Map: Useful Mental Moves for Meditators

I first published this on Reddit in response to this question:

Sometimes is is useful to have succinct names for things that would otherwise only be expressible via lengthy chunks of text; having a name for something allows for it to be discussed much more easily.

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I really like this question. I've a few I've been using for describing some of the mental moves that propel one down the axis of self-growth/wisdom that meditation targets. I like to think of this naming act itself as naming a spirit, as in "once you have the name of a spirit, you have power over it," which I got from SICP.

Striking the edge of your world.

I stole this from Moldbug, where he writes:

In some places, though, if you look really closely, I think you can see a stitch or too. You don't need to sail to the edge of the world, like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. All you need, for starters, just to tickle your doubt muscle and get it twitching a little, is a few details that don't quite fit. [...]

Isn't all of this quite curious? Doesn't it remind you even a little bit of the scene in which Jim Carrey rams his yacht into the matte painting at the edge of the world?

This is the moment when your model of the world, what you anticipate, collides with something baffling, unexpected, but inarguable. In dzogchen, they describe their path as beginning with a divine encounter with the dharma. I like this imagery—as if you are walking about, elaborating on your perfect conceptual world, then wham! You knock skulls with an angel, or the sky, realizing, "Hey, what the fuck? Is this a painting?" You've struck the edge of your world.

Unravelling the t-shirt or tonguing the sore.

The movement that follows striking the edge of your world. Your mind starts to return over and over again to some thought or doubt or subtle unease, increasingly obssessing over it. It is as if your model of the world were a well worn t-shit where a thread has sprung loose, so you begin to neurotically pick at it. Like in Fight Club:

Marla... the little scratch on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it, but you can't.

Eliezer captured this well, too, here (emphasis his):

In the same way, every doubt exists in order to annihilate some particular belief. If a doubt fails to destroy its target, the doubt has died unfulfilled—-but that is still a resolution, an ending, albeit a sadder one. A doubt that neither destroys itself nor destroys its target might as well have never existed at all. It is the resolution of doubts, not the mere act of doubting, which drives the ratchet of rationality forward.

Stepping out of the loop or focusing.

This is the act of suddenly realizing that you were caught inside of something that before this moment you could not see. It is the fish who realizes "this is water" or the mathematician who climbs a little higher and is able to see a unifying abstraction for previously disjoint phenomenon.

For the meditator it is the discovery of a previously unconscious, habitual pattern that they were caught in. Like: thinking about something I need to do, feeling it is too much work, ack!, checking the culture war thread instead.

It is "focusing" in the sense of something coming into focus. (This is originally Eugene Gendlin's language.) I described it elsewhere this way:

Imagine that you are out hiking in an unfamiliar place when a sudden fog descends. (Misled again by those bastard newsmen!) You see a figure in the distance but it's vague, draped in shadow. What is that? It moves against the direction of the wind. Something living. You step closer and suddenly it hits you: it's a deer!

There is a visual example here, stolen from Scott who took it from Surfing Uncertainty.

Pendulating.

This one needs a catchier image, suggestions welcome! It is the act of how the mind will swing between two states in order to investigate the contrast between them and, ultimately, better understand the nature of each state. This information then informs the search for the next such states.

Here is an example (which doubles as the sacrifice this username demands): when you first try LSD or any psychedelic, really, when it wears off there can be the feeling of, holy shit, what was that!? If you are inclined in the right way, a period will follow where you will inevitably trip again but with the emphasis being on, "What happened to me? How is the altered state different from the sober state?" (Confession: I spent so many hours on erowid and /r/DrugNerds.) As the two become better recognized, the emphasis can shift again to the transition between the two states.

Caffeine is a more accessible example. I noticed I was more inclined to get into arguments after drinking coffee. Why? What was it about the caffeinated state that was causing this? I would drink coffee and examine the coffee state, contrasting it with the default, eventually pinning it to a higher resting heart rate making it easier to trigger a mistaken "I'm being attacked", fight response.

The meditative technique of self-inquiry—asking yourself the question, "Who am I?"—works similarly. It functions as a comparison between default consciousness versus the moment of presence that follows the question. Eventually the mind starts to incline toward that presence as the default, seeking that new equillibrium, the movement being sort of like minima-finding in a search space.

Pendulating is also useful for easing into and processing trauma, slowly dipping into it a bit more each time but backing off and returning to normal when things get too intense, this way strengthening the confidence to both explore the (and every) aversive state and to jump back to "okay."

Burning the toast.

Taken from one of Piet Hein's grooks:

#+BEGINQUOTE   TIMING TOAST   There's an art of knowing when.
  Never try to guess.
  Toast until it smokes and then
  twenty seconds less. #+ENDQUOTE

I know I can't drink an entire bottle of wine. I found this out by trying.

The idea is: one finds the limits of something by pushing it too far and breaking it. Limits, boundaries, stress testing, understanding: all the same thing. It's like Chomsky: You want to know what Chesterton's fence is for? Have you tried removing the fence?

Rationalists are very good at this. (I think it is one of our defining characteristics, along with being too reflexively disagreeable to agree on any defining characteristics.) Take an idea perfectly seriously and apply it to everything. Interpret a metaphor literally. When does it break down? Find that point and you have a fuller, more fluid understanding. Let's make our decisions by calculating Bayes' theorem. Let's reward ourselves as if we were literally pigeons. Let's cure SAD by bringing the sun inside.

It builds momentum, and you need that if you're ever going to strike the edge of your world.


If you have questions, perspective, doubt, or a simple longing for general camraderie, you can communicate with me directly by emailing robert at 99theses dot com. Don't hesitate. Your correspondence is personally enriching.