Why do Contemplative Practitioners Make so Many Metaphysical Claims?

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

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

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

  1. Phys­i­cal Relaxation

  2. Equanimity

  3. Joy

  4. Energy

  5. Deter­mi­na­tion to Investigate

  6. Con­cen­tra­tion

  7. Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(cross­posted to blog and fb)