A non-mystical explanation of insight meditation and the three characteristics of existence: introduction and preamble

by Kaj_Sotala11 min read5th May 202036 comments

97

MeditationSubagentsWorld Modeling
Frontpage

Introduction

Insight meditation, enlightenment, what’s that all about?

The sequence of posts starting from this one is my personal attempt at answering that question. It grew out of me being annoyed about so much of this material seeming to be straightforwardly explainable in non-mysterious terms, but me also being unable to find any book or article that would do this to my satisfaction. In particular, I wanted something that would:

  • Explain what kinds of implicit assumptions build up our default understanding of reality and how those assumptions are subtly flawed. It would then point out aspects from our experience whose repeated observation will update those assumptions, and explain how this may cause psychological change in someone who meditates.
  • It would also explain how the so-called “three characteristics of existence” of Buddhism - impermanence, no-self and unsatisfactoriness - are all interrelated and connected with each other in a way your average Western science-minded, allergic-to-mysticism reader can understand.

I failed to find a resource that would do this in the way I had in mind, so then I wrote one myself.

From the onset, I want to note that I am calling this a non-mystical take on the three characteristics, rather than the non-mystical take on the three characteristics. This is an attempt to explain what I personally think is going on, and to sketch out an explanation of how various experiences and Buddhist teachings could be understandable in straightforward terms. I don’t expect this to be anything like a complete or perfect explanation, but rather one particular model that might be useful.

The main intent of this series is summarized by a comment written by Vanessa Kosoy, justifiably skeptical of grandiose claims about enlightenment that are made without further elaboration on the actual mechanisms of it:

I think that the only coherent way to convince us that Enlightenment is real is to provide a model from a 3rd party perspective. [...] The model doesn't have to be fully mathematically rigorous: as always, it can be a little fuzzy and informal. However, it must be precise enough in order to (i) correctly capture the essentials and (ii) be interpretable more or less unambiguously by the sufficiently educated reader.
Now, having such a model doesn't mean you can actually reproduce Enlightenment itself. [...] However, producing such a model would give us the enormous advantages of (i) being able to come up with experimental tests for the model (ii) understanding what sort of advantages we would gain by reaching Enlightenment (iii) being sure that your are talking about something that is at least a coherent possible world even if we are still unsure whether you are describing the actual world.

I hope to at least put together a starting point for a model that would fulfill those criteria.

Note that these articles are not saying “you should meditate”. Getting deep in meditation requires a huge investment of time and effort - though smaller investments are also likely to produce benefits - and is associated with its own risks [1 2 3 4]. My intent is merely to discuss some of the mechanisms involved in meditation and the mind. Whether one should get direct acquaintance with them is a separate question that goes beyond the scope of this discussion.

Briefly on the mechanisms of meditation

In a previous article, A Mechanistic Model of Meditation, I argued that it is possible in principle for meditation to give people an improved understanding of the way their mind operates.

To briefly recap my argument: we know it is possible for people to train their senses, such as learning to notice more details or make more fine-grained sensory discriminations. One theory is that those details have always been processed in the brain, but the information has not made it to the higher stages of the processing hierarchy. As you repeatedly focus your attention to a particular kind of pattern in your consciousness, neurons re-orient to strengthen that pattern and build connections to the lower-level circuits from which it emerges. This re-encodes the information in those circuits in a format which can be represented in consciousness.

This means at least some kinds of sensory training are training in introspection - learning to better access information which already exists in your brain. This implies you can also learn to strengthen other patterns in your consciousness, especially if you have some source of feedback that you can use to guide the training.

I gave an example of experiential forms of therapy doing exactly this, and then described how a particular style of meditation used one’s awareness of the breath as an objective feedback signal for developing increased “introspective awareness” of one’s own mind.

That post was mostly describing the ways in which meditation can be used to become more aware of the content of your thoughts. However, in observing the content, it is hard to avoid noticing at least some of the structure of the thought process as well.

For example, you might try to follow your breath and think you are doing a good job. In this case, there are at least two kinds of content in your mind: the actual sensory experience of the breath, and thoughts about how badly or well you are doing. The latter might take the form of e.g. mental dialogue that says things like "I'm still managing to follow my breath". Now, since you may find it rewarding to just think that you are meditating well, that thought may start to become rewarded, and you may find yourself repeatedly thinking that you are successfully following the breath... even as the thought of “I am meditating well” has become self-sustaining and no longer connected to whether you are following the breath or not.

Eventually you will realize that you have actually been thinking about following the breath rather than actually following it. This is a minor insight into the way that your thought processes are structured, revealing it is possible for sensations and thoughts about sensations to become mixed up.

It is also possible to practice meditation in a way which explicitly focuses on investigating structure. We can make an analogy to looking at a painting. (Thanks to Alexei Andreev for suggesting this analogy.) Seen from some distance, a painting has "content": it depicts things like people, buildings, boats and so forth. But when you get closer to it and look carefully, you can see that all the content is composed of things like brush strokes, individual colored shapes, paint of varying thickness, and so on. This is "structure". While all types of meditation are going to reveal something about structure, there are also types of meditation which are specifically aimed at exploring it. Meditation which focuses on investigating structure is commonly called insight meditation.

Investigating the mind vs. investigating reality

Now, it is worth noting that these practices are not always framed in terms of "investigating the structure of the mind", nor does the actual experience of doing them necessarily feel like that. Rather, the framing and experience is commonly that of investigating the nature of reality.

For example, in an earlier article trying to explain insight meditation, I mentioned I had once had the thought that I could never be happy. When I paid closer attention to why I thought that, I noticed that my mental image of a happy person included strong extraversion, which conflicted with the self-image that I had of myself as an introvert. After I noticed the happiness-extraversion connection, it became apparent that I could be happy even as an introvert, and the original thought disappeared. (Although I didn't know it at the time, it is common for emotional beliefs to change when they become explicit enough for the brain to notice them being erroneous.)

Essentially, I had originally believed “I can never be happy”, and this belief about me didn’t feel like a “belief”. It felt like a basic truth of what I was, the kind of truth that you just know - in the same way that you might look at an apple and just know you are having the experience of seeing an apple. But when I investigated the details of that experience, I realized that this wasn’t actually a fact about me. Rather it was just a belief that I had.

In a similar way, there are many aspects of our subjective experience that feel like facts about reality, but upon doing insight practices and investigating them closer, we can come to see that they are not so.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has coined the term "heterophenomenology" to refer to a particular approach to the study of consciousness. In this approach, we assume that people are correctly describing how things seem to them and treat this as something that needs to be explained. However, the actual mechanism of why things seem like that to them, may be different from what they assume.

If I see an apple, it typically feels to me like I am seeing reality as it is. From a scientific point of view, this is mistaken: the sight of an apple is actually a complex interpretation my brain has created. Likewise, if I have the experience that I can never be happy, then this also feels like a raw fact while actually being an interpretation. In either case, if I manage to do practices which reveal my interpretation to be flawed, they will subjectively feel like I am investigating reality... while from a third-person perspective, we would rather say that I am investigating the way my mind builds up reality.

It is valid to stick to just the first-person experience of investigating reality directly. Many of these practices are framed solely in those terms, because a stance of curiosity and having as few assumptions as possible is the best mindset for actually doing the practices. But if one says that meditation investigates the nature of reality, then it becomes hard to test the claim from a third-person perspective. A common criticism is that meditation certainly changes how people experience the world, but it might just as well be loosening their grasp on reality.

On the other hand, if we provisionally assume that meditation works by revealing how the mind structures its model of reality, then we can check whether the kinds of insights that people report are compatible with what science tells us about the brain. If it turns out that meditators doing insight practices are coming up with experiences that match our understanding of actual brain mechanisms, then the practices might actually provide insight rather than delusion. In cases where no scientific evidence is yet available, it should at least be possible to construct a model that could be true and compatible with the third-person evidence.

In previous posts, I have explored some scientifically-informed models of the brain, which I think are naturally linked to the kinds of discoveries made in insight meditation. This article will more explicitly connect concepts from the theory of meditation to those kinds of models.

It is also worth noting that I think both claims about meditative insights are true: some things you can do with meditation do give you a better insight into reality, while some other things do just break your brain and reduce your contact with reality. (A fact responsible meditation teachers also warn about.) This makes it important to have third-person models of what could be a genuine insight and what is probably delusion, to help avoid the dangerous territory.

My multiagent model of mind

I have been calling my interpretation of those models a “multiagent model of mind”. What follows is a highly abridged version of it; see the linked index of posts for much more extensive discussion, including the sources that I have been drawing on for my synthesis.

One of the main ideas of the multiagent model is that the brain contains a number of different subsystems operating in parallel, each focusing on their own responsibilities. They share information on a subconscious level, but also through conscious thought. The content of consciousness roughly corresponds to information which is being processed in a “global workspace” - a “brain web” of long-distance neurons, which link multiple areas of the brain together into a densely interconnected network.

The global workspace can only hold a single piece of information at a time. At any given time, multiple different subsystems are trying to send information into the workspace, or otherwise modify its contents. Experiments show that a visual stimuli needs to be shown for about 50 milliseconds for it to be consciously registered, suggesting that the contents of consciousness might be updated at least 20 times per second. Whatever information makes it into consciousness will then be broadcast widely throughout the brain, allowing many subsystems to synchronize their processing around it.

The exact process by which this happens is not completely understood, but involves a combination of top-down mechanisms (e.g. attentional subsystems trying to strengthen particular signals and keep those in the workspace) as well as bottom-up ones (e.g. emotional content getting a priority). For example, if you are listening to someone talk in a noisy restaurant, both their words and the noise are bottom-up information within the workspace, while a top-down process tries to pick up on the words in particular. If a drunk person then suddenly collides with you, you are likely to become startled, which is a bottom-up signal strong enough to grab your attention (dominate the workspace), momentarily pushing away everything else.

There is also a constant learning process going on, where the brain learns which subsystems should be given access in which circumstances, while the subsystems themselves also undergo learning about what kind of information to send to consciousness.

When I talk about “subsystems” sending content into consciousness, I mean this as a very generic term, which includes all of the following:

  • Literal subsystems, e.g. information from the visual, auditory, and other sensory systems
  • Subpatterns within larger subsystems, e.g. a particular neuronal pattern encoding a specific memory or habit
  • Emotional schemas which trigger in particular situations and contain an interpretation of that situation and a response
  • Working memory buffers associated with type 2 (“System 2”) reasoning, helping chain the outputs of several different subsystems together

In some cases, I might talk about there being two separate subsystems, when one could argue that this would be better described as something like two separate pieces of data within a single subsystem. For example, I might talk about two different memories as two different subsystems, when one could reasonably argue that they are both contained within the same memory subsystem. Drawing these kinds of distinctions within the brain seems tricky, so rather than trying to figure out what term to use when, I will just talk about subsystems all the time.

Epistemic status

Buddhist theories of the mind are based on textual traditions that purport to record the remembered word of the Buddha, on religious and philosophical interpretations of those texts, and on Buddhist practices of mental cultivation. The theories aren’t formulated as scientific hypotheses and they aren’t scientifically testable. Buddhist insights into the mind aren’t scientific discoveries. They haven’t resulted from an open-ended empirical inquiry free from the claims of tradition and the force of doctrinal and sectarian rhetoric. They’re stated in the language of Buddhist metaphysics, not in an independent conceptual framework to which Buddhist and non-Buddhist thinkers can agree. Buddhist meditative texts are saturated with religious imagery and language. Buddhist meditation isn’t controlled experimentation. It guides people to have certain kinds of experiences and to interpret them in ways that conform to and confirm Buddhist doctrine. The claims that people make from having these experiences aren’t subject to independent peer review; they’re subject to assessment within the agreed-upon and unquestioned framework of the Buddhist soteriological path. [...]
I’m not saying that Buddhist meditative techniques haven’t been experientially tested in any sense. Meditation is a kind of skill, and it’s experientially testable in the way that skills are, namely, through repeated practice and expert evaluation. I have no doubt that Buddhist contemplatives down through the ages have tested meditation in this sense. I’m also not saying that meditation doesn’t produce discoveries in the sense of personal insights. (Psychoanalysis can also lead to insights.) Rather, my point is that the experiential tests aren’t experimental tests. They don’t test scientific hypotheses. They don’t provide a unique set of predictions for which there aren’t other explanations. The insights they produce aren’t scientific discoveries. [...]
I’m also not trying to devalue meditation. On the contrary, I’m trying to make room for its value by showing how likening it to science distorts it. Meditation isn’t controlled experimentation. Attention and mindfulness aren’t instruments that reveal the mind without affecting it. Meditation provides insight into the mind (and body) in the way that body practices like dance, yoga, and martial arts provide insight into the body (and mind). Such mind-body practices—meditation included—have their own rigor and precision. They test and validate things experientially, but not by comparing the results obtained against controls.
-- Evan Thompson, Why I Am Not A Buddhist

I think it is reasonable to believe that meditation can give us genuine insights into the way the mind functions. The meditative techniques and practices which I am drawing upon in this series have been developed within Buddhist traditions, and I make frequent references to the theory developed within those traditions.

At the same time, while I am drawing upon theories developed within these traditions, I am treating those as a source of inspiration to be critically examined, rather than as sources of authority.

For one, there are many different Buddhist theories and schools that disagree with each other, many of them claiming to teach what the Buddha really meant. And as e.g. Evan Thompson’s book discusses, one cannot cleanly separate Buddhist meditative techniques from Buddhist religious teaching. People who meditate using those techniques - myself included - do so while being guided by an existing conceptual framework, framing their experiences in light of their framework. Practitioners who use different kinds of techniques and frameworks end up drawing different conclusions: e.g. some frameworks end up at the conclusion that no selves exist, while others end up believing that everything is self. (The extent to which this difference in framing actually leads to a different experience is unclear.) Many of these frameworks also draw upon supernatural elements, such as claims of rebirth and remembering past lives.

Still, many meditation teachers also say things along the lines of “you should not take any of this on faith, just try it out and see for yourself”. Personally I started out skeptical of many claims, dismissing them as pre-scientific folk-psychological speculation, before gradually coming to believe in them - sometimes as a result of meditation which hadn’t even been aimed at investigating those claims in particular, but where I thought I was doing something completely different. And it seems to me that many of the meditative techniques actively require you to suspend your expectations in order to work properly, requiring you to look at what’s present rather than at the thing you expect to see.

So, like many others, I simultaneously believe that i) meditative techniques point at genuine insights and also produce them in the minds of people who meditate and also that ii) we should not put excess faith in the claims of the existing meditation traditions. As many teachers encourage exactly this line of thought - as in the comment of taking nothing on faith - this feels like an appropriate spirit for approaching these matters.

Rather than trying to be authentically Buddhist, this article is concerned with building a model of the neural and psychological mechanisms I think the three characteristics are pointing at, even if that model ends up sharply deviating from the original theories. I heavily draw on my own experiences and the experiences and theories of other people whose reports I have reason to trust. I proceed from the assumption that regardless of whether the original frameworks are true or false, they do systematically produce similar effects and insights in the minds of the people following them, and that is an observation which needs to be explained.

In fact, I am happy to mix and match examples, exercises, interpretations and results drawn from all of the contemplative traditions that I happen to have any familiarity with, with current-day Western psychology and psychotherapy thrown in for good measure. They may have different approaches, but to the extent that they share commonalities, those commonalities tell us something about what human minds might have in common. And to the extent that they differ, one tradition might be pointing out aspects about the human mind that the others have neglected and vice versa, as in the fable of the blind men and the elephant.

Current articles in this series:

Thank you to Alexei Andreev, David Chapman, Eliot Re, Jacob Spence, James Hogan, Magnus Vinding, Max Daniel, Matthew Graves, Michael Ashcroft, Romeo Stevens, Santtu Heikkinen, and Vojtěch Kovařík for valuable comments. Additional special thanks to Maija Haavisto. None of the people in question necessarily agree with all the content in this or the upcoming posts; much of the content has also been rewritten after the drafts that most of them saw.

97

36 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:34 AM
New Comment

I don't know how helpful this will be to others, but in my own investigation of this topic, including reading many different takes, I've found it highly helpful to notice/track different types of confusions that arise. Often value can be extracted and meaning can be triangulated from multiple takes by disentangling them. Especially for takes by people trying to get down to the actual mental events that are happening, I find it useful to pause and notice how the cached belief/concept I have contains one of these confusions. In this way, an initial 'ah-ha' moment from a good explanation can be milked for additional insight! Or to put it another way, noticing your confusion has perceptible structure. I run into at least these very frequently, there may be others worth categorizing as well.

Linguistic confusion: Korzybski coins the term multiordinal words, which are words that operate at multiple/ambiguous levels of abstraction, leading to easy misunderstandings. If the connotative space of a word is large (e.g. justice), it is unsurprising that people can use it while talking about completely different things. This effect is magnified when we are translating from another language, and magnified further when it is from a dead language. Pali, the language that Buddhism was recorded in has no major surviving texts other than said discourses themselves.

Abstraction level confusion: While usually manifesting as a linguistic confusion, it is worth separating this out explicitly. An abstraction level confusion occurs when an explanation switches mid-stream between goal, representation, method, and implementation details and then fails to go back and connect things to the original level. Imagine that I want an explanation for why we need a table and you start discussing the expense of different table materials. This is much more pernicious when it occurs in the context of trying to learn about something new.

Pedagogical confusion: What is intended as formal practice instructions (i.e. sit down and do this for one hour) is either confused with the results of practice (e.g. a clear mind as a result, rather than something to do), or confused with a life philosophy/the final goal of the practice (e.g. the idea one should strive to have a clear mind at all times). So a subtype of this might also be

Measurement confusion: where it isn't clear what the metric for success is supposed to be.

Metaphysical confusion: Map-territory confusion as standard here. I'd also include positive-normative equivocation under this heading, i.e. claims about what-is confused with claims about what-ought. These kind of reference-referent mixups get worse when we're talking about modifying or examining the thing you are using to do the examination.

You probably noticed that this isn't a totally clean ontology, in that things may fall into multiple categories. Improvement is possible! And I've also noticed how much clearer my thinking gets when I get better at noticing that, that an explanation or argument hinges on several of these mixed together.

"I started out skeptical of many claims, dismissing them as pre-scientific folk-psychological speculation, before gradually coming to believe in them - sometimes as a result of meditation which hadn’t even been aimed at investigating those claims in particular, but where I thought I was doing something completely different."

Did you come to believe in rebirth and remembering past lives?

I trace myself back through the labyrinth of my brain, through the innumerable turns by which I have ringed myself off and, by perpetual circling, obliterated the original trail whereby I entered this forest. Back through the tunnels—through the devious status-and-survival strategy of adult life, through the interminable passages which we remember in dreams—all the streets we have ever traveled, the corridors of schools, the winding pathways between the legs of tables and chairs where one crawled as a child, the tight and bloody exit from the womb, the fountainous surge through the channel of the penis, the timeless wanderings through ducts and spongy caverns. Down and back through ever-narrowing tubes to the point where the passage itself is the traveler—a thin string of molecules going through the trial and error of getting itself into the right order to be a unit of organic life. Relentlessly back and back through endless and whirling dances in the astronomically proportioned spaces which surround the original nuclei of the world, the centers of centers, as remotely distant on the inside as the nebulae beyond our galaxy on the outside.
Down and at last out—out of the cosmic maze to recognize in and as myself, the bewildered traveler, the forgotten yet familiar sensation of the original impulse of all things, supreme identity, inmost light, ultimate center, self more me than myself. Standing in the midst of Ella's garden I feel, with a peace so deep that it sings to be shared with all the world, that at last I belong, that I have returned to the home behind home, that I have come into the inheritance unknowingly bequeathed from all my ancestors since the beginning. Plucked like the strings of a harp, the warp and woof of the world reverberate with memories of triumphant hymns. The sure foundation upon which I had sought to stand has turned out to be the center from which I seek. The elusive substance beneath all the forms of the universe is discovered as the immediate gesture of my hand. But how did I ever get lost? And why have I traveled so far through these intertwined tunnels that I seem to be the quaking vortex of defended defensiveness which is my conventional self?
--Alan Watts

If you're going to double-down on the idea of "deep" meditation, would it be unreasonable to ask for some disambiguation? What are the key differences between "deep meditation vs. plain old meditation" in your "model"? Or are there more than two types? Are there 20 types? 200 types?

I don't mean to be pedantic, but I think this notion of "deep," or "serious," or "real" meditation vs. some false, light, or non-serious practice is dubious at best.

Sure, someone may be more likely to experience the benefits of meditation faster if she takes a 10-day retreat compared to 10-days of ten-minute practice. Or maybe not. She might just reject the experience as overwhelming, tedious and painful. Would you agree that someone who consistently runs for 10 minutes, three times a week, is going to realize greater long-term health benefits than someone who only run-walks one marathon a year? Furthermore, telling people that to do it right, physical fitness "requires a huge investment of time and effort" is more likely to discourage anyone from getting up off their ass. I appreciate that you raise awareness of potential risks, but your notion of the time required for "deep" meditation is curiously out of step with what leading meditation instructors advocate.

More importantly, this whole notion of "optimizing returns" is antithetical to the whole practice of meditation! More on this in a moment.

If I cook for only 10 minutes, am I not really "deep cooking"? If I read for 5 minutes, am I only "shallow reading"? How long do I need to exercise before I'm "deep" exercising? Or does this whole idea of "deep vs. shallow" only apply to meditation and not to aerobic sports, weightlifting, or other activities?

"Deep vs shallow (non-deep? light?)" smells like a dumbbell theory--an attempt to explain the world in terms of opposing forces or principles:

  • Good vs Evil
  • Conscious vs Unconscious
  • Intentional vs Unintentional
  • Thoughts vs Feelings
  • Enlightenment vs Non-Enlightenment
  • Self vs No-Self

Whenever I see such a two-part distinction, I try to see if I can separate things into three or four parts instead. If I cannot, then I suspect what we have isn't two things at all, but two extremes along a single continuum.

Sure, I'll grant that putting a frozen meal in the microwave barely counts as cooking. But when someone sets aside a specific amount of time to deliberately practice an established Vipassana meditation technique, even if for only 10 minutes, it seems wrong, and pretentious, to discredit that as insufficient and somehow fails to qualify as "real" hardcore meditation.

Joseph Goldstein is one of the first American vipassana teachers. He's led meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. He is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (est. 1975). Joseph has conducted and produced countless short meditation sessions. Do you take the position that he's effectively wasting (quite a lot of) people's time with his "softcore" approach to meditation?

What if, in your quest to "dissolve the algorithm" you only succeed to dumb things down and distill away much of the nuance, subtlety, and non-obvious aspects of meditations effects before you even had a chance to notice some of them? Perhaps it's too much to hope that when Eastern philosophy encounters Western culture, it could ever result in the Easternization of the West and survive distortion and corruption by Western psychopathologies.

Imagine for a moment if we were talking about sex instead of meditation. Sex encompasses a pretty complex, wide-ranging set of experiences. It arouses intense physical and emotional responses. It's one of the most intimate experiences one can have with another person. It encompasses the ego dissolution of orgasm, the removal of barriers toward bonding with another person more closely, elements of risk and danger, vulnerability, a playful exploration of sensations and personal boundaries--giving and taking, connecting and disconnecting, tension and dissolution. And it can result in long-lasting physical, emotional, and cathartic benefits.

Now, say someone comes along and says they aren't happy with these loosely vague, poetic, romantic notions. They want to distill the sexual experience into "straightforward terms" and come up with a "precise" language to "correctly capture the essentials" and make an "unambiguous model" that any educated person would understand. Sorry, but I'm afraid to succeed in that endeavor is to fail. You'll end up with something, but I think you'll be leaving a lot out. It might even satisfy someone who has never had sex and therefore doesn't know what they are missing--like using a diagram to describe a J. S. Bach two-part Invention to someone who's never heard a performance.

Why stop there! Maybe we can patent the "algorithm" and commodify it as a sort of Mindfulness Porn. Perhaps we could build an "enlightenment machine." Something akin to one of those Electrical Muscle Stimulation devices for people who want to short circuit a proper weightlifting routine. Who needs sex when you can have an Autoblow 2?

I'm sure I'll get accused of being anti-science or anti-intellectual for my position here. But I only hope to convey that there are limits to reductionism when it comes to complex, multi-dimensional (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual) aspects of human experience. In a similar vein, it's well-documented that while the reductionist approach has been successful in the early days of molecular biology, unmitigated reductionism underestimates biological complexity and has had an increasingly detrimental influence on many areas of biomedical research, including drug discovery and vaccine development.

Your focus on "results" and notions of "return on investment" and gamification of meditation by hacking the "algorithm" is profoundly antithetical to the practice and sounds misguided to me.

Abandon all hope of fruition.
--Atisha, an eleventh century Tibetan meditation teacher.

Pema Chodron calls this one of the most powerful teachings of the Buddhist tradition, and she says that as long as you wish for things to change, they never will. As long as you're wanting yourself to get better, you won't. As long as you have an orientation toward the future, you can never just relax into what you already have or already are. Pema admitted that she had been unconsciously thinking for decades that she was going to come to a place in the future when she was "really" enlightened. Eventually, she realized that the enlightenment had been happening all along the way, step-by-step, in each moment, and she let go of hoping for some big bang in the future.

The joke in meditation is that we get somewhere by not trying to get anywhere.

"Ten minutes a day toward Enlightenment" is the sort of slogan that has inspired the current generation to unimaginably large numbers of part-time meditators. I think this is something that should be celebrated, not discouraged with artificial notions of status or classes of accomplishment.

To be clear, I don't accuse you of any ill-intentions, and I write this all in good faith. I just wanted to try and raise awareness of some things you might not be considering.

Cheers!

Re: your point that any reductionist explanation is going to be miss a lot: yes, I certainly agree. This is what I was trying to gesture at in the introduction, when I said that this is a non-mystical explanation, not the non-mystical-explanation: because no single explanation can cover everything, and any single framework is going to be insufficient and only cover a particular aspect of the thing.

In fact, a previous version of this article included a section where I mentioned that I expect that reading my articles might be slightly harmful for one's actual practice of doing meditation... but that I still think it's worth writing them:

Another strength of the “no explanations, just practice” method is that describing what you should expect to find may by itself lead you astray. On some occasions, I read a description about some meditative insight. I then imagined that “oh, directly experiencing this must feel like X”, and went looking for something that would feel like X. When I did eventually experience the insight, I recognized it from the description but also realized that I had been imagining it entirely wrong. It might have been better if I had never read of it, and just went in blind instead.
Romeo Stevens notes that:
… a lot of people seem to take a paint by numbers approach to these practices that then don't really work for them. The investigation you do into your own experience has to be a real investigation, and not one in which you are highly confident about what there is to find. i.e. people feel like they're meditating wrong if their experience doesn't seem to match whichever map they are using. [...]
I do think that this has resulted in ambient memetic immunity of the same type hypothesized by Scott Alexander and others about why new psychotherapy methods work for a while and then seem to stop working. People get some sort of idea of what all these experiences are supposed to be and as a result ignore actual moment to moment sensation. This happened to me with piti (a jhana factor). I realized I had been keeping my eyes to the horizon looking for some sort of special spiritual sensation instead of noticing what was actually happening in my body.
It is very easy to keep thinking about how everything is mental sensations, instead of actually looking at your experience. As I will cover more extensively later, much of insight meditation involves noticing the conflict between what you expect to see, and what you actually see. If you have a strong preconception of what you should see, then this will get in the way of actually seeing what’s there. (There are also other reasons for why having strong expectations can be harmful, which I will cover later on in the article.)
But for all of its benefits, the no-explanation style of explanation has enormous downsides. Most notably, it will completely fail if you have no particular reason to trust the person’s authority: they are telling you to do this thing which they claim to lead to deep insights, while also claiming that it can’t be explained or that it is pointless to explain? Why should you give their words any weight, and how do you know that they are not just peddling a set of practices that will make you go insane rather than giving you any real insight?
Here is a common kind of reaction:
"I have this great insight, but I not only can't explain it to you, but I'm going to spend the balance of my time explaining why you couldn't understand it if I tried to explain it" sounds awfully close to bulveristic stories like, "If only you weren't blinded by sin, you too would see the glory of the coming of the lord".
The no-explanation explanation depends completely on the reader already having trust in meditation being something that is worth doing. In the absence of that trust, it fails completely.
Furthermore, I do think that it is useful to have some idea of what you are looking for. Now, most "just practice, don't worry about what's going on" explanations do talk about what you should be paying attention to… but since they do not provide the generator of that advice, you don’t know how and when it should be modified to suit individual circumstances. If you are under the close supervision of a teacher or in standardized circumstances - such as in a monastery - this is not a problem. Outside that traditional setting, it is a problem.

I think that while there is a lot that cannot be explained in straightforward reductionist terms, I find that there is also a lot that can be. And three points with regard to that:

First, as I suggest in the above excerpt, there are a lot of people on Less Wrong in particular are - for good reason - skeptical about whether or not there is actually anything worthwhile going on in this space. Life is full of things that one can do, so one quite reasonably asks "if nobody bothers to give a sensible explanation of what's going on with meditation, isn't the most likely explanation that it's just breaking people's brains and deluding them into thinking that they are having deep insights?" (compare the well-known phenomenon of psychedelics sometimes producing a feeling of deep insight which is totally disconnected from whether one has actually thought of anything insightful).

To take your analogy:

Imagine for a moment if we were talking about sex instead of meditation. Sex encompasses a pretty complex, wide-ranging set of experiences. It arouses intense physical and emotional responses. It's one of the most intimate experiences one can have with another person. It encompasses the ego dissolution of orgasm, the removal of barriers toward bonding with another person more closely, elements of risk and danger, vulnerability, a playful exploration of sensations and personal boundaries--giving and taking, connecting and disconnecting, tension and dissolution. And it can result in long-lasting physical, emotional, and cathartic benefits.
Now, say someone comes along and says they aren't happy with these loosely vague, poetic, romantic notions. They want to distill the sexual experience into "straightforward terms" and come up with a "precise" language to "correctly capture the essentials" and make an "unambiguous model" that any educated person would understand. Sorry, but I'm afraid to succeed in that endeavor is to fail. You'll end up with something, but I think you'll be leaving a lot out. It might even satisfy someone who has never had sex and therefore doesn't know what they are missing--like using a diagram to describe a J. S. Bach two-part Invention to someone who's never heard a performance.

Suppose that somebody has never tried sex, has no idea of what it is about, and is skeptical of whether it is worth trying. They tell me that before they try it, they want me to distill the sexual experience into straightforward terms and come up with a precise language to correctly capture the essentials and make an unambiguous model that they can inspect.

I then try to fulfill their request, doing my best to describe the essence of sex as I understand it, as accurately and straightforwardly as possible. Inevitably, this description ends up leaving out a lot, and only captures those aspects of it that are the easiest to translate into a third-person framework.

But it's still a correct (albeit incomplete) description, and one that I feel I can stand behind. If they have any questions, I can do my best to answer them in terms of the framework that I have developed for explaining sex. Eventually, they might be satisfied with my explanation and decide that this sex thing does sound interesting and worthwhile enough that they want to give it a try.

So they do, and then they get to discover for themselves all the stuff that I was unable to describe, and the fact that I was unable to give a complete description of those parts doesn't matter anymore.

Of course, they might also conclude from my description that they now understand sex well enough that it's not worth their time to even try. And maybe they are wrong about that. Though they might also be right, given their own priorities and values!

Either way, I find it unlikely that withholding the explanation would have made them more likely to try. Probably they would have dismissed it as not worth their time anyway. But if the explanation was good, at least they were in a significantly more informed position to make their decision.

Again, my series is not intended as a way to get people to meditate. But it is intended, in part, to help people make a more informed decision about whether or not meditation seems interesting enough to try.

Second, as I suggested in the post itself, meditation can also loosen your grip on your reality. There is value in just going into the practices without worrying about third-person models, but that also involves a risk of not noticing when you start breaking your brain.

I once heard a meditation teacher say that "you should have external feedback, as well as friends who think that Buddhism is stupid. They're willing to listen to you talk about it because they like you and it's one of your interests, but if you suddenly start telling them how you're enlightened, they'll tell you how you're full of shit."

I think that this is a good attitude to have. People who meditate should try to make models of their experience and have non-meditators scrutinize and criticize those models, so as to get external feedback about when they might be veering into dangerous territory, mental health-wise. You can't really do that if you are only sticking to a first-person perspective, because insanity can seem like complete sanity to the person who is going insane.

If it seems completely impossible to you to describe any of your experience in terms that would make sense to a skeptical scientific reader... well, it might be that it's just really hard to explain and you don't know how. It might also be that you are getting increasingly delusional, and you can't explain it because it's not coherent enough for there to be anything to explain. Or both - it might be a real thing that you just can't explain, but because you can't explain it, you also won't be able to recognize when the process starts going bad.

Third, regardless of whether these explanations have any effect on whether anyone starts meditating, and regardless of whether it helps any of the people who already meditate... I think that the insights that people have while meditating, suggest fascinating things about how the mind works, which deserve scientific investigation. For example, a better understanding of the mechanisms that create suffering - even from a purely intellectual, third-person perspective - would help figure out how to avoid creating forms of digital sentience that might suffer. A better intellectual understanding of the psychological mechanisms behind no-self may help people make better decisions and understand themselves better. Understanding how craving distorts perception and reasoning may lead to a better scientific understanding of the relevant psychological processes, and so on.

There are lots of discoveries found by people doing insight practices, that current Western psychology hasn't really incorporated yet, and which I believe Western psychology would significantly benefit from. And it would be a terrible waste if nobody tried to formulate those discoveries in a form that would be conducive to psychology learning from, especially since previous steps taken in this direction have already yielded significant gains [1, 2].

>there are a lot of people on Less Wrong in particular are - for good reason - skeptical about whether or not there is actually anything worthwhile going on in this space.

if the goal is, in part, to get more people to try meditation, you could also 1) cite the scientific literature on the benefits, 2) maybe encourage them to try (if only for 10 minutes a day, but should be for at least 6-8 weeks in my opinion), 3) compile personal testimonials about the benefits (and perhaps your own story).

A lot has been written about the basic idea. I imagine the type of people who are most interested in a more academic "model" are probably the type who would be more inclined to debate the "ontological problems" with your "pedagogical assumptions" and your "lexical fallacies" blah blah lol You know the types. Arguments, I've found, rarely shift intuitions.

I think some simple metaphors are probably even more effective than a complex model of the mind that people are going to have many reasons to disagree with. This 60-second video gets the point across without so many fancy words:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxyVCjp48S4

My multiagent model of mind
I have been calling my interpretation of those models a “multiagent model of mind”.

No credit to Marvin Minsky for your model? He pioneered the multi-agent model in his 1986 book "Society of Mind."

http://aurellem.org/society-of-mind/som-1.html

The global workspace can only hold a single piece of information at a time. At any given time, multiple different subsystems are trying to send information into the workspace, or otherwise modify its contents.
The exact process by which this happens is not completely understood,

That sounds lifted wholly from Dennett's work. The similarities are striking:

According to the Multiple Drafts model, perception is accomplished in the brain by parallel, multi-track processes of interpretation and elaboration of sensory inputs. These content discriminations produce something like a narrative stream. Probing this stream at different places and times produces different effects and precipitates different narratives. There are many small agents screaming for attention. What we experience is a product of many processes of interpretation.
Frustratingly, Dennett has very little to say about how these content discriminations work and it is unclear what governs the modules.

Basically you've constructed a dumbed down version with a Cartesian Theater. One of Dennett’s aims is to get rid of this notion of a centralized place of processing in the brain in order to escape Cartesian materialism. For him, there is no single brain area in which it all comes together. With this decentralized notion of consciousness, there is no need for a Theater and no need for a homunculus to live inside our brains. Dennett’s Multiple Drafts model of consciousness must first be understood as an alternative for Cartesian materialism.

So far it seem highly problematic and appallingly inauthentic.

I recommend Minsky's "The Emotion Machine." He offers a much more compelling notion of how things like recent memories, serial processes, symbolic descriptions, and self-models conspire to create an illusion of immanence.

But nothing beats the Monkey Mind analogy in terms of bang for your buck!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6pMbRiSBPs

No credit to Marvin Minsky for your model? He pioneered the multi-agent model in his 1986 book "Society of Mind." [...]
That sounds lifted wholly from Dennett's work. The similarities are striking:

"My" model is not meant to suggest that everything is unique to me; it meant "the particular way I have been putting the different pieces together". I did not credit all the sources that have contributed to my synthesis because I linked to the earlier posts which do credit their sources more. I reference Minsky in one of the posts; as for the global workspace model, it is not so much lifted from Dennett but rather pretty much wholly lifted from Stanislas Dehaene's work, as one of the linked posts should hopefully make obvious. Both Dehaene and Dennett got the original idea from Bernard Baars, whose theory they cite. I will also be referencing Dennett in a later post in this series.

(I liked Dennett's book, as you might guess from my reference to heterophenomenology, but also found it to have aged somewhat badly - he started out with lots of arguments for why one couldn't experimentally show a centralized location of consciousness even in principle, but these were not very compelling arguments after I'd first read Dehaene who had done exactly that and discussed his experimental setups in detail.)

Disagree. Zen has a very bad track record while barking heavily up the 'nothing to do' tree. In contrast, technique heavy schools get rapid results, in many cases so rapid that there has to be a degree of warning and caution for people with unstable personality constructs. Pre-buddhist non-dual schools also preach a similar doctrine, and it excuses their teachers from needing to demonstrate results. There are stages where surrender and letting go of efforting is essential, but those are techniques/tools to be employed, not the goal of the path. There are discourses that specifically warn against non-efforting prematurely, or villainizing desire in general unfairly which is called out as spiritual bypassing since it excuses you from the hard work of detecting subtle differences between 'wholesome and unwholesome' desires.

Pedagogically, yes, a lot of type-a personality Americans do need heavy decompression before things have room to work.

I'm not sure exactly what you disagree about, but thanks for the comparisons.

Here's a nice comparison on Quora from someone "Practicing Yoga & Meditation since 2001"

Zen is a school of "sudden enlightenment". You "just sit" on the cushion for a million years and with shear mind force destroy your ego and then you suddenly "get" it. Or (in the Rinzai school) you are given an absurd puzzle called Koan to solve. It throws your ego from its normal course that you reach Satori. Hence all the strange and crazy stories of Zen masters.

Vipassana is a school of "gradual enlightenment". First you learn how to focus on a single object or awareness for extended period of time. Then with non-judgmental awareness you observe. With long enough practice your mental obstructions or "fetters" as Buddhism calls them are broken - one by one. When all the ten fetters are broken, you have reached.

I have tried Zen in a monastery setting and quickly found that its not my cup of tea. People's temperaments are different. Some people may find Zen to be more appealing than the traditional Vipassana.

I would suggest you try out both a see which works for you. Its one thing to intellectually understand meditation and a totally different thing to sit in a cushion for 8-hours and watch your breath hit the tip of your nostrils.

If you're going to double-down on the idea of "deep" meditation, would it be unreasonable to ask for some disambiguation? What are the key differences between "deep meditation vs. plain old meditation" in your "model"? Or are there more than two types? Are there 20 types? 200 types?

Well, in my experience, many people (myself included) who get into meditation eventually find it worthwhile to spend significant amounts of time on the practice, on the order of hours a day as well as doing multi-day retreats. There are also teachers who recommend this, as well as research on meditation which suggests that people who have practiced significantly larger amounts get significantly larger effects. My own experience is that 10 minutes per day certainly does something, but much much less than say an hour per day over an extended period, and that an hour per day does less than a multi-day retreat.

I didn't have any particularly detailed or rigorous distinction between "deep" and "ordinary" meditation in mind, just that what you get out of it depends on what you put in, and for most people deeper insights seem to require significant investments. I agree that this is a continuum rather than a binary distinction, and didn't mean to imply otherwise.

I certainly agree that there's a lot to be said for just forgetting about the result-oriented mindset when doing practice, and some of my later posts will be talking about the reasons why that is.

But... well, I didn't really intend to get into a discussion about measuring outcomes in the first place? The whole section that you reacted to was just there to briefly note that I wanted to set the whole topic to the side and not get into it. You make it sound like I was taking some strong position on what kind of practice is worthwhile, when you are responding to what was one sentence in a 3500-word post, in the context of a paragraph saying that this is a separate topic that I'm not going to get into. As well as my comment which was similarly brief, but acknowledged that it was misleading for me to suggest that a small amount of meditation would be useless.

Now if you want to discuss this in more detail, then I'm certainly willing to do that... but before I go into depth on covering my model, may I respectfully and in good faith suggest that you might to some extent be reacting to what you are projecting on my text, as opposed to what I actually said? :)

(I'll respond to some of your other points in a separate comment.)

What are the key differences between "deep meditation vs. plain old meditation" in your "model"?

I agree with your request for a definition of the terms used.

Would you agree that someone who consistently runs for 10 minutes, three times a week, is going to realize greater long-term health benefits than someone who only run-walks one marathon a year?

I see no reason to assume a priori that a runner's training schedule says anything about optimal schedule for meditation.

your notion of the time required for "deep" meditation is curiously out of step with what leading meditation instructors advocate.

How do you select among meditation instructors those that are leading? If it's their popularity, then clearly their instruction as an aggregate will be biased towards what's appealing to the mass public, rather than what is effective (whatever the word 'effective' might mean in this context).

Or does this whole idea of "deep vs. shallow" only apply to meditation and not to aerobic sports, weightlifting, or other activities?

I don't know what the OP means by those terms but two related points I want to raise from my own perspective:

  • as an avid reader and programmer, I definitely experience some of my reading/programming sessions as deep, and some as shallow. I suspect this distinction is valid for all mental activities.
  • I know of at least one meditative tradition (Theravada) that distinguishes different depths of meditation. Those are called jhanas, there is 4 or 8 of them, depending on the specific school, and the transition into them or between them is a discreet event. They also specify more gradual transition of mental states before entering the first jhana.
Joseph Goldstein is one of the first American vipassana teachers. He's led meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. He is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (est. 1975). Joseph has conducted and produced countless short meditation sessions. Do you take the position that he's effectively wasting (quite a lot of) people's time with his "softcore" approach to meditation?

I'm not an OP but I do suspect that an individual who fits this bio would be wasting a lot of time for a lot of people. Or rather, provides no more benefit than any other religious program would provide. Can't speak specifically about Mr. Goldstein because I don't know how accurate this bio is.

Perhaps we could build an "enlightenment machine."

That's an interesting point that I've thought about many times. If the supposed benefits of meditation were available without all the sacrifices, for example by taking a pill, I wonder how many meditators would decide to do that.

Something akin to one of those Electrical Muscle Stimulation devices for people who want to short circuit a proper weightlifting routine. Who needs sex when you can have an Autoblow 2?

Many people are in fact choosing to not have sex with humans, instead simulating interaction with a human while self-stimulating. If your criticism here is based on an assumption that such choice is somehow invalid or worse, it would be great if you could support that. Otherwise, it would be great if you can clarify this part for me.

Your focus on "results" and notions of "return on investment" and gamification of meditation by hacking the "algorithm" is profoundly antithetical to the practice

There are certainly some schools of meditation that criticise focusing on the outcome. But those are not the only ones, right?

"Ten minutes a day toward Enlightenment" is the sort of slogan that has inspired the current generation to unimaginably large numbers of part-time meditators. I think this is something that should be celebrated

Why should it? Having looked through the studies on the supposed benefits of meditation (quite thoroughly, although a few years ago), I believe this is mostly a waste of time. Although I think it's harmless because that time would otherwise be wasted in some other way.

Many people are in fact choosing to not have sex with humans, instead simulating interaction with a human while self-stimulating. If your criticism here is based on an assumption that such choice is somehow invalid or worse, it would be great if you could support that.

I thought that was probably not a choice for most people. Perhaps a result of society getting so obese that no one finds each other attractive anymore? For me, it's like the difference between riding (preferably racing) a motorcycle vs playing a motorcycle video game. I can't imagine why anyone who has experienced the former would prefer the latter.

...provides no more benefit than any other religious program would provide

What makes you call meditation a religious program?

Where is the religion in this practice:

Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing

  1. Find a quiet place, and sit on either a chair or cushion. Choose a chair with a firm, flat seat, and hold your back upright (although not stiffly so). Let the soles of your feet meet the ground, and bring your hands on to your lap. If you sit on a cushion, you can be cross-legged. Let your body be untensed, inviting openness and confidence.
  2. Decide how long to practice for. Your session can be as short as five minutes, or longer. You may find it useful to set an alarm to tell you when to stop, so you don’t have to think about it.
  3. Bring attention to the sensations of breath in your belly. Let go of thinking about or analyzing the breath. Just feel it. Follow its natural rhythms gently with attention: in and out, rising and falling. Let thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and sounds be as they are—you don’t need to follow them or push them away. Just allow them to happen, without interference, as you direct gentle attention to the breath.
  4. When you notice that your mind has wandered, as it likely will often, acknowledge that this has happened, with kindness. Remember, as soon as you’re aware of the wandering, bring your attention back to the breath, and continue to follow it, in and out, moment by moment, with friendly interest.
  5. Continue with steps three and four until it’s time to stop.

===

Clearly you have some interest since you're here reading and responding to a rather long series of articles on meditation. But it seems you may also harbor a lot of misunderstandings. What's meditation in your mind? And why are you convinced it's "a waste of time" when hundreds of millions of people are doing it?

Out of curiosity, is there anything that might change your mind? Scientific papers? Meta-analysis studies? Perhaps testimonials of people's positive experience? Hundreds of testimonials? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Or is your decision based on some kind of dogma, moral principle, or fear?

I'm not particularly trying to change your mind, I'm just wondering how someone here on a "rationalist"-themed site ended up so blinded by their biases.

I wrote up something on a meditation technique I used as a freediver.

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/ieMQHkLuYXND8Yohn/meditation-skill-surfing-the-urge

Maybe it'll give you a new perspective; if not, I'd be happy to understand what makes this a "religious program."

is there anything that might change your mind? Scientific papers? Meta-analysis studies?

Yes, studies with good methodologies and decent sample sizes would make me question my stance. If they were replicated, that would completely change my mind. As I mentioned in my other comments, I have arrived at my present beliefs by doing a literature review few years ago.

I'm a bit more sceptical about meta-analyses since a lot of papers published on the subject are of terribly low quality (or at least were, when I looked into it).

The OP conceded my points were valid btw, but thanks for weighing in with your profound personal insights!

> I believe this is mostly a waste of time.

oh well!

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Kaj, are you familiar with the idea of a plurality of enlightenments? Both in the sense of a difference in degree (à la the Theravadan 4 path model) and a difference in kind (à la Jack Kornfield's Enlightenments). Wondering what your take on it is and how this series is going to navigate that. I suspect this is one reason I've noticed meditation practitioners trending toward the term awakening rather than enlightenment.

Yes. I currently think that there is no one enlightenment, but rather a wide variety of dimensions that one can explore, which lead to different kinds of outcomes depending on what you focus on and what you do with the things that you find. My intent is to cover enough of different things to give a taste of what's out there and what kinds of outcomes might be possible, while acknowledging that there's also a lot that I have no clue of yet.

I think the early discourses are referring to a specific thing, namely the elimination of what has been translated as 'fundamental ignorance.' That term makes it sound like it involves a metaphysical claim about knowledge of reality, but my best guess is that it has to do with the whole perceptual stack being ignorant of fundamental aspects of its own functioning. There are recurring passages referring to a specific endpoint with people knowing when 'what needed to be done has been done.'

Interesting. Curious to see the rest.

Great post. I can't wait to read the subsequent parts.

I proceed from the assumption that regardless of whether the original frameworks are true or false, they do systematically produce similar effects and insights in the minds of the people following them, and that is an observation which needs to be explained.

Any particular reason to believe that? It's true that when googling for reports of meditators, many results seem consistent with each other. However, there are at least two strong biases at play:

  • Confirmation bias - because the meditator doesn't want to admit that they have wasted their investment and did not experience what was supposed to be the result of the practice.
  • Selection bias - because reports diverging from the common theme don't get as much attention.

Thanks!

Frequently people experience things which they never expected to happen. E.g. I recall that Scott Alexander had a post (which I failed to find) about how he as a psychiatrist occasionally gets patients who have had mystical experiences because they tried a clinical mindfulness program that was supposed to be just for stress relief. They had no idea that something like this could happen and are now totally freaked out by what's going on. Then Scott tells them that things will go back to normal if they just stop meditating, which seems to mostly work.

Also, as I noted in another comment, a previous version of the post included the following:

On some occasions, I read a description about some meditative insight. I then imagined that “oh, directly experiencing this must feel like X”, and went looking for something that would feel like X. When I did eventually experience the insight [often while doing some completely different practice], I recognized it from the description but also realized that I had been imagining it entirely wrong. It might have been better if I had never read of it, and just went in blind instead.

At least in my own experience, confirmation bias typically feels more like "aha, I knew it all along" than "huh, I guess I was thinking about this totally wrong before".

Why would the meditator not want to admit that they wasted their time? Often if people feel they wasted their time watching some stupid movie or TV program they have no issue at all complaining about it. Or if they went on a cruise and didn’t have a good time they are often completely open about the reality of the experience. When I read what you wrote I can’t help but think you have some strong bias against statements people make about meditation. If what you say is true, and people feel like they wasted their time meditating, then why would they continue doing it? Your logic just doesn’t add up.

If you want a non-mystical theory-of-everything for meditation, you can't do much better than Shinzen Young. His article, "What is mindfulness" is a good start and I highly recommend his book "The science of enlightenment"(science being metaphorical here). He had multiple free PDFs of meditation practice manuals on his site and many YouTube videos as well.

While at deeper levels, meditative experiences enter the ineffable territory quickly, Shinzen has done an excellent job defining terms precisely and breaking down things into relatively simple terms. He writes as an engineer/scientist would and in my opinion, brings a much needed clarity to the theory and practice of meditation.

Getting deep in meditation requires a huge investment of time and effort

Not really. You can start with just 5 or 10 minutes a day. 10 minutes a day for six weeks is just 5 hours (taking weekends off). Not such a huge investment for most. Just cut out a few hours of Netflix over the course of a month-and-a-half.

You can certainly start with that, but the investment for getting started is different from the investment necessary for getting deep. But true, my original wording suggests that you need to invest a lot to get any returns at all, which is wrong.

Every recipe I look up on the internet says it takes just 5 minutes.

Ideal practice might go quite far with 30x 10 minute practices, enough to call it "deep". Likely practice if you don't spend any time with a mentor, reading/watching online, fixing your sit setup, etc etc etc? Sincerely doubt it would end up enough to call whatever happened "getting deep in meditation". Time actually spent if you have 30x 10 minute practices, given that you'll be doing the above and also transitioning between other things to practice and back, explaining to your partner that you need to not be disturbed during those 10 minutes and answering their questions about meditation, etc etc etc? Way more than 30x10 minutes.

There are two rules for success in life. First, never tell anyone all that you know.

Just throw away the word “deep”. It’s a dumbbell theory.—an attempt to explain things in terms of opposing pairs of forces or principles. Can you cook, read, or exercise for 10m? Or is anything less than an hour considered “shallow cooking” or “light reading”? .

I mean, sure, it's a time honored practice to lie to people and tell them they can make a substantial fraction of the total progress ("deep") with very little effort, intending to get them to start when otherwise they simply wouldn't, so that they'll find out that it takes very little effort to make a lot of progress even though they'll also find out that the total is more vast than they ever imagined and their little amounts of effort didn't yield a substantial fraction of the total progress.

lie

I still hate it.

I'm not sure I understand. Are you saying, "It's dishonest to tell people that 10 minutes of daily meditation has worthwhile benefits"? Are you speaking from personal experience with meditation? Are you aware of the many benefits supported the scientific literature? Are you aware of any research that establishes necessary timelines or "ROI" estimates for those benefits? Do you think there might be a lot of individual variability around the benefits of meditation?

I've elaborated on my position here. Happy to hear your thoughts!

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/Mf2MCkYgSZSJRz5nM/a-non-mystical-explanation-of-insight-meditation-and-the?commentId=g6QYqBEpt7KPYSsyj

Some personal experience. On the order of... ~100 hrs, I think?

I am not saying it's dishonest to say it has worthwhile benefits. My guess is that if someone hears about this enlightenment thing and thinks hmmm I wonder if I can...? and then tries insight meditation for 30x 10 minute sessions, the modal result is probably (a) some worthwhile benefits, and (b) believing that the scope of potential worthwhile benefits is far far larger than what 30x 10 minute sessions resulted in. Or, rephrased, that 30x 10 minute sessions just scratched the surface. Or, rephrased, that 30x 10 minute sessions was not "deep".

If you want to throw regular 12-person themed dinner parties every weekend, cooking every day for 10 minutes is a fantastic place to start learning the skills you need, and something like that is absolutely necessary for long-term success if you've never cooked, and will definitely have worthwhile benefits, and absolutely is going to miss covering tons and tons of necessary skills. If you told someone your goal and they said "it's actually easy, just cook for 10 minutes a day for 30 days", they would be telling you a false thing. Their advice, if followed, might be the best way to start, but that's not the same thing as true.

Are you aware of the many benefits supported the scientific literature?

Could you please elaborate? The last time I checked (quite thoroughly, but it was few years ago), the only confirmed benefit of meditation was in treating chronic anxiety. But even then, it was not more beneficial than other treatments.

Have you looked at the work of Sara Lazer PhD?

We study the impact of yoga and meditation on various cognitive and behavioral functions. Our results suggest that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain. We also found evidence that meditation may slow down the age related atrophy of certain areas of the brain.

https://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar/publications

And that's just from one researcher.

A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors

"Clinicians and meditation teachers should be aware that meditation can improve positive prosocial emotions and behaviors."

Judging by the abstract, that paper is irrelevant:

  • It is about metta meditation, not insight meditation (or at least some other popular kind of meditation)
  • The supposed benefits are to the society and not to the individual undertaking the practice.
  • "Most control groups were wait-list or no-treatment"

I think you'll find some interesting ideas which address your first point in this Tim Keller talk, especially the points about "recipes vs understanding," seeking first principles, and the point that 99% of what you think is wrong and you only have the remaining 1% to deal with that situation. I see meditation as a process to strength and expand that 1% part.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb2tebYAaOA

On the second point, Robert Wright's book "Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment" does a pretty good job.

On the second point, Robert Wright's book "Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment" does a pretty good job.

Thanks. I read the first ~100 pages of "Why Buddhism is True", but felt like its discussion was... "on the wrong level" feels like the best term I can think of. Something like, in its discussion of no-self (for instance), it did vaguely say things about what the Buddha might have meant, and then about how evolutionary psychology views the mind, but I was hoping for a discussion that would attempt to dissolve the algorithms behind our experience of the self (or at least some of them).

I read the first ~100 pages of "Why Buddhism is True", but . . .

That's hardly 1/3 of the way in; not very "deep." ;)

Robert Wright is quite well-regarded for his writing on science, history, politics, and religion. His skeptical, non-mystical stance toward meditation sounds like just the thing you'd be keenly interested in. He argues the modern psychological idea of the modularity of mind resonates with the Buddhist teaching of no-self (anatman). One would think that's precisely the kind of thing you are trying to get at!

I admit the book is a bit clumsy, tedious and dull in places (aren't most books?), and Wright certainly isn't the last word on meditation, but if you want to understand this stuff more deeply like you say, perhaps try and be a little less hyper-focused on your mission to "dissolve the algorithm" see what else he has to say in the final two-thirds of his book. Maybe you're depriving yourself of the opportunity to discover some additional nuance, aspects, and features of meditation you may be overlooking.