Why do Contemplative Practitioners Make so Many Metaphysical Claims?

post by romeostevensit · 2018-12-31T19:44:30.358Z · score: 51 (21 votes) · LW · GW · 15 comments

To paraphrase Culadasa: awakening is a set of special insights that lead to drastically reduced suffering. This seems straightforward enough, and might lead one to question, if this is the case, why the vast landscape of teachers and practitioners making what seem to be some fairly wild claims about reality? Even if it is the case that these claims are some combination of mistaken, pedagogical in intention, reframes of more mundane points using unfortunate language etc, it would still raise the concern that these practices are, de facto, making their practitioners less connected with reality and decent epistemic standards in their mental models and communication with others. What gives?

I believe I have an explanation that covers some of the territory here. I don't claim it covers all of the phenomenon in question. Hopefully it will be of some benefit in clearing up certain confusions.

In order to have the necessary insights, practitioners engage in cultivation of prerequisite skills. One long lived and fairly straightforward model of such skills is the 7 Factors of Enlightenment:

  1. Physical Relaxation
  2. Equanimity
  3. Joy
  4. Energy
  5. Determination to Investigate
  6. Concentration 
  7. Mindfulness

These skills are not binary. Each one deepens along a spectrum as you practice. As the skills deepen, you begin to have more direct perception, on a moment-by-moment basis, of how beliefs and values (is and ought) are formed and interact with one another. This direct perception very often leads to changes, as unhelpful linkages are noticed and either drop away if no longer needed, or are upgraded into versions more closely aligned with how the world is or skillfully realizing values. For those familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, something very similar is at play here. In CBT, your attention is drawn to the way that a situation can trigger a feeling, which triggers an associated thought pattern, which drives a compensatory action etc. Perception of the linkages provides more intervention points.

Depending on where a person starts (existing linkages between beliefs and values) they may be led to come up with a variety of ideas about the 'true nature of reality' along the way as these linkages  change. Even if this map-territory error isn't made, a significant and unexpected shift in how you relate to your own life, ie the story you use to make sense of your current belief-values stack, can be a lot to take on. The urge to 'make-sense-of' intermediate steps in the refactoring process can be very strong.

Imagine a big network of beliefs and values. Let's say that our attention has been drawn to one particular cluster that handles some aspect of our life. It might be financial security, physical well being, relating to others, etc. One of the things that seems to happen is that, in the course of practice, we learn that one particular type of linkage isn't true. I'll give the concrete example of the assumption that if you hear someone say something, it means they really believe it. This might sound bit silly when stated explicitly like that, but it's definitely a linkage that can be floating around in subtle, unexamined patterns. Now, let's say you have, in the course of contemplative practice, an insight related to this linkage. After having this insight, you start noticing this linkage come up in subtle ways in all sorts of situations. Having seen it as false, there is the feeling that you are reevaluating some assumptions you had about these various situations. You're 'clearing out' these false linkages as you find them, as life presents you with situations that activate various areas of your belief-values network and you notice various instances of the linkage.

Having this as a basic picture we can start to make sense of some of the things that happen to people as they have various insights. Let's say you had a whole cluster of beliefs around, say, religion. You can imagine that these beliefs were tied to the rest of the network via all sorts of linkages. As insight occurs and more and more false-linkages are pruned away, various chunks of the network can come off in idiosyncratic order as life presents you with situations that draw your attention to various parts of the network. If a bunch of 'values' based linkages fall away, it can lead to feelings of meaninglessness or, at the other end of the spectrum, intense affective activation, positive or negative. If a bunch of 'belief' based linkages fall away, it can literally feel like reality is dissolving. This is much much more literal than many people will be willing to believe before it happens, especially if they have little to no drug experience. When this happens with parts of the network that are involved with the visual system, for instance, the visual field can actually dissolve into a bunch of vibrations temporarily as you refactor parts of the network related to extremely low level things like edge or motion detection (this is also where 'auras' come from imo).

We used a fairly mundane examples, but you might be able to imagine that this can get pretty disorienting when it involves things you assumed were immutable (the classic example of course being changes in the sense of self). This is one of the big reasons equanimity is considered such a core skill for this process to unfold without causing undue distress. This process can have a poor interaction with a particular personality type. The sort of person who, upon being given a screwdriver, runs around compulsively disassembling everything they can find that was built with screws (ahh! things built with screws aren't ontological primitives! that which can be destroyed by 'the truth' should be! Hulk smash!). It could also be framed as the same sort of tendency that lends one to completionism in video games combined with the addictive quality of insights. The felt sense that The Big Answer is just around the corner. The one that will finally give us the power to arrange the world to meet our neglected needs. 

I think it's useful to note that the range of insights is truly vast. In fact, the Theravadans say 'insight is infinite' because the range of skillful action in the world is so vast. You won't be able to 100% this save file any time soon, so you can relax and be a bit more methodical, strategic and skeptical as you go. You saw through a false linkage. Great! But before you go running off to evangelize to others, realize that your new realization is only slightly better. This doesn't mean it isn't helpful to talk about such things with others. Some other people may be at a similar enough stage in their network refactoring that they derive great benefit from what you share. Recognize also this tendency in others, to evangelize at you parts of the process that are particularly salient to them due to their path up the mountain. "Holy shit, I fell into that crevasse and broke my leg and it was a year before I managed to heal and climb out. Everyone needs to know about that and anyone who doesn't emphasize it is irresponsible." But the mountain is large, people are climbing it from many sides and using many techniques. Some are insistent that you need a particular kind of rope, some are obsessed with first aid for the particular kinds of injuries they or a friend sustained, some are trying to build wheelchair accessible ramps up to the parts of the mountain they think are best. Additional metaphors here. Bonus points for noticing the ways this post itself could be an example of the thing.

Making sense of the intermediate steps is attractive for both good and bad reasons. It is good to find ways of making things stable so that you can continue to meet your responsibilities to others and lead a functional life. Dissolving the constructs that lead to you prioritizing exercise, eating well, and sleeping should be seen as dissolution of the goodness of the means, not the ends. E.g. you were using fear based motivation to keep you exercising, which you subsequently saw through. This doesn't mean exercise was bad, it means your method was bad and you should find an upgraded one. It is attractive for bad reasons when it involves things like showing off how clever you are. Many teacher-student groups revolve around a teacher having reified a particular set of insights and then, via selection effects, found a decent sized group of people who are at the right stage to think those insights are The Big Answer they've been looking for. Both teacher and students in this dynamic tend to stagnate. Good teachers are less concerned with particular insights and more concerned with strengthening of the process that generates insights. 

These sorts of mental models are all well and good, but presumably lots of other practitioners engage with various helpful mental models as well, and many of them, maybe even most, seem to go off the rails on the claims about reality. Is there more to say about that? I have enough experience with meditation and psychedelics at this point to claim that some forms of meditation have similar effects, one of which is boosting openness to experience. In my personal opinion, shooting openness sky high without a balancing increase in healthy skepticism reliably lands you in whacky belief town. Most practitioners are not starting with solid prerequisites about map-territory distinctions, probabilistic over binary reasoning, and strong ability to demarcate is and ought (positive and normative) claims. Most schools are not, in my experience, emphasizing the very skeptical nature of the Buddha's inquiry into his own mental processing. I think the law of equal and opposite advice holds here: skeptics need a healthy dose of faith, enough to give practices an honest try. People who are riding high on a breakthrough insight (and some of them are pretty damn spectacular) need a healthy dose of skepticism. Traditionally, one waits 'a year and a day' before making claims about a particular breakthrough in order to give it time to settle and attain context within your overall progress.

Everything gets easier if you understand this to be an investigation of the map and not the territory. Making claims about reality based on the fact that your cartographic tools have changed is silly. In polishing the lens of our perception we see that it has a lot more scratches than we thought. And notice that we introduce new scratches on a regular basis, including in our efforts to polish it. "Isn't this also an example of belief?" the astute reader might ask. This is explained in the Pali Canon when the Buddha explains reaching the point that the 7 factors of enlightenment themselves are the last remaining things to be seen though. Dissolving your cartographic tools is the last thing you do on your way out.

(crossposted to blog and fb)


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Viliam · 2018-12-31T23:40:28.057Z · score: 42 (12 votes) · LW · GW

A simpler explanation:

  • Most people have completely crappy epistemic standards.
  • Intelligent people make up their own crazy ideas (in addition to repeating crazy ideas from others).
  • When you mastered something other people want to learn, you have an audience.
comment by romeostevensit · 2019-01-01T20:24:31.659Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is awesome. I still have a ways to go on clarity obviously.

Edit: on further reflection, this is pointing to a very useful heuristic that I haven't been employing in my off the cuff writing method but probably can be rolled in with some effort and I predict will improve clarity. Much much appreciated.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-01-02T16:47:28.386Z · score: 32 (10 votes) · LW · GW

My model has been that contemplate practice can make you:

  • realize that you've never actually experienced an objective reality, and that everything you've experienced is manufactured by your mind
  • realize that much of what you believe about the world is just social conditoning and belief in authority rather than anything that you would have investigated yourself
  • experience weird things, such as realistic hallucinations of talking with spirits

If your previous belief in science has basically been social conditioning or "science as attire [LW · GW]", then once that social conditoning is stripped away, you might no longer have belief in it. And if your belief in science has been mostly social conditioning and you don't know anything about philosophy of science, how to evaluate evidence etc., then this means that you've just had your existing structure of justification stripped away with nothing sane to replace it. This has the consequence that you can start making (and believing in) all kinds of crazy claims.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-01-02T20:35:35.131Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I notice that I never really state one of the central theses motivating this for me: positive-normative (or is-ought, or belief-value) errors are present in sub-conscious processing. Meditative practice is capable of bringing deeper levels of processing into consciousness at which point those conflations can be disentangled. This leads to a more dramatic decrease in suffering than is intuitive. I find it compelling to share this model with rationalists in particular because for me it represents how contemplative practice is continuous with other forms of rationalist inquiry into beliefs.

comment by PaulK · 2019-01-02T07:37:23.134Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · LW · GW

So is this a fair summary?

Contemplative practitioners sometimes have great psyche-refactoring experiences, "insights". But, when interpreting & integrating them, they fail to keep a strong enough epistemic distinction between their experience and the ultimate reality it arises from. And then they make crazy inferences about the nature of that ultimate reality.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-01-02T20:22:16.560Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Right. As several commenters have pointed out, I might be giving too much benefit of the doubt with the complicated explanation given that most people's empirical and inferential engines aren't exactly v8's. That said, I hope the network refactoring angle is helpful to those who do have decent epistemic standards.

comment by PaulK · 2019-01-02T07:12:54.317Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · LW · GW
When this happens with parts of the network that are involved with the visual system, for instance, the visual field can actually dissolve into a bunch of vibrations temporarily as you refactor parts of the network related to extremely low level things like edge or motion detection (this is also where 'auras' come from imo)

Wow, I've never heard of this, and it sounds really interesting. Would you care to elaborate, on what kind of refactoring is going on, and what the resulting 'auras' are / mean?

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-01-02T07:57:57.707Z · score: 25 (9 votes) · LW · GW

If you shut down certain error correction mechanisms you might see a red glow around a green object, a orange glow around a blue object and similar effects.

When people are then very surprised about witnessing those effects, it's often easy to sell them the idea that there are mysterious powers involved in aura seeing.

When it comes to more advanced work with the concepts, some people seem to have synesthesia where some their brain manages to express some intuitive information that's available to them in forms of colors.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-01-02T20:22:47.821Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

exactly this! Thanks.

comment by PaulK · 2019-01-03T05:38:40.934Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Cool. I've had one brief, spontaneous experience, while circling, of that sort of concept -> vision 'synaesthesia': seeing dark halos around people, that I think represented their anxiety and desire to avoid talking about certain things.

But I'd never imagined working deliberately with vision in that way.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-01-03T08:43:38.233Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think that's the direction.

The perception for emotional states that I developed myself is very kinesthetic in nature. I can see how the phrase "dark halos" would map there, but for myself it has a slightly different quality. Aliveness might be a name for my qualia. It's certainly very different then the kind of aura glow effects that get created by shutting down error correction.

From what I heared of other people it seems that some people have experiences where there are colors as well.

When I'm doing circling or leading a meditation the kind of informationen you point to is an important guidance for me.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-01-01T13:46:23.360Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think it would be more helpful if you would be clearer about the terms you use. In the headline you speak about metaphysical claims and then you speak about fairly wild claims about reality.

In the classic meaning of the term metaphysical the category points to claims that aren't about direct physical reality. Ontological claims about the nature of knowledge are metaphysical claims that aren't claims about physical reality.

Many people don't question the metaphysical assumptions they learned as a child when they are adults. It's an inherent part of contemplative practice to become skeptical of those metaphysical assumptions that are learned in childhood and to develop new views on the involved subjects.

The process of having your own assumptions fail can be very discomforting and it's comfortable to simply fill the gaps with whatever is offered. The New Age community is quite willing to provide easily digestible answers that allow people to get out of the uncomfortable state and adopt views that often aren't better then the naive ones picked up in childhood.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-01-01T20:25:28.471Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

this is helpful, thanks!

comment by Elo · 2019-01-01T22:45:17.014Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This too is impermanent.

Skepticism can be divided into doubt and curiosity. I find doubt unhelpful in this place and curiosity helpful. Doubt has its places but in skepticism isn't that place for me.

comment by TAG · 2019-01-02T08:48:43.224Z · score: -6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's not just contemplative practitioners. "there are alternative realities" is a floridly metaphysical claim.