The Hard Work of Translation (Buddhism)

The is­sue, as it seems to me, is that al­most ev­ery text you read on Bud­dhism does not at­tempt to do the ac­tual work of trans­la­tion. The first trans­mis­sion of Bud­dhism to the west reified a bunch of trans­la­tions of terms, such as con­cen­tra­tion, equa­nim­ity, tran­quil­ity, mind­ful­ness, suffer­ing, etc. and works since then have mostly stuck to re­ar­rang­ing these words in differ­ent com­bi­na­tions and refer­enc­ing the same metaphors that have been in use since the time of the Bud­dha. If these au­thors had true dis­cern­ment they would re­al­ize that the umpteenth text on ‘es­tab­lish­ing the no­ble bases of tran­quil­ity se­cluded from sen­su­ous ig­no­rance’ or what-have-you aren’t helping any­one who didn’t already get the mes­sage.

At this point I want to say that I think this ap­proach is ‘work­ing’ for the frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion it is go­ing to work for. If we want to make the prac­ti­cal fruits of Bud­dhist prac­tice dra­mat­i­cally more ac­cessible to a broader range of hu­man­ity we need peo­ple to do the hard work of trans­la­tion to put the Bud­dha’s teach­ings in forms that will be ac­cessible to var­i­ous groups of peo­ple.

The hard work of trans­la­tion is to at­tempt to use lan­guage to point your mind at the same dis­tinc­tions that the origi­nal au­thor was try­ing to point to. At­tempts to do this will in­evitably fail in lots of ways, but can hope­fully com­mu­ni­cate enough of the core mes­sage that peo­ple can piece to­gether the es­sen­tial causal re­la­tions af­ter which, hav­ing had di­rect ex­pe­rience as a re­sult of skil­lful prac­tice, they can help to im­prove the trans­la­tions fur­ther.

So, putting my money where my mouth is, I want to try to pro­duce a trans­la­tion of what I see as the core causal loop that causes progress on the Bud­dha’s path. I’m at­tempt­ing this be­cause I be­lieve the core causal loop is ac­tu­ally quite small. The Bud­dha had a tougher task be­cause he had to ex­plain cau­sa­tion, lo­cus of con­trol, and other crit­i­cal con­cepts to farm­ers from scratch.

To be­gin with, you may think that the pur­pose of med­i­ta­tion is to elimi­nate thoughts. But read the Pali Canon and you find a text rife with con­cepts, schemas, di­ag­nos­tic meth­ods for var­i­ous clas­sifi­ca­tions of men­tal ac­tivity, med­i­ta­tion tax­onomies, sen­sory tax­onomies, feed­back loops etc. Pre­tend­ing you’re already en­light­ened and that there isn’t hard work to do is some­thing the new agers have bor­rowed from some shitty spiritual schools of var­i­ous fla­vors. I re­fer to peo­ple preach­ing such mes­sages as mind­less­ness teach­ers.

To be clear, a de­crease in dis­cur­sive thought, and es­pe­cially un­pleas­ant men­tal con­tents that don’t seem to serve any pur­pose, are one of many pleas­ant effects of proper prac­tice, but don’t re­ally need to be fo­cused on. It is a benefit that ar­rives in stages on its own.

So, what is the core loop?

It’s ba­si­cally cog­ni­tive be­hav­ioral ther­apy, su­per­charged with a men­tal state more in­tense than most phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals.

There are two cat­e­gories of prac­tice, one for cul­ti­vat­ing the use­ful men­tal state, the other uses that men­tal state to in­ves­ti­gate the causal link­ages be­tween var­i­ous parts of your per­cep­tion (phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, emo­tional tones, and men­tal re­ac­tions) which leads to clear­ing out of old link­ages that weren’t con­structed well.

You have phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions in the course of life. Your ner­vous sys­tem re­acts to these sen­sa­tions with high or low valence (pos­i­tive, nega­tive, neu­tral) and arousal (sym­pa­thetic and parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem ac­ti­va­tion), your mind re­acts to these now-emo­tion-laden sen­sa­tions with ac­tivity (men­tal image, men­tal talk) out of which you then build sto­ries to make sense of your situ­a­tion.

The key in­sight that drives ev­ery­thing is the knowl­edge (and later, di­rect ex­pe­rience) that this sys­tem isn’t wired up effi­ciently. Im­por­tantly: I don’t mean this in a nor­ma­tive way. Like you should wire it the way I say just be­cause, but in the ‘this type of cir­cuit only needs 20 nand gates, why are there 60 and why is it shunt­ing ex­cess voltage into the anger cir­cuits over there that have noth­ing to do with this com­pu­ta­tion?’ way. Re­gard­less of pos­si­ble ar­gu­ments over an ul­ti­mately ‘cor­rect’ way to wire ev­ery­thing, there are very low hang­ing fruit in terms of im­prove­ments that will help you effec­tively pur­sue *any* other goal you set your mind to.

Funny aside, emo­tional ‘re­sis­tance’ might be well named, it might be literal elec­tri­cal re­sis­tance in the CNSs wiring as a re­sult of this spaghetti logic.

So back to these sto­ries and story build­ing blocks that are the out­puts of this sys­tem. You gen­er­ated a bunch of the prim­i­tive build­ing blocks when you were very young and throw­ing ev­ery­thing to­gether on an as needed ba­sis with no in­struc­tions. You both have a back log of such sto­ries and story build­ing-blocks and are gen­er­at­ing new ones all the time. Prac­tice im­proves each of these situ­a­tions. It im­proves the back­log by go­ing through and re­pro­cess­ing sto­ries that aren’t ac­tu­ally re­al­ity al­igned when ex­am­ined. Again, not point­ing to edge cases here but things in the ‘your part­ner hum­ming the sponge­bob theme shouldn’t make you fu­ri­ous be­cause of some­thing that hap­pened when you were 12’ class. You can clean up all the ob­vi­ous stuff and then let your fu­ture self (who now has more re­sources) think about how to wisely deal with the fuzzy edge cases. It im­proves the new sto­ries com­ing in (par­tially by learn­ing as it pro­cesses the back log) by build­ing far fewer in­co­her­ent sto­ries out of pieces that don’t fit to­gether, and build­ing less of the shit­tier build­ing blocks in the first place.

I’ll go ahead and name these things now to con­nect them up for peo­ple who have some knowl­edge of ex­ist­ing trans­la­tions.

Con­cen­tra­tion med­i­ta­tion gives rise to a men­tal state where the mind is very calm and in­clined to neu­tral­ity. Of the same sort you’d want in a good judge.

In­sight med­i­ta­tion makes one aware of the causal links in the per­cep­tual sys­tem be­tween phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, feel­ings, and men­tal re­ac­tions.

Sankha­ras are the sto­ries and story pieces that get re­ex­am­ined and re­fac­tored as a re­sult.

So what is the core loop of med­i­ta­tion prac­tice?

Con­cen­tra­tion puts you in the ideal state for in­sight.

In­sight stirs up Sankaras.

Ex­am­in­ing Sankha­ras riles up the mind, even­tu­ally lead­ing to a de­sire to do some more con­cen­tra­tion in or­der to calm down and keep mak­ing progress.

Clear­ing Sankha­ras cause con­cen­tra­tion to go much bet­ter. And on­ward.

Why is con­cen­tra­tion ideal to pre­pare you for in­sight prac­tice?

In­sight re­quires a high de­gree of tem­po­ral and spa­tial re­s­olu­tion in or­der to see the finer link­ages be­tween men­tal ac­tivi­ties that nor­mally flow past you with­out you notic­ing. Con­cen­tra­tion med­i­ta­tion im­proves that re­s­olu­tion.

Se­cond, to ex­am­ine the Sankha­ras is to, to some ex­tent, re­ac­ti­vate the sen­sa­tions, feel­ings, and men­tal re­ac­tions as­so­ci­ated with them. Since the ones we are most con­cerned with are the ones that are caus­ing the biggest nega­tive re­ac­tions in our lives, we need the mind to be calm and tran­quil in or­der to do this work. Con­cen­tra­tion greatly im­proves this tran­quil­ity as well.

How do in­sights stir up Sankha­ras?

This would re­quire more spec­u­la­tion about so­matic the­o­ries that don’t yet have a good ev­i­dence base. Sub­jec­tively, it feels like build­ing up in­sights into par­tic­u­lar kinds of link­ages be­tween phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, feel­ings, and men­tal re­ac­tions causes ar­eas of your back­log that are par­tic­u­larly heavy in those link­ages to get some ac­ti­va­tion and thus be available to con­scious­ness.

You’ve ex­pe­rienced this if you’ve ever had a con­cep­tual in­sight and then spent the next week notic­ing ways it was ap­pli­ca­ble, seem­ingly spon­ta­neously. The only differ­ence here is that in­sight can also be non-con­cep­tual (ie, in­sight into how two par­tic­u­lar phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions in­ter­act might gen­er­ate no ver­bal con­tent/​men­tal talk but some sense of some­thing hap­pen­ing.)

How does clear­ing Sankha­ras im­prove con­cen­tra­tion?

The men­tal talk, emo­tional avoidance, and phys­i­cal dis­com­forts that in­ter­rupt con­cen­tra­tion prac­tice are built from un­en­dorsed link­ages.

So, the Bud­dha taught a method of con­cen­tra­tion, a sys­tem for de­vel­op­ing in­sight that we know as mind­ful­ness, and to use these to both stop build­ing new sto­ries and to clear out our back­log of sto­ries. That’s ac­tu­ally it. The rest is de­tails for how this plays out in prac­tice. Failure modes can get a bit weird, and even if you do it right some mind blow­ing states and ex­pe­riences can pop up. So there’s lots of whataboutism for all that.

The mis­wired cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem story gives us sim­ple an­swers to things like trauma (ex­treme lev­els of mis­wiring of things into fear and freeze re­sponses), why stuff like yoga and ex­er­cise help (gen­eral CNS health, prob­a­bly ca­pac­i­tance/​fuse breaker im­prove­ments), why psy­chother­apy some­times but not always ac­ti­vates child­hood mem­o­ries and the sig­nifi­cance of that, and why prac­ti­tion­ers claim they have a much bet­ter life but can’t always ex­plain why (they perform the same ac­tions but with much less in­ter­nal re­sis­tance).

So then why all the rest of this crap?

Well, be­sides my post on why prac­ti­tion­ers make so many meta­phys­i­cal claims, it’s also just that there’s a lot of idiosyn­crasy in first un­wiring a ran­domly wired CNS and then rewiring it in ar­bi­trary or­der. Espe­cially when you don’t re­ally know that that’s what you’re do­ing as you’re do­ing it and your mind­less­ness teacher is a bit clue­less as well (though may still have good prag­matic ad­vice de­spite bad epistemics.)

In ad­di­tion, each of the prac­tices is ac­tu­ally a prac­tice cat­e­gory. Though the Bud­dha taught one spe­cific con­cen­tra­tion tech­nique and a sim­ple se­ries of in­sight tech­niques, but there are prob­a­bly a dozen al­ter­na­tives in each cat­e­gory that seem to work for some peo­ple and which en­tire tra­di­tions have sub­se­quently built them­selves around and got­ten into fights with ri­val schools about.

Note: I am fairly con­fi­dent this is how things work up un­til 2nd path. Since ap­prox­i­mately zero per­cent of peo­ple make it be­yond that point I’m not too wor­ried about this.