tested against placebo and other interventions. You know this, I know this. The fact that there’s research doesn’t mean it’s clear what is the best road for any individual person. There are also people who are drawn to meditation or Buddhist psychology for entirely spiritual or idiosyncratic reasons, not scientific outcome reasons. And it still works well for them.

            What I’m pointing out is that “the research” doesn’t deliver a pre-packaged answer for what’s best for any individual person. Even if you have an ear infection, it doesn’t. There are always individual circumstances that have to be considered.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @cuke:

            Meditation has absolutely been tested and continues to be tested against placebo and other interventions. You know this, I know this.

            Well, no, actually I don’t. I absolutely agree that it works for at least some people (some of whom have even posted their experiences here), but I don’t know if it generally works better than placebo or other interventions. Your point about individual responses to treatment is well taken, of course. That said, if your argument is something like, “meditation works about as well as psychotherapy, there’s no way to predict if it will help you without trying it out for a significant amount of time”… then I fear my confidence in psychotherapy might go down a few notches.

          • cuke says:

            “if your argument is something like, “meditation works about as well as psychotherapy, there’s no way to predict if it will help you without trying it out for a significant amount of time”… then I fear my confidence in psychotherapy might go down a few notches.”

            I don’t recommend you base your confidence in psychotherapy or anything else on any argument I make. Your confidence is best grounded in whatever you value most, not what a random person here says.

            You seem frustrated by the uncertainty, of being unable to know ahead of time whether something is worth your time. We all develop our own processes for figuring out whether something is worth our time or whether we’re willing to try things out to see if it is. That’s not something another person can do for you, and it’s not something even the deepest dive into the research is going to do for you. If I’m making any argument here, that’s it.

            I’m not making an argument comparing the efficacy of psychotherapy and meditation. People do each for different reasons. I don’t know what you would be seeking out of either. When research is done on the efficacy of interventions, it’s for specific things: depression, anxiety, trauma recovery, smoking cessation, chronic back pain, weight loss, insomnia, etc. It sounds like you’re someone who values research. It’s there to be explored for many concerns a person might want to address.

            When I got adhesive capsulitis a few years ago, I saw an orthopedic surgeon and a couple of other doctors and I read some research online. I tried out four or five different ways to deal with it. The surgeon of course wanted to operate, though the evidence was mixed about the merits of that course. Several of the things I tried by way of treatment worked, a couple didn’t, and one was harmful. I opted not to do surgery because I’m reluctant to have that level of intervention without exhausting all other possibilities. Getting better was a two-year process for me, though if I’d had no aversion to surgery, it might have been shorter. On the other hand, surgery can produce complications that could have made things worse permanently. I find this is how it is in making decisions — one step at a time, adjust as needed.

            You might have a general idea about a path you’re willing to take, but you don’t know how it will be for you until you get on the path and then there will be more choices along the way as you learn more. No one else can walk that path for you and you can’t game it all the way out ahead of time because you don’t have enough information.

            This is just how life is. In my experience, it really helps to get comfortable with uncertainty and to develop confidence in one’s capacity to navigate the options at any given moment.

  36. bugsbycarlin says:

    Buddhism started out with Theravada teachers saying it would take millions of lifetimes to reach enlightenment. Then the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools started saying maybe you could reach enlightenment in one lifetime, if you did everything right and worked very hard. Recently I’ve been reading works by modern teachers like Daniel Ingram and Vinay Gupta, who compare the amount of work involved in enlightenment to the amount of work in an MD or PhD – maybe five years? But Culadasa states that “for householders who practice properly, it’s possible to master the Ten Stages within a few months or years”

    Time to enlightenment varies with proximity to California.

    I live in California so I feel allowed to make this joke.

  37. Winslow says:

    It’s not a great comparison to compare education in math to advancement in contemplative training. You need to build solid intuition for basic math in order to have a chance of mastering more advanced math like calculus. Really integrating knowledge of basic math into one’s intuition is hard to massively speedup or shortcut.
    It takes time and practice hours. This process can be optimized and made more efficient, but at least for most human intelligences, does actually take years.

    However, in contrast, if you go on a silent meditation retreat for a week and you purely practice a form of concentration meditation, you will leave this retreat with a mind that (at least temporarily) has an ability to concentrate better than 99.9% of the lay population. There’s just no analogous type training that one can do in learning subjects that require intuition building.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Disagree; for instance, the whole reason why TMI splits its meditation instructions to ten different stages is because there are successive skills that build on top of each other, and you need to master the prerequisite skills before you can move on to the more challenging ones. Like Scott’s excerpt notes, talented people might be able to master the stages in a year, but for most people it typically takes longer (The book explicitly warns you to not try to skip stages, since it will only end up hurting you in the long run.)

      And that’s just the concentration stuff; with the insight stuff it’s even more of explicit intuition-building, since you are slowly noticing hidden assumptions that underpin your entire worldview, and are in the process of learning new ones. From everything that I’ve understood, that’s a process where you’ll never be done.

  38. Aron Wall says:

    A cessation event is where unconscious sub-minds remain tuned in and receptive to the contents of consciousness, while at the same time, none of them project any content into consciousness. Then,consciousness ceases — completely.

    What I don’t understand is why Scott wants to have a “cessation event”.

    Unless you are a Negative Ultilitarian (which I think describes the ethics of classic Buddhism pretty well), why the heck would you want to make yourself into the closest approximation available to a p-zombie? (Except maybe strictly temporarily, out of curiosity, with full assurances about the reversibility of the procedure.) And no, it can’t be wonderful joy if you aren’t there to appreciate it.

    Scott seems super excited by the possibility that maybe there is a shortcut to a mental state that some think it takes a lifetime to achieve. But before you get excited by an unbelievable deal [Trigger warning: Neil Gaiman], you should check if you really want the goods!

    To me, these goods stink of despair and hatred for life. And if I see anyone standing on this ledge wondering if they should jump off, it seems like an obvious moral duty to try to talk them out of it. Life is worth living, don’t murder your own soul! (Maybe it’s a good thing this particular soul-gun is quite hard to reach.)

    Please just dabble with Buddhism and go on being you. Thanks!

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Cessation isn’t a permanent state; it only lasts for a short instant, on the first occasion maybe half an eyeblink or something. You can learn to repeat it, but even then it’s only a short duration. The point isn’t to learn to blank out your consciousness forever, it’s the cognitive changes that result from your brain observing cessation and realizing – on the level of emotional expectations rather than just intellectual beliefs – that everything you experience has always been constructed by the brain itself.

      To copy what I wrote in a comment above:

      If you realized this, you could e.g. take all emotions as pure sense data – “oh, this excruciating pain is just a sensation constructed by my brain, and I can let it all pour in and experience it fully without flinching away, knowing that there’s nothing in this sensation that could harm me”.

      Now you no longer feel confined by your own fears and pains: you can still choose to avoid painful events if you wish, but it will be of your choice, rather than because you are letting your fear of pain control your life. You can live your life to the fullest.

      At least, that’s the claim; I don’t know to what extent it’s realistic to assume that you can achieve it fully, but I’ve experienced enough to be convinced that I can achieve much more of it than I would have if I had not started meditating.

      • Aron Wall says:

        Thanks for your reply. So despite my comment above, I do realize that the “cessation state” as reported above is normally temporary. But as you say it is (believed to) lead to some sort of permanent psychological change in how we perceive reality. And this experience arises in the context of a religious tradition that, as far as I can tell from the earliest source documents, was seeking Nirvana, which was believed to be something more akin to permanent cessation. Now I think that this goal is well worth critiquing as a goal, even if the techniques advocated actually fall short of implementing this goal.

        Logically, it is possible that an experience of temporary cessation might be useful even from what I am tempted to call a “pro-life” perspective [not talking about abortion here], because of some practical benefit gained from the experience. “Have you tried turning your consciousness off and then on again?” Just as I go to sleep, not because I desire oblivion for its own sake, but because it will result in my consciousness the next day being more refreshed and awake. I doubt, however, that this was the point of the experience of cessation as conceived by the earliest Buddhists.

        In any case, the exprience of “enlightenment” is supposed to result in a permanent shift of perspective, and if this is so, we still need to ask if this shift is actually a good thing. Is it the genetic fallacy to be especially suspicious of the value of this shift, given that it seems to have been discovered by spiritually suicidal people? (Even if, perhaps, they may have discovered something quite different from the original advertising.) Given this, I have strong doubts about whether the claimed shift is something that I would consider to be a good thing. Yes, I admit intellectually that all of our experiences are probably, in some sense, “constructed” by the brain, but I deny that this makes them in any way unreal or unimportant, and I therefore wish to continue identifying with certain aspects of that construction as “myself”.

        Nor do I think that eliminating all suffering (or the aversion to it) ought to be anyone’s primary goal in life. Yes it is important to face certain kinds of suffering in order to live a full life, but I can do this with the virtue of courage, which does not require rewiring my brain until I am too depersonalized for it to hurt properly. I hope this makes my position more clear.

        I also question the value of any “insight” which is obtained by entering some other form of consciousness X which is completely different from usual waking consciousness—if I do that maybe I have learned what X feels like, but by definition X is something very far from the normal operating conditions of the brain, so attempting to extrapolate from X to normal experience seems potentially fallacious. Sure, if you jump into a pool you become wet, but that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as dryness and that your previous experience of being dry was some sort of illusion.

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          And this experience arises in the context of a religious tradition that, as far as I can tell from the earliest source documents, was seeking Nirvana, which was believed to be something more akin to permanent cessation.

          The techniques for experiencing that state were originally developed in the context of such a religious tradition, but for any individual meditator, the experience arises in the context of whatever intellectual or philosophical system that they are interpreting it through. For me, the context is neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and contemporary philosophy of mind; and my goal is to internalize on an experiental level the things that I already know on an intellectual level from those fields, in order to be able to live more fully and engage better with the world.

          Yes, you could use the techniques as an aid for renunciation and withdrawing from the world; but even within Buddhism, that’s just one approach; e.g. Buddhist tantra is more focused on engagement with the world, and some hold that you can get properly engaged with it once you’ve gotten enlightened in the renunciate sense. But where the renunciates go “okay, the self doesn’t exist, we’re done and can now just withdraw”, the tantrikas could go something like “okay, so the self is more flexible than we could have ever realized; if we still want to identify with the self, we can construct more interesting and fascinating ones for ourselves!”

          (If they can be bothered, because isn’t it a bit boring to be so focused on the self when you could actually be doing stuff? But still, AFAICT, enlightenment doesn’t mean that you couldn’t identify with certain aspects of the self-construct if you so chose; it just liberates you to be able to choose exactly which aspects you want to identify with. The renunciates choose to identify with none of them, because that’s what their ideology tells them to; the tantrikas go with whatever forms of self that seem fun and useful to them.)

          which does not require rewiring my brain until I am too depersonalized for it to hurt properly.

          You are free to make your own choices, of course, but “too depersonalized for it to hurt properly” is a very misleading description.

          I’m not interested in trying to convert you or selling you on the experience, but I do feel like your first comment in particular was trying to warn people away from insight meditation based on a very limited and caricatured understanding of what the experience and end result is actually like. It’s fine to be cautious and skeptical. It’s another thing entirely to assume that you already know, and to use expressions like “make yourself into the closest approximation available to a p-zombie”, “despair and hatred for life”, and “don’t murder your own soul”.

          I’m not sure if I’ve experienced cessation myself (there was _something_ that could have been it a few days ago, and things have felt subtly different and better since then… but I could also just be me imagining things), but I personally know people who have, and the things that you say don’t describe them; they are very clearly alive. And the insight experiences that I have had myself, while all (possibly?) falling short of cessation, have overall also made me much more alive; my soul was much more dead before I started meditating.

          It’s one thing to say “this doesn’t look like my thing, I want to stay away from it”. If that is your stance towards insight meditation, then I completely support your decision. But please do not say “nobody should try this thing” on the basis of what you imagine it to be, when there are many who have found it immensly valuable and enriching.

          I also question the value of any “insight” which is obtained by entering some other form of consciousness X which is completely different from usual waking consciousness—if I do that maybe I have learned what X feels like, but by definition X is something very far from the normal operating conditions of the brain, so attempting to extrapolate from X to normal experience seems potentially fallacious.

          This is a consideration that seems hard to disagree with in general, but seems to have little relevance to the question of cessation in particular. It’s not that we’re learning something entirely new and unprecedented from cessation, and just have to rely on the inherent weirdness of that state as evidence; we already know from science that we’re living in a virtual reality constructed by our brains. Cessation just makes that understanding better available to the parts of our brain that can’t be reached by language alone.

          • Aron Wall says:

            Thanks for the links. I concede that my initial post was too alarmist. (It sounds though, like you agree with me that renunciation forms of Theravada did not provide a very desirable final goal?)

            My position is not that it is impossible to get anything useful or valuable out of insight meditation. I’m actually glad for you that it’s been helpful for you to feel more alive and engaged with the world!

            I’m not denying the existence of positive aspects of Buddhist meditation techniques; rather I’m saying that I’m sufficiently out of sympathy with the philosophical goals of most Buddhist schools (to the extent that I understand them) that I wouldn’t trust the process of myself (or any random person) engaging with them deeply to produce an expected net positive outcome, from the perspective of my own ethical code (and belief in the validity of dualistic logic, which contradicts at least some schools of Buddhist thought). But I’m not trying to deny that net positive outcomes are possible, nor do I have any reason to disbelieve that it has happened in your case.

          • Kaj Sotala says:

            Thank you for your kind words! I’m happy to find out that we’re on the same page after all.

            It sounds though, like you agree with me that renunciation forms of Theravada did not provide a very desirable final goal?

            Oh yes, definitely. From my perspective, it feels like they are missing the whole point of what one could learn from insight practices… instead of accepting that all emotions are fine and that there’s no need to get rid of them, renunciation seems to cling to a desire to just extinguish emotions – which sure, if you only care about eliminating your own suffering, might work for that particular objective. But that seems like a very self-centered (ironically enough) goal to me, and really only makes sense in the kind of a religious framework where reincarnation is a thing: after all, if you want to effectively commit suicide, there are much faster and easier ways to do that. It’s only if you assume that death usually leads to rebirth, that you need to come up with a much more elaborate way of destroying yourself.

            (To be fair, this is probably a caricature of the renunciate view, given that I’ve basically never run into someone making a serious argument for it, so they’ve probably got a more sophisticated argument in favor. I highly doubt that I’d find even the sophisticated version particularly persuasive, though.)

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