Blue and Green are references to the MTG Color Wheel personalities. (Very fun reading, but not required to understand this post.)

Ms. Blue: Hi, Mr. Green! Heard you’ve been traveling recently. Where have you been?

Mr. Green: Oh, I’m so glad you asked! I just came back from Bali. I went to a three weeks long workshop, where they taught us to align our chakras and channel cosmic energy into our third eye. I’ve gone to different astral planes, became one with the universe, and communed with god.

Ms. Blue: *Slowly walks backwards, takes out her phone, and starts dialing the local psychiatric hospital.*

Mr. Green: Hey, I’m not crazy!

I’m sure most of you have met or heard someone who used this kind of language. I’ve heard it called woo-woo or woo-speak. I’m going to refer to it as “mystical language” here, but I’m open to a better name. For most you, this language is probably an instant cue to tune out the listener. They’re obviously out of touch with reality and what they are saying is such garbage, that it’s not even worth listening to. I certainly used to have that exact reaction. In this post, I want to show how to approach and understand this language, how to learn it, and how you might even derive some benefit from it.

Understanding the language

“Consciousness is a quantum leap from the physical to the non-physical dimension.” --Sadhguru

I think one particularly annoying thing to Ms. Blue and her tribe is how mystical language often borrows words and concepts from physics, e.g. quantum, energy, dimensions, reality, and so on. In physics, there is a clear separation of the map and the territory. The territory is the source of truth; it’s the thing that doesn’t go away when you close your eyes. Everyone can look at it and agree on what they’re seeing. The map is the model we have of the world. If this model is good, it can make accurate predictions about the territory.

The mystical language has something similar. The territory, however, is your own mind: all the sensations as they are occurring in this moment. If you’re looking at a candle, you will likely have multiple sensations associated with it: the visual sensation of the candle, the brightness sensation from the light, the smell of the burning wax, a warm sensation from the flame, perhaps a sense of an observer who is watching the candle. Our mind does a good job of taking related sensations and combining them into one. Normally when you look at a candle, the only sensation you’re aware of is “there is a candle.” With a bit of effort you can see the other sensations I’ve listed.

The map of this mystical territory is the mystical language, which we use to describe the internal experience of our minds. If you close your eyes, some of those candle sensations go away. In the mystical language, we’d say they stop being real. We don’t care about the objective / physical candle. In the mystical world view there is no “candle” per se, there are only sensations in your mind. In fact, if the candle wasn’t even lit and your eyes are closed, the candle would altogether stop being real. There wouldn’t be any sensations in your mind associated with it. It’s no longer part of the territory. (If you’re still thinking about the candle, though, then that thought is real and part of the territory.)

Using this language we can build models. This is where all the traditions, some of which have existed for thousands of years, come into play. A lot of them communicate models that predict what internal experience you’ll have if you perform certain actions. Or they give you tools that help you adjust your internal experience to achieve some goal.

Now, it just so happens that the mystical language borrowed a lot of words from physics. But the way they're used is different. Let’s look at this sentence together: “once you become enlightened, you’ll see the true nature of reality.” Ms. Blue would say: “Reality is made of subatomic particles. You can’t just see them, unless you’re using a very special kind of equipment. Being enlightened certainly won’t let you perceive atoms.” But what the sentence is really saying: “once you become enlightened, you will have an extremely clear view of all the sensations in your mind.”

(To be clear, enlightenment is a very complicated topic. There are many definitions and much debate around them. For this and other concepts in this post, I’ll be presenting a pretty simplified view. My primary goal is to help you understand the mystical language. Once you do, you can learn the concepts and derive your own definitions. Because the definitions are ultimately grounded in your internal experiences, they lose a lot of fidelity once translated into words.)

In general, if you translate all mystical statements to be talking about the internal experiences, they’ll make a lot more sense. Let’s take a few common mystical concepts and see how we can translate them.

Energy -- there are sensations that form a feeling of something liquid (or gaseous) that moves within or outside of your body. When unpacked, it’s likely to be made up of sensations of light (visual), warmth, tingling, and tension (physical). “Channeling energy” is adjusting your state of mind so as to cause these sensations to “move” in a certain way, to appear or disappear.

Chakras -- points in your body where it’s particularly easy to feel certain types of energies. It’s also particularly easy to visualize / feel the energy moving into or out of those places. “Aligning chakras” is about adjusting your state of mind so as to cause the energy to flow evenly through all chakras.
(Chakras are a great example of a model that pays rent. You can read about chakras, see what predictions people are making about your internal experience when you explore chakras, and then you can go and explore them within yourself to see if the predictions are accurate.)

Koans -- “A mountain is a mountain. A mountain is not a mountain.” While you read a koan, you are supposed to carefully watch what’s going on in your mind. Often your mind will stumble at some point. By looking at the details of that stumble, seeing all the sensations that it’s made of, one can progress in insight. (More on insight later.)

(Compare this with a mystical definition: “You're supposed to understand the koan and by understanding it, forget what you think you understand and free your mind, which then leads to a progress of insight.”)

Tarot -- again, this is about carefully watching your mind. (Have you noticed a pattern yet?) You don’t need to understand or believe what the psychic or the cards tell you. Just watch what’s happening in your mind. If you ask: “Is my relationship going to work out?”, notice what sensations arise in that moment. Is there hope? Fear? Warmth? Tension? Black void? Untranscribable sensation #72? How do the sensations change when you’re told that the card that just came up represents opportunity? What are you hoping for? What are you quietly trying to push out of your mind? How do you feel when you notice how you feel?

Auras -- when you look at a person and they are scowling, you might conclude that they are angry. They have a “danger” aura. If I blurred their face, and you were particularly perceptive, you might feel the aura even then, based on their body language or other cues. Some people can pick up on pretty surprising things, like a person being sick or struggling with an internal dilemma, all the way to being able to “see” things about their future.
Auras are subconscious visual representations of emotions (how a person is making you feel / presenting themselves) that you become conscious of. Some people actually have the sensation of seeing the aura, where it’s as real to them as the candle light.

(Again, if someone says: “Hmm, I can tell by your aura that you’re going through some hard times right now. But the orange edges tell me that it’s going to pass soon.” Ms. Blue would reply: “You can’t tell the future! Auras aren’t real.” Mr. Green would say: “Interesting. I have been somewhat anxious recently about my job. I’m curious why you think it’ll get better? Maybe I should leave it?”)

Self -- “there is no self”, “the self just gets in the way”, “once you practice enough, you’ll have access to the true self.” One quality that’s present in a lot of sensations is the feeling of “this is me.” Remember the candle example? There are a lot of sensations that your mind forms into an overall sensation of a “candle.” Likewise, there are a lot of sensations that your mind forms into an overall sensation of “self.” With some practice you can get pretty good at unpacking this sensation of “self” into the more granular sensation blocks from which it’s made. Once you get good at doing that, it becomes less and less meaningful to say that something is the “self”. By analogy: is the warmth of the candle the candle? Is the light? Is the smell?

If you recall from this post: “... even after you know whether an object is blue or red, egg or cube, furred or smooth, bright or dark, and whether it contains vanadium or palladium, it feels like there's a leftover, unanswered question: But is it really a blegg?” There is a similar kind of confusion going on with the sensation of “self”. Once you named all the sensations that the “self” is made of, it feels like there is an unanswered question of “but where is ‘me’?” Your mind usually assembles it for you, but it’s not that useful, actually. Once you’ve seen the reality of your sensations, there is nothing more that needs to be said. There is no "self" because you're seeing through it (seeing clearly the components from which it's made, which no longer have the "this is me" quality).

Many words in mystical speech are indirect pointers to some experiences. If you follow those pointers, you can often induce those experiences inside your own mind so you can take a look at them, or so you can use them as tools to achieve some goal. And at higher levels, mystical speech can actually induce certain experiences in your mind with little effort on your part. (More on that later.)

(By the way, if there is some cryptic text you were always curious about, try translating it using this framework. Post about it in comments. If you still feel confused about it, we can figure it out together.)

Of course, most people aren’t very good at tracking the distinction between the map and the territory. (Mystical or not.) For example, they have a very strong sensation that their plane is going to crash. They assume that the reality of the sensation translates directly into the objective reality: they've seen the future and their plane is actually going to crash! Normally, your System 2 should save you from these kinds of mistakes, but just like some rationalists rely very heavily on their System 2 (because it’s so developed), some mystical people rely very heavily on their System 1 (because it’s so developed).

Borrowing words from physics also confuses a lot of people as well. There are definitely some people who, when they say “I’m able to feel every particle in my body”, actually believe that they’re able to feel every physical particle in the their body. So, while you’re now able to understand the internal experience they’re referring to and can engage with them on that Green level, you probably won’t get anywhere if you start talking about physics (Blue level).

Learning it

“Morpheus: Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

So how do you learn to understand and to speak this language? Unfortunately, you can read all you want about it, but that’s not going to help you that much. Reading might help with inferential distance, but it’s not going to help with experiential distance. The best course of action is to actually practice looking inside your mind and carefully pay attention to what you’re seeing. There are several ways of doing it, but the most common one is meditation.

I’d claim there are fundamentally two types of meditation. One that practices looking at the sensations and one the practices visualizing (or manipulating) certain sensations. Many practices do a bit of both. Vipassana and Zen lean heavily on the “looking” side. Concentration and energy practices (like tantra) lean heavily on the “visualizing” side.

Notice that neither of these practices are about clearing your mind and having no thoughts! There are many benefits one gets from practicing meditation (more on those below). People hear about those benefits (like a more clear and calm mind) and then think that the way to get there is by forcing yourself to be like that (keep your mind completely empty, fight hard against every thought that comes). It’s like trying to become rich by buying yachts.

I could write a lot about various practices and which ones I think are useful. I certainly have some strong opinions there. But this is not the point of the article. I’ll just say that if you decide to practice, it’s helpful to have someone to talk to. Someone who has gone through what you’re going to go through. They can understand what you’ll be experiencing and help point out the next steps. There are some practices that can be somewhat temporarily destabilizing, and it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself into and have someone to help you get across those bumps.

What are the benefits?

“Neo: What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
Morpheus: No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”

If you practice running, you’ll get better at running. If you practice writing, you’ll get better at writing. If you practice looking inside your mind and paying attention to the sensations that arise moment to moment… you’ll gain immense internal clarity.

There are two primary skills one builds with meditation. First is concentration: ability to focus your attention on an object of your choice (measured by how much of your attention is given to the object, for how long, and with how few distractions). Second is insight: how clearly are you seeing the fundamental sensation blocks from which your mind builds the higher sensations (measured by how automatic it is, how granular the sensations are, and how many of them you can see at once).

There are a lot of benefits you can get from concentration. You can enjoy things more deeply. You can more easily ”give the person you’re interacting with your complete, genuine, interested attention.” At higher levels you can change your mood, attain intense states of bliss and tranquility, or channel your inner divine being.

There are also great benefits you get from insight. It becomes much easier to deal with negative emotions, like depression or anxiety. It’s not that they don’t happen anymore, but they lose the power to suck you in, to drag you along, to capture your mind hostage and make everything about them. Instead, it’s as if someone wrote on the wall: “You’re sad! You’re having a bad day!” Uhm, okay..? It’s not that you don’t see it or that the sensations aren’t there. They just lose a lot of their power over you.

With high levels of insight, it becomes much easier to access and talk about your internal state, especially when you can use the mystical language and are talking to someone who understands it. When I went to see Jak Noble, a practitioner of Chi Nei Tsang, we had a 45 minute chat before the first session. He was often referring to the Five Elements, which I haven’t studied. But by carefully listening to him and noticing what sensations he was pointing at, I quickly learned to understand what he was saying. I allowed his words to guide my internal experience until I was see what he was pointing at, which would then let me work on that problem or pick up a new technique. We were able to make significant progress in the first session, where he gave me advice that not only made sense to System 2, but made deep sense to System 1 as well, because it was seeing the advice through the eyes of this new framework. (This and similar, more powerful types of experiences are called “transmissions”. And it’s one of the reasons working with a good teacher can be very helpful. They can say words that will induce certain sensations in your mind and cause your mind to take the steps necessary for progress or insight.)

The final gift of insight is enlightenment. Enlightenment is a permanent state your mind enters where all the sensations are perceived extremely clearly and automatically. Depending on the kind of practice you do, you will get some of these benefits on the way there. This is very useful for all tasks where you’re required to look within. Focusing, Circling, most kinds of therapy, and even just day-to-day existence.

A lot of the dialogue examples I’ve given so far were very heavy on mystical language. But, I think almost all speech has some measure of it. (Scientific speech being one notable exception.) When someone says: “follow your heart,” that’s partially mystical language. In fact, most social conversations are about feeling good and helping the other person feel good. The information that’s being conveyed in the meantime is often secondary. Recently a few people wrote very System 1 heavy posts on LessWrong and felt like the comments were nitpicky. I have a sense that those commenters focused too much on the literal content of the blog post, without paying attention to what it made them feel, the landscape of sensations and internal experiences it opened up. If you see that landscape, you want to go and play in it, you want to go explore it. If you don’t see it… well, you’re just stuck looking at a page with some words on it.

Ms. Red: In front of you is a golden arch. Heavy purple curtains hang from the top, obscuring the entrance. They are gently swaying back and forth in the wind. You do not see what’s behind them.

Ms. Blue: Golden? Like, real gold or fake gold? How tall is the arch? And why are the curtains swinging back and forth? Shouldn’t the wind be in one direction?

Mr. Green: I pull back the curtains and walk through the arch.

The deep end

“Morpheus: You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Yes, things can get even weirder. With high levels of insight and concentration, your mind is sensitive enough to notice the smallest thoughts/emotions patterns and powerful enough to zoom in on them and make them real (in the mystical sense). You can have experiences of visiting other dimensions (while sober), feeling intense and deep connection to nature, seeing angels, and, yes, you can even get the feeling of being with god.

We are more tolerant if these things happen to us in a dream, but when the same internal experience happens to us when we’re awake, we might panic or make a bigger deal out of it than it is. Part of a good training is to learn to recognize these experiences just as they are: temporary, mental constructs. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn useful lessons from them, but you have be careful not to start thinking they are objectively real. (Probably not going to be an issue for rationalists.)

I’ll add that for most people most of these mystical experiences will be on the milder side. In fact, the more powerful an experience is, the fewer people will experience it. There is definitely a power law at play here. (Also, if you’re the type of person who has very rich internal imagery, you’re more likely to “see” things. I do not, for example. So when I do experience some of these things, they come through more on the somatic and conceptual channels.)

How far these “powers” go is not quite clear to me, though I am extremely curious. On the far end, I’m very sure there is no person who can read my mind and tell me the nine digits I’m thinking of. (If this happens, I’ll convert on the spot.) But in the middle, things get pretty interesting. I’ll leave you with two stories. I’m as sure as I can be that both of these have happened exactly as described, and that the people in them experienced exactly what’s described. I don’t have a scientific explanation, though I'm sure one exists.

Story 1: My brother, Vasily, was sitting at a restaurant. His friend, Kevin, an avid practitioner of esoteric energy and magick traditions, was sitting diagonally across the table from him. Energy practices are in general pretty well known for inducing strange experiences, so my brother asked Kevin to show off his skills. Kevin asked Vasily to close his eyes, which he did. A few seconds later Vasily felt a small burst of energy in the space beside his right rib, as if the space there was stretched. Vasily didn’t say anything, but Kevin asked: “Did you feel that?” Vasily opened his eyes and asked: “Felt what?” Kevin motioned to show the space stretching near his ribs: “That energy.”

Story 2: Kiran Trace was visiting a very dear friend of hers, Christopher. She entered his apartment and saw him at the other end of the room. Suddenly, she felt a ball of energy leave her heart chakra and float towards the middle of room; as did his. The two energies met in the middle and circled each other. Kiran pointed to it without saying anything, and Christopher pointed to it too, saying: "That's love."

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
27 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:23 PM

I think I would have really liked this post to be split into two parts: 1. A descriptive post about the ontology/worldviews of mysticism, and general introduction into the ideas of phenomenology 2. A prescriptive post recommending certain meditation practices or highlighting positive experiences in your interactions with mysticism.

As it stands, I find myself skeptical of the benefits you describe, and continue to expect a very high cost that comes from engaging with things that try very hard to break down the map/territory distinction. But, I am strongly in favor of practicing phenomenology and think that introspection practices offer a large array of potential benefits. Right now I feel uncomfortable upvoting this post, because I did leave with a feeling of sloppy reasoning when you advocated the benefits of mystic practices, and think this area is one in which rigorous reasoning is of particularly high importance (because of the strong attractor of conflating the map with the territory).

To be clear, I really liked the parts of this post that described the mysticism worldview through a descriptive lens, and expect to benefit a bunch from it.

things that try very hard to break down the map/territory distinction.

None of the mysticism/woo I've dabbled in has involved breaking map/territory distinctions, and that's not where any of the value in it's come from for me. Almost all of the value's been in giving me better tools for introspection, accessing my body, and understanding other people.

I'm also worried about this post being insufficiently rigorous. I didn't finish reading it because I expected to wince.

Yeah, splitting it into two parts would have been better.

What exactly do you mean by "things that try very hard to break down the map/territory distinction"?

(This post was recently linked to by Kaj Sotala as a good explanation of “woo” topics, which is why I am commenting on it now.)

“Neo: What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets? Morpheus: No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”

So, the thing about this quote is, it’s actually a great example of someone giving a willfully obscurantist and unhelpful and untrue answer to a perfectly sensible question.

After all, Neo really does learn to dodge bullets. He does! Look, here is a video:

There’s Neo, dodging bullets like nobody’s business.

I’m not the first to notice that Morpheus seems to simply have been bad at explaining things. If he had genuinely been interested in answering Neo’s question, instead of trying to sound like a cryptic mystical mentor stereotype, mightn’t Morpheus have said something more like:

Morpheus: Yes, Neo. That is exactly what I’m telling you. You are going to learn how to dodge bullets. And you will gain a number of other very impressive superpowers—many of which will also be useful in combat. In fact, some of those superpowers may well obviate any need for you to dodge bullets! (For example, by telekinetically controlling the bullets so that they don’t even hit you, or by just destroying your enemies with a thought, etc.) But, of course, you will totally also be able to dodge bullets if that’s what you feel is appropriate in any given situation.

The point, if you like, is that if you’re asked to explain some “woo” or “mysticism” or whatever, and you find yourself sounding like Morpheus sounds in the movie, you’re doing it wrong.

I’m as sure as I can be that both of these have happened exactly as described, and that the people in them experienced exactly what’s described. … [two stories]

You say that you’re as sure as you can be that these things happened as you describe. Fair enough. The problem is that “as sure as you can be” is not, actually, very sure at all! In fact, given what you’ve described, you really have almost no reason to believe that these events happened as you say—and plenty of reason not to so believe. In other words, the evidence you have for believing that these events took place as described, is extremely weak; and their prior probability is very, very low. Based on what you have told us, the correct epistemic state for you to be in, concerning these two events, is “they probably did not happen as I have here described them”.

What is important to note, here, is that your evaluation of the state of the evidence in these cases, your conclusions about them, and your judgment of their value as illustrative cases for your post’s claims and general perspective, themselves all constitute Bayesian evidence—for the reader—toward evaluating this post, and the claims therein.

The point, if you like, is that if you’re asked to explain some “woo” or “mysticism” or whatever, and you find yourself sounding like Morpheus sounds in the movie, you’re doing it wrong.

One thing that's interesting about explanations and tutoring is that often, when a student asks a question, two things come up: the answer to the question as they asked it and the question they should have asked instead. On StackOverflow, this gets referred to as the XY problem. The general advice there lines up with yours--both answer the question they asked, and point at how they could know whether or not it's the right question--but it's not obvious to me that also applies for non-technical contexts, where these moments of frustration with one's model or approach might be the primary opportunities for making progress on the Y problem. If that opportunity would evaporate when you presented a solution to X, then Morpheus's strategy seems better.

… these mo­ments of frus­tra­tion with one’s model or ap­proach might be the pri­mary op­por­tu­ni­ties for mak­ing progress on the Y prob­lem. If that op­por­tu­nity would evap­o­rate when you pre­sented a solu­tion to X, then Mor­pheus’s strat­egy seems bet­ter.

I am highly skeptical of such claims—but for the sake of argument, let’s grant the possibility, in full and without reservation.

Now suppose I ask you such an “X question”, and you do the usual thing, where you refuse to answer my question, or claim that you are answering it but actually give a Morpheus-style non-answer, etc., all because (so you claim) you’re trying to help me progress on the “Y problem”.

And suppose that actually there is an answer to my question, and you do know this answer, and thus you could, if you wanted to, simply answer my question (while knowing that ultimately, in some greater or more important sense, the answer will not help me).

And now suppose I say to you: “Yes, yes, I understand that you think answering my ‘X question’ won’t help me; I understand that you’re trying to help me solve some ‘Y problem’ that you think is actually my problem, or that you think is more important, etc., etc. I understand that you’re trying to be helpful. But I want you to answer my actual question anyway.”

If, in response to this, you still refuse to give a straight answer (again, recall that we’re assuming that you could easily answer my “X question”!), then I must conclude that you are—and I hope you’ll forgive the language—rather a huge asshole. Because that’s what it is, when you judge yourself to have more right to make decisions on my behalf than I do, in direct contravention to my explicitly stated choices, and when you so blatantly disregard my agency. After all, what else is it, to say: “No, for all your protestations, I simply know better than you what information you should acquire and when and how and in what order, and what your goals ought to be vis-a-vis your epistemic advancement; and I, and not you, have the right to decide what you ought to be told, and what you ought not be told; and your wishes in the matter are simply irrelevant.”

… the other possibility, of course, is that one of our assumptions fails to hold. (Perhaps the one about there actually being an answer to the “X question”, and you knowing the answer?)

In any case, that’s the dilemma: blatant disregard for agency and autonomy, or intellectual fraud. Either is entirely possible, a priori; in tech-oriented communities I have encountered quite a bit of the former, for example. Determining which of these is the case for the topic at hand is, I suppose, an exercise for the reader.

EDIT: What is also, in my experience, quite indicative, is whether the answer-giver admits that he could simply answer the given “X question”, and makes his refusal straightforward; or whether he gives (apparently-)obscurantist responses even to attempts to determine his policy.

For example, I have encountered situations where a technical “X question” was asked, and a knowledgeable respondent, upon being pressed by the questioner, said something along these lines: “Yes, indeed I could simply answer your question, which does, as stated, have a straightforward answer, which I know and could give you. But I will not do this; because if I do, then whatever task you’re trying to accomplish, you will mess up, and you will—believe me, newbie, I’ve seen this play out many times before!—you will be angry at me, and you’ll come back here and you’ll have bigger problems and pester me with more questions, and all this can be avoided if you accept my judgment and advice, as I am your superior in these matters and I am telling you what you need to know, not what you want to know.”

Well, fair enough. There’s still a good chance that this person is being a jerk, of course. (But perhaps understandably so? After all, among the ranks of clueless newbies there are quite few who can take responsibility for their decisions, and who will know not to blame the honest question-answerer for their own shortsightedness…) But at least we (in the role of questioner) know where we stand! At least the respondent makes clear to us that he is outright refusing to give an answer—and we can judge him for his choices, fair and square.

But how do we judge a Morpheus-wannabe? Is he able to answer, but refuses? Or is he feeding us a line of mumbo-jumbo because there is no answer? Lack of clarity even at the conversational meta level—that is a very bad sign!

To be clear, I agree with this, which is a reason why I generally try to give the involved explanation that bridges to where (I think) the other person is; in my experience the opportunity rarely evaporates, and even if it does a straightforward refusal like you mention seems more promising.

(Re-posted from Facebook):

I like this analysis and even agree with it as far as it goes. What you seem to be describing here is something I've called 'introspective scaffolding', which helps because introspection is shallow and we're not good at it.

Once I did a similar sort of breakdown, comparing literary criticism to a kind of 'applied apophenia':

The problem I see here is the same problem I have with Sophisticated Theists who, in formal discussions, define God as a non-personal organizing principle or something.


(1) That's not what most people seem to mean when they say 'God', so we're inviting confusion;
(2) Even Sophisticated Theists often don't really behave as though this is their true definition of God, if you observe them long enough.

So perhaps you think of 'quantum physics' as being a kind of metaphor for internal states, but in fact Deepak Chopra believes the moon becomes a ceaselessly flowing superposition of possibilities when the world isn't looking at it.

For the moment we may have no better way to talk about internal states than borrowing terms and concepts from various mystical traditions. But I do think we should be careful so as to not provide succor to genuinely silly beliefs (like Chopra's), and I think if nothing else we absolutely, positively should *stop* borrowing words from quantum physicists. We're making their jobs harder, and we're making it harder to have sensible discussions about authentically valuable spiritual experiences.

Funny to see such a post right after Scott linked to a meta-analysis saying there's no evidence that mindfulness works. Mindfulness. The thing that even some anti-woo folks were hyped about.

This feels like motivated stopping to me. Scott also constantly talks about how studies never show the thing they claim to show, etc. This is a meta-analysis of studies where, I presume, people did things like get someone to teach a bunch of random people meditation, then measured the effects. If this didn't result in any noticeable improvements, it could just mean that it's hard to teach people meditation (which seems clearly true; another domain where there's many things to Goodhart on); I think has very little bearing on the question of whether rationalists should or should not, for example, try out 10-day silent meditation retreats.

Similarly I expect that if we did RCTs on the effects of reading the Sequences we would find that they had very little effect, because most people aren't prepared to understand what the Sequences have to say. That wouldn't stop me from recommending that people read the Sequences, and it wouldn't stop you either.

Edit: A better example here is all of the evidence in The Case Against Education that, to first order, people learn nothing in school except maybe basic literacy and numeracy. There are many conclusions you could try drawing from this, but you probably wouldn't conclude "well, I guess there's no evidence that history, math, science, etc. work."

In general if an intervention would only be useful to people with a certain level of cognitive ability or people willing to put in a certain level of effort, I don't expect an RCT to be capable of detecting this.

(Speaking for myself, I think I personally have gotten several important albeit subtle benefits out of doing mindfulness meditation, although it's hard to separate the effects of meditation out from all of the other stuff I've been doing. I don't think it would have done very much in isolation, but that's not how most people historically used meditation anyway: historically it's been a component of a larger spiritual practice.)

I have complicated opinions here, and don’t have time to explain all of them, so here is a quick glimpse. I wrote this quickly and in one go, so things might have varying levels of being reflectively endorsed:

I think the evidence for mathematics and formal reasoning being an effective cognitive tool is very strong, and that we should have high priors on the sequences being effective because it tries to teach those tools. The evidence for them being effective comes from the overwhelming success of quantitative methods in physics and engineering and many many other applications. I think similar things are true about the other things the sequences are trying to teach, such as getting an intuitive grasp of probabilities, studying cognitive biases, etc. which have shown up in the thinking styles of almost all good scientists I’ve studied.

I think mysticism mostly lacks this evidence-base. I think the overwhelming success of organized religion points to it being something that might be useful for collective action reasons, but not as something particularly useful for figuring things out about the world, or building things, or generally getting things done. As I think most discussions about mysticism have emphasized on the site, I am interested in evidence that there are large parts of society that have benefitted from mysticism in the way they benefited from quantitative reasoning (in the domain of getting things done, not in the domain of feeling good), or at least individuals who seem to have performed impressive feats I clearly care about.

I think for things that lack evidence as strong as the scientific revolution for its effectiveness, I think it makes sense to only look for a little while and mostly stop when they start looking as murky as everything else that claims to help people in some way or another. I think a lot of people were interested because the evidence on mindfulness was one promising sign of effectiveness, and now that that’s much murkier again, it seems very reasonable for me to stop investing resources into trying to understand this. I personally don’t think mindfulness was ever a crux for me, but it seems reasonable that it would be for others.

@Qiaochu: I would be interested in Double Cruxing about this sometime, and then maybe writing down the results from our conversation. If you are up for that.

Edit: After writing this, I think I overstated my claim above. I think there is a strong a priori argument for why phenomenology is very important, and studying how your own mind works, but I guess I am mostly not convinced that mysticism and circling and Kenshō and any of the other things that have recently been brought up are actually good at that. I think circling has the strongest argument going for it, and broad mysticism probably has some useful tools buried in a giant pile of epistemically hazardous concepts, but I can imagine changing my mind on that. I also think that in the frame of phenomenology, mathematics is one of the most powerful tools that is really good at helping you develop deeper understanding of intuitive concepts that you have, and I am much more interested in tools that look like math, than I am in tools that look like chakra.

I think the evidence for mathematics and formal reasoning being an effective cognitive tool is very strong, and that we should have high priors on the sequences being effective because it tries to teach those tools.

Effective for who? And what are your priors on how easy it is to teach things, in general? There's a big difference between "tries to teach X" and "successfully teaches X."

I think meditation and mysticism completely lack this evidence-base.

I'm not sure what you mean by this, mostly because I don't know what you think my position is on what meditation and/or mysticism can do for people. Most of my comment is arguing against what I take to be a bad argument; the only place where I describe my position is the very end, where I only describe my own experience in vague terms and don't make any claims about what other people might or might not get out of meditation.

or at least individuals who seem to have performed impressive feats I clearly care about.

I'm about to run an experiment at the CFAR office in a few weeks where I try to teach a bunch of people how to strengthen their ability to acquire trustworthy inside views / gears models through learning mathematics - exactly the sort of thing you think is important.

I would not have been capable of doing this in any of the previous years you've known me, because I spent nearly all of those years crippled by social fears that prevented me from doing anything like organizing events on my own. I've been working through these fears in all sorts of ways, but mostly through circling and tantra (although at the end improving my diet seems to have been key as well; I still don't have a great gears model of what's been happening to me). Some of the parts that sounded like woo were actually important and taught me actual skills that I actually use to resolve my emotional bugs.

and now that that’s much murkier again, it seems very reasonable for me to stop investing resources into trying to understand this.

Yeah, that's fine, I can't tell people what tradeoffs to make. The thing that bugs me about cousin_it's attitude here and in general is the dismissiveness; not just "hey, looks like the outside view evidence isn't that strong here, so inside view or bust, I guess" but "this thing is stupid and low-status and anyone who likes it is probably also stupid and low-status, after all, a meta-analysis said so."

Like, I can't tell people what CoZE experiments to run, but I'm going to continue to object to people doing what feels to me like trying to make particular classes of illegible CoZE experiments low-status to run. I think illegible CoZE experiments are important and that there are large classes of bugs you basically can't solve any other way.

Some people have the great fortune of being able to do what they want without ever running into such a bug; good for them, but I don't want those people dismissing the experiences of people who aren't so lucky.

@Qiaochu: I would be interested in Double Cruxing about this sometime, and then maybe writing down the results from our conversation. If you are up for that.

Sure, I'd be interested. Send me an email.

Ah, yes. Sorry. The motivation for writing this comment was less ”Qiaochu is wrong about something and here is why” and more “I feel something was slightly off with the framing in that two comment exchange, and here is how the trade off looks to me internally”. I should have made that clearer (writing on my phone seems to have some drawbacks I haven’t properly considered).

I basically agree with you that the dismissive framing seems pretty bad, and not super productive for the discussion, but emotionally seems like a fine attitude to have (I just think it starts having externalities when that attitude shapes the discourse significantly, e.g. by labeling things as low-status).

Thanks for sharing the social anxiety thing. I do actually think that that’s pretty good evidence, and I am interested in hearing more about your models of what drove that change.

I think circling has the strongest argument going for it

Really? Over and above meditation practices that are about training metacognition?

I guess circling was always sold to me as a meditation practice specifically designed to train metacognition (with a focus on social metacognition). So it feels to me like it's roughly in that category.

In the link post you're referring to, what Scott actually says is:

I suspect this is true the way it’s commonly practiced and studied (“if you’re feeling down, listen to this mindfulness tape for five minutes a day!”), less true for more becoming-a-Buddhist-monk-level stuff.

I'd predict that most people teach mindfulness horribly wrong. I'd also predict that the way it's usually taught does not resonate with most people, and they end up not doing the thing. (This was true for me the first few times I encountered it.) (Also, I know people who've done meditation for years and they're not much further along than when they started because they're still not doing the thing.) I'd also predict that they didn't do it for long enough. (Conservatively, I'd say you need 6 months to see some results, but it depends how many minutes a day you meditate.) And, yes, it's hard to measure internal clarity.

One experiment that might pick up on it though: when my brother was in college, he participated in an experiment ran by some PhD student. The experiment was: they'd flash letters very rapidly on the screen, changing about every 20 ms or so (don't remember the exact number, but it was very fast, where you couldn't keep up consciously). You were supposed to count how many As and Bs appeared. Their hypothesis was that when you'd see one of those letters, your mind would become occupied with counting that letter and your vision would become temporarily turned off, so you'd miss if there was another A or B right after. I think they did end up finding that effect. But what's interesting is that my brother scored 3 standard deviations higher than the mean. (At that time I think he has been meditating for at least a year.) This is something that I'd predict other people who practiced insight meditation to perform well at.

I’d claim there are fundamentally two types of meditation. One that practices lookingat the sensations and one the practices visualizing (or manipulating) certain sensations. Many practices do a bit of both. Vipassana and Zen lean heavily on the “looking” side. Concentration and energy practices (like tantra) lean heavily on the “visualizing” side.

This is different than how I think of meditation practices being divided, so I'd like to provide an alternative categorization.

I think of meditation in terms of task-positive and task-negative forms. That is, some meditation types are task-positive (engage the task-positive network in the brain) because they require you to focus on a task. Other types are task-negative (engage the task-negative or default mode network in the brain) because they ask you to give up focus. This leads to different sorts of groupings than the ones you give.

For example, Vipassana meditation forms seem to be firmly on the task-positive side based on my understanding of them, both concentration to insight meditation, because insight meditation (again as I understand it, not from practicing it) builds on mental pliancy (extreme ability to effortlessly concentrate) to look at the self. Zazen, on the other hand, is a kind of task-negative meditation where you don't focus on anything, you just let the default mode network run and through practice learn to allow it to run without feeding back its output into itself, allowing you to experience the default mode network without also creating the self from it.

Now the task positive/negative categorization is not how meditation practices are generally thought of since most practices seem to be of the task-positive type and so find other distinctions more important to make. That being said as a zen practitioner I find the distinction helpful to understand how zazen is different and why most descriptions of meditation practices seem foreign to me: they're using the brain in a very different way from what happens when you sit zen.

Good points. I agree that there are many ways to slice these practices. This goes along with habryka's point that I should have split this post into two parts, which I agree with as well.

I don't know how correct this post is, but I highly approve of it as an effort to understand and humanize a pretty strong outgroup.

Some mystical language speakers really do mean what they say literally, though, and expect their woo to change things outside their own heads. :/

Sure, whatever, there are people who think quantum mechanics explains crystal healing but this is not an argument against quantum mechanics, etc.

Separately, there's plenty of opportunity for information to leak from inside my head to outside my head (to other humans), through my body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, actual words, etc. Humans are naturalized; there is in fact no cartesian boundary between my mind and the world, and this is in fact important.

The map of this mystical territory is the mystical language, which we use to describe the internal experience of our minds. If you close your eyes, some of those candle sensations go away. In the mystical language, we’d say they stop being real. We don’t care about the objective / physical candle. In the mystical world view there is no “candle” per se, there are only sensations in your mind. In fact, if the candle wasn’t even lit and your eyes are closed, the candle would altogether stop being real. There wouldn’t be any sensations in your mind associated with it. It’s no longer part of the territory. (If you’re still thinking about the candle, though, then that thought is real and part of the territory.)

Overall I like this post, but this part seems to be suggesting a mind-only, solipsistic epistemology is necessary to the use of mystical language when in fact I often use mystical language with phenomenal empiricism in mind. That's kind of a nitpick, but to me it seems important because often mystical metaphors go off-the-rails when they become divorced from reality and people use them as if they can accurately describe metaphysics rather than use the language of metaphysics metaphorically. As you note, it's that sort of confusion that scares off the scientifically-minded because, to be fair, woo-speakers are not always careful to keep their metaphors separate from their metaphysics, so this seems a nit worth picking since it may be a crux around which some would reject your thesis.

Hmm, after thinking about this. I do think this should be on the frontpage.