Conversations: Realness Dial & The Embrace/Avoid Continuum

Imagined comic: mad scientist turning dial, "if the machine can make Pinnochio a real boy, it can reduce this world to a dream."

I'd been planning on adding a page on the embrace/avoid continuum of experience, and was delighted when the Universe provided the impetus for me via email.


I heard Thomas Metzinger (on the Deconstructing Yourself podcast) say something which crystalized this for me - he pointed out that there's something like a dial in the mind for the "realness" of experiences, distinct from your belief about whether what's happening is real. (I think his examples were- on drugs, innocuous things can suddenly seem VERY real; in emotionally taxing/bizarre situations, such as at a funeral, you can have "dissociative" moments where you feel like "none of this is real")


Also interesting to note about the "realness" dial: it seems like there are some insights which require the dial be turned way up and others which require it be turned down (or off!). Like with no-self stuff: I often get little dissociative moments where I feel like it's super odd to feel like "I" am this person, this one right here, walking down this particular street (or as that indie rock hobo/god once put it, "How strange it is to be anything at all"). So those are minor moments of questioning my sense of self when the realness is turned down.

But I get the sense that the deeper, more important no-self type realizations are about the realness dial being turned up. Like Daniel Ingram talks about completely eliminating any sense that there's an observer "on this side," everything just being where it is, known but not in relationship to any imagined self apart from the world. That sounds like a type of awakening that would require paying close attention to sensations in ways that makes them seem very real.

(emphasis mine)

Yes, 100%. The cessation experience that (some) Theravada traditions regard as 1st path (Mahasi, Ingram-Style Pragmatic Dharma) requires, at least in my experience, a total disinterest and disillusionment with experience itself. This triggers a complete absence of clinging, viola, experience collapses, bliss upon return, "Wtf?", stream entry/motivation for the end of being & the rest of this path.

But I want to be very careful here because it's easy to get the wrong idea. Consider this experience:

in emotionally taxing/bizarre situations, such as at a funeral, you can have "dissociative" moments where you feel like "none of this is real"

The natural deepening of the disillusionment path doesn't really result in an intensification of this experience, like one imagines with, say, depression. It's not "everything sucks, and I'm upset because of that." Once one gets through the dukkha nanas in the PoI, the clinging to how things ought to be falls out, too, so there is just the peace of experience arising and being known without your egoic involvement, which is a very, very nice state to hang out in. Dissociating in this way leads to a sort of "everything's fine, man," similar to The Dude in The Big Lebowski.

The mystical state of the union with experience, like you mention, seems to require the opposite. If you ask yourself the question, "Who am I?", often enough, you develop the ability to stabilize into a state free of the thinking narrative and then if you soak into this (in effect spinning up the realness dial) any sense of "you" and separation starts to fall out.

I have been working with this second approach lately—concretely, I use a question like "Who am I?" or HAIETMOBA to repeatedly bring me back to a moment of present-focused savoring of external experience and then by repeating that and soaking into it and relaxing away the tensions of somewhere else to be/something else to do, trying to sort of really turn the spotlight of attention to 11 on this moment, it ratchets up the vividness of experience in a way that is very reminiscent of the "this is the most real thing I've experienced" trips I've had on 4-AcO-DMT.

Meditators often talk about this with the word "luminousity." I plugged that into the search on DharmaOverground and hit this great comment by Soh of Awakening to Reality. He writes that a vipassana-heavy path will skew toward this experience:

There is thinking, no thinker
There is hearing, no hearer
There is seeing, no seer

while a dzogchen-style emphasis on luminousity will skew one toward this:

In thinking, just thoughts
In hearing, just sounds
In seeing, just forms, shapes and colors.

This matches my experience very well. If I spend multiple hours/days noting, I often hit a state where the sense of agency is drastically reduced and everything seems as if it's happening on its own. It's like a thunderstorm: there is thunder and lightning, but there is no agent inside the storm making it happen. The thoughts think themselves, etc.

My practice lately, like I mentioned, results in the second stanza, "just this." It is very much like the Zen idea of zazen: when sitting, just sitting. When washing dishes, just washing dishes. Not "washing dishes and mind-wandering into a pretend argument with my roommate about how he maybe stole my funnel because he doesn't like that I'm brewing cider in the garage."

So anyway the "realness" model is something I've been thinking about, and it seems like it could be used in helpful and non-helpful ways. I think my instinct in the past was to try to make unpleasant things seem less real and pretend that pleasant things were more real than they were - that doesn't seem very wise. But I don't know exactly what the wise approach is. I guess I'm not sure if it's a good idea or even possible to try to control the realness of experiences, without that just causing more suffering.

I agree that it's not wise to turn everything into "not really real." Like, I could definitely take Bostrom's simulation argument Very Seriously and run with it, convincing myself that this is all a computer's dream, but that doesn't strike me as movement in the direction of human flourishing.

My thinking on controlling the realness dial is that it's very valuable to take it apart and figure out how it works. To ratchet it way up and way down and to stress test, to push it until it becomes boring. Once you fully understand it, then it can naturally fade into the background and the sort of subconscious/intuition can be relied upon to turn it up when it's useful for it to be up and down when it's useful for it to be down.

I think this is what Thusness/Soh means in their model about presence being spontaneously perfected. I just visited this page to check and they add in another component, (which you touched on), seeing emptiness simultaneously with the pristine vividness of form, and then spontaneously manifesting all three, which I imagine to be a state with no doer/controller, nothing but the pristine thing, along with the intuitive conviction it is perception, not the thing-in-itself, but "like sky flowers, like painting on the surface of a pond."

Something like that, anyway—many of the finer points of emptiness elude me. I'm thinking of it like the intersection between three different manifestions of non-clinging: no doer, no overlay, no reification.

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.