The Hard Work of Translation (Buddhism)

post by romeostevensit · 2019-04-07T21:04:11.353Z · score: 90 (37 votes) · LW · GW · 122 comments

The issue, as it seems to me, is that almost every text you read on Buddhism does not attempt to do the actual work of translation. The first transmission of Buddhism to the west reified a bunch of translations of terms, such as concentration, equanimity, tranquility, mindfulness, suffering, etc. and works since then have mostly stuck to rearranging these words in different combinations and referencing the same metaphors that have been in use since the time of the Buddha. If these authors had true discernment they would realize that the umpteenth text on 'establishing the noble bases of tranquility secluded from sensuous ignorance' or what-have-you aren't helping anyone who didn't already get the message.

At this point I want to say that I think this approach is 'working' for the fraction of the population it is going to work for. If we want to make the practical fruits of Buddhist practice dramatically more accessible to a broader range of humanity we need people to do the hard work of translation to put the Buddha's teachings in forms that will be accessible to various groups of people.

The hard work of translation is to attempt to use language to point your mind at the same distinctions that the original author was trying to point to. Attempts to do this will inevitably fail in lots of ways, but can hopefully communicate enough of the core message that people can piece together the essential causal relations after which, having had direct experience as a result of skillful practice, they can help to improve the translations further.

So, putting my money where my mouth is, I want to try to produce a translation of what I see as the core causal loop that causes progress on the Buddha's path. I'm attempting this because I believe the core causal loop is actually quite small. The Buddha had a tougher task because he had to explain causation, locus of control, and other critical concepts to farmers from scratch.

To begin with, you may think that the purpose of meditation is to eliminate thoughts. But read the Pali Canon and you find a text rife with concepts, schemas, diagnostic methods for various classifications of mental activity, meditation taxonomies, sensory taxonomies, feedback loops etc. Pretending you're already enlightened and that there isn't hard work to do is something the new agers have borrowed from some shitty spiritual schools of various flavors. I refer to people preaching such messages as mindlessness teachers.

To be clear, a decrease in discursive thought, and especially unpleasant mental contents that don't seem to serve any purpose, are one of many pleasant effects of proper practice, but don't really need to be focused on. It is a benefit that arrives in stages on its own.

So, what is the core loop?

It's basically cognitive behavioral therapy, supercharged with a mental state more intense than most pharmaceuticals.

There are two categories of practice, one for cultivating the useful mental state, the other uses that mental state to investigate the causal linkages between various parts of your perception (physical sensations, emotional tones, and mental reactions) which leads to clearing out of old linkages that weren't constructed well.

You have physical sensations in the course of life. Your nervous system reacts to these sensations with high or low valence (positive, negative, neutral) and arousal (sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activation), your mind reacts to these now-emotion-laden sensations with activity (mental image, mental talk) out of which you then build stories to make sense of your situation.

The key insight that drives everything is the knowledge (and later, direct experience) that this system isn't wired up efficiently. Importantly: I don't mean this in a normative way. Like you should wire it the way I say just because, but in the 'this type of circuit only needs 20 nand gates, why are there 60 and why is it shunting excess voltage into the anger circuits over there that have nothing to do with this computation?' way. Regardless of possible arguments over an ultimately 'correct' way to wire everything, there are very low hanging fruit in terms of improvements that will help you effectively pursue *any* other goal you set your mind to.

Funny aside, emotional 'resistance' might be well named, it might be literal electrical resistance in the CNSs wiring as a result of this spaghetti logic.

So back to these stories and story building blocks that are the outputs of this system. You generated a bunch of the primitive building blocks when you were very young and throwing everything together on an as needed basis with no instructions. You both have a back log of such stories and story building-blocks and are generating new ones all the time. Practice improves each of these situations. It improves the backlog by going through and reprocessing stories that aren't actually reality aligned when examined. Again, not pointing to edge cases here but things in the 'your partner humming the spongebob theme shouldn't make you furious because of something that happened when you were 12' class. You can clean up all the obvious stuff and then let your future self (who now has more resources) think about how to wisely deal with the fuzzy edge cases. It improves the new stories coming in (partially by learning as it processes the back log) by building far fewer incoherent stories out of pieces that don't fit together, and building less of the shittier building blocks in the first place.

I'll go ahead and name these things now to connect them up for people who have some knowledge of existing translations.

Concentration meditation gives rise to a mental state where the mind is very calm and inclined to neutrality. Of the same sort you'd want in a good judge.

Insight meditation makes one aware of the causal links in the perceptual system between physical sensations, feelings, and mental reactions.

Sankharas are the stories and story pieces that get reexamined and refactored as a result.

So what is the core loop of meditation practice?

Concentration puts you in the ideal state for insight.

Insight stirs up Sankaras.

Examining Sankharas riles up the mind, eventually leading to a desire to do some more concentration in order to calm down and keep making progress.

Clearing Sankharas cause concentration to go much better. And onward.

Why is concentration ideal to prepare you for insight practice?

Insight requires a high degree of temporal and spatial resolution in order to see the finer linkages between mental activities that normally flow past you without you noticing. Concentration meditation improves that resolution.

Second, to examine the Sankharas is to, to some extent, reactivate the sensations, feelings, and mental reactions associated with them. Since the ones we are most concerned with are the ones that are causing the biggest negative reactions in our lives, we need the mind to be calm and tranquil in order to do this work. Concentration greatly improves this tranquility as well.

How do insights stir up Sankharas?

This would require more speculation about somatic theories that don't yet have a good evidence base. Subjectively, it feels like building up insights into particular kinds of linkages between physical sensations, feelings, and mental reactions causes areas of your backlog that are particularly heavy in those linkages to get some activation and thus be available to consciousness.

You've experienced this if you've ever had a conceptual insight and then spent the next week noticing ways it was applicable, seemingly spontaneously. The only difference here is that insight can also be non-conceptual (ie, insight into how two particular physical sensations interact might generate no verbal content/mental talk but some sense of something happening.)

How does clearing Sankharas improve concentration?

The mental talk, emotional avoidance, and physical discomforts that interrupt concentration practice are built from unendorsed linkages.

So, the Buddha taught a method of concentration, a system for developing insight that we know as mindfulness, and to use these to both stop building new stories and to clear out our backlog of stories. That's actually it. The rest is details for how this plays out in practice. Failure modes can get a bit weird, and even if you do it right some mind blowing states and experiences can pop up. So there's lots of whataboutism for all that.

The miswired central nervous system story gives us simple answers to things like trauma (extreme levels of miswiring of things into fear and freeze responses), why stuff like yoga and exercise help (general CNS health, probably capacitance/fuse breaker improvements), why psychotherapy sometimes but not always activates childhood memories and the significance of that, and why practitioners claim they have a much better life but can't always explain why (they perform the same actions but with much less internal resistance).

So then why all the rest of this crap?

Well, besides my post on why practitioners make so many metaphysical claims, it's also just that there's a lot of idiosyncrasy in first unwiring a randomly wired CNS and then rewiring it in arbitrary order. Especially when you don't really know that that's what you're doing as you're doing it and your mindlessness teacher is a bit clueless as well (though may still have good pragmatic advice despite bad epistemics.)

In addition, each of the practices is actually a practice category. Though the Buddha taught one specific concentration technique and a simple series of insight techniques, but there are probably a dozen alternatives in each category that seem to work for some people and which entire traditions have subsequently built themselves around and gotten into fights with rival schools about.

Note: I am fairly confident this is how things work up until 2nd path. Since approximately zero percent of people make it beyond that point I'm not too worried about this.

122 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2019-04-08T06:52:53.406Z · score: 36 (17 votes) · LW · GW

This is fantastic and absolutely the conversation I want to be having. Resonates quite a lot with my experience, especially as a description of what it is exactly that I got out of circling.

In your language circling naturally stirs up sankharas because relational shit is happening (e.g. people are paying attention to you or ignoring you, liking or disliking what you say, etc) and then hopefully, if the circle is being well-facilitated, you sometimes get coached into a state where you can notice and work with your "causal links in the perceptual system between physical sensations, feelings, and mental reactions," e.g. by the facilitator remaining very calm and holding space, then gently pointing out their observations about your causal links, that kind of thing. Unfortunately with less skilled facilitation this doesn't happen and shit just gets stirred up and not resolved; worst case people get retraumatized.

Very excited to talk to you more about this.

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-09T01:59:49.511Z · score: 27 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I think a lot of explanations ground on somatic components of thought because (a) they're so neglected and (b) they're comparatively hard to mess up or take metaphorically.

Unfortunately many good manuals for how to do somatic mindfulness don't know how to connect it to anything else, so verbal centers never really get online. I think Qigong has this problem, & the Vipassana I've seen too.

Feldenkrais seems to have a model for how to link somatics and stories, but no idea how to teach it, so I had to reinvent it myself to get full value out of his exercises, and I suspect he mostly didn't do it dynamically. Tracking breath/posture *while* going through other stuff is really, really helpful.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-10T10:45:24.712Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

To me it appears that there are a bunch of different strains of people that care about somantic mindfulness and also connect it to the verbal centers. It seems however that most people who know a lot about somatics don't write.

Communities that I like for their high epistemic hygine that do care about somatic mindfulness are the Radical Honesty community and the community around Danis Bois.

Other communities that I have less contact with would be Somatic Experiencing, Somatic Bodywork and the Grinberg methode.

comment by Elo · 2019-04-10T10:51:04.666Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Read Reggie ray "touching enlightenment with the body"

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-09T10:51:40.814Z · score: 20 (7 votes) · LW · GW

It would be great to start a post like this with a epistemic status note, that specifies your relationship to Buddhism.

I read your post as operating on the assumption that the historic path of the Buddha is about teaching farmers to meditate.

To the extend I understand the history of Buddhism that isn't what Buddhism was about for thousands of years.

In religions there's always a desire to argue that what's taught today is taught because it's ancient knowledge but I see no reason to have that kind of discourse on LessWrong.

If you want to argue that you have something useful to say about meditation, there's no necessity to argue that what you are saying is a translation of the Buddha. I don't think that it leads to good epistemic hygiene.

comment by ashen · 2019-04-10T21:50:30.688Z · score: 14 (8 votes) · LW · GW

People like to have a claim on "what the Buddha really taught", e.g. in this post "Though the Buddha taught one specific concentration technique..."

But we don't really know what the Buddha taught. We have scriptures from an oral tradition, compiled by many people centuries after the death of this figure, a figure for which we have very little historical evidence for, that probably did exist, but we don't really know when. He is a ghost.

Therefore, it seems a safer option not to state what "The Buddha" taught or what "Buddhism" (singular) is really about at its core.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-04-11T10:28:27.032Z · score: 24 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I like the way that Stephen Batchelor put it:

In the parable of the raft, the Buddha describes “a man in the course of a journey” who arrives at a body of water that he has to cross. Since there are no boats or bridges available, his only option is to assemble a raft out of the “grass, twigs, branches, leaves” and whatever other materials are to hand. Having bound them together, and “making an effort with his hands and feet” he manages to get across to the opposite shore. Despite its evident usefulness, he realises that there is no point in carrying the raft any further once it has accomplished its purpose. So he leaves it by the shore and continues on his way. Likewise, the Buddha concludes, “I have shown you how the dharma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping” [M. 22]. This story shows how the dharma is an expedient, a means to achieve an urgent task at hand, not an end in itself that is to be preserved at all cost. It emphasises how one needs to draw upon whatever resources are available at a given time in order to accomplish what you have to do. It does not matter whether these resources are “what the Buddha truly taught” or not. The only thing that matters is whether such a configuration of disparate elements is of any help in getting you across the river. [...] In the light of this parable, it makes little sense to ask: “Is this really Buddhism?” The only relevant question is: “Does it float?”

comment by ashen · 2019-04-11T22:10:37.743Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And yet, Batchelor has written several books on "what the Buddha really taught" and the true meaning of Buddhism.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-11T15:42:53.067Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Fantastic piece! Thanks for the link.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-11T12:35:23.825Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There are a lot of different ways to build a raft that floats. If you want to study rafts it's useful to be able to speak about how different rafts are constructed and how the differ from each other.

The article speaks about providing a "praxis-based, post-metaphysical vision of the dharma". That points in the direction of what the OP called mindlessness teacher.

Trying to be post-metaphysical is often about not thinking much about metaphysis and thus in this case staying with the metaphysics of concentration, equanimity, tranquility, mindfulness and suffering without thinking about whether those are the best concepts to use.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-04-11T13:02:46.667Z · score: 20 (5 votes) · LW · GW
Trying to be post-metaphysical is often about not thinking much about metaphysis and thus in this case staying with the metaphysics of concentration, equanimity, tranquility, mindfulness and suffering without thinking about whether those are the best concepts to use.

Huh? The article's very much saying that we should think about whether the traditional concepts are useful, and then it has an extended case study where it dismantles and reconstructs the four noble truths into a form that's rather different from the common one but which it argues to support practice better. Whether its proposed new version is actually better is a question I don't have a strong opinion on, but it's certainly at least trying; the "mindlessness trainer" criticism seems off.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-12T11:44:40.471Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I read the first few pages, if he gets more into actual concept development later on my charge might be too strong.

comment by ryan_b · 2019-04-09T14:03:42.717Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW
there's no necessity to argue that what you are saying is a translation of the Buddha

I agree that it isn't necessary to make that argument in order to say something useful about meditation. But in the name of epistemic hygiene I do think it is necessary to reveal your true motivations/concerns, which seems to be the case here.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-09T14:45:44.169Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that I know the true concerns after reading the post. It's for example unspecified whether romeostevensit has read any of the texts he wants to "translate" in their original language and what his relationships to those texts happens to be.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-10T13:17:18.391Z · score: 31 (9 votes) · LW · GW

The post is predicated on reading 4 different translations of Pali Canon discourse, checked against my own experience, discussion with teachers, and works of historical Buddhist scholarship charting the development of differing interpretations.

edit: I also agree with ashen above, the frame of 'what the buddha taught' is a simplified one that dissolves under close examination (the historical record on how the discourses got compiled is if anything even more sketchy than the one we have for the bible)

comment by Slider · 2019-04-09T22:11:02.636Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This reply easks for a epistemic status note. I started noticing something to a similar name on lesswrong posts. I was quite a bit confused on what they were supposed to accomplish. This particular suggestion leaves it quite murky for what kinds of considrations those notes would be used for.

In general I didn't know whether those epistemic status notes were a community thing, how recent a development they were and where to look up the relevant info. Also for some strange reason it felt weird to ask directly only about them on a random post (and I did not ask).

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-10T00:43:16.168Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · LW · GW

See this post [LW · GW] (including the comments) for info about “epistemic status”.

comment by nshepperd · 2019-04-12T21:09:13.500Z · score: 17 (10 votes) · LW · GW

For a post that claims to be a "translation" of Buddhism, this seems to contain:

  • No Pali text;
  • No specific references to Pali text, or any sources at all;
  • No actual translation work of any kind.

On the other hand, it does contain quite a bit of unjustified speculation. "Literal electrical resistance in the CNS", really? "Rewiring your CNS"? Why should I believe any of this?

Why are people upvoting this?

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2019-04-14T23:22:35.928Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I upvoted this because it gave me some concepts to use to look at some experiences I've had. The speculations at the level of physical mechanism aren't really cruxes for me so I mostly don't care about them, and same with facts of the matter about what any particular Pali text actually says. What's interesting to me is what Romeo gets out of a combination of reading them and reflecting on his own experience, that might be relevant to me reflecting on my own experience.

Why should I believe any of this?

Gut reaction to this question is that it's the wrong question. I don't view this post as telling you anything you're supposed to believe on Romeo's word.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-15T04:10:11.342Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don’t view this post as telling you anything you’re supposed to believe on Romeo’s word.

On what other basis, then, are we to believe any of this stuff about rewiring neurons, “electrical resistance = emotional resistance”, etc. etc.? We’ve been [LW · GW] told that [LW · GW] there’s no evidence whatsoever for any of it and that Romeo got the idea for the latter claim, in particular, from literally nowhere at all. So we can’t believe any of this on the basis of evidence, because we’ve been given none, and told that none is forthcoming. And you say we’re not to believe it on Romeo’s word. What’s left?

Or perhaps you’re saying that the post makes no claims at all? But I can’t see how that reading is possible, and in any case that is contradicted by Romeo’s comments in response to me. Claims are being made, and relatively clear claims, at that.

Thus nshepperd’s question seems to me to be quite apt!

comment by mr-hire · 2019-04-15T16:14:08.923Z · score: 14 (4 votes) · LW · GW
On what other basis, then, are we to believe any of this stuff about rewiring neurons, “electrical resistance = emotional resistance”, etc. etc.? We’ve been [LW · GW] told that [LW · GW] there’s no evidence whatsoever for any of it and that Romeo got the idea for the latter claim, in particular, from literally nowhere at all. So we can’t believe any of this on the basis of evidence, because we’ve been given none, and told that none is forthcoming. And you say we’re not to believe it on Romeo’s word. What’s left?

You both latched onto the least interesting part of the post. The part that is literally just Romeo throwing out some wild speculations. The post would probably have been a bit cleaner to not mention the few wild speculations he mentions, but getting caught up on the tiny details seems to miss the forest from the trees.

The more interesting part is the general framework where he matches up the some of the processes mentioned in Buddhism with some insights from behavioral psychology, psychotherapy, and pop psychology. It gives a framework to start understanding why anecdotally people claim such big effects from extended meditation practice, and gives an insight about how one might begin to test the hypothesis that this is what's happening, both personally and on a broader scale.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-15T17:05:25.793Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You both latched onto the least interesting part of the post. The part that is literally just Romeo throwing out some wild speculations.

That is not the impression given by either the post or Romeo’s replies. He seems to be making it clear that he is, indeed, making the affirmative claims that I attributed to him, and has thus far given no indication of intending to retract or weaken them.

But let me ask you this: do you think the post would stand on its own, without these “speculations” (as you call them)? By way of attempting to answer this question, I’ve taken the liberty of creating a copy of Romeo’s post on Google Docs, where I’ve crossed out every “speculative” claim for which we’ve not been given evidence.

I was fairly conservative in choosing parts to cross out; I’ve left intact, for example, almost everything that mentions or talks about forms of psychotherapy and other concepts from psychology. (Although, by rights those ought to go as well; we do not accept such claims without evidence ordinarily; why should we accept them when speaking about meditation or Buddhism? But perhaps speculating about the “softer” sciences is a lesser offense, so I mostly let these things stand.)

What is left, nevertheless, is a post that is missing any justifications or explanations of its core claims; a post essentially indistinguishable from any number of similar posts that have appeared on Less Wrong, since its relaunch almost two years ago.

The more interesting part is the general framework where he matches up the some of the processes mentioned in Buddhism with some insights from behavioral psychology, psychotherapy, and pop psychology. It gives a framework to start understanding why anecdotally people claim such big effects from extended meditation practice, and gives an insight about how one might begin to test the hypothesis that this is what’s happening, both personally and on a broader scale.

Allow me to make a suggestion, then, for anyone who writes these sorts of posts in the future:

First, enumerate, explain, and cite the “insights from behavioral psychology, psychotherapy, and pop psychology” which you intend to use as explanations. Be specific in your claims, and be diligent in your references. Consult the latest available sources, to make sure that your insights of choice have survived the replication crisis; provide these sources to your readers.

Then, having established a basis for what follows, make all the interesting connections to Buddhism, meditation, or what have you.

This approach would kill two birds with one stone: it would prevent such distracting digressions as we’re now engaged in, and it would also strengthen your own understanding of the ideas that you are presenting.

It seems to me that doing things in this way would benefit everyone involved.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-15T19:13:45.833Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the clear suggestions/feedback.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-04-15T21:01:27.246Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't mind the speculation, just the wild ones. Putting forward a hypothesis based on your own experience is incredibly useful, especially if it makes novel predictions that people can then go test themselves.

I don't know how for instance Romeo would have gotten the "electrical resistance" thing from his own experience, but many of the other tools I can see by him noticing similarities between what happens in meditation, and various other psychotherapies he has tried or read about. This is actually one place where I expect phenomenological experience to provide valuable hypotheses, which is why I think this sort of post can be credible enough to want to test/further explore the hypotheses.

comment by nshepperd · 2019-04-15T17:59:21.246Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The two parts I mentioned are simply the most obviously speculative and unjustified examples. I also don't have any real reason to believe the vaguer pop psychology claims about building stories, backlogs, etc.

The post would prob­a­bly have been a bit cleaner to not men­tion the few wild spec­u­la­tions he men­tions, but get­ting caught up on the tiny de­tails seems to miss the for­est from the trees.

It seems to me LW has a big epistemic hygiene problem, of late. We need to collectively stop make excuses for posting wild speculations as if they were fact, just because the same post also contains some interesting 'insight'. We should be downvoting such posts and saying to the author "go away and write this again, with the parts that you can't justify removed".

Doing so may reveal that the 'insight' either does or does not successfully stand alone when the supporting 'speculation' is removed. Either way, we learn something valuable about the alleged insight; and we benefit directly by not spreading claims that lack evidence.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-15T19:08:13.197Z · score: 14 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The tacit claim is that LW should be about confirmatory research and that exploratory research doesn't belong here. But confirmatory, cited research has never been the majority of content going back to LW 1.0.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-15T19:48:54.255Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I cannot agree with your reading of nshepperd’s comment. I concur with you that exploratory research is entirely appropriate for Less Wrong, and indeed that it is a strength of this forum.

However, with respect, I do not think that your post rises to the level of “exploratory research”. The level of scholarship and rigor on display would need to be improved substantially, before we could label the post as “research” of any kind.

I have seen firsthand what exploratory research is like. Even in the relatively “soft” field I’ve had experience with (HCI), the post at hand would not qualify—not by a long shot.

Perhaps, though, we might investigate the nature of our disagreement in another way. What would you say are three of the best examples of “exploratory research” from Less Wrong’s history? To avoid confounding factors, please limit your examples to the period before the relaunch of the new site; and also avoid Eliezer’s posts from the original Sequences period (as citing them as examples would illuminate nothing).

comment by Elo · 2019-04-15T23:21:31.067Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I feel like this needs it's own post and discussion. There's definitely a difference of opinion here worth clarifying.

comment by Raemon · 2019-04-15T23:26:48.990Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

FYI, I started working on a post this morning (which I'll most likely refactor into a question before publishing) that explores the question of "what combination of norms and incentive gradients will best output useful progress on LessWrong".

Will probably be at least a few days before posting, but figured I'd mention it here.

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-15T20:42:30.315Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW
and also avoid Eliezer’s posts from the original Sequences period (as citing them as examples would illuminate nothing)

Why?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-15T21:04:57.102Z · score: 11 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Firstly, because the Sequences were written almost entirely on Overcoming Bias, not on Less Wrong. That alone would suffice. (Less Wrong simply did not exist when Eliezer wrote most of the Sequences.)

Secondly, because we already know that Eliezer can (or could, at least) write interesting and useful things, and have interesting and useful ideas. The question is whether anyone else—specifically, anyone from the Less Wrong commentariat—has that ability; and how we should encourage it, and nurture it; and what epistemic standards, and what community norms, encourage good and interesting and useful and correct ideas. We are, after all, talking about what kind of posts are appropriate for Less Wrong today. So asking whether the site’s founder and originally primary contributor wrote anything of value (especially before the community was even founded) is not relevant.

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-17T19:32:40.216Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW · GW

ETA: tentatively deprecated, see here [LW · GW].

How is your point of view different, if at all, from the one critiqued here [LW · GW]?

It seems like you’re saying LessWrong ought to have a closed canon (the Sequences) and expound on but not add to or accept a substantive critique of them.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-17T20:07:30.380Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I’m not saying anything even remotely like that. I… don’t actually know how you got that from what I wrote. The post you linked seems to have nothing at all to do with what I’m saying.

Clearly, there’s been some great miscommunication here, but I am unsure of what could be the source of it…

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-18T01:10:21.586Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

ETA: Tentatively deprecated, see here [LW · GW]. [LW · GW]

Can anyone else write interesting and useful things, and have interesting useful ideas?

What do you mean by this, if not that you're trying to figure out whether other people share some personal specialness Eliezer has?

If you're not thinking of the past as an uncaused golden age and Eliezer as a legend of yore, what's the relation between that question and the question of which kinds of post are appropriate here?

If the problem is that some posts, knowably to a group of people competent to implement shared standards, are neither interesting nor useful, and lack interesting useful ideas, then the obvious solution would be to declare those specific posts inappropriate.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-18T02:15:40.109Z · score: 19 (7 votes) · LW · GW

What do you mean by this, if not that you’re trying to figure out whether other people share some personal specialness Eliezer has?

It’s not “some personal specialness”; it’s the ability, inclination, wherewithal, knowledge, expertise, habit, etc., etc., to write posts and comments that are useful, interesting, and otherwise desirable to have insofar as they serve the goals of Less Wrong.

These qualities can be encouraged where present, they can be developed where absent, they can be selected for from among a population, and their application can be incentivized.

But it is clearly not the case that said qualities are simply present in anyone who gets it into their head to write a Less Wrong post.

How common are these salutary qualities? We don’t know (but not very common). How common are they among the current Less Wrong commentariat, in particular? We don’t know (hopefully more common than in the general population, but clearly not as common as we’d like). What community norms, what rules, contribute to increasing and maintaining their prevalence among the membership of the site? We don’t know.

If you’re not thinking of the past as an uncaused golden age and Eliezer as a legend of yore, what’s the relation between that question and the question of which kinds of post are appropriate here?

The past is not an uncaused golden age, but whatever its causes were, they cannot possibly include “the norms and rules of Less Wrong”, because Less Wrong did not exist. Given that “what should be the norms and rules of Less Wrong” is, in fact, what we are discussing, said golden age (i.e., Eliezer writing the Sequences) is irrelevant.

As for Eliezer being a “legend of yore”… well, consider the following analogy, inspired by the very post you linked.

Suppose Einstein, late in life, founds a school for aspiring brilliant theoretical physicists. Some time passes, and I inquire of the administration whether their school has, in fact, produced any brilliant physics theories; indeed, can it? Are their teaching methods any good, even? “What makes you suspect otherwise?”, the administrators ask me. “Well,” say I, “name some brilliant theoretical phycisists who’ve come from your school.” “Why,” comes the reply, “there was Einstein!”

Would you find this reply persuasive?

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-18T15:11:32.887Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No.

Obviously LessWrong does not produce writers of similar productivity to Eliezer.

You didn't explain why that means we should discourage some but not other articles by non-Eliezers.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-18T15:19:10.169Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Huh? What are you referring to…?

Could you quote what thing I said in this thread, that you are summarizing as “we should discourage some but not other articles by non-Eliezers”?

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-18T16:14:48.165Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I now think I may have misread you quite badly - see this comment [LW · GW] - if so, thanks for your patience.

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-18T15:18:07.430Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like you're arguing:

Articles that explore new ideas are harder to write productively than articles that don't.

Eliezer, uniquely on LessWrong, wrote productive articles exploring new ideas.

Therefore, in order to cultivate productivity, we should not attempt to imitate Eliezer by exploring new ideas, but instead write the other sorts of articles, which are easier to write productively.

If that's what you mean, then that just is a proposal for closure of primary canon, allowing only carefully explicated commentaries and analyses and extensions of existing ideas.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-18T15:34:05.104Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

None of that is even in the vicinity of what I meant.

I do not, quite frankly, know how you got any of that from what I wrote in this thread. As far as I can see, your attempted summary of my points is simply one big non sequitur.

Are you sure you’re not just rounding off my comments to the nearest cached criticism?

If you reread what I’ve written and still believe the provided summary is fair, I’ll attempt to re-explain, I guess…

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-18T16:11:29.168Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't have any other good hypotheses for why, when asking for examples of what good exploratory research would look like, you specified that we should exclude Eliezer. I can generate one more, bad hypothesis, which is that you want to make sure we're hitting a sufficiently low standard, since we should grade on a curve and not hold ourselves to the standard of matching Eliezer. But that seems wildly in conflict with a bunch of other stuff you've said here.

ETA: On reflection it's plausible that I was misreading you and the latter really is what you meant the whole time. If so, oops, not sure how I made that mistake. Thanks for asking me to reread!

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-18T16:56:36.535Z · score: 13 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The latter is closer to what I meant, certainly.

As you took the time to reread my comments, it seems only fair that I should take the time to attempt another explanation, as perhaps a rewording will help to dispel any remaining confusion. I hope you’ll excuse my using your earlier comment as a jumping-off point, though I know you no longer endorse this interpretation of my view:

Articles that explore new ideas are harder to write productively than articles that don’t.

This is true. However, as I wrote in this comment [LW · GW], I believe “exploratory research” to be a (perhaps not unique, but certainly unusual) strength of Less Wrong. That such articles are harder to write only means that it is more important—given how few places on the internet have any capability to produce such writing—that we do these things well.

Eliezer, uniquely on LessWrong, wrote productive articles exploring new ideas.

First, again, I do not think that it is sensible to view the Sequences as having been written on Less Wrong—not least because they, in fact, weren’t! (You will note, by the way, that I specified Eliezer’s writings from the Sequences period for exclusion—not all his writings!)

That aside, I do not think this quoted bit is true either; Eliezer’s contributions were not uniquely excellent. I can easily come up with examples of good “exploratory research” articles written on Less Wrong by people who aren’t Eliezer. I asked Romeo to provide examples of his own because I thought (and still think) that seeing what he considers to be good “exploratory research” from Less Wrong’s past would help to illuminate the substance of our disagreement.

Yes, we all agree (presumably) that the Sequences are great; that is, more or less, why we’re all here. But the fact that Eliezer wrote the Sequences, and we saw that they were good, doesn’t help us very much. That we all agree on that is all well and good, but on what do we disagree? Something, clearly, but in what details?—that’s the question.

Therefore, in order to cultivate productivity, we should not attempt to imitate Eliezer by exploring new ideas, but instead write the other sorts of articles, which are easier to write productively.

I do not think this is true either. As mentioned above, I think that “exploratory research” is something Less Wrong can do well. It is, in fact, one of the few forums that has demonstrated this capacity. That is why it’s important that we preserve and nurture that rare and precious quality; that is why it’s important that we do “exploratory research” right.

And in a discussion of whether we, today, are doing something well, it makes no sense at all to reply that our forum’s founder, over a decade ago, before the forum even existed, did that thing well!

Thus my question to Romeo (and, I suppose, to anyone else who agrees with his view, but disagrees with mine) stands:

What are three of the best examples of good “exploratory research” articles from Less Wrong’s history? (The Sequences, and other posts from that period, excluded.)

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-19T04:51:28.271Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you, this makes more sense to me.

comment by Elo · 2019-04-14T23:38:40.103Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I agree and I want to add that there is a shift away from learning from. The source of an original book, and instead learning from what other people have learnt. And the way they learnt, not just the (very old) original work.

Buddhist information is usually participatory. "go and see for yourself" and "don't take my word for it".

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-12T22:54:18.101Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

This isn't a compiler level attempt, it is a design patterns level attempt. I guess it's not universally illuminating.

comment by J- · 2019-04-13T00:26:53.043Z · score: 3 (4 votes) · LW · GW

they're just being nice.

(agreed).

comment by ashen · 2019-04-12T07:24:01.898Z · score: 14 (7 votes) · LW · GW

a) Imagine a different post on LessWrong:

“Guys, let me share something with you I am really excited about. I have been studying the bible pretty hard, including reading several translations of the original Hebrew in my quest to master the Core Teachings of Jesus, and putting these teachings into practice (and I have reached Nebula Level 4.2, so know what I am talking about). Based on my experiences, and extensive discussions with a variety of my priests, I have figured out the core practice that Lord Jesus taught, and I am going to break it down for you in a way that is easy to understand for a modern audience, in order that Jesus’s teachings can be spread onto the globe and help as many people as possible.

How might this be received differently on Less Wrong? Is Buddhism just hip right now?

b) I do find this post useful though. "Insight" in some Buddhism practices is hard to explain, so this attempt is very welcome.

I am not a fan of the “random miswiring” metaphor. What is random about adaptive responses to stressors based on your genotype and lifetime experiences? Idiosyncratic, yes, but not random. But talking about efficiency makes more sense to me e.g. "‘this type of circuit only needs 20 nand gates, why are there 60..."

Other authors in the somatic tradition have focused on physical tension as the key thing that gets unravelled in these practices - so circuits with too much activity. See for example, Will Johnson, who integrates Buddhism practices and Western Somatic practices, who talks about Sankharas here and relates it to Reich.

Also worth noting this aligns pretty well with SquirrelFromHells BeWellTuned

I think this is where the action is (and where more works needs to be done):

"This would require more speculation about somatic theories that don’t yet have a good evidence base. Subjectively, it feels like building up insights into particular kinds of linkages between physical sensations, feelings, and mental reactions causes areas of your backlog that are particularly heavy in those linkages to get some activation and thus be available to consciousness."

comment by moses · 2019-04-12T09:19:43.659Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Is Buddhism just hip right now?

I think it's just that rationalists are not skeptics; we don't automatically dismiss things because they sound "woo". If Lord Jesus came up with a helpful mental technique, I'm all ears.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-12T20:06:53.287Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It think it's a mistake to call someone who automatically either accepts or rejects an idea a skeptic. The core of classic skepticism is to accept that you don't know. The fact that you have people who call themselves skeptics but who have a quite strong sense that they know the Truth (e.g. new atheists), doesn't make them skeptics.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-12T15:50:00.640Z · score: 9 (7 votes) · LW · GW
How might this be received differently on Less Wrong? Is Buddhism just hip right now?

I don't think Buddhisms hipness is the main point. Posts about the Jewish concept of the Sabbath have been well-received on LessWrong.

I don't know very much about Christianity but I see no reason why someone shouldn't be able to write an insightful post on core Christian concepts.

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-12T17:10:10.522Z · score: 13 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I expect this to be harder but still doable - Christianity is more of a central case of a "religion" than Judaism or Buddhism, so I expect the translation work to be more difficult. The essay someone else linked to on the idea of a Buddhism 2.0 oriented towards praxis instead of doctrine seems like it would be harder to do with Christianity, especially Protestant faith-oriented variants.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-12T20:07:47.454Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I do know a person for whom the trinity wasn't just doctrine but for whom it was a mental model that had practical use in a discussion that wasn't about Christianity.

It's my impression that many Christian priests are as bad at theology as those people that romeostevensit calls mindlessness trainers in Buddhism. But it's still very foreign mental territory for me.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-12T22:39:58.553Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

a better word than random might have been arbitrary. i.e. predicated on causes and conditions that have little to do with the heuristics you endorse.

Appreciate the feedback and the links!

comment by Raemon · 2019-04-07T23:59:13.483Z · score: 12 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I found this useful, at least at first glance (though it's the sort of post I'd want eventually to be subjected to rigor, both from a scientific and probably traditional buddhist perspective).

Also appreciated the meta level point about confusing concepts needing better translation.

comment by Elo · 2019-04-23T21:01:23.743Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW · GW

For my own benefit I stumbled back here to add, "what do I mean by translation?".

Some comments seem to be confused by this not being a language-language translation in the conventional sense. It's worth pointing out that the word translation is being used to translate across cultural contexts or across jargon barriers and not language barriers. In this sense - still a translation but not an ancient text translation as a cultural bridge.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-08T02:50:37.554Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Funny aside, emotional ‘resistance’ might be well named, it might be literal electrical resistance in the CNSs wiring as a result of this spaghetti logic.

This sounds interesting—do you have any references for this?

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-08T03:10:48.687Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

nope, the field of CNS imaging is not in an advanced state. When a major breakthrough is made in the accuracy and time-resolution of CNS activity is made I expect spiritual practices in general to get a major upgrade in legibility and feedback loop effectiveness.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-08T03:18:30.370Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Where did you get this idea, then (that “emotional resistance” is literally electrical resistance)?

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-08T04:08:04.490Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Nowhere. Though I doubt I'm the first to have it.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2019-04-10T11:14:18.986Z · score: 20 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Thus are theories like the four humours, the five elements, yin/yang, signatures, and astrology created. I could mischievously add System 1/2, neuromarketing, and most schools of psychotherapy to that list.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-10T13:18:49.008Z · score: 4 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Having it be falsifiable in a clear way is helpful

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-08T03:06:24.045Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Do you have any citations for the claims about “miswiring” or “random wiring” of the central nervous system?

Although, that may be premature; I’m actually curious what, precisely, you mean when you talk about “miswiring” or “rewiring”. Do you mean that the physical pattern of connections between neurons changes as a result of Buddhist practice? If so—which neurons, in which part(s) of the brain, and how does it change (and how is this change detectable—with fMRIs, perhaps?)?

Likewise, you mention “efficiency” of wiring. What is the measure of efficiency being used here, and how is it measured?

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-08T03:11:52.206Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There aren't good answers for any of those questions. fmri has picked up some promising stuff but doesn't have the resolution to get the details.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-08T03:16:59.660Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · LW · GW

There aren’t good answers for any of those questions.

I’m afraid I don’t quite understand this answer. I’m asking what you mean when you say the things you said in the post—what specific things you’re referring to. It’s not clear what it would mean for there to be “no good answers” to such a question; surely you know what you meant when you wrote this post?

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-08T04:07:01.743Z · score: 3 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I do mean the physical pattern of connections between neurons is changing. As for specifics, again we only have very broad stories such about which brain regions are altered by meditation (white matter, default mode network, amygdala etc.)

comment by snarles · 2019-04-12T01:23:28.767Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I started out as a self-identified rationalist, got fascinated by mysticism and 'went native.' Ever since, I have been watching the rationality from the sidelines to see if anyone else will 'cross over' as well.

I predict that if Romeo continues to work on methods for teaching meditation, that eventually he will also 'go mystical' and publicly rescind his claim that all perceived metaphysical insights can be explained as pathological disconnects with reality caused by neural rewiring. Conditional on his continuing to teach, I predict with 70% probability that it occurs within the next 10 years.

There are two theories that both lead me to make this prediction, which I call Theory M and Theory D. I ascribe probability 0.8 to Theory M and 0.15 to Theory D. I ascribe a probability of 0.02 to their intersection.

Theory M ('Mystical') is that there exists a truth that cannot be expressed in conventional language, and that truth has been rediscovered independently by hundreds of seekers throughout history, and that many of the most established spiritual traditions--Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Kabbalistic, Christian, Sufi, and many others--were founded for the purpose of disseminating that same truth. If Theory M is true, and conditional on Romeo continuing to teach, I predict that his role in the community will motivate him to deepen his practice and will also bring him in contact with teachers from other spiritual practices. These experiences will catalyze his own mystical insights.

Theory D ('Delusional') is that spiritual seekers expose themselves to mechanisms of self-delusion that are so strong that they would even convince someone who is initially highly identified with rationality and skepticism to start assigning a high probability that Theory M is true.

The main reason I place so much confidence in Theory M is similar to the reason why string theorists place so much confidence in string theory: so many aspects of reality that were previously baffling to me are suddenly very comprehensible and elegant when I understand them through Theory M. Secondary reasons are my personal experiences, but I concede that some aspect of these could be due to delusions so I will not defend them here.

The reason I have so much confidence in Theory D is that I consider myself to have a high capacity for rational thinking, that I am very well-informed in the ideas of the rationality community and I consider myself knowledgeable about a variety of disciplines necessary for understanding reality: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, statistics, philosophy, biology, physics, religious history. I hold a Ph. D. in Statistics and am currently working as a research scientist in a research institution specializing in mental health research. And yet I have daily experiences which reaffirm my confidence in Theory M. If theory M is not true, then I would conclude that the delusion I am suffering is incredibly strong, lies outside of all mental diseases which I know about and evades my own attempts to self-diagnose. I admit that I have little incentive to eliminate the delusion since it makes my life so pleasant. I admit that I perhaps could have protected myself from delusion even more solidly by embedding myself deeply in a physical social community that was dedicated to rationality. I have not done that. However, I am surrounded by scientists at my workplace.

If theory M is true, then I warmly wish all of you reading to discover its truth. If it is not true, I wish for my delusion to be eliminated so that I can stop living in a pleasant fantasy and re-align myself with rationalists who are trying to maximize their positive impact on the world.

I expect that my views will not find much support among you, but I challenge you to judge my claims by the professed standards of your own community. If you feel yourself strongly disagreeing with me, I challenge you to engage me as a fellow rationalist (or to point out how I have violated the community rules of discourse) rather than succumbing the knee-jerk reaction of dismissing a set of beliefs which make you uncomfortable.

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-12T17:17:36.136Z · score: 23 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Why no probability on "there exists a truth that is very difficult to express in conventional language, such that as contexts change, fixed written accounts of it tend to decay into uselessness, it's so difficult that even most people who get it lack the verbal skill to express it clearly in their words in their time, this is compounded by most people needing higher-context instruction than words alone to get to the point where the words can mean anything to them, and because of this the vast majority of people trying to talk about this round it off to it being literally impossible"?

That's basically Plato's model, and it seems to me like the obvious hypothesis here given the extent to which people actually do try to say the thing in words, or parts of it, including people widely reputed to have "got it" such as the Buddha.

comment by snarles · 2019-04-13T04:52:34.574Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I would assign that a probability less than 0.1, and that's because I already experienced some insights which defy verbal transmission. For instance, I feel that I am close to experientially understanding the question of "what is suffering?" The best way I can formulate my understanding into words is, "there is no such thing as suffering. It is an illusion." I don't think additional words or higher-context instructions would help in conveying my understanding to someone who cannot relate to the experience of feeling totally fine and at ease while simultaneously experiencing intense physical and emotional pain.

I don't think Buddha ever attempted to describe the Truth in words. Sometimes he would give a koan to a student who just needed a little push. But most of his sutras were for giving the instructions for how students could work at the Truth, and also just practical advice on how to live skillfully.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-13T08:58:00.571Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Anyone, it seems, can have the experience of “feeling totally fine and at ease while simultaneously experiencing intense … pain”[1]:

It turns out there is painless pain: lobotomized people experience that, and “reactive dissociation” is the phrase used to describe the effects sometimes of analgesics like morphine when administered after pain has begun, and the patient reports, to quote Dennett 1978 [PDF] (emphasis in original), that “After receiving the analgesic subjects commonly report not that the pain has disappeared or diminished (as with aspirin) but that the pain is as intense as ever though they no longer mind it…if it is administered before the onset of pain…the subjects claim to not feel any pain subsequently (though they are not numb or anesthetized—they have sensation in the relevant parts of their bodies); while if the morphine is administered after the pain has commenced, the subjects report that the pain continues (and continues to be pain), though they no longer mind it……Lobotomized subjects similarly report feeling intense pain but not minding it, and in other ways the manifestations of lobotomy and morphine are similar enough to lead some researchers to describe the action of morphine (and some barbiturates) as ‘reversible pharmacological leucotomy [lobotomy]’.23”

(From Evolution as Backstop for Reinforcement Learning on gwern.net)

That subjective aversiveness is separable from pain as such is a fascinating psychological/neurological phenomenon. That it is possible (if, indeed, it is, as you claim—though not you alone, of course) to induce this state of “reactive dissociation” in yourself, without the use of either opiates or a lobotomy, is also fascinating.

But concluding from this that “there’s no such thing as suffering” is a conceptual confusion of the highest order—and not some insight into deep Truth.

ETA: And it seems to me to be far from obvious, that it is good or desirable to voluntarily induce in yourself a state akin to a morphine high or a lobotomy… especially if doing so has the additional consequence of leading you into the most elementary conceptual errors.


[1] Physical, anyway. Emotional? Perhaps, but that seems not to be as well-studied.

comment by snarles · 2019-04-13T20:48:41.777Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW
Anyone, it seems, can have the experience of “feeling totally fine and at ease while simultaneously experiencing intense … pain”[1]:

It would greatly please me if people could achieve a deeper understanding of suffering just by taking analgesics. If that were the case, perhaps we should encourage people to try them just for that purpose. However, I'm guessing that the health risks, especially cognitive side-effects (a reduction of awareness that would preclude the possibility of gaining any such insight), risks of addiction and logistical issues surrounding the distribution of drugs for non-medical purposes will render infeasible any attempt to systematically employment of analgesics for the purpose of spiritual insight. In all likelihood, we'll be stuck with the same old meditations and pranayamas and asanas for a while.

But the reason you bring up the topic of analgesics, if I am not mistaken, is to challenge the legitimacy of my insight by an argument that boils down to: "the experience you describe could be obtained through drugs, so it must not be that profound". I do not know if you were also expecting to rely on a negative halo effect of "drug usage" to augment your rhetoric, but as you may have guessed from the preceding paragraph, my opinion is that the negative connotations of drug-induced states is due to irrational associations. If we ignore the drugs, then the remaining constituent of your rhetoric is the underlying assumption that "any easily obtained insight must be trivial." That is far from the truth. I believe there are many simple things that people could do, which would profoundly increase their wisdom at a very low cost [1]. But precisely because these things are so simple, people wouldn't take them seriously even if somebody suggested it to them. (The chance is a bit higher, but still not terribly high, if it's said by the teacher of an expensive paid workshop, or their guru, or their psychotherapist. But the most effective way so far to get people to do these kinds of simple things is to integrate them inside some elaborate social ritual.)

But concluding from this that “there’s no such thing as suffering” is a conceptual confusion of the highest order—and not some insight into deep Truth.

I agree that the statement "there’s no such thing as suffering" is false, and not any kind of insight into deep Truth.

That's because I am not claiming that "there's no such thing as suffering." I claim to have an insight which can't be described in words, but the best verbal description of this insight is something like "suffering is an illusion."

I don't even consider this insight to be particularly deep. Like you said, maybe you could get it by taking painkillers. Certainly not an insight into deep Truth. That is not to say that I don't take other people's suffering seriously--far from it, it concerns me greatly. However if you were to compare the difficulty of understanding suffering and the difficulty of understanding consciousness, I think suffering is a far easier problem to resolve.

ETA: And it seems to me to be far from obvious, that it is good or desirable to voluntarily induce in yourself a state akin to a morphine high or a lobotomy… especially if doing so has the additional consequence of leading you into the most elementary conceptual errors

You are wise to be cautious, because neural self-modification could potentially lead to states where one loses all concern for one's own well-being. However, just because an altered state of consciousness is similar to a drug-induced state or a state of neurological impairment doesn't, by itself, imply that it should be avoided. It all depends on whether you've taken appropriate steps to control the risk (e.g. by only accessing the state under the guidance of an experienced teacher), and what insight you stand to gain by experiencing that state. The states of consciousness may be the same, but the intentions and degree of control makes all the difference. Recreational drug users pursue these states with little or no understanding of the process, little or no control over the outcomes, and out of the intention of thrill-seeking, social bonding, or alleviating boredom. Mystics pursue these states, often backed up by a tradition which has precise knowledge of how to attain these states, are equipped with mental tools to control the process, and seek these states with the intention of obtaining insights that will be of enduring value to their lives.

[1] Such as: take just one hour to think and reflect. Dance with abandon. Volunteer to take care of children. Go to the forest, just to look around. Play in the mud. Fast for one day. Learn and go see where your food comes from, how your clothes are made.

comment by MakoYass · 2019-04-13T21:15:26.592Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It seems obvious that your change in relationship with suffering constitutes a kind of value shift, doesn't it?

What's your relationship with value drift? Are you unafraid of it? That gradual death by mutation? The infidelity of your future self? Do you see it as a kind of natural erosion, a more vital aspect of the human telos than the motive aspects it erodes?

comment by snarles · 2019-04-13T21:31:47.097Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW
It seems obvious that your change in relationship with suffering constitutes a kind of value shift, doesn't it?

This is not obvious to me. In the first place, I never had the value "avoid suffering" even before I started my practices. Since before I even knew the concept of suffering, I have always had the compulsion of avoiding suffering, but the value to transcend it.

What's your relationship with value drift? Are you unafraid of it? That gradual death by mutation? The infidelity of your future self?

I am afraid of value drift, but I am even more afraid that the values that I already have are based on incoherent thinking and false assumptions, which, once exposed, would lead me to realize that I have been spending my life in pursuing the wrong things entirely.

Because I am afraid of both value drift and value incoherence, I place a high priority in learning how I can upgrade my understanding of my own values, while at the same time being very cautious about which sources I trust and learn from. I cannot seek to improve value coherence without making myself vulnerable to value drift. Therefore, I only invest in learning from sources authored by people who appear to be aligned with my values.

Do you see it as a kind of natural erosion, a more vital aspect of the human telos than the motive aspects it erodes?

No, I do not think that value drift is inevitable, nor do I think the "higher purpose", if such a thing exists, involves constantly drifting. My goal is to achieve a state of value constancy.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-12T22:45:19.468Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've had multiple religious experiences (total reality dissolution, contact with seeming entities of infinite benevolence etc.) and I guess I'm just narcissistic enough to still be a Quinean naturalist and say 'yep, that is also me.'

I'd say I basically endorse Theory M already? I posit that words (and images, and felt senses) are low dimensional projections of many-dimensional objects.

comment by snarles · 2019-04-13T04:19:44.231Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm reducing my subjective probability that you will abandon rationality...

I suppose what you are attempting is similar to what Buddha did in the first place. The sages of his time must have felt pained to see their beautiful non-dualism sliced and diced into mass-produced sutras, rather than the poems and songs and mythology which were, up until then, the usual vehicle of expression for these truths.

I guess I'm just narcissistic enough to still be a Quinean naturalist and say 'yep, that is also me.'

Considering God to be part of yourself is very elevated and good. The only problem is the things that you don't consider to be part of yourself. So I guess what I am saying is that you should amplify your narcissism :)

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-13T21:21:05.624Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

yeah, intimacy with aversions is one decent compression of the path.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-04-12T06:13:36.972Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This seems hard to engage with, given that you've said little about the mystical truth in question, and in fact stated that it can't be expressed in conventional language. How can I evaluate the claim that M is true, if I don't know what M is?

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-12T16:07:20.310Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Have you read Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss? I think it has a good discussion of the nature of esoteric knowledge. I would think that the term mystic as snarles used it is very near the term esoteric.

comment by snarles · 2019-04-12T15:44:13.764Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The truths of General Relativity cannot be conveyed in conventional language. But does one have to study the underlying mathematics before evaluating its claims?

Just as there exists a specialized language that accurately conveys General Relativity, there similarly exists a specialized language (mythological language) for conveying mystical truths. However, I think the wrong approach would be to try to understand that language without having undergone the necessary spiritual preparation. As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

This echoes countless similar statements in other traditions, the most famous (and probably oldest) being "the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."

That is not to say that one cannot approximate the truth by means of analogy, You can approximately capture the truth General Relativity in the statement, "gravity bends space." This approximation of the truth is useful because it allows you to understand certain consequences of that truth, such as gravitational lensing. Hence, even someone untrained in physics can be convinced of General Relativity, because they understand an approximate version of it, which in turn intuitively explains phenomena such as the Hubble Space telescope photo of a horseshoe Einstein ring.

Likewise, approximations to the Truth abound in the various spiritual traditions. "God exists, and is the only entity that exists. I am God, you are God, we are all one being" is one such approximation [1]. It is an approximation because the words "you" and "God" are not well-defined. My own definition of these terms has been continually evolving as I progress in spirituality.

One consequence of this approximation is that the feeling that we are separate individuals must be flawed. I will take another analogy from physics: the four fundamental forces are in fact different aspects of the same unified force, but they become distinct at lower energy levels. At higher energy levels, they become clearly unified.

Similarly, I have experienced that at high levels of awareness, my feeling of distinctness from other people and from the rest of the universe is reduced. It starts to seem like "my thoughts" and "my feelings" are not mine, they are just the thoughts generated by one particular mind, and furthermore I feel like I can start to feel what others are feeling. I have encountered others who appear to be even higher on the "energy scale." One day I was greeted extremely warmly out of the blue by a homeless man who was just working on the street. I responded to him in kind.

A consequence of the statement "we are all One" is that we should be able to experience this unity. If there exist people who experience this as a reality (and not just as an altered state,) they should be able to detect the thoughts and feelings of others around them. I find it plausible that such people exist, both from my reading and my encounters with people such as the homeless man. But it does bother me that there exists no known scientific mechanism that would enable us to read each other's minds, other than some very speculative ideas about consciousness being based on quantum phenomenon.

I do not expect that this particular example should be particularly convincing to a skeptic. I know that there exist non-mystical theories for explaining non-dualistic states, for instance Jill Bolte Taylor's theory that it is caused by a switch in dominance from the left to the right hemisphere. What ultimately convinced me to 'cross over' was not a single experience or insight but rather the aggregation of many experiences: listing all of these would distract from the point I am trying to making. I suggest any curious individuals to consult the much richer collection of data on personal experiences that exists in the religious studies literature; my own experiences are nothing special in comparison.

My aim for now was just to address your question about how a claim can be evaluated in the absence of the necessary cognitive framework to understand its content. To summarize, one limited form of evaluation can be obtained by learning of the different approximations of the truth, and then evaluating consequences of those approximations in comparison to empirical data.

That said, at a certain stage of maturity, one who is seeking the truth should stop bothering with approximations, because the approximations will not give you that necessary cognitive framework to really understand the truth. Reading popular science books can never give you the understanding that a Ph. D. physicist has obtained from rigorous training. You have to "sit down and learn the math", or in the case of spirituality, to follow your chosen path. If the approximations have any value, it would only be in giving the hope that the skeptic needs before they can make the commitment to seek the real thing.

[1] Another approximation, equally valid in my view, would be that "God created you and loves you." Note that combining with the first approximation yields the near-tautology that "You love yourself." Still, even a statement such as "God loves you" which might be parsed to something logically trivial can take a new profoundness to one who has undergone the proper cultivation.

Another approximation is "there is no self." Or that "everything is nothing." Combine those two, and you get "everything is self." The name of the Hindu god Shiva, literally means "No-thing."

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-12T20:08:23.404Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The truths of General Relativity cannot be conveyed in conventional language. But does one have to study the underlying mathematics before evaluating its claims?

Yes. Of course you do.

You can approximately capture the truth General Relativity in the statement, “gravity bends space.”

The delusion that such statements “approximately capture the truth” of things like GR is pervasive, but no less a delusion for it.

This approximation of the truth is useful because it allows you to understand certain consequences of that truth, such as gravitational lensing. Hence, even someone untrained in physics can be convinced of General Relativity …

Once again, this is delusion. Eliezer wrote an entire sequence about this.

Basically your entire set of claims and comments is mostly “mysterious answers to mysterious questions”.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-04-12T20:15:15.683Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW
The delusion that such statements “approximately capture the truth” of things like GR is pervasive, but no less a delusion for it.

Not sure whether we disagree here, my guess is I am slightly unsure what you intend to say. I do think there are statements like "time will pass more slowly relative to a stationary observer if you move close to the speed of light" that are highly specific predictions that can be verified (given sufficient investments in experiments) without deeply understanding the theory of relativity. Such a statement does definitely capture some aspect of the truth of general relativity.

If some process (like a physicist or a research lab) repeatedly generates highly surprising predictions like this that turn out to come true, someone might be said to meaningfully be "convinced of the veracity of general relativity" without a concrete understanding of the underlying theory.

comment by MakoYass · 2019-04-13T21:22:16.132Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · LW · GW
Likewise, approximations to the Truth abound in the various spiritual traditions. "God exists, and is the only entity that exists. I am God, you are God, we are all one being" is one such approximation [1]. It is an approximation because the words "you" and "God" are not well-defined. My own definition of these terms has been continually evolving as I progress in spirituality.

Hm, I think there might be something really interesting here.

If I were to try to phrase this claim about God in terms of LDT's synchronicity, and the incoherence of the notion of any metaphysical continuity between observer-moments (or, vessels of anthropic measure), would you agree that we're talking about the same thing? (Are you familiar with these terms?)

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-14T15:37:51.547Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

LDT doesn't seem to be an abbreviation that's common enough to make it to Wikipedia. Can you spell it out?

comment by MakoYass · 2019-04-15T05:20:37.676Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I added a link https://arbital.com/p/logical_dt/?l=5gc

comment by snarles · 2019-04-13T23:03:38.297Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I am not familiar with those concepts. References would be appreciated. 🙏

comment by MakoYass · 2019-04-15T05:30:41.774Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure if these articles try to convey the personal, spiritual dimension of LDT's claims about agency, but they describe what it is https://arbital.com/p/logical_dt/?l=5gc

Basically: LDT is the realisation that we should act as if our decisions will be reflected by every similarly rational agent that exists, it is one way of saying "all is one, you are not separate from others". It could even be framed as a paraphrasing of a constrained notion of karma, in a way ("your policy will be reflected back at you by others"). What's extraordinary about it is it says these things in the most precise, pragmatic terms.

Metaphysical continuity of measure.. you're probably familiar with the concept even if you wouldn't have a name for it.. like.. you know how people worry that being teleported would be a kind of death? Because there's an interruption, a discontinuity between selves? And then one may answer, "but there is a similar, perhaps greater discontinuity every night, during sleep, but you don't seem to fear that." I don't know how many of us have noticed this, I've met a few, but we're starting to realise that anthropic measure, the substance of experience or subjectivity, there isn't some special relationship between observer-moments that're close in time and space, there's just a magnitude, and the magnitude can change over time. If we want to draw a line connecting observer-moments, it's artificial.

So what I'm getting at is, that substance of experience can't really be divided into a bunch of completely separate lines of experience. If we care about one being's experience, we should generally care about every being's experience. We don't have to, of course, because of the orthogonality thesis, but I think most people will once they get it.

comment by snarles · 2019-04-15T16:05:41.823Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the link MakoYass.

I am familiar with the concept of superrationality, which seems similar with what you are describing. The lack of special relationship between observer moments--let's call it non-continuity--is also a common concept in many mystical traditions. I view both of these concepts as different than the concept of unity, "we are all one".

Superrationality combines a form of unity with a requirement for rationality. I could think that "we are all one" without thinking that we should behave rationally. If I thought, "we are all one" and and also that "one ought to be rational", the behavior that results might be described as superrational.

Non-continuity is orthogonal to unity. I could think "we are distinct" and still think "I only exist in the moment". This might have been the view of Heraclitus. But I could also think "we are one" and also think "we only exist in the moment." This might be a natural view to have if you think of the universe as an amplitude distribution over a large number of quantum states that is evolving according to some transition function. If you identify with a particular quantum state, then there is no sense in which you have a unique "past" or "future" path, because all "moments" (states) are concurrent: the only thing that is changing is the amplitude flow.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-15T06:23:23.069Z · score: 1 (6 votes) · LW · GW

This sort of “everyone who understands my ideas agrees with me, and everyone who doesn’t agree just doesn’t understand” is never not annoying, even if you tack on a “most” or “almost”. Even if the ideas you describe were perfectly sensible, it would still be highly irritating to be faced with such a smug presentation of them.

However, in this case, what you say also seems incoherent.

In particular:

LDT is the realisation that we should act as if our decisions will be reflected by every similarly rational agent that exists

In this description of LDT, the phrase “similarly rational” is being forced to do almost all the work; and it is much too vague to be up to the task. The specific claim of LDT is:

Logical decision theory asserts that the principle of rational choice is "Decide as though you are choosing the logical output of your decision algorithm."

(From “Introduction to Logical Decision Theory for Analytic Philosophers” on Arbital. Italics in original.)

That is very far from any notion of karma, any notion of “all is one”, etc. So even if we find logical decision theories to be attractive, and their claims convincing, that does not get us to any of the “spiritual” claims you seem to want to make on those theories’ basis.

I don’t know how many of us have noticed this, I’ve met a few, but we’re starting to realise that anthropic measure, the substance of experience or subjectivity, there isn’t some special relationship between observer-moments that’re close in time and space, there’s just a magnitude, and the magnitude can change over time.

This does not actually seem to be a coherent sentence, much less a coherent thought, so I assume that you’ve accidentally omitted some words; I’ll comment on this once you’ve had a chance to rewrite it.

If we care about one being’s experience, we should generally care about every being’s experience.

This in absolutely no way follows from logical decision theory or anything related to it.

comment by MakoYass · 2019-04-15T21:38:14.710Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are a lot of assumptions you're making about the purpose/subtext of that comment. The comment is like, three exchanges into a conversation. It was not written for you. Its purpose was to name some ideas for snarles that they're probably already largely familiar with. It isn't supposed to teach or to expound enough detail that someone who didn't know a lot of what I was talking about would be able to refute any of it. That is not what we're doing in this thread. There is a time and place for that. Seriously, I'm probably going to have to write about this stuff properly at some point, and I hope you'll find it precise and coherent enough to engage with without frustration, when the time comes.

We are still a long way from arriving at the "interesting" thing that I alluded to, if we're ever going to (I'm not even totally sure I'll be able to recover that thought).

In this description of LDT

I wasn't really trying to give an accurate description/definition of LDT, it's an entailment.

That is very far from any notion of karma

The easier we can make it for people to step from a superstition or a metaphor to a real formalised understanding, the better. If you say it's a long walk, a lot of them wont set out.

This in absolutely no way follows from logical decision theory or anything related to it.

That paragraph was about anthropic measure continuity, not LDT

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-04-15T21:53:49.486Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are a lot of assumptions you’re making about the purpose/subtext of that comment. The comment is like, three exchanges into a conversation. It was not written for you.

I read the ancestor comments as well (and every other comment on this post, too). Whatever purpose or subtext was contained therein is available to me also, and to anyone else reading this public forum thread. If you prefer that something you write be read and responded to only by a single recipient, Less Wrong does have a private messaging system.

I wasn’t really trying to give an accurate description/definition of LDT, it’s an entailment.

What do you mean by “it’s an entailment”? What entails what?

The easier we can make it for people to step from a superstition or a metaphor to a real formalised understanding, the better. If you say it’s a long walk, a lot of them wont set out.

Are you suggesting a strategy of publicly professing positions we do not actually hold, and making claims we do not actually believe, in order to better persuade people (whom we believe to be in the grip of a supersition) to accept our ideas?

I hope I do not have to enumerate the profound problems with such a plan. I will name only one: it’s fundamentally dishonest and deceptive, and intellectually disrespectful of one’s interlocutors. I strongly urge against attempting to employ any such tactics.

comment by Elo · 2019-04-12T08:51:33.725Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There are a few of us that have "crossed over" as you call it.

From my journey it seems to be a developmentally relevant stage.

comment by thecupisblue · 2019-04-13T10:13:17.373Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I understand your viewpoint. I've always been a rationalist but being raised while being exposed to topics of taoism and buddhism always made me doubt that it's everything. Then, after understanding more and more of how the reality works but after looking 'mystic' and talking about it to people who did psychedelics I realised that they're saying the same things. Then I took some and even tho I still have doubt, I know the truth is what it is. The Gateway Experience by the CIA describes diving into 'subspace' or 'taking off this reality blanket' pretty nicely. If you can dive into the zone deep enough then your consciousness gets pulled up into a state of uninterrupted connection to the one - it's the brain that makes us human, that give us the ego, but it's also what renders this reality for our consciousness in this life. Everyone is trying to talk about the same thing, but it's hard when people are so stuck onto words and status and images. I believe that with higher entropy and complexity of technology, we'll all achieve being the one on both this plane or create a new universe so we can be everything again. We don't have to waste time describing it constantly.

comment by ryan_b · 2019-04-09T14:18:19.460Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It occurs to me this experiential-translation problem is pretty broad. This post brought to mind the relatively recent ways to recognize a heart attack if you are a woman. We know what heart attacks consist of, physically. We knew how to recognize them based on data from men. But it was only about 20 years ago that we started really noticing that women often present different symptoms, and so they were frequently missed.

comment by rthomas2 · 2019-04-11T19:53:18.308Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is fantastic and absolutely the conversation I want to be having.

Ditto on everything Qiaochu_Yuan said. Huge thanks for writing this, Romeo.

Two typo fixes that would have saved me a headache:

Paragraph 11:

normative way. Like you should wire

I think you meant “normative way, like you should wire”

Second-to-last paragraph:

Though the Buddha taught one specific concentration technique and a series of simple insight techniques, but there are probably a dozen

I think you meant to omit either “Though” or “but”

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-11T19:59:03.804Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks!

comment by rthomas2 · 2019-04-14T01:07:28.917Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Welcome!

Also...I think it still may need a fix: paragraph 11 now reads

normative way; that you should wire it the way I say just because,

but I think you want to swap the comma with the semi-colon:

normative way, that you should wire it the way I say just because;

comment by Aiyen · 2019-04-08T21:18:50.858Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

So enlightenment is defragmentation, just like we do with hard drives?

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-09T02:09:07.499Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

There's a pretty palpable sense of unification during some parts of practice.

comment by DominikB · 2019-04-10T20:12:53.750Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What a pleasant read, I hope we can read more of this from you! Do you happen to have some ressources with a similar demystified tone about the How-To of the actual practices? By the increased popularity the amount of metaphysical claims also increased a lot and this always scares me away from getting too close to the topic of mindfulness.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-11T03:06:52.516Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Shinzen Young and Culadasa are two notable teachers who try to translate things in a way that is actionable. It's basically all about finding a teacher whose style really resonates with you.

https://www.shinzen.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/WhatIsMindfulness_SY_Public_ver1.5.pdf

https://s3.amazonaws.com/dharmatreasure/20130322--what-the-buddha-thought--handout.pdf

comment by J- · 2019-04-11T00:22:24.361Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
what I see as the core causal loop that causes progress on the Buddha's path

The "core loop" that causes progress is sitting the fuck down and meditating. Instructions: get comfy, put your attention on your breath as it goes through your nose, put it back on the breath when it wanders. Repeat for like 100 hours, at least 1h/day.

There are a *fuckton* of writings on meditation, and the benefit you get from reading them is less than sitting down and practicing.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-04-11T03:06:02.971Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · LW · GW

telling people to just sit the fuck down is basically zen. Zen hasn't conquered the world and made freedom from suffering available in every classroom, so we still have some work to do.

comment by ioannes_shade · 2019-04-13T20:18:52.020Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with your basic point here, though have some nits to pick about your characterization of zen :-)

comment by J- · 2019-04-12T06:41:42.212Z · score: -1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This isn't instructionless meditation, it's "give one paragraph of mindfulness instructions and tell them to sit down", there's a difference between that and Zen.

I assume that "sit the fuck down and practice" is a threat to philosophizing, and that this is what is motivating your pushback.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-04-11T10:24:03.165Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There are a fuckton of writings on meditation, and the benefit you get from reading them is less than sitting down and practicing.

Which isn't to say that additional instructions would be useless. That basic instruction is useful in getting started, but it is also easy to stall and stop making progress when those instructions prove inadequate (this happened to me until I found better, and much more detailed, instructions).

Additionally, it helps to have pointers to what you should be looking for. IME, the work on the couch is what gets my mind sharp and provides some useful insights, but the real benefit comes from applying that sharpness and insights off the couch. But then there are a lot of different things that you can investigate off the couch - and investigating different things may also bring different results, so having theory to act as a guide is useful (not to mention motivational).

So I'd say that practice & reading beats practice alone and practice alone beats reading alone.

comment by moses · 2019-04-11T17:42:02.652Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That basic instruction is useful in getting started

I disagree, I think it's useless even for the very first session. The one who receives such instruction will

  • immediately shoot themselves in the foot by beating themselves up for forgetting the breath and pretty much plateau from there onward
  • not understand the relationship between awareness and attention, rendering the practice useless for building mindfulness (and they will probably fall asleep)
  • not understand the process and not be guided to develop joy in the practice, therefore not be motivated to practice consistently and dilligently, therefore probably drop the whole thing soon
  • and so on, and so on.
comment by J- · 2019-04-12T06:55:09.350Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Which isn't to say that additional instructions would be useless.

Like. I'll maybe do a top level post about all this?

Anyways, Kaj, I remember the post on your blog where you said, that you had reached a bit of apathy through meditation, and you were having a bit of trouble finding meaning. The way you put it resonated with me, as I've had the same problem recently. Like, enough that I appreciated it. So you're one of the people here I'm willing to engage with on this.

But, for fuck's sakes, philosophizing serves the role of masturbation. This is an endemic problem for LW adjacent people, because you all enable each other! There's a culture of it here. Which is why the sentence I quoted, "which... useless", is fake, because the intent behind it is to make it socially okay to explore this shit. Fuck that. It's more effective to practice more, and you're promoting the culture that's undermining that.

...

I actually agree that 0.1xreading + 0.9xpractice beats 1.0xpractice. Your motivations for saying so are wrong, and that this is the problem.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-15T14:02:52.130Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think LessWrong as a website is the best place for telling people to meditate. It's generally good for people who meditate a lot to have a local community where they can ask for guidance when they have trouble.

That said I think you underrate the importance of high status people saying that meditation is okay for getting skeptical people to be open for meditations.

I have frequently lead meditations for rationalists. I have seen people leaves the room when I lead a meditation at an LW meetup without coming back.

Lastly, LessWrong exists as a foundation for thinking about how to build friendly AGI. Theoretical discussion about the nature of meditation helps for discussing the nature of cognition that's important for AGI. Even when a discussion about meditation has no practical use for it's participants it can still lead to theoretic progress at understanding cognition that's helpful for AGI.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-04-12T08:08:49.294Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But, for fuck's sakes, philosophizing serves the role of masturbation. This is an endemic problem for LW adjacent people, because you all enable each other!

I agree that this is a problem here.

I don't agree that the solution to it is to shut up and go practice more. Or rather, it may help the individual who makes that choice, but it doesn’t help the community in general. It just means that in the absence of that one person, the other people will shift their philosophizing to other topics.

But if the topic of e.g. meditation keeps getting consistently brought up, and its benefits analyzed in a way that makes it seem understandable and valuable to the community, then that might eventually cause people to give it a shot.

This was in fact what convinced me to originally start meditating. I read Ken Wilber and was convinced by some of his arguments on an intellectual level, but also recognized that it was only an intellectual understanding, and that I would probably need to meditate to turn it into a more experiental understanding. Then I also heard a bunch of stuff about the more conventional psychological benefits of meditation, as well as some neuroscience papers about the proposed mechanisms. Those together convinced me to actually start practicing.

I'm pretty convinced that a lot of people here would also be willing to give it a shot, if they were given a sensible explanation of why it might have benefits and what the mechanism for that would be.

And yes, there will also be some people who read the arguments, find them intellectually plausible, and then never try to practice and instead just go back to philosophizing. But at least some people will have found a better direction, while the pure philosophizers would have kept doing their thing anyway.

comment by moses · 2019-04-12T09:48:08.782Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW · GW

it may help the individual who makes that choice [to shut up and go practice more]

I'll just reiterate that I think this is wrong. Correct instruction (and sufficient amount of it!) not only makes the practice much more productive, it results in much higher chance of the person actually sticking to the practice, because they are more motivated, because they understand what they're doing and exactly how it will lead to progress.

This is true not only of meditation, but from my experience e.g. of weightlifting. Anecdote time: When I started weightlifting, I spent about three minutes on research, picked up the first beginner routine that seemed to make sense, and followed it for ~two years with minor adjustments here and there. Only then I seeked detailed understanding of what I'm doing, the anatomy and the science behind resistance training etc. After that, my practice became much more productive, much more enjoyable, and therefore much more consistent. I now understand what the fuck I'm doing.

Because the instruction I followed in the beginning was a bit more detailed than what J- gives for meditation, I was able to make some progress—I imagine that if I received instruction from someone who viewed weightlifting like J- views meditation, I wouldn't get anywhere and I would get myself seriously injured—but if I had in the beginning the level of instruction I have now, I would look like fucking Schwarzenegger by now. I wasted a lot of time in the gym by not operating with correct instruction.

And exactly the same goes for my personal experience with meditation: I started off my practice with one of those 10-day Goenka retreats, so I had some instruction, so I made some progress, but only after I started reading The Mind Illuminated did I start practicing consistently, diligently, with joy, and making steady progress.

comment by moses · 2019-04-12T09:53:33.871Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I mean, sure, the Mind and its incessant thinking gets in the way of living and doing and Being, but the answer is not to go do things with improper instruction. That's not even overcorrecting; that's just trying to solve the problem at the wrong level and in a wrong way.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-04-12T10:23:22.024Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I interpreted J-'s comments to be criticism of this post in particular (and some other meditation discussion on LW in general), in that this post isn't giving much in the way of correct instruction; it's giving a very general model of what's happening, but it's not saying what one actually needs to do.

I definitely agree that it's better to have a good theoretical model combined with good concrete instructions of what to do; that's why I recommend The Mind Illuminated so widely. But I didn't read J- to be disputing that; in fact, they seemed to agree. Rather I thought J- to feel that "learning to actually become better at meditation" wasn't the motive for why people post meditation stuff on LW, and that people were actually optimizing for something like "seeming smart and getting to philosophize around an interesting topic", which doesn't get anyone to actually practice.

If everyone is just doing intellectual analysis all the time and never practicing, then shutting up about it for a while and going to do some practice is in fact the thing to do; but this is compatible with also reading up on how and why you should do it, if you haven't already done that reading.

comment by moses · 2019-04-12T12:51:44.565Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, I see. I read J-'s instruction paragraph as "here's all the instruction you need to start meditating, now go meditate", which stirred up agitation in me because I see many people waste their time acting on too little instruction.[1]

Possibly, in the context of the OP, it is better read as general frustration: "Ugh, you guys keep overthinking everything, just go do X instead of talking about X all the time, for all X."

Maybe J- sees many people wasting their time intellectualizing and overthinking; the two of us draw from different experiences, so we have different triggers and even perceive the entire situation through a different lens.

So let's go back to this:

But, for fuck's sakes, philosophizing serves the role of masturbation. This is an endemic problem for LW adjacent people, because you all enable each other! There's a culture of it here.

I agree that rationality (just like all intellectual communities) select heavily for the type of a person who overthinks everything, but I don't really see the content on LW enabling this. Or—hmm—maybe it depends on how you see LW. I see LW as a place where I come to read Insight Porn and have intellectual discussion, because it is pleasant and entertaining. If someone sees LW as a place which serves up self-help advice, then, necessarily, just as roughly all self-help advice in existence, this would be viewed as enabling intellectualization-as-psychological-defence-against-change.


  1. Apart from meditation and weightlifting, learning to code comes to mind. I see people-who-self-study struggle needlessly for months, because an online course explains how to write functions and how to write ifs and whiles and whatnot, but doesn't explain what happens under the hood. Way too little instruction. ↩︎

comment by J- · 2019-04-13T00:22:15.668Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, you're missing my point. Idk if we disagree on anything concrete, the issue is that you're both Fluttershys or something. Kaj, you say,

Or rather, it may help the individual who makes that choice, but it doesn’t help the community in general.

How do you go from "help the community" back to "oh, what we're doing is great"? THIS is the problem; if help the community was your goal, you'd go about nudging norms to encourage "meditate more, read less". But that's not what you're doing; instead, you're throwing your emotional support behind the status quo.

This is one of those things where you won't change what you're doing, because you don't want to, deep down. You'd rather have a nice happy community.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-04-13T06:58:03.597Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

if help the community was your goal, you'd go about nudging norms to encourage "meditate more, read less".

How do you suggest I do that? I honestly don't think I know of a better way than what I'm currently doing.

comment by Elo · 2019-04-13T07:24:09.922Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My strategy is to try to create small exercises that people can try. Experiments or experiences that can show something.

I used to do this for rationality techniques too.

That's the best way I know how.

comment by J- · 2019-04-14T05:02:20.291Z · score: -5 (4 votes) · LW · GW
How do you suggest I do that?

Your first step is to stop being fake, and gaslighting us about how much you want to help. Do you think I believe for one second you don't know how to do better?

This is the point where we accuse each other of arguing in bad faith. No amount of politicking is going to change us, and the only way communities like LW change is when people start getting banned.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2019-04-15T23:01:20.330Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Been there, done that. Never noticed any result from it. Now what?

comment by Elo · 2019-04-15T23:30:11.231Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

what was your thought stream doing while noticing your breath? The point is not entirely to get good at breathing, but to notice everything else as well.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2019-04-16T06:01:42.812Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The thought stream was...concentrating on my breath? Going back to it when it wavered, per the instructions?

(BTW, I seem to have two slightly differently-named accounts. I was accidentally logged into the other when I posted the previous comment. It dates from LW 1.0.)

comment by Elo · 2019-04-16T07:04:32.012Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

[meditation technical stuff]

The breath isn't a solid sensation, it's made up of many smaller sensations. Some instructions suggest investigating the "start", "middle" or "end" of the breath. Try to find the very specific part of that and generally the instructions suggest that you won't find it because there is no such thing. Owing in the direction of impermanence.

There is a possible meditation method that makes/assumes "permanent" the breath and then practices concentration on the breath as an assumed permanent object. This is important because with increased concentration skill we can then investigate (investigate = insight practice, not concentration practice) and discover the breath is not quite "real" in the permanent bounded conceptual entity that we want it to be when we study it.

There is a possible method of studying the thought stream and the way it changes when the breath changes. This can be seen in simple ways by holding the breath, breathing very quickly, but also noticing the way the breath changes when talking about significant or important matters. Or the way the breath takes shape when angry or anxious. Or excited. There is an interesting breath movement that I see (personal experience here) in theraputic contexts that looks something like a big sigh out. It seems to be that when people are working with an issue and are ready to let go of the issue they breathe out. (in my personal experience) there's something weird and interesting in the way that the breath ends a thought stream like that.

From a Pranayama book (translated as "breath of life") was a suggestion that the thought stream is like a bird tethered to a post via a string. The mind can float around but is always pulled back to where the breath is.

Studying the breath happens either at the nose/mouth or at the chest region of the body, this happens to also be the physical location where a large number of emotional reactions are experienced through bodily sensations (book: "the body keeps score" is excellent). With intimate knowledge of the breath comes intimate knowledge of the subtle emotions floating around. That includes many of the tiny reactions that (personal experience) I might feel when I react to some experience in the world. If I want to better shape my experience, interfacing with my own body-based emotional reactions is pretty handy.

There are holotropic breathwork experiences, there are Wim Hoff breathing methods. There are a lot of breath based meditation concepts to explore.

Dan Brown in "pointing out the great way" adds to follow the in breath, and the out breath and in between shift the attention to the body sensations, so that there are no distractions to carry the mind away (as informed by a branch of Tibetan tradition)

(personal stuff:)

When I watch my breath, I notice when my posture is out, when there's even so much as a sheet of extra weight on my chest. When I'm leaning to the side.

I notice when I run, I can breath clearer.

I can notice when I'm getting distracted from the task at hand.

I notice when I'm overwhelmed with juggling too many things because of the way that adrenaline-feel in my body changes my breathing pattern.

I notice when I'm playing favourites (read: have a crush) with someone because my breathing does (something or other that I don't have pinned to specifics).

I (recently) notice other people's breath, and if I'm in contact with their body can read their emotions very accurately. I'd claim to be able to tell when someone is lying, but that's not quite it. I would claim to be able to read someone's mind but it's more like, "I can tell when someone changes their mind" based on the way their breathing changes, I can't read actual content (however for example: if we are in the same place and there's a sudden loud noise I can tell somewhat what their internal reactions are based on their breathing change)


Now what?

There's a lot of options of interesting things of value from studying the breath. Good books are "The Mind Illuminated" or "The Attention Revolution".

I would suggest you are not done. You sure did finish discovering a boring corner of meditation, don't stay there. There's plenty of valuable things to learn about the inside of the mind.

I would suggest that LW'ers are pretty good and can hurry up with the instructions. Definitely read a book about it because the ability to pick up a map, and follow it - will come easy to LW'ers.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2019-04-16T09:00:54.641Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW
The breath isn't a solid sensation, it's made up of many smaller sensations. Some instructions suggest investigating the "start", "middle" or "end" of the breath. Try to find the very specific part of that and generally the instructions suggest that you won't find it because there is no such thing. Owing in the direction of impermanence.

Well, that's where my experience departs from what everyone who writes about this says it's going to be. My breath still exists, I still exist, everything still exists, and looking closely enough to see that they are made of parts does not dispel the wholes, any more than seeing that my computer screen is made of pixels dispels the text that I can see on it. Everything persists in adding up to normality.

I can notice when I'm getting distracted from the task at hand.
I notice when I'm overwhelmed with juggling too many things because of the way that adrenaline-feel in my body changes my breathing pattern.

I notice this sort of thing too.

There's a lot of options of interesting things of value from studying the breath. Good books are "The Mind Illuminated" or "The Attention Revolution".

I've read State Star Codex's review of TMI, and I think that will do me. TAR might be interesting to me for the material on lucid dreaming. The rest looks like the same old.

comment by J- · 2019-04-11T00:32:31.721Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW
So then why all the rest of this crap?

The recorded teachings of the Buddha are so long because: 1. he gave a nearly identical lecture to tons of people and lots of them got recorded 2. he had an aesthetic! He's not just out to teach people, he also tried to impress them and shit. *That* is the exact, direct explanation why people in general write so much about meditation, they want to impress you, even if this explanation doesn't consciously occur to them.