Getting More Enlightened: Upgrading Your Game

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One might notice that, in all of this, we still don’t seem to have gotten much closer to a method of practice, or, at least, not a clear explication of one. We’ve come across a number of avenues that might be worth pursuing, but no sine qua non of the enlightenment process that could be targeted for refinement . But maybe that is something illuminating in itself.

…I will presume all of you have at least one complex interest or activity–a sport, an art, even vocation. All of these could be described under a fairly concise heading most likely. Basketball. Painting. Engine repair. Etc…

But if you wanted to get better at basketball, say, does it really make sense to conceive of ‘basketball’ as a single skill or ability that could be practiced on its own? I mean, in some sense, yes, you can just ‘practice basketball’ and probably get a little better at it, but unless you’re targeting the specific facets of your game that are lagging behind, who is to say you are really getting better in the way that you should? What if your free throws are the problem? What if you can’t dribble? What if you really need those no-look passes? Just playing more basketball isn’t really addressing the situation, is it? If that was your way of practicing, and you happened to get better at the exact facet you needed to, it would almost seem like an accident, wouldn’t it?

Probably all skills can be decomposed into smaller sub-skills, but some skills are clearly much more heaping aggregates of disparate abilities than others. In something like basketball, you could get as granular, probably, as the way you breathe, the way you hold your head, the way you move your eyes across the court. Basketball is a complicated affair, implicating a lot of sensorimotor and perceptual stuff.

So is enlightenment more like free throws, or it more like basketball? If our previous considerations are any indication, enlightenment is a really complicated affair, and seems to implicate some the most subtle and difficult to describe activities of the mind/body. It shouldn’t surprise us that it appears to implicate a lot of odd and elusive sub-skills. It would be strange, even, if there was just some one simple thing we could do to upgrade our level of enlightment consistently. Given a brief survey of the traditions, their methods, and the available samples of  practicioners, it seems pretty clear that, even when they prescribe some clear single method, there is no consistent result from it, to a degree you just don’t really see in other areas. If you go into basketball and do what a knoweldgeable instructor says, for years, and there is no reliable result, is it more likely that you weren’t doing something right, or they just weren’t giving you the right instructions to begin with?

Like practicing your free throw, simply staring at a mandala or monitoring your breathing might help your game, but only in those situations where the ‘free throw’, so to speak, is what is at issue. If you’re not also upgrading your dribble or court awareness, not much is going to change with your basketball, as such, unless it turned out your free throw really was the one thing in your game that was lagging behind.

So when we practice, we probably need to know if we’re dribbling when we should be free throwing, as it were. Or, worse, if we’re just doing free throws and calling it basketball.

Getting More Enlightened: The Maker Behind the Wall

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It is probably tempting for the would-be enlightened to imagine that it is all about finding a solution to the one fundamental puzzle of existence, and that, once you have done that, all the locks, everywhere, fall open, instantly.

But it seems there is reason to think it isn’t quite like that. It is not so much that we find the key to one lock, but that we must  find the keys to a never-ending series of them,. Just as we pierce one illusion, new illusions are growing up around us. Convenient illusions are part of how we learn to function in new situations and environments, and it’s not clear we would ever even want that to stop. Experiencing brand new situations as pure naked reality would, at its imaginary limit, be something like trying to interpret a swarm of photons, protons, neutrons and electrons as they make every more subtle patterns of impressions on our nerve tissue. Clearly, illusion is useful. We should be grateful that something in us eagerly constructs them for our everyday use.  But we also, eventually, need to get back out, or we eventually smother under the weight of our convenient illusions.

But we don’t seem to have evolved quite the same level of instinctive machinery for piercing illusions as we have for manufacturing them. That is perhaps a good thing, since if we shredded our illusions as effortlessly as we construct them it’d be hard to stay functional for long. No, it appears that enlightenment will always be work, and conscious work, at that, and it’s probably a good thing, too, that it is so.

Anyway, before one gets too overwrought at the prospect of a life spent unraveling a never-ending series of novel illusions,  we can take heart that we are not starting from scratch at every interval. Illusions might spring up with ever-greater subtlety and complexity, but they are all still essentially fashioned of the same components and along the same principles. Not surprising, as they are all the work of the same artist, using the same tools and materials. All one needs to do is reflect on dreams, to understand that there is a part of us that is a dream-maker, and another part that experiences the dreams we make. Part of the task of enlightenment is learning how to peer behind the wall that nature has placed between those two parts of us. If we become better at knowing the mind of the dream maker, we become better at unraveling that maker’s work when we need to.

Getting More Enlightened: Open Game Space

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In what sorts of situations does it make sense to say we have fully done something?

Obviously, to fully do some thing, that thing must contain the possibility of completion, which implies that it is finite, as we are. This implies clear boundary conditions, or, at least, boundary conditions that can become clear, even if they currently are not.

Does enlightenment seem like that kind of thing? We have to be careful, since, recall, part of the game is in how we define the object. If we define it as something bounded and fully attainable, then that’s fine, but then we have to ask: is there any method that corresponds to this clearly defined and bounded and attainable goal? If we define enlightenment as the overcoming of some narrowly described range of behaviors and responses, then it seems as we can indeed envision some method of doing this. We can, for instance, simply train ourselves out of some subset of our total range of behaviors and responses. …But is that actually what we mean by enlightenment? I’m not sure it is. Training oneself into a limited range of behaviors seems as if it would be the opposite of what we probably mean. It seems, rather, that we are looking to get better and better at doing a certain type of thing, in a certain type of circumstance.

If we return to the dream analogy, it seems like enlightenment has something to do with being able to wake up out of artificial mental states.  Certainly we can imagine dreams that are harder to wake up out of than others. We can imagine artificial mind spaces that are tailored ever-more precisely to lull us into accepting them. If the puzzles admit of getting ever harder, is there any logically-coherent sense in which we could ever say we have a priori solved all conceivable puzzles?

We could perhaps conceive of excising the part of ourselves that is susceptible to being drawn into artificial realities, but is that the goal? Our considerations up until now would seem to suggest not. If so, and if we can conceive of no true upward limit to the complexity of illusion, delusion, fantasy, or ignorance, then it seems like we are exploring an open field, not a bounded one, and we are, rather,  looking to develop the faculties to navigate that open field effectively, not escape from it completely. Maybe there is no escape. Or maybe the notion of ‘escape’ on those terms is just incoherent, and always was.

It may be that we could develop a discrete degree of enlightenment that is sufficient for most of our purposes. But drawing a border around our experience is not the same as there actually being one. The world exists whether we acknowledge it or not, and even if that world never intrudes on us, conditions within our arbitrarily drawn border will not stay constant forever. In any case, ignoring the wider world, or ignoring the subtle, or sometimes even dramatic, changes within our borders, does not seem terribly in keeping with the project, does it?

Maybe this ‘fully’ business was the problem all along.

Getting More Enlightened: A Mind-Forged Staircase

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So the mind is attracted to puzzles, especially ones that involve the self. We turn those later sorts of puzzles into problems, insofar as we create and hold in tension various possible interpretations of the available puzzle-data. This holding-in-tension tends to expand and deepen, until it takes over as much of our mental life as we can sustain. It becomes a chronic and systemic feature of our existence.

You could almost think of it like disease, but if you do, it’s important what kind of disease you think of it as being. Based on our previous considerations, it seems not so much something that needs to be cut out or eradicated, like a tumor, or an infection, but rather like a sort of  syndrome, a carpal tunnel syndrome of the mind, almost, an over-use or misalignment of our natural processes and activities.

If so, it seems like we could alleviate that syndrome in many ways. We could get better at tolerating tension, we could better at not generating as much, or we could get better at discharging it.

…but what does ‘better’ mean, in this sense? Is there some objective standard of superiority at this, or are we just looking to get better than we were? At what point are we enlightened, or are we just becoming more enlightened relative to what we were?

If tension is part of a process of adaptation to ambiguous circumstances, then it seems like, if we are just getting better and better at managing our mental tension,  then we are also becoming more adaptive to ambiguous circumstances.

After all, the only reason tension is an issue at all is because we are averse to it. If problems produced in us a sensation of immediate bliss, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. We would seek out problems, not avoid them or attempt to quickly resolve them, and then only when we had no other choice. We would seek out paradoxes and ambiguities in the mind, not recoil from or avoid them, and wall them off when we had no other option. We would grow towards the uncertainty, not contract from it. We wouldn’t need to create a subjective illusion of moving away from thoughts we were not yet adapted to handle.

So the question here is a simple one: does it seem, at least in an open world, full of ever-changing and evolving circumstances, we could ever be fully enlightened? Wouldn’t that, in some sense, sound as odd as saying we are fully adapted to the world?

Maybe mind and the world are really in a never-ending process of becoming adapted to each other, and ‘we’ inevitably find ‘ourselves’ in the middle of that.

Getting More Enlightened: Minds Don’t Move

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We’ve sort of circled the issue of emotions, and this is mostly because it’s not clear to me, even after many years of study, what an emotion even is.

Feelings, yes. Those seem fairly straightforward. You feel things all the time. Sometimes those feelings appear to arise in relation to events, not just things that directly affect the body. You feel things in relation to someone else getting punched in the stomach, not just getting punched in the stomach yourself, but that seems to be learned association.

But what is an emotion, exactly? Feelings arise spontaneously, and often in relation to things, but emotions aren’t quite like that. Emotions are about things, and they don’t just appear out of nowhere. They, at least initially, need to be built. We build our emotions  out of our responses to things, using our thinking, speech, and action. They’re like machines we put together for specific purposes. But what are those purposes?

At the core of every emotion seems to be either an impulse to approach, or to retreat. In the most simple terms, we categorise the world into move towards, or move away, and we organise our mental life accordingly.

But here’s the problem: Minds don’t move. They change focus, yes. They shift from point to point, yes. But they don’t move.

This is another case of assimilating a misleading metaphor. You can’t ever, really, move your mind towards, or away from, something. How would that even work…?

Think of something you really hate or fear. Something you’ve organised a lot of mental activity around keeping away from you.

There it is.  Instantly. Nothing moved, away or towards. You think of it, and it’s there. Minds just are wherever we put them. Movement doesn’t come into it, except insofar as how quickly, and how often, we change what we’re focussing on.

So if that’s right, what is it that emotions are actually doing? They’re meant to keep us away from things, or move us towards things, but that’s clearly nonsense. We can bring anything we want before the mind instantly, and any time we think of something we want to keep from coming before the mind, it’s still right there, instantly.

It seems more like, the point of emotions is not to move the mind in certain ways, but to make ourselves feel as if it is. Whatever you focus on is always right there, but emotions are there to make you feel like there’s also some kind of appropriate motion.

But there isn’t, because minds don’t move. They just fool you into thinking they do.

Getting More Enlightened: it all makes sense, if you say it does



Time to take stock of our welter of confusion again. This time, I’ve starred the new postulates (*) that still stand in need of some degree of individual examination.

  • the mind thinks that it is a body, and uses the actual body as a proxy for processing it’s own internal ‘tensions’.
  • the mind is very prone to taking internally generated images of the self as proxies for the self. This has something to do with the mechanism whereby we experience dreams, or, perhaps, the other way around.
  • so when images of ourselves experience something, that experience often gets dropped into the body to process.
  • we have an innate tendency to extract patterns from the environment in search of levers to manipulate that environment.
  • this causes us to constantly convert what might otherwise be inert situations into puzzles that might or might not actually have any real levers hidden in them, but appear to. this has the side effect of increasing the perceived level of ambiguity in the environment.
  • but we also have a strong tendency to make puzzles about us, and this results in a rapid proliferation of puzzle generation, in the form of a branching web of incomplete pictures of ourselves.
  • this dramatic increase in ambiguity, and the need to resolve it, because it is  fundamentally about us, creates a heightened level of ongoing mental tension, which often translated into ongoing physical tension
  • *we primarily experience this tension as an increase in urgency, which correlates with an increase in the intensity of our emotional experience.
  • much of this is innate to us, and a functional part of the problem-solving apparatus that allows us to survive in the world. simply disabling or curtailing it might not be desirable, or even achievable.
  • *for this reason, the aim of enlightenment practice might not be to terminate this process, but, rather, to improve our adaptation to it. There are numerous points where it seems like these functions could be improved or optimised without fundamentally changing them.
  • *our process of pattern-extraction seems as if it is truly open-ended, and, therefore, our capacity to generate excess tension seems as if it might be open-ended as well.
  • *if the internal and external conditions to which we adapt are constantly evolving and elaborating, then it seems as if the process of adaptation itself (which we are currently calling enlightenment) might itself be radically open-ended as well.

Getting More Enlightened: Problems and Puzzles

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It would perhaps be tempting to say that the difference between a necker cube and something genuinely tension-inducing is that things like necker cubes  just hijack a preexisting quirk of our perceptual system, they don’t create entirely new perceptual/cognitive tangles.

But that might be a coincidence, not a real distinction. It seems like anything can become a source of tension in the right circumstances, and the right circumstances being just when something becomes a part of our web of ambiguous images.

A cube on-screen is just a puzzle, but when the solution to that puzzle seems like it will steer us into one picture or another, it becomes something else. It becomes something we need to solve, not just an annoying pull on our innate drive to solve things.

And it’s not like we need sophisticated perceptual illusions to supply us with puzzles. We seek them out. Sometimes we even create them, out of whole cloth.  The world is full of situations, and situations, in themselves, are not problems, because there are no levers. There is nothing to solve. But we easily locate or even invent levers or pseudo-levers, turning bare situations into things it seems like we can potentially ‘solve’.

What do those clouds remind me of? Why do the neighbors come and go at such odd times? What’s going on with the spackle patterns on the ceiling…?

Situations become puzzles, because of the way we’re made, to extract patterns. And puzzle become problems, because as soon as those puzzles become a part of  our web of ambiguous images, they acquire urgency.

Puzzles are situations that we’ve subjected to pattern extraction, and problems are puzzles we’ve invested with urgency.