Zen and Rationality: Skillful Means

This is post 5/​? about the intersection of my decades of LW-style rationality practice and my several years of Zen practice.

In today’s installment, I look at skillful means from a rationalist perspective.

As part of Zen practice, a teacher may use or encourage the use of many skillful means. Sometimes called expedient means or upaya, these may include things like encouraging a student to take up a particular meditation practice like breath counting or labeling, assigning a koan, or giving the student a job within the Zen center, like alter care or bell ringing. These are meant to aid the student in their practice of the way.

Importantly, the idea behind these means being “skillful” or “expedient” is that they are not necessarily practices a student will continue with forever, but rather things the student should do now that will help them. What may be useful for one student to do may not be useful for another, and what was once a useful practice for a student may later become a hindrance.

A good example is structured meditation practices, like breath counting. When a student begins meditating, they might find it very difficult to stay seated for 30 minutes, even during timed meditation periods sitting with other people in a zendo. Giving them something to do, like counting their breath, gives them something to focus on and distract the part of their mind that wants to get up and do anything else. Over hundreds of hours, they’ll retrain themselves to be able to stay seated even when distracted by gathering evidence that they can do it, and slowly the breath counting will stop being a skillful means to help them practice and will instead become a hindrance and a distraction from just sitting, at which point they might move towards a different, less structured meditation practice or spend less of the time in meditation counting breaths. If they kept counting their breath for years even after it was no longer necessary to get them through a sitting period, it would no longer be a skillful use of the means, but as long as the alternative would be failing to keep sitting so they have the chance to develop skills that will let them meditate more full heartedly, it remains skillful.

Rationality has its own version of skillful means via the practice of instrumental rationality, or systematically achieving one’s ends. It’s the art of finding ways to help one become stronger. It recognizes that you can’t go straight to the ideal and convert oneself into a perfect Bayesian reasoner with infinite memory and thinking capacity, but instead must work with your fallible, human self to find tools and techniques that help you where you are now to get you incrementally closer to where you want to be.

It also recognizes that sometimes the skillful next step actually makes you temporarily worse off as you climb down the hill of a local maxima to move to a different, higher local maxima.

If you want to practice these skillful means, the CFAR handbook is a decent starting point for learning some of them, and a CFAR workshop is maybe an even better option. Further, many of the posts tagged Practical contain useful techniques to aid you in achieving your goals, as do posts tagged Rationality under the “Applied Topics” and “Techniques” groups of tags.

There’s even some impressive overlap between rationalist and Zen skillful means. For example, there’s the general act of noticing, be it noticing confusion or anything else, that’s essential for studying the self in enough detail to work with it (and in Zen, to eventually forget it). There’s trying things (famously Zen teachers may tell their student not to bother understanding something, but just to do it and see what happens). And focusing is, from a Zen perspective, one more useful means to reintegrating the heart-mind-body.

Importantly, both rationality and Zen acknowledge some version of the typical mind fallacy, carrying the realization that what’s best for one person now is not necessarily what’s best for them later, and that what works for one person may not work for another. Lucky for us we have so many skillful means to choose from on our journeys!