Zen and Rationality: Just This Is It

by G Gordon Worley III2 min read20th Sep 20205 comments

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This is post 4/? about the intersection of my decades of LW-style rationality practice and my several years of Zen practice.

In today's installment, I look at "just this is it" from a rationalist perspective.

When Dongshan, the co-founder of what would become the Soto Zen school within which I practice, was preparing to leave his teacher Yunyan and go out in the world, he asked Yunyan how he might summarize his teaching. Yunyan replied, "just this [is it]". Because the more we say the more we move into the world of words and away from reality as it is on its own prior to conception, this is often shorted in various ways to "just this" or "just is" or "this is" or "it is" or, perhaps best of all short of saying nothing and letting reality stand on its own, "is".

This is arguably the core teaching of Soto Zen and maybe all of Buddhism, to perceive and accept reality just as it is. Yet I see it all over the place in the LessWrong corpus, too. I'll mention a few of these.

Egan's Law posits that "it all adds up to normality". In "A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation", Eliezer phrased a similar sentiment as "since the beginning, not one unusual thing has ever happened". Both point at the way that reality is just as it is, and the only way we can be confused or surprised is because we had an idea about how reality is rather than simply looking and seeing how it is.

I think this is a hard thing to remember, because to the kind of people that are attracted to Less Wrong, better models of reality are very attractive. I know they are to me! Yet it's very easy to go from accepting reality as it is and trying to better predict it to getting lost in the model that does the predicting and confusing it for the real thing. Thus, while at the same time we look for models with better gears that more precisely carve reality at its joints, we also have to remember those boundaries are fuzzy and that all models are ultimately wrong even and especially when they are useful. It's perhaps the great koan of Less Wrong to build better models while simultaneously accepting that all models are somewhere wrong.

To help us deal with this koan, we have a poem to help us. You might think I mean the Litany of Tarski, but you would be wrong, because that poem is about having beliefs correspond to reality, but "just this is it" is all about getting under those beliefs and just seeing what's actually being perceived. For that, we turn to the Litany of Gendlin:

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

This was said by Eugene Gendlin of Focusing fame, a technique for helping you reconnect to your perceptions just as they are without judgement or modeling. The method is simple, yet its impact can be profound for many to get out of their ideas about how things are and to get back to what evidence they are actually getting about the world. Zen asks us to over and over again come back to this fundamental point that reality is just as we perceive it, not what we believe about it, and that belief is just a useful mechanism for helping us better live our lives, if only we don't get tripped up into mistaking the map for the territory.

Finally, to return to "A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation", it contains one other phrase that neatly captures the spirit of "just this": "joy in the merely real". If we can take joy in what actually is, if that can be enough for us, then all else becomes the playground in which we live our lives.

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I'm always amused by the way Theravada teachers will write a book or three explaining in great detail the same territory that Zen teachers will just gesture toward and expect you to figure the rest out for for yourself. Seems like there could be some sort of, iduno, middle road somewhere. ;-P

The litany of Gendlin sits with Egan's Law at the top of a section of my exobrain where I keep stuff I want to remember all the time, right next to a card in an adjacent section of thoughts I'm trying out that just says "one Now at a time".

There is, and lots of traditions along it, but I think where on that spectrum is best depends as much on the student as anything else. You're trying to make purely mental moves to shift your mind into a new stable state, but the mind is complicated enough with enough variety in starting states that different techniques are likely to work for different people.

For me, Scott Alexander's book review that got me to read Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is what resonated for me and really helped my meditation practice progress. It's at lot of explanation and description but very insistent about the limits of words anyway.

My take on the argument for the Zen approach is that as you bring in book-length discussions, it's hard for anyone who doesn't already understand to judge whether what was written is "right" or useful. So over time you end up with a lot of garbage to parse through which may or may not still make the whole better than the Zen approach.

I was actually trying to make a joke by pointing at the extremes and borrowing the "middle road" metaphor from the Buddha, but you're completely correct. And actually, I didn't even have a practice before that book review, so huge thanks to Scott!

For sure there's something to the Zen approach of "just look at it, it's all right there", and also something to Theravada's detailed maps to keep folks from getting too lost along the way. I really enjoy the maps -- they help normalize the experiences -- but in the end I find I tend to make the most progress when I forget about maps and "just look".

Ah, I totally missed that! Makes sense :)

For myself, I'm one of the people who, like the writer of that book mentions can happen, accidentally had my A&P experience before I had any meditation practice, back in freshman year of college. Also had several times when I had all the 1st jhana experiences spontaneously, too. All I can say is, my next 12 years (10 before I started regularly meditating) made it very clear to me that the "dark night" is real, and I'm so glad I'm 1) now out of it, and 2) have a name for it.

Wild! My experiences of unusual mind states have largely been pretty subtle, and mostly came after months of regular practice.[1] And I haven't had any experience at all that I would be willing to point to as an A&P event. Of course, there's ADHD and a complete lack of retreat time to consider in those results. Someday I'll get out there and see what a good week of dedicated concentration in carefully crafted conditions can do for me. On the other side of the coin, I've been able to use that I have learned from the last few years of meditation and absorbing lots of dharma talks (and a few books) to be a better parent, partner, coworker, and friend to the people around me; so good stuff there!

[^1] To be fair, I did have a few childhood experiences that are consistent with 1st jhana. I even remember having the spontaneous realization that the visual field was entirely a product of the mind. I think I was 8yo at the time.