A non-mystical explanation of insight meditation and the three characteristics of existence: introduction and preamble


Insight meditation, enlightenment, what’s that all about?

The sequence of posts starting from this one is my personal attempt at answering that question. It grew out of me being annoyed about so much of this material seeming to be straightforwardly explainable in non-mysterious terms, but me also being unable to find any book or article that would do this to my satisfaction. In particular, I wanted something that would:

  • Explain what kinds of implicit assumptions build up our default understanding of reality and how those assumptions are subtly flawed. It would then point out aspects from our experience whose repeated observation will update those assumptions, and explain how this may cause psychological change in someone who meditates.

  • It would also explain how the so-called “three characteristics of existence” of Buddhism—impermanence, no-self and unsatisfactoriness—are all interrelated and connected with each other in a way your average Western science-minded, allergic-to-mysticism reader can understand.

I failed to find a resource that would do this in the way I had in mind, so then I wrote one myself.

From the onset, I want to note that I am calling this a non-mystical take on the three characteristics, rather than the non-mystical take on the three characteristics. This is an attempt to explain what I personally think is going on, and to sketch out an explanation of how various experiences and Buddhist teachings could be understandable in straightforward terms. I don’t expect this to be anything like a complete or perfect explanation, but rather one particular model that might be useful.

The main intent of this series is summarized by a comment written by Vanessa Kosoy, justifiably skeptical of grandiose claims about enlightenment that are made without further elaboration on the actual mechanisms of it:

I think that the only coherent way to convince us that Enlightenment is real is to provide a model from a 3rd party perspective. [...] The model doesn’t have to be fully mathematically rigorous: as always, it can be a little fuzzy and informal. However, it must be precise enough in order to (i) correctly capture the essentials and (ii) be interpretable more or less unambiguously by the sufficiently educated reader.
Now, having such a model doesn’t mean you can actually reproduce Enlightenment itself. [...] However, producing such a model would give us the enormous advantages of (i) being able to come up with experimental tests for the model (ii) understanding what sort of advantages we would gain by reaching Enlightenment (iii) being sure that your are talking about something that is at least a coherent possible world even if we are still unsure whether you are describing the actual world.

I hope to at least put together a starting point for a model that would fulfill those criteria.

Note that these articles are not saying “you should meditate”. Getting deep in meditation requires a huge investment of time and effort—though smaller investments are also likely to produce benefits—and is associated with its own risks [1 2 3 4]. My intent is merely to discuss some of the mechanisms involved in meditation and the mind. Whether one should get direct acquaintance with them is a separate question that goes beyond the scope of this discussion.

Briefly on the mechanisms of meditation

In a previous article, A Mechanistic Model of Meditation, I argued that it is possible in principle for meditation to give people an improved understanding of the way their mind operates.

To briefly recap my argument: we know it is possible for people to train their senses, such as learning to notice more details or make more fine-grained sensory discriminations. One theory is that those details have always been processed in the brain, but the information has not made it to the higher stages of the processing hierarchy. As you repeatedly focus your attention to a particular kind of pattern in your consciousness, neurons re-orient to strengthen that pattern and build connections to the lower-level circuits from which it emerges. This re-encodes the information in those circuits in a format which can be represented in consciousness.

This means at least some kinds of sensory training are training in introspection—learning to better access information which already exists in your brain. This implies you can also learn to strengthen other patterns in your consciousness, especially if you have some source of feedback that you can use to guide the training.

I gave an example of experiential forms of therapy doing exactly this, and then described how a particular style of meditation used one’s awareness of the breath as an objective feedback signal for developing increased “introspective awareness” of one’s own mind.

That post was mostly describing the ways in which meditation can be used to become more aware of the content of your thoughts. However, in observing the content, it is hard to avoid noticing at least some of the structure of the thought process as well.

For example, you might try to follow your breath and think you are doing a good job. In this case, there are at least two kinds of content in your mind: the actual sensory experience of the breath, and thoughts about how badly or well you are doing. The latter might take the form of e.g. mental dialogue that says things like “I’m still managing to follow my breath”. Now, since you may find it rewarding to just think that you are meditating well, that thought may start to become rewarded, and you may find yourself repeatedly thinking that you are successfully following the breath… even as the thought of “I am meditating well” has become self-sustaining and no longer connected to whether you are following the breath or not.

Eventually you will realize that you have actually been thinking about following the breath rather than actually following it. This is a minor insight into the way that your thought processes are structured, revealing it is possible for sensations and thoughts about sensations to become mixed up.

It is also possible to practice meditation in a way which explicitly focuses on investigating structure. We can make an analogy to looking at a painting. (Thanks to Alexei Andreev for suggesting this analogy.) Seen from some distance, a painting has “content”: it depicts things like people, buildings, boats and so forth. But when you get closer to it and look carefully, you can see that all the content is composed of things like brush strokes, individual colored shapes, paint of varying thickness, and so on. This is “structure”. While all types of meditation are going to reveal something about structure, there are also types of meditation which are specifically aimed at exploring it. Meditation which focuses on investigating structure is commonly called insight meditation.

Investigating the mind vs. investigating reality

Now, it is worth noting that these practices are not always framed in terms of “investigating the structure of the mind”, nor does the actual experience of doing them necessarily feel like that. Rather, the framing and experience is commonly that of investigating the nature of reality.

For example, in an earlier article trying to explain insight meditation, I mentioned I had once had the thought that I could never be happy. When I paid closer attention to why I thought that, I noticed that my mental image of a happy person included strong extraversion, which conflicted with the self-image that I had of myself as an introvert. After I noticed the happiness-extraversion connection, it became apparent that I could be happy even as an introvert, and the original thought disappeared. (Although I didn’t know it at the time, it is common for emotional beliefs to change when they become explicit enough for the brain to notice them being erroneous.)

Essentially, I had originally believed “I can never be happy”, and this belief about me didn’t feel like a “belief”. It felt like a basic truth of what I was, the kind of truth that you just know—in the same way that you might look at an apple and just know you are having the experience of seeing an apple. But when I investigated the details of that experience, I realized that this wasn’t actually a fact about me. Rather it was just a belief that I had.

In a similar way, there are many aspects of our subjective experience that feel like facts about reality, but upon doing insight practices and investigating them closer, we can come to see that they are not so.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has coined the term “heterophenomenology” to refer to a particular approach to the study of consciousness. In this approach, we assume that people are correctly describing how things seem to them and treat this as something that needs to be explained. However, the actual mechanism of why things seem like that to them, may be different from what they assume.

If I see an apple, it typically feels to me like I am seeing reality as it is. From a scientific point of view, this is mistaken: the sight of an apple is actually a complex interpretation my brain has created. Likewise, if I have the experience that I can never be happy, then this also feels like a raw fact while actually being an interpretation. In either case, if I manage to do practices which reveal my interpretation to be flawed, they will subjectively feel like I am investigating reality… while from a third-person perspective, we would rather say that I am investigating the way my mind builds up reality.

It is valid to stick to just the first-person experience of investigating reality directly. Many of these practices are framed solely in those terms, because a stance of curiosity and having as few assumptions as possible is the best mindset for actually doing the practices. But if one says that meditation investigates the nature of reality, then it becomes hard to test the claim from a third-person perspective. A common criticism is that meditation certainly changes how people experience the world, but it might just as well be loosening their grasp on reality.

On the other hand, if we provisionally assume that meditation works by revealing how the mind structures its model of reality, then we can check whether the kinds of insights that people report are compatible with what science tells us about the brain. If it turns out that meditators doing insight practices are coming up with experiences that match our understanding of actual brain mechanisms, then the practices might actually provide insight rather than delusion. In cases where no scientific evidence is yet available, it should at least be possible to construct a model that could be true and compatible with the third-person evidence.

In previous posts, I have explored some scientifically-informed models of the brain, which I think are naturally linked to the kinds of discoveries made in insight meditation. This article will more explicitly connect concepts from the theory of meditation to those kinds of models.

It is also worth noting that I think both claims about meditative insights are true: some things you can do with meditation do give you a better insight into reality, while some other things do just break your brain and reduce your contact with reality. (A fact responsible meditation teachers also warn about.) This makes it important to have third-person models of what could be a genuine insight and what is probably delusion, to help avoid the dangerous territory.

My multiagent model of mind

I have been calling my interpretation of those models a “multiagent model of mind”. What follows is a highly abridged version of it; see the linked index of posts for much more extensive discussion, including the sources that I have been drawing on for my synthesis.

One of the main ideas of the multiagent model is that the brain contains a number of different subsystems operating in parallel, each focusing on their own responsibilities. They share information on a subconscious level, but also through conscious thought. The content of consciousness roughly corresponds to information which is being processed in a “global workspace”—a “brain web” of long-distance neurons, which link multiple areas of the brain together into a densely interconnected network.

The global workspace can only hold a single piece of information at a time. At any given time, multiple different subsystems are trying to send information into the workspace, or otherwise modify its contents. Experiments show that a visual stimuli needs to be shown for about 50 milliseconds for it to be consciously registered, suggesting that the contents of consciousness might be updated at least 20 times per second. Whatever information makes it into consciousness will then be broadcast widely throughout the brain, allowing many subsystems to synchronize their processing around it.

The exact process by which this happens is not completely understood, but involves a combination of top-down mechanisms (e.g. attentional subsystems trying to strengthen particular signals and keep those in the workspace) as well as bottom-up ones (e.g. emotional content getting a priority). For example, if you are listening to someone talk in a noisy restaurant, both their words and the noise are bottom-up information within the workspace, while a top-down process tries to pick up on the words in particular. If a drunk person then suddenly collides with you, you are likely to become startled, which is a bottom-up signal strong enough to grab your attention (dominate the workspace), momentarily pushing away everything else.

There is also a constant learning process going on, where the brain learns which subsystems should be given access in which circumstances, while the subsystems themselves also undergo learning about what kind of information to send to consciousness.

When I talk about “subsystems” sending content into consciousness, I mean this as a very generic term, which includes all of the following:

  • Literal subsystems, e.g. information from the visual, auditory, and other sensory systems

  • Subpatterns within larger subsystems, e.g. a particular neuronal pattern encoding a specific memory or habit

  • Emotional schemas which trigger in particular situations and contain an interpretation of that situation and a response

  • Working memory buffers associated with type 2 (“System 2”) reasoning, helping chain the outputs of several different subsystems together

In some cases, I might talk about there being two separate subsystems, when one could argue that this would be better described as something like two separate pieces of data within a single subsystem. For example, I might talk about two different memories as two different subsystems, when one could reasonably argue that they are both contained within the same memory subsystem. Drawing these kinds of distinctions within the brain seems tricky, so rather than trying to figure out what term to use when, I will just talk about subsystems all the time.

Epistemic status

Buddhist theories of the mind are based on textual traditions that purport to record the remembered word of the Buddha, on religious and philosophical interpretations of those texts, and on Buddhist practices of mental cultivation. The theories aren’t formulated as scientific hypotheses and they aren’t scientifically testable. Buddhist insights into the mind aren’t scientific discoveries. They haven’t resulted from an open-ended empirical inquiry free from the claims of tradition and the force of doctrinal and sectarian rhetoric. They’re stated in the language of Buddhist metaphysics, not in an independent conceptual framework to which Buddhist and non-Buddhist thinkers can agree. Buddhist meditative texts are saturated with religious imagery and language. Buddhist meditation isn’t controlled experimentation. It guides people to have certain kinds of experiences and to interpret them in ways that conform to and confirm Buddhist doctrine. The claims that people make from having these experiences aren’t subject to independent peer review; they’re subject to assessment within the agreed-upon and unquestioned framework of the Buddhist soteriological path. [...]
I’m not saying that Buddhist meditative techniques haven’t been experientially tested in any sense. Meditation is a kind of skill, and it’s experientially testable in the way that skills are, namely, through repeated practice and expert evaluation. I have no doubt that Buddhist contemplatives down through the ages have tested meditation in this sense. I’m also not saying that meditation doesn’t produce discoveries in the sense of personal insights. (Psychoanalysis can also lead to insights.) Rather, my point is that the experiential tests aren’t experimental tests. They don’t test scientific hypotheses. They don’t provide a unique set of predictions for which there aren’t other explanations. The insights they produce aren’t scientific discoveries. [...]
I’m also not trying to devalue meditation. On the contrary, I’m trying to make room for its value by showing how likening it to science distorts it. Meditation isn’t controlled experimentation. Attention and mindfulness aren’t instruments that reveal the mind without affecting it. Meditation provides insight into the mind (and body) in the way that body practices like dance, yoga, and martial arts provide insight into the body (and mind). Such mind-body practices—meditation included—have their own rigor and precision. They test and validate things experientially, but not by comparing the results obtained against controls.
-- Evan Thompson, Why I Am Not A Buddhist

I think it is reasonable to believe that meditation can give us genuine insights into the way the mind functions. The meditative techniques and practices which I am drawing upon in this series have been developed within Buddhist traditions, and I make frequent references to the theory developed within those traditions.

At the same time, while I am drawing upon theories developed within these traditions, I am treating those as a source of inspiration to be critically examined, rather than as sources of authority.

For one, there are many different Buddhist theories and schools that disagree with each other, many of them claiming to teach what the Buddha really meant. And as e.g. Evan Thompson’s book discusses, one cannot cleanly separate Buddhist meditative techniques from Buddhist religious teaching. People who meditate using those techniques—myself included—do so while being guided by an existing conceptual framework, framing their experiences in light of their framework. Practitioners who use different kinds of techniques and frameworks end up drawing different conclusions: e.g. some frameworks end up at the conclusion that no selves exist, while others end up believing that everything is self. (The extent to which this difference in framing actually leads to a different experience is unclear.) Many of these frameworks also draw upon supernatural elements, such as claims of rebirth and remembering past lives.

Still, many meditation teachers also say things along the lines of “you should not take any of this on faith, just try it out and see for yourself”. Personally I started out skeptical of many claims, dismissing them as pre-scientific folk-psychological speculation, before gradually coming to believe in them—sometimes as a result of meditation which hadn’t even been aimed at investigating those claims in particular, but where I thought I was doing something completely different. And it seems to me that many of the meditative techniques actively require you to suspend your expectations in order to work properly, requiring you to look at what’s present rather than at the thing you expect to see.

So, like many others, I simultaneously believe that i) meditative techniques point at genuine insights and also produce them in the minds of people who meditate and also that ii) we should not put excess faith in the claims of the existing meditation traditions. As many teachers encourage exactly this line of thought—as in the comment of taking nothing on faith—this feels like an appropriate spirit for approaching these matters.

Rather than trying to be authentically Buddhist, this article is concerned with building a model of the neural and psychological mechanisms I think the three characteristics are pointing at, even if that model ends up sharply deviating from the original theories. I heavily draw on my own experiences and the experiences and theories of other people whose reports I have reason to trust. I proceed from the assumption that regardless of whether the original frameworks are true or false, they do systematically produce similar effects and insights in the minds of the people following them, and that is an observation which needs to be explained.

In fact, I am happy to mix and match examples, exercises, interpretations and results drawn from all of the contemplative traditions that I happen to have any familiarity with, with current-day Western psychology and psychotherapy thrown in for good measure. They may have different approaches, but to the extent that they share commonalities, those commonalities tell us something about what human minds might have in common. And to the extent that they differ, one tradition might be pointing out aspects about the human mind that the others have neglected and vice versa, as in the fable of the blind men and the elephant.

Current articles in this series:

Thank you to Alexei Andreev, David Chapman, Eliot Re, Jacob Spence, James Hogan, Magnus Vinding, Max Daniel, Matthew Graves, Michael Ashcroft, Romeo Stevens, Santtu Heikkinen, and Vojtěch Kovařík for valuable comments. Additional special thanks to Maija Haavisto. None of the people in question necessarily agree with all the content in this or the upcoming posts; much of the content has also been rewritten after the drafts that most of them saw.