I just started thinking about what I would write to someone who disagreed with me on the claim "Rationalists would be better off if they were more spiritual/religious", and for this I'd need to define what I mean by "spiritual". 

Here are some things that I would classify under "spirituality":

  • Rationalist Solstices (based on what I've read about them, not actually having been in one)
  • Meditation, especially the kind that shows you new things about the way your mind works
  • Some forms of therapy, especially ones that help you notice blindspots or significantly reframe your experience or relationship to yourself or the world (e.g. parts work where you first shift to perceiving yourself as being made of parts, and then to seeing those parts with love)
  • Devoting yourself to the practice of some virtue, especially if it is done from a stance of something like "devotion", "surrender" or "service"
  • Intentionally practicing ways of seeing that put you in a mindstate of something like awe, sacredness, or loving-kindness; e.g. my take on sacredness

(Something that is explicitly not included: anything that requires you to adopt actual literal false beliefs, though I'm probably somewhat less strict about what counts as a true/false belief than some rationalists are. I don't endorse self-deception but I do endorse poetic, non-literal and mythic ways of looking, e.g. the way that rationalists may mythically personify "Moloch" while still being fully aware of the fact that the personification is not actual literal fact.)

I have the sense that although these may seem like very different things, there is actually a common core to them. 

Something like: 

  • Humans seem to be evolved for other- and self-deception in numerous ways, and not just the ways you would normally think of.
  • For example, there are systematic confusions about the nature of the self and suffering that Buddhism is pointing at, with minds being seemingly hardwired to e.g. resist/avoid unpleasant sensations and experience that as the way to overcome suffering, when that's actually what causes suffering.
  • Part of the systematic confusion seem to be related to social programming; believing that you are unable to do certain things (e.g. defy your parents/boss) so that you would be unable to do that, and you would fit in better to society.
  • At the same time, even as some of that delusion is trying to make you fit in better, some of it is also trying to make you act in more antisocial ways. E.g. various hurtful behaviors that arise from the mistaken belief that you need something from the outside world to feel fundamentally okay about yourself and that hurting others is the only way to get that okayness.
  • For whatever reason, it looks like when these kinds of delusions are removed, people gravitate towards being compassionate, loving, etc.; as if something like universal love (said the cactus person) and compassion was the motivation that remained when everything distorting from it was removed. 
    • There doesn't seem to be any strong a priori reason for why our minds had to evolve this way, even if I do have a very handwavy sketch of why this might have happened; I want to be explicit that this is a very surprising and counterintuitive claim, that I would also have been very skeptical about if I hadn't seen it myself! Still, it seems to me like it would be true for most people in the limit, excluding maybe literal psychopaths whom I don't have a good model of.
  • All of the practices that I have classified under "spirituality" act to either see the functioning of your mind more clearly and pierce through these kinds of delusions or to put you into mind-states where the influence of such delusions is reduced and you shift closer to operating from a stance of compassion or service to something greater.
  • Important caveat: the tails do come apart; I don't think that all spiritual practice necessarily leads to being loving and compassionate. Like you can also use spiritual practices to cultivate something like a warrior archetype to better conquer all of your foes, and consider that your epitome of practice without ever getting to the universal love part. I think I am intentionally No True Scotsmaning a little bit when I define the prototypical spirituality as the kind of spirituality that I like the most. 
    • To be clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with cultivating a warrior archetype; I strive to cultivate one myself. The thing that I'm now talking about is cultivating a warrior mentality without also cultivating something like kindness and compassion.
  • Another thing I still want to explicitly tag is something around... spiritual practice as intentionally taking on different views and ways of looking, which may involve construction as well as deconstruction. Like, the way I expressed things so far is pretty strongly in the direction of deconstruction. But Rob Burbea has this wonderful talk where in the beginning he says that... to attempt a translation of his words into rationalist language, if you are stuck in just one way of interpreting things, then you may see that interpretation as the only one reality. But if you can try on many different ways of seeing the same thing, you can come to see that no single one of the one reality. (Scott Alexander had a blog post where he mentioned that the thing that got him to stop believing in history cranks was reading many different history cranks who all had very convincing but mutually exclusive theories of history. Kind of like that - if you can play with many different ways of seeing the world and noticing how they all seem convincing, then they may all become less convincing as a result.)
  • So intentionally trying new ways of looking can help you see through some delusions relating to automatically accepting your own interpretations as reality. (Helping you better see what the Buddhists call emptiness.) And you can then use some of those new ways of looking to craft your mindstates in a direction that's closer to where you want them to be. And while you can use that to move toward universal love and compassion, not everybody does and it's also totally possible to take some other path.

Awesome. Some preliminary, orienting remarks. I think you already know a bunch of this but helpful for an audience and might suggest some dovetailing trailheads. 

I got involved in these practices partially because I wanted to suffer less and partially because I wanted to investigate Buddhist claims and whether they had any relevance to the epistemology project in general or AI in particular. Buddhists are one of the sets of people who claim that we're fundamentally deluded about what's really going on with this human experience, which is big if true. This also seems like the reason that claims that Buddhism isn't quite a religion ring a little hollow often. I was drawn to pragmatic dharma because the people there seemed to be some of the few making this explicit distinction, that it is desirable to be able to discern the difference between claims about experience and claims about reality. It's not really clear what could, even in principle, count as evidence for a lot of metaphysical claims. This is also where we have some heartening material from the religion itself, since there are famously a bunch of dialogues with the Buddha where he refuses to answer metaphysical questions because they are malformed or otherwise 'not even wrong.'

Long story short, my experience so far has been that

On the suffering front: does what it says

On the AI front: not a central or crucial consideration most likely

On the epistemology front: mostly pragmatically I think. Here it's the pretty straightforward story that the practices Buddhism recommends can help people attain process transparency for their internal representations and thoughts, and this can lead to noticing some pretty obvious-in-hindsight errors.

Oh I forgot one important claim which you occasionally see float around: might increase IQ. On this front I have a take but it's pretty much conjecture on my part. Practice seemed to make me answer about 1 additional question correctly on Ravens, which both isn't nothing and is also within test retest variance. I'd dismiss this more heavily if it didn't correspond with a subjective effect related to the above mentioned transparency. It feels from the inside like I do reason just a bit better by having a meta process that monitors what sorts of things processes are doing and whether they are promising avenues. I think spending many many hours trying to train that process lead it to operate slightly better than it did before. This is a small enough effect that I don't think anyone would want to try to train it with that much effort if there weren't any other benefits, but it seems worth noting.

Getting back to the big-if-true claims, it seems to me that they mostly map pretty cleanly from 'investigating the universe' to 'investigating how a human nervous system renders the universe.' Which doesn't mean I'm a hardcore materialist trying to convince/reassure other hardcore materialists, I'm more a neutral monist and agnostic on extending these sorts of things to broader claims.

So we have the more restricted claims: there are these practices, there are some benefits, the practices lead to the benefits for some fraction of people who try them in just the right way for long enough, sometimes with periods of poor feedback. Is this positive expected value for people to push themselves towards? There are periods right after big breakthroughs with a lot of evangelical energy, but overall I'd say I've become more conservative on this question over time. That is to say, a lot of this material seems mostly relevant more for those who can't help but be strongly drawn towards it due to experiences they are spontaneously having etc. Now, does that mean I don't think that key decision makers in a bunch of orgs and research roles aren't making obvious errors that Buddhist practice could hypothetically help with? No, but I also don't think these people are going to get motivated to update their priorities with such long feedback loops. Like, the strongest evidence is the actual post hoc insights, that there are connections between certain mental representations and negative side effects that are very non-obvious.

I also think, per the no true scotsman pitfall sort of point, that there is a substantial downside to go along with these purported benefits. Which is that these practices are often aimed at introducing a certain representational flexibility. That sounds great in theory, but in practice, the degrees of freedom people have in their representations is part of the circuitry they have for balancing over and under fitting and that too much naive practice, just like too much psychedelic use can put someone off balance. I have to keep an eye on this in myself. I have very flexible representations such that if I'm not careful I can just have a reasonable sounding answer for everything and lose track of how the moving parts map to each other such that I expect conservation of expected evidence and solid predictive power. I also think this is why these practices and psychedelics are contraindicated for people who already have over or underfitting problems.

Another potential issue is that becoming more internally aligned seemingly can increase the shear with evolutionary alignment. I.e. Buddhism might shred fertility. Though I don't know the effect on the margin for the sort of person who is seeking it out in the first place vs a randomly selected person.

I do think that coming to the conclusion that people are fundamentally oriented towards beneficial actions is partially an epistemic question and partially an ontology question but that it is a pragmatically useful and in most ways approximately true way to see things that helps undermine a bunch of superficially attractive but ultimately flawed blackpill attractors.


Great! Unsurprisingly I agree with a lot of this, though hopefully not so much that I couldn't say anything on top of it. :)

I read you as focusing on the question of "should rationalists be spiritual", so let me elaborate a bit more on that. So far I defined what I mean by spirituality but didn't directly answer that question.

The original question said that "rationalists should be more spiritual/religious", which is a bit ambiguous; I think the position I'd be willing to stand behind would be something like "on average, other things being even, rationalists/people would benefit from having a non-zero amount of spirituality". Whether any given rationalist would benefit from it overall depends on their psychological profile, their opportunity costs, and what they value in general (e.g. how much they care about suffering less).

Looking at the benefits with the same breakdown as you:

On the suffering front: In the best case does exactly what is advertised, yeah. A significant reduction in suffering has definitely been my experience. Though progress has also been very uneven and at times ran into serious blockers that required trying a lot of different things to overcome. Then finally I would find something that worked or someone skillful enough to be able to help, and of course, I still have plenty of unsolved issues. So I think that while a massive reduction in suffering is the best case, it's also possible to be unlucky and not get anywhere despite a massive amount of genuine trying.

On the AI front: I feel like doing this kind of practice gives intuitions on how human values work, and that might be valuable for thinking about something like value learning. I've sometimes had the sense from looking at some value alignment proposals that they are grounded in a somewhat mistaken view of how values work, in a way that this kind of an understanding would help counteract. But this is hard to express more precisely, since it's often just been a sense of "this doesn't feel quite right" rather than a more exact argument. The preference fulfillment hypothesis is the closest to I've gotten to being able to formulate an intuition derived from these things that I suspect would be useful as a concrete research direction, but one would need a lot more actual technical expertise to build on it. And without me having that expertise, it's hard for me to tell whether I'm just totally mistaken when I think that it might be a useful direction.

On the epistemology front: Agree with this being mostly pragmatically useful. So something like, becoming more able to notice that various greyed-out options in your daily life don't need to be that. And seeing through various emotional tangles that cause people practical difficulties, e.g. the kinds of things that cause people to think less clearly in the context of intimate relationships.

And agree that there are also epistemic dangers. I think that another thing that may happen is if you have previously just believed in science for social reasons, without having a good epistemology, and then you notice that you had only believed in science for social reasons. It's then easy to make the jump from this to something like "all science is just motivated reasoning that's no more valid than anything else and I can just believe in anything I want", especially if you have been exposed to memes suggesting something like this.

A related thing is that a lot of people have some degree of STEM trauma that makes them hostile toward scientific thinking. And while this stuff can clean up some of your trauma and motivated reasoning, it's not a magic bullet that would be guaranteed to get all of it. I think that it by default brings to awareness the kinds of issues that are generating a lot of friction within the mind-system or that have been imperfectly covered up, but a lot of stuff that happens to cohere with the mind's existing defenses and belief structures can go unnoticed unless you explicitly go looking for it. And you're not guaranteed to find even when you do go looking for it.

One more consideration that comes to mind is that there can be a certain temptation to go all reversed stupidity. Especially if you listen to some more hardcore scientism, you'll hear views like meditation is all fake, all of spirituality is dumb, anything that people say about "energies" is nonsense, and so forth. Then if you start practicing all of this and notice that actually a lot of the "woo" claims are true, you might jump to the opposite extreme of thinking that the STEM people are wrong about everything while the "woo" people are right about everything. Which of course isn't right either, e.g. even though there is something real to "energies", it still doesn't mean what some of the woo-er woo people claim. Things still add up to normality, in the sense that the all actual correct predictions that science has come up with are still valid.

This also touches upon the topic that, while I mentioned quite a few different practices above, different practices of course have different effects. I generally tend to think that most people, at least if they had to choose, would be better off starting with parts work than something like classical meditation. I think parts work tends to be quicker and more effective at bringing about the specific kind of change that the typical person actually wants. It also doesn't have that much in the way of the epistemic risks that I could see. 

But of course, it has its drawbacks as well. Just parts work alone is going to run into diminishing returns eventually, and it won't do as much to reduce suffering in general - it only targets specific causes of suffering. But some people seem to be lucky in that most of their suffering comes from a relatively small number of big traumas that parts work can effectively deal with.

The question of evolutionary alignment is interesting. It seems to me like the effect could go either way. One might become more content not having children, or one could also eliminate various traumas from modern culture that reduce fertility. 

But these practices do often break evolutionary mechanisms intended to socialize you more strongly into society. E.g. various types of self-hate and other misery look to me like mechanisms for making sure you conform to the surrounding culture. And shedding that can be risky for the individual, since it makes you more willing to consider doing things that other people despise, which means that other people will also be more likely to hurt you for doing those things.

And as a consequence of that, a lot of the more renunciate-type Buddhism - that probably does reduce fertility - has been selected to produce adherents that don't cause much problems for society, but rather just go to their monasteries and meditate and let the existing social order continue intact. Since the schools that removed social conditioning and also empowered practitioners to upend the social order, tended to get targeted for destruction. (Or at least so I suspect and some people on Twitter said "yes this did happen" when I speculated this out loud.) So we have a situation where some of the schools and their corresponding practices and ideologies have been selected by cultural evolution to reduce alignment to biological evolution. But one can still do practices that do less of that.

Which goes to highlight the way that a lot of this stuff tries to present itself as objective, "just investigate the mind and you'll come to these conclusions on your own". To some extent that's certainly true, but there's still a lot of room for ideological influences to sneak in and produce different kinds of outcomes. And you should put some thought into what exactly it is that you are aiming at.


One of the ways I've become more conservative about recommending Buddhist practice is also a way I've become more conservative about being gung-ho on startups. With more experience it became clearer to me that personality factors influence how things go a lot. After getting a cohort of monks killed, the Buddha famously started adopting different practice recommendations for people with different personality inclinations. People often seem drawn to practices that double down on their existing strengths, and avoiding their existing weaknesses. And some of that is totally fine, people should lean into their strengths somewhat. But too much winds up putting people in a cul-de-sac/attractor of their own making where moving anywhere else feels bad because they're so good at what they've trained already.

I agree that emotional integration/parts work is often helpful for triaging what is going on with practices. For myself, there was a sharp uptick in motivation that came about from a moment of emotional clarity where I noticed that I couldn't, in practice, choose something and then give it a dedicated try for, say, a month, and that this lack of capability would have likely been baffling to past generations. This bothered me enough to take on Shinzen style noting for a month, which was my biggest inflection point.

WRT the AI question: like many, I've updated from the GPT era that value loading probably won't be the bottleneck for alignment. This was further strengthened by my own practice experience leading me to believe (a la the brahmaviharas) that human values are probably simpler/more compressible than I previously thought. I think the AI will understand out values and just not care. The same way we could, as humans, figure out much better what ants, or mice, or pigs, or dogs really want, but instead we just breed them for our own use in ways they certainly would object to if uplifted. The small probability I place on Buddhism having something crucial to say about AI revolves more around understanding of intentionality. Buddhism seems to hold that conscious moments all contain intentional content, which is considered an open question in western philosophy. Better understanding here might allow us to create neuromorphic architectures that care about anything at all.

WRT rats going more spiritual on the margin. I think there's a more restricted claim I would make that it is possible to improve the relationship between system 1 and 2, where my understanding from having worked on this and gotten some feedback from S1 is that it agrees that they are different types of processing and the ideal situation is for each of them to handle the kind of computation they are best at. By default, and scaling up with neuroticism, S2 tries to run the show and this is an obviously bad configuration. I think this is closer to what CFAR eventually tried to turn into rather than 'make S2 run better' but that it still mostly didn't work? Leverage came at this from a totally different angle and hit known-to-yogis failure modes but didn't have enough awareness to know that there are people who know about this sort of failure mode. And again, I think these sorts of failures are pretty unsurprising for people with the rat load out, who typically have a fraught history with authorities telling them to just have faith in weird, unsubstantiated claims. Besides emotional integration, I also often coach such people to ignore the more mysterian claims and focus on legible skill development in areas that they already have some sense will improve things in mundane ways. That these things can also be turned to contemplative practice is a bonus that is safer on fail than the tacit frames of panacea or grandeur that commonly float around contemplative communities. 


Re: AI - yeah, "AI will understand our values and not care" is of course the default outcome, and it does also look to me like human values are simpler than I used to think or that a lot of people think. Something like a relatively basic set of universal human needs, with lots of complicated strategies then building on top of that. The concern that I had was that if this is true and people working on value loading don't realize it, then they might assume that those strategies are our real values, and try to design AIs in such a way that the AIs end up optimizing on the wrong level.

On the other hand, it's plausible that one won't need Buddhism to get to the right conclusion. Something like Shard Theory is already pointing in a similar reaction and I don't think that familiarity with spirituality is the only reason why it's gotten a broadly positive reception. And it looks to me like modern AI is taking a broadly similar path to intelligence as human brains are - including some results suggesting that subagent type approaches lead to better reasoning [1 2] - so it could easily be that anyone working on AGI will eventually notice that simple intrinsic values can give rise to complex-looking instrumental ones and then generalize from that to human values.

I'm guessing that intentionality of mind-moments might be similar, in that if human minds are evolved that way then it might be because that's one of the most natural ways of building a mind, and then AI designers might discover that as well.

Re: "S1 and S2 are each best at different types of computation and better let them each do what they're best at, but by default S2 tends to steal the show" - agree. Also WEIRD societies seem to push people more into S2 mode, I suspect in part as a social control mechanism (learn to ignore your body and your emotions in order to sit still in your chair and listen to your teacher) but also in part because S2 knowledge is easier to transmit scalably and that's how we got modern science and technology.

I've seen people make the point that in the Buddha's time, people were a lot more embodied by default than we are now, so meditation instructions like "notice your thoughts" might have landed very differently than they do for modern Westerners. It might be that back in that time, people could have benefited from practices that strengthened their S2 relative to their S1, whereas today that's the exact opposite of what a lot of people need.

Generally the questions of "who needs what" and "what are the individual bottlenecks" are really interesting to me. I think it's common for people to find something that works really well for them - for me this was Internal Family Systems - and then find themselves confused about why it hasn't taken over the world yet and why so few people have heard of it. I was just recently talking with someone who found Coherence Therapy similarly effective for him and who had a similar confusion. Here's the list of hypotheses I offered him:

  • It does work amazingly well and is starting to gain popularity, but there are lots of things claiming to be miracle cures and most of them are fake, so people tend to reasonably discount claims about its effectiveness which slows down adoption
  • You can somewhat learn it from a book but it's best learned from someone who already knows it, further slowing down the spread
  • There are a lot of people it works really well for but there are also quite a few who don't have sufficient access to their emotions for it to work and struggle with it 
  • Even for people who do find it to work amazingly well, there's depth to the issues; if the beliefs behind their issues are buried sufficiently deep in the psyche, it may be that the surface-level manifestations are easily treated but then the deeper ones start to bubble up and undo some of the progress, and it's hard to access those deep-level ones. (This describes me, I found IFS amazingly useful and after several years I was less of a mess but still basically a mess; don't think I would've gotten where I am now with it alone. Also honestly still feel like a mess about some pretty major things.)
  • Something that could be explained by the above factors but I'm not totally sure that it is, many therapies seem to get less effective as they become more mainstream? See e.g. https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/11/20/book-review-all-therapy-books/

Also @pjeby had some good discussion on blindspots and how it's impossible to mass-produce effective change techniques: "It's a bit like the Interdict of Merlin in HPMOR: successful techniques can only be passed from one living mind to another, or independently discovered. You can write down your notes and share the story of your discovery, and then people either discover it again for themselves, learn it from interacting with someone who knows, or go through the motions and cargo-cult it."

I get the sense that you have better models of the individual factors and common problems that pop up for would-be change-mass-producers than I do, and would be very interested in hearing more about them. E.g. I don't know much about what happened with Leverage and what were the known-to-yogis failure modes that they ran into.

Also yeah, just telling people to ignore the mysterian claims and to focus on the more clear and legible benefits seems like a good strategy to me. In my own emotional coaching, I don't usually bring up any of the more esoteric things unless the client indicates some active interest and openness for it. And even if someone was interested in that stuff, I tend to agree with the take that it's best to just do the practices for the sake of their immediate or at least short-term benefits rather than doing something like focusing on vague and often oversold claims of enlightenment or such.


In generality, my guess is that humans retain prioritizing homeostasis over trying to enact large scale changes over themselves. Consider that the LW community is probably 99th percentile openness and it is still a struggle for most of us. I think there is some sort of threshold of self organization past which kicking the system has positive expected value, whereas below that threshold it has negative expected value. I think the following model comes from Adyashanti who has been teaching for several decades, and may have been repeated by Shinzen Young at some point. Basically that they had seen three classes of people motivated enough to overcome status quo inertia: those that were suffering a lot, those that had a strong compulsion to understand the truth about themselves/the world, and those who lucked in to a pleasant, jhana based path (i.e. those who found jhana strangely easy). Lwers might object that they have strong motivation to find the truth, but when push comes to shove, most people back off when it seems like the search process is going to potentially destroy their ability to orient to the things they care about. 

More specifically, parts of the process can be ontologically destabilizing. When people get a glimmer of emptiness in their practice, as Chongyam Trungpa says, they 'bolt off the cushion and run.' So, e.g. if you suddenly realize that your personal constructions/notions of truth, beauty, love, safety, non-suffering, etc are predicated on confused and empty categories, that can generate an existential terror. To put it in more traditional terms: the ego knows on some level that it is empty of 'real' (non reified) existence and has the belief that it needs to avoid that fact if it is to accomplish any of the goals for which it was constructed (navigating the world successfully such that you don't literally die). This is a means-ends confusion and also some reasoning from consequences. The idea that lots of other people have gone through this process often isn't reassuring enough in the actual critical moment. Some of my friends have proposed the model that you need to be in physical contact with a community of such people in order to get your CNS to relax enough and that this creates a threshold effect where awakening is rare in most times and places but you can get concentrated clusters of it popping up when the conditions are right.

So far, this picture is mostly one of passive ignorance. There's also the issue of active adversarial patterns. Patterns that don't conform to human values have fewer constraints and thus can mutate in a broader variety of ways, some of which make them more adaptive. In the Buddhist model of human psychology, we are by default colonized by parasitic thought patterns, though I guess in some cases, like the aforementioned fertility increasing religious memes, they should be thought of as symbiotes with a tradeoff, such as degrading the hosts' episteme. In this view, healthy societies would be ones with more vertical transmission of inoculating memes from a young age. Things like the western educational model can be thought of as a generalized medium for cultural memetic transmission, and we don't have a good model of parasitic capture. We are essentially pre-germ theory on memes.


Trying to maintain homeostasis makes sense - I've repeatedly had the experience of "ugh I just want to be done with all this healing stuff", but then been forced to keep at it due to repeatedly running into new issues. 

I'm guessing that another part of it also something like, often the kinds of improvements that these practices offer don't sound all that tempting to one's schemas. If your trauma says that you need to be rich and successful to be loved, and someone comes and says that this thing can heal your need to be rich and successful, then that's not going to be very appealing. In that example the cure sounds kind of opposed to the schema. But it can be more subtle too, like the proposal just not having any shape that the schema could make sense of and then not being emotionally appealing.

An analogy that comes to mind is, people have all kinds of hobbies. I know there are some hobbies that some people find great that I have no interest in. But not because I'd have ever tried them, their description just doesn't sound appealing to me. It may not sound actively anti-appealing either, but it just lacks anything that would feel emotionally resonant. (And then occasionally I might try out one of them and go "this is great why didn't anyone tell me before" when lots of people had been praising it all along.)

Over time one can learn a kind of a meta-expectation of feeling better after applying these techniques to whatever the most recent thing is, but it takes time to get there and develop that trust. Especially if the technique is one of the less gentle ones, and more in the category of "just look directly into your suffering and override the desire to flinch away (or to run away screaming)". Been doing something like that recently and the first instinctive reaction still tends to be "ugh no I don't want to be with this", until the memory of "yes but just bear with it" kicks in.

I think the part you said about things being actively destabilizing and the person realizing their categories are meaningless etc., is more of an issue for the paths focusing on structure rather than content? I know it's possible to end up in insight territory through parts work too (I think I may have gotten at least one of my clients to some stage of enlightenment without even trying to), but it seems more rare.

When you talk about actively adversarial patterns, adversarial in what sense? I read you as suggesting something like "unaligned with human values", but that's a bit hard for me to interpret in this context since our values also arise from the patterns themselves.



I think the adversarial thing gets to a claim I have: Values don't arise from the patterns. One of the things Buddhism deconfuses is where in the stack values come from. By default, small selves (the thing we normally identify with moment to moment) have means-ends confusion. They were spun up as a strategy for pursuing goals, but they don't cleanly track instrumental vs terminal considerations and they aren't super aware of other selves or the selfing process. So they think that any disruption in their strategy is a disruption to the possibility of the goal. Since their job is to get you things you want, including staying alive, and since telling you that their survival is your survival is also memetically fit, we should be unsurprised that this feels like an existential threat.

Rather, values are part of the design desiderata that underlie why we have parts instantiating patterns in the first place. "Values" are something like compressions over a large number of (sample complexity reduction?) heuristics that are both learned and in the priors. Another way of viewing them is as pointers at transfer learning.

The patterns themselves are unaligned due to a design constraint. Due to the way human psychology seems to function, we can simultaneously become convinced that something is both necessary and forbidden. E.g. when the only route to mating or career success passes through anti-social patterns. When this happens, patterns get instantiated with non-transparency as a design constraint (see: The Elephant in the Brain). These patterns then get built up into complexes of strategies which then can fail to notice e.g. the means-ends confusion that means they don't actually need to be fighting the other parts. So it's a path dependent arising of misunderstanding. But in the meantime, the actual moment to moment experience is of something with horrible side effects that isn't endorsed on reflection, like 'maliciousness'.

Let's take an example that's a bit closer to home. On becoming convinced of a particular theory of epistemics, a person might be

  1. unaware that they're actually committing to a 'bundle-of-hypotheses' as Quine put it.
  2. tacitly perceive things that threaten the foundations of any of this bundle as an attack on the very notion of truth, knowledge, or (emotionally) beauty, human survival etc.
  3. mysteriously fail to be able to follow what seems structurally like straight forward reasoning when it is extrapolated as heading directly for any core tensions that hold this world view up, e.g. the uncomputability of hypothesis space, consequentialist cluelessness, and indexical problems in Bayesian reasoning. 

Once you escape from such a cluster it becomes really obvious that your thinking about it was previously distorted, and the lack of this distortion is experienced as palpable relief, as mental and emotional contortion takes energy. From within the cluster, contorting is virtuous, and the shape has some sort of platonically formal beauty, never mind that it breaks human bodies to contort that way.



So, for example, stuff like people being convinced that they've chosen their preferences when studies on children show an 'identify formation window' in which things they happen to succeed at during the window become what they later report are their favorite activities, hobbies, career aspirations, personality etc. and that this holds even when the activities in question are demonstrably random, leading some children to strongly prefer them and some to strongly dis-prefer them despite this randomness.


Right, okay. So when I said that values also arise from the patterns, I was thinking of something like the thing in Core Transformation where the initial layers of what the part is trying to do are the "pattern", but then the actual value it's trying to achieve is whatever its Core State is.

And the thought I had about that was that while getting the Core State may radically transform the pattern, that still doesn't lead to a lack of action. Or, even people credibly claiming very high stages of enlightenment still have pretty distinct personalities and personal preferences, which is different from what you'd expect if patterns were entirely distinct from values and everyone had the same core preferences and values. (Culadasa, when he was still alive, was pretty distinctly different from Daniel Ingram.) 

My model has been something like, patterns aren't the ultimate values in ways that people might think, but a lot of preferences and personality structures still grow from those original deep values. And they persist even after one sees through deep confusions because why not, you still need some basis for action to operate in the world, and then one might as well call those values too.

But I guess that you might say that whatever one has after going through CT for that pattern is an aligned pattern, and that the unaligned patterns are the ones with the means-end confusion that seems to put parts in conflict with one another?

The bit about feeling that something is both necessary and forbidden also reminds me of this bit from No More Mr. Nice Guy:

For Nice Guys, trying to become needless and wantless was a primary way of trying to cope with their childhood abandonment experiences. Since it was when they had the most needs that they felt the most abandoned, they believed it was their needs that drove people away.

These helpless little boys concluded that if they could eliminate or hide all of their needs, then no one would abandon them. They also convinced themselves that if they didn’t have needs, it wouldn’t hurt so bad when their needs weren’t met. Not only did they learn early not to expect to get their needs met, but also that their very survival seemed to depend on appearing not to have needs. 

This created an unsolvable bind: these helpless little boys could not totally repress their needs and stay alive, and they could not meet their needs on their own. The only logical solution was to try to appear to be needless and wantless while trying to get their needs met in indirect and covert ways. [...]

In addition to using ineffective strategies to get their needs met, Nice Guys are terrible receivers. Since getting their needs met contradicts their childhood paradigms, Nice Guys are extremely uncomfortable when they actually do get what they want. Though most Nice Guys have a difficult time grasping this concept, they are terrified of getting what they really want and will go to extreme measures to make sure they don’t. Nice Guys carry out this unconscious agenda by connecting with needy or unavailable people, operating from an unspoken agenda, being unclear and indirect, pushing people away, and sabotaging. [...]

All of these strategies pretty much ensure that the Nice Guy won’t have to experience the fear, shame, or anxiety that might get triggered if he actually allowed someone to focus on his needs. [...]

All Nice Guys are faced with a dilemma: How can they keep the fact that they have needs hidden, but still create situations in which they have some hope of getting their needs met? 

In order to accomplish this seemingly impossible goal, Nice Guys utilize covert contracts. These unconscious, unspoken agreements are the primary way that Nice Guys interact with the world around them. Almost everything a Nice Guy does represents some manifestation of a covert contract. 

The Nice Guy’s covert contract is simply this: I will do this——(fill in the blank) for you, so that you will do this——(fill in the blank) for me. We will both act as if we have no awareness of this contract.

Most of us have had the experience of leaning over and whispering in our lover’s ear, “I love you.” We then wait expectantly for our beloved to respond with, “I love you, too.” This is an example of a covert contract in which a person gives to get. Saying “I love you” to hear “I love you, too” in return is the basic way Nice Guys go about trying to get all of their needs met. [...]

In reality, the primary paradigm of the Nice Guy Syndrome is nothing more than a big covert contract with life. [...] One of the most common ways Nice Guys use covert contracts to try to meet their needs is through caretaking. [...]

Reese, a graphic designer in his late twenties, is a good example of the extremes to which Nice Guys caretake in their intimate relationships. Reese, who is gay, lamented in one of his therapy sessions, “Why can’t I find a partner who gives as much back to me as I give to him?” He went on to describe how all of his boyfriends seemed to be takers and that he always did all of the giving.


A brief note on Core Transformation since most won't be familiar with it. CT (not to be confused with Connection Theory) is a self therapy modality whereby one investigates the motivations of our different goals, drives, values, etc via a chain of instrumental goals in order to purportedly uncover terminal goals, or at least more terminal goals. The author of the process found that doing this explicitly, in addition to being quite pleasant, generated a lot of insight into why goals were fighting with each other and that this fighting was not due to value differences but generally due to disagreements about strategies and opacity about strategy side effects for other goals. I wrote a bit about it here.

Anyway, I guess we might say that even if a pattern starts out as arbitrary, if you then build a series of increasingly coherent and influenced-by-you series of choices on top of that pattern, then it becomes more and more reasonable to identify with it. In general, I would guess people could make a lot of progress by investigating their objections to their current projection of what practice is supposed to look like and get in touch with what's deeply good about all these objections, eg the assumption that identification is supposed to be held as bad, or the source of problems in the Buddhist frame.

There's something important here where, while there can be adversarial patterns, people have too many false positives for this sort of thing, leading to excess internal conflict. That these errors tend to obscure the actual adversarial patterns does not seem to be random happenstance. E.g. patterns that derive energy from the internal conflict and therefore have an incentive to maintain it.


E.g. patterns that derive energy from the internal conflict and therefore have an incentive to maintain it.

That reminds me of a recent tweet where Qiaochu Yuan suggested that part of why being attracted to someone bad for you might be so sticky because it "goes viral" inside your psyche. There's competing attraction and aversion, and then at some point secondary reactions like aversion to the attraction, possible shame about getting into a bad situation again, and so forth. Any of those getting triggered is likely to bring up all the others in a cascade and then they keep reactivating each other.

Also this bit from Motivational Interviewing, 2nd ed:

An avoidance–avoidance conflict [...] involves having to choose between two evils—two (or more) possibilities, each of which involves significant fear, pain, embarrassment, or other negative consequences. This is being caught “between a rock and a hard place” or “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” The important choice factors are all negative, things to be avoided. In a congested city or on a large university campus, for example, one may have to choose between parking far away from one’s destination and parking closer but risking an expensive parking ticket.

Still more vexing is the approach–avoidance type. This kind of conflict seems to have special potential for keeping people stuck and creating considerable stress. Here the person is both attracted to and repelled by the same object. The term “fatal attraction” has been used to describe this kind of love affair: “I can’t live with it, and I can’t live without it.” In alternating cycles, the person indulges in and then resists the behavior (relationship, person, object). The resulting yo-yo effect is a classic characteristic of the approach–avoidance conflict. Ambivalent cognitions, emotions, and behaviors are a normal part of any approach–avoidance conflict situation. Many wry examples are found in American jazz and country and western song lyrics (e.g., “I’m so miserable without you, it’s almost like you’re here”). A 1930s Fletcher Henderson tune quipped, “My sweet tooth says I want to, but my wisdom tooth says no.”

The grand champion of conflicts, however, is the double approach– avoidance type, wherein a person is torn between two alternatives (lovers, lifestyles, etc.), each of which has both enticing positive and powerful negative aspects. As the person moves closer to option A, the disadvantages of A become more salient and the advantages of B seem brighter. When the person then turns and starts moving toward B, the down sides of B become clearer and A starts looking more attractive.

And there seems to be a really common pattern that happens with compulsions and shame. A person will first feel bad about something, then feel compelled to indulge in some vice (excessive alcohol, food, gaming, porn, whatever) that would drown out those bad feelings. But then they feel shame about giving in to their addictive behavior, and that makes them feel worse, and then the need to avoid that feeling of shame makes the compulsion to engage in the vice even stronger. Rinse and repeat.


There's also a temporary relief from the shame in the giving in, as consciousness contracts around the addiction object. Concentration, and the sensory clarity that comes with it, Shinzen Young claims, is one of our terminal values. A large number of behaviors are oriented around various states of flow, and if not recognized the reward will seem intrinsically bound to the particular activity.


Yeah that sounds right, being able to engross myself in something - even on just a momentary level, such as when a phone collapses my awareness - is just really rewarding.

Were the things I mentioned the kinds of things you had in mind when you mentioned patterns that have an incentive to maintain internal conflict?


Yes, there's also the rabbit hole of how this interacts with the whole conflict vs mistake thing, but I don't know if we want to go into that.


Yeah I think we probably have enough rabbit holes as it is. :D 

There's something important here where, while there can be adversarial patterns, people have too many false positives for this sort of thing, leading to excess internal conflict. That these errors tend to obscure the actual adversarial patterns does not seem to be random happenstance. 

What kinds of false positives did you have in mind here?



The false positives on adversariality mostly just refers back to the means-ends confusion. We assume adversariality of goals, when it's just a tradeoff between means. If two parts have obfuscated strategy stacks 7 levels deep, any of those levels can snarl with each other. The spaghetti code that you can read out on discovering how to is such a mess that people sometimes don't think they can get anywhere. In my experience a dozen hours carefully going through it does make substantial headway. Nick Cammarata explicitly pointed out a pattern here where people want to cut Gordian Knots and have lots of big insights, but most people would be better served by a more Marie Kondo approach of cleaning up all the minor messes that you already know how to clean up. David Allen also emphasizes this. It becomes obvious if you engage deeply with either of those systems that they're actually about learning emotional skills, not analytic or executive ones. In the rope analogy, this gives you enough slack to work on the bigger knots.


Right, that makes sense to me.

I've been finding it difficult to keep coming back to this conversation recently and there's quite a bit of good stuff here already, so let's ship what we have so far and see if people would have any comments that'd stimulate more discussion.

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Whenever I see people discussing the benefits of meditation without talking about the serious risks, I get suspicious[1] and wary.  This may be an over-reaction, but I've heard many a story of people ruining their lives (e.g. deep depression, psychosis etc.) due to meditation, even amounts that you wouldn't think would be that bad e.g. ~ 45 minutes a day.  And they weren't aware of these risks going in.  So I'm posting this comment here as a public service: meditation can mess you up.[2] 

That said, meditation=/=spirituality, as you noted. More spirituality on the margin need not be dangerous, and I imagine parts work or going to secular solstices or so on isn't dangerous and doesn't really need a warning label. And if you were only focusing a bit on meditation, I wouldn't have bothered to write this warning, but afaict the dialogue disproportionately focuses on it. So here we are.

  1. ^

    Suspicious because it sounds like the beginnings of some of the tragic stories I've heard.

  2. ^

    If you buy that meditation gives you better read/write access to your brain, then the idea that you can easily shoot yourself in the foot seems quite obvious.  If you don't, then the idea is not nearly as obvious and may require more evidence than I've given here.

without talking about the serious risks [...] even amounts that you wouldn't think would be that bad e.g. ~ 45 minutes a day. 

Well, what are the stats here? How frequent are such negative outcomes, and how frequent would they have to be to be (not) worth mentioning? E.g. at >1 in 100 this might warrant an automatic disclaimer, whereas at <1 in 100k, it would hardly be worth mentioning, right?

Also, which fraction of meditators does that for 45 minutes per day? For people who "meditate daily" or who "have a meditation hobby", I would be astonished if the fraction were >5%. Or is the idea that there are severe risks even for doing something like that for just a week?

I've seen surveys report 10-35% experienced at least some unwanted effects. More severe effects harder to classify. Here 1.2% for adverse effects affecting functioning for more than 1 month: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8636531/

see also: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8693904/

I don't know what the stats are. I would guess the frequency of serious negative outcomes is about 1/10000 to <1/100, depending on the type of meditation that's done & factors relating to susceptibility to mental illness etc. This is based off anecdotal evidence of some friends not doing too well after meditation and the fact that whenever I've pressed people on this topic, they admit that meditation can seriously damage you for prolonged periods of time, as well as reports I've heard from other people. So some of that range is just pure uncertainty. 

As for 45 minutes a day, I was trying to give a sense of roughly when things start getting dangerous. From what I understand, 10 minutes a day for indefinite periods of time is basically safe. Substantially higher than that, say 30 minutes a day, can cause harm but I'm uncertain if it requires years, months or maybe even weeks. And if you're encouraing people to meditate marginally more, well, 20 or 30 minutes it won't change things that much, right? Maybe, maybe not. 

Meditating in a multi-day retreat for many hours a day is where risks start getting pretty high as far as I can tell. The risks are closer to the 1/100 range I was talking about, but again, I don't have hard stats backing this up. I'm talking about near-permanently screwing your life up here by the way.

Also, all of this is modualted by things like genetic factors, history of mental illness, where you are in life right now etc. And it is also dependant on what practice you use. Some practices of meditation supposedly have predictable dark periods where the only way out is through. Others are more benign. And it can be unclear what things get dangerous and when if you're practicing by yourself without the aid of a community that's battle tested their practices and knows what to watch out for. 

I say all these things because I'm interested in meditation for reasons related to a history of pain, pain-induced trauma, all sorts of damaged reasoning and sheer curiousty. Meditation, amongst other cognitive techs, looks like it may help me with that. I believe that because I've personally experience how much cognitive damage a person can inflict on themselves, I've seen people close to me do so as well. And I've practiced techniques that sure look like they're improving, or rather restoring, my ability to reason by a great deal. Maybe meditation practices can offer things just as impactful as my current techs.

But for people like me, i.e. at a high-risk for mental illness which I believe is more common on LW, meditation can pose serious dangers and its risks may outweigh its benifits. So I stick to a safe <10 minutes a day, and am on the lookout for feelings that I would normally want to stop but might convince myself to push past because maybe I'm just supposed to feel weird. Afterall, isn't meditation meant to result in strange, inexplicable insights? Well, maybe. But I don't have the expertise to know what's safe and what's not, so I'd rather take things slowly and cautiously. As advised by the protocol in this book which appears to be treating meditation with at least the paranoia I think it deserves.

For people contemplating entering a period of serious practice what I typically ask about is whether they would be okay losing/destabilizing their job and primary relationships (romantic, friends, family). Not okay in the sense of it wouldn't suck emotionally, but they would be basically secure (financial runway, other friends/teachers to turn to for advice, mental health history and medications, etc.) and be able to make it through to the other side if it took up to 18 months.

I do think serious meditation practice is more akin to drugs than something more psychologically innocuous like exercise or cold showers.

meditation can mess you up

Oh, definitely. I'm... actually not sure how come we didn't mention this, given that I've included links to the risks of meditation in my posts before. Here's a caveat and some references from an earlier post of mine:

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].

Big fan of both of your writings, this dialogue was a real treat for me.

I've been trying to find a satisfying answer to the seeming inverse correlation of 'wellbeing' and 'agency' (these are very loose labels).

You briefly allude to a potential mechanism for this[1]

You also briefly allude to another mechanism with explanatory power for the inverse[2] - i.e. that while it might seem an individual is highly agentic, they are in fact little more than a host for a highly agentic egregore

I'm engaged in that most quixotic endeavour of actually trying to save the world[3] [4], and thus I'm constantly playing with my world model and looking for levers to pull, dominos to push over, that might plausibly -and quickly- shift probability mass towards pleasant timelines.

I think germ theory is exactly the kind of intervention that works here - it's a simple map that even a child can understand, yet it's a 100x impact.

I think there's some kind of 'germ theory for minds', and I think we already have all the pieces - we just need to put them together in the right way. I think it's plausible that this is easy, rapidly scaleable and instrumentally valuable to other efforts in the 'save the world' space.

But... I don't want to end up net negative on agency. In fact my primary objective is to end up strongly net positive. I need more people trying to change the world, not less.
Yet... that scale of ambition seems largely the preserve of people you'd be highly unlikey to describe as 'enlightened', 'balanced' or 'well adjusted'; it seems to require a certain amount of delusion to even (want to) try, and benefit from unbalanced schema that are willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of success. 

Most of the people who seem to succcessfully change the world are the people I least want to; whereas the people I most want to change the world seem the least likely to.

  1. ^

    Since the schools that removed social conditioning and also empowered practitioners to upend the social order, tended to get targeted for destruction. (Or at least so I suspect and some people on Twitter said "yes this did happen" when I speculated this out loud.)

  2. ^

    In the Buddhist model of human psychology, we are by default colonized by parasitic thought patterns, though I guess in some cases, like the aforementioned fertility increasing religious memes, they should be thought of as symbiotes with a tradeoff, such as degrading the hosts' episteme.

  3. ^

    I don't expect to succeed, I don't expect to even matter, but it's a fun hobby.

  4. ^

    Also the world does actually seem to be in rather urgent need of saving; short of a miracle or two it seems like I'm unlikely to live to enjoy my midlife crisis.

Big fan of both of your writings, this dialogue was a real treat for me.

Thanks! Glad you liked it.

But... I don't want to end up net negative on agency. In fact my primary objective is to end up strongly net positive.

I think that the likely impact on agency is complicated. One question is the extent to which your current agency is driven by something like pain avoidance. 

@Matt Goldenberg has a nice concept of a mode of motivation he calls "the self-loathing monster", where one effectively motivates themselves by stacking on more fear/pain of failure to overcome the fear/pain of doing something. A classic example would be procrastinating until just before the deadline, and then at the last moment getting an urgency to complete the thing and doing it at the last moment while find everything very uncomfortable. 

The more strongly one's motivation is built like this, the more likely it is that there will be a loss of agency after the sources of pain are removed, as one hasn't developed positive forms of motivation that could pick up the slack when the negative forms of motivation are removed. That's not to say that such a person would be doomed to a lifetime of non-agency! It's possible to learn positive motivation, but it's going to take time. Possibly several years.

On the other hand, Tucker Peck has a nice talk ("Meditation and Social Justice" on this page) about the way that many important things are really hard, and that if you need to see success right away, you may have little chance than to burn out. In that kind of a situation, a more enlightened-y mindset may be exactly what you need:

If you look at how many, I guess millions of people, risked their lives to create social change and they did it and then in a lot of countries, it just disappeared, you know, very quickly. It was back [to] the way it used to be. I read two of Gandhi's autobiographical books in this past winter. And you know, in South Africa, [...] he's there for maybe 18 years and he finally is able to Improve the standing of the Indians in South Africa and then he leaves and everything goes right back to the way that it used to be. 

It's not the change isn't possible, it's that change is awfully slow and things that look like victories can turn out to be nothing. [...] So if you have an attachment to a sense of self, feeling like a failure is going to be a lot harsher than if you don't. But if you have an attachment to the outcome, I don't see anything you could do besides burn out. [...]

When you are able to - not completely lose the sense of self necessarily, [but] at least diminish it, or have periods when it subsides - you can go to this place where all of your actions can be motivated by justice, by compassion, seeing yourself equally valuable to everybody else. And there's no sense of burnout because there's nothing else to do. Like the idea of giving up doesn't make sense. There's nothing to give up. 

When you read people like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi [...], the people who really lived the, religion of justice - they seem indefatigable. And they don't seem to mind if they die from this. They sometimes don't even seem to mind if they lose.

Neuroticism and conscientiousness are somewhat correlated in the literature and indeed it was my experience that boosting conscientiousness boosted neuroticism somewhat. Being able to spin these dials feels useful. Being very outcome focused rather than input focused is also a recipe for a lot of stress that doesn't necessarily seem very correlated to good outcomes ime. Ofc we want some tracking of outputs as a feedback to inputs so there's a balance to strike there.

Have you investigated the methods of past people you admire who tried for positive impact?

(Scott Alexander had a blog post where he mentioned that the thing that got him to stop believing in history cranks was reading many different history cranks who all had very convincing but mutually exclusive theories of history. Kind of like that - if you can play with many different ways of seeing the world and noticing how they all seem convincing, then they may all become less convincing as a result.)


You might be thinking of this post about learned epistemic helplessness: https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/06/03/repost-epistemic-learned-helplessness/ 

Ah that's the one, thanks! Edited the link into the post.

I can't stress this enough: the two most important things to happen to me in my life have been (1) my daughter being born and (2) receiving a pointing-out instruction from Loch Kelly.

Some various questions:

Q1: To what extent do you think ~unenlightenment in an individual is caused by the need to fit in socially?

Ie: In order to get other people to take care of you or not kill you (especially when you're a vulnerable child), you contort your mind in all sorts of ways and construct an ego (very much in the Elephant in the Brain way) and adopt all sorts of delusions. 

For example, you might want to be able to control other people, and one way to do that is to exile your emotional emotions so you can tell them "You made me so angry! Stop doing that!"   (Then later, if that doesn't work, you can say, "I'm so sorry, my emotions got the best of me" -- as if your emotions are separate from you, lol. Have your cake and eat it too.)

I write a little bit about how my experience of depression seems like this here.


Q1.b: To what extent do you think become more spiritually skilled is just about learning how to integrate with other people safely, but without having those common-but-helpful-but-wrong delusions about how your own mind works?


Q2: Do you think people benefit from being ~unenlightened or spiritually unskilled? Precisely how so?

Q1: I think waking up out of social reality is a mini enlightenment, one many people have gone through (esp. those who exited a religious or quasi-religious community). A downside is that it is now more difficult to be fully bought in to any social reality, including much healthier ones.

My take on interacting more harmoniously with others was touched on by the representational flexibility stuff. It's a skill set that feels strongly related to empathy for me. E.g. providing safe trails of retreat for people when they aren't ready for too many degrees of freedom on a load bearing belief yet.

Q2: Not really. Reports of greater well being are almost universal past certain milestones. IIRC Jeffrey Martin's survey data set included 4-5 people who found the experience neutral and 4-5 who found it actively negative, but notably the active negative cases were all cases of people who had stumbled into such things on their own and hadn't had any guidance on working with the common failure modes. On being put in touch with others like them who gave them some advice, reportedly all of them were able to resolve the negative valence stuck points.

re Q2- 

So I don't doubt that improvements in subjective wellbeing are reported essentially unanimously. 

But, to give a sense of the kind of thing I'm expecting here, consider that a child who doesn't learn to be emotionally insecure around their parents is probably much worse off. In some societies, parents who dislike a child starve/kill them, and emotional insecurity can be one way to predict and therefore avoid others disliking you.

In which case, I wonder, if you don't have these common delusions about the mind (or you're ~enlightened), does this put you in a worse place physically or socially? 

(Probably not in all possible environments, but maybe this is true in some [social] environments that are common today.)

I expect it to be dangerous in low openness environments with strong religious norms.

To what extent do you think ~unenlightenment in an individual is caused by the need to fit in socially?

I'd guess to a very significant extent, though I think there are also actual developmental stages that are distinct from social constraints. E.g. one axis of development in "enlightenment" involves taking more and more things as object, coming to experience them as mental constructs rather than as intrinsic aspects of reality. I think this involves the development of something like additional neuronal circuitry that provides increasingly meta levels of awareness into your mind, separate from any social considerations. (Social considerations might very well act as blockers for developing some of that awareness, however.)

Q2: Do you think people benefit from being ~unenlightened or spiritually unskilled? Precisely how so?

Fitting in socially is quite important! We wouldn't have evolved to do that if it wasn't useful, and as I mentioned in the dialogue, some Buddhist lineages that didn't were likely wiped out because they started making too much trouble.

Also depends on how you define "benefit", but if spiritual development makes you e.g. care less about money and status, then you'll probably end up having less money and status. Even if that makes you happier, it might make you worse off in terms of external conditions, and more likely to be hurt by people who do have that money and status. 

Someone like Stalin seems to have been quite spiritually unskillful, but his paranoia and desire for power got him to the position of being a dictator and killing off quite a few other people. On some measure of "better off", it might have been better for some of those others to also be equally unenlightened and more power-hungry, so one of them would have become the ruler instead and survived.

After getting a cohort of monks killed, the Buddha

Can you point me to the specific story being referenced?

THANK YOU! In personal development circles, I hear a lot about the benefits of spirituality, with vague assurances that you don't have to be a theist to be spiritual, but with no pointers in non-woo directions, except possibly meditation. You have unblurred a large area of my mental map.


Not all appearance is harmful illusion (art, mannerism, grooming), and not everything maps to the "true/false" duality. Money is real because we believe in it, reality itself partly depends on beliefs, making beliefs have actual effects on reality. this makes beliefs similar to placebo, and doubt a kind of nocebo.
Social programming is one source of errors, but the brains prioritization of survival over well-being is another. You're more likely to survive if you overestimate everything dangerous, negative and bad.
But most actual malice and evil in the world is a result of weakness and misdirected, insatiable drives.

We think illusions are bad because the examples which come to mind are bad. We think lust and greed are bad for the same reason. We think the ego is bad for the same reason. This is just one of humanities many misunderstandings. Not even suffering is bad, not even power is bad. People like the Buddha just focused on the negative side of things, and decided to destroy them. But destroying Yin destroys Yang, the two are one. Did it not occur to him than anything which can be a minus can also be a plus? Caring deeply about morality or suffering is a symptom of bad health, they're only at the forefront of naive worldviews.

I'll warn you about deconstruction, it will result in nihilism. Spirituality should be construction. You need to consider the world to be big enough that you cannot wrap your mind around it. Like this, it regains its mystery, and you regain your faith that there's more to life than just atoms. If you're lucky, things can even be "sacred" again.
For most zoo animals to be psychologically healthy, they need an enclosure which is bigger than what they can perceive all at once. I believe it's the same for humans and their worldview.

I think it's totally wrong to think that truth = virtue = spirituality = clear-sightedness. If your mental health has gotten worse as a result of rationalism, then more rationalism won't get you out of it. You likely need immersion, and how can you have immersion without losing yourself? I can't immerse myself much in videogames anymore because I know how they're made, and because I look at them with a programmers eyes. Knowledge took my immersion away from me, and I had to take it back. Maturity, high standards, objectivity - these all come at a cost. As long as all your virtues point away from the subjective and towards the scientific, how can you give yourself what you need?

If you do train yourself to have higher self-awareness, then I recommend making it as automatic as possible (using system 1). Healthy spiritual people always seem to use system 1 the most, while rational people tend to use system 2. I think the story of the forbidden fruit is about the side-effects of humanity having evolved system 2.

Humanity created a tragic, dark and painful world. A negative delusion made real. You will feel better if you destroy it, but what then? Why not build a beautiful world instead? A positive delusion which manifest itself as real? This is possible as your mind isn't zero-sum. 

I don't quite understand your comment. It sounds like you're saying that spirituality is too scientific and not subjective enough? That's not the kind of criticism I would have expected!

We think lust and greed are bad for the same reason. We think the ego is bad for the same reason.

I don't! Nor do I think that power is bad. I do think that suffering is bad, though. (Or at least it's bad in a conventional, if not ultimate sense.)

I'll warn you about deconstruction, it will result in nihilism. Spirituality should be construction

I think you need both. If you can deconstruct yourself to some extent, then you can also reconstruct yourself more flexibly. Like a structure of Lego that you first break down back into individual Legos, and then put together in a new way.

I think spirituality and science (also rationality) go in different directions, but that the post seems to take a scientific or rational approach to spirituality.

I think "suffering is bad" is a naive belief, and that it gets in the way of understanding things. It's like saying that hunger is bad, but you evolved hunger in order to search for food. Hunger is not bad - a lack of food is! But suffering is the same. We evolved the ability to suffer to help our survivability. It's not inherent to life in any sense, it's not even required. As far as I know, positive reinforcement achieves the same as negative reinforcement. Suffering is a motivator. If you move without suffering, you don't need suffering. If you don't do what you should, then life, or your own body, will force you. If you always get enough sleep then you won't be tired, and the ability to get tired exist for your sake, not as an inhernt bad quality about existence, but suffering is the same.

The best way to solve a problem is sometimes to cease thinking that it's a problem. You can also just accept that you think it's a problem because you choose to do so, or because your nature demands it of you. If you think something is wrong with reality, then you create a world which you cannot love. It's also silly to claim that reality is bad for logical, rational or objective reasons. You can only find human reasons - but this is merely opinion and whatever evolution did to you.

Deconstruction is easy, you can do it by searching, comparing, or analyzing. I think creation is harder, you have to create something from nothing but yourself. The page you linked says that "all phenomena are empty", but that's not a good belief to to stay at. It's a belief you arrive at by error in the first place. If you subtract humanity from phenomena and then looking for human substance in them, you'll find that there isn't any. But why would there be? Substance and meaning has always been human things. "Meaning" exists as a concept in the first place because it's a part of us, to say that the concept is false because we can't find it outside of us is to forget that we created it in the first place. It would be silly to say that numbers don't exist because we can't find them outside of mathematics, right? Nothing exists inherently, that is, "universally", outside of itself. Why would it? Doesn't that contradict the very definition of existence? Even matter and energy doesn't exist if you look for it outside of matter and energy. And yet, these people who claim that meaning doesn't exist wants to convince me that suffering is real? The very concepts of "inherent" and "universal" are what's wrong, they're nonsense, just like "everlasting" was found to be nonsense. And if life looks like nonsense through them, you should say "the concepts are nonsense" and not "life is nonsense". I have the same beef with absurdism. How can reality be absurd? If our model of the world is wrong, it's not because the world made a mistake somewhere, that's silly. It's nonsense to claim that things which actually exist are "illusion" and that what doesn't exist are "real". 

You can avoid all of these problems in the first place by making humanity the center of everything, which means regarding yourself as an axiom (I also recommend not reducing all of humanity itself to the word 'convention', lol). This makes suffering real again, but only because you choose to suffer, and only in situations which we, or our bodies, consider worthy of suffering (and only to motivate us to change the state that we find outselves to be in). Do you know of "spiritual" things outside of Buddhism by the way? These texts seem rather negative to me, I recommend finding something better

But suffering is the same. We evolved the ability to suffer to help our survivability. It's not inherent to life in any sense, it's not even required. As far as I know, positive reinforcement achieves the same as negative reinforcement. Suffering is a motivator.

It sounds to me like you're talking about pain rather than suffering. In my experience, pain acts as a motivating factor even if it's not associated with suffering. Indeed, suffering indicates that pain is being resisted, so the full signal is not being properly heard.

You can also just accept that you think it's a problem because you choose to do so, or because your nature demands it of you. If you think something is wrong with reality, then you create a world which you cannot love.

I actually agree with this: it's as you say, that it's good to have signals for hunger, physical pain, etc.. Or even if it wasn't good, those signals are still describing an aspect of reality whether one thinks that's good or not.

Suffering, in my experience, is created when a part of the mind says that this is a sign of something being wrong with reality. It says: "it should not be so that I am hungry right now". Or it says: "I reject the world in which I am in pain". The conflict between a part of the mind that tries to reject the presence of the signal, and the part of the mind that is accurately perceiving reality and creating the signal, is what creates suffering. (I discussed a version of this in more detail here.)

Once you accept that the presence of the signal, once you accept that reality is the way it is, then suffering ceases and you are better able to do something about the signal. Part of the reason why I think suffering is bad, is that it involves a rejection of reality.

Meaning" exists as a concept in the first place because it's a part of us, to say that the concept is false because we can't find it outside of us is to forget that we created it in the first place. It would be silly to say that numbers don't exist because we can't find them outside of mathematics, right? Nothing exists inherently, that is, "universally", outside of itself. Why would it?

I would phrase this as: meaning and numbers do not exist ultimately, but they do exist conventionally.

Do you know of "spiritual" things outside of Buddhism by the way?

See the list in my first message in the dialogue. Of the items on that list, only meditation was strongly associated with Buddhism in particular (and there seems to be a lot of convergent evolution around meditation, e.g. some Christian meditation seems to be basically doing the same thing, just conceptualized differently).

Lengthy reply - my bad. I won't blame you if you just skim its parts.

Suffering is motivating too (a signal), it exists for a reason, not outside ourselves and not just to tease us. But in humans, there's usually competing motivations. So suffering has to get worse until it reaches the threshold of the competing thing. Just like hunger has to get stronger than your laziness and desire not to cook before you eat. But if you ate before you got hungry, then you'd not have to feel hunger. It's the same with suffering. But suffering is harder to resolve. Hunger points at food, you know what you need. But suffering points at something rather vague and abstract, maybe you even fall into the trap of thinking that money, fame, pretty things or a sixpack is what you need, and we know how that goes.

Suffering is created when we feel that something is wrong and ought to change. Sometimes we judge wrongly, and attempt to change something that we can't or shouldn't change. Other times we suffer because we aren't doing what we should be doing. So while the solution is acceptance, you should accept the right thing. You shouldn't accept that you're hungry, you should accept that you're a human and that humans need to eat.

I think suffering exist for the same reason that intelligence does. It's premature adaptation/alignment. If you can image what will happen if you fall off a cliff, then you can die in this mental simulation without dying in real life. If you feel hunger before you die of starvation, then you can adapt to reality in time. If you suffer from anxiety, then either your anxiety is wrong, or you're in actual danger in which case it's a valuable signal. So you either solve what makes you anxious, or learn to accept that life is unpredictable. Either the signal is wrong or it's right, in either case, it's only a signal, and it only hurts because we could/would ignore it otherwise. We agree on a lot, but in my view, suffering isn't the error, even though humans often suffer when there's no reason to do so.

This entire system doesn't always work very well. I think it may be because we're not not suited for the modern society. But if you get rid of it, I think you should know what purpose it served so that you can achieve that purpose manually (live a good life without cravings to motivate you). We tend to hold on to suffering because we fear that we won't achieve our goals if we relax, become content with things, and live in the moment. But I agree that this isn't necessarily true. Perhaps "letting go" and "doing without doing" is correct. Maybe the whole concept of "trying" is a form of wireheading or goodharting, "do or do not, there is no try".

>meaning and numbers do not exist ultimately

But nothing does? This concept of "Ultimately" contradicts the concept of "Exist". If I hold a rock in my hand, then it exists because it's right there. It doesn't exist outside of itself. These buddhist criteria for something being real/being true/existing are a contradiction, but I think that such criteria are wrong (a contradiction can't exactly be correct). It's not that nothing exists, but that this definition of "exists" is nothing. It's like if I said "This water isn't water, it's just hydrogen and oxygen, where is the real water?". Said in another way, we discover that the map is wrong, but then then criticize the territory for not following our map.

>See the list in my first message in the dialogue

While these does point to something spiritual, I think they're more religious than spiritual. And religion is about coherence in larger groups at the cost of the individual, while the spiritual is about the individual at the cost of coherence and conformity. So I think that most of the spirtual things you're familiar with are too strongly colored by religious and moral thinking. If I start suggesting spiritual paths which are "beyond good and evil", I also expect you to dismiss them as amoral/immoral, which you may think means "wrong" or "irrational".
Of all of the list, I think that "sacredness" is the most fitting, given that it's not a concept with excessive gravity/graveness, like the fear of god as a form of sacredness. Spirituality is for free spirits, it's a kind dancing. Religion feels like excessive, oppressive weight.
Reading your post on sacredness, I don't see any definitions of it that I'm familiar with. I think sacredness is something like the agreement that something has value. You treat sacred things with respect, as they're not inherently sacred. If you start having rave parties in churches, the churches lose their air of sacredness. If you stop treating the king with respect, he loses his kingly aura. If we lose faith in money, it becomes worthless. So when you profane the sacred, you're harming value itself. I think this is why old people hate it when the young generation doesn't take things seriously, and isn't the young generation much more nihilistic? The rate of mental illness is also much higher in the young, but the correlation might not be causation.

What I connect with spirituality is books like The Alchemist. This quote for instance “The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” flips the meaning hiarchy from "what's rare is valuable" to "what's common is valuable", a flip in perception which is like turning your environment into solid gold. It flips scarcity into abundance, the mundane into the special.
I think spirituality is the music in the quote "And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music".
The gradient from [nihilism] to [the fear of god] looks like the gradient from [lightheartedness] to [seriousness], but I think they're different. Caring does not necessitate suffering, and "not giving a fuck" is not a solution to suffering (and even if it were, it wouldn't be a healthy one). You can be lighthearted in a reality which is thick with substance and meaning, I know because I've achieved this perception of the world before.

This seems like claims about reality? TBC I think the claims about suffering in Buddhism are claims about how our mammalian nervous systems happen to be wired and ways you can improve it. I also think nihilistic readings of Buddhism are probably mistaken.

I think it's claims about the human perception of reality. We tend to aim for understanding, but it's the lack of understanding which makes understanding so seductive. Understanding something tends to kill it of its magic, and what's understood feels much smaller. I think that a complete understanding the world in a reductionist and mechanical sense would make you too sober not just for magic, religion and philosophy, but also for scientism and spirituality as well. You can even disillusion yourself to social reality if you deconstruct that (not recommended)

I also make claims about the nature of truth in relation to humans. I don't think our perceptions actually aim for truth, I don't think that truth is comfortable like spirituality is comfortable, and I don't think truth is all that useful to us personally (but it's great for scientific advancement)

Those who philosophize and meditate on things tend to be high in neuroticism. You don't meditate so hard on the nature of things if you're thriving in life, you only start questioning things when they don't work, so I think all philosophy has a negative bias, that philosophers tend to have bad mental health, and that higher states of awareness may be psychologically unhealthy. For instance, oversocialization makes us self-censor by keeping track of what other people would think of us. Freddie Boer writes this in one of his posts: "Nowadays people have both their own anxious and worried mind and another mind that worries about how they’re anxious and worried and whether they should be. This is the part of the mind that’s concerned, bizarrely, with how the mind might appear to others, despite the fact that the mind cannot be observed by anyone but the self. And that’s a creation of the internet".

I don't think he's correct blaming the internet, I think it's the WEIRD society, political correctness, population density, and increasing simulacra levels (and most of the internet is this sort of environment now). Materialism and science are partly to blame too. I see many, many people who take a turn for the worse when they turn around 20 years old, and stop being able to truly be themselves. The exaggerated inhibition turns permanent, sometimes remaining even when that person is truly alone. 

The relation between the socialization process, subjectivity, objectivity, social reality and meta-perspectives is too complex to contemplate here and this reply is already rather long

Aduashanti/Jed McKenna/Chongyam Trungpa would all agree that real deal spirituality is highly uncomfortable. Waking up out of the shared dream state can be highly alienating, especially at first as you learn new ways to relate to others who are mostly paying attention to their own projections and not what is happening moment by moment. Projections that lead us in a circle back towards comfortable, familiar thoughts. Fortunately, it also gives us the tools for working effectively with those feelings of alienation and loneliness.

This alienation puts you out of calibration with other people. Why avoid overfitting to specific, local beliefs, in favor of more 'general truths', when all your time is spent doing specific, local things?

That said - I recommend doing this to the extent that other peoples beliefs are poisonous and negative. You should not calibrate yourself to sickness. But calibration towards psychological health puts you in tune with yourself, the moment, and lived experience. If it's uncomfortable, then I don't think you're approaching a natural state nor eliminating internal conflicts, and I wouldn't call this "spirituality" at all. Spirituality to me, is to let go, and realize that you weren't holding on to anything to begin wtih, it kept itself in place all along. It's also a frame of mind in which everything has depth and hidden meaning and wealth, which I think is advantageous even if it's only "true" to the extent that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I wouldn't focus too much on Buddhism. What about tarot, yoga, magick, visualization, and "fun" worldviews like the hermetic principles? "Everything is mind" is like stoicism on steroids, it helps you take back the ability to create your own interpretations (an ability that many of us lose thanks to science) instead of searching for it in other peoples theories and opinions. Spirituality is about rooting yourself in yourself, and expanding your own inner world. Science is about approximating something else at the cost of yourself, and reducing your inner world to rules and sterile/inert/objective models. Doubt leads to bad mental health, which is why belief, faith and confidence are so important. Whether these beliefs are actually true seems less important to me.

By the way, are you sure this alienation is necessary? Even if you can't connect with somebody as you don't share words, beliefs or ideas, I find that body language and more fundamental things still get through. If you have a pet, I bet you have made some sort of connection with it

Me, I've found that I connect much more readily with animals than I do with humans.  I went into a local shop the other day, and one of the owner's dogs approached me, so I let her sniff my hand.  A few minutes later I was petting her head.  He was utterly beside himself, said she was a rescue from an abusive owner, and NOBODY other than himself could touch her like that.

I simply aim to move into my center, and let the flow reverse outwards into the world, vs. trying to grasp at things and draw them in.  I've also found that my energies put people off, incl. women I've tried to date; one, a coworker who developed a weird kind of crush on me, couldn't work with me anymore because the energies were feeding back on her and making her sick.

Tl;dr trying to engage on that level with others usually proves futile.  Animals don't have all that egotistical crap blocking their spiritual arteries I guess.  It's more fundamental than just a mere difference in beliefs or a desire to socialize, or not.

That's good to hear! But it's a shame that it puts you out of sync with people. If it's all people, maybe your environment is not very good? Maybe the rat race dominates? I can 'vibe' with people, which I think is a form of synchronization or communication on a deeper level than the verbal.

Getting close to people like this requires that both of us have some sort of inner peace, calm or firmness. Too much noise, anxiety, alertness, doubt and mistrust kills it. The cognitive overhead of internal conflict and noise is enough to distract us. Even a headache (which also hijacks your attention) can prevent 'immersion' in the moment / the situation / the people around you.

I simply aim to move into my center, and let the flow reverse outwards into the world, vs. trying to grasp at things and draw them in

Excellent put! This "drawing in" is a form of theft/greed anyway. It puts a burden on others. It tries to control things rather than letting them flow naturally.

It might be "trying" which is interfering with "doing", or "the ego" which is interfering with "letting go", but my favorite perspective here is that it's system 2 interfering with system 1. Things which come naturally are graceful, and when we try too hard to control everything ourselves, things become stiff and awkward. Let me show you what I mean: you're now breathing manually.

I am retired more or less, but aside from a bunch of financial loose ends that my late mother bequeated myself and my sister, no racing rats here.  [Sunsets maybe, in my car]  I have connected successfully with fellow wildlife volunteers and plan to start doing that again later in the spring (the key for me was birds and nature--a close encounter with a peregrine falcon got my all turned around, had 3 more subsequently, one where I could have reached out and touched it as it flew past me on a highrise balcony).

I like the "theft" angle, because in my case I know that is exactly what it was, when I was severely depressed.  "Oh pity poor little old woe is me!"

I find looking directly at my own ignorance often uncomfortable but worthwhile.

That looks like a moral statement? Like you consider knowledge a virtue. I feel like this association has been dominant in the western world since Plato, but despite this generation being the least scientifically ignorant generation so far, hasn't our conscience gotten worse? We only feel more ignorant, more imperfect.

I recommend a naturalistic approach to life. If even the best of us is ignorant, and humanity has flourished like this anyway, then from where do we draw the conclusion that ignorance is harmful? Or that we should feel bad about it? Perhaps holding ourselves to unreachable ideals might cause more harm than good instead? I think the judgement "knowledge = good" comes from an anxious state of mind wishing for more certainty and control, rather than being a logical conclusion to anything. And of course, it's a popular belief that being humble is good, but I think this is mostly just a "the nail that sticks out gets hammered" conformity thing. Identifying too much with ones knowledge is bad, though, as it makes one afraid of being wrong and asking questions.

? TBC I think the claims about suffering in Buddhism are claims about how our mammalian nervous systems happen to be wired and ways you can improve it.


This seems like quite a western modern take on buddhism

it feels hard to read the original buddha this way

Note I didn't say 'the claims of buddhism' as a whole.

i just don't see the buddha making any reference to nervous systems or mammalians when he talks about suffering(not even some sort of pali equivalent that points to the materialist understanding at the time)


Some forms of therapy, especially ones that help you notice blindspots or significantly reframe your experience or relationship to yourself or the world (e.g. parts work where you first shift to perceiving yourself as being made of parts, and then to seeing those parts with love)

What is your take on the Dodo bird verdict, in relation to both therapy and Buddhism-adjacent things? All this stuff seems to be very heavy on personal anecdotes and just-so stories, and light on RCT-type things. Maybe there's a there there, but it doesn't seem like serious systematic study of this whole field has even begun, and there's plenty of suspicious resistance to even the idea of that from certain quarters.

For whatever reason, it looks like when these kinds of delusions are removed, people gravitate towards being compassionate, loving, etc.

This is also a big if true type claim which from the outside doesn't seem remotely clear, and to the extent that it is true causation may well be reversed.

The first thing to note is that that very page says that the state of evidence on the verdict is mixed, with different studies pointing in different directions, results depending on how you conduct your meta-analyses, and generally significant disagreement about whether this is really a thing.

I also think that this comment from @DaystarEld , our resident rationalist therapist, makes a lot of sense:

For one thing, the Dodo bird verdict is (maybe not surprisingly, given point 3) not as well supported as people widely think. It originated decades ago, and may have set in motion the very effects that led to its own eventual lack of relevance. The study I linked to in the OP, if correct, points to just such an invalidation by presenting findings that a particular modality works better for a certain type of treatment than alternatives.

But if we take it at face value, the answer could just come down to "the human element." Maybe good therapists are what matter and the modality, as long as it's not utterly bankrupt, is just a vehicle. Personally I don't believe that's the full story, but a good relationship with the therapist does seem more important than anything else, and that factor being mostly independent from what modality the therapist uses may account for a large part of it.

Ultimately though, I think part of what my post is tries to do is point out that these different philosophies don't necessarily contradict each other, but rather are different lenses through which to view the problems the client has. When I get a client that responds super well to CBT, and then another client who doesn't but grabs IFS and runs with it, I don't think "well I guess these modalities are equally effective" or think that some kind of paradox is occurring, I just think that different maps are better for different people at navigating the territory, even if they're dealing with the same "problem."

I know it feels a bit like a cop-out, but honestly given how complex people are, and how different each problem can be even if it shares the same diagnosis, I would be pretty shocked if a single modality just blew all the others out of the water for every kind of problem that someone might face. Which isn't to say that they're all the same, either, just that guidelines for good therapy have to include more than just singling out specific modalities, but also identifying which ones might work best with each client.

This touches upon a related issue, which is that there are some serious challenges with trying to apply an RCT-type methodology on something like this. For an RCT, you'll want to try to standardize things as much as possible, so that - for example - if you are measuring the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, then every therapist you've classified as "doing CBT" actually does do CBT and nothing else. But a good therapist won't just blindly apply one method, they'll consider what they think might work best for this particular client and then use that.

Suppose you have a study where therapists A and B are both familiar with both CBT and Internal Family Systems. Therapist A is assigned to the CBT condition and therapist B is assigned to the IFS condition. As a result, A spends some time doing CBT on clients CBT is a poor match for, and B spends some time doing IFS on clients IFS is a poor match for. The study finds that CBT and IFS have roughly similar, moderate efficacy. What the study fails to pick up on is that if both A and B had been allowed to pick the method that works best on each client, doing IFS for some and CBT for some, then the effect of the method might have been significantly greater.

But you can't really compare the efficiency of methods by doing an RCT where everyone is allowed to just do whatever method they like, or worse, some hybrid method that pulls in from many different therapy techniques. Or maybe you could do it and just ask the therapists to write down what method they used with each client afterward... but that would probably require some really complicated statistical method to try to analyze, exactly the kind of thing where everyone will just end up fighting over the right way to interpret the results afterward.

Another thing is that changes in subjective well-being are often just really hard to measure well. For one, various measures you'd naively expect to correlate with each other, don't really:

The study asked people in 156 countries to “value their lives today on a 0 to 10 scale, with the worst possible life as a 0 and the best possible life as a 10.” [...] societal factors such as gross domestic product per capita; extensiveness of social services; freedom from oppression; and trust in government and fellow citizens can explain a significant proportion of people’s average life satisfaction [...] the Nordic countries—Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland—tend to score highest in the world.

But when you look at how much positive emotion people experience, the top of the world looks very different. Suddenly, Latin American countries such as Paraguay, Guatemala and Costa Rica are the happiest countries on earth. [...]

Things get even more complicated when we look at the prevalence of depression in different countries. In one comparison made by the World Health Organization, the per capita prevalence of unipolar depressive disorders is highest in the world in the United States. Among Western countries, Finland is number two. Paradoxically then, the same country can be high on both life satisfaction and depression. [...]

Finally, some people might argue that neither life satisfaction, positive emotions nor absence of depression are enough for happiness. Instead, something more is required: One has to experience one’s life as meaningful. [...] [On a measure of meaningfulness] African countries including Togo and Senegal were at the top of the ranking, while the U.S. and Finland were far behind. Here, religiosity might play a role: The wealthier countries tend to be less religious on average, and this might be the reason why people in these countries report less meaningfulness.

What I’m trying to say is that, as regards happiness, it’s complicated. Different people define happiness very differently. And the same person or country can be high on one dimension of happiness while being low on another dimension of happiness. Maybe there is no such thing as happiness as such. Instead we should look at these dimensions separately and examine how well various nations are able to support each of them.

I think this finding actually makes a lot of sense. At one point in my life, if you had asked me to measure my well-being on a scale from 0 to 10, I might have said something like, "well I'm feeling pretty depressed and don't find my work very satisfying and my romantic relationships aren't working out, but then on the other hand I do have a secure job, it pays reasonably well, I live in a safe country, and overall I feel like there are a lot of things that are objectively just pretty good, so let's say a 7".

Setting aside the fact that someone might simultaneously report being depressed while also giving a relatively high life-satisfaction number, here are some ways in which I feel like I've benefited that feel like they're at least somewhat linked to these practices:

  • It used to be that I would randomly remember various faux pases or mistakes I'd made that felt embarrassing or shameful, or generally experience painful feelings of regret for past life decisions. These could feel pretty intensely unpleasant. While something like this might still occasionally happen for a bit if I make a new mistake, or I might get some very mild twinge of unpleasantness related to some past thing, to a first approximation it's correct to say that this has stopped happening. What's in the past is in the past, and I don't really experience much regret or "damn I should(n't) have said X"  anymore.
  • When I'm on my phone, it's been getting more common recently that I maintain awareness of my peripheral vision and the rest of room, as well as still continuing to feel my body, rather than just getting completely sucked into the phone and forgetting about the world around me. This makes it somewhat easier to stop being on my phone and done something else.
  • I feel like pain and displeasure are less strongly linked to suffering than they used to be. It's easier to experience something as painful and unpleasant while simultaneously being okay with having that experience. I was at men's retreat recently where the facilitator asked if we'd want to try some amateur boxing (with the appropriate safety gear) after he'd drill us on some basic technique. I've had a pretty strong fear of physical pain as well as feeling generally bad at physical things, so this offer felt pretty frightening to me, but I figured that objectively thinking it'd probably be fine and that the fear is just a sensation, so I can be with that sensation. Then I kept being in a state of mild panic for the entirety of the drills and then in the actual match I was hyperventilating, but also that felt okay and a positive experience overall, rather than traumatizing and like the end of the world as it would have felt some years earlier.

Now if you asked me to report on my life satisfaction now... I do feel like those things represent some significant improvements to my life, but a scale of 0 to 10 is pretty coarse, and I still haven't gotten romantic relationships working out. So maybe I'd still say 7? Possibly 8, but 7 doesn't feel unreasonable either.

It's also interesting that out of the various ways of measuring well-being (life satisfaction, positive emotion experienced, amount of depression, sense of meaning), "pain being linked with less suffering" wouldn't necessarily show up on any of those. Someone might still have feel essentially the same emotionally, but just e.g. feel more okay with being depressed and sad often.

There's also other pieces of weirdness about life satisfaction measures in general - for example, people might give a slightly negative score on the overall life satisfaction, while giving positive scores on all subareas of life satisfaction that are asked about.

The Wikipedia article on the verdict was saying that it's controversial since there are debates about exactly what kinds of measures to include in the meta-analyses, with people on the "pro-verdict side" accusing people on the "anti-verdict side" of sometimes cherry-picking measures and results that do show a positive change. But it does seem to me possible to drastically improve a person's well-being on one measure without it showing up on any others, in ways that you might not be able to predict before running the study. And if someone then appeals to that one measure having improved, they might be cherry-picking or they might just be legitimately drawing attention to the one thing that does manage to measure a real change.

There's also the fact that when I offer emotion coaching for people, the results will vary and some people probably get basically no benefit, others get a moderate benefit, and then some others benefit massively. Here's a testimonial from one client I had:

I attended a few IFS sessions with Kaj towards the end of last year.

I don't say this lightly, but the sessions with Kaj had a transformative impact on my life. Before these sessions, I was grappling with significant work and personal-related challenges. It's hard to capture how bad it had become - my life felt like it had ground to a halt. My ability to function was very limited and this had lasted for over two years. Despite trying various methods, and seeing various professionals, I hadn't seen much improvement in this time.

However, after just a few sessions (<5) with Kaj, I overcame substantial internal barriers. This not only enabled me to be more productive again on the work I cared about but also to be kinder to myself. My subjective experience was not one of constant cycling in mental pain. I could finally apply many of the lessons I had previously learned from therapists but had been unable to implement.

I remember being surprised at how real the transformation felt. I can say now, almost a year later, that it was also not transient, but has lasted this whole time. 

As a result, I successfully completed some major professional milestones. On the personal front, my life has also seen positive changes that bring me immense joy.

I owe this success to the support from Kaj and IFS. I had been sceptical of 'discrete step' changes after so many years of pain with little progress, but I can now say I am convinced it is possible to have significant and enduring large shifts in how you approach yourself, your life and your pursuits.

Now, this person is definitely a bit of an outlier, but only somewhat. I get a client who gets utterly transformed in less than five sessions maybe... 1-3 times a year? Whereas some smaller but still significant change in a session or two, like a client saying that the first session with me feels more useful than all of the therapy they previously had combined, feels basically just normal and expected at this point. And anecdotally this - going from very little previous experience to hearing "wow you're better than all the 'real' therapists I saw previously" - seems like a common experience for people who start doing offering kind of coaching or therapy that effectively focuses on memory reconsolidation.

Maybe it's just personal fit, and my personality happens to match super-well with some people and then they get enormous benefits, and the problem was that none of the ordinary therapists they tried were an equally good match? And this is also the case with everyone else I keep hearing stories from? I guess that could be the case, but...

I realize that this is still very anecdotal. But my perspective is something like: my experience is that either I have personally benefited massively from these things or I am utterly delusional to the point of not being able to trust anything about my own experience, many of my friends who have done something similar give me plausible accounts of how they have benefited massively from these things, many of my clients give me plausible accounts of how they have benefited massively from these things... and main point against is that some controversial studies have difficulty establishing that the methods are effective, at least depending on who you ask and how you analyze them, and this seems like the kind of thing that is just really hard to analyze with RCTs in general.

And also, things being hard to analyze with RCTs is a common thing! Famously, nobody did an RCT measuring the effectiveness of parachutes against a control group without them, before parachutes became broadly used. If someone tells me that their name is Mark, I tend to believe that this is their name, even though it'd be really hard for me to run an RCT establishing this. Of all the things that I know and act based on, only a very small portion of it is something that can be established with RCTs.

Now, of course, just the fact that I'm convinced doesn't mean that you would have a reason to be convinced. It's totally valid to go "Okay but I still think you're just going by anecdotal evidence and possibly deluding yourself". And maybe I am! But again, that doesn't seem like the most likely hypothesis to me.


Talking about Buddhism and meditation more specifically, there are various findings showing results, e.g. this summary from the book Altered Traits:

... at the start of contemplative practice, little or nothing seems to change in us. After continued practice, we notice some changes in our way of being, but they come and go. Finally, as practice stabilizes, the changes are constant and enduring, with no fluctuation. They are altered traits.

Taken as a whole, the data on meditation track a rough vector of progressive transformations, from beginners through the long-term meditators and on to the yogis. This arc of improvement seems to reflect both lifetime hours of practice as well as time on retreat with expert guidance.

The studies of beginners typically look at the impacts from under 100 total hours of practice—and as few as 7. The long-term group, mainly vipassana meditators, had a mean of 9,000 lifetime hours (the range ran from 1,000 to 10,000 hours and more).

And the yogis studied in Richie’s lab, had all done at least one Tibetan-style three-year retreat, with lifetime hours up to Mingyur’s 62,000. Yogis, on average had three times more lifetime hours than did long-term meditators—9,000 hours versus 27,000.

A few long-term vipassana meditators had accumulated more than 20,000 lifetime hours and one or two up to 30,000, though none had done a three-year retreat, which became a de facto distinguishing feature of the yogi group. Despite the rare overlaps in lifetime hours, the vast majority of the three groups fall into these rough categories.

There are no hard-and-fast lifetime hour cutoffs for the three levels, but research on them has clustered in particular ranges. We’ve organized meditation’s benefits into three dose-response levels, roughly mapping on the novice to amateur to professional rankings found in expertise of all kinds, from ballerinas to chess champions. [...]

Sticking with meditation over the years offers more benefits as meditators reach the long-term range of lifetime hours, around 1,000 to 10,000 hours. This might mean a daily meditation session, and perhaps annual retreats with further instruction lasting a week or so—all sustained over many years. The earlier effects deepen, while others emerge.

For example, in this range we see the emergence of neural and hormonal indicators of lessened stress reactivity. In addition, functional connectivity in the brain in a circuit important for emotion regulation is strengthened, and cortisol, a key hormone secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stress, lessens.

Loving-kindness and compassion practice over the long term enhance neural resonance with another person’s suffering, along with concern and a greater likelihood of actually helping. Attention, too, strengthens in many aspects with long-term practice: selective attention sharpens, the attentional blink diminishes, sustained attention becomes easier, and an alert readiness to respond increases. And long-term practitioners show enhanced ability to down-regulate the mind-wandering and self-obsessed thoughts of the default mode, as well as weakening connectivity within those circuits—signifying less self-preoccupation. These improvements often show up during meditative states, and generally tend to become traits.

Shifts in very basic biological processes, such as a slower breath rate, occur only after several thousand hours of practice. Some of these impacts seem more strongly enhanced by intensive practice on retreat than by daily practice.

While evidence remains inconclusive, neuroplasticity from long-term practice seems to create both structural and functional brain changes, such as greater working connection between the amygdala and the regulatory circuits in the prefrontal areas. And the neural circuits of the nucleus accumbens associated with “wanting” or attachment appear to shrink in size with longer-term practice.

While in general we see a gradient of shifts with more lifetime meditation hours, we suspect there are different rates of change in disparate neural systems. For instance, the benefits of compassion come sooner than does stress mastery. We expect studies in the future will fill in the details of a dose-response dynamic for various brain circuits. Intriguing signs suggest that long-term meditators to some degree undergo state-by-trait effects that enhance the potency of their practice. Some elements of the meditative state, like gamma waves, may continue during sleep.

Now as I recall, the book does have a number of caveats about how many of the studies on meditation are low-quality, relatively small, et cetera. But again, there are again serious challenges to running an RCT - sure you can do a study where you give someone a limited meditation intervention, like asking them to do some meditation practice for a month. But if some of the benefits are going to start showing up around 1,000 hours of practice and some at 10,000, you can't just find a random assortment of people who have never meditated before and tell them to do thousands of hours of it or to go on month- or year-long retreats.


Thanks for such a thorough response! I have enjoyed reading your stuff over the years, from all the spirituality-positive people I find your approach especially lucid and reasonable, up there with David Chapman's.

I also agree with many of the object-level claims that you say spiritual practices helped you reach, like the multi-agent model of mind, cognitive fusion, etc. But, since I seem to be able to make sense of them without having to meditate myself, it has always left me bemused as to whether meditation really is the "royal road" to these kinds of insight, and if whatever extra it might offer is worth the effort. Like, for example, I already rate my life satisfaction at around 7, and this seems adequate given my objective circumstances.

So, I guess, my real question for the therapy and spirituality-positive people is why they think that their evidence for believing what they believe is stronger than that of other people in that field who have different models/practices/approaches but about the same amount of evidence for its effectiveness. Granted that RCTs aren't always, or even often, easy, but it seems to me that the default response to lack of strong evidence of that sort, or particularly reliable models of reality like those that justify trusting parachutes even in the absence of RCTs, is to be less sure that you have grasped the real thing. I have no reason to doubt that plenty of therapists/coaches etc. have good evidence that something that they do works, but having a good, complete explanation of what exactly works or why is orders of magnitude harder, and I don't think that anybody in the world could reasonably claim to have the complete picture, or anything close to it.

I think cognitive understanding is overrated and physical changes to the CNS are underrated, as explanations for positive change from practices.

I have enjoyed reading your stuff over the years, from all the spirituality-positive people I find your approach especially lucid and reasonable, up there with David Chapman.

Thank you! That's high praise. :)

But, since I seem to be able to make sense of them without having to meditate myself, it always left me bemused as to whether meditation really is the "royal road" to these kinds of insight, and if whatever extra it might offer is worth the effort. 

Heh, I remember that at one point, a major point of criticism about people talking about meditation on LW was that they were saying something like "you can't understand the benefits of meditation without actually meditating so I'm not going to try, it's too ineffable". Now that I've tried explained things, people wonder what the point of meditating might be if they can understand the explanation without meditating themselves. :) (I'm not annoyed or anything, just amused. And I realize that you're not one of the people who was making this criticism before.)

Anyway, I'd say it's one thing to understand an explanation of the general mechanism of how insights are gotten, and another to actually experience the insights from the inside in a way that shifts your unconscious predictions.

That being said, is it worth the effort for you? I don't know, we kinda concluded in our dialogue that it might not be for everyone. And there are risks too. Maybe give some of it a try if you haven't already, see if you feel motivated to continue doing it for the immediate benefits, and then just stick to reading about it out of curiosity if not?

So, I guess, my real question for the therapy and spirituality-positive people is why they think that their evidence for believing what they believe is stronger than that of other people in that field who have different models/practices/approaches but about the same amount of evidence for its effectiveness. 

Good question. One thing that I'm particularly confused about is why me and Scott Alexander seem to have such differing views on the effectiveness of the "weird therapies". My current position is just something like... "people seem to inhabit genuinely different worlds for reasons that are somewhat mysterious, so they will just have different experiences and priors leading to different beliefs, and often you just have to go with your own beliefs even if other smart people disagree because just substituting the beliefs of others for your own doesn't seem like a good either". And then hopefully if we continue discussing our reasons for our beliefs for long enough, at some point someone will figure out something.

My current epistemic position is also like... it would be interesting to understand the reason, and I don't have a great model of where the disagreement comes from. And I'm happy to discuss it with people who might disagree. But it also doesn't feel like a huge priority, given that I do feel convinced enough that these things work on a level that's sufficient for me.

I have no reason to doubt that plenty of therapists/coaches etc. have good evidence that something that they do works, but believing that they have a good and complete explanation of what exactly works or why is orders of magnitude harder, and I don't think that anybody in the world could reasonably claim to have the complete picture, or anything close to it.

Yes I definitely agree with this.


and another to actually experience the insights from the inside in a way that shifts your unconscious predictions.

Right, so my experience around this is that I'm probably one of the lucky ones in that I've never really had those sorts of internal conflicts that make people claim that they suffer from akrasia, or excessive shame/guilt/regret. I've always been at peace with myself in this sense, and so reading people trying to explain their therapy/spirituality insights usually makes me go "Huh, so apparently this stuff doesn't come naturally to most people, shame that they have to bend themselves backwards to get to where I have always been. Cool that they have developed all these neat theoretical constructions meanwhile though."

Maybe give some of it a try if you haven’t already, see if you feel motivated to continue doing it for the immediate benefits, and then just stick to reading about it out of curiosity if not?

Trying to dismiss the content of my thoughts does seem to help me fall asleep faster (sometimes), so there's that at least :)

I think western psychotherapies are predicated on incorrect models of human psychology. RCTs mostly can't capture the effects of serious practice over a long period of time, but of the ones that have tried, the most robust effect is lowered neuroticism, afaik. This was also my experience. It corresponded to a big positive shift subjectively, as well as expressions of shock from friends and family about the change.


I think western psychotherapies are predicated on incorrect models of human psychology.

Yet they all seem to have positive effects of similar magnitude. This suggests that we don't understand the mechanism through which they actually work, and it seems straightforward to expect that this extends to less orthodox practices.

RCTs mostly can’t capture the effects of serious practice over a long period of time

But my understanding is that benefits of (good) spiritual practices are supposed to be continuous, if not entirely linear. However much effort you invest correlates with the amount of benefits you get, until enlightenment and becoming as gods.

Was not linear for me afaict

I don't think there's anything wrong with cultivating a warrior archetype; I strive to cultivate one myself.


Would love to read more on this.

King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine is the classic reading  recommendation for archetypes. 

Do you want to mention where on e.g. the MCTB (https://www.mctb.org/) maps you two would be? Just to get a perspective on your perspective. 

I'm guessing you're referring to his revised four path model? It doesn't quite match my experience and he devotes quite a bit of time (as do other teachers I respect) on why attainments are a bit fraught. I had two experiences after several years of practice that caused large portions of previously inscrutable dharma material to click into place, and they roughly corresponded to how people were describing things in first and second path. The first one corresponded to (among other things) dramatically heightened access to meditative states, the second to a large decrease in suffering and percepts of how suffering is constructed. I go into more detail on the video interview on my blog.

Thanks, for the answer(s). Watched the video as well, always cool to hear about other peoples journeys. If you want there is a discordserver (MD) with some pretty advanced practitioners (3rd/4th path) you and/or Kaj could join (for some data points or practice or fun, feels more useful than Dharmaoverground these days).

Not sure whether different enlightenment levels would be more recommendable for random people.

E.g. stream-entry might be relatively easy and helpful, but then there is a "risk" of spending the next years trying to get 2nd/3rd/4th. It's such a transformative experience that it's hard to predict on an individual level what the person will do afterwards.

That sounds fun, feel free to message me with an invite. :)

stream-entry might be relatively easy and helpful

Worth noting that stream entry isn't necessarily a net positive either:

However, if you’ve ever seen me answer the question “What is stream entry like,” you know that my answer is always “Stream entry is like the American invasion of Iraq.” It’s taking a dictatorship that is pretty clearly bad and overthrowing it (where the “ego,” a word necessarily left undefined, serves as dictator). While in theory this would cause, over time, a better government to form, it will assuredly leave a period without any government, when the day-to-day functions of government are simply not carried out. The path is supposed to be about, as the Buddha says, “Suffering and the end of suffering,” but as far as I’ve seen, the correlation between stream entry and suffering is about 0; suffering is as likely to get better as it is to get worse. Whether it’s better to have a pre-awakening dictatorship or a post-awakening anarchy is basically a toss-up. Upali and I like to describe stream entry as “a big flaming turd of false advertisement,” as we both experienced quite extreme suffering subsequent to stream entry.

but as far as I’ve seen, the correlation between stream entry and suffering is about 0; suffering is as likely to get better as it is to get worse.

I assume the correlation of 0 is hyperbolic. From what I have heard (and my own experience) it seems to reduce suffering. Ingram often mentions lots of people confusing the A&P with Streamentry and then of course afterwards they will be suffering more in the DN. The criteria he mentioned in the post also can't necessarily separate between A&P and Streamentry so I am wondering how often that happens in his bubble. Especially when he then says second path almost always reduces suffering. 
However, I could see the psychological things and suffering happen but I would want to see the data and environment in which it is happening. I will take his statement as a small update. I also know one person who had problems with DP/DR after their second path (though it was a weird one kind of getting them up in the seen there is only the seen).

> Ultimately, the only reason awakening is important is that it amplifies these characteristics, so I’d suggest – and I know you probably won’t like this, since you’re reading an article on awakening – that you ignore awakening and focus instead on the day-to-day (or maybe week-to-week) benefits of meditation.
As long as you tell them about the Dark Night and don't tell them they have Streamentry after their A&P, that seems fine.

> So What Is Stream Entry Like? citing After the ecstasy the laundry
It more tells stories and vibes than anything detailed phenomenology and changes (maybe someone else could translate it into something more clear). I enjoyed the book for the stories though.

I know there is at least one study by the EPRC happening on the effects of meditation on the sense of self (valenced positively or negatively) maybe we will get some data in the next years. 
I would be >80% that in a typical pragmatic dharma setting Streamentry reduces suffering for >70% of people.

The guy is not my vibe so I looked for some positive things to think about him, he mentioned seeing the paradox constantly which is pretty cool and on his website he has some other people to contact if one is studying with him but feeling like there is something you can't mention to him.

Carl Jung is a perfect exemplar of all of that, because when he had his extended episode of such after his break with Freud, he indeed had a period where his ego was completely toast and nonfunctional, as he tells it.

BTW when I was 16, and my family and I had landed in Germany, I was suffering from a very bad case of jet lag, and in said state of utter exhaustion dreamt of Jung's Man Eater:


Every basic detail was the same: the underground cavern, the sense that the thing was alive and very dangerous, the platform it was on, and most certainly the primal terror.  I didn't hear my mother's voice tho-my family was actually eating dinner at the time (I stumbled out of bed in my extreme panic to try to find them in the hotel restaurant, ended up wearing my younger sister's jeans which of course were too small, wrapped a towel around myself, to their amusement).

An ancient phallic fertility god, as he described it.  It happened in Baden Baden, 100 years after his and about 100 miles north of where he was living in Switzerland.

I've never really managed to locate myself on the MCTB maps. Sometimes I'll have a brief period when it feels like some particular stage might fit my experience, but then that stops being the case.

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