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).
“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."