Seeking Samsara

by jblue6 min read13th Jul 2021No comments

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MeditationPractical
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Thousands of years ago, the Greeks determined that παν μέτρον άριστον, or alternatively, that virtue is a golden mean. Despite the fact that Western culture has at least superficially internalized the idea — the average Joe on the street likely reflexively concurs with squiggly formula — there are still cases in which we would profit from remembering it. As it turns out, it's sometimes non-trivially difficult to know the directionality of our immoderacy.

Some claim that there are exceptions to this principle; many of these people appear to be guided by ideology. Cynically, we might guess that this is because locating the Good (whatever that means) at the extremes makes developing zeal relatively more urgent than learning discerning, and that this improves the memetic fitness of the ideology. Charitably, it's because the Good doesn't need defenders when it's moderate, and so ideologies only accrete around moral questions with extreme answers. 

I tend to be a pessimist. That didn't stop me from trying meditation; not at first, anyways.

Meditation (and "mindfulness" more generally) has become quite popular lately — and perhaps rightfully so. In a milieu characterized by frenetic emotionality and vanishing attention spans, vipassana has a lot going for it. I wasn't interested in the health benefits, though. I felt perfectly content with my emotionality and attention. Instead, I wanted to become a psychonaut — sans the illegal drugs.

I'd hobby-read psychology for about a decade, beginning with Julian Jaynes at age 15 or so. The Origin of Consciousness is a hell of a book to read when one is first learning to chart the territory of the mind. Like any bookish teenaged boy, there was plenty of Nietzsche in the early years as well. I've come to appreciate both writers' limits, but I suspect my prior on the radical mutability on the human mind — and excitement toward the prospect of psychonauting — has yet to fully update downwards. This is meant to explain what's to come, but you can also read it as a caveat.

Meditation did not promise to turn me into a blond beast. But it promised a change, and that was interesting enough. I expected a sort of training grounds of self-modification: strategically trivial, large reference class, obvious results. 

I was disappointed to find it to be somewhat easy. I don't have an internal monologue and typically have thoughts arrive to me in what approximate visual hallucinations. I found the trance state preceding these hallucinations to be easily smothered in the crib with a bit of focus and attentiveness. Neither did I experience too many irksome bodily impulses — although I chalk this up to a childhood spent diligently praying rosaries while kneeling in impeccable form. The main problem was that my back muscles were not very strong, and so after 30 minutes or so I would struggle with fatigue. I figured that if I wanted to develop resistance to fatigue, I'd be better off running.

When it came to the philosophical side of things, I felt similarly under-challenged. I didn't really feel too much striving — for a job, popularity among others, a good reputation, anything. I did feel a drive to learn, but that didn't quite feel the same. My Catholic upbringing helped with the base desires as well— abstaining from sex and good food, even when both were readily available, was not only easy but instinctive. I considered myself exceptionally even-keeled, and rarely felt anger, hate, or any uncontrollable emotion at all for that matter.

If anything, I felt too little striving. I was fortunate to be born with gifts that brought me to one of the best universities in the world, and it felt safe to say that they could carry me further. But I didn't really want to go further. I wasn't depressed. Rather, I simply felt quite contented by the prospect of living a life of humble means spent tinkering and reading. Put succinctly, the life of a monk. 

I took a step back.

I didn't have enough hubris to think that I had already achieved enlightenment. I'm positively sure that devoted monks are much further along some axes of mental development than am I. But I was in it for self-transformation, and from all appearances meditation promised more-so to push me along a familiar trajectory. The natural question was: should I reverse the advice? Do I need samsara?

Status has a bad rap. According to Hanson, it makes us irrational. According to Jesus, it makes us behave poorly. Given that most of being human is thinking and acting, that's quite a reputation. On the other hand, I knew that self-esteem was hypothesized to be tightly-bound to our internal model of our status. I didn't feel particularly low on self-esteem, but high self-esteem seems to be conducive to bold action, and having a capacity for bold action is never bad. Plus, there was the familiar vague Nietzschean notion that striving for status mustn't be bad.

That decided it.

As I said, I tend to be pessimistic. The experiment was meant to be a lark, maybe something I could joke about at a cocktail party. I expected that, at most, it would produce a few hypotheses that would feel insight-y, and that would be that. 

Instead, the training samsara has permanently (so far, anyway) changed aspects of my preferences and perception in substantial ways. I 'see' things to which I had been thitherto blind, and find myself compelled to care deeply about things about which I previously could not have cared less. I'm a pessimist and previously ascribed "self-development" mostly to wishful thinking. This does not look like wishful thinking, not from the inside anyway.

I wish to write this sequence of posts partly to elaborating my current explanation for why it might be more than wishful thinking. Specifically:

  1. The evidence we have to believe that status-maximization is second nature to the brain, influences thought and behavior at a low level, and is a significant source of motivation.
  2. The speculative possibility that Western culture and the Christian religious tradition has significantly derailed, and in the extreme case, disabled, our status-maximization modules in order to allow for advanced civilization. 
  3. Evidence that status-maximization can drive behavior that we could call "good." The speculative possibility that with the right mindset, one could design a life wherein it consistently does so. 

But mostly, I'd like to share my methods and results. I'm no psychologist, so I'll pontificate as much as is needed to contextualize the good stuff, and no more. 

Why share my musings, methods, and results, with you, Rationalist Community? In many ways, you should be among the most skeptical of the benefits of status-seeking. Motivation is supposed to be associated with clear, parseable propositions unsullied by the fleshiness of our minds. We need less status-seeking, not more, right?

The problem is that it appears the "clean" variety of motivation doesn't quite do the job. If it did, akrasia would not be such a big problem. Motivation generally would not be such a big problem. It's true that status-seeking is an unstable, highly combustible fuel. But when you start to channel it, boy are you cooking with gas. 

Is it possible that one of you might find this helpful and adopt a moderate regime that curbs akrasia while maintaining the general integrity of his cold, chrome belief structure? That's my hope.

Exercise to the reader: I'm a particular fan of the Platonic dialogue. Please tell me as briefly as possible why you think I may be mistaken in the comments. If there are sufficiently many ripostes, they'll be the subject of the 5th post in the sequence.

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