Hi everybody,

There's been a bit of talk of Mindfulness meditation around. I am curious about this, because it looks like it might be practical advice backed by a deep theory.

Unfortunately, all the tutorials on mindfulness meditation seem to be semi-practical advice backed by totally bogus theories (focus your energies, blah blah). I've been able to extract some useful stuff from such articles, but I don't know what I can trust, and I still don't fully understand how it's even supposed to work.

My current understanding is that you are supposed to pay attention to something and then pay attention to your attention, notice when you go off track, not judge yourself, and focus your attention back on the thing you were paying attention to. Or something.

I'd like to understand the technique at least well enough to judge success. When I'm doing chin-ups, it's easy to see if I did a chin-up or not, and how many, but I don't even know what this mindfulness stuff is supposed to look like.

If anyone knows more about what it's supposed to feel like, what the steps are an so on, I would really appreciate if you posted your knowledge here.

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I've read a bunch of different meditation guides and as a result, I've ended up with a sort of a hybrid form of practice that uses various bits from here and there. Still, if I had to point to a single guide, the meditation that I do on most days is closest to tranquility meditation. I've found that drinking a cup of strong green tea about half an hour before practice makes it easier.

I do timed sits, setting a timer to anywhere between 15 and 60 minutes, and try to practice tranquility meditation until the timer goes off. Sometimes it's easy and effortless, sometimes it's a struggle not to quit after the first five minutes. But regardless of how I feel, I do try to get at least 15 minutes of practice in each day - I figure that even if I can't seem to get any benefit out of it at the moment, it'll still improve my concentration skills and make the next time a little easier. Don't be discouraged if you can't meditate this long in the beginning - when I started doing meditation practice last summer, even 5 minutes was a challenge, and 15 pretty much plain impossible. But with enough 5-minute sits, longer periods eventually became possible. If you're using your breath as a focus, it can help to count the breaths in your mind, resetting the count back to zero whenever you realize that your attention has wandered off. At least for me, the act of resetting the count seems to act as an additional feedback signal for my brain, making it easier to focus.

A little counter-intuitively, meditation seems easier if I have some mild discomfort, like an itchy skin, feeling slightly ill from having strong tea on an empty stomach, or an excess awareness of saliva secreting in my mouth. My attention keeps getting automatically drawn to these discomforts, so I can use them as an extra meditation focus in addition to my breath. Over time (several sits) it may become harder to use them as foci, though, as they stop feeling uncomfortable.

This relates to what I find to be absolutely the most valuable skill taught by meditation: the ability to take any uncomfortable feeling, neutrally observe it, and eventually have it stop feeling uncomfortable. Note that in order for this to work, you shouldn't try to make it stop feeling uncomfortable - rather, you should really just observe it neutrally, letting go of all desires relating to it, including a desire for it to stop feeling bad. It's a little difficult to explain, but you should get it with enough practice.

What a lot of guides don't seem to mention is that while sits are very valuable and helpful, to get the most benefits out of it you should be practicing mindfulness whenever you get the chance! For instance, you can practice mindfulness:

  • While walking somewhere: focus your attention and your thoughts to the way your body feels, the way your various muscles feel, any possible tensions you feel. Breathe deeply and enjoy the pleasant feeling that comes from just feeling your body and your breath.
  • While cleaning, brushing your teeth, making food, or performing any other activity that doesn't require thought. Instead of your thoughts drifting off, use whatever it is that you're doing as your meditation focus, trying to concentrate on just that and not thinking about something else.
  • Whenever you're waiting for something and feeling impatient. Instead of digging up your phone or looking for some other distraction, take the opportunity to practice meditation (with your eyes open, if need be) and neutrally observe the impatience until it goes away. Public transit is great for this - I get a lot of meditation practice done while waiting for or riding a bus.
  • Whenever you feel any negative sensation at all! If you for any reason feel bad, you have the option of turning that negative feeling into a meditation focus and watching and studying it until it stops feeling bad. (Possibly the hardest part is in remembering that this option exists.) I have used mindfulness practice to attack feelings of irritation or impatience when talking with people, urges to keep checking my Facebook/e-mail/IRC/Google+ every five minutes, and a reluctance to do something that I should be doing. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it can make you feel a lot better and be a great akrasia-killer. A week back I managed to conquer my nervousness and ask a total stranger in a café on a date, and I have a strong suspicion that I wouldn't have been able to do that without mindfulness practice. (She was already taken, but very flattered that I asked.)

I'm still a beginner when it comes to meditation, having only done regular practice for about two months, and sporadic and irregular practice for a year. On a lot of days, my attention keeps wandering during my sit, and for the rest of the day I feel just as emotional and easily distracted as always. But on there are also times (like today) when the whole day feels like one long extended session of mindfulness practice. Whenever I'm doing anything that doesn't require thought, I focus on my breath and on my body, and start to feel increasingly good as a consequence. Whenever I am doing something that does require thought, I use mindfulness as a way to keep my thoughts on that topic and not perform worse because I keep thinking about something else. Each feeling of discomfort becomes something to be celebrated, because it gives me a chance to practice my skills further - aha, I don't feel like doing X! Now I can do X and focus on that feeling of not wanting to do it, and see if it goes away! Bummer, now it did go away, I'll have to find something else useful that I wouldn't want to be doing after I finish with X! It becomes difficult for anything to make me feel bad, when sensations of something feeling unpleasant turn into something that I actively hunt after and am glad to find - and when I do find them, they rapidly stop feeling unpleasant.

Like I said, most days don't feel like this. Like anything that involves learning and internalizing new ways of thinking, it's a two-steps-forward, one-step-back, four-steps-forward, seven-steps-back, three-steps-forward, half-a-step-back kind of process. But I think those kinds of days are slowly becoming more common, and when I do have one of those days, it's awesome.

(I've posted about some theories of how/why meditation works here and here.)


A little counter-intuitively, meditation seems easier if I have some mild discomfort, like an itchy skin, feeling slightly ill from having strong tea on an empty stomach, or an excess awareness of saliva secreting in my mouth. My attention keeps getting automatically drawn to these discomforts, so I can use them as an extra meditation focus in addition to my breath. Over time (several sits) it may become harder to use them as foci, though, as they stop feeling uncomfortable.

Headaches work for me. There are also some types of strong negative emotions which improve my meditation enormously, while others prevent meditation from working.

I've been doing this for a while now and reached the end that the author calls partial enlightenment. I dislike the term however. It sounds so new agey.

The only thing that has happened is that I now see myself as an inseparable part of the physical universe both on the level of belief and alief. This insight makes life's problems seem less acute as they cannot target a permanent self on the alief-level. I still get sad, feel pain and pleasure but I see them more as fantastic stories about reality made up by my brain than the actual reality of (physical) cause & effect. I can also trust my instincts and subconscious mind more as I no longer fear losing myself when I surrender to pure feelings and motions beyond verbal thought.

This insight is only about a week old and I'm still making sense out of it so I'll end up with a more detailed description of what happened:

I progressed through the first two stages using other meditations but I quit smack in the middle of stage three. Back then I had no idea that feeling awful was a normal part of progress and I spent the next two years depressed in a Dark Night. Please don't do this to yourself! It sucks big time.

Last summer I ran into DavidM's article and started practicing. I worked through the pains of the Dark Night and finally broke out of stage three. However the boredom of early stage four sucked the motivation out of the practice and I took a break until I realized I was slipping back into depression.

So with the support of some friends and strong green tea I started meditating and hunting for the vibrations that permeate all experiences. I finally reached the end of stage four and could see the observer clearly. Like plucking out a flower I picked up the experience of the vibrating observer and realized that it was simply an automatic label the mind puts on thoughts and actions that it finds really important. Having now gained control of the label I could put it anywhere and immediately become it. So I became the universe and the mind was filled with joy.

The habitual mind (that is feeling like my usual self) eventually returned but it now has a dreamlike character and with a little meditation I can attach the feeling of self to basically anything and feel that I become that thing. I can also not attach the self to anything and just let the mind rest in a non-dual awareness.

What are these "vibrations" that he constantly refers to? Why are they given special importance? From a biologist (or cog scientist) perspective, what are they?

It's my understanding that the brain's processing of sensory information is discrete in the sense that if two sensory impulses arrive close enough to each other (about 20 msec), they're perceived as simultaenous. Yet our experience appears to us as continuous. My guess would be that meditation involves opening conscious access to earlier processing stages in the brain, where our sensory experience still seems somewhat discrete - thus the "vibrations".

This would seem compatible with e.g. this paper, which hypothesizes that meditation reduces the amount of end-stage processing in the prefrontal cortex, as well as various reports from meditation practicioners which also seem to involve access to earlier processing stages of sensory data (e.g. being able to separately perceive a raw sensory input and the resulting emotional reaction to it). It would also explain why learning to see the vibrations would lead to an ability to see the concept of self - or the "label of the observer", as the grandparent calls it - as something arbitrary, if the same process also allowed us to see part of the normally pre-conscious processing stages that constructed the sensation of a coherent, unchanging self.

Though it should be noted that this process of deconstruction seems potentially hazardous for one's mental health: once you start seeing just how arbitrary your self and world-image is, it can be quite frightening and disorienting. Suddenly some of the concepts which your brain has used to order and understand reality with just stop working:

And this can be an attenuation in self or it can be a complete dropping away. And even though you can read about this and think that this might be the goal of the contemplative path. For a lot of people it’s very very scary when that happens. And so when I mean dropping the sense of self, it can be a lack of a feeling like there’s anybody controlling. So one word are coming out of the mouth like who would be speaking them. When you move your arms and legs and walk it’s not really sure who decided that. When somebody ask you a question there’s almost a panic feeling because you don’t know who’s going to answer the question. There’s a sort of temporal disintegration. So the sense of time can fall apart, along with that your sense of a narrative self over time. Part of the sense of self is about being able to have continuity over time. And if you just don’t have that kind of sense of past and future and you only have a sense of now, your sense of self just by not having a past and a future and being able to imagine that can be sort of truncated and attenuated.

And then temporal disintegration can kind of go even further beyond that where people almost like they’re waking up in a new reality every several minutes. And they don’t really have any way of describing the reality that came before that and it can be very disorienting. You can wake up and really have to study your environment to figure out who you’re talking to and what the conversation is about. You can learn to get good at that, but it’s pretty disorienting for a while. And then I don’t know if this go in order but I think that the most common symptom, it’s hard to say but again these are all really common, but one of the most common symptoms is fear. And the lost of the sense of self I think is very tied in with this fear. And people can have really phenomenal levels of fear. I mean really just existential primal fear.

Likewise, if the process involves greater access to unprocessed raw data (including raw emotions) and a reduction in the activity of the prefrontal cortex which usually regulates and mediates those emotions, that's going to cause a lot of trouble as well. I suspect that these are the causes of the so-called "Dark Night", a stage in meditation which may cause serious depression and clinical impairment until it's overcome (via more meditation). That's the reason why I actively avoid trying to see any vibrations for now - maybe I will eventually go there and risk the Dark Night, but for now tranquility meditation seems to avoid that while still having major benefits.

That actually sounds really frightening. The temporal disintegration and the possible loss of the little bit of affect that I have left. I think I could handle the dropping away of self though.

That theory as to what vibrations are is really interesting, but I realize that I was just asking the wrong question (figuring this out is due to rhollerith, an answer to it from PyryP). How do people experience this internal experience that is usually referred to as "vibration"?

I perceive two kinds of vibrations. The first one is always associated with a sensory object and it's a subtle but regular variation between the object existing and not existing. I can compare the rate of these vibrations between objects and for slow vibrations I can even count individual waves such as my finger now vibrating at three times per one heart beat. For more rapid vibrations I sort of "hear" them but I cannot count the individual flashes of existence.

The second type of vibration that I perceive is of perception itself. My attention is constantly resetting itself and returning to the object of concentration. Sometimes it manifests as "bad key-framing". For a split second at a time the experience is frozen in time but still moving in a simple way until another moment of perception replaces it. The simple predictor movement from one "key-frame" to the next doesn't always line up and that's how I notice that my attention is resetting itself few times per second.

This is fascinating and I wish more people would describe experiences like this in terms of familiar metaphors like key-framing instead of metaphors which only make sense to other accomplished meditators.

Maybe it's just the writer in me, but I feel that any subjective experience can be communicated.

What is the difference between knowing consciously that identity is an illusion and intuitively feeling that identity is an illusion? I became a good reductionist long ago, but I still feel my own identity. I'm not sure if I would want to lose it.

I'm glad you liked the key-frame metaphor. I'm planning on writing a proper article about these experiences and developing a coherent language that makes sense to other physical algorithms trying to experience themselves as such. However I feel that I need to meditate a little longer to make sure I'm not making up too much nonsense.

The main difference between knowing that the self is an illusion and feeling it as such is control of the self-alief. Even without getting into a meditative state I can steer my experience from the habitual one that I use to socialize and become a flow of information between different conscious and semi-conscious modules. I cannot fully eliminate the experience of my habitual identity but I can see it jump between different modalities while still claiming to be the same agent that it was before jumping. It's hard to believe in an unified self when you can see that the self-experience is just a way for the mind to control itself.

The disbelief becomes even stronger in meditation when the identity is simply not there even though the mind is clearly experiencing something and recording memories.

Losing your identity is not so bad. You can still keep it and be your habitual self whenever the wish to do so arises. This whole thing is pretty great but I still advice making sure that you really want to do this. There is hardly any way of going back.

Let me address some fears associated with losing oneself:

  • I could no longer feel happiness for myself!

There is great joy in becoming the experience of happiness itself. Bliss needs no target to feel good.

  • I could no longer feel pain! Life is meaningless without contrasts.

Just as there is joy there is pain. It simply has less chance of sticking anywhere because the sufferer can be toned down at will. To find meaning I recommend focusing on the pain of others and having compassion. They are made of the same bits as you are and there is no fundamental separation. (Compassion is not strictly required if it feels too touchy-feely but where's the harm if done in moderation.)

  • I have done great things and all my achievements will be nulled if I disappear!

The autobiographical self won't disappear but the memories won't seem any different from any other autobiographical story. You won't be special for yourself but you will be and feel special in the sense that you'll be writing new chapters in the story. The achievements in your autobiography will be seen as events caused by inner and outer forces. Acknowledging the merit of others in your finest moments and feeling grateful is a wholesome experience. In my opinion feeling inclusive pride (aren't we all great) is superior to feeling exclusive pride (I'm great, aren't I) but do consider that feeling exclusive pride will feel like a bad joke. Luckily there just won't be anyone left to get hurt by that joke. If you are motivated by exclusive pride you can take comfort in the fact that other people will think you're great even after enlightenment. Freeing up the potential of the information processor under your skin will look like "you" doing all kinds of great stuff.

Thanks. I look forward to the article and wish you luck.

For vibration type 1, do different things have different frequencies? Do certain classes of things fall under similar frequency ranges? Do the frequency of particular objects change over time? Is that change predictable? (Ignore any questions that assume "yes" to the previous when the previous is "no")

For type 2, is this just noticing how things are all the time (higher sensitivity), or is it a degradation in the quality of your perception or experience? As before, does the frequency change and if so, is it predictable?

edit, also, how bad was stage 3 for you?

Different things usually do have different frequencies but that depends on the meditative stage I'm in. Stage 2 usually involves different sensations bursting to the foreground of attention vibrating at their own pace and maybe even accelerating in frequency as they appear and decelerating when fading out. Stage 3 is a cacophony of subtle sensations all vibrating at different frequencies and slowly shifting about. Because everything is constantly fading out and stays in the background it's hard to pick up any individual vibrations at all. Trying to "hear" it all at once takes effort but is doable. Now that I no longer experience mind numbing agony in stage 3 it's actually quite an impressive ocean of dark tones. In stage 4 however all vibrations line up and everything that arises vibrates at the same stable frequency as everything else. Even the experience of space beats away at this global rhythm. All of the previously described vibrations are in the 2 to 6 Hz range but there are higher vibrations associated with more precise sensing like feeling the individual hairs on my eyebrow. The experience of the lower frequency vibrations vibrates too but at a higher pace. Another high frequency object is the emptiness between individual moments of conventional space at stage 4. Don't ask me where this space beyond space vibrates into. I have no idea and luckily subjective experiences are not required to add up to a coherent system.

For type 2, this is how things are all the time. The mind is good at hiding the the details and discontinuities in its function and it takes a good look to see how things don't always line up. While the actual discontinuities are hard to notice the periodic jostling around of attention might be easier to pick up. Attention is constantly pushing away and trying to find novel things. I can sort of feel every push when fixing my focus on a particular object. The frequency changes when I engage in an activity that requires more attention but it's hard to pay attention to attention when I'm supposed to be paying attention to the activity. This difficulty of paying attention to attention may even mean that the discontinuity of experience and the subtle pushes of attention are separate phenomena. I just haven't been able to experience them individually.

Stage 3 was awful for me. Mainly because I gave too much weight to the unpleasant experiences. When you're blaming yourself for all the pain pouring out of your subconsciousness you're just repeating the cycle and training the mind to feel bad for feeling bad. As I also stopped meditating this cycle of self-blame solidified into an automatic habit. Neither did it not help that it feels good to wallow in self-pity when you think you deserve it. Needless to say I was depressed, short on energy and life felt meaningless and void of joy. It was hard facing this undercurrent of agony face-on and painful to let go of the solid tracks of negative feedback. It's a challenge not trying to blame yourself for failing not blaming yourself...

But now the Dark Night has given way to a dawn of serene contentment. Even when not meditating I feel this undercurrent of peace and when I'm relaxed I simply feel myself fading in and out of space to a cosmic rhythm. (Not to imply that such a cosmic rhythm actually exists out there or anything like that but subjectively I feel like I'm being caressed by the Universe with every breath I take.)

Although I have no experience with any extensive program of meditation, it is clear to me that "vibrations" is a word given to a certain aspect of internal experience that is "subtle" in the sense that a person would probably not notice it without spending quite a few hours in mediation or at least in paying close attention internal experience.

ADDED. Because any two human minds have so much in common, it is possible to have a worthwhile discussion about various aspects of internal experience. Although it's a lot harder to catch someone in a lie about their internal experience than it is to catch them in a lie about external reality, that does not prevent worthwhile sharing of knowledge about internal experiences.

ADDED. Great writing, BTW, PyryP (author of grandparent).

Thanks for helping clarify my question. I wanted to know more about what that internal experience is like.

I know it's been a while since you left this, but I was wondering; do you pass through the stages of depression, boredom, and insanity that he mentioned just by consistently meditating for a few months? No one else who talks about Vipassana seems to mention them. Also, do all the weird things that happen occur just during meditation, or are they constant?

It took me couple of years to get to the point where depression started to dominate so I guess a lot of the groundwork was already done. It did really only take me only a couple of months of regular practice to get the fruits of DavidM's method. The heaviest bouts of depression, boredom and insanity occur during meditation but some of that "leaks" to the daily life as well. The really weird stuff I had like a visualisation of a creature that chops of your body parts and dances around with them laughing only occur in meditation. There are no hallucinations outside of meditation and even in meditation you mostly have control of the visualisations and know that they are not real or important. It's more about letting go and the mind sometimes does crazy stuff before settling down. I would be surprised if meditators in general didn't have crazy episodes from time to time. Talking about them is taboo in most traditions. It does make sense because the mind wanders around and picks up stuff associated with meditation. If you hear or read a lot about strange stuff that can appear in meditation your mind will start playing around with the ideas and then you have sort of imagined visualisations that are doubly irrelevant. My issue here is that when people start to practice meditation alone all of the insane stuff can be quite frightening if you don't have a teacher or peers who can guide one through them. So for the lone meditators it's good to know a little about the weird stuff so they don't give them too much attention or freak out.

I grew up a practicing Quaker. While some Friends "pray" during Meeting (what we call church), others practice mindful meditation. So while I regularly practice what I believe qualifies as mindful meditation, I haven't been formerly trained. And also, what has worked for me in helping me learn how to focus, might not work for you; it has, however, worked for some of my friends, so it could at least help someone who reads this. In addition to daily meditation attempts, which are important even they are only for 5 minutes, it might be easier if you try some other ways to learn how gain focus.

So, lets say someone you dislike does something that annoys/angers you (jerk coworker, rude driver) or your are upset by a situation (quitting smoking). Most people, when angered, spend a good deal of mental energy dreaming up the perfect witty comeback, how horrible the other person is, or how they could "punish" the offender. They will do this for many hours throughout the day/week/month without even realizing they are doing it. They have a hard time stopping because they don't think about their thinking. So for this drill, make a conscious decision that whenever your thoughts start to stray in that direction of thinking about that offending person/situation, you are going to stop those thoughts, acknowledge that you broke your promise to yourself by thinking them, and move on to a different, unrelated thought.

The first, uh, 50 times you do this, you will realize that you had been thinking about the triggering person or event for a few minutes--possibly more--before you noticed you were doing it. You will keep doing this. And then one time, it will click after only a minute or so. And then 40 seconds. And so on. Until you realize as you start the thought that you are breaking your personal promise. You have begun to think about thinking it while you are thinking it.

That drill will help you understand what it feels like to notice, acknowledge, and redirect your thoughts during meditation. It's the same skill, except meditation tends to be a bit harder because it's not just one kind of thought you are blocking, it's all but one. So if you successfully meditating for 5 minutes, you wouldn't have had to notice, acknowledge, or redirect your thoughts about anything--you would have just held on to that original thought for the 5 minutes. But its going to be really hard to notice if this is happening or not if you don't know what it feels like to interrupt those unwanted thoughts. Because if you haven't learned how to interrupt unwanted thoughts, you really haven't learned how to identify that you are having unwanted thoughts.

Another drill which I have told people--which may or may not help as I use it mainly for falling asleep, not meditating, but it still focuses the mind--is to attempt to think random" images instead of thoughts. Obviously this is not possible, but that is the best I can do at putting words on the process. When you think of an object, it is easy to quickly move from that object into some sort of story surrounding the object.

Ex. I think of my dad, and then I think of the phone call we had today, and then i think how my dad mentioned this one thing, which I forgot to do, but that's ok I'll do it during my lunch break tomorrow, and oh, wouldn't a PBJ be delicious for lunch tomorrow...and on and on.

Instead, try NOT connecting the story. Think of a thought, make that thought an image, and the second you think of something slightly else, make that thought an image but don't think about the connection between the two. Just try to force yourself to make the thought jump without a connector. It makes it easier if you try to visualize an image of the word. If you think "gorilla," you need to mentally see that gorilla. If you think of a word that has no direct image, like "happy," just see the word written out in your mind.

So instead of the above mental conversation, you will visualize "dad...gorilla...banana..stem...seaweed..rainbow... telephone..cord...hair..dance..peculiar...baseball.." and on and on. The words must have a correlation somewhere in my mind or I wouldn't have thought them in that order, but I refused to let my mind try to draw the connection while I thought them. I just accept them as random (even if this is incorrect) and force myself to make the thought jump to the next image. The second your mind starts to stray and think "oh a telephone uses a cord," (which I realized as I type this, not while I was thinking it) and you notice yourself straying (like in the first example), correct yourself and try to start making "random" image jumps again. Try to jump from image to image as fast as possible; if you stay too long on one image, it's easy for your mind to form related thoughts.

This drill also makes it easy for you to notice when your thought process strays, and self-correct. Honestly, I don't think it matters if your thoughts during mindful meditation are on one object (saying "ohmmm," staring at the flame of a candle, and so on) or on many objects like this mental images drill, as long you don't actually give thoughts to those many objects.

The words must have a correlation somewhere in my mind or I wouldn't have thought them in that order,

I have a strong suspicion that is not so - that the brain just chatters to itself, it's pareidolia operating on static hiss on the neurons.

Edit: I do think it is true that the words are correlated somehow, but I also think it is true our thoughts about the nature of that correlation are likely to be pareidolia. In this lecture by Sam Harris, around the 22:00 mark, he talks about how many studies have given us evidence that our stories about why we think what we think or why we did what we did are NOT correct - they are post hoc fabrications of the left hemisphere of the brain trying to make sense of things it doesn't understand (ie the subconscious).

I was in the same spot as you until I read this post by Sam Harris. It's a pretty good intro to mindful meditation. It also links to some useful resources, such as guided audio tracks.

I've done an extensive search of guided audio tracks on the web and can confirm these seem to be the best ones available in the English language.

I think there's a risk of losing your rationality by practicing mediation.

That looks like losing your rationality by reading LessWrong. As does this by XiXiDu that he links to.

A couple of quotes from the latter strike me:

Logical implications just don’t seem enough in some cases.


Until the above problems are resolved, or sufficiently established, I will continue to put vastly more weight on empirical evidence and my intuition than on logical implications

That is as it should be. Blindly following logic wherever it takes you is like strapping yourself to a rocket with no steering.

I've never been able to make sense of the traditional koans, not because I find them hard puzzles, but because I don't even see what puzzle is being posed. But we have here in the LessWrong material koans aplenty.

Mentalism cannot be true! Physicalism cannot be true!

Bayesian reasoning is the only way! We cannot do Bayesian reasoning!

Aumann agreement! Dissension among rational people!

Human intelligence is possible! After sixty years of trying we haven't the slightest idea how!

Trolley problems!


Quantum suicide!

Give me all your money and I'll repay you 3^^^3-fold!

The Utility Monster!

The Repugnant Conclusion!

You spend one dead child at Starbucks every year!

Vast stakes depend on your slightest decision! You cannot evaluate them! You must evaluate them!

You have six hours to cut down a tree! It will take twelve hours to sharpen your axe! The first god we make will torture you forever for failing!

Until very recently I thought it might be just me and that you people can calculate what you should do. But then I learnt that even important SI donors have similar problems. And other people as well.

The problem is that all the talk about approximations is complete handwaving and that you really can't calculate shit. And even if you could, there doesn't seem to be anything medium-probable that you could do about it.

‘Some years ago I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Harvard from Stanford. I had bored my friends silly with endless discussion. Finally, one of them said, “You’re one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of the costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Come on, Sandy, this is serious.”’

— Persi Diaconis, in The Problem of Thinking Too Much

No argument from me on any of that. I've said a couple of times on LW that I don't believe that people have or can have utility functions (I'm not alone on LW there), that approximating Solomonoff induction is impractical on at least an NP scale, and that large-world Bayesianism is tantamount to AGI, which nobody knows how to do. (Framing the AGI problem as LWB doesn't help solve AGI, it's an argument against expecting to succeed at LWB.)

But where does that leave us? What does one do instead?

To abandon "rationality" is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The application of Bayes' theorem to screening tests for rare conditions remains just as valid, just as practical, and just as essential for making correct medical decisions. Noticing that a discussion has wandered into disputing definitions remains just as valid a sign that the discussion has done wrong. The usefulness of checklists for ensuring that complex procedures are reliably performed does not go away. When thine I offends thee, try the many practical pieces of advice for personal development that have appeared here or elsewhere and see what one can make work. And so on.

All of this "small-world" rationality may not be as exciting, to some temperaments, as talking about AGIs, uploads, Tegmark multiverses, and 3^^^3 specks, but it has the great advantage (to my temperament) of having an actual subject matter here and now, and of not driving people crazy who take it seriously. It works when taken seriously. And there's this to consider. It counts against the wilder speculations of LW just as much as against kobolds.

For the rest, my rule of thumb (the small-world response to large-world problems, as Diaconis says in that paper) for deciding its worth is this: if it isn't being done with mathematics, it's useless. A necessary condition, not a sufficient one, but it weeds out almost everything. AGI? Make one. Friendliness proof methods? Write it up in the Journal of Symbolic Logic. TDT? Ditto.

Aumann agreement! Dissension among rational people!

This one's easy; I'm guessing this is about "rational" people (lesswrongers for instance) disagreeing. "Rational" in the above sentence isn't the same as rational as defined in Aumann's paper.

Specifically, we're human beings, two of us don't necessarily have the same priors, or common knowledge of a posterior A for every possible event A. So we're bound to disagree sometimes.

I really hate when people tease me with promises of my more confident beliefs being wrong. Hey, everyone: I've read around as much as y'all on rationality, physics, geography, and I just wanted to tell you that the Earth is flat. Yeah, yeah I know it's hard to believe, but you're just going to have to trust me. I might go in to more detail some other time, but y'know it would be kind of a lot of work (I think)... soooo probably not, but maybe! maybe... anyway you're wrong.

Guys, guys.. I can see you're upset, but I'm posting this on the internet for my benefit not yours.

I can sympathize a little with his first point

Physicalism isn’t actually making any sense. It is said that a real answer should make things less mysterious.


To use a programmer saying, “Some people when confronted with the hard problem of consciousness think, ‘I know, I’ll use reductionism!’. Now they have two problems.”.

If you have stripped down your motorbike engine and rebuilt it and gone for a ride, you have a paradigm of reductionism. You strip the thing down, to a few hundred parts (include all the little bits, the nuts, cir-clips, and washers) and if your are clever and don't lose any bits and do the adjustments correctly, it works when you reassemble it and you pass the test. You understand how it works and you know that you understand how it works.

So naturally you carry that expectation over to the hard problems of consciousness. You study the brain, decide its really just a computer, and start coding a brain in Java. After failing hard, you realise that your motorbike engine paradigm just lost a connecting rod through its crankcase. Reductionism hasn't made the brain any less mysterious, at least, not in the hands-on sense that you hoped. The brain is too intricately detailed to be understood mechanically, where mechanically is understood as implying comprehensible working parts, and hundreds of them, rather than comprehensible working parts and hundreds of billions of them.

So what next? My answer is that the human brain will always be mysterious, in the same sense that the source code of the Windows operating system will always be mysterious. There is too much of it; too much intricate detail. I just shrug. I never took mechanical to imply sufficiently few working parts that I can actually understand the mechanism. But I can seen lots of people understanding the mechanical aspect of physicalism through some kind of implicit motorbike engine metaphor and correctly realising that reductionism isn't going to explain consciousness in the way that they had hoped.


explain please?

I can't quite understand what the author means in the relevant section of that link, and given that he's consciously rejected consequentialism, my prior is low that what he has to say on the topic is very useful.

Unfortunately, all the tutorials on mindfulness meditation seem to be semi-practical advice backed by totally bogus theories (focus your energies, blah blah).

Have you tried this?

N=1 experience: I read the piece bramflakes linked, and decided to try it out. My first few sessions were uneventful; they felt like a little quiet time, no more. On the third try, after a few minutes, I found that my breathing naturally slowed down dramatically and I fell into a trancelike state, feeling less connected with my body yet with my mind still working approximately normally. Coming out of this session felt like waking up after a good night's sleep, with less distraction and more focus, though not with more energy per se. I've since usually been able to access that trance-like state after 5-7 minutes of focus, and have been basically hanging out in that state of mind for a while until the session is over. If anyone has any ideas on what to do once there, I'd be curious to know.

Since then I've attempted to meditate when my schedule allows. I find it a useful cure for the kind of fast-paced inattention that I tend to fall into (what folks have called "monkey mind"). Also interesting, it's really made clear to me the lack of control I have over my trains of thought. Directing my attention is not something that I was even aware of as a skill worth training.

Done it twice so far, using this as a guide. Fell asleep both times. That said, it was a positive experience, and I plan to make it a habit. Really helped be more aware of how easily distracted I am, and how often my minds runs in tracks, thinking the same thoughts again and again.

I figured that skill in mindfulness meditation would help with sleep onset insomnia. Instead of getting frustrated at taking an hour or more to get sleep, you could just treat the time lying down as an extra meditation session. Hasn't really worked out with the sort of undisciplined and infrequent practice I've been doing yet. I still tend to get frustrated and go into a funk of discomfort after lying awake past forty or so minutes.

I wonder if the idea is worth pursuing anyway. Focusing seems more difficult when lying down, and might be bad enough that there just isn't much skill progress to be developed that way, but on the other hand there is twenty to ninety or more minutes of utterly unoccupied uninterrupted time there for every night when going to bed early.

Some nights I have sleep onset problems that can take well over an hour. I will usually either notice that I have excited thoughts or anxiety/tension while I am lying in bed. In this condition, l have found that doing a sitting meditation is better for clearing my head than continuing to lie down. I try to sleep again after I'm calmed down.

I'm a beginning meditator and can't address MinibearRex's concern about an experienced meditator possibly being too alert. If I was concerned about this, I'd just set a timer to schedule when I'd resume attempting sleep.

I had this same idea a while ago, but decided not to pursue it extensively, in case I succeeded. It seems to me that early on, as you're learning to meditate, you will slip off, lose focus, and go to sleep. But as you get better at staying on topic on the meditation, it will be longer and longer before you lose focus, and your insomnia will only get worse.

I've seen a few things online that indicate that it might be possible to transition from meditation into lucid dreaming, but I don't know how well that would work.

There is wake-induced lucid dreaming where you transition from being awake into a lucid dream while retaining consciousness. I can do it sorta-regularly with the wake-back-to-bed technique, which involves me getting up six hours after bedtime, staying up for half an hour, then lying awake and meditating in bed for up to an hour. Haven't figured out a way to do this regularly without messing up my sleep cycle, and the lucid dreams are pretty short and uneventful.

I think the trick is to both have a sufficient level of wakefulness (need to stay awake a bit and read the morning news instead of just turn off the alarm clock and go back to bed) and having the brain in a state where the next phase of sleep isn't very deep. Going to bed or taking a nap after a day of being awake always just leads to a full loss of consciousness.

I don't have an educated opinion on the usefulness of mindfulness meditation, but I did get a copy of The Teaching Company's course on the subject. I'll probably listen to it within the next few weeks.