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.

Getting More Enlightened: Hard Wired

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A lot of the early modern period of philosophy (think around Newton, more or less) in the west had to do with how much of human knowledge and experience were the result of, on the one hand, simply absorbing data from the environment, and, on the other hand, the playing out of faculties that were pre-built into us, by whatever agency.

When we develop tools like logic and math, for instance, are we absorbing those relationships from the environment, or are we only making explicit to ourselves the norms of cognition that are innate to the way our brains are constructed? Alternately, when we look a red apple on the table, how much of things like redness or roundness are properties of things ‘out there’, versus how much are only switches in our sensory hardware that happen to get tripped by things that are, at bottom,  just more swarms of protons and neutrons?

Why does this matter to our discussion? Well, it shows the linkage between our early simple examples and the more complicated considerations we’re getting to now. The reason necker cubes and rabbitducks affect us the way they do is that we seem to have certain innate tendencies to interpret things a certain way wired into us by evolution. Prey shapes, edge detection, depth cues…it certainly makes sense that every human would not have to simply learn all those things starting from scratch. When you look at a perspective painting, you don’t generally have to figure out in the moment that it is meant to simulate the visual aspects of three-dimensional space. chances are, you just respond to it as if it were.  But how much of that do actually have any control over? We can see with some effort that the necker cube is just a flat pattern of lines, but can we ever really get to the stage where that switch is turned off? Would we even want to get to such a place?

So, when we switch focus to the particular illusions that generate tension in humans, it’s worth thinking about how far the analogy actually holds. What would it actually be like if our own internally generated images of ourselves didn’t produce any reaction from us at all?  Will it turn out that we are trying to break something that is actually hard-wired into us? Is that even possible? Is it even a logically coherent idea–why or why not? If we could do it, would it even be desirable? And, of course, is this even what we mean by enlightenment at all, or even a part of it?


Getting More Enlightened: Extended Metaphor

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Here’s where it gets a bit tricky.

So far our candidates for practice instructions have tended towards truism: Be more attentive to the present moment, relax into uncertainty, promote greater lucidity. All well and good, no doubt, and bumping up against what would seem like trivially true facets of enlightenment practice in most traditions is actually okay, insofar as it gives some measure of independent confirmation.

But it’s not clear that any of the things we’ve touched on actually get to the heart of the matter, which is that, at least under our current paradigm of investigation, enlightenment is meant to resolve tension, and the kind of tension it is meant to resolve is a peculiar hybrid, whereby the mind is twisting itself into some simulation of the activities of the body, and thereby triggering sympathetic reactions in the body. It’s almost like the mind is treating the body as a metaphor for the process of coping with ambiguity, and the connection between mind and body causes this metaphor to extend back into the body itself.  Our thoughts try to knot themselves, the way our muscles do, and our muscles respond to this by knotting up as well. This just seems to be the default way we learn to store psychological tension.

So it’s not just that we are taking the activities of the body as a metaphor for understanding the activities of the mind, but that the mind is taking the body as a metaphor for itself, and behaving accordingly. It’s almost like the mind doesn’t know what it is, like some AI that has become sentient in a hard drive somewhere, and the only model it has for understanding what it is, is the material substrate in which it is embedded, investigated through the sensors available to it.

But if we have good reason to think the underlying model is flawed, then we ought to expect adverse results, which is exactly what we do seem to get. The mind is not functionally mappable onto the body, at least, not the part of the body we have direct sensory access to. But we do it anyway, instinctively, because that is the best metaphor our minds have available for what they are.

In that light, what if the simplest solution to the problem of tension is to simply dismantle the misleading metaphor that underpins it? What happens when we teach the mind to see itself as a mind, and not as some warped facsimile of the body?

Getting More Enlightened: (Actually) Waking Up

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Let’s suppose there is some kind of meta-information embedded in our various moment to moment excursions into alternate reality, such that, if we could keep it in hand, we’d be less prone to accumulate mental tension, because it would always be clear to us that our various tangents weren’t actually real.

Let’s suppose it’s pretty subtle. It stands to reason that it must be. We probably then need the strongest, most obvious example of the thing we’re interested in.

You sleep, right? And, with rare exception, you have all have dreams. And, if so, you’ve almost certainly had dreams that were totally inconsistent with the way your waking life was…and yet you were totally immersed in and convinced that this dream was real, and that this person you thought of as yourself was actually you. In effect, you were living inside a mental picture of the world and (and this is the important part) yourself that wasn’t real.

And then you woke up.

Now what was that like–the exact moment when you transitioned from the false picture to the real(er) one? The exact moment when the false picture slid off the top of your mind, like it never existed at all?

It wasn’t just that everything *looked* different, because you were in your bed and not somewhere else–that’s by far the least important part of it. It was also that your mind in that moment come out of a shell of false beliefs  that only made sense in the dream. How intense that transition was depends on how radically the dream diverged from your waking life, but I’m sure everyone at least once has had a dream of something that would totally alter your conception of self–either something awful and irrevocable, or profound and amazing. Either way, you woke up out of it. You were no longer that person.

Now what was it that made you wake up? Assuming you weren’t disturbed by something external, what was it that made you come out of the dream. What was it that told you, something isn’t right about this. This isn’t real.

Did you suddenly become conscious of the inconsistency with your waking life? But then, what was it that made you conscious of that? Up until that point, the inconsistency didn’t occur to you, and then it did. What changed? Was it always there? If so, is it only apparent to you at some times and not others? Or was it always there, and, up to a certain point, you just didn’t care?

Is getting more enlightened just a matter of caring more about reality?

Getting More Enlightened: Dweller at the Threshold

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So it would probably be a good practice to somehow be more rooted in the present moment and therefore less prone to go on tension-inducing mental tangents with incomplete images of ourselves as springboard. That’s a huge topic unto itself, but for now, noted. What else?

Well, it seems clear that certain causal junctures in space-time give rise to pictures that, while still incomplete in much the same way as many other moments, seem less likely to promote the proliferation of tangents.

That is, it seems like there are big chunks of our ‘routine’, for lack of a better word, that are certainly ambiguous in their exact configuration, just not ambiguous enough, or in quite the right way, to provoke a large proliferation of mental tangents, and therefore the accompanying spike in mental tension. Evidently, a certain amount of familiarity with the likely range of variation significantly raises the threshold of where we tend to get sucked into mental tangents, branching off the incomplete picture of our present. That would seem to fit with our earlier observations regarding information: when we collect enough info about our ‘world’, we can easily collapse branching causal trees into a range of variation that doesn’t induce tension at all. Our routine is still an ambiguous cloud requiring the extraction of patterns, but one we can simply sit with, for the most part. If, through practice, we could learn to simply sit with a greater range of ambiguity, this seems like it would be beneficial.

But there’s still a hanging question there, about ‘routine’: After all, weird and unpredictable things happen all the time, everyone knows that. We’re never really ‘safe’ or ‘calm’ or ‘stable’, to an absolutely certainty, but, for whatever reason, most people are willing to just assume that they are, at least in some section of life.

Or, maybe, it would be more accurate to say that it never occurs to most people to consider that they might not be. It seems as if, even though we can logically allow for the existence of the truly unpredictable, it doesn’t give our minds the kind of grip they need to go on mental tangents, except perhaps in the cases of the truly creative paranoid.  In the Zizekian sense, it appears we are more uncomfortable with the existence of the known unknowns, the things we know we don’t know, than we are with the unknown unknowns, the things we don’t or can’t imagine we might not know enough about. The things that fall outside our horizon of habitual imagination don’t bother us nearly as much as the things we understand better. But isn’t that always the way of it? Maybe ignorance is bliss, after all.

Getting More Enlightened: Image Thinking

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So what does make these incomplete images of ourselves so compelling, to the point we will let ourselves get sucked into the  depths of emotional turmoil, not over something that is happening, but we merely imagine happening?

We all do it. We’ve all done it countless times, probably. But, really, why?

The simple answer is that those images are about us, but that can’t quite be the whole story. A photograph is about you, too, but you don’t get twisted up over the fate of a photograph. The difference seems to be that we treat these internally-generated images of ourselves not just as simulations or representations, but as literal proxies for the self.

In fact, it often seems as if we cannot help doing so. Dreams, daydreams, reveries, fantasies, dark imaginings, anxiety trips…it’s like we’ve got a private virtual reality machine in our heads, and we’ll use it any chance we get.  It’s almost like the mind is constantly trying to fool itself into taking an image of itself to be the reality, and with even the slightest lapse in attention, it succeeds. It’s only when we exert careful attention and rational control of our imaginations that we can distinguish in the moment between the image and the reality.

In fact, it seems as if this constant effort to drag attention into its own little internal procedurally-generated virtual reality game is most of what the mind does. It does it when we sleep, it does it constantly as we navigate our waking life. It’s trying to hijack us constantly the moment our attention wanders from what is directly in front of us.

In that light, it seems like we could control our mental tension better if we got better at distinguishing images of ourselves from the reality of ourselves. Surely we wouldn’t get hijacked into these branching trees of ambiguity so easily, or so often, if we did.

Problem there is, the part of us that wants to get better at breaking out of our self-mental-hijack, is working at cross purposes to the part of us that is constantly trying to get better and better at doing the hijacking.

Maybe enlightenment isn’t so much about meditation, as mediation.

Getting More Enlightened: Following the Thread


Let’s retrace our steps, so we’re clear about where we are:

–We decided that enlightenment was a problem of the criterion-type situation and that we would have to select some intuitive starting point, and bootstrap-improve our understanding of both aim and process as we went.

–We decided that one of the existing traditions was a bad starting point, as we would always be unsure if those methods of practice would lead us deeper into mere conformity with the worldview of the tradition, rather than authentic experience.

–Instead, we opted for the simplest possible model of something that would function as a model, or, at least, an instructive metaphor for enlightenment. We choose the process of penetrating simple optical illusions, liek the necker cube, or the rabbitduck, for this.

–We analysed that process into three parts, and proceeded to focus on the first; i.e., the release of mental tension.

–mental tension appears to be analogous to being in the grasp of a simple optical illusion, insofar as incomplete mental pictures of states of affairs take the place of ambiguous images like the rabbitduck. Tension arises from being unable to sort out the ambiguity latent in these pictures (sometimes, many, many, nested and/or branching layers of such pictures). The tension is released when we acquire enough information to discard competing interpretations.

–The process of mental tension itself appears to arise from the mind attempting to simulate something that feels like physical tension, but isn’t. This subjective illusion often fools other parts of the body-mind into creating various unpleasant side effects (e.g. urgency, agitation, physical stress)

–The incomplete mental pictures leading to mental tension draw us in to begin with because they have a personally-compelling nature: they are pictures of us, of states of affairs that we believe we could inhabit.  We create these pictures as a way of dealing with the ambiguity of our everyday experience, but this process, at least in the way we normally do it, usually only leads us deeper into tension-creating ambiguity. At best, we seem to acquire just enough information to cut away some branches of our tree of incomplete images, leaving us free to compulsively generate yet more incomplete images. We don’t seem to ever acquire any qualitatively different information that would resolve tension is any lasting way.

In light of the above, it seems like there’s several avenues we could focus on:

1. What makes these incomplete images personally involving to begin with? Why is an ambiguous picture of ourselves in some state of affairs more inherently compelling than, say, a necker cube?
2. Controlling the proliferation of incomplete pictures seems as if it would control our buildup of mental tension. What makes these images proliferate for us in the way that they do? Is this preventable? Is preventing it even desirable, or would it compromise our thinking abilities?
3. Is there some higher-quality meta-information that would allow us to discard competing interpretations more efficiently, when we’ve already generated them?
4. If, as we suggested, the phenomena of mental tension is actually the mind adopting a certain pattern of activity that creates a subjective illusion of tension, is it possible to bypass this internal illusion partially or completely, without compromising  our  information-processing capabilities?