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Meditation, insight, and rationality. (Part 2 of 3)

25 Post author: DavidM 04 May 2011 10:38PM

This post is the second in a series; you can read the first here.

I have already given a brief overview of what the goal of a particular style of meditation is, and why some individuals in this community might find it beneficial to pursue. The basic structure of this article will be as follows: a brief restatement of my major claims, a highly abridged history of meditation in one Buddhist-associated tradition and of models of the path towards enlightenment (from its ancient Buddhist roots to the modern day), and then a short-but-explicit set of instructions which an interested individual can use to see for themselves whether this style of meditation leads to what I have claimed it does.

My basic claims from Part 1:

 

  • The human mind, by default, involves cognitive processes that are fundamentally defective, and which distort one's views about how things are; the result of such processes is a collection of various delusions.
  • Due to the distortions these processes cause, neither introspection nor attempts at rational thought / armchair philosophizing reveal them.
  • The distortions these processes produce are so severe that, without training, it is unlikely that one will even be able to conceptualize what they are, or what it would mean for the assertion that one's cognitive processes are distorted in this particular way to be true or false.
  • Because of this inability to conceptualize the problem, there are no words I can type which will serve to explain it to you (what I would intend to convey with them is a meaning which you cannot entertain; whatever you think I mean is almost certainly not what I mean). The best I can do is say that it has something to do with the way you think about your 'self'.
  • Meditation, a series of attentional and perceptual exercises, can lead to the end of these delusions by fixing the processes which generate them. The end of these delusion is called 'enlightenment.' These delusions are ended in steps; the various steps are called 'partial enlightenment.'
  • Enlightenment is not an altered state of consciousness and does not require any effort to maintain. Enlightenment is a permanent change in the way one's mind functions.
  • These exercises have been studied, practiced, and refined over millennia, though the knowledge so-acquired has not been freely available until recently due to social factors.
  • The exercises that most people call 'meditation,' which are typically taught to people in contexts ranging from stress reduction to quasi-religious instruction through Buddhist- and Buddhism-associated groups, have been found not to be very effective for this purpose.
  • A rigorous implementation of the exercises that have proved to be effective can reasonably be expected to lead to enlightenment much more quickly than you are likely to expect: years, not decades. [Clarification: There are also individual factors at work here which I don't think anyone really understands yet.]
  • As delusions are shed, a person may experience numerous changes in the functioning of their mind, which they are likely to find valuable if their goals include "being happy" and "being more rational."

 

A highly abridged history of effective Buddhist-styled meditation, from a contemporary secular perspective.

The man whom we refer to as the Buddha lived around 500 BCE and taught various forms of meditation to those who were interested in pursuing enlightenment. His followers collected and preserved his teachings, first as an oral tradition, and later in written form. The written collection is formally called the 'sutta pitaka' in Pali; I say 'the suttas' to refer to the teachings in general in the form in which they're currently preserved.

The suttas describe various ways in which enlightenment is reached. The most common formulation is that a meditator will pass through four altered states of consciousness in sequence (called 'jhanas'), and after having passed through the fourth, they will grasp the truth of things and their delusions will be extinguished. The suttas also contain other formulations, some of which are elaborations of this (e.g. eight altered states of consciousness instead of four), and some of which are not (e.g. people reaching enlightenment through certain kinds of intellectual reflection, directly hearing the Buddha's instructions, certain ways of regarding the content of experience, etc.). The suttas describe four stages of enlightenment (the first three being 'partial enlightenment' and stepping-stones on the way to full enlightenment) but there is much less detail on how they come about in relation to the progression-through-four-jhanas theory.

Around 400 CE, Buddhaghosa wrote a book called the Visuddhimagga, which is ultimately adopted as the orthodox view that characterizes Theravada Buddhism. (Theravada Buddhism is the form of Buddhism most common in Southeast Asia, and which hews closest to the suttas compared to all other currently-extant forms of Buddhism.) According to the Visuddhimagga, there is an attentional exercise called (roughly) 'concentration,' the application of which leads to the aforementioned altered states of consciousness, and there is an attentional exercise called (roughly) 'discernment,' which is along the lines of what I describe in the next section. In order to reach enlightenment via meditation, one develops and improves the capacity to execute these two exercises, in various manners and with varying amounts of emphasis on one or the other (according to the capabilities and inclinations of the meditator). [Modern scientific research often taxonomizes forms of meditation as 'focused attention' or 'open monitoring', which may or may not be derived from an inaccurate understanding of the Visuddhimagga's instructions regarding 'concentration' and 'discernment'.]

In the 20th century, a Burmese monk in the Theravada tradition (Mahasi Sayadaw, 1904-1982) is taught, practices, and subsequently popularizes a style of meditation which many people discover to be extremely powerful and effective. In his tradition, the progression-through-four-jhanas theory is reconciled with what the Visuddhimagga says: the path to enlightenment is modeled as a progression through four basic modes of perception, which manifest in varying ways due to personal factors and the extent to which a meditator has developed the capacity for and applies 'concentration'. The four basic modes of perception are further divided into sub-modes (eleven relevant sub-modes in all). Having passed through all the sub-modes serially, one reaches partial enlightenment; repeatedly passing through them all eventually leads to full enlightenment.

Contemporary practitioners have further refined the previous model of meditation, by further subdividing the sub-modes of perception, and making some astute observations about the ways in which modes and sub-modes present cyclically and the ways in which they can be developed and manifest outside of meditation in everyday life. (More about the latter two claims later in this post, and in Part 3). Some important revisions are made to the model of partial enlightenment with respect to how one makes progress from partial enlightenment towards full enlightenment. Contemporary practitioners are also responsible for producing the viewpoint that leads to this abridgement, in the following sense:

  • This abridgment leaves out an enormous amount of information relevant to Buddhism; orthodox Theravada Buddhists who seriously practice meditation would recognize the descriptions I give, but probably say that the descriptions are highly biased towards a particular view of meditation and enlightenment which they do not share, and that I leave out an enormous number of important things (the orthodox religious dogma, first and foremost) which are crucial to a full understanding of what meditation and enlightenment are about. Theravada Buddhists are also likely to disagree amongst themselves about the extent to which Mahasi Sayadaw's writings (or contemporary Burmese Theravada Buddhism in general) are faithful representations of the Visuddhimagga or of the suttas, which only adds to the list of grievances they would have with my abridgement.

So it goes. I for one am glad that contemporary experience has built the groundwork so that 2500 years of Buddhist tradition can be framed in a way that makes sense outside of a religious context.

(Non-Theravada Buddhist traditions have been omitted for the sake of simplicity, not because I or contemporary communities have anything against them.)

There is lots of disagreement about whether the enlightenment I describe is the same as the enlightenment that [the suttas / the Visuddhimagga / etc.] describe, or whether there are other methods that lead to something even better than it. It's an interesting question, but will not be resolved here. The only thing that's important here is that the methods I describe lead to something very useful which you are not likely to ever run into unless you put them into practice. So, listen up.

 

How to meditate if you want to be enlightened.

 

What follows is a simplified description of one style of meditation which has been shown to be extremely effective, along with a simplified model of where one is along the path to partial enlightenment, and what to do about it. This style of meditation emphasizes the development of 'discernment' rather than 'concentration,' though both will be developed to some extent. The simplifications are my own, and they draw heavily on my own meditation practice, the experiences and knowledge of others, and "community knowledge."

A major focus of this method is to develop an acquaintance with what are called 'vibrations.' A meditator practicing in this style will eventually find that their experience is not static, but 'vibrates' or fluxes in a peculiar way over extremely short periods of time (fractions of a second). For an explanation by analogy, imagine a set of speakers playing music without dynamic variation; if a person rapidly turns the volume knob in the pattern off-low-high-low-off, the amplitude of the music will flux over time. Similarly, a meditator practicing in this style finds that the components of experience are not static, but fluctuate rapidly from nonexistent to existent and back again. N.B. This has nothing to do with the fact that the contents of experience are constantly changing. Rather, apparently static objects (e.g. an unchanging white visual field) turn out to be in flux.

The analogy only goes so far. Unlike music whose volume is being manipulated, recognizing that experience is made of 'vibrations' rather than static objects is not in itself disorienting and does not in itself affect one's ability to keep track of or make sense of or appreciate one's experience. A discussion of why is unimportant, but a person who takes up this style of meditation will discover for themselves the fact that it does not have these effects, and may get some intuitive sense of why. Another dis-analogy is that this fluxing appears to be tied into the mental process of attention, rather than presenting purely as a property of sensory experience.

The orthodox view is that these vibrations are related to 'impermanence,' according to Buddhism one of the three characteristics of everything that exists. A science-inspired view is that this style of meditation develops one's attention to the point that one can directly observe an artifact of the way that attention is implemented and interacts with sense data and cognitive content in the brain. In context of practicing meditation, the true explanation does not really matter; what matters is that experience has shown that developing the ability to perceive vibrations is an important step towards enlightenment and so you had better do it.

As an interesting aside, there is a common belief that meditation works by reinforcing ways of thinking and feeling, and their continued reinforcement slowly biases one's everyday experiences towards those ways of thinking and feeling. For example, one might believe that a meditator cultivates pleasant feelings and learns to vanquish unpleasant feelings, and eventually pleasant feelings become more common and unpleasant feelings are easily done away with when they arise. This appears not to describe how meditation aimed at reaching enlightenment works. In the style being described, one will do practices that develop attention and perception, but at the end, when attention and perception have become sufficiently precise and clear, something completely unexpected will dawn upon the meditator...specifically, that they have been laboring under delusions which are caused by the inability to see clearly. Now that they see clearly, they unexpectedly and permanently reap the cognitive and emotional benefits of not being deluded in the ways they were. The practices that develop attention and perception are, by contrast, not especially interesting or useful in themselves. Unlike meditation aimed at generating pleasant experiences, one needs some degree of confidence that the development of attention and perception leads to a good outcome, since their development is unlikely to be valued in itself.

To recap, there are four basic modes of perception which are of interest in the context of meditation. These modes of perception can manifest in distinct and profound ways during intense meditation, but also can and will manifest during everyday life in subtle and unremarkable ways. Each has typical characteristics related to the width of one's attention, the frequencies of vibrations which present themselves, and the cognitive / emotional content which tends to appear. When you sit down to meditate, you generally begin in the first mode, and slide upwards to the last mode that you have ever reached; continuing to meditate at the "edge" of the last mode you have reached allows you to progress to the next mode once you have put in enough effort and allowed your brain time to rewire. In general, once you reach a particular mode of perception, you are able to reach it again with much less effort (it is difficult to regress, especially if you meditate regularly, though it is possible). The stage you are at is determined by the highest mode you can easily reach. Therefore, there are four basic stages before partial enlightenment.

 

Stage one.

This is where you begin if you try to meditate, have never meditated before, and have no 'accidental aptitude' for developing your attention and perception outside of formal meditation, nor have personal factors which predispose you towards having developed your attention and perception without ever having made the explicit effort to. N.B. This means that some people, for whatever reason, will not start here, even without any formal meditation experience.

Typical qualities of mode one perception: Very narrow attentional width (if you "tune into" one sense you "tune out" the others"; if you "tune into" part of the content of one sense [e.g. a visual object in front of you] you "tune out" all the other content of that sense [e.g. your peripheral vision]), vibrations are subtle, various cognitive and emotional content but nothing very extreme aside from physical unpleasantness.

Goal: Develop attention sufficiently to focus on an object without one's mind wandering much; learn to distinguish different kinds of experiences; develop the ability to perceive vibrations clearly.

Basic method: Sit down in a place where there are few distractions, and pick an object to focus one's attention on. The most popular objects are the feeling of breath at the tip of the nostrils / upper lip, and the motion of the abdomen as one breathes in and out. (In this description I'll assume you're using the latter.) Begin by trying to clearly perceive the feeling of the abdomen expanding and contracting; when it expands and you perceive it clearly, attach the label 'in' to that perception, and when it contracts and you perceive that clearly, attach the label 'out' to that perception. As your attention becomes more stable and precise, you can divide the experience up into as many parts as you can discern: for example, 'in'->'holding'->'out'->'holding', or further, 'in-beginning'->'in-slowing'->'holding'->'out-beginning'->'out-slowing'->'holding'. The label you use is not important so long as it's simple and makes sense to you. What is important is attending to the perception, and the best way to do this is by attaching a label to the perception every time you notice it clearly. Focus on perceiving every aspect of the movement of your abdomen as precisely as is possible for you, given your current level of attentional and perceptual development,  and on keeping your attention as set on the movements of your abdomen as possible given the same. When you get good at this, try to incline your mind towards the attentional / perceptual flux called 'vibrations' in the experience of your abdomen moving. Try to see how, in the experience of attention being fixed on an object, it is continually being set and re-set there. After enough practice, they will make themselves apparent.

Whenever your attention goes to anything other than your abdomen, attach a label to the accidental object of attention and then go back to your abdomen. If you wonder about how effective the exercise is, believe it's easy, believe it's hard, decide it's pointless, congratulate yourself for how you're doing, etc. etc., label it 'thinking' and go back. If you think about your day, your future plans or responsibilities, etc., etc., also label it 'thinking.' If you visualize what you're going to do after meditation, etc. label it 'imagining.' If you have the desire to move, label it 'restless.' If you form the intention to move, label it 'intending.' If you feel some emotion, label it appropriately: 'happy,' 'sad,' 'enthusiastic,' whatever. If your attention wanders off for a long time, when you regain it and realize that, label the whole daydream or reverie 'wandering' and put your attention back on your abdomen. If you hear a distracting noise, label it 'hearing.' Anytime your attention is not on your abdomen, whatever it's on, recognize that it's not on your abdomen and is instead on that thing, label it, then go back.

General advice:

  • Keeping your attention on your abdomen, or any object, is extremely hard for beginners. Do whatever you can to avoid falling into a slothful state or a daydream. Meditate with your eyes open, meditate standing, drink a lot of caffeine, sit in an uncomfortable position, whatever it takes. 'Try to relax' or 'don't get caught up in your thoughts' is good advice, but for many beginners it is counterproductive because it leads to too much relaxation and not enough sharpness of attention, where attention fails to stay on any object. Try to get caught up in the process of attending and labelling. Relax insofar as it helps you do that. If feeling like you're working hard and making an effort helps you do that, don't relax.
  • Many people try to pay attention to their abdomen but actually pay attention to a visual image of their abdomen in their imagination, an abstract image of their breath, or other things along those lines, without recognizing what they're doing. Sensory experiences are one thing, and mental experiences that imitate sensory experiences are another. Distinguish them. If you're not distinguishing them, you're not perceiving them as precisely as possible. (This is hard, but it's good to aim at.)
  • If you can observe something, it is an object of experience. Keeping this in mind can be helpful depending on the extent to which the experiences you label seem like they're about 'you' or are 'yours' (e.g. intentions seem more 'yours' than visual imagery) and the extent to which you fail to label experiences because you can't see them as experiences but instead see them as 'stuff I'm doing / thinking about'. Your thoughts and reflections and reactions are bona fide mental objects, no different in this way than instances of seeing or hearing. For the purposes of meditation they ought not to be given any special privileged status. Think about this carefully, and review it from time to time to make sure you haven't forgotten.
  • The goal of this exercise is not specifically to feel pleasant. If you don't feel good, that is irrelevant. Your success is measured by whether your attention stays on an object, and then, whether you perceive vibrations.
  • The goal of this exercise is not specifically to experience a distinct altered state of consciousness. If your concentration is good then you may. If not, it doesn't matter as long as your attention stays on an object and you perceive vibrations.
  • You will probably feel pretty lousy at times, either because your life is making you feel that way or because meditation is making you feel that way. Re-read the previous two points.
  • Try not to think about why this works, or to think about anything in particular. Just attend and label. Do it as mechanically and efficiently as possible. Try to let other mental activity fall away due to disinterest.
  • Beginning meditators sometimes suffer from what I call 'meditation hangover,' where, once attention is set on an object, it takes their minds some time to revert back to normal functioning once they stop meditating and go about their everyday business, and until that happens they feel sluggish or dissociated. This is a problem, but it goes away in time as the practice makes your mind more flexible. If it's a problem for you, schedule meditation when it won't interfere with whatever you have planned for afterwards.
  • If you can't figure out how to label an experience, just pick a generic label and move on. Don't get caught in a loop wondering about what label to affix to something that happened five seconds ago. If you can't decide on a label, go with 'that.' Keep your labeling as immediate as possible.
  • If you think you're able to keep your attention on your abdomen for more than a short period of time, you're probably wrong and simply not able to discern all the cognitive and sensory stuff that's distracting you. Despite that, this is probably a sign of doing well.
  • Label as fast as you can.
  • When you get to the point of being able to perceive vibrations, you are doing well; at that point make observing vibrations in your abdomen the focus of your efforts.
  • All else being equal, the more you meditate, the faster your attention and perception will improve. Working up to one or two hours per day, every day, is a good goal.
  • If you meditate as if your head is on fire and meditation is the only way to put the fire out, that is probably worth more than doing it half-assed for longer periods.
  • Some people worry that this practice reinforces the self of a 'self' watching or observing the contents of experience, even though meditation aims at ending that particular delusion. This is irrelevant. It may reinforce the sense of being the observer of one's experience (who else labels things but 'me,' the observer?), until attention and perception are developed sufficiently that such a sense is undermined. Trust the process. Try to have a measure of confidence in the claim that you are deluded because you can't see clearly, and refining your attention and perception will help even though it may not be clear why or how.

 

Stage two.


If you've done the basic method in stage one successfully, you will eventually get here.

Typical qualities of mode two perception: slightly wider attentional width, vibrations are obvious and often perceived effortlessly, potential for extreme shifts in mood and energy towards the positive end of the spectrum; potential for surprising or detailed spontaneous visualizations or mental imagery, potential for highly physical / sexual / pleasurable sensations, potential for all kinds of egocentric biases (in the everyday sense) concerning one's capabilities, moral worth, etc., potential for 'missionary behavior' concerning meditation because it seems like meditation is so fun, pleasant, effortless, etc. and everyone else would enjoy it if they would only do it, potential for generic [hypo]manic behavior (such as high sex drive, low need for sleep, etc.).

Goal: Observe vibrations without any special regard to the content of the experience that they comprise; spend enough time observing them that it becomes effortless; try to observe them so precisely that you will be able to see an extremely high number of them per second.

Basic method: Approximately the same as with stage one, except that meditation is typically much easier and effortless here, many of the admonishments and bits of advice can be put aside. If you can simply attend to any aspect of your experience and perceive vibrations in it, it is sufficient to attend and perceive them. If you get lost or your attention falls off, you can go back to observing your abdomen and labeling things until it recovers. Try to attend fluidly and effortlessly, as if the only thing you would like to do is indifferently observe your experience. Again, let mental activity that isn't concerned with observing vibrations (and possibly with labeling experience) fall away due to disinterest, as much as you can. Try to be indifferent towards the content of your experience (e.g. if you visualize Buddha vibrating at 10hz, pay attention to the fact that the image is vibrating at 10hz and not the fact that the image is Buddha or that you like or dislike the visualization). Observe very precisely and rapidly. Don't feel obligated to stay with your abdomen if you can more easily observe vibrations in some other aspect of your experience. (For example, I find the visual field, on the back of the eyelids or with eyes open, to be very good for this.)

This stage manifests in a variety of ways that typically mimic hypomania, and in extreme cases can mimic mania with psychotic features. If a lot of crazy stuff presents itself to you and you find it disturbing, remember that it is not atypical for this stage and will eventually go away. If you have intense visualisations or hallucinations, just label it 'seeing.' If you feel like you're going mad, label it 'thinking.' If you feel like meditation is the greatest thing and that you'd like to preach about its benefits, also label it 'thinking.' If you think "I must be enlightened!", definitely label it 'thinking,' and feel free to label it 'delusion' also, because you're far from it.

If this is your first time passing through this mode of perception (which doesn't include people who have without ever having made the explicit effort to meditate), it is likely to alter the way you relate to your own sense of self, and you are likely to find that you have a better intuitive grasp of issues in philosophy of mind due to that alteration. This is likely to be permanent.

It is highly typical for the end of this stage to involve extremely strong physical rushing sensations ("energy") throughout the body. They can be extremely sexual (like the biggest orgasm you've ever had), possibly paradoxically pleasant and unpleasant at the same time, and can somehow distort your sense of self or constitute a very short-lived bona fide altered state of consciousness. When they occur, they can make you feel as if you're losing your identity or your volition as they temporarily take over your experiential world. Observe that they are comprised of vibrations and try to see them as precisely as you can. The number of vibrations you may see may be very high, like 20 or 40 per second, so don't aim too low. If the experience is too extreme to keep your wits, then just submit to it without fighting and without worrying about where your identity or volition will go.

 

Stage three.

 

If you ever get to stage two, it should be easy to get here, because the characteristic mode of perception in stage two is enjoyable and makes you want to keep observing your experience. My advice is only likely to make it happen faster. In stage three, the characteristic mode of perception tends to be unpleasant, so it is possible to get "stuck" because you may be inclined not to observe your experience. Read closely, commit what I'm writing to memory, and resolve to keep meditating no matter what.

Typical qualities of mode three perception: attentional width is very diffuse (as if you can see a lot of your experience at once, but none of it especially clearly), some vibrations are fast while others aren't, vibrations tend to change frequency less often, 'discord' between vibrations in the experiential field, potential for moodiness, low energy, depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, and all kinds of other unpleasantness.

Goal: Observe vibrations. Attend to a wider swath of your experience than before, even if it feels like your ability to perceive it is clouded or muddled. If you feel terrible, label each and every such feeling. If you ruminate about how terrible you feel, label each and every such instance of thought. Whatever terrible experiences arise, see them as objects of experience, or better yet, as vibrating objects of experience.

Basic method: Like a cross between stage one and stage two. Vibrations should be easy to see, but unlike in mode two, observing them tends to be unpleasant, so some of the advice from stage one needs to be re-read and applied. The new element here is that attention is much wider than usual, so make peace with that (don't try to constrain your attention by focusing on your abdomen and trying to tune things out) and attend to experience in a way that accords with that width. The types of experiences here are different than before, so be sure to see them as clearly as you can.

General advice:

  • Now is a good time to step up your meditation practice, so as to get out of this stage as soon as possible and not have it bleed over onto the rest of your life. Investing as many hours as you have to spare is a good idea.
  • Like in stage two, observe vibrations, ignore content. If you have the experience of anxiety, observe that it's vibrating at 7hz, and not that it's anxiety or that it sucks.
  • Don't focus on the content of your experience. Don't ruminate on the content of your experience. If you can't help but do so, try to focus on relatively uninteresting experiences. Mode three perception often involves unpleasant body sensations, which are easier not to get caught in the content of than unpleasant thoughts.
  • Using the metaphor of the volume knob on speakers being turned in the off-low-high-low-off pattern, Vibrations in mode three perception tend to be indistinct with respect to all but the second half of the pattern: (high)-->low-off. Experiences appear to be constantly fading away. This is why perception seems clouded or muddled. Pay very close attention to this feature of perception.
  • Mode three perception often involves new kinds of feelings that warrant labels such as 'dissocated' or 'off-balance' or 'out-of-sync.' Use those labels. However, make sure you are very clear about what precise thing in your experience is getting the label. In other words, make sure you can pinpoint exactly what the experience of feeling dissociated consists in if you're going to use the label. Try to "face" the experience instead of throwing a label in its direction and hoping that it hits. Look very closely. You may find that doing so gives you a new understanding of what experiential objects a variety of words concerning negative emotions actually refer to. Re-read the previous point.
  • In this stage there may be a tradeoff between speed of observation and precision of observation. Emphasize precision over speed. Re-read the previous two points. Try to be clear on the variety of things your experience contains. ("Clearly perceiving" is not the same as "feeling like one is clearly perceiving.") Actively use labels for everything (as if you're a beginner in stage one again and don't know what vibrations are) if it helps.
  • The more you meditate, the worse you are likely to feel. Feeling worse is a sign of progress. Learn to embrace it.
  • If you feel terrible even when you're not meditating, remember that you feel that way because you're in stage three and not because people are aggravating, because you hate your boss, because your significant other isn't a good match for you, and so on. Mode three perception manifests in everyday life in this way. Try not to act on beliefs that involve judgment of other people in relation to you and your life unless you're sure that those judgments are valid. Even if you're sure, try not to act on them anyway, because there's a good chance you're wrong.
  • It helps to have someone to talk to if you're really feeling down.

This stage manifests in a variety of ways that typically mimic mild depression / anxiety, and in extreme cases can mimic depression with psychotic features. If the content of your experience starts getting crazy, the advice for dealing with crazy experiences in stage two applies here. If you visualize grinning skulls eating corpses, label it 'seeing.' If you feel like life is pointless and you can't go on, label it 'thinking.' If you think that this practice will extirpate your sense of self and you won't be able to function without it and will be condemned to a psychiatric ward, label it 'thinking' or 'delusion'. And so on.

The more into this stage you get, the worse it tends to be, so don't be discouraged if nothing you do appears to be helping.

Keep in mind that there are lots of individual factors involved and your experience may only be mildly unpleasant. That is not atypical either.

Also, keep in mind that if you stop meditating altogether at this point, mode three perception (with all its negative content) is likely to become the subtle undercurrent of the rest of your life. That is seriously bad. Please don't do that to yourself. Please resolve, if you get to stage three, that you will keep meditating until you get out of it.

 

Stage four.

 

The contrast between stage three and stage four should be rather big. One typical manifestation of the very beginning of stage four is boredom or a feeling of blandness. So don't expect to immediately feel relieved when you get here, or to think "this feels so much better than what was happening before!" Recognize stage four by the fact that you've stopped feeling terrible, and your attention is both wider and clearer than before. It will not necessarily 'feel' like there is a big contrast; simply recognize that there is one.

Typical qualities of mode four perception: attentional width is such that you can see very large amounts of your experience and it seems rather clear (rather than muddled), vibrations are regular and slowly become synchronized, feelings of boredom and indifference that eventually turn into peace and equanimity, ability to perceive subtle aspects of experience that were previously indiscernible.

Goal: Observe your experience in a wide, diffuse way. Attend to all the subtle aspects. Don't ignore any aspects of experience just because you've never really reflected on them before or don't know what they are.

General advice:

  • Try to observe as much of your experience at the same time as you can. Don't push beyond what you can do; simply try not to tune things out. Emphasize breadth over speed. Vibrations should be obvious; keep an awareness of them in the background as you focus on breadth.
  • 'Peaceful' is a feeling. 'Neutral' is a feeling. Label them and any other way you may feel.
  • As you get deeper into this stage, it may occur to you that there have always been experiences that you have never properly recognized as mental objects. For example, 'intending,' 'making effort,' or 'willing' may suddenly seem as if they're truly on the same footing as 'seeing' insofar as they are just experiences and not 'yours' or 'generated by you' or 'descriptions of your agency'. This is good. Observe them clearly and label them.
  • As you get deeper into this stage, many subtle objects may present themselves for which the appropriate label is not obvious. Often these will ultimately be given labels such as 'spaciousness' or 'nothingness'. Don't worry about what to call them, just make it a point to call them something and see them clearly.
  • Deep into this stage, you are likely to have the sense that what you call 'self' is just a mental object which appears to be the observer of experience, but which you are paradoxically observing. You won't resolve the paradox by thinking about it, so just observe that object precisely and label it 'observer.'  [N.B. There is actually no mental object 'self' in experience, but the way in which that is true is not one that can be explained to you, and in any case is something for you potentially to discover in the future.]
  • Deep into this stage, you may fall into an altered state of consciousness in which your ability to reflect is suppressed. Don't worry about it. Perhaps try to cultivate this altered state by letting up on your efforts while trying to stay minimally attentive to what's going on. This is more likely to be effective when you are currently experiencing signs of being deep into this stage as described in the previous few points.

After the fireworks of stages two and three, this stage may incline you to think that meditation no longer works, and nothing interesting is really happening. It begins in an unassuming way, but ultimately develops into an experience characterized by enormous attentional width, peace, ease, the effortless ability to see all experiences as objects, and a plethora of subtle objects to observe. At the very end you may temporarily lose the ability to distinguish between your various senses. (This is not synaesthesia, but simply a change that involves objects being seen as 'experience' rather than being categorized by the particular sense they manifest in.) The distinction between the senses may seem arbitrary or artificial. Just keep meditating.

The rest of your life is likely to benefit from having mode four perception as its subtle undercurrent. Problems may seem less important and typical worries may no longer arise. If you stop meditating here, it is possible to do fine, but it is also possible to eventually regress to stage three (in which case mode three perception becomes the subtle undercurrent), which sucks. So try not to let that happen.

Partial enlightenment is preceded by the apparent momentary cessation of consciousness, which will happen at the very end of this stage. Some people find it very profound, in that they now have a radically different understanding of 'self' and of their own mind. Other people find it to be a natural evolution of what they already have developed, and so do not find it to usher in an enormous new paradigm. My working hypothesis is that, the more steeped in Buddhist dogma and belief one is, the more likely it is to be seen as natural. (If "all phenomena are not-self" has been resonating in your mind for years, understanding what it means is likely to be less shocking.) If you get to this point, write a post on LW and let us know what you think!

It is sometimes hard to be sure that you have experienced an apparent momentary cessation of consciousness. One 'test' is simply to see whether you suddenly have a different perspective on things. Another 'test' is to consider which of these cases applies to you:

  • The unenlightened meditator in stage n will sit down to meditate in mode one perception, and slowly slide to mode n perception, where they will stay.
  • The partially enlightened meditator will sit down to meditate in mode two perception, slowly slide to mode four perception, experience an apparent momentary cessation of consciousness, and then return to mode two perception. This can be repeated numerous times. The cycle from mode two to mode four and back to mode two is highly likely to happen even without meditating.

After partial enlightenment, at first the various modes of perception will present strongly, and the rapid transitions may be somewhat disorienting, but eventually the brain manages to integrate these various modes of perception and they become rather unimportant, and their emotional and cognitive peculiarities taper off. The subtle undercurrent of one's everyday experience may slowly shift to perceptual mode four.

Enlightenment has no qualities. It is not a feeling of apathy, detachment, a trippy altered state of consciousness, or a constant stream of awesome vibes. Partial enlightenment is partially like enlightenment. Do not expect all your emotions to be gone and everything good to be sucked out of life; do not expect to find an endless fountain of joy inside of you. Actually reaching partial enlightenment may make it extremely clear to you how silly these expectations are; but despite that, people have them, and so I have to say something about them.

Partial enlightenment is good in itself, but I would not be able to explain why. Review the first post in the series for some of my claims about the incidental benefits of enlightenment, which are easier to explain.

It helps to know someone who is experienced with respect to this style of meditation and these four stages, but if you have no one to talk to, you can do it by yourself if you have enough commitment and can follow instructions. You will get better advice on how to finesse your way through these various experiences from a person, because they can tailor what they say to your particular experiences and your personality, and because there is immense individual variation in how minds work which needs to be accounted for when giving advice. Also, there is an enormous amount of useful advice which will help many people in meditation, but trying to stuff it all into a blog post would be absurd. Remember that the model and advice in this post is a condensed version of a much larger model and much more exhaustive advice.

I include one general piece of advice at the end, because I don't know if it's true, but I think it is. That advice is, if there is some aspect of experience which is suddenly especially interesting or strange to you, that aspect of experience is worth focusing on during meditation until it becomes less interesting or strange. For example, if you are in stage one and it appears to you that your intentions are not leading to action in the way you normally expect, that is worth paying attention to; or, if you are in stage four and are fascinated by the perception of 'nothingness,' that is worth paying attention to.

Getting from partial to full enlightenment is not necessarily harder (though it generally is). Good advice for how to do it is definitely much harder to summarize and can be highly individual. The process is approximately akin to the process that first gets you to partial enlightenment, but not really. If you get to this point and want to go further, you should find someone to talk to about it.

Don't forget that being partially enlightened is not the same as being fully enlightened. You are still deluded. Assume that you still don't really know what enlightenment is about, even though you may have a much better idea than before. Don't stand on a pulpit and tell people what it's about unless you are extremely confident that you know and that further meditation won't change your mind, taking what I just wrote into consideration.

If you are psychologically unstable or suffer from mental illness, please read the descriptions of stages two and three carefully, consider the ways in which they might exacerbate the problems you are already dealing with, and make an informed decision about whether to proceed. If you do decide to proceed, make sure your plan includes ways to deal with these stages safely. And get a doctor's approval and supervision before beginning any of this, whether or not you have pre-existing problems, since I'm not a doctor and not a dispenser of medical advice. You follow the technique I describe at your own risk.

Addendum.

 

Now you know how to meditate. Secret knowledge has been revealed to you. If you're interested, test it for yourself and see whether what I have written is true. If you have not done these practices and never observed someone else do them and their results, you have minimal evidence with which to judge the truth of my claims. Perhaps one source of evidence for you will be what other LWers say after trying these exercises themselves. Keep in mind that it takes a variable amount of time to reach partial enlightenment, through if you have a committed practice, a year is a good upper bound. If you have been practicing for awhile and not seeing much, get feedback; you may not be following the instructions even though you think you are. One of the benefits of contemporary communities is that openness and feedback about meditation may have reduced the amount of time it takes to make progress, so take advantage of that feature.

The way that common descriptions of how to meditate go wrong is as follows. Beginners' minds are inclined by default to do everything other than cultivate their attention and perception in a way that leads to results. (If it were otherwise, most people wouldn't be beginners when they start meditating.) Generic instructions such as "follow your breath and don't get caught up in your thoughts" lead to beginners' minds doing a wide variety of different things. (Such instructions are not specific enough to constrain what their minds do or guide them towards developing attention and perception in the right way.) Because of the fact that the prevalent culture of groups interested in meditation in the West involves norms of not talking about one's experiences in detail, not talking about enlightenment as a goal, and not criticizing other people's meditation methods, meditators are never given any way to gauge their progress or any means by which they would recognize and correct their own failure to cultivate their attention and perception. Compounding this, many meditation groups are interested in mood and stress alteration rather than enlightenment, and are not aiming at developing their attention and perception, and so many people never hear that that there is something worth cultivating through meditation apart from relaxation and detachment from negative thoughts and feelings. The style of meditation I describe avoids these problems by 1) coming pre-packaged with a model of how to reach enlightenment, 2) focusing on developing the perception of vibrations and then observing them, which has been shown to be a way that gets people to cultivate their minds in the right way, and 3) providing a way to test whether they have (i.e. "can you perceive vibrations?")

I am not claiming that no other style of meditation is effective or is as effective as this one, or that any effective style bears striking similarities to this one. My claim is that this style is highly effective and easy to teach. My personal belief is that it is a member of a family of closely-related meditation styles which are the most effective known styles for teaching contemporary Westerners, but establishing that convincingly requires data to which I don't have access.

In Part 3 I shall include criticisms and arguments against my claims, reflections on science with respect to their interest in and models of meditation, and some specific things which contemporary communities who study and practice this stuff believe about meditation which would have significant consequences for the practice of clinical psychology and for people's everyday mental health if they were true. And perhaps some other things that I haven't yet thought of. (If there are specific issues anyone would like me to address, please write them in the comment section and I'll see if I can work them in.)

Comments (186)

Comment author: GuySrinivasan 05 May 2011 04:10:30AM *  16 points [-]

You claim to have cultivated a skill that most people do not possess. I find it very unlikely there are no observable-to-the-unenlightened results that can discriminate between this skill and e.g. Manfred's proposal. Much more likely than with almost any other skill, since we're talking about "perceiving mental phenomena" or something, but still very unlikely.

As I understand it one of the benefits to meditation of this sort is seeing things as they are with respect to your perceptual reality. Just throwing things out here, but what if there were a light which could shine red, blue, or green and switch very rapidly, say, 20x a second, and we had you watch it for 2 seconds repeat a length-10 sequence 4 times? Do you think you could more reliably report the correct sequence of 10 colors than other people could? How about a similar experiment but for hearing? Or do those perceptions get physically aggregated before they reach the mental arena of the skills you cultivate?

Given that you have some well-developed skills that others don't, perhaps there is some other skill you could learn which relies on your attention/perception skills, a skill which others could not learn (or would find it very difficult to learn), and above all (for us) a skill that has observable-to-the-unenlightened effects?

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 12:33:01AM *  4 points [-]

I have no idea whether an experiment like one you describe would show a difference. I think there is probably some kind of bottleneck in the data the retina sends to the brain, and I imagine that could stand in the way of testing my attention in the way you describe. But the basic point is interesting.

I could imagine lots of experiments which I believe would likely show a difference in perception and attention between people who meditate in the way I've described and people who don't. For example, I claimed that mode four perception has "wide attentional width". It seems likely that this implies that a person in that mode of perception would be much better at attentional tasks involving simultaneous recognition of objects in different parts of the visual field. (For example, imagine watching a large computer screen that flashes two images, at the far left and right sides simultaneously, and having to explicitly say something about what properties those images had.) And since I can get into mode four perception when I want to, I should be better at these tasks.

On the other hand, most low-level cognitive processes are inaccessible to introspection, so without any knowledge of cognitive psychology, I have no idea whether the feature of experience I call "wide attentional width" would translate into this particular finding, or not do so because of some detail about human cognition that cognitive psychologists know about but I don't.

So, ultimately, I expect that a variety of tests along these lines would find obvious differences, but I don't have enough knowledge to pick out any particular one.

Risto Saarelma mentions EEG readings, and I imagine that meditating in the way I describe would produce obvious effects there, though I don't know enough about EEG readings to predict what they would be.

In general I worry that this is not a helpful line of thinking to pursue. Finding these effects would show that the time I've invested in meditating has affected the functioning of my brain with respect to attention and perception. Would this really be a surprising result to you? I would expect that a person who pursues any exercise in attention and perception is likely to show differences in attention and perception compared to a person who doesn't, simply due to neuroplasticity, even if they aren't exercises in attention and perception that would ever lead to enlightenment. I don't see that being able to demonstrate these differences would have a very large bearing on the claims I've made that people here have found controversial (though it would have some bearing on them).

Comment author: sboo 02 November 2014 09:44:13AM 3 points [-]

anecdote: David Ingram (who claims to be enlightened) came to a cogsci lab at my school, and was able to perceive some normally-imperceptible "subliminal" visual stimuli (i.e. X milliseconds long flash or whatever). I heard it from a friend who administered the test, I don't have the raw data or an article, grains of salt and all that.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 May 2011 06:54:11AM 3 points [-]

Testable hypothesis: Enlightened people would be less likely to panic when stressed.

Less testable but still interesting hypothesis: Enlightened people would less vulnerable to PTSD.

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 06 May 2011 07:18:23AM 4 points [-]

Apparently skilled meditators can suppress their startle reflex much better than non-meditators.

I also remember reading that people doing awareness meditation can keep responding to a repeating stimulus as strongly as the first time they perceive it, while the repetition makes non-meditators respond less strongly to subsequent stimuli, but can't find a cite for this one.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 06 May 2011 07:56:36AM *  4 points [-]

If true, that would be evidence that meditation changes one, and might be evidence that meditation deserves further inquiry, but since suppressing one's startle reflex does not in itself have significant positive effects on a human life, it says nothing about whether the changes considered as a whole are positive or negative.

My impression at age 50 is that the 'fuzzy' self-improvement advice I took to heart was helpful in some ways and harmful in others with no significant net-positive benefit. By 'fuzzy' I mean that the advice might have 'made sense' in several ways and might have been supported by enthusiastic testimonials, but was not sigificantly informed by settled science. The OP's advice is clearly 'fuzzy' under this definition.

If we were to read the relevant peer-reviewed medical articles (search engine target: mindfulness-based stress reduction) we would probably find solid evidence that meditation can significantly lower stress hormones, but that you only need to do it 4 minutes a day to derive that benefit.

I believe that for people with certain chronic illnesses, specifically certain kinds of infections, meditating an hour a day would be very harmful because it would supress the immune system for a number of hours after the meditation session. Note that quite ordinary things that healthy people can just shrug off, such as half an hour of sun when the sun is high in the sky, suppresses the immune system for a number of hours and consequently can be very harmful to sick people. Note also that controlling the effects of (my own) chronic illness has been my number-one concern for most of the last 25 years.

In contrast, I expect no adverse health effect even in very sick people (e.g., AIDS patients) from the four-minutes-a-day regime as recommended in mindfulness-based stress reduction, and to distinguish that from what the OP is talking about, I will refer to what the OP is talking about as 'intensive meditation'.

I would also note that enough English-speaking people have tried an intensive course of meditation such as that described by the OP that even if intensive meditation had zero effect on a person, I would have expected (based on just 'raw numbers') to hear of at least one meditator who is notorious for inventing a new kind of machine, discovering a new scientific law or for some other improvement to our civilization, but I cannot recall ever having heard of one. (I would love for someone to correct that deficiency.)

In comparision, Steve Jobs and Kary Mullis (inventor of (the first really important kind of) PCR) have taken LSD, and Steve claims that it was one of his 3 most important formative experiences, and there are probably at least as many English speakers who've tried intensive meditation as have tried LSD. I could also name a number of similarly seminal, fertile or creative people who have learned to play and to love playing a musical instrument, to give another example that stand in contrast to the situation with intensive meditation.

In other words, I have a habit of noting the biographical details of people I consider to have made a significant contribution to our civilization, and I am beginning to suspect that there is something about intensive meditation that makes one less likely to make a significant contribution to our civilization. I realize of course that there are other ways of leading a worthwhile life than becoming notorious for a significant contribution to our civilization, but well a lot of us here are interested in that sort of thing (which is often called 'saving the world' around here).

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 06 May 2011 09:13:30AM *  5 points [-]

If true, that would be evidence that meditation changes one, but since suppressing one's startle reflex does not in itself have significant positive effect on a human life, it says nothing about whether the changes considered as a whole are positive or negative.

This is the thing I was talking about in my previous comments. The simple stuff that actually can be tested easily doesn't generally imply anything very impressive taken as it is. What we can do is try to guess at what other cognitive changes are probably going on that bring about the measurable effect, and what other, harder-to-measure effects they might have. I don't have a really good idea on where to go from, say, the startle reflex thing correlated with the accounts on meditation, but someone with better cognitive science expertise might.

My impression at age 50 is that the self-improvement advice I took to heart was helpful in some ways and harmful in others with no significant net-positive benefit.

What self-improvement advice are you talking about here? Meditation instructions, self-improvement in general?

I believe that for people with certain chronic illnesses, specifically certain kinds of infections, meditating an hour a day would be very harmful because it would supress the immune system for a number of hours after the meditation session.

Link to this? All I find with a quick googling is stuff about meditation boosting the immune system.

I would also note that enough English-speaking people have tried an intensive course of meditation such as that described by the OP that even if intensive meditation had zero effect on a person, I would have expected (based on just 'raw numbers') to hear of at least one meditator who is notorious for inventing a new kind of machine, discovering a new scientific law or for some other improvement to our civilization, but I cannot recall ever having heard of one. (I would love for someone to correct that deficiency.)

There's David Lynch, but whether he's improved our civilization is debatable. It is definitely interesting that there's the widespread mythos of LSD contributing to scientific and technological innovation, but none about meditation. One factor here is that dropping acid is a very quick way to get into a very strange mental state, while, based on the accounts here, meditation takes at least months of deliberate, concentrated, high-volume effort, with good instructions being very sparse. There just might not be that much of an overlap between people who have successfully put the time into meditation and people who are predisposed to making scientific discoveries, often due to spending their spare time working on their skills on their field of choice rather than in concentrated meditative practice. It's also not easy to tell exactly how much basis in fact LSD's reputation has, due to it having been illegal to actually do research with it.

Ben Goertzel does share your sentiment though, I recall him telling that he used to be much into meditation and enlightenment thing, but then started thinking that he hadn't heard of enlightened folk making notable scientific discoveries and decided to try to attain notable scientific results instead of enlightenment.

One possible problem is that a sufficiently good mind hack that makes you stop being stressed and worried about things might also stop you from becoming sufficiently irked by perceived shortcomings in your surroundings to set about on a laborious and complex process to repair them. Quite a lot of advancements in society sound a lot like people being caught up in the suffering-causing desire to stay attached to transient things like warmth, a food supply, memories or life.

Greg Egan has spelled out this suspicion with Buddhist thought in detail in a couple of places. In Diaspora, it was portrayed as a sort of memetic dead end that made the upload people fold into solipsism and permanently cease interactions with the surrounding world. In TAP, I got the idea it was promoted by a government as a way to make the populace stay content in the crappy conditions they lived in, instead of rocking the boat and demanding things to be better.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 May 2011 04:33:09PM 2 points [-]

One possible problem is that a sufficiently good mind hack that makes you stop being stressed and worried about things might also stop you from becoming sufficiently irked by perceived shortcomings in your surroundings to set about on a laborious and complex process to repair them. Quite a lot of advancements in society sound a lot like people being caught up in the suffering-causing desire to stay attached to transient things like warmth, a food supply, memories or life.

That's a good point and appears plausible to me. Changing a problem in your own mind in such a way that it doesn't need fixing in the external world anymore seems fairly common among meditators in general (myself included). There's probably a strong (but not necessarily intentional) overlap with wire-heading and its usual implications.

However, science as a social game (including very tight career paths), weirdness filters and some of the bad woo clustering around meditation seems more likely as a general explanation.

Still, there are some more-or-less scientifically trained meditators (e.g. Shinzen Young, B. Alan Wallace and they all tend to focus on their own lives or on teaching meditation afaik.

Much of humanity's progress depended on being unreasonable and willing to suffer for questionable gains (see Jared Diamond). Enlightenment might not be useful for that.

(Also, checking out Egan.)

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 01:55:40PM 1 point [-]

I would also note that enough English-speaking people have tried an intensive course of meditation such as that described by the OP that even if intensive meditation had zero effect on a person, I would have expected (based on just 'raw numbers') to hear of at least one meditator who is notorious for inventing a new kind of machine, discovering a new scientific law or for some other improvement to our civilization

This is an interesting point.

I notice no change in myself as a result of meditation that I would think is likely to have decreased my lifetime potential for scientific or cultural output, but this kind of "noticing" is obviously not especially reliable.

My inclination is to think that the culture of meditation typically draws in a certain type of person, but I'm not sure that's sufficient to explain your observation (assuming your observation is true).

Comment author: DavidM 13 May 2011 11:43:35PM 2 points [-]

The world does, subjectively, appear to be enormously fresh and interesting to me (compared to before I went down this particular path), which may be related to what you read.

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 06 May 2011 04:05:22AM 1 point [-]

In general I worry that this is not a helpful line of thinking to pursue. Finding these effects would show that the time I've invested in meditating has affected the functioning of my brain with respect to attention and perception. Would this really be a surprising result to you?

It wouldn't be very close to the cognitive changes you describe, but it would be some outside confirmation that something is going on. The interesting claims are at higher level brain functions, but we don't currently have many ways of examining those in ways that don't require human interpretation that is itself vulnerable to bias. A not necessarily helpful approach would be to proceed to assume that only the effects measurable in some objective way are worth paying any attention to here.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 09:32:02PM 1 point [-]

Well, I'd bet that a battery of cognitive tests related to attention and perception would find a cluster of really obvious differences between me and the relevant control population.

But I am not a cognitive psychologist. Maybe someone who is or who knows about the subject has some input on what to test.

EEG might be the simplest measure, but does it give any really specific information?

Comment author: novalis 05 May 2011 02:18:52PM 8 points [-]

What different experiences did you come to anticipate once you became enlightened?

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 12:09:40AM 1 point [-]

This is a very good question.

Here is one way that enlightenment can change what one anticipates. Someone was talking with me recently about whether enlightenment and the end of delusions concerning 'self' is desirable or not. As I understood it, they believe that 'self' may well be a delusion (something produced by a cognitive process, having no ontological reality beyond that), but it ties experiences together in a useful way, and experience minus the structure produced by that cognitive process is likely to be confusing or inefficient.

On the contrary, I say that, were they enlightened, they would believe that 'self' is not a process that structures adult human experience in any way relevant to efficiently and effectively dealing with sense data and cognitive content, and further, the process which does structure experience in such a way is not the one responsible for the everyday impression of being or having a 'self' (or whatever it is that people think concerning 'self').

This is not yet a precise claim about the world. For a first stab at what 'responsible' means, I'd say something like "in the normal human brain, not sufficient for the impression of being or having a 'self,' and not necessarily inoperative when impressions concerning 'self' no longer arise." A first stab at what 'structures' or 'normal' or 'process' (etc.) mean is beyond the scope of this response. And until neuroscience advances in the right ways and until an enlightened person learns about those advances, they will not be able to translate their belief into an assertion about the functioning of human brains.

Despite that, once the relevant work in neuroscience is done, I know what this person would be surprised to see or not see in light of their actual beliefs, I know what they would be surprised to see or not see in light of what I say they would believe if they were enlightened, and I know that these expectations are very different.

Comment author: novalis 06 May 2011 04:31:01AM 2 points [-]

I don't understand what neuroscience has to do with it. Nobody (enlightened or not) thinks there is a part of the brain that's the "self" part. "Self", useful or not, is in the mind. How is it that you can tell me that there are things that a neurologist would discover that would and wouldn't surprise you, but you can't tell me what those things are? Surely the neurologist would be able to explain their research to me. Wouldn't I be better off going into neurology if I wanted to learn something?

Comment author: wedrifid 06 May 2011 12:58:13PM 8 points [-]

Nobody (enlightened or not) thinks there is a part of the brain that's the "self" part.

Nobody is such a small number of people. It just begs a contradiction!

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 04:49:04AM *  0 points [-]

If your experience includes something which you would call 'self' (whatever that means to you), some aspect of your brain's functioning is responsible for that. In various altered states of consciousness, the experience of what you would call 'self' is typically altered in various ways, which can point you in the direction of whatever you would call 'self' in normal experience if you aren't sure what I'm talking about.

So, what does it seem to you that 'self' in your experience is doing? Is it structuring your experience in some way? Is it not? Whatever you claim about its relationship and role in the operation of your mind can be translated into claims about the functioning of your brain. Enlightenment leads to different claims about the way that whatever you would call 'self' operates (or operated) in your mind, which can similarly be translated. A comparison of the translated claims will show that they are different. The different claims lead to different expectations about what tests will find.

There is no claim here that there is a "self" part of the brain.

Comment author: novalis 06 May 2011 05:45:30AM 1 point [-]

I'm still trying to figure out what the neurologist is doing here. If all of our claims (both enlightened and non) about the self are on the mind level, then why are we worrying about what's going on at the brain level?

And out of all this, I still don't see any concrete predictions: what do you expect that a neurologist (or anyone else) would discover, that a "non-enlightened" person wouldn't expect?

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 01:44:37PM 2 points [-]

Talking about the mind level is another way of talking about the brain level, though figuring out the relationship requires scientific knowledge.

I don't know enough neuroscience to translate the two contrasting assertions on the mind level into assertions on the brain level. I don't know enough about neuroscience (and perhaps today, no one does). But they are obviously translatable in principle. They are bona fide, explicit predictions about what future research in neuroscience will find. This seems to me to be a really good example of an explicit testable claim about the world that would follow from enlightenment. Do you see something wrong with it?

Comment author: novalis 06 May 2011 07:21:01PM 2 points [-]

What happens if you taboo "self" -- what is the disagreement really about?

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 05 May 2011 06:13:49AM *  6 points [-]

This is very interesting, and quite different from the "follow your breath, don't get caught up in thoughts, enlightenment is for after sitting on top of the Himalayas for 30 years" meditation writings I've mostly seen thus far.

I'm not sure if meditation is a working solution, but the problem of the human mind having low-level mechanical biases that are better addressed by something akin to mechanical exercise rather than high-level symbolic metacognition is quite likely to be real, and this seems like as good an approach as any I can think of to try to address it.

I wonder if meditation skill would show up as something interesting in the readings from a consumer-grade EEG headset.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 May 2011 08:01:49PM 2 points [-]

I wonder if meditation skill would show up as something interesting in the readings from a consumer-grade EEG headset.

It does show up, but it isn't really useful. At best, you can read some basic level of attention or "powering down". Here's a video of Ken Wilber hooked up to one. (I'm not defending Wilber or his claims, just wanted to show a simple demonstration.) I vaguely remember some material on that topic (I think by Persinger or one of his students), but no actually exciting result.

(I'm getting a Zeo in a few days and will experiment a bit myself.)

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 06 May 2011 03:40:47AM 0 points [-]

That's interesting, thanks. The worst case scenario for these meditation claims is that there's nothing much going on except delusions from constant wishful thinking, but being able to dampen brainwave frequencies at will might be some non-subjective evidence indicating that there's some genuinely nontrivial skill being built here.

Comment author: PlaidX 06 May 2011 02:29:52PM *  5 points [-]

WOAH, holy crap. Ok, I'm doing a retreat (in my own house, by myself) and i'm only four and a half hours in, but i'm breaking retreat protocol and going on the computer because I have to tell you guys how unexpected what's happened so far is. Woo, ok, sensations subsiding, getting feeling back in my fingers.

I've been meditating for about six months now, starting at 20 minutes a day and gradually moving up to an hour and a half, with no discernible effect other than my butt getting sore. When daniel posted these articles, I was getting so demoralized with my complete lack of results that I was looking into maybe kickstarting things with LSD or something.

Since he really sounds like he knows what he's talking about, and presents the information in a manner that's refreshingly candid and sassy, I decided to at least TRY doing a retreat, however painful it was. I expected maybe kinda sorta to get palpable results if I could stick with it for a few days.

Instead, here's what's happened so far. I actually started last night, but immediately went to bed, and just tried to be mindful in the moments I was awake, haphazardly. Got up, sat for fifteen minutes, nothing, walked for an hour, still absolutely nothing, sat for an hour, and here something at least worth writing down happened, which is that near the end I started getting a bit twitchy.

I'm prone to the occasional twitch or spasm in my daily life, but no more than a few per day. But I was starting to get them a couple of times a minute. I noted them, and eventually time was up, and I felt a little smoother or more clearheaded as I (slowly, mindfully) went downstairs and made myself a protein shake for breakfast, but certainly nothing out of the ordinary.

Then, more walking, still nothing, more sitting, and soon the twitching came back. Then it subsided for a while. Then it came back. Then it got worse. Then it kept getting worse and worse, more and more twitching, jerking, spasming. It seemed to be related to the noting process, if I let my mind wander or concentrated on the breath without noting "in in in in in out out out out out", the jerking subsided.

Eventually it started to get kind of painful, some of the random unpredictable jerks hurt my neck and whatnot, so experimenting I found that if I breathed faster (and consequently noted faster, "ininininin outoutoutoutout"), the twitching would come even faster, but in smaller, tighter, more controlled jerks, and in fact I was tensing up like crazy. I noticed a kind of buzzy vibration in my teeth and considered "Is that the vibrations he's talking about? No, i think that's just something irrelevant. That happens to people now and then". In retrospect, I'm not sure it does. It wasn't a REMARKABLE sensation, but I don't really recall having my teeth buzz normally.

But, the buzzing sensation did not stop in my teeth. Soon I was feeling it in my hands as well, and then spreading from my neck to my face, and eventually all over. Meanwhile my breath had become quite labored and audible and irregular and I'm sure had anyone else been trying to meditate in the same room they would've been greatly irritated.

My body felt very much the way your foot does when it falls asleep, though without any accompanying loss of sensation. Also I was getting a headache. And most weirdly of all, my fingers were bending back of their own accord. I found that regardless of how hard I tried, I could not hold my hands in the proper posture, they were all screwed up. Similarly my shoulders were hunched and my face was somewhat puckered, I think.

The vibrating / tingling / asleep body part feeling was mildly unpleasant. I've smoked salvia once or twice (actually it's the only drug i've done),and gives a certain prickly sensation all over. This somewhat resembled that as well.

When I had started out this retreat, my feeling was "if i can just get my foot in the door, i'm sure I can make it to the end", but not really expecting to get my foot in the door. Now that I have, I can see it's going to be just as difficult taking the next step as well. This was not an easy thing to sit with for even part of an hour, and in fact I gave up and broke my meditation a few seconds before the bell.

The world looked considerably... brighter? More detailed but in its normal textures? definitely different, in a positive way. The same way it looked after the first hour, which I dismissed, except much more so.

I'm surprised this happened so fast, and I'm surprised at how physical it was. What I've experienced so far did not feel in any way enlightening, but nor was it my imagination playing tricks on me. This is serious business.

Anyway, I'd better get back to my schedule. After typing all this, I'll probably have to start all over.

Comment author: Yvain 06 May 2011 03:00:44PM *  10 points [-]

I believe you are describing paraesthesiae from hyperventilation-induced respiratory alkalosis - ie you're breathing in too much oxygen too quickly and breathing out too much CO2 too quickly, it's turning your blood alkaline, and that's screwing with your nervous system.

It's not uncommon to mistake this for a spiritual result of breathing-related practices - I used to do so myself - but it isn't, it's not healthy, and you should try to avoid it by breathing at a more measured rate.

Comment author: wedrifid 06 May 2011 05:01:57PM 2 points [-]

I believe you are describing paraesthesiae from hyperventilation-induced respiratory alkalosis - ie you're breathing in too much oxygen too quickly and breathing out too much CO2 too quickly, it's turning your blood alkaline, and that's screwing with your nervous system.

This is part of the reason I always use focusing on (and minimization of) breathing as part of my meditation. It perhaps distracts a little from some aspects of the meditation but the adaptations sure come in handy when conserving energy while distance running. Cheaper than using expensive equipment to provide a low oxygen environment for training or sleeping.

It also enhances the one element of meditation that I have a particular interest in. Training the stress response. Breathing somewhat slower than feels natural prompts a mild panic response. I keep the standard letting go of active thoughts, being aware of them but not following them running along in the background. Multitasking isn't exactly in the spirit of meditation but the process is integrated and complimentary enough that it works for me.

The process of letting that go over and over again and maintaining calm focus and balance despite the temptation to succumb to distress is exactly the mental technique I am trying to train myself in. Outside of meditation I do similar training with ice baths and painfully hot but not quite damaging showers. Applying 'extinction' to the flight or flight response in cases where stress response does more harm that good.

Neither my personal meditation variant nor the hot and cold stress response play is certainly not something I am recommending (at least without ironing out the details and collecting and confirming the credibility of some research). It's just my idea of fun.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 May 2011 03:24:55PM 1 point [-]

In regards to buzzing/tingling, I've found in tai chi that it can be a prelude to reliably increased sensation that that area of my body. Not a good thing in itself and not essential, but also not a problem.

Comment author: PlaidX 06 May 2011 04:00:42PM *  0 points [-]

Aha, I had a nagging feeling there might be something like that going on.

Any idea what the involuntary spasms are about? I did another hour of sitting, and while I didn't have the tingling and such this time, the spasm came back as strong as ever. In fact, I'm inclined to discontinue things until I can figure out what the deal is with them.

Even laying down, breathing calmly, I'm just twitchy as hell. It stops as soon as I stop meditating.

EDIT: Here's something from wikipedia.

Cortical reflex myoclonus is thought to be a type of epilepsy that originates in the cerebral cortex - the outer layer, or "gray matter," of the brain, responsible for much of the information processing that takes place in the brain. In this type of myoclonus, jerks usually involve only a few muscles in one part of the body, but jerks involving many muscles also may occur. Cortical reflex myoclonus can be intensified when patients attempt to move in a certain way or perceive a particular sensation. [italics mine]

This seems like a pretty bizarre explanation, but I have yet to uncover anything better. Wait, that's probably intended to be read "when patients perceive", not "when patients attempt to perceive".

Comment author: Yvain 06 May 2011 04:53:17PM *  2 points [-]

You're unlikely to have epilepsy. That's serious stuff.

Meditators commonly report twitches (here is an annoying New Age page about them, because it was the first one I could find).

I don't have any hard knowledge about them but my wild guess is that they're similar to hypnic jerks, basically your brain noticing it hasn't heard from your body lately and pinging it to make sure it's still there. The more serious twitches that get linked to kriyas are probably something more exotic, but what you're talking about doesn't sound like that.

If you're tired, sleep better and they might go away. If not, see if you can make meditation less of a relaxing brink-of-sleep-inducing experience by some of the tips David mentioned above.

The exceptionally large amount of twitching you're having now could also be linked to the previous hyperventilation. Note the part of the Wikipedia page that says alkalosis can cause "tetany" - that's involuntary muscle contraction. See if it goes away after a while breathing normally. Note that breathing normally during meditation is hard, at least for me.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 03:01:35PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for giving the experiment a try and reporting about your results so far. Please keep us updated.

I have some comments about your reported experience, but since you do seem to be intending this as an experiment, I would rather not say much and let you see for yourself how things turn out.

Despite that, if you feel the pressing need for some kind of feedback, feel free to send me a private message.

By the way, my name is David, not Daniel!

Comment author: wedrifid 06 May 2011 05:02:51PM 5 points [-]

By the way, my name is David

You're a lesswrong commenter. If you aren't Vladimir then there is a good chance you're a David!

Comment author: PlaidX 06 May 2011 04:01:37PM 0 points [-]

No, go ahead and say what you think, I'm a bit flummoxed at this point. Too much twitching.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 04:13:03PM *  0 points [-]

Some very general comments.

Yvain may or may not be right about the etiology of your buzzing sensations (people get these sensations from many causes), but clearly what you're doing is affecting your breathing, which is the interesting part (you mention having meditated before but never had this experience until using my technique), and typical.

Twitching, inability to hold a posture, feeling like your face or body is contorting is also typical.

It occurs to you that twitching is related to the specific process of noting your breath, which is good. Also typical. Keep observing that. (Cf. my piece of advice in this post about paying attention to new things that seem strange or interesting.)

I'd say you're in middle or late stage one.

Keep noticing your breath, the interaction between your noting and your weird experiences, and your weird body sensations. Your experience will eventually change as you continue to meditate.

Also, go back to being on retreat, away from the internet.

Comment author: PlaidX 06 May 2011 04:17:34PM *  0 points [-]

It seems like an awful LOT of twitching, though. Like, so much so that I ended up hyperventilating to compensate for it. Is this really typical?

I should note that my concentration still isn't that great, and I haven't really experienced anything unusual on a mental level.

Comment author: DavidM 14 May 2011 03:02:09PM 0 points [-]

Please let us know how meditation is going for you once your retreat is over.

Comment author: PlaidX 14 May 2011 03:47:08PM 0 points [-]

Ok, I'm back online. I basically flaked out partway through day two, I think I overextended myself.

However, the twitching or convulsing is still here, whenever I meditate, and after conferring with a medical professional, I'm pretty sure it's a meditation related thing, and not due to hyperventilation or somesuch. In fact, he explicitly said "yeah, that's from meditation. don't even try looking for a medical explanation."

SO, not exactly PLEASANT or ILLUMINATING results, but results nonetheless. I'm going to try going back to an hour or so of daily meditation and see how things develop for a while.

Comment author: DavidM 16 May 2011 05:03:08AM *  0 points [-]

The twitching is typical, like I said. Not in the sense that every time you meditate, from now till forever, you're going to have it. But it's common enough in stage 1. There are also related things that can happen in stage 2, but they're not quite the same. So I'd say that they might be gone by stage 2 and probably will be by stage 3. Your body will get over it eventually. Think of it as your body trying to adapt to doing this new thing; it takes some time to iron the kinks out.

Good luck with your practice! Let us know if anything interesting happens.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 06 May 2011 04:53:57PM 0 points [-]

I get mindstate-related twitching sometimes, though not to the degree you're describing, and I'm not entirely confident that it's the same phenomenon.

In my case, the mindstate-part that correlates with twitching is very subtle. I wouldn't expect someone who's unfamiliar with closely observing their own mind to be able to notice it at all.

It does seem to correlate with stress, for me, so if you've been pushing yourself a lot in general recently you may want to back off on that for a couple days and try again. You may also want to try emergen-c vitamin supplement or a generic version thereof; a friend of mine suggested that to me when I was dealing with a particularly bad round of stress-related twitchyness, and it helped rather a lot, though that could obviously be psychosomatic.

Comment author: wedrifid 06 May 2011 05:30:28PM 1 point [-]

You may also want to try emergen-c vitamin supplement

Be warned: this supplement can produce nausea. Purely by reading the label! What a load of drivel! The body does not care someone has played around with the ascorbic acid to hook it up with various metal ions. As long as you get them. "32 mineral complexes"? That barely means anything.

That said I would recommend it for the same reason I would recommend taking a multivitamin in general. It seems to have the basics so it'll do just fine. Supplements trying to emphasise the vitamin C think usually taste good too.

The 'don't have a vitamin supplement, just have a balanced diet' is bunkum. Get into something like this!

Comment author: wedrifid 06 May 2011 05:18:07PM 0 points [-]

I get mindstate-related twitching sometimes, though not to the degree you're describing, and I'm not entirely confident that it's the same phenomenon.

In my case, the mindstate-part that correlates with twitching is very subtle. I wouldn't expect someone who's unfamiliar with closely observing their own mind to be able to notice it at all.

If anyone wanted to replicate this experience they could do so by withdrawing from Effexor (or, I have heard, Paxil). It is, shall we say, novel.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 04:43:49PM *  0 points [-]

In my post I described mode one perception as having "various cognitive and emotional content but nothing very extreme aside from physical unpleasantness." Why do you expect some kind of overt mental alteration?

I already said that twitching is typical.

Edit: Lots of respect for doing a weeklong retreat.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 05 May 2011 07:31:54AM 4 points [-]

This is all very interesting, and I look forward to Part 3, although despite having meditated somewhat I've never experienced the "vibrations" you describe.

Generic instructions such as "follow your breath and don't get caught up in your thoughts" lead to beginners' minds doing a wide variety of different things. (Such instructions are not specific enough to constrain what their minds do or guide them towards developing attention and perception in the right way.) Because of the fact that the prevalent culture of groups interested in meditation in the West involves norms of not talking about one's experiences in detail, not talking about enlightenment as a goal, and not criticizing other people's meditation methods, meditators are never given any way to gauge their progress or any means by which they would recognize and correct their own failure to cultivate their attention and perception.

That precisely describes all of the meditation classes I've encountered, and most modern books on the subject. Where would one find a meditation instructor operating at a more serious level, and how would one tell, before investing a large effort?

Comment author: Kevin 05 May 2011 09:53:02AM *  1 point [-]

although despite having meditated somewhat I've never experienced the "vibrations" you describe.

Weed (indica, mainly) brings about the experience much more simply than lots of meditation.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 05 May 2011 10:28:24AM 1 point [-]

Alas, I have little knowledge of how one obtains such things (and as I'm posting under my full real name, that should not be construed as a request for advice). I once had a space cookie in Amsterdam, but the effect was no different from a glass of beer.

Besides, beer puts me to sleep, and I gather that pot does the same. Caffeine seems a better fit with meditation -- the story has it that coffee was first used by monks to stay awake, a monk having noticed how goats chewing the leaves of a certain bush became more frisky. Certainly you'd get more vibrations from a quad espresso than a pint of Owd Roger.

Comment author: Peterdjones 05 May 2011 01:16:05PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Kevin 12 May 2011 01:01:13PM *  -1 points [-]

I am disappointed that an Amsterdam pot cookie had such a mild effect on you. Take two next time and you'll definitely notice the difference. A $7 brownie from one of my local medical marijuana dispensaries would likely have you laid out on your back incapable of functioning while going on a multi-hour psychedelic odyssey into your own psyche as well as experiencing such vibrations to a degree of strength on the same order as orgasm. You might rate it an event of profoundness on the order of a birth of a child.

A quad espresso does indeed induce more body altering sensations akin to weed than a pint of Owd Roger.

Comment author: DavidM 13 May 2011 05:05:10PM *  1 point [-]

Just have to interject here that there is no particular relationship between "vibrations" (my definition) and orgasm.

On the basis of Kevin's description, caffeine is probably more useful for meditation, since it doesn't produce a "multi-hour psychedelic odyssey into [one's] own psyche." Caffeine's effects on attention and wakefulness can be helpful, especially in light of the fact that it produces no overt kind of experience. Meditation cultivates attention and perception. What Kevin is describing sounds like it would get in the way!

"Vibrations" are not a particular kind of experience. "Vibrations" are the manner in which experience presents, independent of content, when attention and perception are cultivated in specific ways. Everything from orgasms to blank walls vibrate.

Comment author: wedrifid 12 May 2011 03:25:23PM 0 points [-]

I am disappointed that an Amsterdam pot cookie had such a mild effect on you. Take two next time and you'll definitely notice the difference. A $7 brownie from one of my local medical marijuana dispensaries would likely have you laid out on your back incapable of functioning while going on a multi-hour psychedelic odyssey into your own psyche as well as experiencing such vibrations to a degree of strength on the same order as orgasm. You might rate it an event of profoundness on the order of a birth of a child.

And if you take it frequently you also get to experience the perspective altering state of having approximately 10 less IQ points!

There are far better recreational drugs to play with. Perhaps the only advantage pot has is convenience.

Comment author: Kevin 12 May 2011 10:50:18PM 1 point [-]

And if you take it frequently you also get to experience the perspective altering state of having approximately 10 less IQ points!

That's just not strictly true.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 May 2011 05:04:32AM *  1 point [-]

That's just not strictly true.

It may have been 8 or 9. I rounded up. :)

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 12:56:47AM *  0 points [-]

I'm not sure how one goes about finding a good meditation instructor in person. That's sort of the problem, isn't it?

I hear that if you go to a retreat center or monastery run by someone who endorses the methods I've described, they approach and teach meditation in a very serious way. (You might ask something like "are these teachings in the style of Mahasi Sayadaw's methods?", though I have no idea whether that's a gross faux pas or not.) I believe there are a number of Burmese monks who run organizations in various parts of the world who could help you (no idea what their geographical distribution is). And this assumes you want a method similar to what I've described, and that you want to deal with monks at all.

Outside of Burmese Theravada, there are lots of traditions with their own beliefs, methods, dogma, etc. and evaluating whether they can do anything to help you is much harder. They are highly unlikely to frame meditation or enlightenment in the ways I have, for better or worse.

I would suggest that a good way to tell whether an instructor is likely to be helpful as a meditation teacher is not much different from how you would tell whether they would be helpful as teachers of any other hands-on skill. Do their explanations make sense to you? Can you ask questions? Do they give feedback? Have other people successfully learned from them what you want to learn? I imagine these are especially important if you're looking at a tradition that you have minimal information about.

Comment author: Zetetic 05 May 2011 01:42:26AM 4 points [-]

So how should I expect this to affect goal setting/achievement? Is this going to make it easier to achieve certain types of goals or easier to select intelligent goals or easier to break my goals down into manageable parts? Would you expect that it should improve my akrasia fighting abilities?

In short, what sorts of material gains should I expect from this sort of activity that I might expect to be able to do a controlled study of?

Comment author: DavidM 05 May 2011 02:21:46AM 4 points [-]

I would say that the most common and general benefit is likely to be an increased ability to observe and act against habitual biases. One effect of cultivating attention and perception to the degree necessary for enlightenment is that many cognitive processes which were previously murky or hard to see or 'subconscious' become rather clear. A person interested in improving this facet of rationality would likely find it extremely advantageous to be able to clearly see some of the garbage coursing through their mind, either masquerading as 'my belief' or connected to processes which generate beliefs that are not reliably accurate. Seeing it is likely to allow one to guard themselves against acting on such things or against regarding them as anything more than cognitive babble of questionable provenance.

If a person is not interested in this kind of self-improvement, all bets are off.

(I mentioned the above in Part 1 already.)

"Making it easier to achieve certain types of goals" is so easy a target to hit that you should be surprised if I said "no." What kinds of goals do you have in mind?

Assuming that enlightenment really is a more accurate understanding of what you now regard as your 'self,' you will be able to select goals that are more in line with what you would select if you were smarter and knew more. (Cf. CEV). I don't know if this falls under what you mean by "intelligent goals." I also mentioned this in Part 1.

I would explicitly disclaim improvements in akrasia or in organizational abilities related to goal-setting as being likely to follow from this method or from enlightenment.

I imagine that there are some benefits you might receive from enlightenment which are too idiosyncratic for me to predict.

I think there are numerous benefits to well-being / mental health, but I am torn between seeing those as "manifesting in idiosyncratic ways, dependent on personality" and "reasonably common." Part of my hesitation is that I realized that I know a good bit about what people who self-select as interested in enlightenment for its own sake ultimately say about enlightenment with respect to their mental health, but nothing much about what people who are interested in enlightenment specifically in order to improve their rationality say about it, AND that the benefits which translate into mental health improvements are described in a way which seems highly dependent on a particular personality and goal structure (so would not necessarily be expected to universalize across different types of people).

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 May 2011 11:35:41AM 0 points [-]

This seems like a special case (and a relatively easy one) of the problem of identifying in advance whether changing a way of thought is an improvement.

Comment author: CarlShulman 05 May 2011 12:06:08AM 9 points [-]

which has been shown to be extremely effective

Shown how?

Comment author: DavidM 05 May 2011 12:23:39AM 2 points [-]

Through the experiences of people who have tried it themselves, which have informally been collected by communities of people interested in this and other methods.

You are welcome to find out through direct experience whether it is effective for you.

If enough LWers try it, maybe some psychologist who reads LW will do a formal study, where one group meditates like this and another group does whatever. (Probably wouldn't get IRB approval, given what I wrote about stages two and three.)

Comment author: Manfred 05 May 2011 02:44:26AM *  8 points [-]

The problem is, I can explain these results with fairly high probability without meditation actually working as you claim, and so the evidence provided by your testimony, especially since you cite no good tests and claim that enlightenment is impossible to communicate (an evidence-free proposition) is minimal. Just tell people to focus on experiencing any sort of sensation and many of them will experience it (imagine a toothache in your top teeth, on the right side, for 10 seconds. Now imagine being perfectly aware of your surroundings for 10 seconds). Add in cognitive dissonance after you've followed the advice "just keep meditating," and you're looking at a serious effect even without meditation doing anything novel.

Test proposal: round up some enlightened meditators who have never even heard of a bias before (maybe give them a quiz based on bias names in the literature and pick the ones who fail it) and then perform some standard bias experiments on them a few weeks later? As a control, giving the same quiz and tests to some college students would suffice.

Comment author: DavidM 05 May 2011 03:08:30AM 3 points [-]

Also, "enlightenment is impossible to communicate [about to unenlightened people]" is not a proposition which must have no evidence for it, any more than "higher mathematics is impossible to communicate about to people without any mathematical training" is.

I think that the latter proposition is true, and I believe with high probability that you do too.

Comment author: Manfred 05 May 2011 03:42:31AM 6 points [-]

You are incorrect about me. It's true that the shortest complete communication of some part of calculus is often to teach someone calculus, but there are shorter incomplete communications that work in that they communicate the goal without being calculus. "Integration means finding the area under a curve" is a classic example. Or, going higher, "an 'algebra' is the (misleading) name for a bunch of objects like numbers or vectors that can be turned into each other by addition or multiplication."

I do agree that "enlightenment is impossible to communicate" can have evidence for it. I should have said something like "this is an assertion that you have not substantiated in any way other than claiming it." Maybe you could make a list of possible properties of enlightenment and demonstrate that enlightenment had consistent properties by getting enlightened people to check off the same items on the list, even when subtly pressured to check off different items (to try and filter out the obvious cultural correlation).

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 01:05:17AM 1 point [-]

The point at issue was communicating about higher mathematics with people who have no mathematical training, rather than people who have some mathematical training.

Remember, the original point concerned communicating about enlightenment. "Some mathematical training" may be analogous to "partially but not fully enlightened." "No mathematical training" is analogous to "never effectively practiced meditation."

I still believe with high probability that you think "higher mathematics is impossible to communicate about to people without any mathematical training" is true. A good place to find someone without mathematical training would be a member of a hunter-gatherer tribe.

Comment author: Manfred 06 May 2011 03:16:42AM 0 points [-]

Aren't numbers a human universal? Sure, it's hard to talk about curves without defining "curve" first, but if I can just draw in the sand and say "that's a curve," we're back to the option of communicating the gist of things without handing the person a textbook. Could I communicate any sort of higher math I know in this way? This is tricky because I can't think of anything, but that's hardly a general proof. Maybe quaternions would be hard to communicate to a hunter-gatherer, but again "hard" is a far cry from impossible.

Comment author: Muhd 10 July 2013 06:50:14PM *  -2 points [-]

Aren't numbers a human universal?

No. The Pirahã, for example, have no concept of exact numbers, only of smaller and larger amounts.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 July 2013 07:25:42PM 2 points [-]

The last time I looked this up, all results on the Piraha language are due to a single anthropologist, Daniel Everett. There's been some debate in the literature about whether or not he was actually correct about their innumeracy; see the "Further Reading" section on the wikipedia page for some examples.

Comment author: Muhd 10 July 2013 09:43:47PM 0 points [-]

I see nothing there that contradicts what I said, but it does seem most of the links are dead.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 July 2013 11:32:21PM 2 points [-]

On the object level, your belief-as-stated is not conclusively known. Everett sub 1986 believed that there were words for "one", "two" and "many"; this belief was updated in 2008 when one speaker in an n=4 study used the word for "one" when there were six things presented to them.

On the meta-level, none of Everett's results (as far as I know) have been replicated by an independent anthropologist, which means that your belief-as-stated has one point of failure. Given the surprising nature of his results, we should demand strong evidence that his results are true and not due to, e.g., cultural/linguistic misunderstandings. In fact, the linguistics community has indeed questioned the data closely.

Comment author: TimFreeman 05 May 2011 03:33:48AM 8 points [-]

The proposition "higher mathematics is useful" can be communicated to people with negligible mathematical training, along with specifics and supporting evidence. Higher math is required to describe the physics that can figure out from first principles how chemistry should work, and somewhat lower higher math can figure out the area under curves and so forth.

In particular, a person who knows no math can observe that people who know higher math are required in order to do chemistry simulations, for example.

Is there a similar easy way to make a claim that enlightenment is useful that is testable by unenlightened people?

(For the record, I'm inclined to believe you, but it would be comforting to have a concrete argument for it.)

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 01:58:23AM 2 points [-]

I see at least two basic ways that one could approach the issue.

The first is to treat it like a mindhack, and evaluate it by its apparent results in people who have applied it. Ask them what good it's done them, and observe their lives and behavior to confirm. Perhaps tell them what your idea of "useful" is and ask them to constrain their explanation of what it's done to those things.

The second is to examine whether it leads to testable beliefs that turn out to be accurate (cf. this comment). See if there is a topic which enlightenment is claimed to be relevant to which you consider useful, state some beliefs, see if the enlightened person says otherwise, and go from there. (This requires that the enlightened person also be rational and well-informed. An enlightened person who doesn't know anything about the subject you want to talk about, who is uneducated, mentally ill, brain-damaged, or whatever, is probably not going to state accurate beliefs, for reasons unrelated to enlightenment.)

Comment author: wedrifid 05 May 2011 03:50:58AM 0 points [-]

and somewhat lower higher math can figure out the area under curves and so forth.

Just, unfortunately, not how to get access to them.

Comment author: TimFreeman 05 May 2011 08:37:55PM 1 point [-]

Just, unfortunately, not how to get access to them.

I had to search around a bit to figure out what he meant, but now I think wedrifid is mocking this sentence from the original post:

My personal belief is that it is a member of a family of closely-related meditation styles which are the most effective known styles for teaching contemporary Westerners, but establishing that convincingly requires data to which I don't have access.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 May 2011 09:27:14PM 3 points [-]

I thought he was making a joke about the inadequacy of mathematics as a tool of sexual conquest.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 May 2011 09:55:14PM 1 point [-]

Wow, I sound cryptic and deep. Or would if I wasn't casually low brow. (Gabriel nailed it.)

Comment author: DavidM 05 May 2011 03:03:06AM 0 points [-]

The problem is, I can explain these results with fairly high probability without >meditation actually working as you claim[...] Just tell people to focus on >experiencing any sort of sensation and many of them will experience it (imagine a toothache in your top teeth, on the right side, for 10 >seconds. Now imagine being perfectly aware of your surroundings for 10 >seconds). Add in cognitive dissonance after you've followed the advice "just keep >meditating," and you're looking at a serious effect even without meditation doing >anything novel.

This is a caricature of a real attempt at explanation.

Try imagining having a full-body orgasm vibrating at 20hz (as per my definition of 'vibration'). Let us know if imagining it produces that experience.

Better yet, before you try imagining it, give us your probability estimate that it will work 1) for you, and 2) for others.

Test proposal: round up some enlightened meditators who have never even heard >of a bias before (maybe give them a quiz based on bias names in the literature and >pick the ones who fail it) and then perform some standard bias experiments on >them a few weeks later? As a control, giving the same quiz and tests to some >college students would suffice.

I said many times that any reduction in biases is likely to happen only in the case that a person is interested in that.

I get the impression that you didn't pay very close attention to what I've written. Is that true?

Comment author: TimFreeman 05 May 2011 09:00:47PM *  2 points [-]

Try imagining having a full-body orgasm vibrating at 20hz (as per my definition of 'vibration').

The right control is to spend an hour every day for a year imagining the orgasm, since that's the approximate duration of the proposed experiment with pursuing enlightenment.

The imaginary toothache was a 10 second experiment. The duration of the above-mentioned experiments is 365 times 60 times 60 seconds. That's a ratio of 130K to one. Assume a linear dose-response relationship. Is the 20hz orgasm less than 130K times as interesting as the imaginary toothache? Plausibly.

You might have a good meditation technique, but the argument in the parent post is pretty bad.

I said many times that any reduction in biases is likely to happen only in the case that a person is interested in that.

I see several possible explanations here:

  • Enlightenment gives the meditator enough self awareness to see their biases, and they don't care enough to reduce them. I can't imagine this alternative, are you really proposing it?

  • Enlightenment doesn't give enough self awareness to see one's biases. That's a disappointing statement about enlightenment -- wasn't it supposed to give self awareness, among other things?

  • Enlightened people are aware of their biases and unable to do anything about them. That's disappointing for a different reason -- if enlightened people can't act upon their insights, pursuing it might not be worthwhile.

  • Manfred's proposed test is interesting and rejecting it was a mistake. IMO this is the most likely alternative. It is also something that would not take much time and might give a positive result.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 01:46:51AM 3 points [-]

The right control is to spend an hour every day for a year imagining the orgasm, >since that's the approximate duration of the proposed experiment with pursuing >enlightenment.

I see your point.

What is your probability estimate that a person who imagines having a full-body orgasm for one hour a day over ten years will develop the ability to have one just by imagining it (or something like that)?

For what it's worth, I tried Manfred's experiment and nothing interesting happened. (I understand "imagining a toothache" to mean imagining a visual or abstract image that I associate with toothaches, and allowing my attention to shift very quickly between the imagined object and the non-imagined location of the teeth where the toothache is supposed to be.)

Enlightenment gives the meditator enough self awareness to see their biases, and >they don't care enough to reduce them. I can't imagine this alternative, are you >really proposing it?

I can't imagine why you can't imagine that this alternative might be true.

Biases don't come with tags that say "bias" on them. "Biases" is a term that people have created to refer to cognitive tendencies which they judge not to reliably lead to accurate beliefs. To effectively determine whether something is a bias you have to at least have an understanding of what it means for a belief to be accurate and have a means by which you could determine whether a belief is likely to be accurate. Obtaining these depends at least on intelligence, cultural background, education, and personality / cognitive style. An interest in spending a large amount of time working out whether something is a bias or not, or searching for things that are biases, depends at least on personality / cognitive style and goal structure.

If these factors don't align before enlightenment, why would you expect that the mere ability to see many cognitive processes clearly ("seeing one's biases", i.e. seeing some of the processes that are biases, not necessarily seeing that those processes are biases) would make them align afterwards? Do you think I'm claiming that enlightenment magically tags all biases with the tag "bias"?

Comment author: TimFreeman 06 May 2011 02:37:00AM *  0 points [-]

What is your probability estimate that a person who imagines having a full-body orgasm for one hour a day over ten years will develop the ability to have one just by imagining it (or something like that)?

25-90 percent, with a wide range because I don't know if men can do it or what fraction of women can learn to do it. Web pages Google finds for "orgasm on command" or publicly available reference material, among other sources, claim fairly consistently that some women can be trained to do this, and the gist of it is that it takes months rather than years. There are specific instructions to follow, different in detail but not different in kind from the ones you give in the original post. I have not yet seen a video of the cervical motions that would prove they aren't faking it, and I haven't seen mention of training men, and I haven't spent enough time on it with my wife to confirm or disconfirm it firsthand. Furthermore I haven't actually read the Amazon book I cite above; I read another detailed procedure that you'll have to find on your own, and people there indicated that the two were similar.

(I cringe too when I see people give pretentious names to themselves like "Lord Prophett". Yuck.)

For what it's worth, I tried Manfred's experiment and nothing interesting happened. (I understand "imagining a toothache" to mean imagining a visual or abstract image that I associate with toothaches, and allowing my attention to shift very quickly between the imagined object and the non-imagined location of the teeth where the toothache is supposed to be.)

I had success with it. My procedure was to think "What if my tooth hurt" and pay attention to my tooth as though I were concerned about it, and in a few seconds it started hurting when it didn't before.

Enlightenment gives the meditator enough self awareness to see their biases, and they don't care enough to reduce them. I can't imagine this alternative, are you really proposing it?

I can't imagine why you can't imagine that this alternative might be true.

Perhaps I misunderstood that metaphor you used in post #1, where the mind is like a distorted lens and if you get the right self-awareness you can infer the distortion and compensate. Bias is a distortion, right?

In any case, I agree with you in that I can imagine that someone who is self aware but doesn't have the concept of an unbiased estimate of reality might not have the motive or conceptual tools to identify the bias.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 03:05:46AM *  1 point [-]

I will have to look into this orgasm-on-command stuff before I respond. (I originally used that as an example because I thought it was something that would be especially unlikely to be achieved just by imagining / intending. Ha!)

Perhaps I misunderstood that metaphor you used in post #1, where the mind is like a distorted lens and if you get the right self-awareness you can infer the distortion and compensate. Bias is a distortion, right?

The metaphor only goes so far. Bias is a different type of distortion. If I had to characterize the distortion that meditation addresses, I would characterize it as a distortion in the perception of or in the representation of the components of the mind. The ability to correct that is clearly (to me) not the same as the ability to correct bias. However, correcting it provides some powerful new capacities which can be applied to dealing with biases if one is so inclined.

Comment author: Manfred 05 May 2011 03:51:07AM 1 point [-]

Try imagining having a full-body orgasm vibrating at 20hz (as per my definition of 'vibration'). Let us know if imagining it produces that experience.

Better yet, before you try imagining it, give us your probability estimate that it will work 1) for you, and 2) for others.

Sorry, I read the first sentence first, and so experienced a minor full-body orgasm. It didn't particularly vibrate, though - I don't have a clear enough picture of what that's even supposed to mean, possibly.

I get the impression that you didn't pay very close attention to what I've written. Is that true?

Apparently I didn't pay close enough attention. On the other hand, if enlightenment doesn't fix the really obvious flaws in our brains, it would make it more unlikely that it fixes the less obvious ones. I mean, come on, it should at least stop Asch's conformity experiment from working, right?

Comment author: PlaidX 05 May 2011 05:56:14AM 6 points [-]

Sorry, I read the first sentence first, and so experienced a minor full-body orgasm.

You're either the greatest imagineer I've ever met, or a big fat liar.

Comment author: Manfred 05 May 2011 06:28:14AM *  2 points [-]

Well I mean it wasn't that great. But it's not that hard to get an intense feeling and involuntary muscle contractions, what's difficult is making it feel good, as opposed to like something you'd describe as "an intense feeling and involuntary muscle contractions."

EDIT: Googling this topic is tricky.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 May 2011 06:41:31AM 1 point [-]

EDIT: Googling this topic is tricky.

Not at all. It just comes with all sorts of bonus 'imagination aids'. ;)

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 01:18:24AM 0 points [-]

Sorry, I read the first sentence first, and so experienced a minor full-body orgasm. It >didn't particularly vibrate, though - I don't have a clear enough picture of what that's >even supposed to mean, possibly.

Today may be the day that you learn that your mind works in a very uncommon way.

What is your probability estimate that a LW reader would have a similar experience to yours, just from reading what I wrote or something like it, in a non-contrived situation?

On the other hand, if enlightenment doesn't fix the really obvious flaws in our >brains, it would make it more unlikely that it fixes the less obvious ones. I mean, >come on, it should at least stop Asch's conformity experiment from working, right?

Before I agree or disagree, why do you think so? Biases have different origins, and something that may improve some may not improve others.

(Parenthetically, the relationship between rationality and Asch's experiment is not as straightforward as you seem to think.)

Comment author: Manfred 06 May 2011 03:06:54AM 0 points [-]

What is your probability estimate that a LW reader would have a similar experience to yours, just from reading what I wrote or something like it, in a non-contrived situation?

Erm, it's not that I just read the sentence "feel X" and feel it. It's that I looked away from the computer and spent half a minute putting myself into a quite contrived situation. The best category would probably be self-hypnosis - and most people are hypnotizable. I have an advantage of having this skill in a sort of rudimentary way because my dad did stuff like this for a while (he was a social worker). I'm not sure how effectively I could communicate it to other people, but looking at self-hypnosis literature would probably give a good idea of the upper bound.

why do you think so?

Because peer pressure, the urge to conform, seems like a direct product of unnecessary attachment to the world, which seems like something meditation with a Buddhist heritage is focused on reducing.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 03:38:13AM 0 points [-]

Erm, it's not that I just read the sentence "feel X" and feel it. It's that I looked away from >the computer and spent half a minute putting myself into a quite contrived situation. The best category would probably be self-hypnosis - and most people are hypnotizable. I have an advantage of having this skill in a sort of rudimentary way because my dad did stuff like this for a while (he was a social worker). I'm not sure how effectively I could communicate it to other people, but looking at self-hypnosis literature would probably give a good idea of the upper bound.

OK. I think I misunderstood you here and also at some points in the past (including your original response).

However, in relation to my claims about enlightenment and bias, you said:

Because peer pressure, the urge to conform, seems like a direct product of unnecessary attachment to the world, which seems like something meditation with a Buddhist heritage is focused on reducing.

I described what this style of meditation is focused on achieving rather explicitly. "Attachment to the world" is not anything I wrote, but is something you are imputing to me because it's associated with Buddhism. I don't think you've read what I've written very thoroughly, and for some reason are trying to respond to it anyway. If you want to continue this discussion, I request that you re-read my post first, and then re-state any comments or criticism.

Comment author: Manfred 06 May 2011 05:15:27AM 0 points [-]

"Attachment to the world" is not anything I wrote

See here. I read not only this post, but the last one too!

Also, I read the following:

(Will Swain)Didn't you say that enlightenment would fix problems like attachment? Couldn't that kind of result produce an empirical test?

(DavidM)"Attachment" has a specific nonstandard meaning in Buddhist-associated thinking, and I realized after writing Part 1 that it would have been better to omit the word altogether rather than try to explain it. So I would prefer to discuss the testable aspects of enlightenment without talking about attachment.

So I'll not make any more claims about attachment. Would you apply similar "don't test" restrictions to "craving" and "hatred," which you also mentioned in part 1?

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 05:32:27AM 0 points [-]

I used the word "attachment" without explaining it. "Attachment to the world" I've never written, though phrases like that appear constantly in Buddhist literature and are often taught as central to it (as you seem well aware of, given your use of the phrase "Buddhist heritage" in relation to this discussion).

About these terms, I seem to be having enough trouble getting across the basics, so I think triage is in order.

Comment author: aelephant 09 March 2012 02:52:24PM 3 points [-]

I found this post and Part 1 incredibly interesting. I apologize for resurrecting an old post, but does anyone know what happened to DavidM and whether or not we will be waiting forever for Part 3? If he no longer frequents this site, does anyone know how to contact him?

Comment author: Rhwawn 11 March 2012 12:27:41AM 1 point [-]

He commented in May, so he's not dead. You could try "send a message".

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 17 December 2014 07:50:14AM 0 points [-]

Did anyone contact DavidM?

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 06 May 2011 08:54:55PM 3 points [-]

WARNING: never label 'labeling'!

:)

Comment author: derefr 07 May 2011 09:39:50AM *  0 points [-]

Why not? Sure, you might start to recurse and distract yourself if you try to picture the process as a series of iterative steps, just as building any other kind of infinite data structure would—but that's what declarative data structure definitions were made for. :)

Instead of actually trying to construct each new label as you experience it, simply picture the sum total of your current attention as a digraph. Then, when you experience something, you add a label to the graph (pointing to the "real" experience, which isn't as easily visualized as the label—I picture objects in a scripting language's object space holding references to raw C structs here.) When you label the label itself, you simply attach a new label ('labelling') which points to the previous label, but also points to itself (a reflexive edge.) This would be such a regular occurrence of the graph that it would be easier to just visualize such label nodes as being definitionally attached to root labels, and thus able to be left out of any mental diagram in the same way Hydrogen is left out of the diagrams of organic molecules.

Actually, that brings up an interesting point—is the labelling process suggested here inherently subvocally-auditory? Can we visualize icons representing our experiences rather than subvocalizing words representing them, or does switching from Linear to Gestalt change the effect this practice has on executive function?

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 07 May 2011 05:48:40PM 0 points [-]

Actually, that brings up an interesting point—is the labelling process suggested here inherently subvocally-auditory? Can we visualize icons representing our experiences rather than subvocalizing words representing them, or does switching from Linear to Gestalt change the effect this practice has on executive function?

I'm not in a good position to comment on how effective various methods are for learning to go from stage one to stage four, since stage four is my default state, but using visual representations works fine for me, and I expect it'd work for anyone who's used to thinking in a visual rather than word-based format in any other context. Using a gestalt might be too distracting for most people to start with, though, and may be slightly more dangerous.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 April 2012 12:53:11AM 6 points [-]

All else being equal, the more you meditate, the faster your attention and perception will improve. Working up to one or two hours per day, every day, is a good goal.

Holy opportunity cost, Batman!

Comment author: gwern 23 April 2012 01:50:09AM *  5 points [-]

Well, it's not quite that bad - it's regularly remarked anecdotally that meditation substitutes to some degree for sleep. (Although I think that only gains you an hour at most.) And then there's the observation that you can meditate during your 'junk time', when you're not up to any real work, and the meditation might even improve you to the point of doing real work. That seems to work for me sometimes: I spend half an hour meditating, and then I can get in half an hour of work, when I would otherwise have spent the hour on Reddit.

EDIT: Please note that this really is just anecdotal information on what might reduce the cost of meditation; I regard it as plausible and consistent with what I know, but I wouldn't give the claims more than 75% confidence. Nor do I plan to read the relevant literature on meditation any time soon (unless someone wants to pay me).

Comment author: katydee 26 April 2012 09:02:02PM *  2 points [-]

I recently encountered an article on this: meditation, even in non-experienced meditators, appears to improve psychomotor vigilance on following tasks, and experienced meditators appear to sleep less than non-meditators.

Comment author: gwern 26 April 2012 09:07:49PM 0 points [-]

Ah, I think I saw that one less. Worth noting that the second study in it, on the long-term meditators, is not controlled/randomized - so it's just correlational. (eg. maybe the less you sleep, the more you can afford the time to do meditation.)

Comment author: katydee 26 April 2012 09:45:24PM 2 points [-]

Yep. Not a hugely strong claim, though I'm emailing the author for more information.

Comment author: katydee 01 May 2012 07:44:58PM 3 points [-]

Update: The author replied, and doesn't know of any more conclusive studies in this respect.

Comment author: gwern 12 May 2012 12:35:41AM *  1 point [-]

I've started a multifactorial experiment for the next 360 days; I've decided one of the interventions will be meditation. Randomized on a per-day basis, and if that doesn't show any effect in the analysis, I'll try doing a before-after comparison.

Comment author: aelephant 06 May 2012 11:11:28PM 0 points [-]

If this is true, it puts my recent experience into context. After starting to meditate daily for 40 to 60 minutes, I noticed that my sleep requirement drastically reduced and I began waking earlier. Prior to this, I was a consistent sleeper, getting almost exactly 8 hours a night and not feeling rested if I didn't.

Most recently, I have been sleeping more like 6 hours a night and sometimes even less. I've also been waking up sometimes as early as 5:00am. I was expecting to experience some deficits after the 1st day or 2 of getting less sleep, but I've been continuing on like this for weeks now with no negative effects that I've been able to observe. This could be a form of bias (name, anyone?) though, much like people who have had alcohol will say they drive more carefully and thus aren't more dangerous, when in fact, they are.

Comment author: gwern 06 May 2012 11:34:21PM 0 points [-]

This could be a form of bias (name, anyone?) though, much like people who have had alcohol will say they drive more carefully and thus aren't more dangerous, when in fact, they are.

Actually, sleep deprivation is known to damage self-assessment (case I'm thinking of was in a study inducing chronic sleep deficits); not sure if this has a name.

Comment author: Eneasz 06 May 2011 03:01:42PM 5 points [-]

Tried this last night. Interesting personal results.

I was surprised by just how difficult it was. My brain is very noisy, and I kept thinking. No matter how hard I tried to concentrate on my breath, memories of earlier in the day or plans for tomorrow kept intruding. Or music loops. Or recollection of the instructions written here. Or frustration that I couldn't concentrate on my breathing, and meta-thinking about all the thinking I was doing instead of concentrating on my breathing. It was really quite shocking - I considered it a success (and a RARE one) if I could get two breaths in a row without my mind jumping to something.

But much more surprising was the repetitive nature of my thinking. It was like my brain was stuck on a loop. I kept coming back to the same 4 or 5 thoughts/memories/plans, and kept replaying the same small slices of songs. I even came back several times to being shocked/annoyed by how repetitive my thinking was. If this reflects my normal mental processes, then I waste a TON of energy simply re-thinking thoughts over and over.

I found this very interesting, and plan to keep doing this for a while. I have no idea what the term "vibrations" is supposed to mean, and it sounds very New-Age-Woo to me, so I have doubts I'll experience any of that. But the experiment was easy and produced novel results quickly.

Anyone else get anything similar?

Comment author: Vaniver 06 May 2011 04:10:32PM 2 points [-]

But much more surprising was the repetitive nature of my thinking. It was like my brain was stuck on a loop. I kept coming back to the same 4 or 5 thoughts/memories/plans, and kept replaying the same small slices of songs. I even came back several times to being shocked/annoyed by how repetitive my thinking was. If this reflects my normal mental processes, then I waste a TON of energy simply re-thinking thoughts over and over.

I have had things like this happen when trying to fall asleep. One thing I've found effective is a pad of paper or a voice recorder- when I find myself thinking "I need to get started on that new project" I leave myself a semi-detailed note to start on the new project, and then I don't have that thought again.

This sort of mind-dumping is probably better done as a warm-up to your meditation rather than part of your meditation itself, but I wouldn't know for sure.

Comment author: Jonii 16 May 2012 03:32:07PM 1 point [-]

I got similar results when I tried the more nondescript "focus on your breathing, if you get lost in your thoughts, go back to breathing, try to observe what happens in your mind" style meditation. Also, I got intense feeling of euphoria on my third try, and feelings of almost passing out under the storm of weird thoughts flowing in and out. That made me a bit scared of meditation, but this post series managed to scare me a whole lot more.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 04:00:06PM *  1 point [-]

Thanks for doing the experiment and letting us know about it.

If you're attempting to use the technique I'm describing, remember to actively label all the mental activity that occurs to you. If the majority of the mental activity you can see is repetitive thoughts and reactions to them, the majority of your meditation experience should be the generation of a stream of labels related to them: "thinking, remembering, aggravated, in-breath, thinking, annoyance, hearing, thinking, shocked, out-breath, thinking, frustrated...". In some ways this is much more important than just trying to follow your breath.

Comment author: Eneasz 06 May 2011 04:14:23PM 0 points [-]

Yup, I did that. It helped a lot, without it I would've been completely at the mercy of my racing stream of consciousness. Thank you!

Comment author: lukstafi 06 May 2011 03:39:11PM 0 points [-]

Think, or think not. Trying already gets you into "meta".

Comment author: Eneasz 06 May 2011 03:42:38PM -1 points [-]

If it was that easy I'd simply think not. :)

Comment author: lukstafi 06 May 2011 03:58:35PM *  0 points [-]

I often quiet myself with "shhhh" (aloud), in a comforting manner, when I'm tired and observe that my thoughts are useless or even detrimental.

Comment author: Yvain 04 May 2011 11:12:46PM *  4 points [-]

Interesting. Thank you.

Can you explain a little about where this style of meditation comes from? I only know the bare basics of a few Buddhist styles, but I'd never heard before this emphasis on "vibrations" (I've only heard them mentioned a few times as some sort of metaphysical thing).

Trying it very briefly, I find myself noticing several vibration-like processes (saccadic eye movements, micro-level catches and inconsistencies in the regularity of breathing, pounding of blood in facial arteries). Should real vibrations be obvious and distinct from all these when you perceive them?

I also notice you give numbers like 7 hz and 10 hz which are similar to the frequency of alpha waves. Is this intentional?

Have you personally been through all these stages? Has anyone else on LW done so? I'm not going to ask for a controlled trial, but knowing more than one person has had this experience would be significant.

Comment author: DavidM 04 May 2011 11:38:06PM *  6 points [-]

The earliest contemporary tradition which emphasizes meditation in a style like this that I know of goes back to Mahasi Sayadaw, a Burmese Theravada monk, and then to whoever taught him. Mahasi Sayadaw's impact on Theravada Buddhism has been very large, though his tradition is certainly not the only one in contemporary Theravada Buddhism.

"Vibrations" is a term you won't see in any Buddhist literature. Where I write "pay attention to vibrations," Buddhists would write "pay attention to the impermanence characteristic of phenomena." In Buddhism, "impermanence" (Pali: anicca) is one of the three characteristics of everything that exists. "Vibrations" is a term that suits the positivist in me better. (Note: I didn't invent the term. It's common in contemporary secular communities interested in enlightenment.)

What you're describing doesn't sound like vibrations; there are other [for lack of a better word] "pulsatory" phenomena in experience. But you can make an educated guess under the following assumption: if you can see them that easily, you should be able to see them in lots of places. So, look at part of your visual field and see if it has any property that you would describe as 'vibratory.' Or touch your skin and see if the sensation has any vibratory property.

I don't know what's up with the particular numbers. There may be some relationship between the frequencies of vibrations and the frequencies of brain waves, but I wouldn't know. Vibrations typically present at frequencies around there (5,7, 10, whatever), and it is true that certain frequencies are more predominant in certain stages. It would be interesting to know whether there is an interesting association between the stages, their typical cognitive / emotional / attentional / perceptual manifestations, and brainwave activity.

EDITED FOR CLARITY: I didn't see that you wrote alpha waves. Vibrations often present slower and faster than alpha waves. I've seen 3-4hz often enough. Stage two often has really high frequency vibrations (20hz+) if your concentration is strong or you're deep enough into it.

I've been through the stages I've described, yes.

Comment author: Yvain 05 May 2011 12:33:38PM 0 points [-]

Thank you. I'd heard the "impermanence of phenomena" phrase before but mistakenly thought it meant things like how all your material goods will one day break down and decay. I'll look up Sayadaw.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 01:12:16AM 2 points [-]

The orthodox Buddhist position seems to be that 'impermanence' is both gross (the breakdown of macro-level objects) and subtle (fluctuations in all the objects of one's experience).

FYI, "Sayadaw" is a title / honorific, so googling just that won't help much.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 May 2011 11:15:21PM 13 points [-]

Because of this inability to conceptualize the problem, there are no words I can type which will serve to explain it to you [...] Meditation, a series of attentional and perceptual exercises, can lead to the end of these delusions by fixing the processes which generate them. The end of these delusion is called 'enlightenment.'

I don't believe you. Next!

Comment author: haig 18 July 2013 10:41:05PM 2 points [-]

From what I've read of the source writings within the contemplative traditions, modern neuroscience studies and theories on meditation, and my own experiences and thoughts on the subject as well, I've come to view the practice of meditation as serving 3 different but interconnected purposes: 1.) ego loss, 2.) cultivation of compassion, and 3.) experience of non-dual reality.

Ego loss means inhibiting or eliminating the internal self-critic by changing the way you perceive the target of that critic, namely the concept of a stable 'self' that you identify with. Suffering is caused by the struggle of attachment, which is a manifestation of your internal self-critic admonishing your identified 'self' over future desires and past failures. By changing the concept you identify with as your 'self', you remove the object or target of the self-critical process and it fades away, allowing you to be free to live in the moment unhindered by such suffering. Meditation lessens the activation of what is called the default mode network, a network of neurons that extend through several anatomical brain regions and which the over-activation of is implicated in many mood disorders including anxiety, depression, ocd, among others.

Cultivating compassion, generally seen as a way to put yourself in another's shoes and wish others to be free from suffering and attain happiness, is also a way to achieve those things for your self as well. Compassion, once cultivated, recursively extends back onto yourself also, and allows you to be compassionate about your own life. Being loving and kind to yourself, not in a narcissistic way, but in an egoless, purely compassionate way as a sentient being among others, helps you remain in a positive mood and help others to do the same. Mirror neurons and the ability to form a theory of mind are hypothesized to be active in empathic cognition, but they may also prove to be the crucial substructure that allows us to have a theory of our own minds, the seat of the 'self' if you like, and so compassion is both an outward an inward directed process.

Lastly, experience of non-dual awareness is somewhat like the combination of the previous two effects, but taken further it inculcates a deep connection between you, others, and everything else in the universe as one unseparated whole. I've only experienced this sensation twice, but it is overwhelming and life changing.

In conclusion, meditation helps to develop and sustain these brain processes, but it is not easy, takes a lot of time, and may not even be effective for many people. I'm hoping that affective neuroscience and neurotechnology will progress to the level where meditation is unnecessary for achieving these states (though can and should be practiced for aesthetic reasons for those so inclined).

Comment author: alexvermeer 16 May 2012 04:48:13PM *  2 points [-]

Is meditating for 60mins once better than, say, 4x15mins spread throughout the day?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 17 May 2012 05:28:16AM *  2 points [-]

It's not as much the duration itself, as how much you can achieve during that duration. With a 60 minute meditation, it's possible to reach far deeper states of concentration than with a 15 minute meditation. If you can accomplish that, then 60 minutes is probably better. On the other hand, if your concentration skills aren't developed enough yet, it may not be possible for you to meditate that long effectively, or you might put less effort into it since you feel you have plenty of time. I still sometimes get the best results when I'm short on time, because I'm forced to actually concentrate and don't have high expectations.

I'd say to do 15-minute sits at first, and then gradually push up the duration when you start getting the feeling that you could go on for a while longer. Experiment with what works best for you.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 May 2011 11:52:08AM 2 points [-]

Tentative theory: Enlightenment might be good for AI researchers (assuming that it doesn't degrade their abilities) because it shows them more about the possibilities about what minds can be than the researchers can know otherwise.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 May 2011 12:09:27AM 2 points [-]

Dayum. And I thought I could add something of interest. ;) There are maybe a few nitpicks or "I'm pretty far along the way and stuck on some specific problem" kinda advice, but as you already mentioned Buddhaghosa and Mahasi Sayadaw, there ain't much left I could possibly add. And as fun as "my tradition is better than your tradition" is, I'll just fully endorse everything you said and confirm it.

Comment author: fiddlemath 05 May 2011 06:55:12AM 2 points [-]

I'll just fully endorse everything you said and confirm it.

In detail? You recognize these stages as having happened, and have had similar experiences? Would you describe anything differently?

Comment author: [deleted] 05 May 2011 03:30:53PM 2 points [-]

In general, yes. All the details I cared to investigate match up, though the exact extend of some of these stages (especially emotional side-effects) varies a bit. Personally, I'd prefer to use a somewhat different lingo and different organization of the map[1], but that's more of a different perspective than an actual disagreement.

Also, these stages matched the experiences for all the people I know well enough and who practiced similar techniques, regardless of what tradition they came from (be it Zen, idiosyncratic drug use or Carlos Castaneda's stuff). I only learned of the Theravada maps once I was already way in and past lots of the exciting stuff. I stick with them because they are so accurate.

[1] Specifically, I'd stress the fractal nature of the progression. There are many self-similar patterns within the stages. Also, I'd divide it more, but this is an introduction, not a comprehensive account.

Comment author: luminosity 05 May 2011 11:06:17PM 0 points [-]

So, the summary that I get out of this and the previous post is:

  • If you meditate frequently, you might (should?) reach a state of enlightenment. This will take probably at least a year to reach.
  • This involves going through a period where you degrade the quality of your life.
  • After you have reached 'enlightenment', you likely still have to keep investing significant hours into meditation to prevent sliding back into the period of mental degradation.
  • You can't describe to us what enlightenment is, how it works, or what benefits it brings.
  • You have no empirically tested benefits of enlightenment to share with us.

Given the above, I cannot see a sane reason to take it up. That's some significant drawbacks & risks, with no actual nameable benefits to make up for it.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 04:17:20AM 2 points [-]

If you meditate frequently, you might (should?) reach a state of enlightenment. This will take probably at least a year to reach.

I wrote that a year is a good upper bound.

After you have reached 'enlightenment', you likely still have to keep investing significant hours into meditation to prevent sliding back into the period of mental degradation.

I explicitly stated that enlightenment is permanent. I should also have explicitly stated that partial enlightenment is permanent (in the sense of not regressing to non-enlightenment or a lesser category of enlightenment).

You can't describe to us what enlightenment is, how it works, or what benefits it brings.

I have provided a metaphor about how it works and described numerous potential benefits.

You have no empirically tested benefits of enlightenment to share with us.

My claims about the benefits of enlightenment are on the basis of empirical observation; you simply don't have access to the evidence on which those benefits are claimed. I explicitly stated that too.

What do you think the causes of your mischaracterization of what I've written are?

Comment author: luminosity 06 May 2011 06:25:59AM 0 points [-]

I don't have time to address all your replies right now, but I can address this:

I explicitly stated that enlightenment is permanent. I should also have explicitly stated that partial enlightenment is permanent (in the sense of not regressing to non-enlightenment or a lesser category of enlightenment).

In your article under the heading "Stage four" you say

The rest of your life is likely to benefit from having mode four perception as its subtle undercurrent. Problems may seem less important and typical worries may no longer arise. If you stop meditating here, it is possible to do fine, but it is also possible to eventually regress to stage three (in which case mode three perception becomes the subtle undercurrent), which sucks. So try not to let that happen.

This is the same heading under which you talk about enlightenment, and I found the gist of the text also strongly suggested to me that stage four, or advanced stage four was enlightenment.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 01:28:01PM *  0 points [-]

In the paragraph immediately after what you're quoting, I wrote

Partial enlightenment is preceded by the apparent momentary cessation of consciousness, which will happen at the very end of this stage.

which implies that 1) stage four ends, and 2) when partial enlightenment has occurred, stage four has ended. Given that, I would think that caveats concerning what may happen if you stop meditating in stage four would no longer be taken to apply.

I'm still curious where your mischaracterizations have come from. Perhaps something about my writing style leads to them. I didn't ask just as a way to point out that your assertions about my claims are wrong. I would genuinely like to know the answer.

Comment author: bogdanb 15 May 2011 11:23:36AM 0 points [-]

which implies that 1) stage four ends, and 2) when partial enlightenment has occurred, stage four has ended.

I parse that as “attaining partial enlightenment” implies “end of stage four”.

That is, the event sequence is: t0, t1, t2,... “end stage four”, “partial enlightenment”.

Where does total enlightenment fit in the picture?

Before reading these comments, I thought (as apparently luminosity did) that the sequence ends with something like ... “total enlightenment”, “end stage four” (no more stages). So I probably misunderstood something. Can you post something like a flowchart or state/transition diagram of your model? (I’m better with visual abstractions.)

Comment author: DavidM 16 May 2011 03:19:37AM *  1 point [-]

The model for higher stages of enlightenment is not one that I can fit into a blog post.

One reason is that I agree with what muflax said: the most-correct model I know of will have a fractal element, which will be hard to represent in a simple way. In my opinion, for the first four stages, this fractal element is less important. Afterwards, it's more important.

I don't think a model with a fractal element is necessarily the most useful one, though. I think a linear model (like the one I gave for the first four stages) can go pretty far. Problem is, I don't think the really important stuff that happens after stage 4 is anything that I can describe in a way that makes much sense until you get past stage 4, fractal or not. For example, in this model, I describe lots of stuff that is easy to understand: mood changes, attention changes, etc. Most of what's interesting about post-stage 4 is not really like that. Post-stage 4 stages involve repetitions of the qualities of earlier stages, but that's not what's interesting about them.

If you want a flowchart, it will be pretty unremarkable:

stage 1 --> stage 2 --> stage 3 --> stage 4 --> first stage of enlightenment --> (some stuff) --> second stage of enlightenment --> (some stuff) --> third stage of enlightenment --> (some stuff) --> full enlightenment

"Some stuff" is not me being evasive, I just see no useful way to write about it here. Nothing under "some stuff" is scarier than what I wrote about stages 2 and 3, so I'm not declining to share anything that can ruin your life.

Keep in mind that this model, including only the first four stages, is itself simplified in relation to the more precise models that it is derived from.

I think the four stage model of enlightenment is insufficient (needs more stages), but I can't easily explain what's wrong with it, and the model I prefer is not very precise in the places that it differs from the four stage model.

EDIT: Just for clarity, "stage 1" through "stage 4" are not related to the four stages of enlightenment in any straightforward way. Not related at all unless you use a model with a fractal element. "Stages 1...4" are one thing, and the four stages of enlightenment are another.

Comment author: donjoe 04 July 2014 10:30:44PM 1 point [-]

This sounds like it might be helpful for people who encountered the same problem as I did in trying to apply DavidM's method, namely knowing what to expect (or whether to expect anything) as a result of performing the first-phase meditative exercises: http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma7/enterjhana.html

It would seem that having a purpose or expecting a result could be the very thing that prevents you from getting that result, in certain phases or aspects of meditation.

Comment author: donjoe 26 January 2013 04:47:47PM 1 point [-]

The first time I read this article I immediately thought that if this strange notion of "vibrations of consciousness" has any overlap with reality, it must have a lot to do with what we otherwise know as "brain waves", because those happen to have the same frequencies associated with the "vibrations" in the article and the comments: 7-10-20 Hz (which seems consistent with beta and alpha waves, i.e. meditative states and normal wakefulness).

Well, it seems that lately science is struggling to prove my association right: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121121130815.htm

Comment author: donjoe 09 October 2016 09:30:22AM 0 points [-]

More developments on the vibratory mechanisms of consciousness: http://actu.epfl.ch/news/how-the-brain-produces-consciousness-in-time-slice/

Comment author: bthomson 10 June 2011 07:44:01PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for writing this and the previous part, David. I appreciate the effort to distill out meditation-as-practice-leading-towards-enlightenment from the more religious concepts it tends to be commingled with.

(I'm not a regular lesswrong reader but actually found this through Google as I figured someone here might have something interesting to say about meditation.)

Comment author: sruch 13 May 2011 04:20:29PM *  1 point [-]

First time poster here. Decided to try this about a week ago. Been doing this about 30-45 minutes a day since then. Here's my experience:

First 2 days: Did the breathing and labeling, not too hard to concentrate but got distracted and labeled the distractions. No vibrations. Not sure what you mean by that exactly.

Mid-week until today: At about 20 minutes in, I notice a couple of things going on. I start to sort of forget what I am supposed to say when labeling or forget to label altogether. I will get confused and not know that I am supposed to say "out" for example. I will know I am supposed to say something, but I forget what it is. Then I remember and come back to it. Also, I start getting spontaneous imagery and/or thoughts coming in. Like 3 McNuggets with a skewer through them - WTF. Then today I had one where it was a guy's face with a giant hole in it, and an arm was coming out of his ear and you could see the lower half through the giant hole. Or I would notice I was thinking some series of thoughts instead of meditating, then remember I was meditating and go back to it.

Last 2 days: Same as above but now at around 25-30 minutes in I will get a sensation kind of like your foot falling asleep, but in my whole body and not unpleasant. Vaguely like shivering but no actual body movement. That may last a second or two. Maybe this will happen 2 or 3 times in a session. Still not sure what you mean by vibrations, although the body sensation was kind of vibratory, like needles all over poking rapidly but not in a painful way. Is that what you are talking about? I labeled it "that".

After I stop, I feel a bit weird, like the world is brighter or more vibrant in a way. Hard to explain.

Anyway, that's my story so far. Any thoughts on that? Am I progressing or just starting to fall asleep? Some of it has a kind of dreamlike quality.

Comment author: DavidM 13 May 2011 11:05:24PM 0 points [-]

The imagery you're describing is really interesting. :) Could be a lot of things. If you're feeling dreamy while it's happening then it's probably because you're getting tired. Try standing up, siting in an uncomfortable position, drinking coffee, or something like that.

Forgetting what label to use or forgetting to label sounds like sleepiness.

You said the shivers are "not unpleasant," does that mean "slightly pleasant" or absolutely neutral? How would you say your focus is during the moments leading up to it, compared to when you start meditating or get weird imagery?

Body sensations like tingling, shivering, pins-and-needles, etc. are really good places to search for vibrations. It's probably obvious to you that sensations like this aren't static, but are comprised of rapidly fluctuating sub-sensations. (Imagine what it would mean if "tingling" was a static sensation. Would you even call it "tingling"?) So, how rapidly do they fluctuate? How quickly can you observe the sensations that comprise them?

I may have more to say if you can tell me more.

Comment author: sruch 14 May 2011 12:10:21AM *  0 points [-]

I would probably say that the sensations are slightly pleasant, but yet slightly foreign and odd. Focus seems better before this happens. Definitely better than when I start. Seems to fluctuate maybe 10 to 20 per second. I can sort of describe it as something then nothing alternating, with the something being stronger. I can probably observe it better next time if this is useful. Its almost too fast. You seem to be saying that these might be comprised of even smaller parts, since you said its a good place to look. Are actual vibrations different?

Comment author: DavidM 14 May 2011 01:41:42AM 0 points [-]

It sounds like you may be describing vibrations, in one sensory modality only. What do you mean by "nothing"? Absense of a tingle? Absense of all physical sensation?

Physical sensations are a good place to look for vibrations because there are a lot of physical sensations that everyone seems to recognize are made up of fluctuating stuff. Most people are more attuned to this kind of fluctuation than to fluctuations in other modalities. Vibrations in other modalities are actually kind of similar, except that they don't "tingle", they just...fluctuate. Maybe tingling is a good metaphor for that.

Two main possibilities that I see:

1) Your concentration is relatively good, and when it gets to a certain point, it produces this effect, but the effect distracts you, your concentration falls apart, and the effect disappears. ("Concentration" here means something like "ability to keep your attention on one object," which is different from the typical meaning, and isn't the same process as concentrating during everyday tasks.) If your concentration was better, the tingling would become stronger, and very pleasant. Concentration simultaneously brings on this particular sensation and breaks it up into easy-to-discern vibrations.

2) You are somewhere in stage 2 (probably the beginning, but who knows), which has random pleasant (or simultaneously pleasant / weird or pleasant / unpleasant) tingly sensations as a characteristic of it.

So, you can distinguish between these possibilities as follows. Next time you get this tingling, don't label it 'that', but label it 'that-that-that-that-that-that...', one label for each fluctuation you can discern. Try to see each fluctuation clearly, from the "something" to the "nothing". Even if you can't see all 10 or 20 per second, do your best. If the tingling is caused by good concentration, this will likely make it go away quickly. If the tingling is caused by being in stage 2, this is more likely to extend it or intensify it or bring on another round of it, and your concentration may increase.

If rapid labeling intensifies it, that's good, you should focus on doing that, and try to label faster in general. If you can sort of notice 10-20 tingles per second, you should set a goal of generating at least four labels per second when there isn't any tingling around.

I assume that if you're in stage 2, you're in the beginning, because you didn't report any mood or emotional effects. You did report some bizarre visualizations, which is definitely stage 2-esque (especially because of their bizarreness), but for now I'm attributing that to being sleepy. But it could just be the way that stage 2 manifests for you, especially if you don't typically have imagery like that.

If I'm wrong about where in stage 2 you are, you might get a BIG rush or a series of rushes of tingly sensations from labeling rapidly. And if this happens, at one point, at the end of the rushes, you may feel like your attention is much less precise than before, which would be a decent indication that you may have entered stage 3, so hold on. (But in that case I would say you have an aptitude for this style of meditation, and think that you'll probably get through it quickly if you keep going. Also, if you haven't reported many emotional side effects, you may not be susceptible to them.)

Do you feel any different when you're not meditating? Tingles? Weird visualizations? How's your mood and energy level?

Comment author: sruch 14 May 2011 09:19:26PM *  0 points [-]

What do you mean by "nothing"? Absense of a tingle? Absense of all physical sensation?

Not really sure. It's moving to fast to tell. The nothing part seems different from neutral awake mode though.

Your concentration is relatively good, and when it gets to a certain point, it produces this effect, but the effect distracts you, your concentration falls apart, and the effect disappears

This might be the case. Will expect it next time so it won't break my concentration.

I assume that if you're in stage 2, you're in the beginning, because you didn't report any mood or emotional effects. You did report some bizarre visualizations, which is definitely stage 2-esque (especially because of their bizarreness), but for now I'm attributing that to being sleepy. But it could just be the way that stage 2 manifests for you, especially if you don't typically have imagery like that.

Yeah I don't get that type of imagery, plus I was fairly uncomfortable it the position I was in - legs hurt.

Do you feel any different when you're not meditating? Tingles? Weird visualizations? How's your mood and energy level?

No visualizations outside of meditating. Mood was kind of bad last night. My head feels like it's buzzing at a high pitch and I feel like I can almost hear it. Also, another thing I've noticed all my life is that my entire visual field is grainy (like millions of pixels or points that seem to change and pulsate), particularly in the dark but in light as well (except if it's really bright). l always thought this was some artifact of how the retina works, like I'm seeing individual rod/cone firings, or maybe registering individual photons. But I notice this in absolute total darkness too, so maybe it's something else. But anyway I am noticing this effect more often and it is vibratory in nature - seems to pulse really fast. If I close my eyes the visual field explodes with this graininess. I'm trying to observe it more today.

Should be noted that I take Zoloft and Lamictal in case those are influencing any of this.

Comment author: DavidM 15 May 2011 04:41:08PM *  0 points [-]

Should be noted that I take Zoloft and Lamictal in case those are influencing any of this.

Before you continue with this, I'm formally recommending that you run what you're doing by your doctor and get your doctor's permission before you do it.

Not because I think this practice is (or isn't) going to be problematic for you, but because I don't know what your mental health situation is, and your well-being is important enough not to put solely in the hands of someone on the internet.

Also, I strongly suggest explaining what you're doing to a close friend, and having them check in with you every so often to make sure you're OK.

The rest of what I write is predicated on your having checked with your doctor and gotten his or her approval to continue.

(If you don't mind saying, what is the exact diagnosis that you're prescribed those medications for? Feel free not to say if you don't want to share publicly.)


So, taking Zoloft and Lamictal probably is influencing this. My guess is that Lamictal will alter or suppress the mood / emotional stuff that can happen in stage 2. Zoloft probably has some effect, too, but I have no idea what.

Let's talk about your visual field. I don't know the cause of what you're describing, and I think it's common enough, but what you mention about it pulsing is probably different. It might be vibrations. Here's how to find out.

Look closely at any part of your visual field with eyes open, when you can see the graininess. (Make sure you're looking at a static scene.) I'll suppose you're looking at a quarter. It should appear to you that the graininess is commingled with the image of the quarter, or that the image of the quarter is "arising out of" or "formed by" the grain. If the pulses you're describing are vibrations, then the grain / quarter is the "something." Label every pulse that you see, and label very quickly. If you label fast enough (or can see enough pulses) it should become obvious to you that there is also a moment where the grain and the quarter simply aren't there; this is the "nothing" (lack of visual field where your attention was).

(Looking at my own visual field, it sometimes appears that the grain is there, and then the quarter is there. Both of those are "something." "Nothing" is when it appears there are blank frames, without visual qualities, that surround instances of grain or quarter or the grain / quarter complex.)

If you can see the "something" and the "nothing," these are vibrations. If visual vibrations are clearer to you than tactile vibrations (e.g. in the movement of your abdomen), then your new object of meditation should be any part of your visual field (attentional width as wide or narrow as is comfortable for you, eyes closed or open as you prefer), and you should label the pulses with the label "pulse" or "seeing" (making sure to see both the "something" and "nothing"), and label any distractions as well. When the tingling thing happens, you can move to that while it's there if you like.

As I said, I think Lamictal may suppress the mood stuff associated with meditation. So, to recap...bizarre visualizations, probably seeing vibrations in multiple sensory modalities, body tingling during meditation, other physical sensations continue after meditation ("buzzing" in your head), expected energy and mood changes potentially dampened or altered: stage 2.

The interesting part is if you've always sort of noticed the "pulsing" of your visual field but never paid attention to it. Then your situation is more complicated and "stage 2" may not be a perfect representation of it. However, the advice for your situation would be the same either way, so it doesn't matter much.

Comment author: sruch 16 May 2011 01:33:39PM 0 points [-]

I can always see extremely fast vibration in the visual field, like dozens per second at least (maybe hundreds - too fast to tell). It's like a tv station showing snow on an empty channel. That's what I see in the graininess all the time.

Now, though I am beginning to very faintly see a slower but still very fast vibration overlaying all of the graininess. I see this sometimes but not always. It's very fast - faster than I can label it. Maybe 10-20 per second. In this case do you just label as fast as possible and try to keep up?

Comment author: DavidM 16 May 2011 03:37:49PM 0 points [-]

The first paragraph isn't about vibrations. That's just visual junk. Looking at it closely will make vibrations apparent.

The second paragraph sounds like it's about vibrations. The rapidly-changing graininess is overlaid by another pulse, yes? How do you know that it's a pulse, unless you can almost-sort of see the fluctuation from "nothing" to "something" to "nothing"? (In stage 2 the "something" is clearest, so don't expect the "nothing" to be overwhelming.)

If you can't label "pulse" or "seeing" fast enough, try "that." If you still can't do it fast enough, simply see the vibrations without being distracted, or count them. Balance just seeing with labeling if distraction is a problem. Re-read my stage 2 advice in the post.

I'll be away for a few days, starting now, so you're on your own for awhile. Sounds like you'll be fine.

Comment author: sruch 20 May 2011 08:55:47PM *  0 points [-]

Ok an update on my experiences: a few days ago I sat and had less wandering and odd visuals, and then I had a strong tingling sensation starting at my neck and running down my body. Like shivering but no actual body movement - stronger than my previous tingling and different. This one travelled through the body. This happened over and over about 10-15 times. I was noting things like happy, calm, excited. It was pretty enjoyable, almost sensual. I was not aware meditating can produce these odd sensations. It's very interesting. Since then I have had a small amount of that but not nearly as much. Also I am easily irritated afterwards and am now a bit anxious. I am also noticing small jerks and stutters in my breath. It's chunky when I focus intently on it. Also getting these things where I suddenly realize "something" happened like I fell asleep and woke suddenly. Also today i was looking at myself in the mirror for a long time and then it was like my face looked frightening to me and there was actual fear. Very interesting. I was skeptical but this is producing bizarre effects and I'm bored so I'll see where this goes and keep investgating.

Comment author: sruch 15 May 2011 11:51:55PM 0 points [-]

Meds are for treatment resistant mild depression and social anxiety. But I think the doc may suspect bipolar ii or similar since the lamictal is new. Will report back on this new method.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 06 May 2011 08:22:53AM *  1 point [-]

Is meditation necessary for enlightenment in your opinion, DavidM, or can it be achieved by other means?

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 06 May 2011 02:24:03PM *  5 points [-]

It's possible, but as DavidM says, one probably has to have rather unusual starting conditions.

My natural state of mind has, to the best of my admittedly spotty memory, always been essentially the same as what DavidM describes as stage four, and I've had at least one and possibly several experiences that match what he describes as enlightenment - I just never realized that they were particularly noteworthy or related to that until now. I'm good at meditating, in the sense of being able to just concentrate on one thing for a relatively long period of time (I find 10-15 minutes to be relatively effortless), but I've never made a habit of it.

I do find it plausible that meditation is the easiest way for someone whose native state is stage one to learn to enter and sustain stage four. I also find it plausible that drugs can accomplish that (I know of a particular, thankfully unusual, food additive that will send me into stage one, and avoid it like the bad trip that it is), but can't speak for specific ones.

ETA: Oh, except that I have no clue what he's talking about with 'vibrations', unless he's talking about a particular experience I've been known to have when improperly caffeinated. They aren't any usual part of my experience.

Comment author: DavidM 09 May 2011 02:39:26AM 1 point [-]

Actually, re-reading this, I have two questions.

What experiences have you had that you think correspond with enlightenment? Do you mean the apparent momentary cessation of consciousness?

In what way do you think your normal experience is like my description of stage four (or mode four perception)?

I may have more things I'd like to ask you after you respond, if you don't mind.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 May 2011 04:10:38AM *  4 points [-]

What experiences have you had that you think correspond with enlightenment? Do you mean the apparent momentary cessation of consciousness?

That specifically, yes. The one instance that I specifically remember involved an apparent momentary cessation of consciousness, blanking of my entire working memory, and an intuition that 'I' was not necessarily the same person who'd been running this body five minutes prior. I imagine that if I hadn't already spent some time thinking about personhood and identity, I would have been quite floored by it, which would have been quite inconvenient as I was in the middle of a task at work at the time.

That general class of experience - periods where I experience oddities of working memory and general mental function followed by an intuition that something has changed, possibly with a cessation of consciousness that I simply miss most of the time - is not unusual enough to be noteworthy; I estimate that it's happened at least once a year for the last 4 or 5 years, and possibly prior to that as well. The most recent one was less than two months ago, in fact - I remember because there was some specific food item I'd been waiting for Alicorn to get around to making before it happened, and then after it happened I didn't want that food item any more and mentioned that to her. (I don't remember a cessation of consciousness with that one, but it could easily have happened in such a way that I simply missed noting it.)

In what way do you think your normal experience is like my description of stage four (or mode four perception)?

My normal mode involves a fairly wide field of perception - it's not unusual for me to notice things that are near the edge of my visual field when I'm 'focusing on' something in the center of it, for example, and I can focus on multiple modes of perception well enough to 'transcribe' the visual synesthesia that I experience with music in realtime, though that takes considerable effort (probably mostly because I don't have much practice in general with drawing). Most concepts don't evoke emotional responses in me, which actually gets me in trouble sometimes when I forget that other people do have particular, involuntary emotional responses to certain words and concepts. Monitoring what my mind is doing is not any harder than reading text or listening to music; it's actually easier than reading a challenging text. Such observation is nuanced well past the point that I can easily communicate with words - for example, the idea that anger and frustration are versions of the same thing seems downright silly, and each of those has at least half a dozen different subtypes that function slightly differently from each other. ("I want to punch you in the face" is not the same as "I want to destroy your reputation" is not the same as "I want to do a better job than you at something you think you're good at so that you know I'm superior to you" is not the same as "I want to make you cease to exist", and each of those is related to a different kind of anger, for example, though anger varies along more than that one dimension.) The fact that my mind is mostly made up of basically-automatic subsystems is obvious to me because I can 'see' several of them, and divine the workings of several more, and I've been known to be able to consciously tweak the workings of those systems in limited ways.

I could probably go on a bit, but it's mostly stuff like that; I think you get the general idea.

I may have more things I'd like to ask you after you respond, if you don't mind.

Sure, go ahead.

(Note: I know my 'tone of voice' is odd above. This is a thing that happens when I'm talking directly to someone I don't know well. I haven't yet found a good workaround that doesn't involve getting to know the person. I can only directly tweak some things about how my automatic systems work. ;P )

Comment author: DavidM 11 May 2011 03:53:55AM *  4 points [-]

Based on your description, I see some chance that you may be right. Lots of things to ask. But let's stick with something simple to begin with.

Meditators who are [partially] enlightened can cycle between the various modes of perception, at first by meditating, and sometimes (with practice) at will, and at the end of mode four will experience an apparent momentary cessation of consciousness. So, if you'd like to see whether this is true for you, I'd ask you to do the following exercise and see what happens:

Even if you don't perceive vibrations, and so sensory experience of an unchanging subject appears static, it should be clear to you that the mental process of observing the quality of one's experience is "pulsatory," in the sense that observation happens as a string of individual observation-moments. So pick an object to meditate on (I find an unchanging visual field is good for this; doesn't matter much what's in the field), focus your attention on it, and every time you recognize that you are having an experience of that object, label that experience. (If you pick an unchanging visual field, your labeling will be "seeing, seeing, seeing, seeing, seeing, seeing..."). Don't worry about labeling anything else. Make sure your label corresponds to recognizing the experience (it shouldn't be a mantra, you should only label "seeing" when you have a clear second-order recognition of your first-order experience). Label quickly, multiple times per second if possible. If your attention gets wider or narrower during this, let it be wider or narrower, and just keep on recognizing and labeling your experience moment-to-moment. If your attention gets so wide that labeling only one sense seems ludicrous, feel free to use "experience, experience, experience...." instead.

If you are beyond stage four, then then exercise is likely to produce a variety of attentional and perceptual changes, but not really any of the physical / emotional / cognitive weirdness from the various stages (since by hypothesis you're not in any of those stages, according to the simple model I described; so you won't cycle through the stages, just the bare perceptual modes associated with them.)

If you are beyond stage four, you should expect that after your attention gets quite wide, there will be a momentary apparent cessation of consciousness, and immediately after, your attention will be narrower. Most people can keep on going through the cycle narrower-->wide--->cessation of consciousness-->narrower--->wide--->cessation of consciousness over and over, so if you think you've missed seeing it the first time, you can try again.

Don't expect the cessation of consciousness attained through this method to produce any sort of mental change, apart from possibly causing feelings of relaxation and happiness for a short time afterwards.

I don't know how long it will take to do this experiment. The speed at which a meditator can cycle like this may depend on individual factors, how far along they are towards full enlightenment, and practice. I would estimate 30 minutes to an hour as an upper bound. But the process can also be extremely fast (I can do it in less than 10 seconds). The faster you can do it, the harder it is to observe the attentional changes, but the easier it is to examine whether consciousness appears to cease or not, and vice versa.

If you can cycle through the modes of perception up to the apparent cessation of consciousness by using this method (and are accurately describing your experience), I would be convinced that your brain is quirky enough to have gotten you beyond stage four (to partial enlightenment) without any formal meditation.

(Note: I know my 'tone of voice' is odd above. This is a thing that happens when I'm talking directly to someone I don't know well. I haven't yet found a good workaround that doesn't involve getting to know the person. I can only directly tweak some things about how my automatic systems work. ;P )

Mine isn't anything to write home about either, so no worries. :)

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 11 May 2011 04:26:05AM 1 point [-]

It may be a few days before I have the time to devote to this, but I'll give it a go. I expect it will take a while; my usual experience of oddness leading up to a change tends to take a few days, so I'll be somewhat surprised if this goes as quickly as an hour. It's possible that I'll run into trouble trying to stay in a word-using mode that long; I may need to adjust that aspect of the experiment, but it doesn't sound like a concept-based or visual-glyph-based take on it is likely to be significantly different.

(Is retaining an awareness of the last few items in the list of labels important? My first instinct is to set up one mental thread with glyphs that I can pulse to represent different kinds of experiencing, and another mental thread with the empty field to observe, but I can also have a line of glyphs or abstracted bowl of pebbles that gets added to or something in the first thread if that would better approximate the usual mental state involved.)

Comment author: DavidM 11 May 2011 05:00:04AM *  3 points [-]

Thanks for being willing to take the time. I'm extremely interested in hearing how it turns out.

Using labels is actually a crutch. You could just as easily pick an object of meditation and have a nonverbal, second-order recognition that you're experiencing it. But you have to be sure that you're doing that correctly, and be sure that you're not having attentional lapses, otherwise it's likely to be much less effective. Labeling tends to force people to do this correctly. (About "doing it correctly": It's difficult to explain in words what the "second-order recognition" process is, so a person looking to cultivate it on the basis of an explanation only may have a hard time figuring out whether they're cultivating it or not. But people seem to get it when they label.)

An equivalent method which is not suitable for beginners but may be suitable for you would be to imagine a glyph every time you recognize an instance of seeing (or whatever your object is). The glyph would then be similar in meaning to the word "that." You only need a single glyph. (Multiple labels are useful for passing through the four stages or moving closer to full enlightenment, but don't add anything besides complication if the goal is just to cycle through perceptual modes.) But, make sure you can imagine glyphs fast enough. Testing this out on myself, I can produce labels at least twice as fast as glyphs. (This may be because I've had a lot of practice with the label method.)

You don't need to retain awareness of the labels after you produce them. The goal isn't to produce a list, just to rev up the second-order recognition process. Similarly, there's no need to produce a map or representation of your mental states over time. Just recognize them, moment by moment.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 11 May 2011 05:32:10AM 3 points [-]

It actually sounds like doing this with just concepts (probably mostly 'that/thing/I-see-it/object-of-focus', which is a single rather simple one in practice) will work fine, and that's much easier and faster than any of the other suggested methods. (They use the fewest apparent subsystems; word labels would use the most, since those require input from the emotional system even when they're for internal use only.) I should have little to no problem keeping that up for an hour or more, especially if I don't have to worry about short-term memory.

Also, I find that I don't expect this to actually do anything interesting - the intensity and focus on one thing is unusual, but I suspect it's a very rare day when I don't spend at least half an hour in total observing my own mind with this type of focus, albeit in bits and spurts and for instrumental reasons, and that doesn't seem to do much. I'm still going to give it a try, of course.

Comment author: DavidM 11 May 2011 06:43:03AM 2 points [-]

It actually sounds like doing this with just concepts (probably mostly 'that/thing /I-see-it/object-of-focus', which is a single rather simple one in practice) will work fine, and that's much easier and faster than any of the other suggested methods.

I'm not sure I recognize what you're describing. Labeling, at least when you get the hang of it, appears to be somewhat nonconceptual. (The method I described to you isn't "categorizing," even though it may sound like it, and even though the basic method of meditation I've described in the post has a lot in common with categorizing.) When I label rapidly to cycle through perceptual modes, I don't conceive very much at all about the object except that it's there (plus whatever concepts my mind generates by default upon getting certain stimuli, independent of trying to label). The label becomes something that gets generated in response to an experience, not so much of a linguistic / semantic thing as you might expect.

To give you another idea of why I'm not sure that what you're thinking of doing is sufficient, at my default waking level of concentration, I can accurately label "seeing" about 4-5 times per second. (I can second-order recognize that visual experience is happening much more frequently. Labeling is a crutch.) What you're describing sounds like it would happen more slowly than labeling. If that's true, and if your knowledge of cognitive psychology suggests that labeling should be the slower process, I'd say you may have that belief because you don't understand what I mean by labeling. (On the other hand, if you can do this with concepts faster than 4-5 times per second, I probably don't understand what you mean.)

I guess ultimately I'm not sure that I understand you and whether what you're suggesting is the same as / different from / similar to what I'm suggesting, and don't want to vouch for a method that may not work, even though you have a theoretical reason to think it will.

So, mess with the instructions if you must, but I can't really tell you what the result would be.

These will be my beliefs, conditional on the results of your experiment:

-You use one of my methods, and notice an apparent cessation of consciousness. Then I would be convinced that you're beyond stage four.

-You use your own method, and notice the same. Same conclusion.

-You use one of my methods, and don't notice anything. I would still hold out some possibility that you're beyond stage four, on the basis of your description of your experience, and consider that you're not implementing the method correctly (more likely to me), or that the method only works for people who meditate their way to partial enlightenment (less likely to me). I'd ask you some other things about your experience.

-You use your method, and don't notice anything. Reduces my confidence that you're beyond stage four somewhat, increases my confidence that your method doesn't work.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 11 May 2011 02:55:57PM 5 points [-]

I messed around with this this morning, before reading this comment. Tried the labeling method, found it distracting; tried the concepts method, found it better but still distracting. Seems that adding multitasking to my usual way of doing things is not useful. Tried just setting up a thing-to-observe and then not messing with the observation-generating level, for a strict definition of 'not messing with', and had five minor apparent-cessation-of-consciousness moments in probably less than 10 minutes, with little in the way of described cycling effect. Couple of vaguely interesting synesthetic indications of mental things happening where otherwise invisible, otherwise no particularly unusual mindstates, but I did wake up with a rather wide perceptive field to start with today.

Will probably get natural grammatical use of pronouns back in a couple hours. Common mindstate, though unusually strong at the moment; possibly not as related as it may seem, but wouldn't bet that way. Could edit for grammar, of course, but will leave as-is in case this is notable. (Existing instances of "I" appear out of place, but seem necessary to get points across without confusion.)

Possibly relevant: I appear to think very slowly to begin with; find it hard to even imagine doing anything multiple times a second, even very basic things like noticing. Have noticed this to be true in other areas previously as well.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 11 May 2011 12:57:28PM 1 point [-]

Wait, there are people who think "anger" is just one thing? wtf?

So yea, this corresponds reasonably well to my experience, and in fact I learned a few useful things about how neurotypicals apparently are different from me I think. The similarity is at least great enough that I'd say it's the same phenomena and the difference are due to normal interpersonal variation.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 11 May 2011 03:10:51PM 2 points [-]

Wait, there are people who think "anger" is just one thing? wtf?

Supposedly a majority, even, if I remember correctly. I still have trouble wrapping my mind around that one.

(Similarly, there's one friend of mine who finds it hard to believe that I can feel my esophageal muscles doing their thing when I swallow, and I find it hard to believe that he can't. He claims that he's seen studies that put him clearly in the majority, but I still find it vaguely incomprehensible. That's such a basic thing!)

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 03:09:19PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for sharing your experience.

I don't know whether 'vibrations' are necessarily observable by anyone who has passed through any of these stages, or are just a side effect of the specific exercises I prescribe to cultivate attention, which would not occur if someone has passed through the stages by another method.

Comment author: donjoe 19 July 2011 06:29:38AM 0 points [-]

So vibrations will not necessarily be observed by everyone doing this kind of meditation? Well how are stage 1 newbies supposed to keep their hopes up during their practice if the main marker of stage 2 isn't a sure thing even if you're doing everything right?

Comment author: [deleted] 06 May 2011 03:59:38PM 2 points [-]

Personally, I found Ayahuasca useful, in the "I'm going to drag you to a higher stage, screaming and kicking all the way" sense of useful. I wouldn't recommend it, but found it valuable. I don't know of anything except (specific) meditation to really get the necessary precision to make it to the higher stages.

As Hunter S. Thompson said, "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.”.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 01:36:52PM 1 point [-]

I imagine some people's minds may be quirky enough that they might eventually achieve enlightenment without ever meditating. So I would guess that it's not necessary. However, I don't know of any such cases, so I see this as speculative.

Comment author: ksvanhorn 06 May 2011 03:03:10AM 1 point [-]

Working up to one or two hours per day, every day, is a good goal.

Therein lies the rub. That's a pretty significant investment of time for a busy person, given the uncertain benefits. And I have to do this for a year or two before I know whether it's doing me any good?

Comment author: Skatche 06 May 2011 04:16:27AM 2 points [-]

This may vary from person to person, but I found I didn't need a rigourous schedule to make enough progress to determine that meditation was beneficial for my mental well-being. Doing about half an hour once every few days (when I remembered to) was enough, within a few months, to grant me relaxation and greater clarity of mind. Those aren't really the point, but it's reason enough to push forward and see what else there is to see.

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 04:25:04AM *  0 points [-]

I suggested 3 months to a year for achieving partial enlightenment.

If you consider seeing progress according to the four stage model that I gave (or another more detailed model) to be something that reduces the uncertainty of the value of the pursuit, then obviously you will be in a position to better evaluate whether it is a worthwhile pursuit much sooner than that.

Comment author: AleksTK 18 October 2015 03:21:25AM 0 points [-]

This is the post that made me interested in meditation.

I have practiced the technique, I am incredibly fascinated with the results.

DavidM, if you can read this, I've been trying to get a hold of you for a while. I would like you to get in contact with me.

Comment author: donjoe 12 April 2014 11:53:25AM 0 points [-]

"There is lots of disagreement about whether the enlightenment I describe is the same as the enlightenment that [the suttas / the Visuddhimagga / etc.] describe, or whether there are other methods that lead to something even better than it."

Since I first read your article I've listened to tens, possibly over a hundred, hours of Alan Watts' talks on the essential ideas of Hinduism/Daoism/Buddhism and how meditation relates to them and I now tend to agree with the view that your interpretation of enlightenment and meditation is not what Buddhism is really about. Key differences:

  1. Buddhist enlightenment is the direct experience/feeling of yourself as inseparate from the rest of the physical world, a feeling of everything that happens being "you", of the surface of your bag of skin being no more relevant as a distinction between "you" and "not-you" than your skull or the walls of your room. As such, its benefits are primarily emotional and motivational rather than intellectual, because once you realize that there is no definite and localized "you" that can be under any meaningful threat or pressure from "not-you", all your previous worries and conflicts in life just melt away and you become free to "just be". (I should note that I currently understand this at a purely intellectual level - and not even completely at that - and have not experienced it directly; that's the hard part: overcoming the genetic predispositions and years of reinforcement of the delusion that "I" is something that is bound by a layer of skin and that everything beyond that layer of skin is "non-I".)

  2. Buddhist meditation is not supposed to be a technique executed for a purpose but rather an act of life performed for its own sake, just like any other act of life, especially like the "truly" artistic ones - singing, dancing - that are the most satisfying for everyone involved when they're the least attached to any ulterior motive.

It's hard to summarize everything in just a couple of paragraphs, but this piece might help: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhOpuY8NO0A

Comment author: donjoe 11 May 2011 12:09:45PM 0 points [-]

Am I missing something? Why don't the practical instructions lead up to the final stage of "enlightenment" and instead stop at "partial enlightenment"? Is there a further stage after #4 that might be even more dangerous than #3 and that you don't think is safe to describe to anyone who isn't already at #4?

Unrelated question: Does this "enlightenment" include any experience/realization of the sort described in Gurdjieff's "Fourth Way" as the "many 'I's"? That hypothesis seems very plausible to me given the structure of the brain as subdivided into lobes that subdivide into circuits that subdivide into neurons. At my current level of understanding, I like to think of the "ego" as the locus of the majority of your neural activation potentials, continuously flowing around from circuit to circuit (according to the rules imposed by the particular structure of your brain at a given time), with some circuits able to take control of your body and others not. This would mean that what you call "I" is actually various things, successively: "I am John's hurt feelings", "I am John's desire for revenge", "I am John's intention to put revenge into practice", "I am John's action plan manager" etc. Sometimes the "many 'I's" could even be concurrently active, which in common terms might be experienced as being conflicted about something, or being "of two minds".

Comment author: DavidM 13 May 2011 08:47:06PM 0 points [-]

Am I missing something? Why don't the practical instructions lead up to the final stage of "enlightenment" and instead stop at "partial enlightenment"? Is there a further stage after #4 that might be even more dangerous than #3 and that you don't think is safe to describe to anyone who isn't already at #4?

The practical instructions don't go further because the issue of going further is complicated, and trying to describe it in a reasonable and useful way would have made this post much too long.

If you can handle stage three, I would have no worries about your ability to handle anything afterwards.

I've never read Gurdjieff, so I don't really know. Terminology is tricky and I wouldn't venture to guess unless I was more familiar with what "many I's" means.

Comment author: donjoe 01 August 2011 10:33:29PM 0 points [-]

I think there's an even better description of my concept of "many-I's-consciousness" in the first part of this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbh5l0b2-0o than in Gurdjieff's rather religious writings. I was pleasantly surprised tonight to finally find my suspicions about how consciousness really works confirmed by someone who claims to have done their scientific homework.

Comment author: PyryP 10 May 2011 08:32:54AM 0 points [-]

Now this is a clear program with well defined goals and a clear roadmap to that goal. I'll definately be trying this out! I practiced a different kind of buddhist meditation a few years back. Unfortunately I quit right in the middle of stage three depressions. That sucked a lot and still sucks right to this day. Don't do that. I have no idea what you're talking about with these vibrations, though. The practice I did had a different focus. At the time of writing I'm only 45 minutes in but I'm already getting waves of negative feelings while trying to concentrate on my breathing in despair. I just hope I'll have a better resolve this time around to get over the bad stuff as quickly as possible...

Comment author: DavidM 13 May 2011 08:49:41PM *  0 points [-]

Looking forward to hearing how it's going.

If you really are in stage 3, I would suggest not trying to shut out or ignore your negative feelings, whether or not you're focusing on your breath. Where are they, subjectively? What is negative about experiencing them? What are their exact qualities? Entertaining that sort of stuff can sometimes be helpful.

EDIT: My working theory right now is that the perception of "vibrations" is somehow related to the particular technique I describe, whereas the stages are more general in relevance.

Comment author: PyryP 15 May 2011 09:56:26AM 0 points [-]

My mind is more muddled than what it used to be so I cannot at this time pin point exactly what these negative feelings are. After concentrating a while on my abdomen a painful wave grips my attention and physically throws me off my meditation posture. It's usually a general feeling of loss without an object. I call it despair. It also comes with an unpleasant bodily sensation that I don't know a name for. The whole thing makes it impossible to sit straight or focus on anything but the emotional or the bodily pain. For those who have little experience in meditation I should point out that it actually isn't as bad as I make it sound. I have developed a certain degree of personal distance and all these negative feelings are actually quite interesting when I experience them as mental objects instead of identifying with myself in pain. Sometimes however this distance drops to zero and then it gets really unpleasant. My concentration is still a mess but I'll try to find out the exact qualities of these experiences.

At the moment of writing this I'm 5 hours in to the practice. The vibrations I've picked up so far have been physical twitching of the abdomen, an in and out fading of the sensation of the abdomen, the abdomen themselves phasing in and out of existence and finally my attention itself setting and resetting itself. None of these experiences are very clear so I might be making them up.

Comment author: DavidM 15 May 2011 04:15:36PM 0 points [-]

After concentrating a while on my abdomen a painful wave grips my attention and physically throws me off my meditation posture.

Try to observe that carefully every time it happens. You said that you can sometimes see negative feelings as mental objects and not "yours," so you're definitely on the right track. Consider ways that you may not be fully seeing them as mental objects. For example, are the negative feelings afflictions for you? How do you know? If you know because they feel as if they are, make sure you recognize the feeling "being afflicted by negative feelings" or the impression "having negative feelings present in my experiential field" as a mental object too. (This "affliction" is part of the non-standard meaning of "aversion" or "hatred" which is shared with Buddhism.) It's a little hard to get across what I mean here, but if you see it, you'll probably recognize what I'm trying to say.

The vibrations I've picked up so far have been physical twitching of the abdomen, an in and out fading of the sensation of the abdomen, the abdomen themselves phasing in and out of existence and finally my attention itself setting and resetting itself. None of these experiences are very clear so I might be making them up.

Apart from the twitching, it sounds like you can perceive vibrations pretty well.

If you're in stage three, the "lack of clarity" is related to the fact that the "fading out" is is the clearest part. (Imagine a video of the moon waxing and waning using time-lapse photography, and imagine that the waning is extremely clear and the waxing is hard to discern.) That's simply how they present, and you may not actually be missing anything, which would mean you're doing a good job.

If you additionally feel that the vibrations aren't clear, that feeling is a different mental object; label it. Feeling that they aren't clear, and simple fact of their being unclear (or reporting on their unclarity using the word 'feel'), are different.

My concentration is still a mess but I'll try to find out the exact qualities of these experiences.

If you additionally feel that your concentration is a mess, that's a mental object too.

It is very hard to improve concentration in stage three, so if that's where you are, for now I wouldn't focus too much on trying to get a lot better at it than you already are.

Comment author: PyryP 17 May 2011 11:17:33AM 1 point [-]

Yeah, I think you're right. I just feel unclear or unfocused even though I actually perceive everything pretty clearly and reasonably focused. It was kind of weird to notice that. :)

I haven't had those waves of pain after I noticed that most of the unclarity was illusory. The waves might have had something to do with being unsatisfied with unclarity and having a very clear perception of this dissatisfaction. My theory is that all this goes into a feedback loop if you don't know that the objects of focus are actually supposed to seem unclear.

My mind cannot produce mental images (trust me, I've tried) so I don't have visual hallucinations but I had this funny abstract thing. I perceived what I knew to be mathematical constructs yet they had no content or representation. It was a very strange feeling doing math with empty symbols that still brimmed with possibilities.

After getting my mind to calm down about not perceiving clearly I got a big boost in attentional width. I was perceiving vibrations effortlessly in all the senses and thoughts. I guess most of them were vibrating under 10Hz... I'm still pretty bad at getting the precise frequencies down. It was like bathing in a sea of vibration and the surprising thing was that it actually wasn't surprising at all. It was like these vibrations have always been there and I just haven't been paying attention to them. It was actually somewhat boring just sitting there attending to a colorless and clear perception of everything.

On the second time I achieved a wider attentional width I decided to take a look at the attender himself. That is I tried to see how I see all these mental objects as mine. It would seem that the "self" is a process that draws in attention when a new mental object presents itself. It then accesses statistics that tell how much attraction and aversion this kind of object deserves. It also carries a measure of uncertainty. Sometimes the data aren't reliable and attention is needed to sort things out. Towards the end of the process the mental object is labeled desirable or undesirable and actions are taken to hold on to the object or to get rid of it. Statistics are updated depending on the success of the actions. The process thus reinforces itself and the statistics get more rigid on each iteration. Sometimes the process just tells you that you're liking this thing and already trying to get it without asking much of an input. Attention can however interfere and decide to reject attractive objects or accept unattractive objects. As a result the statistics get more flexible and next time more thought is given to similar mental objects. I'm also guessing that emotions and more primitive reactions act to skew the statistics depending on the mental object. I may also be over-interpreting my meditation experiences. :P

Comment author: Will_Sawin 06 May 2011 01:03:37AM 0 points [-]

Didn't you say that enlightenment would fix problems like attachment? Couldn't that kind of result produce an empirical test?

Comment author: DavidM 06 May 2011 04:08:03AM 2 points [-]

"Attachment" has a specific nonstandard meaning in Buddhist-associated thinking, and I realized after writing Part 1 that it would have been better to omit the word altogether rather than try to explain it. So I would prefer to discuss the testable aspects of enlightenment without talking about attachment.

Comment author: wedrifid 06 May 2011 01:23:05AM *  0 points [-]

Didn't you say that enlightenment would fix problems like attachment? Couldn't that kind of result produce an empirical test?

Certainly. And I would bet on a positive result at reasonable odds. Personal experience and what I know of theory supports it rather strongly. (Where 'fix' is taken to mean 'tend to cause some improvement' in.)

Comment author: Will_Sawin 06 May 2011 03:16:20PM 0 points [-]

Could someone elaborate on what the correct parameters of the empirical test would be?

Comment author: wedrifid 06 May 2011 04:15:36PM *  0 points [-]

Could someone elaborate on what the correct parameters of the empirical test would be?

Identify a stimulus that prompts the undesired attachment response. Most simply talking about a circumstance where the incongruence between the desired outcome and the actual outcome causes emotional distress of some kind.

Then, as a primitive metric you could wire them and measure their pulse, blood pressure and skin conductivity. Do this before and after a few weeks of meditation. Contrast with a control group that does nothing and another that does an alternative form of personal development.

(That's just what I thought of in the time it took me to type as someone with absolutely no qualification for doing that sort of study. If I knew what I was doing and had time to make a plan and new what the typical protocol in this kind of situation was I would likely do something entirely different.)