I’m Calling it. An astounding number of community members are currently chasing enlightenment. That is, we are reading books, compiling information and meditating to pull apart the inner landscape of our own minds. The Buddhist, Taoist, Zen, spiritual, mystical, flow state, thing that is in the cluster that forms the enlightenment space. (What? Weird? I know. Why? Read on)

I did what I always do. I chart out alone, read a different book. Integral theory, Sam Harris, Chade Meng Taing, zen in the art of Archery, The Gateless Gate, PNSE - Geoffrey Martin… And then I realised I was not alone. So was S0phia*, Aella, Sarah, Val, Aaron, Nish, Atharva, Colton, and the list goes on.

This is a list of resources I find relevant right now. With more to come:

I suggest start here (https://integrallife.com/four-quadrants/) (with the 4 quadrant concept) and be sufficiently confused to keep researching.

Rationality is very good at staying on the right hand side of the diagram. The classic straw Vulcan is a champion of the right. The “emotional” humans are on the left (specifically upper left). Except that the entirely rational community has mental health problems 3 times higher than the rest of the population. How is is that we can be objective and optimised and directed towards winning and entirely hiding the mental health problems we have?

Well that’s simple. Rational thought streams are on the right of the diagram, and emotional experiences are on the left. True mastery of the nature of reality requires walking the line between the two. Not just living in one and not the other.

Why am I talking about mental health in a post about enlightenment? Enlightenment seems to be this annoyingly balanced thing between other concepts. It’s one that’s particularly hard to point at. It causes works like the smug The tao is silent, and every smiling giggly buddhist to barely be able to contain their laughter when trying to explain why everything is the same but different.

“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” - Zen koan

What does that mean you cryptic bastards! If enlightenment is so great then give me some step by step directions to it!

Three caveats:

  1. Every path to enlightenment is slightly different. So even with great instructions, they are bound to be at least a little bit off.
  2. Interior spaces (the left of the diagram) are not easily able to be transmitted. One person’s empirical procedure explains what they did but does not give explicit directions to others. Only the vague map of how they got there. (kind of like chakras and how they can’t be found surgically - duh, thousands of years ago when they were first described, they knew they would not be found surgically but millions of people claim to be able to experience them)
  3. I am rather embarrassed to say that I always classified Buddhism as a religion. After all it has that spiritual, “be nice to others” thing to it. What I didn’t realise was that it’s more like (slightly gibberish) empirical instructions to follow, after which you should find your way up the mountain to enlightenment.

So uhh.. The instructions are something like, meditate while paying attention to a number of key factors (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, no-self). I’d posit the instructions myself but I don’t actually know that I can do that very well compared to the resources above and every other resource out there.

What I can say is this: Be a rationalist and go do some research and run your own experiments.

Top recommendation is Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha 2.

A caveat for the whole enlightenment, spirituality “woo” space. The space is particularly bad at words and defining their terms. I’d say that “they are using words wrong” but actually it’s more like, because describing interior space experiences are a subjective and personal process, each person’s description of interior spaces is going to be self contained and self perpetuating. Code switching is worse than ever. The only way to navigate the alternative spaces is to get really used to building maps to other people’s maps of their territories. I'm doing it and I am finding sense in the gibberish that is weird ass spiritual experiences that other's are having. And it's not scary, bad, dumb or terrible like I thought. I was wrong.

If you want to explore, good luck. Send me a message if you want to connect and talk in private. (see also my recent post https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/dSokCMn63Wu48WX5u/emotional-training-model#eWF39EfwzERciaYQ6)

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As a practicing Zen Buddhist this post worries me a bit. Yes, lots of people see juicy things they could gain. Yes, lots of other folks have written books trying to explain how to get them. But to me this approach is missing most of why we practice since we practice no-gain; that is, there would be reason to practice even if you (the big "you", the imagined, closed self) gained nothing. In fact, the more you try to gain we say the further away you are from attainment! I worry this is leading people down a path that will take them farther away from the Dharma rather than closer to it.

I'm also further worried because meditation and other practices pulled from Buddhism are part of an integrated system that includes a community and teachers to help guide you. There are actually a lot of psychological dangers lurking in your mind and approaching them using isolated bits you pull from systems risks inflicting psychic harm on yourself. I rarely see this mentioned to people, though, who get enthusiastic about isolated parts of Buddhist practice like meditation and excitedly go off to do it in their own life without the support structures in place to enable it.

Maybe my worry can be boiled down to this: Buddhism teaches humility, especially epistemic humility, and I feel like there is an undercurrent in this post suggesting "hey, forget those weird monks and rituals; we can take their ideas and do it without all the weirdness and do it better". This may not have been Elo's intention, but if you read the post that way and were thinking of going in that direction, I'd encourage you to reconsider the value of both inter-generational accumulated wisdom and practicing within the context of a tradition with a community to support you in your practice.

As somebody who has attempted a goal-oriented practice and failed (and continues to fail :P), I agree with these sentiments :)

value of both inter-generational accumulated wisdom

See: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/GXvNCbmJajvkg4Wsu/tradition-is-smarter-than-you-are

Yes these are majorly mentioned in Mctb2. I agree that teachers are valuable. Still I believe a person can go a long way on their own.

There's a lot more information available today than ever before and it's remarkably easier for a capable mind to move forward than the traditional secretive way of teaching.

I agree there are dangers, but I believe that many people have already started their journeys. (cryptic but leaving this unexplained) also I believe the community members are already overqualified to handle some of the chaos they might encounter.

The no-gain schools are annoying and muddy the goal. If you are not about any gain or progress then why do you call yourself practicing? Obviously there's some subtle goal you are moving towards. The Taoism schools of "just give up there's no point" and, the "you are already enlightened" schools, have useful information but that's not it. No one is done when they first say "yes I am already enlightened"

At the same time I don't see an ongoing debate about branches of dao being much use here.

Mastering the Core teachings of the Buddha 2 - Daniel Ingram
The Mind Illuminated
The art of learning
Circling handbook
Transform your self

While I can see some connections between all of these books, I feel that if "enlightenment" is to mean anything, defining it so broadly as to have all of these books be about it makes the term vague enough to be useless. In fact, some of these works pretty much outright state that by their definition of enlightenment, the other books are not about enlightenment - e.g. MCTB2 explicitly denies that enlightenment would be particularly useful in terms of conventional mental health (while e.g. "Transform Your Self" is all about psychological health):

Here is another thing that didn’t happen upon awakening: psychological perfection. While the mainstream Western Buddhist world is absolutely drowning in the notion that somehow Buddhist practice will either eliminate all their psychological “stuff”, or at least cause them to become self-actualized in the good old psychoanalytical sense, nothing could be further from the truth except totally bogus models such as the Action models. I think that I learned more about reasonable psychological health from reading one book on transactional analysis (Ian Stewart and Vann Joines’ fascinating book TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis) than I did from over a decade of highly successful Buddhist meditation. That doesn’t mean that I have achieved perfect psychological health, not by a long shot! [...]
While the dharma is vast, and the teachings of the wisdom traditions contain a lot of material for helping us grow psychologically, we can’t conflate psychological growth and maturity with awakening, and letting people get stuck in the Great Dismal Crap Quagmire does them little service, if you ask me, which you clearly did, as you are reading this book. As I said before, working on our psychological stuff can have lots of value, and Western psychology has added a vast array of useful conceptual frameworks and techniques to the world of psychological health and human development, but I firmly believe that clearly drawing the line between insight practice and psychological work is essential to doing either well. I have been to therapy and really got a lot out of it, just on a totally different front from what insight practices got me. It is not that I haven’t had psychological insights of great value when on retreat, as I have had plenty, but those psychological insights came from good insight practice as some surprising and appreciated side effect rather than the other way around.

I have a problem in that I can cite 50+ other books that were vaguely relevant to me but really don't help a more general path. And yeah often the descriptions of the enlightenment stuff conflict each other.

And yes, enlightenment isn't mental health cure-all. At the same time, it's got helpful information.

What's the value proposition of enlightenment?

If I have a choice between taking up organized religion and going to church or taking up spirituality and following empirical instructions to scale the mountain of enlightenment, why should I do the latter instead of the former?

What's the common theme in all these books? I don't see it. Impro contains some useful exercises, although I think most of the value in the book would come from people getting together IRL and actually doing them, and I haven't heard of anyone doing this. (I tried to get someone whose social network is much bigger than mine to make this happen, but then she moved to the Bay.) But it's about developing acting skills, not Buddhism...

What's the value proposition of enlightenment?

Like Elo said, it's quite difficult to describe. MTCB has an entire chapter on what Enlightenment is not as well as what is. My understanding is that Enlightenment is the state of seeing fundamental reality clearly, which:

  • removes an entire class of suffering: "delusional" identification with the self, which causes obsessive rumination, worrying about your status/position in the world, etc.
  • improves your relationship with others: related to the above, once you see how you're actually not a separate, disconnected entity and very much part of this world, you "play well" with others.
  • provides access to states of extreme bliss, equanimity.
choice between taking up organized religion and going to church or taking up spirituality

Many people (including me) feel that there are many paths to achieving the intended outcomes of introspective practices, and that they are mostly equally valid. Some traditions and practices are arguably more effective, helpful, conducive to your philosophies, etc. It doesn't matter which route you take up the mountain, as long as you are climbing the right one, not using the wrong maps, etc.

The reason I personally prefer the maps provided by Buddhism is that they can be used independently of Buddhist religious dogma, which is not possible with, let's say, Christianity. There is no reason you can't achieve the same results with Christianity, but arguably it'd be more difficult, and the dogma is a necessary component. whereas meditation lends itself quite well to empiricism. "Do these practices, and you'll observe these results".

most of the value in the book would come from people getting together IRL and actually doing them


and I haven't heard of anyone doing this

Check out communities like dharmaoverground.com :)

Agree with "many paths" and Christianity works too. But it's a different path. I know of someone on the Christian path using Christian meditation techniques.

What’s the value proposition of enlightenment?

You shouldn't assume that your current values are particularly objective, or that they are particularly fixed .

Value proposition

Strangely and frustratingly hard to describe. Some people use the word nirvana. I don't really understand why. Many people talk about everything being the same but different. I don't really get it but it's something of a goal to pursue.

common theme

If I could point at that with clarity I'd already have done that. Can't help. Sorry.

“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” - Zen koan

What does that mean you cryptic bastards! If enlightenment is so great then give me some step by step directions to it!

Here's another, slightly more informative quote:

The famous saying of Ch'ing-yüan Wei-hsin [Seigen Ishin]

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

These classic quotes cut right to the essence of Zen, but provide no context or path for getting there.

I see a few key reasons for the persistent "woo-woo" vagueness. (1) Many persons are attracted to what they see as a doorway to mystical, occult, supernatural, etc. knowledge and powers. Good, I suppose, to the extent it keeps them on their journey of discovery... (2) People come from different backgrounds and harbor different preconceptions of "the Truth" and (in my experience) it usually takes a vast and indeterminate amount of effort to convey and address all these aspects of what Zen is not, leaving the very simple but powerful essence of what Zen is. So the standard approach is to offer small kernels intended to avoid the myriad possible objections while still engaging the mind of the seeker in resolving the apparent paradox by discovering the appropriate context.

The denizens of LessWrong can sometimes be found in the first category, under the influence of almost magical belief in the power of "Rationality" as they imagine it, and quite often in the second, where their intelligence gives them a view of things somewhat above that of the crowd, but where they tend to stay and admire the superior view rather than strive to take it up (and out) another level of context and meaning making.

[I realize that the above could be taken as demeaning, but could easily provide the basis for a 3rd justification for pedagogical vagueness--not to create a barrier by offending the other's pride. A 4th justification, and probably the strongest, would be that understanding that is constructed, rather than conveyed, tends to have greater impact. But time is short...]

Zen enlightenment is simply about re-conceiving the relationship between the observer and the observed.

Once this re-conception is attained, everything is just as it was before but ontologically simpler--there is no separate, privileged "self" in the model of reality. To grok this is liberating and may cause one to laugh with joy at the silliness of having carried that imagined burden for no gain; indeed it only got in one's way. Then, back to cutting wood and carrying water, the same as before but feeling lighter.

I hope that this might help.


Yes. Everything helps.

My relationship with Zen koans has been ongoing... http://bearlamp.com.au/zen-koans/

It seems that I got koans before and then for many of them. I just keep getting them and getting them again, despite knowing and getting them already.

Fwiw I haven't seen the self/non in many koans yet, but I have a strange relationship with the self "problem" where it's hard to grasp to see it as anything. I'm caught in the middle of unclear of self.

While a focus on the exterior may very well contribute to the high rate of mental health problems in the community, I've always thought it had more to do with selection effects.

A large portion of the thought in the community revolves around how to think, which is something most people never study (and likely never feel the need to). But those who are thinking badly - that is, those who realize that they have patterns of thought that don't correlate well with reality - have a reason to seek out a better way of thinking.

There's also some evidence to suggest that higher intelligence by itself correlates with mental illness:


Other than that, great post and thank you for assembling that list of resources.

The community resources of how to think are right hand side resources. They don't often go into left hand or upper left quadrant "how to think" other than focussing. Maybe double Crux hits on it a little bit.

Yes depression is usually commented as being pessimistic realism. I. E. Truthfully pessimistic. Optimism is usually off the mark for truth and reality.

Useful things on my research here include the separation of past, present and future thinking thought stream. And choosing how I relate to each of the p/P/f. Mindfulness schools encourage attention to and living in the present moment. Good instruction includes the clarity of "thoughts about the future", "thoughts about the past", and emotions about each of those - are PART of the present moment and can be treated as such. But are otherwise not part of the present reality moment and can be sent on their way.

I am rather embarrassed to say that I always classified Buddhism as a religion. (...) What I didn’t realize was that it’s more like (slightly gibberish) empirical instructions to follow, after which you should find your way up the mountain to enlightenment.

Also, stories of magical healing.

Yes. That's hard to reconcile too.

I'm reading Altered Traits & have been impressed with its epistemological care. Perhaps helpful for your project?

Read it, was underwhelmed but yes I've been working on converting states to traits since.

I would recommend the book, "integral spirituality" for a comprehensive overview of where states and traits fit into the set of quadrants, level, lines, states and types for developmental theory in adults.

Interesting. Maybe also relevant for Kaj's current sequence?

It's been on my to-read list for a while, I bounced off the first time I tried reading it (it seemed to be taking its time to get to the point, started with the personal narrative of the authors and how they got into meditation research etc.) but expect to get around it eventually.

The tacit stance behind 'just say what you mean!' is that if they were smarter they'd be able to do a better job of explaining themselves. Consider that they might be just as smart as you. If that were the case, what might they be trying to tell you?

I'll try to say it with rationalist flavor: they are trying to point out to you that you have a major blindspot (it's actually both an object level and meta level blindspot!) and want to induce the cognitive jitter necessary for you to directly see it. The fact that you ask for them to give you simple directions when they *have* given you simple directions *over and over again* and yet you ignore these simple instructions points at the blindspot.

What is “cognitive jitter”?

The thing meditation, drugs, and radical empathy does.


Could… you describe that thing in words…?

(Also, what is radical empathy? And… what does that animated GIF have to do with any of those three things?)

Pm me and I'm happy to explain via voice.

… well, thank you for the offer, but that’s inconvenient for many reasons, and in any case don’t you think that it would benefit many people (certainly it would benefit me!) to have an explanation in text, publicly available? Surely whatever you’d say, you can write down, yes? I would greatly appreciate it!

I can't write it down because the explaining is a deliberate pointing to a thing that is a wordless experience.

There's a koan. A monk jumps in a river in the morning and the afternoon. Different monk, different river.

Part of "me explaining to you" include "me" and "you". That means that the explanation that helps you "may" help other people. But you have repeatedly demonstrated your stubbornness to pick up a message that has been sent over and over and over. So the message that helps you is going to have to be tailored for your experience, understanding and present knowledge.

I've never used the same string of words to give the same explanation twice. And yet I've explained this thing to 20? 30? More people.

If you want to know, you have to start building your own definition. That means you may need to do your own research and build your own map. I can't do the "build your own map" for you because that would be me building a map, and not you building a map.

What words did you say to others to explain what cognitive jitter is?

You are watching a movie metaphorically in all everyday experiences. The jitters allows you to see the frame rate, pause the movie between frames and break from the version of reality that you are trapped in by watching a movie.

This relates to rationality because the movie lies sometimes and seeing the truth of reality is way easier when you stop seeing the movie as reality.

Trusting your eyes blinds you to the invisible, that doesn't sound particularly hard to explain.

Enlightenment seems to be a change to the way you look at what you already know that doesn't change any predictions. A brain refactoring.

How does someone who has become enlightened know that he has? Does a particular kind of thought come more easily afterwards?

Cognitive jitters is demonstrated in that gif. When reality flickers. Brains are designed to deliver experiences of permanence like solid objects. We live in a world where everything is impermanent.

While I look at solid objects and see them as solid, other realisations about which fundamental understandings are solid and which are not solid, have changed in my mind.

I second this question!

I can’t write it down because the explaining is a deliberate pointing to a thing that is a wordless experience.

Forgive me for being dense, but what were you planning to do if I took you up on the offer to explain via voice? Weren’t you going to say words?

Part of “me explaining to you” include “me” and “you”. That means that the explanation that helps you “may” help other people. But you have repeatedly demonstrated your stubbornness to pick up a message that has been sent over and over and over. So the message that helps you is going to have to be tailored for your experience, understanding and present knowledge.

That’s fine! By all means, tailor it, if you feel that’s what will most effectively convey the information. Still, I do not fancy myself unique or inimitable, so I’ve no doubt that what will help me, will also help others. (And if it does not, well, we lose nothing by having the tailored message written down, and posted publicly, yes?)

If you want to know, you have to start building your own definition. That means you may need to do your own research and build your own map. I can’t do the “build your own map” for you because that would be me building a map, and not you building a map.

Again, forgive me, but this seems a strangely overwrought reply. Really, all that I asked was “what is cognitive jitter?”. Surely that question doesn’t require such an intensely individualized epistemology? (Does anything, really?)

I’m not aiming to achieve enlightenment, or what have you; I’d just like to know what you (and/or romeostevensit) mean by this odd phrase!

Tailoring requires a conversation. You declined.

But must it be a conversation via voice? What would you do if I were deaf?!

(Actually, voice chat is, in fact, somewhat challenging for me, for reasons that you may feel free to round off to “hard of hearing” even though that’s not actually what it is. I could do it, but it’s strongly dispreferred, for that reason in addition to the usual time/schedule constraints, etc.)

What about text chat? Could you explain this via IRC?

If you were deaf, your whole perspective on reality would already be different. They conversation would be different because you would be different. But yes, having that conversation would be more difficult.

Sure, we can text chat.

Would you be willing to agree to the logs of the chat being made public afterwards?


Do you agree to approach this conversation with healthy scientific skepticism and also curiosity and willingness to explore the unknown?

Within reason, yes, absolutely.

Did the logs ever get produced?

The conversation did not take place, so there are no logs to produce.

I initiated, saidA did not reply.

Sorry, what? We agreed on a scheduled time, and I never received any communication from you…

This is a very interesting post, thank you for bringing this up. This a going to be a very personal thought i'd like to share.

I think that, as you well sayed, your enlightenment needs to follow both paths; "emotionnal" and "rationnal" to simplify. The difference imo lays in the distance you can travel on these paths. I actually think this distance is finite and actually pretty limited. Every questioning whether it is about the nature of reality, consciousness, or the inner meaning of our joys or fears ends in a space where words lack. I truly believe this is the root of every fear, every question. We have a tendency to find sentences, maxims that synthesize our fears and our thoughts because this is our only way of retranscribing our insights and this is great ! But i've always found these summary of a vaccum ironically pretty empty and meaningless.

My opinions on the subject is that we can reach SOME unlightenment by questionning our relation to this "End of the word". But most part of the work is to admit that we NEED put words and ideas on things in order to appreciate them as thinking beings, and that in this way we're unable to reach anything further. Whoever wants to reach some answer needs to give up the very word answer and admit that all he can do is scratch the edges of the caneva forever.

A lot of religions/spiritualitys adress this opinion but still let a door opened to Unicity, this is the idea of a buddha, if there is one person who succeded to transcend word and meaning it's him. But I think, and again this is abundantly subjective, that a buddha is and must stay an unreachable goal.

In way the key to unlightenment is giving up the idea of unlightenment but still perpetually trying to reach for it. It's in this way that all people needs a different path, everyone needs a different way to "loose the word without loosing the mind". Personally I like trying to reach some contemplation of the unthinkable, at least contemplating the beauty OF the unthinkable, i won't be able to go any further anyway.

So this is my personnal opinion, scratch the edges, abandon the idea of ever getting out because your bounded to the word, and try to appreciate the beauty of what will ever be unreachable and the eternal terror that emanates from it, which is imo the elemental brick of every existential question. (If i had to speculate as a psychology student i would say that this is the very begenning of every psychopathology, but this is another topic that needs strongest arguments than philosophy itself)

Thank you for taking the time to read, sorry if this is a bit clumsy English is not my native language i tried to correct this post several times.

Yes. A certain amount of seeking is required to make progress on the path, at a different point on the path, all seeking must be abandoned. And all not-seeking must also be abandoned and all abandon must also be abandoned.

Yes there is also a balance between the words and the wordless (3 things, "words", "wordless" and "balance")

Just wordless is not the solution, just words is not the solution and just balance is really not anything at all without both sides to balance.

Exactly, I think words are conforting, they give us something to rely on. As they are barely the only thing we can rely on, more than useful they're a essential. But I think it's indispensable not because the balance between word and wordless is the thing that makes us progress but because the word keeps us bounded to our condition. As we can't let us drown into the speechless and the silence we need some sort of rope to ride up the cliff afterward (or get down the moutain depending on your personnal and cultural orientation and symbolic). I think a balance can be found here, we need to loose words to approch some interesting "non-thoughts like things" and we need words in order to not loose sanity in the process and be able continue on living our human lifes after this.

Thanks again.

I'm not a budhist neither a Taoist. I make my own soup with all this really... but i'm really limited to the only few books i've read, i'm more confortable with vedantic and post vedantic cultures and spiritualities.

PS : Sorry for misspost

Agreed. The unfortunate thing about wordless experience for me is that I can't record and therefore can't repeat it very well.

I've woken up from a dream feeling like just when it got less describey I had a realisation and feel better. I don't know what happened or why or how. And I'd like to be able to repeat that while awake. There are no words for that.

I like the phrase "I make my own soup". Me too. I wonder if everyone does a bit. (obviously to certain degrees, talking here about a larger degree for myself). My phrase is "I am my own guide"

I'm from an occidental culture... It's difficult to understand and to adopt a spirituality from the opposite side of the world, codes and symbols are upside down (or downside up ! ) and it's easy to get "cultural interference" that mislead you in your path. When i think about it i thought about cultural appropriation before it was a cool hipster thing... Now i tend to feed on everything I found and make my own occidental mess of a spirituality. I guess everyone who's a minimum curious tends to mix up different ideas he can rely on.

Thank you very much it was a really good talk !

PS : again sorry for misspost my pc is a mad beast... sorry mods

I've achieved several different kinds of contradictory enlightenment. It's pretty overrated to me at this point.